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Album Review

In 2004, Robyn Hitchcock's loose and folky Spooked saw the insect- and crustacean-loving eccentric enlisting the unlikely help of NPR darlings David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. This time around he's backed by "3/4s of the Minus 5 and half of R.E.M." (Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin) as well as ex-Soft Boys Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson, and ex-President of the United States of America Chris Ballew. A small army indeed, but a tasteful one. Olé! Tarantula sounds like a trip back to the iconic singer/songwriter's early A&M days. Long, Byrds-inspired harmonies, jangly electric guitars, and random bursts of piano, harmonica, and saxophone pepper the collection in fits, seasoning Hitchcock's already delicious wordplay with exactly the right amount of spice. Opener "Adventure Rocket Ship" sounds like a lost track from Underwater Moonlight, the kind of confident psychedelic rocker that used to spill from the anti-bard's leafy pen like battery acid in the early to mid-'80s. That confidence coupled with the tight, road-ready band vibe permeates Tarantula's swollen belly, allowing only one or two forays into the esoteric balladry that has become the norm for the artist's post-Egyptians catalog. With the jaunty "'Cause It's Love (Saint Parallelogram)," co-written by XTC's Andy Partridge, the creepy and dissonant "Red Locust Frenzy," and the impossibly ridiculous title cut, the former "Man with the Light Bulb Head" has distilled the best of each of his eras into one big shambling creature. Lyrically, he's still obsessed with crabs, eggs, tomatoes, and things that are fleshy, furry, and spindly, but his greatest strength has always been his ability to toss a clear nugget of profundity into his most surrealist rants. In the warm, weird, and nostalgic "Belltown Ramble," he manages to rope an Uzbek warlord, email and R.E.M. into a motor-mouthed stroll through town and time that's bolstered by the wisdom that "It's an independent life/And you want to see your eyes/Reflected in the world" and the notion that "The burning train is back in your hometown." It's that perfect balance of sadness, vitriol, and absurdity that makes Hitchcock (when he's on) such a legendary social commentator. He's the jester, the king, the convict, and the executioner all wrapped up into one.

Olé! Tarantula, Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3
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