Among the new-rock constituency that hasn't conceded the primacy of the synthesizer, the most coveted guitar sound is the harmonic Byrdsian chiming exemplified by bands such as R.E.M. But the younger exponents of this music didn't all learn their Roger McGuinn riffs from battered copies of "Turn, Turn, Turn." R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, for one, has testified that his richly textured style is largely derived from the Soft Boys, late-'70s English cult rockers whose American influence is widespread, even though none of their records was released here.
Almost a decade since they split, best Boy Robyn Hitchcock is only on his third American studio album (three predecessors were issued in Europe) and his first for a major label. Meanwhile, plangent guitars have become a worldwide phenomenon, ringing from New Jersey, home of Richard Barone's Bongos, to Australia, origin of the Church.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians: 'Globe of Frogs' Fans of Hitchcock's lush arpeggios and soaring melodies will not be entirely disappointed by "Globe of Frogs" (A&M SP 5182), the eccentric Englishman's first album since signing with Herb Alpert's -- and Janet Jackson's -- label. Songs such as "Chinese Bones" and "Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)," both of which feature Buck on 12-string, are as dulcet as anything on "Black Snake Diamond Role" or "Fegmania!," Hitchcock's ringingest records. "Frogs," though, is his most venturesome disc since 1984's all-acoustic "I Often Dream of Trains" and his most diverse since 1982's "Groovy Decay."
The preferences of devotees aside, that's for the best. Hitchcock's music, if not his ever-idiosyncratic lyrics, skirted the formulaic on his last two records. Peering into this "Globe," though, yields plenty of surprises: The ambitious arrangements and production (by Hitchcock and his longtime collaborators, engineer Pat Collier and Soft Boys-turned-Egyptians Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor) feature nontraditional instruments, disjointed song structures and some of Hitchcock's rowdiest guitar work since the early Softs. "Luminous Rose" is virtually a cappella, save for a droning harmonica and funereal drum. The title song, with its Indian percussion and gliding Robin Williamson-ish vocals, recalls middle-period Incredible String Band.
Characteristically, Hitchcock's big-time debut comes complete with a manifesto that entreats the reader to "bury your television" and declares, "We are all deviants, all alone, and all peculiar." With song titles such as "The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals," Hitchcock need hardly have worried that listeners might have thought him unpeculiar. His formulations remain enigmatic -- "Some things go in, some thing go out/ And next time 'round I'll be a trout," he notes to conclude "Sleeping With Your Devil Mask" -- but his images can be arresting: "And it rained like a slow divorce," he sings in "Balloon Man." If Hitchcock can continue making records that jump like "Frogs," long may he rain.
Richard Barone: 'Cool Blue Halo' Barone's first love may be glitter-rock -- he covers early-'70s tunes by David Bowie and Marc Bolan on his live solo album, "Cool Blue Halo" (Passport PB 6058) -- but the Hoboken guitarist had that folk-rock jangle down cold on early Bongos singles such as "The Bulrushes," which kicks off this album. The Bongos have shifted, not all that felicitously, to a harder-hitting sound in recent years, but much of Barone's best work, such as the "Nuts and Bolts" album recorded with former Bongo James Mastro (now with Chris Stamey's band), is gentle, melodious and quietly engaging. "Halo" is in that tradition.
The disc features Barone on electric guitar, backed by a cellist, an acoustic guitarist and a woman alternating among piano, vibes and percussion. This chamber-pop format recalls the intimate mood of later Beatles songs such as "Eleanor Rigby." Indeed, the Fab Four's "Cry Baby Cry" is the album's third cover.
Not all these songs benefit from the kid-gloves treatment. Barone, who'll perform in this mode Friday at the 9:30 club, doesn't add anything to the Bongos' original version of "The Bulrushes," and his attempt to recast Bowie's metallic "The Man Who Sold the World" is uncompelling. The later Bongos' "Numbers with Wings" profits greatly, however, and "Flew a Falcon," a "Nuts and Bolts" number, is also a pleasure. Barone's Bongos have a lot to learn from his side project's modest charms.
The Church: 'Starfish' On "Lost," a song from the Sydney quartet's new album, Church bassist Steve Kilbey sings, "It's an exquisite corpse." He's probably not describing "Starfish" (Arista AL-8521), but that seems an apt line: Church's music is about as gorgeous as rock 'n' roll gets, but it also has a strong proclivity toward the lifeless. "Starfish" would make a somewhat better impression if the two sides had been reversed. The glacial first side consists of five songs, all pushing five minutes or longer, that are overly similar in tempo and mood. Side 2, which features fewer committee-written tracks, is more varied and occasionally livelier, notably on the opening song, guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper's upbeat "Spark." The bad-acid imagery of Kilbey, the band's principal lyricist, has always been opaque, and without a trace of Hitchcock's redeeming zaniness -- but on earlier songs such as "Disenchanted" and "Violet Town," the band let its sonic glory do the talking. Too often on "Starfish," however, the music is nearly as impenetrable as the words.