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Wednesday, Aug 11 1999

Mike "Sport" Murphy
(Kill Rock Stars)

Precious few people have heard the Skels, late of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Possibly even fewer got to hear Skels frontman Mike "Sport" Murphy's solo album, Willoughby, when it was first released on Mystery Fez Records in 1997. Now reissued on Kill Rock Stars, it's an enigmatic and slightly standoffish record. A casual listen may suggest punchy acoustic folk with a couple of weird songs thrown in, but sonic details abound: electric bass, off-kit percussion, piano, festive horns, raunchy horns, morose horns, adept harmonica, and incidental noisemakers, and is that a mandolin? The album is carefully orchestrated to minimize the showy dynamic extremes those instruments can produce, but (like a home-grown Music for Airports) it rewards close attention.

The lyrics have a similar payoff -- the listener is encouraged to work a bit, and as one focuses on what's being said, a whole personal mythology unfolds. There are no in-your-face histrionics, which means that it's much harder to conceal a poorly written song, but fortunately Murphy has an effortless way with wordplay. Throughout, he produces wry puns, double meanings, and pleasing think-again lines as often as not (a motel hangover leaves him "red-eyed in the Red Roof apres jag"). He's rarely glib and never corny, though his wordplay is sentimental, almost sacramental -- a Joycean attempt to capture as much of a feeling as possible. It's deep stuff he's wrestling with here -- whether and how and why to go on with life in the face of its toxicity, and the hard-to-hold truth that life goes on anyway. "So let's go out and act as if it's Saturday/ I cannot bear to wait till one arrives," he sings on "The Night Surrounds," a song listing the mundane activities that will continue unaffected "on the day they lower you into your grave." Song after song -- music pretty, words poignant, bitter, parodic, reverent, or all of the above -- tell stories of finding hope where there ain't none. "I feel like little Joseph/ In the deep hole/ Someone beat me up/in my dream."

Willoughby unfolds as a pretty, eclectic, and accomplished album in the classic American-upstart tradition, with lyrical and musical references to Elvis, Slim Gaillard, Biff Rose, traditional Irish music, contemporary rock, Maxfield Parrish, the Old Testament, and more, plus a version of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie." Funny, moving, breathtakingly clever, and deeply rewarding, it's a masterful statement.

-- Paul Adams

Robyn Hitchcock
Jewels for Sophia
(Warner Bros.)

If you subscribe to the theory that "rock musician" is one of the few professions at which one improves with age, you'll be disappointed to learn it's still too early to pass judgment on singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. Though he's now officially one of the geezers he sang about on the Soft Boys' 1979 anthem "Rock and Roll Toilet," he's still pleasantly unpredictable. 1996's Moss Elixir, his 15th solo recording (not including various live and odd sides, including a re-enactment of Bob Dylan's 1966 Royal Albert Hall gig) was a heart-rendered, folky high; 1997's Jonathan Demme-directed concert picture Storefront Hitchcock didn't help him reach a wider audience, though he's forever captured on celluloid in the "twilight of his life" (his words). Now Jewels for Sophia, with its highs among his highest and its lows the absolute pits, will ensure that once again Hitchcock will not be cashing his lotto ticket -- which might just be another way of saying he'd be the superstar we all believe he is, if only he'd quit messing around.

Ironically, the best songs have the highest potential for failure: The Dylan-ology of "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You, Baby" and the Bunuel-isms of "Mexican God," could be weighty, scary monsters, but they emerge gloriously Spartan. The understated "I Feel Beautiful," featuring Grant Lee Phillips on harmony vocals, is an unusual celeb-guest surprise. The traditional content of "Dark Princess" doesn't match the modern pop form at all, and the result is incredibly powerful -- the blips and bleeps are paired with a shopworn goddess-in-every-woman theme and the track outdoes every other folkie's efforts to "go techno" these last couple of years. Conversely, when the sounds echo the emotion, as on the bittersweet reminiscence "No, I Don't Remember Guildford" (a Storefront song), it's a jaw-droppingly good combo too. The novelty bonus track "Don't Talk to Me About Gene Hackman" could've easily been boosted into the main set.

Credit the successes to producers Jon Brion and Pat Collier, the most reliable common denominators here, along with Tim Keegan, Hitchcock's touring sideman. The bad news: Contemporary psychobabble tells us that when one reveals too much of himself or excels (as Hitchcock did on Moss Elixir and half of this album) one must make a (slight) return to one's former, less-perfect self. Hence, the appearance of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck (whom Hitchcock ditched after too many late '80s/early '90s collaborations) and three-quarters of the Young Fresh Fellows results in the weak rave-up "Elizabeth Jane" and "Viva! Sea-Tac" -- a rock song about (yawn) rock, recorded in altrock ghetto Seattle -- which are among the CD's substandard tracks. On the other hand, reuniting with Soft Boy Kimberly Rew for the chiming "Sally Was a Legend" makes a good case for a serial ne'er-do-well's compulsion to return to the scene of former glories and misdemeanors. There's just no calling how this career's going to play out.

-- Denise Sullivan

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