50. A Star for Bram, Robyn Hitchcock (Editions PAF!, 2000)
The Aughts began slowly for veteran British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. His Warner Bros. contract ended after three albums (including Mossy Liquor, the vinyl-only companion piece to his Moss Elixir album, both ’96), leaving him without major-label support for the first time since ’86. Between ’00 and ’03 he quietly issued three albums on his own Editions PAF! label. This trio included Robyn Sings, a live double album composed entirely of Bob Dylan covers, much of which had previously appeared as an extended appendix to the Warner-issued, promo-only ’97 single for his song Beautiful Queen. The recycling of promo-only B-sides following the loss of a contract might seem an inauspicious move, were the performances not strong, sought-after material likely rejected for full release by Warner. Two years before Robyn Sings, though, slipped another unusual album, A Star for Bram. Released “under special license from Warner,” it arrived with the feel of a fan-club album and cover art almost replicating that of Jewels for Sophia (’99), his final Warners album. Often diminished as a mere collection of Sophia outtakes, Bram indeed includes two songs that appeared on the Warner-issued, Sophia-supporting promotional EP entitled Rare Jewels. While the Aughts would be Hitchcock’s most prolific decade, A Star for Bram was just one of a string of albums from the decade comprising outtakes, old material, or other oddities while masquerading as new releases. A Star for Bram is unique among its colleagues, however, as it is arguably stronger than any of the four “real” new LPs that Hitchcock issued in the Aughts.
Bram is a tempered, darker sibling to Jewels for Sophia. The Warner album is bright, often raucous, and comical; one can almost imagine a Warner executive opting against Bram’s less immediate songs and saying, “We want the funny songs, the ones where you talk about vegetables a lot.” While the two albums’ most haunting song (No, I Don’t Remember Guildford) does appear on Sophia and Bram is not devoid of levity, Bram is the more subdued record. It opens with two understated acoustic numbers; the second, the gently shimmering I Saw Nick Drake, is like a transcription of a dream, with Hitchcock meeting the long-dead British folksinger, doing chores together, and interacting in the surreal ways that only the subconscious can manifest; it is built on a transfixing repeated guitar figure and joined by Hitchcock’s highly reverbed wordless humming between the verses. Judas Sings (Jesus and Me) and I Used to Love You are both stripped-down ballads, the latter using only voice and piano. Bram’s electric numbers outnumber the unplugged entries, but these, too, are largely subdued. A minimal, sax-tinted groove supports the skeletal boogie of Adoration of the City; the mild skiffle of The Philosopher’s Stone features just Jon Brion and Hitchcock, the latter adding melodic accents with a “harmony machine.” The record’s two expository highlights are Nietzsche’s Way, its title punning on Spirit’s 1970 song Nature’s Way, and a new studio recording of Hitchcock’s nostalgic travelogue 1974, which previously appeared on the ’98 in-studio live soundtrack Storefront Hitchcock. A final thread connecting the album to Jewels for Sophia is a dub version of that album’s Antwoman that gives the lilting original an ominous tint. Hitchcock’s departure from the major-label system may have resulted in a circuitous new pattern of record-making, but as long as his catalog continues to generate albums as reliable as A Star for Bram it will be worth following.
Highlights: 1974, Daisy Bomb, Nietzsche’s Way, I Saw Nick Drake
Sublime bit: Those spectral, wordless choruses of I Saw Nick Drake.
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