Michelle Shocked disappoints, Hitchcock entrances
A & M and Twin/Tone Records.
By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON
IHAVE A WEAKNESS for acoustic albums. There's a certain raw power to an unembellished voice over plucked, steel-stringed guitars. That's why I am so disappointed with Michelle Shocked's EP, Live, and why I am so entranced by Robyn Hitchcock's Eye.
Michelle Shocked's first album, The Texas Campfire Tapes, was about as simple as an acoustic album could get -- it was recorded on a Sony Walkman with weak batteries, the sounds of crickets and passing trucks audible in the silence between verses or songs. Only one of the songs from that album ("5 am in Amsterdam") appears on Live, and it's by far the most satisfying of the four tracks. There's no roughness, only Shocked's sweet, pure voice over a guitar's broken chords. (Frankly, the guitar line sounds very much like James Taylor.)
The other songs are drawn from Shocked's latest LP, Captain Swing, which concentrated on swing and big-band arrangements. Shocked's thin soprano was drowned out by the horns on that album, and so it is on Live. For all the energy she projects, her voice just isn't strong enough to make it over the combined efforts of trumpets, trombones, slide guitar, and thumping bass. She sounds uncomfortable with the blues arrangement on "Sleep Keeps Me Awake," not surprising since her voice isn't strong enough (nor has enough character to it) for the blues.
When she's got background singers to help her harmonize, as in "On the Greener Side," she does a lot better. She's really a coffeehouse singer, though, and only gets lost in "(Don't You Mess Around With) My Little Sister," which appears in acoustic form on The Texas Campfire Tapes and fully fleshed-out on Captain Swing. Put simply, Shocked can't hold her own against a full band.
THE ABILITY TO HOLD ONE'S OWN against a band has never been a problem for Robyn Hitchcock. The ex-Soft Boy usually records with his group the Egyptians rather than producing solo albums. Eye is his first acoustic album since 1986's I Often Dream of Trains, but Hitchcock has been performing songs from the former album since his 1988 solo tour. I remember hearing "Executioner," "Raining Twilight Coast," and "Agony of Pleasure" at concerts two years ago, and I've been waiting ever since for them to show up on vinyl. (Yes, vinyl; the LP isn't dead yet!)
Like I Often Dream of Trains, Eye's only instrumentation is acoustic guitar and piano. Hitchcock uses the sparse arrangements as a framework for his frequently bizarre lyrics about love, relationships, and sexuality. "Queen Elvis" -- the previously unreleased title track from Hitchcock's last album -- deals with transvestites, and "Agony of Pleasure" is even more blunt about its subject:
In agony of pleasure
I crumble to my knees
I lick your frozen treasure
You cup my furry beast.
Another long-lost title track also appears on Eye -- "Flesh Cartoons" was the original title for Hitchcock's 1988 album, Globe of Frogs.
Most of Hitchcock's love songs are simple and sentimental in a naive sort of way. In "Beautiful Girl," he sings, "I'm in love with a beautiful girl/Well, I hope she's in love with whom I think she's in love/'Cause I'm in love with a beautiful girl." "Executioner," however, is far more vicious; describing a failed relationship,<>
Hitchcock snarls, "You're the executioner."
As a guitarist, Hitchcock alternates between shimmering Roger McGuinnisms and delicate broken chords, as in "Raining Twilight Coast." The only instrumental, "Chinese Water Python," is as measured as a medieval dance and as gentle as "Cathedral" from I Often Dream of Trains.
Eye lacks the lyrics-from-outer-space goofiness of I Often Dream of Trains, making it one of Hitchcock's most solid albums. But for those who miss the sheer strangeness of songs like "Furry Green Atom Bowl," there's "Certainly Clickot," in which Hitchcock ad-libs lines like "Dover, get undressed/This car is parked on a sponge" and "She uncorked herself, teeth spilling from her nostrils" over the repeated vocal counterpoint "She's certainly clickot/she's certainly cool."
As an added bonus, Eye includes a Hitchcock short story, "Legend of the South Wight, 2: The Glass Hotel," about a palatial glass hotel anchored to the ground by an attic full of melons.
Michelle Shocked and the Captain Swing Band appear at the Opera House this Saturday with Poi Dog Pondering and John Wesley Harding. Robyn Hitchcock has set no Boston tour dates. -- DL