In From the Cult
Washington City Paper
October 6, 2006
By Mark Jenkins
The unrepentant folk-rocker ripples an acoustic guitar and
contemplates his place in the pop universe: �Read in the paper/Saw a
review/Said I was a visionary/But nobody knew/Now that�s been a
problem/Feeling unseen/Just like I�m living/Somebody�s dream.�
That could be Robyn Hitchcock, reflecting on 30 years as a cult
artist. But it doesn�t sound like him, does it? The former Soft Boy
rarely expresses himself so directly; when he sings �I,� he�s
usually assuming the persona of someone or something he couldn�t
possibly be. Besides, all indications are that Hitchcock likes being
a cult artist. He�s worked hard to stay semisubmerged, despite
spending more than a decade (mostly in the �90s) contracted to one
of two indulgent major labels. Whenever mainstream acceptance
beckoned, Hitchcock bolted�usually to make an album of stripped-down
sorta-folkie songs that relied on acoustic guitar and a few friends.
Eventually, though, his pop-rock instincts would recuperate and he
would record an unexpectedly accessible set. For example, the
shimmering new Ol�! Tarantula, his most outgoing release since
1991�s Perspex Island.
So it�s not Hitchcock who�s gazing into the mirror, considering his
obscurity. In fact, the self-styled visionary who�s all alone with
his guitar and voice is a man whose cult-artist status is arguable:
Lindsey Buckingham. The guy�s actually had a few Top 20 solo
singles, and if his albums are occasional at best, that�s because he
keeps canceling them and ceding his new songs to his other project,
Fleetwood Mac, which just happens to be one of the most commercially
successful rock bands ever. If Buckingham�s feeling unseen, it must
be because Stevie Nicks� scarves keep fluttering in front of his
face in the 20,000-seat arenas.
�Not Too Late,� which contains the career analysis quoted above,
opens Under the Skin, which is Buckingham�s fourth solo album, and
his first since 1992�s Out of the Cradle. The tune, which is nothing
but voice and finger-picked guitar, is typical of the album�s style.
Although some of the songs are lushly stratified, notably with layer
upon of layer of vocals, the overall vibe is intimate. Reverb is one
of Buckingham�s favorite studio embellishments, and Under the Skin
is a sort of echo chamber in which the singer-songwriter can achieve
a private grandeur. Fleetwood and Mac (drummer Mick Fleetwood and
bassist John McVie) play on two of these 11 tracks, and there�s a
horn section on one, but the rest is all Buckingham�glossy, melodic,
and a little too airtight.
Hitchcock once released a version of the Byrds� �Eight Miles High�
in which he recalled where he was the year the song was released.
That was 1966, apparently also a crucial moment for Buckingham.
Under the Skin includes two covers, both from that year: the Rolling
Stones� �I Am Waiting� and Donovan�s �Try for the Sun.� Both are
showcases for Buckingham�s production skills, and touchstones for
his vision, which melds British-invasion rock with California
studio-pop perfectionism. Yet neither qualifies as an
interpretation, let alone a personal one. They�re just
well-constructed and plushly textured.
Sometimes, that�s enough. Such Under the Skin numbers as �It Was
You� and especially �Show You How� transform elementary rhythmic
hooks and complex vocal arrangements into the stuff of rapture. In
that sense, Buckingham has recaptured the spirit of �66: His songs
sound fresh, vital, and enchanted with the possibilities of
multitracked, amplified timbres. What they don�t do is reveal
or�their sonic invention aside�surprise. Buckingham is a master of
the gleaming surface, but he never quite goes where his album title