Animal Or Vegetable?

"If it weren't for our rib cages it would just be spleens a go-go.''

Yip.

Yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip

yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip

yip yip yip yip yip yip. (That's 44 "yips" in all.)

What's "that," you say? Why, the opening of a Robyn Hitchcock

song about the death of his father; what else? This is, after all, an

artist who considers "something'' to be not only a verb but an active

declaration of

love.

To tried-and-true Hitchcock fans, such pointed chicanery

comes as no surprise. Ever since his emergence as the leader of the

avant-pop outfit the Soft Boys in the late '70s, Hitchcock has been

showered with the kind of praise that comes with cult superstardom:

He's been called England's most literate rocker, music's last surviving

surrealist and the world's only psychedelic-pop-folk maestro.

However, even those aficionados who have every Soft Boys

album, every Egyptians B-side and every K-Record 7-inch are only getting

half the fun if they've never seen Hitchcock in concert. In

addition to writing songs about sexually ambiguous teen-age nightmares and

living-dead ex-wives, Hitchcock is an artist who finds that it makes exquisite

sense to connect the above-mentioned tales about life ("The Yip Song'') and

love ("I Something You'') with an extended narrative describing the

existential nightmare and inevitable psychological terror experienced by

some poor chap wrapped in duct tape who, due to a "problem with physics,''

finds himself suspended 8 feet above London -- where, naturally, everyone

thinks he is an about-to-be-detonated bomb.

Until recently, suburban home-dwellers had to be satisfied solely with

the impossible-to-pigeonhole musical side of Hitchcock, missing out on the

deranged, iconoclastic, free-associative monologues that pepper Hitchcock's

live shows. But that's all changed with the release of Storefront

Hitchcock, the soundtrack to the Jonathan Demme movie of the same name.

"Storefront Hitchcock'' was filmed, and recorded, over three days in a

Manhattan, N.Y., storefront in December 1996. And the movie, by all

accounts, is

delightful: Hitchcock, accompanied by violinist Deni Bonet (and guitarist

Tim Keegan on a couple of tunes) sets up shop on 14th Street in front of 200

or so fans and does his thing. (Demme, who also directed the film version of

Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia," seems like a perfect choice to

choreograph such an outing.)

More important (to us, at least), the resulting disc is one of those

rarest of albums that can genuinely be called a true masterpiece, a

delightful trip through Hitchcock's stubbornly individualistic

world.

Hitchcock has always been a more complex artist than he is given credit

for. Many listeners still associate Hitchcock primarily with the

ground-breaking, power-pop work he did with the Egyptians in the '80s. And

while

"The Man With the Lightbulb Head'' is a great song, Hitchcock has many

sides: the gentle troubadour, the dour cynic, the ebullient trickster.

All those sides are amply evident on Storefront Hitchcock.

Fegmania!'s "I'm Only You'' becomes achingly wistful as Hitchcock

slows it down and picks every note with deliberate forcefulness, while

"Where Do You Go When You Die?'' (written for the movie) is downright

menacing: Hitchcock's ominous, disjointed harmonica and his lowered,

conspiratorial

singing are almost creepy, and not in a transgendered kind of way, either.

Throw in a moving cover of Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary'' and a

seven-minute version of Hitchcock's classic "Beautiful Queen'' and you have

the makings for a wonderfully eccentric singer/songwriter disc. While

Hitchcock's lyrics are impossible to label, musically Storefront

Hitchcock is a

delicate, multi-layered effort, marked by Hitchcock's crystalline voice, his

deceptively simple guitar lines and Bonet's wonderful violin shadings.

But the music is only half the story here, and to fully appreciate

Hitchcock's intoxicating attitude you also need his verbal wanderings,

whether he's discussing the importance of the human skeleton ("If it

weren't for our rib cages it would just be spleens a go-go'') or the perfect

living-room accessory ("A chair unable to cause you any pain whatsoever.

It's designed not to upset you in the least: it's not even bland. You

couldn't say, 'This is annoyingly comfortable' '').

The dozen songs on Storefront Hitchcock (including four new

tunes) offer a wonderful snapshot of Hitchcock and his favorite themes:

life, death, love and rotting fruit. The accompanying introductions (which,

incidentally, have nothing at all to do with the songs they precede) deal

with organized religion, glowing tomatoes and the importance of muzak.

Throw it all together and you get Martha. I think Hitchcock describes

her best: "Martha is a whole mass of molecules and complexes and things

bound together by terrifying physical improbabilities and the truth is she

could fly apart at any moment ... ''