don't let the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in grey

 

XTC

 

Those guys from Swindon. Quite a talented pop outfit, actually.

lineup: Colin Moulding (bass, vocals) and Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals); with Terry Chambers (drums on the first five); Dave Gregory (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals [Drums & Wires to AVv1]); Barry Hammond (insane new-wave organ & electric piano on the first two); and a succession of hired guns on the drums for every album after English Settlement.

review index: White Music / Drums & Wires / Black Sea / English Settlement / Mummer / The Big Express / Skylarking / Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (the Dukes of Stratosphear) / Oranges & Lemons / Rag & Bone Buffet / Nonsuch / Transistor Blast: Best of the BBC Sessions / Apple Venus Volume One / Wasp Star

missing albums: Go 2 and the upcoming box set thing

apex: Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (the Dukes of Stratosphear)
nadir: I'll wait on this one till I get Go 2, kay?
overlooked: Mummer


White Music - 1977

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Statue of Liberty, This Is Pop, Radios in Motion, Neon Shuffle
Worst songs: All Along the Watchtower, I'll Set Myself on Fire, Do What You Do

 

Hey, this is pretty good. Pretty much written off by Andy and Colin, not to mention most XTC fans, this is a portrait of the group's often-overlooked early period. Keyboardist Barry Andrews is the antithesis of future member Dave Gregory -- his unpredictable, spastic playing style fit in well with Andy's spastic guitar playing and Terry Chambers' unpredictable drumming.

And even at this early point, Andy's displaying his songwriting chops: the opening track "Radios in Motion" is a great almost-anthemic number, and "Statue of Liberty and "This Is Pop" both display an ear for pop hooks. And other songs also display great critical clichés. A couple near the end are of the questionable variety ("Spinning Top"? "A New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage"?), and the cover of "All Along the Watchtower" buh-loze but for the most part, Andy's got it together.

Colin, on the other carpal tunnel syndrome, does not. "Crosswires" is a fun frenetic foray, but "Do What You Do" is one minute of total nonsense, and "I'll Set Myself on Fire" is only useful for the neat match intro.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that this is a good album. I'd like to say that, but this album sucks!! Hahahahahahaaaa! Whoo, that was a good one. Anyway, yeah, you'll like this album. Okay, so you might not like it if your tolerance for herky-jerky new wave is low, but everyone else, look out!

The bonus tracks on this one include the early classic "Science Friction" and some undistinguished numbers. "She's So Square" is pretty good, but the rest is... ehhh.


Drums & Wires - 1979

Rating: ***
Best songs: Making Plans for Nigel, When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty, Real By Reel, Ten Feet Tall
Worst songs: Complicated Game, Scissor Man, That Is the Way

 

The Helium Kidz' first album with guitarist/keyboardist/arranger extraordinaire Dave Gregory, D&W suffers from "side one" syndrome. That is, the first side of the album is great, and the second is crap. Also, the production lacks any sort of warmth. Thanks a whole bunch, Lillywhite...

Okay, side two isn't total crap -- "Real By Reel" is one of the most instantly catchy ditties (adverbs!) the band has ever done. But the side also contains two really annoying Partridge compositions: "Scissor Man" is a grating kids' tale, and "Complicated Game" goes from inaudible whisper to cacophonic mess in under five minutes. Colin's "That Is the Way" isn't much better, featuring a mainly repetative melody, and "Millions" might've been good had it been edited down from 5 1/2 minutes.

Side one, however, is where the good stuff lay: it contains the band's first UK hit, "Making Plans for Nigel", and other fine songs, such as the bouncy tremolo-fest "Helicopter" and oh I give up.

Note: get the reissue. It's got "Life Begins at the Hop".


Black Sea - 1980

Rating: ****
Best songs: Respectable Street, Towers of London, No Language in Our Lungs, Burning With Optimism's Flames
Worst songs: Travels in Nihilon, Living Through Another Cuba

 

Wow, now this is much better than that Drums & Wires stuff. Only two bad songs this time ("Travels in Nihilon" sits on its arse for seven minutes, and "Living Through Another Cuba" is a really friggin' annoying bit of political commentary)! Good job, lads!

Andy pens several of his best early-period tunes: the "Rain" rewrite "Towers of London", the social critique "Respectible Street", and the uplifting "Burning With Optimism's Flames", blabbedy bla bla, so on and so on. I really like "No Language in Our Lungs" too.

This time, Colin only contributes two songs ("Generals and Majors" and "Love at First Sight"), and I wouldn't rank either of them as album highlights, but they're both silly fun: "Generals" is an upbeat discoey tune with a great Gregory guitar line and even a whistling part, and "Love" is a bouncy little ditty about, er, love, with Terry Chambers locking into a neat tom-tom-dominated groove.

I haven't heard the first two albums, but I'd say this is probably the best of their early period. So there!


English Settlement - 1982

Rating: ***
Best songs: Runaways, All of a Sudden (It's Too Late), Senses Working Overtime, Yacht Dance
Worst songs: Leisure, No Thugs In Our House, It's Nearly Africa, Melt the Guns

 

Another badly-produced album, this time featuring meandering arrangements used to fill out space (this was a double album, you see). So we've got crap like "Melt the Guns" running on for five or six minutes, boring us to death. Luckily, the album contains several high-quality pop tunes -- Colin's "Ball and Chain" and Andy's "All of a Sudden" and "Senses Working Overtime", the latter of which is one of the oddest things to hit the top 10 in the UK. Also, the stretched-out arrangements actually benefit a couple of songs, namely the atmospheric opener "Runaways" and the near-epic "Jason and the Argonauts".

So what else is there? Nylon-string guitars reign supreme in the waltzy "Yacht Dance", Colin goes into skaville on the 5/4 time "English Roundabout", aaaand Andy contribues a bouncy pro-women tune called "Down in the Cockpit", though he horibbly maligned it with his dub experiments (the result of which is on Rag & Bone Buffet). Certainly worth picking up, but its faults (including "Leisure", one of the worst-ever XTC tracks) prevent it from getting a particularly high grade.


Mummer - 1983

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Beating of Hearts, Deliver Us from the Elements, Love on a Farmboy's Wages, Funk Pop a Roll
Worst songs: Human Alchemy, Me and the Wind

 

Badly-produced once again, but this time they don't overdo it with the crappy songs. In fact, of all the ten tracks on this release, I'd say only two of them qualify for the "bad" pile. "Me and the Wind", despite the nice refrain, just rambles on (sing my song!) and on, and "Human Alchemy" is one of the dreariest side-openers ever writ.

And check out those other tunes: "Beating of Hearts" is one of Andy's best-ever 'all you need is love'-type songs, "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" is the only acoustic guitar-driven song of the lot, and Colin provides two neat synthy songs in "Wonderland" and "Deliver Us from the Elements", the latter of which features a neat, echo-drenched ending. There's also "Funk Pop a Roll", the only really up-tempo number on the album, in which Andy gets incredibly acerbic over the music industry, and badly-constructed sentences for all.

The bonus tracks on the CD reissue are surprisingly good, too: "Desert Island" and "Jump" are lovely acoustic ditties, "Frost Circus" is an eerie minimalist instrumental, and "Gold" is a fun rocker with some horns in there somewhere. Only "Procession Towards Learning Land" sucks, as it's just a bit of dissonant synth work.


The Big Express - 1984

Rating: ****
Best songs: Wake Up, This World Over, You're the Wish You Are I Had, I Remember the Sun
Worst songs: Reign of Blows, I Bought Myself a Liarbird

 

Well, this time the production ain't bad! The Linndrum used on some of the tracks puts the album squarely in the 80's, but it is put to good use supplying the clattering percussion of "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her".

The songwriting is getting more and more consistent, which is of course a good thing. On this one, Colin only supplies two songs, but they're both bonus: "Wake Up" features scratching guitars, an almost funky rhythm section, and a one-woman chorus on the fadeout. Now that's how you open an album. And "I Remember the Sun" is a wonderfully jazzy, wistful ballad. Andy contributes several of the required bouncy pop tunes: the overly silly country-western parody "Shake You Donkey Up", yet another tribute to the wonders of women in "All You Pretty Girls", and the impossibly catchy "You're the Wish You Are I Had". Then he goes 180 degrees and delivers a mournful tale of a post-nuclear holocaust, "This World Over".

Of course, nobody's perfect, least of all Andy, and that shows on side two: "Reign of Blows" and "I Bought Myself a Liarbird" really annoy the heck out of me, and "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" is...well, it's okay, but the intro is the most clever part.

The bonus tracks on this one aren't anything to write home about. The best is Colin's goofy "Lady Madonna" takeoff, "Washaway". Andy's "Blue Overall" is really irritating, and "Red Brick Dream" is okay but rather inconsequential.


Skylarking - 1986

Rating: ****1/2
Best songs: Earn Enough for Us, Summer's Cauldron, Ballet for a Rainy Day, Grass
Worst songs: Dear God, Big Day

 

The closest thing to a breakthrough in the US that XTC has had came in 1986, when radio DJs (for some unknown reason) started playing the b-side to the "Grass" single, a non-album track called "Dear God". Hoping for a mega-success, the record company added "Dear God" to the Skylarking LP, but of course, the album didn't even hit gold status. But because of that, damn near every copy of Skylarking now has "Dear God" on it instead of "Mermaid Smiled", which Andy chose to drop because it was the shortest song on the album.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the song "Dear God" SUCKS. It's an abysmal attempt at fitting a complex religious issue into a 3-minute pop song, and even the song's author (Andy P. himself) has since disowned it. In fact, if I had the version of the album with "Mermaid Smiled" on it instead of "Dear God", I'd probably give this the whole five stars!

Well, anyway, as you might've surmised by the number of asterisks at the top, the album is very nice. Todd Rundgren was brought in to produce it (or rather, XTC was brought to Todd's studio to record it), and he pulls all the stops, filling the songs with a wonderfully summery atmosphere. A couple highlights: the hazy "Summer's Cauldron" is a fine way to start the day, and "Earn Enough for Us" is a nice slice of power-pop. Aside from "Dear God", the only stumble here is Colin's miserable "Rain" ripoff "Big Day", but he redeems himself with the lolling "Grass", and the one-two closing punch of "Dying" and "Sacrificial Bonfire". Overall, an excellent album, and probably the best way to introduce yourself to the mystical world of XTC.


the Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball - 1987

Rating: *****
Best songs: 25 O'Clock: 25 O'Clock, The Mole from the Ministry. Psonic Psunspot: Vanishing Girl, Pale and Precious, You're My Drug
Worst songs: ehh... none, really

 

Yes, I know it's a compilation, and I know what I've said about compilations. But if I can't break my rules, who can? Anyway, this isn't any ol' singles comp, this just collects the 25 O'Clock EP and Psonic Psunspot LP. And who, pray tell, are the Dukes of Stratosphear? Well, it's XTC (with Dave Gregory's brother Ian on the drums) paying homage to the music of '66-'67.

First we have the 25 O'Clock EP. This was done in 1985, twixt The Big Express and Skylarking. As it's a. shorter, and b. their first release, it's more focused than Psunspot. The highlights on this one include the doom-laden Electric Prunes takeoff "25 O'Clock", the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd tribute "Bike Ride to the Moon", and the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"I Am the Walrus"/"A Day in the Life" combination "The Mole from the Ministry". The other three songs are great too. They have to be, I did give this five stars, after all.

Then there's Psonic Psunspot, which is less overtly psychedelic, but still firmly grounded in the pseudo-60's atmosphere, as evidenced by the Beach Boys pastiche "Pale and Precious", the Small Faces-esque pub-rocker "You're a Good Man Albert Brown", and my personal favorite, the Hollies-style "Vanishing Girl". The album also features some silly psychedelic dialogue in between some of the songs. "The puffin sipped at his herbal tea and sighed, 'you can't get the buttons these days!'" indeed. Overall, this is one of XTC's greatest collections of songs, and it has that special something, perhaps because their overt cleverness has been reined in to fit in with the 60's vibe.

Thank you for reading "Dull Reviews With Cole". Tune in next time for a review of Oranges and Lemons!


Oranges & Lemons - 1989

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Mayor of Simpleton, The Loving, King for a Day, Across This Antheap
Worst songs: Pink Thing, Here Comes President Kill Again, Cynical Days

 

Sheeze Louise! What's with the production? XTC enters the 80's a few years too late, I think...

Well, as you might have guessed, this is a blaring, shiny, squarely-in-the-80's album. The annoying production nearly ruins some of the better songs ("The Garden of Earthly Delights" in particular), but luckily most of the good material is still listenable: the hi-octane shoulda-been-a-hit "Mayor of Simpleton", the anthemic "The Loving", Colin's groovy "King for a Day", et cetera. Most of the first half is pretty good, but I don't feel like thinking up witty ways to tell you about them.

But hey! Look who hasn't heard of editing! The album would've been a lot better off without the incredibly bothersome songs "Pink Thing" and "Here Comes President Kill Again", as well as Colin's overly dour "Cynical Days". A couple other bits ("Merely a Man", "Miniature Sun") are also candidates for dumping, but I wouldn't want to go overboard.

Oh, just buy it. It's five bucks!


Rag & Bone Buffet - 1990

Rating: **1/2
Best songs: see below
Worst songs: see below

 

A bunch of odds and sods! Brief analysis follows.

Great: Extrovert, Mermaid Smiled, Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen, Thanks for Christmas

Okay: Looking for Footprints, Over Rusty Water, Heaven is Paved With Broken Glass, The World is Full of Angry Young Men, Countdown to Christmas Party Time, Blame the Weather

Weird: Strange Tales Strange Tails, Officer Blue, Cockpit Dance Mixture, Pulsing Pulsing, History of Rock n Roll

Bad: Punch and Judy, Tissue Tigers, I Need Protection, Happy Families, Take This Town

Pointless: Ten Feet Tall, Respectable Street, Another Satellite

Bad and pointless: Scissor Man


Nonsuch - 1992

Rating: ****
Best songs: Wrapped in Grey, The Ugly Underneath, The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead, Rook
Worst songs: Omnibus, Crocodile, War Dance

 

This is closer in style to Skylarking than Oranges and Lemons, but isn't jam-packed with yummy ear candy. It's more in the style of chimey guitar rock and folky pastoralness. Colin's contributions to this one are pretty disappointing: "The Smartest Monkeys" and "War Dance" are ham-fisted attempts at social commentary, and "Bungalow" is as irritating as it is charming, though it's supposedly one of Andy's favorite Colin songs. "My Bird Performs" is the best of his compositions, a fine "I'm happy with my lot" song.

Andy is the real star here: he contributes possibly the greatest song that he's ever written, "Wrapped in Grey". For once he puts aside (for the most part) his insistent cleverness and produces a simple, beautiful, heartfelt song. "Rook" and "Humble Daisy", to some extent, are similar, but they're just not as wonderful as "Wrapped in Grey".

Elsewhere Andy contributes the weird-dynamics of "The Ugly Underneath", the weird-bass-driven "Holly Up on Poppy", the weird 60's pop gem "Dear Madam Barnum", and the weird psychedelicized "Then She Appeared". Have I worn that joke out enough? Good! And so's the album.


Transistor Blast: Best of the BBC Sessions - 1998

Rating: ***
Best songs: it's a box set, there's way too many of these
Worst songs: same here!

 

Criminy, does a band who stopped touring after four albums really need a box set? Especially since two of the discs are BBC sessions, which means the songs sound basically the same as the original versions, except more synthesized (fake drums on the post-English Settlement tracks, you see). Really, unless you're a die-hard XTC fan, this is a totally unnecessary release -- after all, I've made my feelings on live albums known several times before this. But if you really have to hear a White Music-era live performance, you'll have to get this box set, as disc 3 features such early classics as "I'll Set Myself On Fire" and "A Newtown Animal in a Furnished Cage". In my opinion, the best of the four discs is the Black Sea performance, but you can buy the album separate as BBC Radio 1 Live. D'oh.


Apple Venus, Volume One - 1999

Rating: ****
Best songs: Easter Theatre, I'd Like That, I Can't Own Her, River of Orchids
Worst songs: Greenman, Harvest Festival

 

So, after a seven-year battle with Virgin/Geffen, XTC is finally let go. Now they get to control their fate!

And it was worth the wait. Andy has written some incredibly well-composed songs (was that redundant?): the gorgeous "Easter Theatre" has got to be one of XTC's finest ever songs, and "River of Orchids" makes XTC's earlier "weird" songs like "Scissor Man" look incredibly normal, with its chaotic string plonks that resolve into something resembling a coherent pattern, while horns fade in and out and Andy sings about "push[ing] your car off the road" and whatnot. Well, it'll make more sense once you hear it.

He goes for more normal material, too: the McCartneyish "I'd Like That" is catchier than most everything the man himself has released for the past couple decades, and "Knights in Shining Karma" is a gentle lullabye featuring fingerpicked electric guitar and some vibes. "I Can't Own Her" is another highlight, being sort of a takeoff of old 40's ballads or something like that -- sorry, but that era isn't something I know much about! Indeed, Andy only trips up twice: "Greenman" just keeps repeating and boring me to death, and "Harvest Festival" is just dull.

Colin, on the other hand, seems to have been sitting on his thumbs for the past seven years. He only contributes two songs, and neither of them are that distinctive: "Frivolous Tonight" sounds like a standard from the 20's or whatever, and is quite pleasant, but his ending attempt to 'take it over the top' by changing the words to "we're all so ridiculous tonight" shoots the song in the proverbial foot. And "Fruit Nut" is cute but inconsequential.

Nevertheless, Apple Venus Volume One has demonstrated that the band (or Andy, at least) hasn't run out of steam yet, and that they're still up for making every album sound totally different from the last.


Wasp Star - 2000

Rating: ***1/2
Best songs: Playground, Stupidly Happy, My Brown Guitar, Wounded Horse
Worst songs: Boarded Up, Church of Women, You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful

 

Once again proving that they can still make an album that sounds very little like any of the others they've done, XTC (at this point just Andy and Colin) have managed to produce two albums in as many years, a feat that hasn't happened since Mummer and The Big Express in 83/84. How's this one sound? Well, it's guitar rock, but not the twangy scratchy guitar rock that dominated the Drums and Wires/Black Sea era. It's got a fuller, less-tinny production, thanks to the non-presence of Steve Lillywhite (Nick Davis does the production, if that means anything to you).

Well, enough of the production, let's talk songs. Andy's still writing lovely pop gems: in particular, "Stupidly Happy" is brilliant. It's built around one riff that plays through the entire song, but they add all these little bits throughout that sustains the listener's interest. Elsewhere, the opener "Playground" has a riff that one would expect to hear on the radio, if the radio wasn't polluted with shitty talentless bands and plastic teen idols. And "Wounded Horse" is a hilarious pseudo-blues tune. Think about it, won't you?

Only a couple of Andy's compositions miss the mark this time: "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful" is as awkward as the title implies, "Church of Women" is a preachy pro-women song, and "The Wheel and the Maypole" is half-good ("The Wheel" part) and half-bad ("The Maypole" part). Simple, non?

Colin's songs are a little better this time: "Boarded Up" is dull dull dull, but "In Another Life" is a neat little harmonica-driven tune, and "Standing in for Joe" is funny, despite the fact that the music is ripped off (unintentionally, so Colin claims) from the Steely Dan song "Barrytown".

I wanted to give this one four stars, but it just doesn't seem as consistent as Apple Venus Volume 1. Sorry, Rich!


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