Hitchcock's Elixir Goes Down Smooth

The first thing one notices when listening to Moss Elixir, Robyn

Hitchcock's first album on Warner, and his first on any label in four

years, is that it's somehow different: from the heated, urgent

chord-run by violinist Deni Bonet on the album-opening "She Was Sinister

But She Was Happy" to the off-key tunings Hitchcock favors here on his

mostly acoustic guitar playing, Moss Elixir is a new creature in

Hitchcock's pantheon, a folk-rock album by one of pop's biggest champions.

The second thing one notices is that, exactly like every other Hitchcock

album, a handful of melodies become imprinted on your brain from the first

listen, destined to be vaguely whistled for days after. Maybe Moss

Elixir isn't such a different creature after all. Hitchcock,

best-known as leader of seminal real-pop (Brett Milano's term) bands The

Soft Boys and The Egyptians, makes a decided effort to make Moss

Elixir less cluttered, a little less exuberant, perhaps, and not as

loud. The result is a slightly softer, slightly folksier gleeQalthough

Hitchcock may be slowing things down a bit and changing instrumentation,

he's still writing endlessly quirky songs to which one can't help tapping

a foot in response. If, as Hitchcock said, he's trying to write music

that's more "grown-up," it still contains all the optimistically endless

possibilities of pop, even if it is backed by a slightly strummed acoustic

guitar and ample violin shadings (for about the past year, Bonet and

Hitchcock have been touring together as a duo, performing many of the

songs that ended up on Moss Elixir.) As Hitchcock has said (to me,

in fact), "I write consistently good songs." And indeed, Moss

Elixir is chock full of good songs: the albums first two tracks, "She

Was Sinister But She Was Happy" and "The Devil's Radio" are irresistibly

catchy, filled with classic Hitchcockisms ("Her living words were her

dying words / 'Yeah'"). The hooks might be based in minor-keys and teased

out of Bonet's violin, but these songs alone are proof that Hitchcock is

still one of the best pop-craftsmen around.

Many of the other songs are less replete with unforgettable hooks, but are

no less satisfying. "Man With A Woman's Shadow," a song which came out of

some recording Hitchcock did with Calvin Johnson in his studio in

Washington, is quietly haunting and filled with the sexual ambiguities

Hitchcock seems to find simultaneously fascinating and repellent at the

same time. (Indeed, while Hitchcock's musical approach makes a purposeful

shift on Moss Elixir, his unease in the modern world and twisted

take on the human condition remain as recognizable as ever.) Hitchcock's

mournful, echoing harmonica lines combined with understated acoustic riff

repeated over and over show what Hitchcock can do with his lyrical

sensibilities when they're not overpowered by the sheer strength of his

melodies. Quietly disconcerting, Hitchcock, for the first-time in his

career, seems to feel comfortable letting the song carry itself with a

minimal amount of baggage.

Even songs like "I Am Not Me," one of the few tunes on the album on which

Hitchcock yields an electric ax, and one in which the chorus is almost

sing-songy, is much more spacious and comfortable than Hitchcock's

attempts to turn his energy level down a notch in the past. The

horn-augmented "De Chirico Street" is another gem; but, to be fair, there

really isn't a bad track on the album.

Moss Elixir was released in conjunction with a limited number of

vinyl copies of Mossy Liquor, a collection of alternative versions

and songs that didn't make the final cut for the album. And while it's

true that most of the "official" versions are superior to those on

Mossy Liquor, there is a certain satisfaction in hearing what some

of Moss Elixir's songs would sound like if Hitchcock had stuck

closer to his pop roots - jangly, upbeat versions of "Alright, Yeah" and

"Heliotrope" may not ultimately be as good as the versions that ended up

on the album, but they're damn fun all the same, and will find a good home

in any Hitchcock lover's collection.