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The Soft Boys

Underwater Moonlight (Matador)

Putting out an extraordinarily generous two-disc collection based upon a 21-year-old LP that was hugely unsuccessful at the time of its release and hasn't moved many more copies since seems ridiculous at first -- and upon closer analysis, too. But what's likely to be bad news for Matador, the company behind this new version of an overlooked classic, is already good news for anyone who hasn't already discovered the joys of Underwater Moonlight.

The original album, which reached stores in 1980, was the magnum opus of the Soft Boys, an English band that's known, if it's known at all, for launching the career of Robyn Hitchcock, an artist whose lack of popular acclaim remains mystifying to those who treasure the half-dozen or so irrefutably brilliant albums he subsequently made either on his own or with another backing crew, the Egyptians. (Hitchcock has also turned out a like number of ordinary or mildly disappointing platters, but let's accentuate the positive, shall we?) However, this disc doesn't simply hint at talent that would blossom later. The songs on it are first-rate and don't seem to have dated one jot since they were first captured on tape.

The music as a whole can be described as power pop, but it's far more distinctive than many examples of the genre, thanks to the edgy playing (by Kimberley Rew, Matthew Seligman, Morris Windsor and Hitchcock) that decorates most of its addictive melodies. There's also reedy/randy singing and a lyrical approach that's funny without being stupid, quirky without being self-consciously obscure. "I Wanna Destroy You" is the most ironic anti-war ditty this side of the Fugs' "Kill For Peace"; "I Got the Hots" suggests a blues tune as re-imagined by Monty Python; "Insanely Jealous" manages to do justice to both words in its title; "Old Pervert" is three minutes-plus of barely controlled mayhem; and "The Queen of Eyes" sports a ringing guitar tone that anticipates the jangle rock that still strikes a chord with the college crowd. Better yet, the nine outtakes included in the new package, ranging from the bouncy "He's a Reptile" to the deliberate "Song #4," would have made almost as good a record as the one the Boys did put out.

Disc two, a collection of work tapes and rehearsal tomfoolery subtitled ...And How it Got There, is not nearly as accessible as its better half because of lower fidelity and overall sloppiness; the previously committed will appreciate the melange, which includes an enjoyably slapdash cover of Lou Reed's "Leave Me Alone," but even they probably won't listen to it much. Still, the mere fact of its existence is worth applauding. Record companies usually expend this kind of effort reissuing albums everyone already owns instead of ones that folks should own but don't.

 
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