Formed in the great late-'70s outpouring of British music that led to punk, new wave, and other genres, The Soft Boys never really fit into any category. The group could match almost any punk band for sheer energy, and just about anyone else for pop catchiness, but other elements left the category-minded scratching their heads—namely, singer Robyn Hitchcock's spoken-word interludes, the long jangle of Kimberley Rew's guitar, and the whole enterprise's willingness to indulge in oddness. Johnny Rotten famously wore a shirt that read "I Hate Pink Floyd," but here was a crew that had obviously spent time worshipping at the altar of Syd Barrett and company. At a time when the word "psychedelia" was verboten, The Soft Boys found value in the style, spinning absurd lyrics into loud, pithy songs, as if the '60s and the '70s were somehow taking place at the same time. The group didn't last much longer than it took to record two albums, including the 1980 classic Underwater Moonlight, but it made a deep impression on the decade that followed. Both R.E.M. and The Replacements, essentially the Beatles and Stones of '80s college rock, acknowledged their gratitude, and the group staked out a territory that Hitchcock continued to explore throughout his memorable (and ongoing) solo career. The group has reunited periodically for live shows throughout the past decade, but Nextdoorland marks its first new album in more than 20 years. One reference to Sebadoh aside, it wouldn't be difficult to pass off as a mildly disappointing unreleased Soft Boys album from 1981. The band remains an inspired combination of elements: Hitchcock's vocals work hand-in-glove with Rew's guitar to instant and often gripping effect. "Pulse Of My Heart" and "Mr. Kennedy" provide two early highlights, but the album needs more memorable songs, and coasts too often on the mood the group creates. But it's still a mood that only The Soft Boys can summon up: a sense of resignation to disappointment, combined with amazement at the beauty to be found in looking at the world askance. That's enough to make this a return worth welcoming.
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