If there is one thing you can't accuse Luke Haines of, it is resting on his laurels. This man has the prolificacy of an early 1970s Elton John, who (as we all know) back then was making a new album most mornings before breakfast. Following hard on the heels of last year's collaboration with Cathal Coughlan on the witty concept that was The North Sea Scrolls, Haines has produced (yet) another (concise) slice of fantasy with Rock And Roll Animals, making me wonder initially whether the man's creative spark might be at least slightly 'doused'.
Having listened to Rock And Roll Animals perhaps a dozen times, I think there is enough Hainesian wit here to keep me sufficiently amused, via the album's conceptual creation, something akin to a modern day version of the BBC's Tales Of The Riverbank, whereby Walton-on-Thames' finest conjures up a 'magic town', in which legendary producer, and fellow Walton man, Nick Lowe, near-neighbour, the Hersham-born Jimmy Pursey and deceased rocker Gene Vincent (who apparently also stayed in Haines' home town whilst on a tour) take on central roles as (respectively) the town badger (it's the hair, geddit?), fox and cat. Musically, the album is predominantly acoustic (with Haines playing all instruments, other than his wife Sian on recorder), thereby lacking the dynamic variation of the songs on, say, The North Sea Scrolls or 21st Century Man. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course - some of Haines' greatest songs (from The Auteurs' era, admittedly) were restrained gems, like Junk Shop Clothes and Brainchild - and whilst there is nothing quite of that calibre here, the album is (like much of Haines' work) definitely a grower.
Of course, as is often the case with Haines' musical/literary creations (comic-book parodies?) it is always difficult to judge quite the tone (from cynicism to fondness) of his 'tributes', but here, it seems to me there is a degree of homage. For example, amongst the intoxicating folksy harmonies of A Badger Called Nick Lowe, Haines intones, 'Children stop and stare, they stroke my black fur and my fluffy white hair', whilst Vincent, in his catchy, eponymous song is cast as 'a wise old cat' who holds sway over the local dog population. Meanwhile, on 'Pursey's song', From Hersham To Heaven, we have another (now familiar) Haines 'Rocky Horror Show-like' harmony, and comic actor Julia Davis narrates, '"Are we going to heaven?", said Jimmy. The fox's two friends looked at each other and smiled warmly, "No we're going to heaven"'. Elsewhere, the album's title song provides more infectious melody, whilst The Angel Of The North provides a typical Haines take on (one of his perennial obsessions) Englishness, 'God bless the great north south divide' - plus including a nostalgic nod to Ian Hunter.
For me, not one of Haines' strongest collections, but enough fascinating material to keep me (and, I suspect, most aficionados) listening.