One thing Robyn Hitchcock does very well – something very few other artists do as well, at least none I can think of off the top of my head – is a sort of lightly psychedelic, floating, unbearably pretty song, often tinged with a vague sense of regret or sadness. A handful of tracks on his classic I Often Dream of Trains fits into this small category, as do some on the similarly self-recorded (for the most part) Eye, but it’s something he doesn’t do often anymore. Perhaps as his voice has deepened over the decades (it’s quite amusing to hear early live recordings of his stage chat – his voice then was much higher), it’s harder for him to achieve the wispy upper register he frequently used on these types of songs.
Anyway, Sartorial Records in Britain has just released a compilation of previously homeless Hitchcock songs recorded from 1993 through 1999 (titled Shadow Cat, and available via The Museum of Robyn Hitchcock). “High on Yourself” is a fine example of this sort of tune, and its key line is both hilarious and deadly on target: “let’s go shopping on painkillers,” he sings, several times.
The younger Hitchcock, though, was an angrier, more cynical man, and to his ever-present trinity of Dylan, Lennon, and Barrett, add a strong hint of Captain Beefheart’s knotty guitar algebra, one more ingredient that made the Soft Boys such an unusual act (did I mention the barbershop quartet singing?). This live recording of “Heartbreak Hotel” (made famous by Elvis Presley, but here using John Cale’s reharmonization) shows what an intense gale of noise the Soft Boys could whip up in their early days.