XTC


White Music | review #2 1978
Go 2 1978
Drums & Wiresreview #2 | review #3 1979
Black Sea | review #2 | review #3 1980
English Settlement | review #2 | review #3 1982
Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982 (compilation) 1982
Mummer | review #2 | review #3 1983
The Big Expressreview #2 | review #3 1984
Skylarking | review #2 | review #3 1986
Dukes Of Stratosphear: Chips From The Chocolate Fireball | review #2 | review #3 1987
Compact XTC: The Singles 1978-85 1987
Oranges And Lemons | review #2 | review #3 1989
Rag & Bone Buffet | review #2 1990
Nonsuch | review #2 1992
Drums And Wireless: BBC Live 1994
Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-1992 (compilation) 1996
Apple Venus Vol 1 | review #2 1999
Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2) | review #2 2000

I know that on most pages I'm able to bypass all of this self-referencial B.S. (or at least I try to), but in this case it's totally necessary for me to state that I'm a little biased towards this particular band. As a geeky They Might Be Giants-loving high-schooler, XTC turned out to be everything I ever wanted in a band - quirky, original melodies, intelligent- in-a- pretentiously- awesome-way lyrics, and on top of all that, they were poppy!!!!! Hooy mon, you can keep your Stones and Dylan, I'm in nerd-rock heaven and I ain't comin' down! Leading man Andy Partridge became a personal demi-god of sorts to me, and rather infamously and immaturely, myself and fellow XTC fan Ben Greenstein became somewhat notorious for vehemently defending the band whenever anyone dared to speak the slightest ill of them on any of these review sites (the most lengthy of these arguments being at the bottom of Mark Prindle's Dylan page).

At any rate, I'm past that rather unfortunate stage and am willing to accept XTC as an incredibly interesting yet mildly inconsistent band. Over the course of their career, they've had a few problems -- Partridge's lyrics, while frequently jaw-droppingly brilliant, often became absurdly heavy-handed, and the band has always lacked a truly strong vocalist (though Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding certainly have unique voices, for better or for worse). Also, they haven't toured since 1982, which kinda cheeses me off since I'd really like to see them live, but when you have a frontman with stage fright, whatchagonnado? All that matters to me is that each bandmember is an exceptional instrumentalist and that they've had more weirdly-brilliant moments in their career than any band that I can personally think of. I challenge you to find another band that would dare to allow a lyric onto record like "She's got to be obscene to be obheard."

And just out of respect for Nick Karn's original intro to this page, I'd like to say that Andy Partridge is a really scary-looking dude. He seems normal enough in a British sort of way, but he always has this hidden smirk that makes it seem like he'd bite your head off the second you're not looking.

--Rich Bunnell

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WHITE MUSIC (1978)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

By now, Partridge has pretty much completely disowned the earlier era of his band -- apparently once when a restaurant started to play this album for him at a birthday celebration, he demanded that it be turned off, embarassed out of his wits. It's not exactly hard to see why he feels this way -- none of the subtle, crafted nuances that would come to characterize the band's later work are present on this album at all. Instead the band sounded like some alternate British take on Devo, cranking out jerky rhythms and absolutely insane keyboard parts (courtesy of at-the-time resident weirdo Barry Andrews), both of which have the serious potential to annoy but apparently wowed a lot of music critics in the late '70s. I used to absolutely hate this album (if I may be so rude as to split an infinitive because "I used to hate this album absolutely" looks freaking retarded) but it's recently kinda grown on me - the music is somewhat primitive but the instrumentalists themselves already sound trained and accomplished, and in its less irritating moments the album can be a real blast to listen to.

Colin Moulding wasn't much of a songwriter at this point (the frenzied blurb of randomness "Cross Wires" is strangely enough his best contribution to the record), so the classics all wind up being Partridge's. "This Is Pop" is a fantastic, stomping single about the absurdity of categorizing music (even if the mix on the single version, produced by none other than future Shania Twain producer/banger "Mutt" Lange, is superior) and "Statue Of Liberty" is a thumpy popper that sounds so much like Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" that Jackson himself covered it on XTC's 1995 tribute album as a smart-assed testament to their new-wave brotherhood and his lack of a career. "Radios In Motion" and "Into The Atom Age" are just your basic nervy rockers, but they're, y'know, good basic nervy rockers, and you've got to admire any song that contains lyrics about bouncing off of ocean liners.

There's not really much else to go crazy over -- the rest of the album is either okay or unbearably annoying (the nadir is a bass-heavy, squawking cover of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" that goes on for a torturous near-six-minutes). It's all still enjoyable enough, if rather trite compared to what was to come, and if you buy the CD version you get the band's debut EP 3D-EP shoved smack-dab into the middle of the tracklisting like the thing belonged there in the first place. It would be annoying if the songs didn't sound exactly like the surrounding ones, only better for the most part, especially the band's almost criminally-insane debut single "Science Friction." Great stuff.

OVERALL RATING: 6

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Radios In Motion, This Is Pop, Atom Age, Statue Of Liberty. LOW POINTS: Set Myself On Fire, New Town Animal.

The much-overshadowed debut by XTC is a little better than you might expect, although still a bit uncertain. The band really hasn't even begun to find its signature, retro-'60s sound yet. The album takes contemporary New Wave trends to the extreme, and these songs are built upon abrupt, jerky rhythms and awkward melodies - they didn't even have a second guitarist at this point, instead letting experimental keyboardist Barry Andrews pound away abrasively, often resembling video game noises. It's also interesting to note that bassist Colin Moulding is not singing his own songs yet, leaving the lead vocals entirely to guitarist Andy Partridge. In the end, the songwriting is unfocused, but some of these songs still come off rather intriguing, thanks primarily to the innovation of Partridge, Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers at their instruments (well, with Partridge, "innovation" is mostly a vocal thing). A great example of this is the band's robotic cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower." It definitely sounds "out there" at first, and most fans loath this track without condition, probably because it sounds nothing like the famous version that Jimi Hendrix recorded. But I consider this a minor highlight because I love what the rhythm section is doing - Moulding's spacey bassline bounces all over the place, Chambers' beat shuffles confidently for six minutes, and the boys create one great rhythmic backbone here. "X Wires" is also fun, because it's just too insane to even describe. I even love Andrews' shrieking keyboards here, and Partridge's vocals are appropriately spastic.

Still, contrary to the iffy reputation of this album, there are some great pop songs on here (in other words, it's not all frantic envelope-pushing with mixed results). The bouncy "Radios In Motion," with its cheerful, pounding refrain, is arguably the best ot the lot. But that's not to undermine "This Is Pop," which tastefully attacked the commercial music industry, and became the band's first major standard, deservingly so. "Statue Of Liberty" is well-written for XTC at this point, and the lyrics introduce their love of controversy (this one is just humorously perverted: "In my fantasy I've sailed beneath your skirt"). "Atom Age" is another joyfully melodic number, and the lone standout of side two.

Unfortunately, though, the rest is not so successful. Elsewhere, it's either less-memorable pop ("Do What You Do," the grating "New Town Animal"), or more random weirdness: "I'm Bugged" is okay, if only for that spooky keyboard line; "Spinning Top" has a cool intro, and "Neon Shuffle" has a funny acappella break, but they're both pretty forgettable. "Set Myself On Fire" is painfully dreary. So, overall, White Music is not as bad as you may have been led to think, although some of it falls flat. A curious oddity in XTC's vast catalogue; it's rushed and underdeveloped, but it shows potential, along with youthful enthusiasm. Buy it out of curiosity, you might get a kick out of it. I have it on vinyl, so I haven't heard the 3D EP, save "Science Friction," which appears on Waxworks.

OVERALL RATING: 6

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GO 2 (1978)

(reviewed by Rich Bunnell)

Whereas my opinion of White Music has slightly risen over time, my outlook on its followup could only wish to be so lucky. The album follows the "sophomore slump" formula to a finely-polished tee -- the debut was produced from several years of material practiced time and time again on stage, but the followup had to be created from two weeks' worth of songs hastily-written in the middle of touring. The band's chops had clearly improved by this point (or maybe it's just the ever-so-slightly more streamlined production), but it can't hide the simple fact that the songs are just a lot more weakly-written this time around. I used to like the album a lot more than the debut, but time just isn't on this album's side (no it's not), and I've sunken to the point of actually agreeing with the All Music Guide (*GASP!*) in considering it probably the band's weakest studio album.

It's not really that the songs are bad, it's more that they're completely average almost across-the-friggin-board -- songs like "Red," "The Rhythm" and "Jumping In Gomorrah" are decent rockers and all, but they don't really have a single thing to offer, they're just by-the-numbers quirk-rock without the ear-catching hooks that at least salvaged most of the songs on the debut. The album doesn't hit any particular lows like the "Watchtower" cover (which shall never be spoken of again), but to these ears there are only three really ace tracks: "Meccanic Dancing," which sounds like a blueprint of what a catchy early-period XTC song should sound like, Moulding's engaging and refreshingly-straightforward "Crowded Room," and the soaring "Battery Brides," a tongue-in-cheek attempt at emulating Brian Eno (it's even subtitled "Andy Paints Brian") which qualifies as the first XTC track that can be called "restrained."

Otherwise, it's tough going -- most of the songs hint at catchiness but get ruined by some instantly-grating aspect of the songwriting (such as the annoyingly upfront rhyme with "Mickey Mouse" that keeps popping up in "Life Is Good In The Greenhouse"). Barry Andrews even tosses in a couple of tunes, apparently the only ones that Andy would allow him to include on record (the dictatorial arse), and they're about as psychotic as one would expect (the hickish and obviously ironic "My Weapon" even earned the band its first hatemail for the lyric "I'll take it out on her with my weapon!") but musically nothing to alert the papers about. An upside for the casual CD listener -- the CD edition throws on the album's fantastic and uptempo teaser single "Are You Receiving Me?", and it's great that it's on there, even if it's a bit depressing seeing that it's better than any of the songs on the actual album. Also, the album cover has got to be one of the funniest things ever. Download a JPEG of it if possible, it's worth it.

OVERALL RATING: 5

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DRUMS & WIRES (1979)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

This album is where a lot of fans climb onboard, mostly because it's their first relatively "normal" one. Barry Andrews left the band in a tizzy, apparently unable to work in the same studio with Partridge without squabbling with him (this would turn out to be a recurring theme throughout the band's career), and instead of replacing him with another keyboardist (as logic would dictate), they just added a second guitarist in riffmeister master-picker Dave Gregory. His recruitment was easily the best decision the band ever made -- not only was there no longer some whacko pouring random keyboard crap all over the songs, the band could now focus on a twin-guitar attack, with Partridge (who was never very proficient at lead guitar) concentrating on rhythm guitar and the more talented Gregory churning out the riffs. The album title refers to the band's new configuration and sound, a more organic and back-to-basics sound than the keyboard-heavy shpiel that came before.

Almost coincidentally, this shift in sound just happened to take place at the same time as some sort of songwriting epiphany that hit both Partridge and Moulding, because all of a sudden the songs began to display actual progression from their predecessors, actual full-fledged songs as opposed to quirky three-minute ideas. The first two songs alone show each songwriter bettering any songs that he had written before -- Colin's "Making Plans For Nigel," the band's first British hit, is a sly and mechanical swipe at the British steel industry that totally hits its mark as one of the band's true classics, and Andy's "Helicopter" reins in his more bizarre lyrical tendencies ("I object to all the air male that she been collecting") and processes them into just the perfect little rotor-driven pop song.

This level is gleeful goodness is maintained throughout almost the entire record, with a selection of fabulous tunes that unveil a new XTC for the late new wave era. The simpler and more direct songs are all Colin's, usually few on words but more likely to catch the ears than Andy's wordy monstrosities. There isn't much to either "Day In Day Out" or the chiming "Ten Feet Tall," but they're great songs anyway and benefit heavily from Gregory's meticulous guitar work. Andy's tunes are also engaging, but in a more brainy and complex way -- "Outside World" switches from verse to chorus so frenetically that it's hard to tell which is which, and the superhero tale "Scissor Man" is so awkwardly catchy and unique that Primus covered it twenty years later, probably just to weird out their fans (which is a hard thing to do). The closer "Complicated Game" falls into neither category, eschewing melody in favor of a buildup from a tense whisper to a scream over an orgasm of random noise over the course of five minutes -- I like it, but a lot of people don't, so don't take my word as absolute canon for once.

The only points on the album where I'm reminded of the inconsistency of early XTC are the hookless dirge "Millions," the annoyingly preachy and overlong anti-car tirade "Roads Girdle The Globe" (which has a neat riff, but not much else), and Colin's "That Is The Way," which shows what can happen when Colin's simplicity becomes retarded rather than charming (though the session trumpet playing between each verse is great). Otherwise, the skies are clear and ripe with new-wavey goodness for miles around (if I may mix several metaphors at once). Plus, once again, if you buy the CD edition you get a few awesome bonus tracks, the best of which is the cheerful "Life Begins At The Hop," Colin's first single with the band with a guitar hook that just begs you to shout out loud "Man, Dave Gregory sure is a better player than that Partridge bloke!" Make sure that Andy isn't listening first, though, or you never know what sick and twisted things he might do to you.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Making Plans For Nigel, When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty, Outside World.  LOW POINTS: Millions, That Is The Way.

This album marks one of the most critical turning points in XTC history, closely matched only by Andy Partridge's decision to quit touring, causing them to become a studio band (more on that later, of course).  After keyboardist Barry Andrews left the band, they replaced him with another guitarist in the form of Dave Gregory, whose presence adds a welcoming dimension to the songs on here.  Welcoming enough that this has become something of an early fan favorite over the years, as Drums & Wires' somewhat cold and calculated, but nevertheless intriguing, New Wave style benefits from the neat interaction of two guitarists.  I don't personally see this effort as one of their best, though - while the songs may be neat from a structural standpoint, when compared to later efforts (like the next two, for instance), I don't hear many songs that really strike me as worthy of the 'classic' tag some have put on the album.  But it's still good, if a bit uglier than usual.

Or maybe it's just due to the fact that, to me, nothing really comes that close to approaching the opening classic, the Colin Moulding-penned "Making Plans For Nigel".  I just love that main riff which sounds as if it's coming out of a beeping computer (appropriately mechanical, I must say), the melodies are absolutely first-rate, and the sarcastic lyrics are another key part of its' appealing structure.  Oh, okay, "Life Begins At The Hop" is another awesome single, too, with a great quirky riff (one of Dave Gregory's finer moments) and just as catchy hooks (especially the 'tell me what do you say...' portions), but it isn't an album track! Why it has to be stuck in the oblivious land of XTC bonus tracks is beyond me, particularly when they have such obviously weaker material like "Millions" they could replace (What's more pointless here - the annoyingly repetitive circular guitar line, or the false ending that just prolongs an already boring as hell song?). "Helicopter" is another gem too, I guess, with its' very helicopter-esque guitar interplay plus rhythm, and crazy lyrics like 'she got to be obscene to be obheard'.

The rest of the material has its' moments, but I can honestly say I'm only really impressed by a couple of the other songs all the way through, particularly the extremely catchy ska-influenced "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty", which uses a repetitive melody to good effect, and that riff after each line is awesome.  Plus, "Outside World" is such a frantic song that it's absoutely exhilirating, switching between equally excellent vocal hooks (with another great opening riff) in just over 2-1/2 minutes.  I mean, there's nothing really weak about songs such as "Ten Feet Tall", "Real By Reel" and "Day In, Day Out", as they all have interesting features (the hilariously fragmented vocal melody of the first, and the dissonant guitar ending of the last in particular), but I just don't get all that much out of them.  They're just... good, you know.  Same as most of the other stuff here.

I even don't feel that strongly about either of the two controversial songs that close the album, even though I can easily see why some people hate them. "Scissor Man", with its' 'scissor' imitating riff and odd vocal delivery, sounds funny to me, and "Complicated Game", with its' ominous plodding riff and whispering to sick yelling vocal delivery, is about the aural equvialent of seeing a horrible scary beast right before your eyes and being scarred for life.  Interesting (though neither great or awful) novelties, they are, better than the absolutely idiotic "That Is The Way" for sure - with its' back and forth 'do this, do that' repeating chorus and simplistic hook, it's an absolute low point here.  Outside the riff (which is admittedly really cool), "Roads Girdle The Globe" is also a bit lame, with Partridgeosaurus bellowing out the chorus and his anti-car lyrics.  Yikes.  Anyway, a good album here, don't get me wrong - just a bit of an overrated one within the context of XTC's catalog.

OVERALL RATING: 7

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Making Plans For Nigel, When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty, Scissor Man. LOW POINTS: Complicated Game, Millions, Roads Girdle The Globe.

XTC start to come into their own on their third album, Dave Gregory's first with the band, and their first to feature fully fleshed-out pop songs with inviting hooks. Granted, the band are still far from their artistic peak at this point. There's no luscious, Beatle-esque pop to be found here, but rather a New Wave record that's obtrusive in its mechanical sterility. At least the band are creative within this airless production, and most of the songs turn out alright. Bassist Colin Moulding proves a pushy competitor for Andy Partridge in the songwriting department, churning out all three singles this time. Moreover, his bleeping "Making Plans For Nigel" became an indisputed XTC standard. Despite the robotic feel of the song, the steady drumbeat manages to "breathe" beneath the melody, providing the hit with much of its appeal. The stomping "Life Begins At The Hop," using the same type of high-pitched vocal embellishments, is catchy in a similarily odd manner. "Ten Feet Tall" is pleasant enough, even though I don't consider it a major standout. (I tend to prefer the distorted single version).

The other highlights are the bouncy ska rave-up "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty" and "Scissor Man," the latter sporting angular melodies and some of Partridge's most arbitrary lyrics ("Just be kind and never poison people"). Most of the other songs are good, too, if not outstanding enough to put the album in classic range. I love the vibrating bass work in "Helicopter," which is, in itself, a pretty upbeat pop song. I'm also quite partial to the eerie funk feel of "That Is The Way" myself, although printing that makes me look like an ass on this site. "Day In Day Out," "Real By Reel" and "Outside World" are passable for one reason or another, but not spectacular. There are a few duds - "Millions" goes nowhere, and the dissonant "Roads Girdle The Globe" is grating after a short while. "Complicated Game" is essentially five minutes of scary noises and Partridge's vomited vocals. Typical of most XTC discs, you get a few bonus tracks on here; Drums & Wires is one of those cases where the extra songs outweigh many of the ones that made the cut ("Life Begins At The Hop," "Chain Of Command"). The album shows noticeable artistic growth in one of the greatest bands to emerge from the post punk era, so it's commendable for that. But while most of the songs are good, the production excesses take some getting used to.

OVERALL RATING: 7

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BLACK SEA (1980)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

People who don't like the spare and robotic sound of Drums & Wires usually peg this one as XTC's first good album, most likely because while D&W presented the band's new twin-guitar sound in a somewhat-lazy studio context, this one sounds live and rip-roaring almost the whole way through. In contrast to their later, more meticulous sound, XTC tried to record their early albums so they could be reproduced on stage as easily as possible, and this is the album that sounds the most like they're following that credo. The gee-tars are jagged, the bass fat, Andy and Colin are still yelping like a pair of caged sea lions, and like it totally rocks, dude.

The song probably most typical of the album's sound is the opener "Respectable Street," which has a really loud and ugly lead riff and shouted verses almost designed to pour gasoline into the fire of people who call early XTC too loud and annoying, but after a few listens it becomes totally clear that it is one of the best songs ever, and that's an objective statement of fact, dammit, I don't care what your personal opinion is, I'm reviewing the album, not you. The song got chopped up by the BBC upon its single release, since the song contains the lyrics "sex position" and "contraception," and the BBC has a reputation of censoring every mildly-offensive lyric to hit the musical market while readily showing pictures of naked hooters on television. What a silly non-American value system!

The other songs on the album usually range from "really catchy" from "really catchy in a great, ugly way," Colin's cheerful single "Generals And Majors" (which I've actually heard on the radio twice!) falling into the former category and Andy's "She's So Heavy"-ripoff "No Language In Our Lungs" (which was rather bizarrely used on Freaks And Geeks a couple years back) landing nicely in the latter. Speaking of Beatles ripoffs, "Towers Of London" sounds almost exactly like "Rain" in a few places, and I'd be inclined to dock Andy a few points if the song didn't have such a great sludgy riff, presumably played by Mr. Gregory but I have no idea about these things so don't take my word for it. At any rate, if you're looking for originality, I can pretty much guarantee that you've never heard anything like Andy's howling tirade "Living Through Another Cuba" and the herky-jerky "Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)" in your life, and the ska-ish "Burning With Optimism's Flames" crams so many lyrics into each verse (actually holding off on the chorus for about five seconds after the verse rhythm has already ended) that by the time the chorus rolls around it sounds like this cheerful explosion of some great happy big thing -- okay, so I couldn't think of a real description, so sue me.

To sum things up succinctly, this is easily the strongest album of XTC's early period and definitely the one to plop down your hard-earned Buckazoids for if you've indebted yourself to only owning one that isn't Skylarking, and it's crazy consistent too, excepting little half-songs like "Love At First Sight" and lyrically-awkward boy-wants-girl anthems like "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" (which is pretty good anyway, though Andy seems to hate it in retrospect).  Plus, the marching closer "Travels In Nihilon" has got to be one of the most killer songs they've ever done, with a great, thwacking drum sound thanks to the combined efforts of "Coolest Producer Ever" Steve Lillywhite and drummer Terry Chambers (whom I've forgot to mention up to this point -- sorry, Terry, you rock!) -- also, I think that Andy purposefully pronounces the title "Ni-holy-on" as some kind of early stab at organized religion, but I can't tell if that's the case or if it's just a quirk of Andy's weird-ass voice. Not much to report on the bonus track front this time around, though "The Somnabulist" is a neat little humming ambient number that Andy supposedly wrote, recorded and mixed in an hour and a half, and it sounds like it, too, not that that's an insult to the song or anything.

OVERALL RATING: 9

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Respectable Street, Generals And Majors, Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me). LOW POINTS: None.

The live-sounding early masterpiece, that's how this one mostly gets pegged.  For a band that's mostly been relegated to the studio their whole career, Black Sea is a bit of an unusual entry in their catalog.  Of course, this isn't meant in a bad way, as it really rocks in a great, direct poppy fashion, with a more energetic live sound than most of anything else they've recorded.  The songwriting is also generally at an impressive and often consistent level throughout, with a nice combination of energy and hooks to go along with that quirky lyrical and melodical approach, which are still in abudance to let you know this will hardly be confused with a Ramones album any time soon - Andy Partridge probably couldn't even write songs like that even if he tried, the very odd guy that he is.

An odd guy he might be, but Partridge really does know how to churn out classic songs every once in awhile, and this is immediately apparent in perhaps the best track here, the opening "Respectable Street", which has an underproduced piano melody leading into a really loud and deceptively 'ugly' anthemic song that musically just pounds its' way into your head, and melodically stays there.  Excellent refrain and unique lyrics as well.  "Living Through Another Cuba" is perhaps another song that only he could write, with a really bizarre hookline running through it ('living through another Cuuuuu... BA!!!!'), and that aspect of the song, along with its' fantastic bassline, make it another winner.  Heck, even unabashedly dumb poppy fare like "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" is entertaining as hell, with an extremely fun little chanting refrain (to go along with kazoo!)

Colin Moulding contributes two songs this time, and one of them is a highlight here.  "Generals And Majors" is a fine putdown of the military life, and it boasts one of the absolute best melodies of the entire album, with whistling that just makes it icing on the cake of a great pop song.  The really bouncy "Love At First Sight" isn't quite as spectacular, but it really gets under your skin due to its' pace and fun little chorus.  And speaking of fun pace, "Burning With Optimism's Flames" has really weird ska-sounding verses with a ton of lyrics crammed into the main melody (which is quite worthy) in the verses before making its' way into the fast, simply glorious pop chorus, and on the more hard-hitting side, "Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)" has quite an awesome pounding rhythm in its' refrain portions (though the verses don't quite live up to the rest of it, even if they are good).

As for the rest of the album, well, none of it is exactly bad, but I don't really get all that much out of the slower numbers "No Language In Our Lungs" and "Travels In Nihilon", both of which have good choruses, and the latter has an especially cool drum sound like Rich mentioned, but both also drag a bit longer than I want them to.  Then there's the other two tracks "Towers Of London" and "Rocket From A Bottle", both of which are quite good - the former is really solid guitar rock with effective shifts in the melody, and the latter, while a bit lacking in the verses melodically, has a catchy chorus, and the more aggressive, rhythmic tone of that part of the song finds a way to match its' title.  So in all, a very solid early XTC album that might be good to check out of if you've had your fill of the shiny pop albums like Skylarking or Nonsuch.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Respectable Street, Living Through Another Cuba, Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me), Generals And Majors. LOW POINTS: None.

Now THIS is more like it! For starters, I want to say that Steve Lillywhite did a helluva job producing this album. It's truly one of the very best sounding records I've ever heard - raw and loud, yet clear and professional at the same time. The tunes all come out bright and poppy in the mix, but this also has a lot to do with clever arrangements that combine ragged rhythm guitars with buzzing keyboards, and top-notch performances by the whole band. Drummer Terry Chambers is especially creative; by a more average skin-beater, a song like "Rocket From A Bottle" might have turned out rather ordinary. But not on here, as Chambers eschews a standard hi-hat beat to use his tom-toms for a more muscular approach (this, along with that relentlessly tapping keyboard line, delivers the song from mediocrity). "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" is better, with Chambers moving fluently from toms to open hi-hat during the verses, providing the song with the bouncing pulse that makes it so great.

But all of that technical jargon aside, it's really just the songs that make this album. "Respectable Street" travels seamlessly from the ugly stomp of the chorus into the smooth, boppy verses, and it's one of the greatest songs the group ever recorded. The chiming "Generals And Majors" is undeniably catchy, especially during the whistling before the chorus. (Although I admit that the lyrics are pretty stupid - the song accuses military leaders of being war mongers, but they are usually the LAST people to want a war, because they are the ones who will have to FIGHT it!) Then there's "Living Through Another Cuba," a fierce reggae romp that combines Partridge's shouted verses with some dynamic instrumental breaks, and it's a personal favorite. Moulding's "Love At First Sight" may amount to little more than the same head-bobbing riff repeated over and over, but it's infectious for that exact guilty reason.

I've mentioned all the best songs, but the fun is far from over. The thematic "Towers Of London" is pleasant rock n' roll with the sound of hammer pounding steele to enhance the drumbeat. "Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)" offers a fittingly aggressive soundscape for Partridge's excellent lyrics about the plight of underpaid factory workers: "I know I'm worth much more but The Church says 'turn the other cheek'." Personally, I've never been that crazy about "No Language In Our Lungs" or "Travels In Nihilon," but at least the former has some cool, spastic rhythm guitar work and the latter creates a tense, dark atmosphere. One of the greatest albums of the New Wave Period, Black Sea is consistently catchy, hard rocking and incredible sounding from start to finish. Although there are '80s production values to be heard, this all sounds really timeless.

OVERALL RATING: 9

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COMMENTS

defab4@earthlink.net (J DEFABIO)

There are really really good songs on here (like "Respectable Street," which may be the greatest song they ever did) but there's too much filler! The bonus tracks (right in the middle!!!) aren't very good, and there's way too much annoying happy stuff like "Rocket From A Bottle" and "Burning With Optimism's Flames." I LIKE "Sgt. Rock" a lot though! Maybe the lyrics are kinda stupid, but its bounciness gets a chuckle out of me whenever I hear it. The kazoo-like guitar in the chorus is just hilarious! "Travels In Nihilon" isn't a very good song, but it has really really great scary drums and that's all that matters. I'll give this one a seven.


ENGLISH SETTLEMENT (1982)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

Months upon months of continuous touring for the Black Sea album were taking their toll upon Partridge's psyche, so for the followup album he vowed to spend more time exploring the studio space to perfect his craft away from the stage. For almost any given artist, such a statement means one thing: double album (unless you're the Clash, in which case it means "triple album of repetitive and soundalike dub and reggae"), and that's what the band ended up delivering to the unhappy folks at Virgin Records. Not only was the album a bloated-for-the-time fifteen songs and seventy minutes long, the catchy nervy vibe set forth on the previous offerings was almost completely thrown out the window in favor of a lighter, more uniformly-acoustic vibe (almost the entire album is performed on acoustic guitar and fretless bass). To top it all off, the band made the inexcusable marketing error of naming the album "English Settlement" and then actually adorning the album cover with a primitive picture of the Uffington Horse, a land-marker from an actual English settlement, instead of cutesy pictures of pilgrims and turkeys like the record execs actually wanted because marketability is greater than authenticity.

None of these factors mattered anyway because the album managed to net XTC their first and only British Top Ten hit with "Senses Working Overtime," a really bizarre song that moves from tense finger-picking verses to an open-sounding and jovial chorus - it wouldn't be my first pick in the band's catalogue for "the hit," but apparently that's how it's treated over in Angleland so I won't argue. The other songs on the album pretty much follow the aforementioned acoustic vibe (with a few exceptions like the bizarre "not my baby!" rocker "No Thugs In Our House" with a repeated rebel yell from Partridge, and the indescribably awful, lumbering "Leisure," possibly XTC's all-time worst track), and most of them are right purty even if a lot of the time you'll be wishing for something more substantial along the lines of a "Generals And Majors" or something along those lines. Still, there's a certain simple charm to be found in tunes like Andy's miniature acoustic shuffle "Yacht Dance" and the six-minute Police-tinged social-commentary epic "Jason and the Argonauts," and Colin's still cranking out the gleefully-repetitive charmers with the album's opening chant "Runaways" and the almost offensively-simplistic but catchy as hell "Ball and Chain."

Still, the album has a bit too many flaws to justify its nearly-eternal status as a fan favorite. Firstly is the obvious complaint: it's too damn long. I'm all for artistic ambition, but when an XTC album is padded to seventy minutes because Andy decided that a song like "Melt The Guns" deserved two minutes of metronomic squawking and gurgling tacked onto the end of the song, you can't help but wonder if the album would've been better with a bit of trimming. More annoyingly, the production by Hugh Paghdam is flat and unconvincing -- with an album that's supposed to convey a chimey acoustic sound, the instruments are supposed to blend together, pal. The album sounds alright, but there's always the nagging thought sitting in the background that it could've been so much more, if only, oh, say, STEVE LILLYWHITE or somebody had produced it. Still, in spite of all of its glaring flaws, overreaching ambition and overall inconsistency, the album has lots of great songs, and the closer "Snowman" in addition to an absolutely fantastic melody contains what could be Andy's best-ever lyric, "People will always be tempted to wipe their feet on anything with 'welcome' written on it." Almost prophetic, in a way, considering the events that would transpire after the album's release.

OVERALL RATING: 7

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Senses Working Overtime, Runaways, Snowman, No Thugs In Our House, Fly On The Wall.  LOW POINTS: Leisure, Melt The Guns.

After recording perhaps their most live-sounding record in Black Sea, the band made a bit of a left turn into a more studio-friendly territory, a not so surprising move in retrospect, given that they would become a studio band for good with the very next album.  So in a way, this is pretty much the 'transitional record' in XTC's history, with a few songs containing elements of the last album (particularly during its' straightforward rocking passages) and several others being dominated by acoustic guitar as well as occasional studio layerings.  Oh, and there's one more important detail about this effort - at 72 minutes long, English Settlement is a double album, and in places, an obviously padded one at that.  And given their common inconsistencies in the studio, a record where many of the songs are expanded beyond what they'd normally be on a single album, this does have the potential to be a bit of a mess.

And it is a mess, to an extent, as probably four or five songs on this album could have easily been cut off and I wouldn't have missed them, especially the black hole of death here that is the track 8 to 11 stretch.  "Melt The Guns"?  An extremely weird and rambling, overlong sort of funk-ish rant with a totally dumb melody and pointless vocal noises.  "Leisure"?  An awful 5 minute constantly plodding monster with that hysterically bad yell of the song's title at the beginning that stands as one of their worst songs.  "It's Nearly Africa"?  A totally dumb, yet still strangely endearing and catchy attempt at worldbeat rhythms or something like that (mostly redeemed by those hilarious chants - 'SHAKE YOUR BAG OF BONES' indeed!). "Knuckle Down"? Just a weird and mostly unmemorable, but listenable, unconventional music hall song.  And "Down In The Cockpit"?  A potentially really good bouncy pop tune that makes the mistake of not knowing when to stop repeating itself.

However, that's it for the okay to bad filler on here, because the other 10 songs are generally really good - cut out the weak ones and you've got... a great 40-45 minute album which accounts for the relatively high rating. Imagine that!  Even the more understated songs like the charming, pleasant acoustic tune "Yacht Dance" (which emphasizes that aspect of the album effectively), the groovy hook-filled pleasure of "All Of A Sudden (It's Too Late)", plus the pleasurable Moulding numbers in the addictive singalong "English Roundabout" and the extremely simple but totally entertaining pop rocker "Ball And Chain" work well - that last one in particular really gets under your skin with its' repetitive melody and wonderful keyboard break!  And although the 6 minute "Jason And The Argonauts" could have been cut down a couple minutes (mostly those repetitive ambient sort of sections), otherwise it's an absolutely wonderful blend of majestic, fast paced melody, Black Sea-esque rock (the 'I have watched the animals go by...' portion) and quiet, epic guitar buildups.  Nice.

But hey, those aren't even the highlights.  The top one in my humble opinion also happens to be the band's biggest UK hit ever in the total classic "Senses Working Overtime".  Damn, does this song ever have a great buildup - not many bands could make these kind of odd quiet guitar verses cohere with a bursting anthemic chorus (with the classic line 'and all the world is football shaped...' thrown in between).  Just insanely catchy all the way through, with a clever lyrical slant. Definitely one of my favorite XTC songs.  In addition, besides "Ball And Chain", Moulding also counters Partridge by contributing the second best song on here in the moodiest and most downbeat tune on the album in the opening "Runaways" - great atmospheric chorus, bass work, pessimistic lyrics and highly captivating chanting melodies.  "Fly On The Wall" is another fine highlight from him as well - a really neat and exciting fast rocker with distorted vocals and noises being the feature here to convey the title, with a total Bananarama-esque melody thrown in for good measure right before the chorus.

Finally, two of the more out there highs come in the "Sgt. Rock"-styled "No Thugs In Our House", with an 'our boy would never do something like that!' lyrical theme, and it also boasts one of the most entertaining choruses of the whole album, with hilarious growls from Partridge right at the end there.  Then there's the closing "Snowman", which honestly has one of the most insanely unconventional, yet still infectious, verse hooks I've ever heard, coupled with a kickass bassline and some of the most excellent lyrics on the whole album.  In short, it's good.  While English Settlement is only slightly weaker than the last one as a whole, I believe with a little bit of editing this could have been the early period masterpiece of their catalog by a good margin, but hey, even weirdos like XTC should be allowed to display sprawling ambition every once in awhile too.  The result in that is something a bit inconsistent, but worthwhile all the same.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Down In The Cockpit, No Thugs In Our House, Senses Working Overtime, Jason And The Argonauts, Yacht Dance, All Of A Sudden (It's Too Late). LOW POINTS: None.

A transitional record that foreshadowed XTC's permanent move to studio-only status. And it's a sprawling epic at that, offering a rich palette of stylistic diversity. And it's brilliant in my opinion. The mood is toned down several notches from the band's previous work, with most of the songs performed on acoustic guitar. But the melodies were the most beautiful that the band had come up with yet, and the songwriting was strikingly consistent for an LP this bloated (well, a double LP, to be precise). The British hit-single "Senses Working Overtime" displays the reflective, acoustic mood of the album during the verses, then builds up into a very catchy, sing-along chorus: "And I've got/One, two, three, four, five/Senses working oohhh-verrr-time!" Personally, I would like the song better if it were a little ballsier; but, I confess that, if I tried to cover it in a band, I wouldn't know exactly how to go about doing this (maybe add some electric guitar and a 4/4 beat to later verses?). So, I won't complain - it really is a fine representative track for this record.

There's also shuffling reggae ("Knuckle Down," "English Roundabout"), reverberant synth pop ("Fly On The Wall"), thumping hard rock (the rip-roaring "No Thugs In Our House") and a grand, multi-part opus ("Jason And The Argonauts") to be found here. All of these songs are good, especially the last two. "It's Nearly Africa" successfully delves into hypnotic worldbeat rhythms and chants. Other highlights include the relaxing ballad "Yacht Dance" (it really creates a tropical atmosphere), the somber, pessimistic "All Of A Sudden (It's Too Late)" and the infectiously repetitive ska of "Down In The Cockpit." Despite what Nick says, the latter is one of my all-time favorite XTC songs. Moulding's "Runaways," with its boomy bass and shivering synths, is a perfectly nervous opener. Most fans boycott "Melt The Guns"; it is one of the weakest tracks on here, but I don't mind it at all. The pulsating rim-shot beat is nice, the hiccupped vocals at the beginning are a nice touch, and the chorus is funky. "Leisure" isn't that good, but nor do I hate it.

When it comes to this album, I would say I'm in closer agreement with George Starostin than with Nick or Rich. For the most part, all of this experimentation is triumphant, and I don't want to see any of this material cut. The album is extremely long, and a little hard to digest completely - but what a treat it is once you DO get into it! Richly layered, diverse and streaming with gorgeous melodies, English Settlement is a keeper.

OVERALL RATING: 9

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MUMMER (1983)

(Rich Bunell's review)

XTC's career seemingly came to a sudden halt when the pressures of touring became too much for Partridge and he ran offstage in the middle of a live performance in Paris, overcome by stage fright. At that point he decided that the band would never tour again, and he's held that promise to this day, with the exception of a couple of television performances (usually with Colin at the mic). The record company was understandably pissed that the frontman for one of their at-the-time most promising bands had wigged out right at the beginning of an expensive international tour, and apparently so was Terry Chambers, who left the band in a huff almost immediately upon the tour's cancellation. In spite of all of this turmoil, Andy was determined to continue the band in the studio and, in a paranoid and nearly-collapsed mental state (he was literally afraid to step outside of his house), managed to throw together some material back in his hometown of Swindon for another studio album. It's hard to imagine that both Virgin Records and the majority of the band managed to gather the strength to put up with all of this crap to the point of remaining with Andy for another full album, but they did, and their decision pretty much shaped the remainder of XTC's career path .

With more studio time and less pressure, you'd think that the resulting album would be an intricate and multi-layered work, but I don't think such adjectives even existed in 1983 (for whatever reason, recording techniques pretty much went to crap in the early '80s despite the vibrant and clear production found on many '70s recordings), so the album unfortunately just comes off as transitional and middling for the most part. Out of ten songs, I count three classics, and I'm not even sure how widely they're considered classics - Andy's "Love On A Farmboy's Wages" is a thoroughly charming and captivating folk ballad with a clean and shiny acoustic hook to sink your teeth into, Colin's "Deliver Us From The Elements" rides a murky buildup to near musical and sonic perfection (check out that chanting in the background), and the abrasive and catchy closer "Funk Pop A Roll" takes such rude and open swipes at the record industry ("Everything you eat is waste, but swallowing is easy if it has no taste") that Andy even yells "BYE BYE!" in the outro, since he was apparently literally convinced that he'd never be allowed into the recording studio again after completing the song.

Everything else on the album just kind of floats by, particularly when the album hits its tiring second half, which is barely worth mentioning. Most of the album is hindered by production even more slight and flat than that of English Settlement - the world-beat-influenced opener "Beating Of Hearts" for one would sound spectacular were it given a full wall-of-drums treatment, but the thin arrangement as actually delivered opens the album pretty damn unconvincingly. Both "Great Fire" and "Wonderland" were released as singles, and I really can't understand why - the former attempts to capture some of the earlier XTC fire but forgets the fact that the band's earlier jagged guitar energy was usually backed up by solid song structures and actual hooks, and the latter is so synth-mushy that it sounds like a limp Wham! ballad, if I may attribute a song based on synths to any random '80s synth band that doesn't actually sound like the song in question. Like most XTC albums, this one's worth getting as an oddity in their catalogue as it perfectly displays the band getting their feet wet in the "studio band" pool, but musically there's not a lot to get all giddy over - the album's at least a bit above average on the strength of the really fantastic songs mentioned above, but it's definitely one of their lesser efforts.

OVERALL RATING: 6

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Deliver Us From The Elements, Funk Pop A Roll.  LOW POINTS: Human Alchemy, Wonderland.

It seemed on the sprawling English Settlement that XTC were heading into a slightly more studio-based direction, but it was the following year where they truly started to dive head first into that realm, brought on exclusively by Andy Partridge's stage fright and the ending of the band as a live outfit pretty much for good.  Unlike one of their huge influences The Beatles, though, XTC's phase as studio wizards didn't get off to a great start - I realize this was an undoubtedly chaotic time for the band, but the material here just sounds so underwritten and thrown together.  It does have potential, as there are some very good ideas and hooks scattered about, as well as a couple great full songs, but... ehh.  Plus, the production is kind of weak as well, with an overall unassuming, flat sound that really doesn't benefit the songs at all.  Consult the next two albums to hear them really getting the hang of the 'studio only' thing.

The songs?  Well, the first half is at least more or less good, but problems can be seen even here.  Like that Colin Moulding ballad "Wonderland" - a completely lifeless mush of bland, dated synth-laden production and an average melody.  Or the opening "Beating Of Hearts", which is occasionally haunting (check out the dark keyboard note that underpins the 'louder than bombers in fliiiiight...' line), but more often than not a little repetitive and lethargic despite its' neat chiming worldbeat atmosphere.  "Great Fire" also lacks the conviction and power its' sweeping chorus especially deserves, though that one's still a very good pop tune, at least, with a cool vocal reverb fadeout.  On a somewhat more positive note, "Love On A Farmboy's Wages" is really addictive acoustic folk pop that's just as catchy as similar attempts on the last album, and Moulding's "Deliver Us From The Elements" somehow convincingly goes from odd groove to damn near epic 'wall of choir singing' chorus, and it's my favorite on here.

Once we get to the second half, though, the album takes a turn for the worse with the unbearably dreary and slow reggae/choir/booming-drum laden "Human Alchemy" that seems to drag on forever.  It gets especially horrid when Partridge just grooooans out the chorus.  God, what a horrendous pile of shit, and the preachy lyrics don't help either.  The rest is thankfully not that bad, but I don't think anyone can mistake the unconvincing, jazzy "Ladybird", the awkwardly arranged "Me And The Wind" or the just okay British flavored patriotic tribute "In Loving Memory Of A Name" for XTC classics.  I can thankfully put that 'classic' label on the record industry bashing closer "Funk Pop A Roll", though - they've got their energy back, and the spot-on scathing lyrics are sung over a great melody to boot!  Certainly salvages things somewhat for me, but still, I think Mummer sticks out as the definite weak spot on an otherwise strong decade for the band.....

But wait... don't go yet - the bonus tracks on here are great!  Well, not all of them ("Frost Circus" and "Procession Towards Leaning Land" are merely okay excursions into ambient and noisemaking territory), but "Jump" and "Toys"?  Those are fantastically catchy pop songs that easily blow away most of the album!  How in the world could they be discarded in favor of, umm, almost the whole second half?  The latter in particular has such charmingly melodic hooks in contrast with a 'toy store from hell' lyrical angle.  Plus, "Gold" is an incredibly entertaining marching ditty, and the upbeat, pure singalong goodness of "Desert Island" is no slouch either.  Maybe they didn't want too many uptempo tracks on here?  I'll go as far to say this - if they threw out the weakest stuff on the original album, replaced them with the best of the bonuses, and resequenced the whole package, I might have even been able to give this a weak 8, and if I actually counted the bonuses as part of the rating, this would be a 7.  I guess this album best exemplifies the cliched phrase 'a good chance wasted'.  Sigh.

OVERALL RATING: 6

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Funk Pop A Roll, Love On A Farmboy's Wages, Beating Of Hearts, In Loving Memory Of A Name. LOW POINTS: Human Alchemy.

On which Andy Partridge had succumbed to a nervous breakdown on stage, and his band quits touring for good. Yatta-yatta-yatta, every fan knows the story. Anyway, Mummer is a very natural progression (regression?) from English Settlement, with more pastoral pop, and containing even more studio meddling, such as odd synth noises and complex orchestration. The album is also typical of a transitional work, sounding rather uneven, with several songs coming off unfinished. Sadly, Mummer lacks the grand, unified sweep and endless sea of hooks that the last record has. Nevertheless, I find it quite enjoyable myself, and it tends to be a little underrated by most fans. So, if I may attempt to summarize my train of thoughts, the band's first try as studio hermits is short on focus, but the record tosses around enough good ideas to keep it interesting. Just hear Mummer as a composite of IDEAS, and not SONGS, and it's okay.

For as bad of a rap as this album gets, side one is pretty solid. You know the band are going to be creative from the beginning, when things start off with the thudding worldbeat of "Beating Of Hearts"; very absorbing, and a favorite of mine here. "Love On A Farmboy's Wages" makes for pretty folk pop detailing a humble man's quest for love (a reoccurring XTC lyrical theme), and it's a definite strong spot. "Great Fire" has some leering violins and a nicely bouncing chorus, and "Deliver Us From The Elements" creates a chilling wall of sound with its obvious goth ambitions. I admit that Colin Moulding's lethargic "Wonderland" isn't that accessible, but I find it pleasant. The second half isn't as good, although there are two strong cuts here. Even though it doesn't represent the collective work at all, "Funk Pop A Roll" is easily the best song on the proper album - catchy, upbeat, jangly pop in classic XTC form, and enhanced by a furious rant against the music industry. "In Loving Memory Of A Name" is another personal fave, an endearing, piano-based piece of Brit Pop that pays tribute to legions of British soldiers who have died for superficial, patriotic causes. Extremely touching, even though I seem to be the only XTC nut who speaks highly of it. Apart from those, the rest of side two (the jazzy "Ladybird," the indescribably awful "Human Alchemy") isn't that good, although I find the bouncy "Me And The Wind" to be attractive in its own moody way. As a warning, even though I like almost every song on this album, I enjoy several of them for modest reasons, and absolutely NOTHING on here (except for "Funk Pop A Roll") touches any of the highlights from the last two records. The album is good, but don't take my praise too seriously.

Of all the XTC discs on the market, this one is the most worthy of mention for its appended bonus tracks. "Toys" is one of my most favorite XTC songs ever - that honky tonk piano groove of the verses, that catchy chorus, those twisted lyrics about toys killing each other "in a dolly concentration camp" . . . incredible. The delicate "Jump" is just beautiful too; "Gold" and "Desert Island" are no slouches either. I could do without the two instrumentals, tho'. In my opinion, the old Virgin Records issue of this is the one to have, as the album's flow is strengthened a bit with the bonus tracks in the middle, and not at the end (the case with the new Caroline reissue).

OVERALL RATING: 7

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THE BIG EXPRESS (1984)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

There's some debate over exactly where the "line of demarcation" should be drawn when separating XTC into their "early period" and "late period" - some people consider it to be when they stopped touring, others consider it to be when they went all poppy and sleek with Skylarking, and the clinical mathematical nuts in the crowd just divide their entire career in half with a ruler, which doesn't really work since the band was kind of inactive between '92 and '99. Personally I think that it's more accurate to draw the line smack-dab across the path of this here album, since it represents the band's first true step into being an all-out no-questions-asked "studio band." Sure, the songs on Mummer were composed in the studio, but "Me And The Wind" and "Human Alchemy" could've been performed on stage without much trouble (whether or not the audience would've stayed for the entire performance would be a different question entirely). A lot of this stuff is strictly studio-only -- if the X-dudes had tried to reproduce the clanking twin-guitar intro and one-woman angelic choir of the opener "Wake Up" on stage, something would've exploded, be it the synthesizers from sheer overload or Colin Moulding's monkey-faced head for laying out too many mad rhymes.

The album musically is....well.....a mess, quite frankly, Mr. Shankly. It sounds kind of like what Black Sea would have sounded like if it were made by a bunch of uber-insane studio wizards, in other words, a look back on the band's noisy pre-English Settlement days, just with more weird crap like choirs and huge-ass loudly-mixed arena rock drums poured all over all of the songs. The really nifty thing and a testament to the bandmembers' talent is that a lot of the time the claustrophobic weirdness actually works -- check out "Seagulls Screaming (Kiss Her Kiss Her)," man, I wish I'd written that song. The keyboard part is insanely simple, the vocals are muffled so heavily that the lyrics can barely be heard, and there's this really awkward-sounding horn section splattered all over the sucker, but it just all comes together into pure foggy dreary goodness. The same goes for "You're The Wish You Are I Had," which in addition to containing horrendous grammar also continuously shifts between awkward verses and a chorus worthy of Macca, and the bouncy "The Everyday Story Of A Smalltown," which benefits from, of all things, an anthemic kazoo intro that just rules way too much for me to attempt to describe like a good music critic would.

This isn't to say that the album is a big messy out-of-control monster ready to storm over unsuspecting listeners much like the train in the liner notes (though the cleverly-constructed free-range closer "Train Running Low On Soul Coal" doesn't do much to help this argument). It isn't like the album is just a load of maze-like half-songs destined only to reach the ears of marginal pseudo-crackheads like myself; melodically most of the songs are quite strong, and the album's quieter material easily rivals the best moments on English Settlement in sheer quality. Colin's gorgeous "I Remember The Sun" for one is the most Steely Dan-ish song in the XTC catalogue, a title which is intended in the most positive way possible (I'm a Dan fan, Stan), and Andy exhales two fantastic singles in the bouncy ultra-melodic sea shanty "All You Pretty Girls"("do something for meeeeeeeeee, boooooooooooys...."--Crash Test Dummies, eat your hearts out and bow down to the true masters, you silly wannabes) and "This World Over," which is one of the most moving anti-war songs you'll ever hear assuming you've gotten used to the Part-man's voice by this point. Nuclear nightmare songs may have been trite in the '80s, but there's just something about lyrics like "Would you sing about the missiles, as you dry odd-numbered limbs?" that hits me in just the right place -- very moving, and I'm not being sarcastic for once.

This used to be my favorite XTC album, mostly because I'd built it up so heavily in my mind before buying it since I already loved "Wake Up" and "This World Over" so much, but I've come to my senses since then and accepted that it's a bit of a flawed and almost insanely transitional album. The bandmembers would soon realize that exploring the studio space didn't mean using every piece of equipment in the studio on every single track, and this album, their lone one-album experiment before reaching such a conclusion, is the one remaining document from this uneasy era. The reason they look all messy in the liner notes isn't actually because they're trying to look like railroad engineers, it's because all of their studio equipment exploded all over them, and as for the clothes, well, that's just how those silly British people dress. There's a lot of honest-to-god entertainment to be found on here, excepting moronic stompers like "Reign Of Blows (Vote No To Violence!)" and the really crappy bonus tracks that pollute the center of the CD edition, and I think it costs like six dollars so really, you have nothing to lose, stingypants.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Wake Up, This World Over, I Remember The Sun, Train Running Low On Soul Coal, You're The Wish You Are I Had.  LOW POINTS: Reign Of Blows, I Bought Myself A Liarbird.

XTC makes their dreaded transitional record a concept album about trains. Yeeeehaw!  At least this is what the pictures in the liner notes might suggest, but in reality, it's just an interesting pop album with all sorts of unrelated but quite cohesive ideas.  Be warned, though: this is one of those albums where several songs can sound very ugly and annoying at first, simply because The Big Express is, in nature, quite a messy album, cluttured with nuances in the sound and vocalists who aren't exactly the smoothest singers in the business.  But the sound, though it does have its' pop influences, also produces several moments I've never heard anything quite like before.  Plus a lot of these lyrics and especially song titles are just out there, but that's for later in this review.  So yeah, this is quite a weird (though slightly inconsistent) album.

OK, before this starts to sounds like the end of the review, there are a lot of cool things to be said about the individual songs here.  The first side in particular is very top-notch, with Colin Moulding's opening song "Wake Up" being astounding beyond words.  It has two different chugging guitar riffs going at the same time, an extremely addictive vocal melody ('WHO CARES... you might be dead, etc.'), and gorgeous choir-like touches for contrast, especially toward the end, which sends the song into utter bliss.  "All You Pretty Girls" is a fantastic pop song in its' own right, though, as its' opening melody ('do something for me, boys...') is an upliftingly awesome way to start the tune, and the way it turns into a fabulously loud and bouncy number gets a big thumbs up from me.

Then there's the most interesting diversion of the album, the hilarious country/western number "Shake You Donkey Up" (see what I mean about the weird titles?), which there is nothing else quite like in my music collection.  It sounds extremely stupid at first (with its' 'she really shake you donkey up, quite a packet' chorus), but more than any song on the album, it does grab hold of you, and it's infectiousness and totally unique qualities make it work. "Seagulls Screaming (Kiss Her Kiss Her)" is equally bizarre and catchy, with an incessantly repetitive carnival-like keyboard part driving it for a fine effect (though I sometimes have to be in the right mood for it).  And to close the first side on another totally brilliant note is the 'aftermath of a nuclear war' song "This World Over", which has a haunting sparse arrangement with a captivating bassline, great condeming lyrics and an uplifting melody.  Excellent stuff.

Unfortunately, the second half of the album (not including those pointless bonus tracks!) lets things down somewhat, but even that has its' share of brilliant moments.  More than anything, though, it's a bit patchy in quality.  Sure, there's fun little ditties like the very upbeat, Kinks-ish "The Everyday Story Of Smalltown" (which has appropriate kazoo breaks and all), but there's also the two most iffy numbers on the album here in the somewhat annoyingly quirky "I Bought Myself A Liarbird" (whose shifts don't quite work for me, even if they are catchy) and the really loud and unpleasant "Reign Of Blows", which emphasizes the rhythm and cluttered aspect of the sound over actual melody.

But thankfully, the last three songs end things on a somewhat interesting note.  A hilarious song with yet another messed up title, "You're The Wish You Are I Had" is one of the most melodically unforgettable tunes (which says something), and the 'wish, wish, wish, wish, for you' chant is great!  There is also Colin Moulding's second tune "I Remember The Sun", which is fantastic jazzy piano pop - even though the bridge is slightly distracting, the rest of the song has such a charming melody I can never resist it.  The most conceptually accurate song, the closing "Train Running Low On Soul Coal", is also a blast - its' intro and pace emulates a moving train in such an amusing way (especially the 'train running low... train running low... whooo! whooo!' portion at the end), with both of its' vocal melodies being top notch.  Wow, interesting album we have here - despite a potentially ugly first impression, this one is capable of really growing on you, with only the two weaker tracks keeping it from a 9.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Wake Up, You're The Wish You Are I Had, I Remember The Sun, All You Pretty Girls. LOW POINTS: Shake Your Donkey Up, I Bought Myself A Liarbird.

This can definitely be one of XTC's more rewarding albums if you give it enough chances. However, it has some problems, and a fair portion of fans don't seem to like it very much. Whereas the last two records had the band leaning in a mellower direction, this one finalizes their shift to studio-bound wizardry. But the boys go a little nuts, using what seems to be every tool at their disposal, and several of these arrangements are gaudy and excessive. Worsening matters is the mediocre production - a cold, flat sound quality and dated, mechanical drums permeate these recordings. So, then, why such a high rating? A few things. First, beneath this cluttered mess, the songwriting is still good, issuing a plethora of nice melodies. Second, much of the experimentation on here serves to make these songs more interesting (for the most part). Lastly, I need to clarify that, while The Big Express continues the band's growing expertise in the studio, that doesn't mean that these songs are so laid-back like the ones on the previous LPs; no, the band are rocking a bit harder on here, and they sound all the more refreshed for it.

Kicking things off is Moulding's "Wake Up," and it's the best of the lot. Those dissonant, dueling guitar riffs at the beginning, the menacing chorus, and that intense coda (featuring the ominous female vocal, "Waaaaake Uuuuuup," repeated into virtual oblivion) mold one unforgettable classic. Next is "All You Pretty Girls," a very infectious sea shanty - I love the way the intro reprises for the bridge ("Do something for meeeee, boooooyyy!"); absolutely climactic. "Seagulls Screaming (Kiss Her Kiss Her)" is the quintessential "studio excess = interesting" track on here. The dark, withdrawn feel of the music boosts the lyrics about repressed lust, and those odd touches like the circus organ rhythm, booming bass and frantic horns really make the song for me; practically as good as the other "high points," although a bit TOO eccentric to stand with those songs. I don't get terribly excited about "This World Over" (as many fans do), which just sounds like a sleepy reggae ballad to me. But the lyrics are quite affecting, so it's no "low point." The country-tinged "Shake Your Donkey Up" is, though, being just entirely too noisy to fall together.

Side two contains more cool surprises, most notably the double-slam of "You're The Wish You Are I Had" and "I Remember The Sun." The former vibrates during the verses, boasting some unique piano playing, then bounces through a VERY catchy refrain with unique vocal work. A strange ballad, but nonetheless beautiful. The latter is a waltzing jazz ballad, and most impressive musically. "The Everyday Story Of A Smalltown" does a nice job at aping The Kinks; but not surprisingly, they throw in a kazoo. The rest isn't as memorable, but not bad. The crunchy "Reign Of Blows" is stupid, head-banging fun; "Train Running Low On Soul Coal" is almost an over-cluttered disaster, but it passes because the music successfully sounds like a train wrecking ("Train runnin' low on soul coal/WHHHEEEEEWWW!!! WHHHEEEEEWWW!!!"). "I Bought Myself A Liarbird" is badly structured, and another low, although the chorus kicks up some steam with thunderous arena rock drums. Thing is, even the weakest tracks on here possess some mildly fascinating quirk, and I don't necessarily hate even those songs. Despite the excessive nature of this record, TBE remains sonically rich and hugely entertaining, and it's one of XTC's more accomplished outings. It just takes some breaking in.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5

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SKYLARKING (1986)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

This is it -- the silver tuna, the big kahuna, the sacred cow, and how -- the one that makes all of the critics' "best of" lists, the one where a band that had previously showed mild amounts of promise suddenly bloomed into a poppy perfection-making machine, all of this and more, just plop down your $10 and a slab of wonder will be inserted directly into your soul in compact disc form and thereupon your life will be reaffirmed--all of this and more. This album has proven to be XTC's most consistently-heralded collection, and for a number of reasons -- first, it was the band's first mild commercial success Stateside, secondly, it was the band's first and only conceptual album, and third, the producer was none other than glossy balladeer extraordinaire Todd "Hello It's Me" Rundgren. And in case you were wondering, yes, the incomparable Mr. Partridge clashed with him in the studio, a lot, even to the point of pissing off the other bandmembers (Colin even came close to leaving the band after shouting in Andy's face "You can stick this bass up your ass. I'm off!") -- some people just aren't very agreeable individuals.

Apparently Todd won out in the end, since the album is Rundgren all the way -- most of the songs that he chose from the crop sent to him for his seal of approval were the ballads and folksier numbers, and they're all meticulously-arranged in a carefully-constructed song cycle and given the all-out glossy '80s treatment. The album is meant to mirror the passing of a day; Todd apparently even had a cheesy name thought up for the concept called "Day Passes" where the cover would've been a hand holding a pair of day passes so everyone could bask in the hilarity of the double meaning and peace would break out between the nations of the Cold War-infested world. Though Andy apparently wasn't very fond of this micromanagement of his material, it really works -- the songs at the beginning of the album, in particular the airy opener "Summer's Cauldron," shimmer with that rub-your-eyes-in-the-morning feel, and the two Colin tunes stuck at the end (the mournful ballad "Dying" and the string-laced march "Sacrificial Bonfire") convey that dreary nighttime sneezy sniffling coughing so-you-can-rest-and-have-a-good-morning feeling much more well than any songs I've ever heard.

Aside from the concept, though, the melodies are just spectacular -- either both Andy and Colin were at an all time melody-writing high or it just took a clear-headed producer to make the melodies they were already writing come into their own full potential (though I don't know how any producer could've made "Human Alchemy" from Mummer into an engaging song, so the accuracy of that statement should be taken into question). The songs are just welling over with hooks - Colin's "The Meeting Place" has an utterly delightful joyous outburst of a chorus that somehow sounds perfectly natural mixed in with the clanking sounds of machinery during the verses, and he also does himself proud on the slick ballad "Grass," which easily contains one of his best vocal performances. Andy throws out the album's lone riff-rocker, "Earn Enough For Us," which takes the hook from the J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" and makes it good, delights with a Beach Boys mini-epic pastiche in the organ-driven "Season Cycle"(which is worth hearing for his forced rhyme of "cycle" with "um-bi-li-cal" alone, and it has a wonderful melody to boot) and delivers a bitter kissoff to a potential mistress with the sparse, echoey and note-perfect "Another Satellite."  They're shiny, they're poppy, they would've sounded so out of place on any prior XTC album, but geeze man they're great.

So basically, the album is very well worth a perfect score, as the whole thing just fits together like no (and I mean no) other XTC album ever has and ever will, but unfortunately the edition currently available on the market presents me with a perfectly good reason to dock the album a point. When "Grass" was released as a single, its athiestic B-side "Dear God" unexpectedly began getting a lot of airplay in the States due to its controversial subject matter (though as controversy, it's really pretty generic -- "there is no God," wow, profound), and in a bid to increase album sales Virgin Records lopped off the album's shortest and most charming track ("Mermaid Smiled") in favor of including the hit. The problem is that not only does the inclusion of the song completely throw off the flow of the album, the song itself isn't very good - it sounds okay at first, but the acoustic melody practically defines "forced" and the intro and outro are both sung by a little girl, which, while kind of creepy, mostly just comes off as stupid and cheesy. If you can find a vinyl copy of the original running order, snap it up by all means, as it's a perfect 10, but the version currently on the market is a bit weaker. The rest of the album rules mightily though - even Andy's dumbass beatnik song ("The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul") comes off as one of the best songs ever, and that's a triumph.

OVERALL RATING: 9

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Grass, Earn Enough For Us, Sacrificial Bonfire, Season's Cycle, The Meeting Place, That's Really Super Supergirl.  LOW POINTS: None.

Following the very messy The Big Express, the band enlisted the services of Todd Rundgren to produce their next effort, and the result is an atrociously produced album with two of the most horrible songs ever written in the ugly "Rain" ripoff chorus of "Big Day" and the unbearable atheist anthem "Dear God" that was for some stupid reason a hit.  Okay, I'm kidding, of course.  This is one critically acclaimed pop masterpiece that I'm not going against the grain on.  Until around the end of the album, this is an immaculately flowing album where each track is a spectacle of melody, diversity and clever musical and lyrical ideas, almost like a song sequence in the grand tradition of Sgt. Pepper.  While it may not be quite that revolutionary (here, the band mostly takes the styles of 60's pop and puts their own Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding spin on them), the sheer hooks and consistency here is just incredible.  A great album on its' own, but especially mindblowing for 1986, probably the worst year in history for rock giants.

Now onto the songs  The first two tracks on here flow almost like one epic (beginning and ending with the sounds of crickets chirping), and it's started by the opening "Summer's Cauldron", a majestic tune (both musically and vocally) that captures the 'nature' atmosphere conveyed by the lyrics perfectly through its' melody and instrumentation and powerful chorus.  A perfect symphonic transition leads into the folkish "Grass", a song that's either about the celebration of love or drug use, depending on your sick perspective.  Whatever it is, the main melody is extremely catchy and suits the drug addict - er.. Colin Moulding's, vocal style rather well.  As does the fantastic shiny pop of "The Meeting Place", whose chorus is simply unforgettable. On the other side of things, the potentially dorky and annoying "That's Really Super, Supergirl" is simply awesome in this context - it's a really great quirky pop song with effective synth use, quite clever lyrics and a flowing, fun chorus melody.

"Ballet For A Rainy Day" is a really pretty piano pop tune that has a great melodic build and fine falsetto chorus.  Plus, you just have to find it cool when the melancholic orchestral sweep of the next song "1000 Umbrellas" begins right after the final line of the previous one ('to the backdrop of a slow descending gray').  As for that tune, it's highlighted by a fine depresing melody (especially the way Partridge sings 'MISERY, OHHHHH MISERY') that for the most part lives up to its' intro.  Then to close off side one comes the timelessly catchy "Season's Cycle", which is often described as a Beach Boys ripoff.  While it's true some of the instrumental and vocal harmony charm may have been lifted a bit from them circa '65, the melody and especially the lyrics are 100% XTC quirkiness - imagine those California dudes mentioning the word 'um-bil-i-cal' in one of their early hits.  That sure would have been amusing.

Side two starts off no less great.  "Earn Enough For Us" is a totally awesome chiming rocker with an irresistible singalong melody, and it flows along great with the subject of the lyrics of having to work for a living despite the skepticism of the job (I dig that bassline over the 'hurtful comments from the boss' line, too).  The next Moulding tune "Big Day" could be considered a bit ugly (due to his mantra-like chanting of the title), but it grooves along pretty well and it has a typically top-notch melody, so it's a winner from me.  The spacey atmosphere of the following "Another Satellite", though, is one of the more clever moments of the album, with the echoing of the guitar actually serving as a hook for the song along with the main vocal melody.  And I'm also quite fond of the jazz/lounge tune "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul", which has a simultaneously gorgeous and mysterious atmosphere - very memorable piano laden chorus, appropriate lower-register vocals, and fine session drumming from Prarie Prince definitely make the song.

The next song (aka 'the hit'), unfortunately, is a bit of a mixed bag for me.  The decision to replace an already existing track with the single "Dear God" after it became a totally unexpected hit really takes away from the flow of the album, and the song itself, while a well-written folky tune musically with a solid melody, can be a bit grating lyrically, with Partridge taking on the ever controversial subject of his atheism, and he's as subtle about it as a car crash.  Nevertheless, it's good overall, and it actually does flow into the next song rather well with the album-ending string of two Moulding tunes.  The first of 'em, the acoustic "Dying" is somewhat unmemorable (though lyrically moody and also short), but the closing tune "Sacrificial Bonfire" has extremely effective use of powerful orchestration, with a fine melody and great use of atmosphere that really works as a closure to the day/night conceptual feel the album has.  This is quite an excellent album that comes damn close to being a classic in presentation and great pop melody, and it's one of the best albums of the mid 80's.  Get it, and become hooked!

OVERALL RATING: 9.5

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Grass, Earn Enough For Us, Season Cycle, The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul, That's Really Super Supergirl, Dear God. LOW POINTS: None.

As Rich said, "this is it," the album that made XTC into "critically acclaimed" artists, and the one that garnered them some mainstream attention. This is quite understandable, as Skylarking takes everything good about the band and channels it into a concise, non-abrasive package; unlike the last album, this stuff is very easy on the ears. And all the hype you've heard about Skylarking is true - this is one of those rare cases of a lauded record that truly lives up to its name, not disappointing for a second. Musical mastermind Todd Rundgren produces, and he takes Partridge's flourishes of brilliance (and some of Moulding's), trims off the awkward, annoying edges, and helps to forge a fine-tuned set of songs that flow together a la Sgt. Pepper's. Appropriately, Skylarking is a concept album, mirroring the passage from morning to night, youth to old age, and happiness to sorrow.

Side one is especially mind-blowing, providing about the most satisfying twenty-something minutes of music I've heard in my life. "Summer's Cauldron" starts things off ideally, with a pleasantly drowsy, new morning feel. The song slyly segues into "Grass," a lovely violin ballad about youthful passion; I've always been amused by the innocence with which Moulding sings, "Over and over we flatten the clover" (no drug references here). "The Meeting Place" is another pretty contribution by the bass player, and the ringing chimes and marching pace are the perfect backdrop for its lyrics about a young woman joining the workforce. On "That's Really Super Supergirl," Partridge shifts the mood to pitiful, but clever, break-up lyrics ("And I feel like you're trying hard/To sweep me like dirt underneath your cape/Well I might be an ape/But I used to feel super"). Yet, the music remains perky, with some silly organ playing and a GREAT chorus. "Ballad For A Rainy Day" and the mournful, heavily orchestrated "1000 Umbrellas" showcase more of that seamless song-sequencing that makes Skylarking so intriguing. The first half comes to a perfect close with "Season Cycle," another one of the very best tracks on here; the lyrics now take a more spiritual turn, and that bouncy, Beach Boy-style melody is about as catchy as anything you could imagine.

Describing the rest can be a little confusing, because there are two slightly different versions of this CD floating around. If you bought the disc sometime before 2002, then you should have the old Virgin Records issue, which deleted the song "Mermaid Smiled" from side two and added the "Grass" B-side "Dear God" after the latter became a surprise hit. This is obviously the copy Nick and Rich have reviewed. However, the version currently on the market is the Caroline reissue, which restores the original running order of the album, appending "Dear God" to the end as a bonus track. Some fans, like Nick and Rich, prefer the old sequencing, believing that "Dear God" disrupts the flow of side two. As for me, either version earns a perfect score, and I don't necessarily find "Dear God" to have been all that distracting on the Virgin copy. The song itself is grating lyrically, with a cheesy child's vocal at the beginning and end, and a poorly-conceived theological whine. But musically, the song is a powerful epic with a catchy acoustic riff and a chilling violin midsection. Moreover, the song at least tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to deal with doubts about religion, and it fits perfectly into the altogether darker framework of the second half.

So, as you are now well aware, side two takes on more pessimistic themes. "Earn Enough For Us" is the major standout here, a top-notch guitar rocker that deals with earning a modest living and raising a family. "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" is also a real stunner, an all-out, big band jazz piece with an explosive arrangement. The atmospheric, reverberating "Another Satellite" creates an appropriately breezy mood, in which our now jaded protagonist tells an admirer to piss off. "Sacrificial Bonfire" flaunts more complexly layered strings and nice melodies, but again, it's the ambience of the song that makes it such an effective closer - the pagan drumming that opens the track especially gives it the feel of reincarnation, or a new morning. Along with this one, Moulding also chips in "Big Day," a cynical outlook on marriage, and "Dying," about the said subject; these songs aren't as memorable as the rest, but still completely pleasant. In all, Skylarking is not all that groundbreaking of a record, making it an admittedly weak 10. Basically, it's just a really immaculate reenactment of a late-period Beatles masterpiece. But it flows better than most albums I've heard, and it has a lot of great songs. Even more important, it's one of the few concept albums that truly fulfills its concept from start to finish. THIS is what makes Skylarking some kind of minor milestone. Yes, like Nick said, if you buy this today, chances are you will get hooked on XTC.

* OVERALL RATING: 10 *

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CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL (1987)

released by The Dukes Of Stratosphear

(Rich Bunnell's review)

Phone up the MJA Disciplinary Council and get me suspended, because I'm cheating a bit here - this "album" is not only a compilation album, but also not technically an XTC release. Well, by all conceivable logic, it is, but if you went up to Andy Partridge and talked to him like it was one he'd probably start twiddling his thumbs and acting all eccentric and claim "Oh, no, we had nothing to do with the project you are speaking of, la la la la la" before readjusting his spectacles and insulting whatever album R.E.M. happened to have released recently. "E-bow shite!" In the mid-'80s, XTC along with Dave Gregory's brother Ian released a pair of psychedelic pastiche releases, an EP called 25 O'Clock and a full-length release entitled Psonic Psunspot, under the moniker "The Dukes Of Stratosphear." For several years the bandmembers denied that they had anything to do with the project; they even adopted pseudonyms for the songwriting and playing credits, Andy being "Sir John Johns," Colin "The Red Curtain," Dave "Lord Cornelius Plum" and Ian "E. I. E. I. Owen." This collection compiles both releases onto one compact sixteen-song disc, and since every single song was written and performed by the members of XTC, by all means it should be ranked alongside their official releases.

Another less technical reason why the collection should be ranked in such a manner is that it friggin' rules. Over the course of sixteen tracks, the Dukes breathlessly pay homage to almost every psychedelic and non-psychedelic '60s influence imaginable, and John Leckie's clever production makes the songs sound as authentic as possible -- nearly every song sounds like it could conceivably have received airplay during the psychedelic era. The songs from the 25 O'Clock EP are the most authentic-sounding of the bunch, ranging from the creepy Electric Prunes-styled title track to "Your Gold Dress," which manages to hammer a miniature psychedelic anthem out of what Andy himself has described as "one of the most moronic riffs ever written." "The Mole From The Ministry" is probably the most heralded track, mainly because it's the band's Beatles homage, combining lyrical elements from "I Am The Walrus" with musical elements from "A Day In The Life" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- that's right, three of the Fabs' most epic and treasured songs combined into one unquestionably wonderful psychedelic anthem. You can't beat a song with the chorus "I'm the mole from the ministry, and you'll all bow down to me....." no matter how hard you might try, so just don't.

The songs from Psonic Psunspot show the band slightly stepping outside of the whole psychedelic framework and instead choosing to pastiche whatever bands from the '60s happened to strike their fancy - the songs sound a bit less authentic with respect to the band's concept, but they're more engaging and appealing so it's a nice little trade-off. "Vanishing Girl" for one is an almost endlessly charming Hollies tribute, double-tracked vocals and all, and "You're A Good Man Albert Brown" totally nails the Kinks' drunken Muswell Hillbillies-era British pub vibe. The Beatles pastiches continue with the bubbly McCartney-styled "Brainiac's Daughter" and the slinky Lennon-styled "Collideascope," the Byrds are channeled with the airy "You're My Drug" (which sounds a lot like a faster, even more airy take on "Eight Miles High" if you can imagine such a thing). Perhaps the most obvious tribute is the Pet Sounds homage "Pale and Precious," which intersperses a muted "Caroline, No"-styled ballad with an upbeat "Wouldn't It Be Nice"-styled midsection; I think Andy stole a tiny segment of the melody from "Heroes and Villains" which is a bit of a cheat, but the song's purty enough for that not to matter -- if it weren't a pastiche album I'd probably be a bit more irked.

It's tough to give an accurate portrayal of a collection that covers as much stylistic ground as this, but let me just say it's easily as recommendable as, if not more recommendable than, anything else in XTC's catalogue. The psychedelia-influenced between-song dialogue snippets are hilarious (especially the angry radio caller at the end of "My Love Explodes" who sounds an awful lot like Woody Allen and the "Alice In Wonderland" inspired clips that pop up between the Psunspot tracks), and even when the influences are so obvious that they border on ripoff (like "Bike Ride To The Moon," which is not only influenced by Pink Floyd's "Bike" but also steals some of its melody) they're charming enough to shrug off as good entertainment. I think that this collection is technically out-of-print, but America isn't exactly packed with die-hard XTC fans so it's not extremely tough to find lying around in stores, so I say seek it out. Have you seen Jackie? He's an odd, odd, odd little........fish. Now watch as I give the album a higher rating than Skylarking, hahaha.

* OVERALL RATING: 10 *

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: 25 O' Clock, Vanishing Girl, You're A Good Man Albert Brown, Pale And Precious.  LOW POINTS: None.

Well, I guess I should play the role of the MJA disciplinary council to answer back with a loud yell of, "This is not the best XTC album."  Despite the 'side project' status, the Chips compilation can certainly count as one, as the Dukes consist of the three main members at the time under pseudonyms (as well as Dave Gregory's brother Ian on drums), and they pay homage to many of the same sorts of music that influenced the band themselves.  While the ratio of good songs to pointless/bad songs here is definitely higher than any of their regular albums, I'm not sure how the actual song quality is better, though.  Sure, the material at several points has a really authentic tone to it, and often sounds like dead-on imitations of whoever they happen to be parodying, but hmm... I dunno... while all these songs are good, I fail to see most of them as classics in their own right.  Maybe it's because I generally don't tend to worship parody albums, or maybe it's because the on-purpose derivative nature of this album makes it lose a lot of that distinct XTC charm for me.

Still, as a humorously calculated project, Chips is really quite good.  You can tell they obviously spent a lot of effort in trying to capture the details of various 60's pop styles, which is especially apparent on the first six songs here that make up the 25 O' Clock EP (released a year before Skylarking) portion.  The creepy swirling organ playing and menacing rhythm of the opening "25 O' Clock" is one of those songs where they hit the psychedelic vibe perfectly, and that 'till the end of tiiiiiiime...' hook is priceless beyond words, and it's my favorite on here.  "My Love Explodes" is also pretty good at capturing the youthful enthusiasm and innocence of that era, with its' fast-paced rocking and humorous vocal quality, and the Barrett-era Pink Floyd inspired "Bike Ride To The Moon" has cool keyboard sounds and other assorted noises - quirky track right there.  If you're not paying close attention to these songs, you'd might mistake them for snippets of a classic rock radio show highlighting the psychedelic era (though probably not with in-between song banter as nuts as this album).

The remaining three EP tracks are also pretty much good too, though I must confess, I don't exactly know why "The Mole From The Ministry" is the most celebrated song on here.  Ooh, they're imitating the atmosphere of the Beatles' psychedelic period with 'underwater' vocal effects - it's genius!  Nah, I'd much rather pull out Magical Mystery Tour if I want to hear something like this one.  It's a good enough pastiche, but you can't exactly top the masters in this area, guys, no matter how hard you try!  As for the other two songs, "Your Gold Dress" is a pretty good catchy rocker in spite of how boneheadedly lumbering it is, and "What In The World??" is nice horn-laced midtempo pop, both of them pleasurable and confident-sounding delights.

Continuing on, the remainder of this is composed of the actual full length Dukes album Psonic Psunspot released in '87, and while it's not nearly as authentic-sounding as 25 O' Clock, I like it somewhat better because it hits a more diverse array of styles as well as more of the XTC's own personality shining through, plus, more importantly, the songs are simply better.  It should probably say something that the Hollies influenced "Vanishing Girl" is as great a charismatic and enjoyable tune as it is, considering parts of its' hookline rip off "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", but I'd say it transcends its' predecessor due to its' more inventive melodic arrangements and quirky lyrics (making it Colin Mouldin... err, sorry, The Red Curtain's best contribution here).  Also very entertaining is "Have You Seen Jackie?", a rousing tale about how 'Jackie didn't know whether she was a boy or a girl'.  And "You're A Good Man Albert Brown" is one of the most entertaining and catchy pub-styled singalong tracks I've yet to come across.  Try to get that one out of your skull.

The other songs on here range from more Beatles knockoffs (the dragging in a good way nasaly Lennon-styled "Collideascope" and the bouncy McCartney pop of "Braniac's Daughter") to the echoey as hell Byrdsy rocker "You're My Drug" and the Beach Boys imitating closer "Pale And Precious", which somehow manages to work beautifully in spite of the fact that Andy Partridge's vocal ability is nowhere in the same league as the Wilson brothers, mostly because of its' gorgeous ending and melody that could have ended up on Oranges And Lemons.  The playful, bass-driven "Little Lighthouse" and the other two Moulding songs ("Shiny Cage" and "The Affiliated") are somewhat lesser tunes that I can't recall as well in my brain, though being that they're from XTC's peak period, they're still pretty darn good.  Again, nothing I'd mistake as classic stuff, but nice.  This collection isn't far off from 8.5 quality, though, since its' cleverness and considerable melodic sense has rarely been topped by the band.  It's just that when the actual songs are concerned, it's a bit lacking in great material when I compare it to Skylarking, or the likeable bizarre creativity of The Big Express.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Pale And Precious, My Love Explodes, You're A Good Man Albert Brown, Vanishing Girl, You're My Drug, Bike Ride To The Moon. LOW POINTS: None.

Ever since Black Sea, XTC have shown signs of their obsession with retro-'60s rock n' roll. These tendencies were manifested the best on Skylarking, but, apparently, that wasn't enough to get all the nostalgia out of their systems. Enter a side-project, The Dukes Of Stratosphear (featuring the same three key members), and two blatant pastiche recordings from the Skylarking "era," the 25 O'Clock EP and the Psonic Psunspot LP (well, it's not like the band had anything better to do, like tour). Ergo, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball is a highly logical collection, compiling the two records onto one convenient CD. Even though it's technically a compilation, the disc is thematically united and coalesces about as well as any XTC album. These homages to the band's classic rock idols are a bit too obvious at times, but the CD is quite good for two reasons. Most impressive of all, the production is really authentic at mimicking the psychedelic sound, with multi-tracked vocals, prominent keyboards, echoy guitars, backwards sound effects, etc. On top of that, the songs are just good.

What every reviewer tells you, it seems, is that 25 O'Clock is truer to the band's neo-psychedelic agenda. Can't argue here. The set begins with Moulding's title track, and it creates a thick, indulgent sound with its hollow, boomy bass, spiraling organs and other assorted sound effects (most notably the ticking clock at the beginning). The bassist also contributes the closer, "The Mole From The Ministry," an atmospheric, keyboard-driven ode to psychedelic-period Beatles (yes, it sounds a lot like "I Am The Walrus"). These are the most celebrated songs by The Dukes - they're pretty catchy, but I think they exist mostly as just interesting parodies of the late-'60s sound. When it really comes down to the songwriting, I'm partial to the less-ambitious pop tunes (and, with a few exceptions, that applies not only to 25 O'Clock, but to everything The Dukes recorded). Moulding's "My Love Explodes" is my favorite here, a fast, chaotic rocker that is very engaging during the verses, when the winding guitar line glides over the descending bass riff after the vocal. Partridge's "Bike Ride To The Moon" is a dreamy pop song with a weird melody, but it's completely affecting, in part because his British accent is so pronounced. The Eastern-tinged "What In The World??..." (yet another song by Moulding) is similar in conception to the title track, except for the melodies are less jagged, smoother flowing, and I think I actually prefer it. "You're Gold Dress" isn't a serious failure, but the buzzing, hollow verses and downright dumb chorus do very little to move me.

We now move onto Psonic Psunspot, a more sorted tribute to '60s bands. The record is inconsistent, but a handful of the songs are more fully realized than the ones on 25 O'Clock (which really focuses more on authenticity of sound and on atmosphere). Partridge conceives a Pet Sounds homage with "Pale And Precious," which is astonishingly beautiful, and my favorite song on the entire CD. It may be one of the more deliberate rip-offs, but I don't care, because it's so flawlessly done. The back-up vocals are smoothly performed, especially during that "fade away, ah-ah" chorus, and the "Good Vibrations" snippet at the end is a nice, unpredictable touch. Practically as good is "You're A Good Man Albert Brown," a lively British beer drinking song about a war veteran that should have every man brandishing his stein and singing. The jangly "Vanishing Girl" (supposedly a Hollies tribute) and the drafty, Byrds-inspired "You're My Drug" are wonderful mid-tempo rockers. A personal, overlooked favorite of mine is Moulding's "The Affiliated," which alternates smoothly between a melancholy acoustic ballad and a Latin, Santana-style groove; the lyrics tell a depressing, but amusing tale of a carefree barfly who is simultaneously taken in by a woman and enslaved by family life. The rest is decent, if not spectacular - "Shiny Cage" does sound suspiciously similar to "I'm Only Sleeping" (from Revolver), especially during that acoustic-guitar-and-vocal intro; "Have You Seen Jackie?" is a highly awkward, spacy psychedelic tune, and somewhat annoying. The cool thing is, though, even the "weakest" songs on here still embody some unique artistic quality that makes them interesting at least.

In the end, I'm definitely in closer agreement with Nick than with Rich. Chocolate Fireball is a fun collection of neo-'60s toss-offs that any XTC fan should enjoy. But, while most of the material is good, nothing on here is absolutely great, or at least not transcendent. The CD does not hold a candle to Skylarking, which honors '60s pop with a little more subtlety and a little more of the band's unique aestheticism. That's okay - remember that this is only a side project, after all. For that, it's pretty darn impressive.

OVERALL RATING: 8

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ORANGES AND LEMONS (1989)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

By 1989, pretty much every single band in the musical universe had gotten into the habit of releasing ultra-glossy, overproduced pop albums, and damned if XTC were going to miss out on that trend. Skylarking had upped their critical ante in the U.S., but there was no way in hell that Andy was going to work with Todd Rundgren again, so they shacked up with up-and-coming Los Angeles pop producer Paul Fox, who had previously produced albums by the Pointer Sisters and would go on to end the musical careers of both the Sugarcubes and 10,000 Maniacs. Rundgren may have given the band a shiny and layered sound, but Fox's production is all of that and more, practically embodying the "kitchen sink" philosophy -- if a space in the musical texture can be filled by some instrument, then gosh-be-frigged it's gonna go in there, whether it fits in or not. Nearly every song on the album is shiny and multi-layered, with XTC's traditional pop songwriting style augmented with pretty much every instrument on the musical spectrum. Many fans laud this as an uber-appealing technical achievement, but just as many call it a load of overproduced nonsense -- both groups certainly have a strong argument, but I tend to lean more into the former category being that I'm a fan and all and that I find many of the songs strangely appealing.

Messy and overarranged as most of the album tracks are, a number of classics lie sprinkled throughout the tracklisting -- Andy's opener "The Garden Of Earthly Delights" is an absolutely infectious mess, combining an Arabian hook with a circus-like atmosphere, and his "Across This Antheap" isn't too far behind in that respect, with a tribal arrangement that might make your head explode before you notice how wondertastic it is. Colin contributes three songs, and they're all supoib - "One Of The Millions" opens and closes with a fantastic cyclical guitar hook and inbetween is one of the best little shifting pop songs he ever wrote, the ballad "Cynical Days" has a great verse-chorus shift and surprisingly well-employed trumpet fills, and the bubbly single "King For A Day" could be used as a case study of how a song can come as close as possible to sounding like another song without actually ripping it off (in this case, Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World") but it flows nicely and Andy's backing vocals in the chorus just scream "magnifique!" Two of Andy's other contributions just trounce all of the competition as far as songwriting goes, however -- the hit single "Mayor Of Simpleton" is an absolutely gorgeous and surprisingly humble Byrds-y love song that takes the theme of Sam Cooke's "What A Wonderful World" and runs with it to a shiny pop extreme, and the airy, layered closer "Chalkhills and Children" is the one everyone compares to Brian Wilson, and with good reason, even though it's more because it's a work of unequivocal brilliance rather than because it sounds like the Beach Boys in any way.

The album's worth getting for the songs I just mentioned alone, especially since like all XTC albums the list price is really cheap, but the rest of the album is a mite inconsistent -- it's a double-album packaged onto a single CD, I forgot to mention that. Either the songs aim for some big statement or don't work, like the extremely Lennon-esque but annoyingly empty anthem "The Loving," or just suck out loud, like the faux-jazzy "Miniature Sun," with what has got to be some of the most irritating synth brass ever set to vinyl. Everyone pegs Andy's "Pink Thing" as a highlight, mostly because of its ambiguous subject matter (it can be interpreted as either an ode to his newborn son or his, uh, member......."pink thing spit in my eye," eww) but the melody is one of the most directionless and lumbering things I've heard come from Andy's usually-focused songwriting pen - it keeps sounding like it's going to go somewhere but just keeps limping along without developing any sort of strong melody. "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" and "Hold Me My Daddy" are kind of catchy, even though the overarrangement on both songs this time borders on annoying rather than interesting (the latter can't seem to decide whether it's a guitar rocker or a Caribbean chant -- I'm all for fusion of styles, but they have to be fused, y'know, correctly). Despite this inconsistency, the album's worth it for its good songs alone and for the sake of interest alone, though it's probably their weakest album since Skylarking -- a low 8 seems fine, yeeeeeeeeeeah that's the stuff.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: The Mayor Of Simpleton, One Of The Millions, Across This Antheap, Merely A Man.  LOW POINTS: Miniature Sun, Pink Thing.

Rather than continue making albums with conceptually-themed song cycles (Skylarking) or parody efforts under a different band name (Dukes Of Stratosphear), the band apparently decided to create yet another double-length effort at just a little over an hour long.  The result is quite an interesting and diverse effort, but unlike the last album's seamless flow between tracks, Oranges And Lemons seems to be completely random and schizophrenic, with Partridge, Moulding and Gregory having no clue exactly what kind of territory they wanted to explore, so they wanted to cover just about as much as possible.  While this makes for a fascinating and rather fun listen, this aspect of course turns out to be the biggest flaw of the album - the tracks, in most cases, just don't gel together at all as a whole, just skipping from style to style with no cohesion whatsoever.

This is immediately apparent in the first few tracks here.  There's a strange bouncy Eastern thing in "Garden Of Earthly Delights" (with a bizarre sitar break or something to that effect) moving into the simply classic pop tune "The Mayor Of Simpleton" (which has a combination of Andy's witty lyrics, a great chiming guitar line and infectious pop melody that makes for an incredible listen). Then you have the Colin Moulding contribution "King For A Day" (styled a bit to close to Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World", but it has a fine distinct melody of its own) going into the tiresome and somewhat plodding attack on politics "Here Comes President Kill Again".  Amidst all this, it's hard to see how the deceptively trite but actually quite lyrically thoughtful anthemic tune "The Loving" (a nice guitar break and a unforgettable refrain here) or the complex and tribal-sounding, potentially grating but really neat "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" fit in.

Fortunately, with all the non-cohesiveness in the mix of styles, it's still refreshing that this collection is very listenable and entertaining.  Amongst all the other tracks here, there are probably a couple that can best challenge "Mayor Of Simpleton" for top highlight in my view.  The first of these is Colin's great "One Of The Millions". which I kind of wish was built on the gorgeous spiraling guitar line it starts out on, but no matter, the main melody is just so much fun (particularly the 'I'm always saying what I'm gonna do...' call and response part) and his bass playing really kicks here, just like it does through the whole record.  The second is probably the really bizarre but all the more entertaining for it "Across This Antheap", which builds on its' almost Broadway-ish intro to something really unexplainably weird in its' engaging tempo and really unorthodox instrumentation and melody. 

Oh yeah, there's also that closing tune here in "Chalkhills And Children" that is generally regarded as an XTC classic.  It certainly has a wonderful haunting atmosphere and excellent melody, but there's something that tires me out about it, even if it is a solid ending to the album. Maybe it's because this thing starts to lose steam toward the end with three somewhat subpar tunes coming before, all of which have bothersome flaws - "Hold Me My Daddy" is a nice but somewhat awkward Caribbean-styled tune (though it does have a neat guitar part here and there), "Pink Thing" is a sort of annoying and meandering shuffle that's intended to be about Andy's son, but we all know what the 'pink thing' really is, and "Miniature Sun" just sucks.  It features an awful mix of synth brass and a dissonant fast melody over midtempo backing that just doesn't work, and it sounds stupid.  That's all I wanna say about it.

As far as the few tracks toward the middle of the album I didn't mention, "Scarecrow People" is a clever attack on those who will eventually become the song's title, and it does have a cool guitar part and catchy chorus, even if there's something about the way the instruments and vocals are that just doesn't sound right.  The introspective tunes "Merely A Man" and Moulding's last contribution "Cynical Days" are both better, though; the former of which has an interesting anthemic hook (the 'hiiiiiiiiiiiigher' call at the end of the chorus) and the latter a warm melodic ballad with a memorable refrain.  Basically, the flaws of Oranges And Lemons are obvious and not always easy to ignore, but the fine quality of many of the songs and interesting sounds explored here are enough to award the album a high 7.5 anyway, an easy 8 if only it had been trimmed of its' weaker moments

OVERALL RATING: 7.5

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: The Mayor Of Simpleton, One Of The Millions, Garden Of Earthly Delights, King For A Day, Merely A Man, The Loving. LOW POINTS: Hold Me My Daddy, Cynical Days.

One drawback of being a "newer generation" reviewer on MJA is that many of the albums you wish to review have already been written about before - sometimes more than once. Actually, on a personal level, I've always liked how this site can have more than one perspective on an album. It's just that sometimes an album has a very distinctive sound to it, especially when it has already been reviewed twice on the same site. Such is the case with Oranges And Lemons, a double album that combines the "use everything" philosophy of English Settlement with the cluttered studio excess of The Big Express. So, it's not that I want to reiterate what Nick wrote, yet again it seems, but it's true that this album has problems that are difficult to ignore. Mainly, most of the arrangements are too gaudy, containing an over-abundance of instrumental parts that don't always gel. The sound quality is ultra-slick and polished, too, so you don't even get that unique grit that TBE has. In addition, the record lacks the "unified sweep" of ES (now I'm repeating myself), because most of the songs are randomly stylized and don't fit together all that well. Yet, while I'm also not trying to quote Rich again, I still find these songs "strangely appealing." And I agree with him when it comes to the rating. A special note with regard to the rating here: I think Nick is more objective, and Rich and I are just a tad biased. And the difference? Just a measly half a point. It just goes to show that even when Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding don't exactly know what they're doing, they still have a mite of consistency left in them.

Okay, onto the songs. Even though OAL doesn't form a "cohesive statement" (now I'm ripping off the AMG - I might as well just quit right now), I have noticed something interesting about the song sequencing. I have this on vinyl, because I'm cool. No, but seriously (there's NOTHING cool about being an XTC fan), you pay a little more attention to the format when you have to go through that pain-in-the-ass of turning the record over four times. And what I've noticed is that each side (most of them four songs) contains at least one a) pop song, b) melancholy ballad of varying ballad-ness, and c) weird-assed experimental thing. Example: side one. The album kicks off with "Garden Of Earthly Delights," and it's messed up, alright. An exotic, Arabian melody carries the verses, along with busy percussion and a brilliantly snake-like bassline by Moulding. Then the song explodes into a poppy chorus, and you realize just how catchy it is when Partridge sings, "This is your life and you do what you want to do/This is your life and you spend it all." Definitely a highlight, and the reason why I can give this album an 8, and not a 7.5 - there are hooks in most of these songs, it's just that they're buried beneath the swarming production, and sometimes you have to strive for them. Ah, but next comes "The Mayor Of Simpleton," which is just the quintessentially perfect, happy guitar pop song. And it just gets catchier and catchier, the more it chimes along and builds upon itself. I guess "King For A Day" is the closest thing to a "melancholy ballad" on the first side, and it's another standout, a light, reverberating tune with Moulding's thoughtful lyrics about loss of humanity through materialism. The marching-paced "Here Comes President Kill Again" closes the side, and it's a bit laborious and dissonant for most fans. However, I like how the song gradually adds on musical overdubs, especially the blaring trumpets after the "Here comes president kill again" chorus.

"The Loving" starts out side two with a grand, John Lennon-style anthem. It's a little insincere, perhaps, but still irresistible every time it comes back around to that lovely chorus: "All around the world every boy and every girl need the lov-iinnnnnnnnggg!!" "Poor Skeleton Steps Out" is this robotic pop song with angular melodies, and you may have to strive a little too hard to like this one, I admit. I find it intriguing now, although it used to get on my nerves, mostly because of all the awkward instrumental and vocal effects (especially the silly church choir vocals, "Da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da," after the chorus). At least Moulding's "One Of The Millions" can rival "The Mayor Of Simpleton" as the best song on the album. This one has it all - smooth acoustic-guitar-and-flute interplay, a beautiful chorus, incredible bass playing, even humorous lyrics (although, when I first got this, I thought it sounded like Moulding was singing "I won't Rock The Vote" where he's singing "I won't rock the boat"). "Scarecrow People" is a personal favorite, a somber, rockabilly-tinged ballad with some impressive slide guitar leads, I'm assuming by Dave Gregory. The song also boasts a tension-building bridge with crushing drumwork by Pat Mastelotto, whose playing on this album is consistently inhuman, but also pretty bombastic (naturally, he fits right in).

At this point, I feel I'm starting to ramble on a bit, so forgive me if I don't give all the remaining songs their due mention. In any case, consistency is indeed a problem with OAL, and I don't like the second LP nearly as much as the first. The songs are still mostly good, and undeniably compelling. But you've probably noticed that the "high points" have almost all but run dry. "Merely A Man" is more excellent pop, but, predictably, it's the first track on side three. To be fair, this is a BUTT ROCK song - I kid you not - but it's saved by grabbing melodies, an unconventional trumpet solo and Partridge's ironic lyrics that combine his ongoing religious-baiting with a humble man's love poem. "Cynical Days" is not necessarily bad, per say, but just sort of a faceless, jazzy ballad. The problem here is boredom. On an album this buried in its own excess, I can forgive a semi-failure that is still mildly interesting ("Poor Skeleton Steps Out"), but anything remotely "boring" is out of the question. "Across This Antheap" may be the single most bizarre song the band ever put together, coming off as some kind of cross between Broadway, Kenny G and African tribal music. And that's all I'm going to say about that one. "Hold Me My Daddy" is another one of those lows that I don't exactly hate; it's just a generic jangle pop ditty that tries to mix in some Caribbean flavor, and it doesn't altogether work. To my ears, "Pink Thing" is a smoothly-flowing pop song, and "Miniature Sun" is an okay attempt at acid jazz. "Chalkhills And Children" is a musically impressive, although somewhat sleepy, ballad that brings OAL to a fitting close. Overall, this exhaustive double album is a little hard to absorb, but it's a fun, random collection of several good songs. Even though it spans slightly over an hour, the more you listen to it, the faster it seems to go by.

OVERALL RATING: 8

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RAG & BONE BUFFET (1990)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

This collection is subtitled "Rare Cuts & Leftovers," a pretty fitting epitaph for almost any given collection of B-Sides and rarities, and it's about as consistent as you might expect. XTC aren't exactly known for holding back any absolutely incredible material from their albums (usually they just throw it all onto the platter and scream "EAT, KNAVES!") so a rarities collection from them pretty much amounts to a few first-rate songs surrounded by a lot of pointless live cuts, second takes and remixes. I'll get the insulting out of the way right now because insulting is fun: "Scissor Man" and "Another Satellite" live -- why? "Over Rusty Water" - dub, what the hell? "Happy Families" -- used as background music in a John Hughes movie, therefore bad. Alternate version of "Respectable Street" -- naughty words replaced with words that don't fit (example: "sex position" changed to "exposition"), dumb. "Cockpit Dance Mixture" -- less danceable than the original, what's the freakin' point? "Officer Blue" and "Pulsing Pulsing" -- ummmmmm......... "Tissue Tigers (The Arguers)" and "Punch and Judy" -- I don't even remember how these one go, but they probably suck.

There's enough good material to justify the collection's $5.99 list price, though - "Extrovert" is a hilarious horn-spiked pseudo-funk Skylarking outtake that Andy actually recorded while drunk (though he doesn't sound any different than usual, which I guess says a lot about him), "Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen" is an infectious showtune recorded under the guise of a Colin Moulding solo project, "The World Is Full Of Angry Young Men" is a reasonably gorgeous lounge ballad which was recorded for the Mummer sessions and should've been included on the album instead of "Wonderland," and there are a couple of Christmas singles that the band recorded as the "Three Wise Men," one of which is real purty and the second of which sounds like Prince and is a total larf-riot. Finally, the coup-de-grace is that if like most people you have the version of Skylarking without "Mermaid Smiled," here it is for you, track number three, right here for your wistenin' peasure!!! Aside from the aforementioned good songs the collection is definitely for completists, but you can probably say that about every rarities compilation ever put together so I'll assign it a relatively high grade.

OVERALL RATING: 6

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: Extrovert, Ten Feet Tall, Thanks For Christmas, The World Is Full Of Angry Young Men, Blame The Weather, Punch And Judy, History Of Rock N' Roll. LOW POINTS: Cockpit Dance Mixture, I Need Protection, Over Rusty Water, Heaven Is Paved With Broken Glass, Strange Tales Strange Tails.

I suppose that every successful cult band is obliged to release a rarities disc eventually. This is one of the few cliches XTC lives up to, and Rag & Bone Buffet is just what you'd expect - a collection of several of the band's B-sides that didn't make the CD reissues, accompanied by various side projects, non-album songs and other junk. Unfortunately, compilations such as these are commonly inconsistent (some of these songs were "leftovers" for a reason, ya' know), not to mention extremely random. Therefore, Rag & Bone Buffet is recommendable only to curious fans. Still, it is my faux-expert opinion that this is rather good for what it is. Mainly, it's very generous, providing you with 24 tracks and running for nearly the entire 80 minutes that a single CD can hold. Plus, contrary to what you might assume, several of these songs are good, actually.

As a matter of fact, the CD is pretty solid for about the first third or so. It should be no surprise, then, that it may begin with the biggest treat of all, the funky "Extrovert," a humorous oddity from the Skylarking sessions. Moulding's "The World Is Full Of Angry Young Men" is also a huge standout, a breezy, Steely Dan-style ballad with some fluid guitar licks. And I personally love the electrified single version of "Ten Feet Tall," which is more direct that the one from Drums And Wires. Elsewhere, the song selection grows patchy, but highlights still abound: Moulding's "Blame The Weather" is gorgeous, and should have been included on English Settlement; "Punch And Judy" is bouncy and fun; "Thanks For Christmas" is an endlessly singable carol; and, at the end of it all, Partridge makes you laugh with his narration and some silly sound effects on the 22-second "History Of Rock N' Roll." The smooth jazz of "Mermaid Smiled" is on here of course, as are "Take This Town" and "Happy Families," both high quality movie soundtrack installments, IMHO. "Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen" and "Officer Blue" are two bizarre-but-oddly-affecting songs by Mounding.

Considering how much I enjoy half these songs, maybe I should rate this a little higher. Oh, but wait, there's the rest. On "Cockpit Dance Mixture," they take one of my favorite songs they ever did and turn it into this dinky groove that can serve no purpose whatsoever. It's very inappropriately titled - I don't know anyone who'd want to dance to this. "Over Rusty Water" is pointless ambient music, and "Heaven Is Paved With Broken Glass" is a clumsy attempt at creating atmospheric pop. "I Need Protection" is a godawfully gloomy New Wave thing; "Strange Tales Strange Tails" is to mechanical and sterile to arouse even the mildest interest. The single version of "Respectable Street" is also pretty worthless, not to mention nonsensical, seeing as how the BBC censored the lyrics so badly ("retching over our fans" is changed to "stretching over our fans"). I guess "Countdown To Christmas Party Time" isn't that bad, but it's sure corny, and definitely an acquired taste. The rest is pretty much nondescript weirdness ("Tissue Tigers (The Arguers)," "Pulsing Pulsing") or live outtakes of a couple of album tracks ("Scissor Man" still rules, but it doesn't need to be here). To be honest, I enjoy this collection about as much as any 7-rated album, so it should behoove any fan to hunt it down for shits and giggles. After all, it's worth owning for that handful of great songs alone. It's just that, in the context of XTC's canon, it's not really as vital as any of their studio albums. So a strong 6 seems about right.

OVERALL RATING: 6

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NONSUCH (1992)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

Also known as Skylarking's pretentious, snooty younger brother, this album seems like somewhat of a more fitting followup to that album than the actual followup ended up being. This is mostly because while Oranges seemed aimed at confusing the listener with its random-ass array of overproduced pop stylings, this one seems more willing to lull said listener into a dreamy, peaceful trance-like state. And who'd be more fitting to produce such a collection of tunes than the dude responsible for Madman Across The Water and other classics of symphonic piano-pomp-rock, Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon? Working with an experienced producer for a change gave XTC possibly the first truly good mix in their studio-bound career; the album's sound is lush and gorgeous, with each instrument contributing perfectly to a multi-layered web of sound (I know that webs don't tend to be multi-layered, but suspend disbelief for a second), and though people totally dedicated to the band's earlier work might find it a tad dry-sounding, by most aural standards it nears perfection. Of course, none of this stopped Andy from bickering with Gus and eventually firing him towards the end of the sessions, but some things will never change, I guess.

As for the material itself, some people proclaim the album to be the band's true masterpiece since it's cool to root for the underdog (but hey, I used to consider The Big Express to be the band's best album so I shouldn't be mocking), but from my vantage point the album, while frequently gorgeous, is cluttered with too much out-of-place shpiel to qualify it as one of their more consistent slabs of coated metal. Listen, Andy, if you hire Elton Freaking John's producer to help out with the production duties, you're obviously aiming for a lush pop sound, so why did you feel the need to interrupt the flow of your album with a lumbering, annoying rocker like "Crocodile"? "The Ugly Underneath"? Gorgeous chorus, man, but the clattering verses just have to go, I'm sorry.

Hey Colin, quit smirking, you leftover neanderthal, you're not off the hook either, what the hell is going on with your lyrics on this album? "Well, man created the cardboard box to sleep in it, and man converted the newspaper to a blanket, well, you have to admit that he's come a long way since swinging about in the trees......we're the smartest monkeys!" Oh ho ho ho, you're one clever MF, and it's great how you set it all to an annoyingly minimalistic melody and mixed the vocals really really loud so we'd all be blessed with the profundity of your pennings - get back to the drawing board, mate, and be sure to pronounce it "drawering" so us Americans can laugh at your silly British pronunciation, hahaha. You too, Andy - if you're going to write lyrics as obvious as "Books are burning, in the still air, and you know where they burn books, people are next," it really helps if you don't set it to a completely generic melody, just for further reference. You're pop geniuses, dudes, act like it.

Oh wait, they do......on every single other song on the album. Abandoning my lame apostrophe to the songwriters who are neither near me nor in the same country as me at the moment, I'll assert that the remainder of the album is composed of very high-quality music and easily some of the band's best work. The opener "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead" might strike more probing listeners as too preachy (creating a Jesus-like figure out of the title character), but the uptempo guitar-rock melody and jovial harmonica hook make it so it all doesn't matter, just put it on and watch your troubles drift away. Colin's delicate "My Bird Performs" might be the single greatest song the guy has ever written, and Andy's sweeping ballad "Wrapped In Grey" is a lyrical masterpiece, very straightforward and easy to understand but so incredibly moving that it doesn't matter at all, easily one of my favorite songs of all time. Everything else ranges from simplistic and beautiful (the spiraling "Rook") to heavily-harmonized and Beach Boys-influenced (the rolling single "The Disappointed" and "Humble Daisy") to upbeat and infectiously poppy ("Then She Appeared" and "Dear Madam Barnum"), and it's all ace, concise and likeable material bound to entertain the masses for miles around were Virgin Records actually concerned with smaller issues like promoting the band.

I shoved enough shallow praise into that last paragraph to fill a thousand overzealous Radiohead reviews on pitchforkmedia.com, so let me reassert that this is not a perfect album. It's way too long (17 songs), and it's not even because the brilliant songs are stretched to unfathomable lengths or anything, it's because the aforementioned annoying filler-ish material is randomly thrown in amongst the more fitting and superbly melodic material, which really throws off the album's flow and makes it all somewhat of a chore to listen to. On the whole, though, it's definitely one of the band's better albums, and once again it costs like 6 dollars, so taking a gamble and buying it wouldn't cripple your budget or anything.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Wrapped In Grey, The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead, Rook, My Bird Performs, The Disappointed.  LOW POINTS: Omnibus, Bungalow, Books Are Burning.

Now this is a really hard album to figure, and at some points, listen to all the way through.  Not that the actual final product is awful, or even inaccessible and weird - nope, far from it.  The sound actually owes more to the '60's pop filtered through Partridge and Moulding' style of Skylarking than that album's often way overly poppy and shiny followup, but the actual quality of production is probably somewhat superior to both - on the more uptempo numbers, it gives the songs a really energetic and alive sound, and on the softer, more peaceful ones, the songs sound extremely rich in terms of the blend of instrumentation coming through.  The real confusion about this album, though, is the actual quality of the material - this could possibly be the most heavily inconsistent XTC platter out there, as it consistently goes from flabbergastingly awesome pop heights to bothersome filler, songs with obvious glaring flaws, often within the same three or four song stretch.  And this goes on for over an hour!

The production style immediately reveals itself well, though, as "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead" boasts an absolutely incredible, uptempo guitar-filled rush that fills the room when played loud, especially since the main melody is probably the most singable and entertaining of the whole album, and the religious-flavored lyrics aren't a distraction at all.  The energy also helps the snappy and direct "Dear Madam Barnum" to become a hook-filled pleasure. Not surprisingly, it also lends well to gorgeous overtly pop tunes like the single "The Disappointed" (which is nice, especially since this kind of stuff is a strength of the band), and also on the upliftingly layered fast piano and violin/cello ballad "Rook" (where everything just becomes so majestic) or on the wonderfully understated chime of "Then She Appeared" - what a lovely melody on that one.

There are also other songs like the lumbering groove to pop chorus of "Crocodile", the pretty good slow paced ballad "That Wave" and "The Ugly Underneath" (beautiful refrain and ending fadeout, loud and slightly 'ugly' verses) that I appreciate a little less, but I'll say I definitely find them enjoyable.  A lot more than the considerably weaker, more grating songs, at least.  "Omnibus" is probably the most guilty here - on this one, the lyrics and overall melody are just annoying beyond words, which further kills an already pretty clumsy song.  And sometimes Andy will get way too simplistic on us as with the disappointingly straightforward closer "Books Are Burning", with a main 'hook' that's straight out of "Obvious Melodies 101" and equally dumbed down social commentary lyrics - why is this the second longest song on here, I wonder?  And as charming as stuff like "Humble Daisy" and "Holly Up On Poppy" are... I don't know - they just sound so overly lightweight, and in the case of the latter, overly awkward.  

What I'm really disappointed in, though, are Colin Moulding's contributions here.  Out of his four songs, only one of them is really great, and that's the fabulous "My Bird Performs" - everything about this song, from the opening guitar part to the melody, is just so beautifully delicate and moving, and it makes for a pretty fantastic song.  His other three, however, are very mixed.  For instance, "The Smartest Monkeys" and "War Dance" have bothersomely preachy social commentary lyrics - the former does get better as it goes on (with a neat little 'the evidence is all around...' melody) despite having one of the most embarassingly dumb opening verses ever (Rich already quoted it above), but it's a bit iffy overall, and the latter is actually really cool musically, with a nice acoustic guitar groove and a fun keyboard/horn part, but the lyrics kinda get to me.  And then there's "Bungalow", a song with irritating organ-filled verses and bombastic Jim Morrison wannabe vocals that's only saved by a mildly beautiful refrain.

Despite these stumbles, however, like I mentioned earlier, when a song is really good here, it's just flat out amazing, and nothing proves this better than the album's ultimate tour-de-force "Wrapped In Grey" - the lyrics might be simple by Partridge standards, but the combination of those beautifully written words with that melody and that orchestrated chorus ('awaken you dreamers...') has to make for one of the most transcendently stunning moments of the 90's.  It could be a possible highlight of their career, and I could easily see how it would be capable of moving one to tears or something to that effect.  Too bad the consistency doesn't reach that high level, but there are several other very noteworthy and enjoyable songs here anyway that rank among their best ever.  It's either that the highlights boost up the rating considerably, or that the filler drags the rating down a lot.  I'm not so sure, but either way, this is a really, really good album, so go get it - "Wrapped In Grey" alone makes it essential.

OVERALL RATING: 8

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APPLE VENUS VOL. 1 (1999)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

The members of XTC (Andy) put their (Andy's) collective foot down against Virgin Records when the company halted the initial pressing of the single for (Andy's) "Wrapped In Grey," resulting in a six-year standoff between the band (Andy) and the label where the members of the band (Andy) refused to record or release any new material. When Virgin finally relented and released the band (Andy) from their (his) contract in 1998, they (Andy) immediately hooked up with TVT Records with the intent of releasing a double album of the songs they (Andy) had compiled over the course of the last six years. Realizing the commercial implications of slamming a double album onto the market after a six-year period of inactivity, though, the bandmembers instead chose to release two single albums a year apart from one another, the first being composed of more esoteric, personal and acoustic material and the second being composed of more shiny catchy electric material. Setting aside the fact that the band used to churn out new material every six months in the olden days, the first collection was released to the hungry ears of literally dozens of deprived and waiting XTC fans in February 1999, myself included.

The music on this album has been described in a superficially witty fashion by Mr. Partridge as "orchoustic," since to back up his acoustic arrangements the band dragged in a complete orchestra with the full intent of being the first quirk-pop band in history to earn the moniker of "dinosaurs." Dave Gregory is unfortunately out of the picture, having left the band either fed up with Andy's maniacal grip over the recording process or more likely just annoyed that they didn't put out the ass-kickin' guitar rock album first. His loss isn't really felt over the course of the album since prior to his departure he managed to record some material early on in the sessions, and the guitar presence is so small on this album anyway that whatever necessary parts could easily be handled by Andy. About half of the material is of a very slight and subdued nature - the strummy, McCartney-esque "I'd Like That" would be the most off-the-cuff song in the band's catalogue were it not for the lush harmonies at the end of every chorus, and the piano ballad "Harvest Festival" effectively paints a lyrical portrait of childhood whimsy with some low-key pizzicato backup that fills out the song nicely. Colin's two contributions, the British-as-hell pub singalong "Frivolous Tonight" and the cutesy "Fruit Nut," practically define the word "slight" more than anything he's ever written in the past, and keep in mind that he wrote "That Is The Way" twenty years earlier, so that's pretty damn slight.

Most of the other songs on the album prominently employ the orchestra, and the results range from grand to somewhat lame usually depending on the quality material. On the positive side there's the sweeping "Easter Theatre," possibly Partridge's peak as a songwriter and one of the fullest-sounding songs this side of Fiji, and the lush ballad "I Can't Own Her," which would be unbearably sappy under most circumstances but is handled with just enough clinical carefulness to make the bursts of orchestration fit the music rather than hang over the proceedings negatively like some overbearing Sting ballad. On the other hand, the Eastern-flavored "Greenman" runs a somewhat-catchy and vaguely-dancable melody into the ground by going on for over six minutes, and "Your Dictionary" is one of the most lyrically-driven songs in the XTC canon this side of "Dear God," which makes it kind of irritating that the lyrics are lame, goth-queen drivel like "H-A-T-E, is that how you spell love in your dictionary?" I'd quote the other lyrics but they spell out dirty words, and cussing is a sin, really, honest. The opener "River Of Orchids" is hard to shove into either category - on paper it sounds totally lame (a seven-minute orchestral song about how much Andy hates cars) but the buildup is done in such a cyclical and intriguing fashion that even though it's not the type of song that'll get anybody's juices flowing it's certainly not worth throwing into the trashbin.

The final verdict is that the album is a bit bizarre even by XTC standards, but it's highly listenable and up to the "good but somewhat flawed" standard set by the band for most of their Rundgren-inspired shiny pop era. It's definitely the "brain" to the followup's "smile," but it has its share of poppy yummy pleasures, and the coda to the closer "The Last Balloon," with Andy's vocal outro being masked by a lone trumpet to metamorphosis-like effect, is just so perfect that it'll make you forget any inconsistencies which may have come before. And dat's the magic of Ex-tee-see, bay-bee.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(Nick Karn's review)

HIGH POINTS: Easter Theatre, I'd Like That, Knights In Shining Karma, The Last Balloon.  LOW POINTS: None.

XTC makes a comeback!  Well, the 'comeback' tag is just in terms of actually putting out an album after almost seven long years, considering Nonsuch was an impressive (if extremely uneven) album in itself, but even so, this is certainly an excellent offering that can qualify as one of their best works.  Actually, it's the first volume of two that chronicles the songs they wrote during their long layoff (thankfully they didn't fill both albums to maximum capacity as Metallica did following their break during their 1996-97 Load/Reload period, or else we'd be dealing with something really inconsistent here). Anyway, the sound here is basically a strange mix of orchestral and acoustic-influenced pop filtered through the genius of Andy Partridge, who takes control here more than ever, now that Dave Gregory has departed and Colin Moulding's presence isn't felt very much on here, aside from two extremely lightweight (but still good!) tunes.

So how about the tunes?  First, the album definitely gives off a weird impression actually opening with "River Of Orchids", one of their strangest songs ever (and please remember, we're dealing with XTC here).  The very trumpet-driven arrangement builds up in strange, almost dissonant, bursts before moving into the body of the song, which features bitter car-hating imagery and complex vocal harmony workouts.  It's a bit ugly for ugly's sake in parts, but the effect is still quite neat, and it's well representative of the more layered side of the album here (i.e. the part of it where it sounds like they spent months laboring over the details of the songs). This sound also extends to the 6 minute numbers - the mantra "Greenman" uses a grand, sweeping symphonic feel with a somewhat repetitive and overlong, but still mostly effective, catchy melody and arrangement (good bassline, too), and the closing "The Last Balloon" heavily incorporates slow jazz influences into its' dramatic pop (the captivating chorus and Partridge's lead vocal seamlessly blending into the ending trumpet solo particularly stand out).

This side of the album is from where the masterpiece here also hails, and the widely praised "Easter Theatre" deserves basically all of its' acclaim. Essentially, it's built like a 4-1/2 minute pop symphony - it's amazing how much the rising and falling of the orchestration, plus the textural subleties (like the slightly offbeat singing in one verse and the 'stage left/right' chorus chant) perfectly work with the gorgeousness of the lyrics and overall atmosphere.  Flawlessly produced and played, and that middle eight is majestic - probably one of the best moments in their history.  Actually, "Easter Theatre" isn't alone in its' beauty - any record with such songs as the gorgeous poppy lullaby of the laidback "Knights In Shining Karma" (what a soothing mood this one has) and sorrowful orchestral ballads as "I Can't Own Her" has to rank as possibly the most genuinely moving, and often personal, song collection XTC ever made.

However, this just might be an album of contradictions in a way - as much as several songs sound like they took weeks or even months to bring to impeccable completion, a few of the others seem like they could have been written in about 20 minutes.  Not that this is a knock against the remaining material - "Your Dictionary" and especially "I'd Like That" have the kind of melodies which, after hearing them, I end up wishing I had written.  Overly angsty and cliched lyrics aside (which admittedly are a bit distracting), the former song has a brilliantly infectious acoustic based melody and a chiming ending that make it pleasurable in spite of itself, and the latter song has pretty much been in my head all week - this acoustic tune is one of the snappiest, most endearing pop tunes they ever wrote (any song with the phrase 'really high, really high, like a really high thing' can't possibly be bad), with great harmonies all over the place.

As a whole, Apple Venus is definitely one of my favorite XTC albums, and undoubtedly a successful return from exile.  I will admit the lightweightedness gets a little excessive (no more apparent than Colin's two songs, the still extremely catchy, charming old time singalong "Frivolous Tonight" and the really dumb, but nonetheless entertaining, "Fruit Nut"). Plus, the mellowness might be a little much at times, and there are slight inconsistent flaws I mentioned within a couple other songs (not to mention "Harvest Festival", while a good child-like song, plods a bit too much for my liking) to keep it just out of 9 range, though I have considered that rating a couple times before reviewing this, so don't be surprised if I ever raise it.  This is an altogether excellent reminder of creative pop music the way it should be done, especially when at its' best.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5

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COMMENTS

john_schlegel@hotmail.com (John Schlegel)

This is a very stunning release, and one of my favorite XTC albums. The whole atmosphere of the work is so engaging and beautiful, and every song is well-done, ranging from pleasant to spellbinding. There's no rock whatsoever to be found here, just gorgeous acoustic balladry and fluently-layered orchestral pop. (When I just now typed "pop," I first accidentally typed "poop," and had to backspace and correct my typo--with that said, don't waste my time with any Freudian poop). Listeners with fairly open and eclectic tastes should find this one a most soothing and enticing listen. The songs "Knights in Shining Karma" and "The Last Balloon" are a little dull and fatigue-inspiring, and "Greenman" is overlong and lacks a strong enough hook to keep the listener interested the whole time. Plus, "Your Dictionary" squanders a fabulous melody with lyrics that are so blatant and sulky that they sound downright dumb, even irritating.  But minor flaws aside, this album is a gem. All the other material not yet mentioned is gold. Personally, I find "River of Orchids" unusually catchy; I didn't know what to make of all the spastic string embellishments and weird vocal parts at first, but somehow, I find the opening track highly enjoyable now. "I'd Like That" is a first-rate acoustic love song, featuring some very infectious vocal harmonies. And what could I say about "Easter Theatre" that hasn't been said already? I feel like I've used up all my positive adjectives. Let's just say it's a masterpiece, and leave it at that. On side two, additional orchestral gems of Partridge's concoction come in the forms of "I Can't Own Her" and "Harvest Festival," which are exquisite both musically and lyrically. Indeed, Apple Venus, Volume 1, comes off as a de-facto Partridge solo album, featuring a trip into the man's warped psyche and a great deal of content about his divorce prior to the album's release. But the ever-charming Moulding makes two refreshing appearances here, most notably in the humorous, lyrically appealing "Frivolous Tonight." If that isn't the most British XTC song, I don't know what is. Moulding's other contribution, "Fruit Nut" (about British eccentricities, natch'), sounds a little corny at first, but eventually the lyrics to that song can become engaging. All in all, this is a highly creative, very well done LP to which I award a 9!


WASP STAR (APPLE VENUS VOL. 2) (2000)

(Rich Bunnell's review)

Better known as "the volume everyone was actually waiting for"; the first Apple Venus album received the obligatory praise from critics for its pristine melodies and multi-layered orchestral bliss, but the promises of XTC doing a "dumb pop album" for the first time in over a decade were just way too tempting to deny. Face it, though some of us might pretend that we're into nothing but artsy and complex music, we're all popmongers at heart, and the prospect of a good ol' shiny guitar-pop hook is just inherently more appealing than that of a blend of strings and piano wrapped around a bizarre 11/8 time signature. That said, this isn't exactly the "dumb guitar-rock" album Andy had been promising fans for years - whether due to the lack of Dave Gregory or not, almost all of the attempts to "rock" on the album end up sounding like glossy pop music. The opener "Playground" for example is based around an absolutely incredible riff typical of what one would expect of a good rock song, but the bulk of the song itself is held up almost entirely by the exuberant melody and other embellishments like children's choruses (courtesy of Andy's daughter Holly Partridge) and chiming schoolyard bells.

Pop music or not, it's spectacular pop music - almost every song on the album is luscious and appealing in a manner similar to that of several Hostess products I could name, with XTC's trademarks like Andy's earnestly bizarre lyrics and complex and exquisite fade-out counter-harmonies plastered all over the place like some kind of jangly wallpaper. The loose and lumbering leadoff single "I'm The Man Who Murdered Love" is easily one of the funniest songs in the band's entire catalogue, with a joyfully defiant "whaddayathinktothat?" hook, and the strangely-danceable "We're All Light," with lyrics constructed out of twisted pick-up lines ("Don't you know, 'bout a zillion years ago, some star sneezed, now they're paging you in reception"), isn't incredibly far behind in that respect. "Stupidly Happy" chugs along on a riff that everyone and his brother has compared to Keith Richards, so I won't, and the closer "The Wheel And The Maypole" splices together two completely different songs (the first a stomping medieval square dance and the second a more playful tremelo-heavy piece of upbeat whimsy) so perfectly that it sounds like they were meant for one another from the day of conception, which they weren't.

If the album has a flaw (all together now: "here we go again"), it's that though all of the material is almost undeniably appealing like being flogged by some kind of catchy stick, only the songs I've already mentioned are actually fulfilling; the band obviously meant for the music to have a certain throwaway quality to it but that ends up working against the material to a certain degree. Colin's songs in particular seem the most like tossoffs--"Boarded Up" mopes along with the gimmick of having footsteps as a drum track but doesn't have much in the way of a, y'know, melody, the bouncy adultery tale "Standing In For Joe" does have a melody, but it's stolen almost verbatim from a Steely Dan song ("Barrytown" in case you're interested, go buy Pretzel Logic, now), and the clunking "In Another Life" is relatively better thanks to a Kinksy harmonica + guitar melody thang but still isn't very filling. Also, Andy irritatingly slows down the pace of the album with a couple of lumbering snail-paced pseudo-rockers -- the four-minute dick joke "My Brown Guitar" has gorgeous harmonies that are unfortunately blurred by the song's awkward and fuzzy structure, and the bluesy "Wounded Horse" has wonderfully-blatant lyrics ("Well I stumbled, and I fell, like a wounded horse, when I found out you'd been riding another man" -- thanks, Andy) that unfortunately don't make up for the song's rather boring and routine melody.

Nevertheless, regardless of this paragraph's worth of nitpicky flaws, the album probably goes down the most easily of any XTC album (with the possible exception of Skylarking), and the cool minimalistic neon cover is fun to stare at if you're bored, really nifty stuff. In case you were wondering about the title, it's Mayan for "Apple Venus," which Andy pulled out of his ass because the execs at TVT didn't want the album released solely under the title "Apple Venus Volume Two" since everyone would allegedly immediately assume that it was another album filled with wussy orchestral ballads and not the pure pop for now people that they wanted oh so much. I think it ended up entering the American charts at somewhere around #105 or something, which is ultimate proof that record company executives and oracles are, in actuality, one and the same.

OVERALL RATING: 8

(John Schlegel's review)

HIGH POINTS: I'm The Man Who Murdered Love, We're All Light, You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful, Playground. LOW POINTS: Church Of Women, Boarded Up.

Wow. I mean, wow. Considering how increasingly pretentious every XTC album has sounded since Black Sea, Waspstar comes as both a sigh of relief and a bit of a surprise. Oh, don't get me wrong - I love XTC as a pretentious band; that's what makes them unique, and such a blessing to their small but dedicated fanbase. Still, this very unpretentious outing is just a lot of fun, and so easy to digest (and, for that matter, easy to review). There are no ambitious gimmicks about Waspstar - XTC are not trying to outdo Sgt. Pepper's, drive the weak-minded crazy with tiresome, gaudy arrangements, or create some spectacular, orchestral masterwork that doesn't sound anything like rock n' roll. No, Waspstar is just a shiny guitar pop album. In fact, it almost comes dangerously close to sounding like modern, wimpy, mainstream rock in places. Thankfully, though, it does not succumb to those terrifying depths, as the band's odd quirks are still intact, and the melodies are as bright and catchy as ever, far better than anything you'd expect from some modern drizzle like Matchbox Twenty. Hell, they even cram in more clever lines like "Boarded up, twobyfourded up," and "Don't you know, Jack and Jillion years ago?" In other words, it still sounds like XTC, so the album is still "all light," as Andy Partridge would say. That, and it's just really good, as guitar pop albums go.

The chief factor that makes this album successful is consistency - most of the songs are good, with even most of the "lesser" moments still being decent. The vocal melodies in "I'm The Man Who Murdered Love" are about as catchy as anything you could imagine, and that crisp, trebly production give songs like this an added "punch." The opener "Playground" is about equally as good, with a cool, electrical main riff and harmonious chorus, although the song is marred somewhat by Partridge's whiny lyrics about the abuses of the school yard: "You may leave school but it never leaves you." Yeah, Andy, I hated public school, too. Deal with it. "We're All Light" is another great pop song with stunningly hypnotic verses - gotta love that buzzing sound that hovers over Partridge's vocal, whatever it is. On "You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful," they mix things up a bit with some gorgeous, reggae-influenced pop, and rest assured, the vocal delivery is as idiosyncratic as ever: "But no matter what the weather/You and the clouds will still be beautiful/UHHH."

With two exceptions that I'll get to, the rest of the songs are pretty good, too; good enough, I'd say, to recommend buying this CD new. Some of the songs on here are flawed in minor ways, perhaps, but not so much that it takes away from the enjoyment level of the album. "Stupidly Happy" is more solid - if ultra simplistic - guitar pop, and almost as good as the songs mentioned above. Colin Moulding's "Standing In For Joe" is a lot of fun as well, although, like Rich pointed out, it's a screaming rip-off of Steely Dan's "Barrytown" (having said that, I believe that Moulding claims that he has not actually heard the Steely Dan song; that is sure a strange coincidence). While we're on the subject, the adequate, harmonica-driven ballad "In Another Life" is basically just the bass player ripping off himself, this time "Frivolous Tonight." "My Brown Guitar" is awkward in structure, but I actually like the way the subdued verses segue into the macho, campfire sing-along chorus. "The Wheel And The Maypole" is even more awkward in structure, and not as good, though I like the first part (that would be the "Wheel" part). "Wounded Horse" is an average attempt by Partridge to play blues, I guess. The only songs on here I really don't particularly like are Moulding's tiring ballad "Boarded Up" and Partridge's dreadful, gazillionth feminist anthem, "Church Of Women." On the whole, Waspstar is not all that innovative of a release for the band at this point in its career, but it still boasts enough punchy guitar pop and pretty ballads to warrant a relatively high rating.

OVERALL RATING: 8

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