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1-0 Reviews

XTC

Albums:
XTC, ca. 1999

XTC, ca. 1989
Links:
XTC
Official site

Chalkhills
Exhaustive XTC online resource

Bungalow
Yet another detailed XTC info site

TVT Records
XTC's U.S. record company


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White Music

1978

XTC's first album features New Wave and punk influences, and the hyper keyboards of Barry Andrews.

This album is not really a good introduction to the band; the tempos are fast, the mood is extremely hyper and disjunct, and the singing is very New Wave (think Johnny Rotten meeting Bryan Ferry on cocaine).

The band recorded the album in a very short time, and it sounds as such. Probably the most action-packed XTC album, but unless you really like dated jerk-pop, not the one to start with.

Representative tracks

Radios in Motion: First song on the album is very hyper and herky-jerky--the title says it all. A good pop song, if you can get through the 1978-in-England-ness. Music is like melodic Ramones meeting The Jam.

Statue of Liberty: The band slows down for a second here, and makes actual pop music. The groove is similar to the first Elvis Costello album, or "867-5309" by Tommy Tutone. Also sounds a little like punky Blur.

White Music
Personnel:

Andy Partridge:
Vocals, guitar

Colin Moulding:
Vocals, bass

Barry Andrews:
Keyboards

Terry Chambers:
Drums




Drums And Wires

1979

The band's third album, without their keyboardist, and with a new guitarist.

Barry Andrews was replaced by Dave Gregory, and the band's sound changed immeasurably. Gone are the spastic organ flourishes and roller-rink touches, and a lot of the New Wave attitude. A beefier, rockish punch and improved songwriting benefitted the album and the group hereafter.

Colin Moulding begins to rival Andy Partridge here, beginning with the opener "Making Plans For Nigel," XTC's first hit. However, the whole band shines. Easily eclipses the previous two albums.

Representative tracks

Making Plans For Nigel: Propulsive pop with a populist bent. The band had made peace with the punk movement, and began to produce more sophisticated music.

Complicated Game: Partridge's raging appraisal of modern life. The band's (and producer Steve Lillywhite's) love of dub comes to the fore here, as the song is drenched with echo and heavy bass. Heavy, mature alternative rock before there was such a thing.

Drums And Wires
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding, Chambers

Dave Gregory:
Guitar, keyboards




Black Sea

1980

Fourth album by eccentric popsters from Swindon, England. Here, they largely eschew New Wave tendencies in favor of mid-60s Kinks and Beatle-isms.

Angular melodies, restless guitars, big 1980s drums, and the airtight songwriting of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding highlight this oft-overlooked power-pop gem.

XTC are somewhat of an acquired taste, but for an overview of their early sound, this is a good album to start with.

Representative tracks

Respectable Street: First song on the album establishes aggressive, slightly off-center mood for entire album. Slashing guitars, loud drums, screaming lead vocal, Brian Wilson-esque background soprano vocal...it's all here.

No Language In Our Lungs: Partridge's screaming (again) diatribe against the effectiveness of words. For literary popsters, this is about as gritty as it gets. Music is like White Album Beatles with "In the Air Tonight" Phil Collins producing.

Living Through Another Cuba: Ska-influenced track protesting nuclear weapons. Their old drummer was a workhorse. Wordy, hyper, non-subtle--good XTC.

Black Sea
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding,
Chambers, Gregory




English Settlement

1982

First double-LP (single CD) from the band sees them branching out from New Wave and embracing world music, ska, and state-of-the-art production techniques.

Many die-hard XTC-philes consider this album to be the band's best, though it may be slightly arty or abstract for newcomers.

The band had been picking up creative steam with every album up to this one. English Settlement is probably about as far from 'pop' music as the band got.

Representative tracks

Jason and the Argonauts: Complicated, not-exactly-hummable anthem from Partridge. Like much of this album, this song features treated vocals, bright production, angular melody, quirky arrangement...nothing is simple here. Imagine Talking Heads meeting up with the 80s King Crimson, and you're almost there.

English Roundabout: Rhythmic Moulding tune featuring the metronomic heavy-skank of Terry Chambers and the quick-witted guitar of Dave Gregory. Hyper, non-subtle, quirky--more typical XTC.

Snowman: Partridge's ode to being left out in the cold, as it were. Lots of effect-treated vocals and instruments. Music is like Danny Elfman writing for a dub reggae band; an interesting tune.

English Settlement
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding,
Chambers, Gregory




Mummer

1983

Follow-up to the ambitious English Settlement, and first album made after Andy Partridge's onstage nervous breakdown.

The band is satisfied to reduce the scope of their vision, and the songs sound as such. The production is often flat, but melodies abound.

XTC had lost its regular drummer by this point, and the hyperactivity of their early albums is almost completely gone.

Representative tracks

Love On A Farmboy's Wages: Folky, bouncy tune about...well, love on a farmboy's wages. Great melody and guitar work; one of the better songs in the band's canon.

Desert Island: A B-side only available on the CD version of the album, this tune is typically isolated XTC. Great guitar work, melody, and infectious rhythm, but all applied to a song about living in England.

Wonderland: Dreamy Moulding tune suffers from flat, 80s production. Music is like Chris DeBurgh ("Lady In Red") producing for OMD on valium.

Mummer
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding,
Chambers, Gregory

with
Pete Phipps:
Drums




The Big Express

1984

Dated album wherein the band tried their hands at state-of-the-80s production techniques.

The tunes have more in common with the arty-abstraction of English Settlement than the rustic undertones of Mummer.

Much use of synthesizers, drum machines, and treated vocals and instruments. For fans, this album is ultimately no less approachable than the others, but for newcomers it is probably too badly dated and abstract.

Representative tracks

All You Pretty Girls: Sea chanty meets art-funk. Cold sound can be attributed to synths and drum machines. Similarly to 1989's Oranges & Lemons, they seemed to have thrown in every production bell and whistle they had.

I Remember the Sun: Moulding tune that sounds like Yes playing cool-jazz while opening for Sting. Oddly, it's probably the most accesible tune on the album.

The Big Express
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding,
Gregory

with
Pete Phipps:
Drums

Stuart Gordon:
Viola, violin

Steve Saunders:
Euphonium




Skylarking

1986

Album wherein Partridge and company come of age as songwriters by visiting the mystique of summer and baroque production of the late 60s.

The hit was "Dear God", but this album is rich with classic pop in the tradition of the Beatles, Kinks, and Beach Boys--except with occasional 80s synthesizers and arch, literary prose.

Todd Rundgren produced Skylarking, and it is, at times, fairly slick. It is also XTC's best. If you want to know why XTC is so "critically acclaimed", start here. If you don't like it, you probably don't like XTC.

Representative tracks

Grass: Bassist Colin Moulding's ode to grass (not marijuana), and fun things to do on it. Sophisticated, breezy production lifts simple song to very satisfying heights. Very pretty.

Ballet For A Rainy Day: Beatles/Beach Boys-influenced tune, penned by Andy Partridge. Great production, again. The elitist musicality exuded by the band and Rundgren may turn some people off, as may the blatant Brian Wilson/Paul McCartney touches. But for those who like their pop pristine and Pet Sounding, this is your album.

Skylarking
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding, Gregory

with
Prairie Prince:
Drums

Todd Rundgren:
Backing vocals, synthesizers




Oranges and Lemons

1989

Double LP (single CD) effort wherein the band discards the summery psychedelia of Skylarking for a more contemporary AOR pop production.

This sprawling record has something for every XTC fan, but often tries to do too much at once. Andy Fox produced, and apparently shared Partridge's penchant for excess.

The album was not a major hit, though it is extremely "accomplished". No hook is left unornamented, and no idea the band had was left unexplored. The cover is slightly deceptive, as the music is not as rooted in the 60s or psychedelia as its predecessor.

Representative tracks

Mayor of Simpleton: Partridge's up-tempo ode to being a simple guy (a common XTC theme). Clever arrangement and lyrics, though the overall effect is not far from the Friends theme (which, by the way, uses the same drummer as plays on this album).

Here Comes President Kill Again: Loping protest song from Partridge. Interesting use of Herb Albert-style trumpets, and military snare drum. Music is like White Album-era John Lennon meeting Supertramp.

Chalkhills and Children: Complex, soaring tune that ends the album. Great arrangement that borrows as much from Tears for Fears as it does from Brian Wilson. Some of the band's best use of the studio, and Partridge's best prose.

Oranges and Lemons
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding, Gregory

with
Pat Mastelotto:
Drums, percussion

Mark Isham:
Trumpet

Andy Fox:
Keyboards




Nonsuch

1992

Last album from the Swindon-based hermit popsters for seven years. Produced by Gus Dudgeon, most notable for having worked with Elton John.

This is XTC's slickest album to date. All the tunes sparkle from a glossy finish that is a credit to both the band's perfectionism and its anal tendencies.

If you liked Skylarking, you will probably like this album. Lots of Beatles/Beach Boys touches, but without the rustic, outdoors-y feel of the 1986 album. Slick, anglo pop.

Representative tracks

My Bird Performs: Colin Moulding's confessional to living (and loving) the simple life. Pleasant, non-aggressive, quaint. Great drum-work by session ace Dave Mattacks.

Humble Daisy: Great Pet Sounds-inspired tune. Again, simple joys are at the heart of this album. Partridge has been listening to a lot of Carl Wilson vocals.

Omnibus: Moderately hyper, trumpet-driven tune by Partridge. As these guys get older, their tunes become more assured just as their tempos get a little slower. Pure pop for people who think alternative really means an alternative to Billboard's Top 40.

Nonsuch
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding, Gregory

with
Dave Mattacks, Guy Barker, Gus Dudgeon, Gina Griffin, Rose Hull, Florence Lovegrove, Stuart Gordon




Apple Venus, Vol. 1

1999

Seven long years. Yes, Andy Partridge decided that enough was enough (and make no mistake about it, it was Partridge who kept XTC out of the spotlight, not Colin Moulding or Virgin records), and took his right foot out of the major label doldrums, shaking all about for the duration. And he gave us this. And it was good.

Of course, the star is Partridge, and his best music here ("Easter Theater", "Harvest Festival", "River of Orchids") is one part whimsy, one part whistfulness, and several pints of airtight craft. Nobody writes middle eights anymore but old homebodies like Partridge, and he writes 'em as good as anyone ever did. Yes, the simple fact is that you can't just call this guy a Beatles-hack anymore. He really does live up to the hype, unlike virtual cover artists like Elliott Smith, Sean O'Hagan, or the godforsaken Elvis Costello. Even more surprising is that on this album, he seems to have gotten over that pesky need to spruce up his arrangements with atonal guitar solos and punchy Middle Eastern beats. It all goes down smooth as Pepto, and far be it from me not to congratulate the guy on his newfound peace of mind.

Colin, on the other hand, sounds like he's got one foot in the grave. "Frivolous Tonight"? "Fruit Nut"?? Not to say these aren't pleasant in their way, but there comes a point when soft rock becomes background music. Anyways, despite Moulding's efforts to turn this into a wake, the album as a whole stands up very nicely to others in the group's canon. Just think of it as a calmer, gentler XTC - the much better version of Mummer, if you will. A simple delight.

Representative tracks

Easter Theater: A menacing string arrangement reminiscent of Skylarking's "1000 Umbrellas" (or possibly "Eleanor Rigby") supports Partridge's dramatic ode to the seasons. The glorious chorus and soaring Beach Boy background vocals make this song an album highlight.

I Can't Own Her: Lush, Bacharach-esque tune written after Partridge's divorce. The album contains some of the band's most straightforward prose, as well as some of their most unabashedly pretty music.

Apple Venus Vol. 1
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding

with
Dave Gregory, Guy Barker, Hayden Bendall, Nick Davis, Steve Sidwell, Mike Batt, The London Sessions Orchestra




Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2)



2000
Follow-up to 1999's comeback 'orchustic' Apple Venus finds the duo downsizing the arrangements to basic guitar/bass/drums.

Although XTC has never been a band concerned about hiding its idiosyncrasies, this album shows just how straight-forward they can sound. Where previous albums flaunted baroque-tendencies and a studio-perfectionist air, Wasp Star gets by on classic melodies, form, and basic rock values like groove and a good hook. That said, this is still XTC: the band are indebted to the eternally Beatlesque and Kinksian, and though Andy Partridge is still a master of the clever lyric, his days of gnawing at the hide of what is commercially viable may be history. The band sound "Stupidly Happy", and content with their "Maligned Forefathers of Brit-pop" lot.

This album, though certainly as thoroughly accomplished as most other XTC releases, begins to hint at a formulaic presence in the duo's music. Partridge and Moulding claim to be ever competitive with their heroes (McCartney, Bacharach, Davies, Wilson), yet don't show the same willingness to veer away from the pantheon's mid-60s heyday. Even Brian Wilson couldn't write for the Beach Boys forever, and perhaps XTC will venture into transendence rather than a continual 'excorcism' of influences in the future.

Representative tracks

I'm the Man Who Murdered Love: Bouncy, peppy, snappy, sunny pop song with a classic hook to boot. But wait: it's really a cynical rebuke of love! Andy Partridge is fond of setting his darkest metaphors to ear candy like this tune, and the results are usually about this sweet. See also: "Playground".

Church of Women: Pop-hymn to the fairer sex, replete with Beatle-ized gospel fadeout. Yes, they did something similar with "Books Are Burning", but do you ever really get tired of stuff like this? "Hey Jude" never sounded so lusty. See also: "My Brown Guitar".

Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2)
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding

with
Chuck Sabo, Prairie Prince: drums

Matt Vaughn: programming

Nick Davis: keyboards

Simon Gardner: flugelhorn

Holly Partridge: backing vocals

Kate St. John: oboe

Gavin Wright, Patrick Kiernan, Peter Lale, Caroline Dale: strings




Coat of Many Cupboards

2002

The Coat of Many Cupboards box-set celebrates two things: the first being the history of XTC, as told through their own viewpoints, and with an extensive essay by super fan Harrison Sherwood. The second is to raise the joyous flag for XTC's final chapter involving Virgin Records. The band left this label in the late 90s, and started up their own mess. Partridge, especially, has been quite happy to expound on the plethora of injustices and molestation brought against him by the label (who, ironically, are probably in worse shape now than he is), and this set collects material recorded during the band's residence under their no-good wing. Sound bitter? Tell me about it.

The four discs of this set are roughly divided into the periods of 1977-79, 1979-81, 1981-86 and 1987-1992. Now, many bands half XTC's age already have career retrospectives in box form, so this set shouldn't really be special in and of itself. What's odd, though, is that when Partridge and Moulding were plucked their choices for the set, they decided that, rather than compiling a selection of singles and choice album tracks, they'd fill the majority of the box with demo versions and live recordings of their songs. Bam! Now you see why this set is so necessary for the devoted XTC fan. In fact, this set is another in a growing line of collectible paraphernalia for dedicated fans (along with recently issued demo recordings of their proper studio records), as the uninitiated will most likely prefer the studio albums over a set of rarities, unreleased demos and alternate takes.

Representative tracks

Fireball XL5/Fireball Dub: The boys cast themselves much nearer the new-wave camp with the Farfisa spunk of this previously unreleased tune from 1977, but even at this early stage, XTC were more DC Comics than CBGB's.

Snowman (live): Almost worth the price of admission, if only to show what kind of band they might have been had Partridge not suffered a crippling (and apparently permanent) bout of stage anxiety. The band sounds invincible, tearing through a song that sounded almost ambient at times on the English Settlement LP, yet never loses grasp of its whimsical atmosphere.

Find the Fox: This previously unreleased Moulding-penned demo is a mild-mannered, loping acoustic song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Skylarking.

The Mayor of Simpleton: Very stripped down (acoustic guitar and vocals only), and with largely different music altogether from the Oranges & Lemons version, which features Partridge slurring through some worldless vocals where he had yet to complete the song.

Coat of Many Cupboards
Personnel:

Partridge, Moulding, Gregory, Andrews, Chambers




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