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The Soft Boys - Nextdoorland

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Artist: The Soft Boys

Album: Nextdoorland

Label: Matador

Review date: Oct. 28, 2002

Reawakening, Reclamation, and Reinvention. With Melodies!

We're obsessed with the idea of influence these days. Not for some time have the various strands of musical inspiration and mimicry that make up a song been under quite so much scrutiny. Often, it comes down to sour-grapes complaints of musical pastiche a la the Strokes' appropriation of Television/Velvets/Wire et al. Is Interpol nothing more than a Joy Division tribute band with cool haircuts? Radio 4 a Fugazi-lite for the Williamsburg set? The merits of these various complaints/assertions are up for discussion, but what is curious about the current musical climate is that suddenly, influence is treated like a liability, as if every other band had sprung up from nowhere, fully-formed with no tangible musical precursors. This is, of course, not true, and if we can remember the late 80s/early 90s indie boom, we'll remember those Velvets/Yo la Tengo and Dinosaur Jr./Superchunk comparisons, which fell by the wayside as those more recent bands eventually proved their mettle and made distinctive records.

The Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock's first band, famously imploded shortly after releasing their masterful second album, Underwater Moonlight. The band has now become quasi-legendary, and are firmly a part of the current influence chain, despite their short history. Most rockers worth their salt, indie or otherwise, will name-check both Hitchcock and the Soft Boys, and listening to Moonlight, it's easy to see why. The Soft Boys' melding of 60s psych, lyrics with a literary bent, and a finely-honed sense of post-punk absurdity created a basic template that was expanded upon by everyone from R.E.M. to Pavement to Evan Dando, their sound influential to the point that Underwater Moonlight now sounds strangely contemporary and fresh. Influence has a funny way of doubling back on itself, and sounds can suddenly become new and current all over again, which is where the Soft Boys find themselves today. After a lavish double-disc rerelease of Underwater Moonlight by Matador, the band went back on the road last year, played a slew of shows and began writing material again.

In their day, the Soft Boys were met for the most part with blank stares and general critical indifference. Now, they live in a musical world they helped to create, and Robyn Hitchcock has become a cult hero. And so their third album, Nextdoorland, sounds like just that, the next step after Moonlight. Moonlight opens with one of the all-time great rock songs, "I Wanna Destroy You", and Nextdoorland wisely side-steps comparison by opening with an oblique near-instrumental called "I Love Lucy" which features a laid-back guitar workout and a closing group singalong. The second track, "Pulse of My Heart", is a mid-tempo pop song that demonstrates that Hitchcock has lost none of his lyrical deftness or his ability to craft an effortless melody. The band sounds both tight and relaxed, giving the album a patient, unhurried feel as one song unfurls into the next. If there is any major change, it's that Hitchcock has lost some of his acerbic anger, but it's been replaced with a more knowing, balanced sense of life that makes for arguably more complex material. The band is also capable of shifting into higher gears on tracks like "Unprotected Love" and "Mr. Kennedy", the latter demonstrating Hitchcock's fetish for Americana, giving Harrisburg, PA a rare namecheck.

One of the problems that the Soft Boys faced in 1980 was the tyrannical aesthetic of punk, and a band making songs called "(I Want to Be An) Anglepoise Lamp" didn't, for obvious reasons, fit into that sensibility. Variously reviled for being "middle-class" and pretentious, the Soft Boys were perceived by many to be either joking or full of shit. Time has vindicated the Soft Boys' efforts, but it's a shame that they didn't carry on. However, the descendents of the Soft Boys continue to make vital music, while straight punk dead-ended a long time ago, as anyone who caught the Sex Pistols' summer tour could probably attest to.

That said, however, it's difficult to know where the Soft Boys fit in these days. On the positive side, they weren't popular enough initially to have their new efforts viewed as nostalgic; on the negative, people seem to like their early-80s sounds delivered by skinny, young New Yorkers. The crucial distinction is that the Soft Boys aren't drawing from that era as an influence. It's their era. They're simply adding to a body of work. And for the people who love this band, their sound, and Hitchcock's songwriting, this album will definitely not disappoint. And if everyone else misses it, so what? Matador can rerelease Nextdoorland in 2023, alongside the Pavement reunion disc and Liz Phair bootlegs from 1994.

By Jason Dungan

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