Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Album Review: Robyn Hitchcock, "The Man Upstairs" (2014)

Robyn Hitchcock, "The Man Upstairs," 2014. Cover painting by Gillian Welch.

The one and only Robyn Hitchcock.
Robyn Hitchcock’s recently released 2014 album, “The Man Upstairs,” is a unique album for him, as it mixes 5 cover songs with 5 Hitchcock originals. This is quite a departure, as cover songs on Robyn Hitchcock albums are few and far between. Hitchcock sometimes mixes in cover songs during his concerts, and his only album of all covers is a 2-disc live album of Bob Dylan songs released in 2002 entitled “Robyn Sings.” For another songwriter, the appearance of a half covers/half originals album might be a signal that their creative muse is waning. However, since Robyn Hitchcock’s fecund mind keeps churning out roughly an album a year, I’m not worried that he has writer’s block. 

“The Man Upstairs” holds together very well, and it feels like a very cohesive album. Much of the credit for this can go to producer Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake’s first two albums, among many others. “The Man Upstairs” is a subtle, intimate album. The first two times I listened to the album I was in my car, and while I liked certain songs, others didn’t do much for me. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the album as a whole. But then I listened to it on headphones, and it changed the way I heard the whole album. I could now hear all of the sonic details that Hitchcock and Boyd have put on the album, and I like it a great deal more. 

The instrumentation on “The Man Upstairs” is quite sparse, as it features Robyn on guitars, the marvelous Jenny Adejayan on cello, Charlie Francis on piano, and Norwegian singer-songwriter Anne Lise Frokedal, from the band I Was a King, on harmony vocals. Jenny Adejayan has played on the last couple of Robyn’s albums, and her cello playing brings a different sonic texture to Hitchcock’s songs that greatly enhances them. Anne Lise Frokedal’s lovely harmony vocals also bring a different feel to Hitchcock’s music, and their voices blend very well together. 

Here are the songs on “The Man Upstairs” and brief comments on them:

 “The Ghost in You”-A Psychedelic Furs cover. It’s a good, catchy opener with great cello playing.

“San Francisco Patrol”-An original. It’s quite pretty, with the refrain, “Can’t take my eyes off of you.” (It’s hard not to think of Frankie Valli when you hear that phrase.) No surrealism in this one. I wonder if there might be a veiled reference to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in this song, as Robyn sings, “Who are we staking out?” Anything that references San Francisco and the police makes me think of Dirty Harry, and Hitchcock has written songs about the Dirty Harry movies before. His terrific 2006 song “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs,” is inspired by the Dirty Harry movie “Magnum Force.” 

 “To Turn You On”-Roxy Music cover. It’s fun to hear a Roxy Music song with Bryan Ferry’s seductive croon replaced by Robyn’s distinctive voice. Whereas Ferry’s original sounds like the smooth pick-up line of a confident lover-man, Robyn sounds like an earnest suitor, offering a sincere token of his love. I’m a big Roxy Music fan, and this was one of the highlights of the album for me. Robyn is obviously a Roxy Music aficionado, as he previously covered “More Than This” on the “Madonna of the Wasps” CD-single. Back in the days when CD-singles existed. 

“Trouble in Your Blood”-A brooding original, with something of a droning feel to it. Excellent backing vocals.

“Somebody to Break Your Heart”-A very catchy bluesy original. The lyrics mention skeletons twice. Good harmonica blowing by Robyn. One of my favorites on the album. 

“Don’t Look Down”-Grant-Lee Phillips cover. This song doesn’t do much for me. It’s too slow and long, and it’s not sequenced in a good place on the album, as it’s in between two faster, catchier songs.

“Ferries”-cover of Norwegian band I Was a King. Anne Lise Frokedal co-wrote the song, and she adds terrific backing vocals here. The song appears on I Was a King’s 2012 album, “You Love It Here,” which was co-produced by Robyn. It’s an upbeat, poppy song that celebrates a mode of transportation-right up Robyn’s alley. 

“Comme Tojours”-original. An earlier version of this song was released in 2010 or 2011 as a Phantom 45 on Robyn’s website. The title is French for “as usual, as ever.” The cello playing is exquisite, and goes perfectly with the song. Robyn’s note about this song on his website says, “Originally conceived for Bryan Ferry as Humphrey Bogart, a man alone consoling himself with a cigarette.” The version on “The Man Upstairs” is not very different from the original one, but the addition of Anne Lise on harmony vocals is most welcome. 

“The Crystal Ship”-The Doors cover. It’s really cool to hear Robyn sing The Doors, and “The Crystal Ship” fits Robyn’s style very well. As usual, the cello playing is great and adds a different flavor. One of my favorites on the album.

“Recalling the Truth”-original. It’s a nice song that isn’t terribly exciting. Robyn’s original songs on this album have more straightforward lyrics. There’s less surrealism than usual. 

“The Man Upstairs” is an excellent album, autumnal in feel and spirit. I enjoyed the different instrumental approaches on this album, and the stirring way that Jenny Adejayan’s cello and Anne Lise Frokedal’s harmony vocals interacted with Robyn’s voice. If you’re a fan of Robyn’s, give “The Man Upstairs” a listen. Just don’t forget to bring your headphones.

1 comment:

Uncle E said...

I am a huge Roxy fan as well, even the Manifesto/Flesh and Blood phase that most Roxy fans detest, and I was concerned that Robyn's version would disappoint. It doesn't; not in the least. I also LOVE the Psychedelic Furs cover, and the rest of the album has a very cohesive feel about it that is quite appealing. If I had one qualm it would be the lack of musical variety that I'm used to with most Hitchcock albums (Love From London is a recent example).
A new Hitchcock album is a reason to celebrate, and this in my opinion is a very, very good one. Thanks for taking the time and space for this excellent review.