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The Soft Boys

While the tow-headed psychedelic pop troubadour Robyn Hitchcock achieved modest success with a string of weird, whimsical, consistently excellent albums throughout the '80s and '90s, The Soft Boys, the terrific band that got him started, has been sadly forgotten by all but the most ardent Hitchcock boosters. Hopefully that will change now with the band's return to active status and the release of its first studio album in more than 20 years, the remarkably good Nextdoorland.

For those unfamiliar, The Soft Boys formed in Cambridge during the English punk revolution of the late '70s, but eschewed the aggression and nihilism of that movement in favor of a delightfully strange brand of pop music which further developed the songwriting blueprint established by Syd Barrett while employing the rich guitar interplay of Television. While punk may have been the most important sound of the era, The Soft Boys (along with similarly minded U.K. acts like Julian Cope's The Teardrop Explodes, XTC, and Orange Juice) represented a significant new brand of quick-witted jangly guitar pop that wound up influencing everyone from R.E.M. to The Lemonheads to Yo La Tengo. Their two proper studio albums were 1979's Can of Bees, a zany, bizarre post-psychedelic classic and 1980's Underwater Moonlight, one of the better pop records ever made, distinctive not only for Hitchcock's playful vocal gymnastics but also for its clean, effervescent guitar lines and buoyant harmonies.

The Soft Boys dissolved after that album, releasing a few posthumous albums of live and unreleased studio material while Hitchcock began what proved a prolific solo career with his band The Egyptians and guitarist Kimberly Rew founded the '80s pop group Katrina and the Waves. But in 2001, Matador Records reissued Underwater Moonlight, prompting the band to reform with the same lineup as that album, featuring Hitchcock, Rew, bassist Matthew Seligman, and drummer Morris Windsor. After a successful tour, The Soft Boys went into the studio and recorded Nextdoorland, magically recapturing the energy and dynamism of Underwater Moonlight. The material is satisfyingly crisp and precise and the melodies as catchy as ever. While reunions like this one understandably inspire skepticism, The Soft Boys' new songs are better than anyone could have fairly hoped, offering powerful testimony to Hitchock and Rew's music-making ability and unique synergy. Let's hope this new incarnation of The Soft Boys is more durable than the last.

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