CD Review of Olé! Tarantula by Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
Ole! Tarantula
Recommended if you like
The Soft Boys, XTC,
The Decemberists
Label
Yep Roc
Robyn Hitchcock &
The Venus 3:
Olé! Tarantula

Reviewed by Will Harris

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N
o matter how much Robyn Hitchcock hones his songwriting skills and musicianship, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever achieve success beyond the level of your average cult hero. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, of course. It’s just that, ultimately, he’s always going to be Robyn Hitchcock, and his lyrical sensibilities simply don’t translate to the mainstream. He does, however, have an unerring ability to increase his fanbase slowly but surely by selecting other cult heroes to appear on his albums.

With his Yep Roc debut, 2004’s Spooked, Hitchcock teamed with Gillian Welch and her regular collaborator, David Rawlings, thereby causing an Americana audience to sit up and take notice of his work; other semi-recent Hitchcock albums have found appearances by Jon Brion and Grant Lee Phillips, thereby causing the ears of alt-pop singer/songwriter fans to perk up. Olé! Tarantula, however, finds Hitchcock working with a proper band for the first time since the 1993 disintegration of his longtime group, the Egyptians…and what a band it is.

The Venus 3 consist of Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). While Rieflin would seem to be the odd man out, particularly given that he’s the only one of the trio who’s not worked on a Hitchcock album before, all three gentlemen are part of the ever-rotating membership of the Minus 5. Other guests on the album include former Soft Boys Kimberly Rew and Morris Windsor, Ian McLagan of the Faces, Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America, Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, and Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks. (Bloch also produced the disc.)

Maybe it’s the result of getting back with a band again, or maybe it’s because the band in question already has such a chemistry together, but whatever the case, it can be no coincidence that Olé! Tarantula does indeed hearken back to Hitchcock’s classic work with the Egyptians, if not even farther than that. “Museum of Sex,” in particular, sounds like something from the Groovy Decoy/Decay sessions. A songwriting collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge - “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” - results in a track that would in no way have been out of place next to “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)” on Hitchcock’s seminal major-label release, Globe of Frogs. Like “Underground Sun,” “’Cause It’s Love” is one of the songs where Nelson’s wonderful harmonies really shine; although he only appears on six of the ten tracks, his presence is as prominent in the proceedings as Buck’s steady stream of Byrdsy guitar riffs. Lyrically, Hitchcock isn’t as far out on the edge as he’s been in the past; in fact, for him, he’s positively mainstream, paying tribute to Arthur “Killer” Kane (“NY Doll”) and Hal Holbrook’s character in “Magnum Force” (“[A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations] Briggs”).

Olé! Tarantula is an album of highlights, with no track duff enough to warrant being called out as sub-par. As noted, no one in their right mind would be foolish enough to suggest that this will be the album where Hitchcock goes multi-platinum, but there’s no question that the man’s fans will be giddy with this record…and they have every right to be. It’s one of his best.

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