Robyn Hitchcock / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3

Propellor Time

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Robyn Hitchcock has made a few albums that announce themselves as masterpieces right out of the box, such as I Often Dream of Trains, Fegmania!, or the Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight, but his catalog also includes a handful of records that sneak up on you with a subtle excellence, such as Eye, Respect, and Jewels for Sophia. Propellor Time falls into the latter category; on the surface, it doesn't feel all that different from the albums that immediately preceded it (Olé! Tarantula and Goodnight Oslo), but play it a few times, let it sink in, and this album sounds like one of the most satisfying things Hitchcock has made since the mid-'90s. Primarily recorded in 2006 but not completed until 2010, Propellor Time features Hitchcock backed by his frequent partners the Venus Three, featuring Peter Buck on guitar and mandolin, Scott McCaughey on bass, and Bill Rieflin. The performances are intuitive and a wonder of subtle control; these players fit together with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle, and if there isn't a great amount of flash in the music, the players serve Hitchcock's melodies beautifully, and the artful interplay of the arrangements is as good as anything Hitchcock has offered us in a decade. (Buck's mandolin work on "Luckiness" is marvelously playful, and the performance is so tight it's surprising to hear the applause at the end and realize it was a live recording.) Hitchcock also brought aboard a few notable guests, most notably Johnny Marr, who co-wrote "Ordinary Millionaire" and adds some understated but powerful guitar work, while Nick Lowe and John Paul Jones also lend their estimable talents to these sessions. But from the first moments, Propellor Time is clearly a Robyn Hitchcock album, and he captains this ship with a steely confidence; the lyrics are typically mysterious and witty without playing too strongly to Hitchcock's fondness for bizarre imagery, his sly vocals fit the music with an uncommon agility and wisdom, and the ten songs blend together like the ingredients of a fine meal. Robyn Hitchcock doesn't really make bad albums, but he doesn't always make legitimately great ones; Propellor Time thankfully feels like one of the high-watermarks of his post-millennial body of work, and it's beautiful, essential listening.

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