The Soft Boys – Nextdoorland

The Soft Boys

The Soft Boys may very well be the best kept secret in the last twenty years of pop music. Though both R.E.M. and Los Angeles’ Paisley Underground sprung in large part from their loins, the wider public has yet to get an earful of the band that was one of the most exciting on the planet in 1980. That was the year that saw the release of their masterpiece, Underwater Moonlight. Despite being their second effort after the previous year’s excellent but disparate A Can of Bees, it sadly proved to be their swan song. Their wonderfully eccentric leader, Robyn Hitchcock, decided to disband the group and pursue a solo career that veered all over the place, leaving most of the few who listened to wish that his old band mates were around to provide the ballast that lets Hitchcock’s gifts really shine.
When the Soft Boys announced that they were launching a reunion tour to coincide with the long overdue reissue of Underwater Moonlight, fans had to temper their enthusiasm with a bit of skepticism. After all, how many great bands can return at full strength after a two-decade hiatus? Not many, but the Soft Boys proved to be among the blessed few, tearing through their long lost gems like the intervening years had been minutes. After that success, they decided to really push their luck with a comeback album, coming to us with the cryptic moniker Nextdoorland. Enticing, perhaps, but of all the acts of rock star chutzpah, perhaps none are so unwelcome as a legendary band gambling their pristine legacy for the sake of a few more thrills and a little more cash. Anyone who has seen five copies of Blondie’s 1999 album No Exit staring up at them from used CD bins knows how these things are likely to turn out, and just how sad it is to watch.
If fans are willing to accept the fact that even the band who made Underwater Moonlight isn’t capable of reproducing those results automatically, they might just enjoy Nextdoorland for what it is – a comeback record that shows both the age of the band and their lingering greatness. The latter of these is put on impressive display with the opening “I Love Lucy,” complete with a riff strong enough to make you forget that two of the band members have gone completely gray and one of them has gone moderately fat. Better still is “Mr. Kennedy.” In the first half of that song, the Soft Boys achieve one of their most unguarded, affecting moments, but in the second half, Hitchcock and lead guitarist Kimberly Rew pit Telecaster against Stratocaster in a duel that is simply enthralling, all the more so for the fact that most guitarists half their age can’t pull off such a trick at even a quarter the length.
Nothing else on Nextdoorland quite matches the aforementioned twin peaks, and seeing as how they are the first and third songs, respectively, the album flags somewhat towards the end (particularly with the closing, “Lions and Tigers,” a finale so slight it’s less a song than a question mark). More big hooks would have been in order, or failing that, some bits of inspired wackiness along the lines of “(I Want to Be An) Anglepoise Lamp” would have served the record well. It’s hard to complain too much, though, since even without a surplus of terrific songs to launch the affair into orbit, the band still knows perfectly well how to lock into each other and stay that way. Hitchcock’s voice is in fine shape, and the creaks that have infiltrated it over the years add character more than anything undesirable. Rew is still one of the finest foils this side of Richard Lloyd, and the rhythm section of Matthew Seligman and Morris Windsor, unglamorous though they may be, tie everything together the way they should. At an age when they should be embarrassing themselves or fading resignedly into the sunset, the Soft Boys easily pole vault over all but the most idealistic expectations we could have for them. If you aren’t lucky enough to see them in person while they’re still on tour, pick up Nextdoorland for all the evidence of this fact that you’ll need.