The Soft Boys

Nextdoorland

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If pop music history teaches us anything, it's that reunions of once-great bands are a dicey prospect at best, and for every act like The Buzzcocks who were able to come back at full strength, there are two or three that never should have bothered, for their own good as well as ours (Jefferson Airplane, The Sonics, The Misfits, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Band, The Who from 1990 onward; the list goes on). In 2001, The Soft Boys' reunion tour (prompted by the augmented re-release of their classic Underwater Moonlight) proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, as Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberley Rew, Morris Windsor, and Matthew Seligman let loose a crackling display of sonic energy and revisited their older material with the enthusiasm of four newcomers tearing into their set for the first time. All in all, an exemplary live show, but when The Soft Boys announced they were going into the studio to cut a new album, it was hard not to wonder, "OK, they can still do it onstage, but will it work again on tape?" Judged against The Soft Boys' estimable back catalog, their first album in 22 years, Nextdoorland, seems just the slightest bit disappointing -- while the songs are fine, there are no immediate masterpieces like "I Wanna Destroy You" or "Only The Stones Remain," and the production (by Pat Collier) seems a bit too spare and efficient, not always giving the performances the body and heft they need. But give Nextdoorland a few spins, let it sink in, and one reaches the inevitable conclusion this is still a great band, capable of making superb music. As a guitarist, Robyn Hitchcock has never had a better foil than Kimberley Rew, and their interplay on these songs is simply superb; after several acoustic-based albums, it's a pleasure to hear Hitchcock play electric guitar again, and his best moments with Rew recall the otherworldly six-string symbiosis of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. And if Windsor and Seligman rarely call attention to themselves as a rhythm section, that's one of their greatest virtues; with subtle precision, they support these performances brilliantly, and these four players are a band in the truest and best sense of the word, working fluidly as a unit rather than as four individuals. Is Nextdoorland an instant classic like Underwater Moonlight? No. Is that comparison fair? Probably not. Are The Soft Boys still a strong and viable band in 2002? Yes, indeed -- Nextdoorland is a more than worthy addition to their catalog, and proves that two decades apart has not diluted their remarkable chemistry. If we're very lucky, The Soft Boys might even favor us with another album or two just as strong.

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