Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Madonna of the Wasps / Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock has had more musical lives than a cat. He's played folk music, psychedelic music, punk, and rock & roll; his bands have included the Soft Boys, the Egyptians, and the Venus 3, alongside a substantial solo output.  And oh, yes, he draws, paints, make videos, acts in films, and has developed an eccentric stage persona that's true performance art.  Whatever he does, it fascinates me.

It's exhausting to be a Robyn Hitchcock fan, though, trying to keep up with his restless, peripatetic output. He's always got some new project cooking, launched quickly and with little fanfare. When I think of the ponderous PR apparatus marshaled around the new Coldplay album, I'm bored even before it's released; but with Robyn Hitchcock, there's always some surprise popping up on the internet, some album of outtakes or oddball video or clips of tribute concerts that I'd no idea was happening. Quick, grab it now!

News somehow drifted to me on the ether of Chronology, Robyn's new career-spanning compilation (to call it a "best of" would hardly do justice to the quirky selection), which, as I understand it, is only being released in digital format.  But when I went on line to buy it, what do I find but another new album, titled Tromsø, Kaptein, that he totally snuck in on me.  Strange marketing plan -- I mean, I've bought enough of his stuff directly from YepRoc that they should have me down as a fan; emailing alerts to known fans should be the most basic rollout strategy.  But then, hey, illogical marketing sorta fits the Robyn Hitchcock mystique, doesn't it?

Long before I picked up Chronology, I already had this song in my head.  But lo and behold, when I listened to Chronology, I realized that the version in my music library is totally different. What gives?

The version I'm used to -- the version I'm in love with -- is a solo acoustic version, which I've deduced (girl detective that I am) came from the compilation CD my friend Dave K made for me, when we were going to see Robyn for the first time. You know, the way a drug pusher gives you a joint for free, knowing you'll soon be back begging to buy more?

Anyhoo, this acoustic rendition is now the only one I want to hear.  Somewhere on the internet I read that it was recorded during an in-store concert at some record shop in London.  If I were Robyn, this is the version I'd have put on the compilation CD.  But then I'm not Robyn. The very thought of being Robyn makes me feel dizzy, in fact. Whoa.

I'll tell you why I prefer this version.  Listen to the way Robyn sings the title phrase: "Lost Madonna of the wasps" -- how his voice swoops up on "wasps," like a flying insect, then the delicate buzzing as he enunciates "wah-ss-puh--ssss." It's almost like you're being stung. It's wonderfully specific and intimate, and mesmerizing.

Robyn's got a bit of an insect fixation (no wonder the Jonathan Demme documentary about RH is titled Sex, Food, Death . . . and Insects) and he has no trouble anthropomorphizing his Madonna.  In the middle verse, she comes in for her close-up: "And then she settles on me / Wise Madonna of the flies / I look into her eyes / She doesn't recognize me / Is this love?" Sure, it could all be a metaphor, but for a shape-shifter like Robyn Hitchcock, it's not out of the question that he really does ponder the inner life of insects. 

And yes, the logic of the main verse (repeated again in the third verse) seems dictated mostly by rhymes. "Crossed," "lost," "frost," "cost" -- if he can rhyme it, it's in the song.  But if poets like Rimbaud can build a whole poem off of interlocked rhymes, so can Robyn Hitchcock. The main thing is that mood of melancholy, the rising and falling melody, the suspended chords, the sense of loss that runs through it.  I find myself thinking about what short lives insects lead, how death is always imminent, how a cold spell can end it all overnight.  I look out my window and see the bizarre Halloween snowfall in the park and, you know, Robyn's onto something . . . .


Mark said...

I'll have to check my Robyn CD's and see if I have the acoustic version you have. You'll have to get on the email list from Robyn's official website, I think that's how I heard about "Tromso, Kaptein." (Which is very good and very Beatle-y.) It looks like Yep Roc didn't have anything to do with releasing it. I haven't bought Chronology because I have all those songs already. I'm a bit annoyed that it's only 16 songs. Robyn's put out so much great work, a good best-of of his should at least be 2 CD's.

The Modesto Kid said...

Robyn is in the AV Club today answering questions about Chronology.

I still have not heard Tromsø, Kaptein but am thinking I will buy it at the show in Brooklyn this month. Are you coming? He is playing a director's cut of Eye, also John Wesley Harding is playing. (And RH is playing a house concert in NJ the following afternoon! Fannish excitement.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the link! Usually my eyes glaze over when I read all the technical recording stuff the the AV Club is oriented towards, but Robyn's ramblings are always entertaining. Here's a bit I enjoyed: "I think we picked “Madonna Of The Wasps” as the first single probably because it was jangle-pop. And it was concise. I really like the tune of “Madonna.” I thought it was quite faux-Scottish. . . ."

Will they be selling physical copies of Tromso at the show? I wonder. In this interview, Robyn says it was only sold in Norway. At any rate, I can't go to that show because I've got tix to see Graham Parker and Bob Andrews (mini-reunion!)play at the Iridium. And that's sandwiched in between two nights of the Ray Davies tour. Sometimes living in NYC is an embarrassment of riches!!

The Modesto Kid said...

I'm expecting/hoping they will. I remember they were selling copies of "sold only in the UK" Shadow Cat at the Robyn-and-Nick-Lowe concert in 2008.