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Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: --------
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1978

Gibbidigibby, what a nasty racist title for the band's fresh-off-the-pan debut album. But what can we do? It's a pretty truthful name. This is white music, white to the extreme, and also quite derivative from other white music (which, I guess, is XTC's main crime against humanity anyway - and explains their lack of popularity pretty well). That said, White Music isn't exactly without its innovative merits. Unlike the band's later albums, this one's entirely written within the New Wave environment, and to these ears sounds like a cross between the Cars and Pere Ubu, except that the Cars hadn't yet released their debut, so, eh, I guess it'll be Pere Ubu and, uh, Blondie instead. Or something like that.

Anyway, White Music is pop - weird, quirky, unstandard (by then-current standards) pop, based essentially on (a) jerky, pseudo-amateurish distorted guitar riffs, occasionally bordering on dissonance, courtesy of Andy Partridge, (b) jerky, pseudo-amateurish cooey-cooey synth riffs, occasionally bordering on cheese, courtesy of Barry Andrews, (c) jerky, totally amateurish and paranoid vocals, occasionally bordering on chaos, courtesy of - bother - Andy Partridge again, although occasionally bass player Colin Moulding takes the spotlight (well, he's supposed to, at least, I can't really tell the difference, especially when both of them are trying to play the fool at once). As for the songwriting, it is almost entirely dominated by Partridge, but a decent chunk of the material belongs to Moulding anyway, and that's the way it was gonna stay.

The record gets a bad rap from XTC fans occasionally, just because it's so goddamn different from Skylarking, but for anybody who's pulled his ears long enough to digest and enjoy your basic New Wave (everything from Costello to the Police to the Cars to U2), White Music will eventually disclose its hidden charms. If there's any true problem with it, it's that it's so awful long, and with the CD edition taking the band's debut EP 3D-EP and jamming it into the middle, it's now even longer. Nineteen tracks, and all of them sound the same. Oh yes they do. The melodies are different, but when it's guitar riff/cheesy synth/crazy vocal on song after song after song, it's pretty hard to concentrate, isn't it?

One song is different, and that's the band's take on 'All Along The Watchtower', and I'm still not sure if it's anything else than a bad postmodernist joke. The vocals on that particular track, with a glottal stop inserted after each initial consonant (as in "said the j... 'oker to the th... 'ief"), gotta rank among the most idiotic vocals ever set to tape. Friggin' awful, even if the bassline is kinda cool, but they entirely waste it on something that you could probably do, too, alone in your bathroom after a couple bottles of brandy. The two-minute coda with all of its hiccuping and rudimentary harmonica playing is an absolute nightmare. Of course, just like 'Mother' by The Police or anything Yoko Ono ever put out, this one is bound to find its supporters as well, just because it's so 'far out', ya know.

Pfooey. Speaking of 'far out', I much prefer Moulding's tricky two minute signature-change-exercise 'Crosswires'. A lightning-speed punk riff married to avantgarde dissonance might seem like a bad idea on paper, but in reality it turns out to be something special, and even perversely catchy in a Colin Moulding kind of way. Gotta love those faraway, almost Eastern synths in the chorus, and the frantic drumming, of course. However, don't get the wrong idea: the point of this album was by no means make a 'weird' album. Like I said, it does remind me of Pere Ubu, just because the lyrics are so unpredictably absurd at times and the music can take about any turn possible, but XTC are a free-form band using their unpredictability with the aim of creating accessible - if unstandard - melody. 'Crosswires' is more of an exception, then, than a rule.

Most of the songs are pretty good, and after a few initial listens, all of them, apart from the horrible crime of 'Watchtower' and maybe a couple more chaotic Colin Moulding experiments like 'Dance Band', become catchy and friendly. Nothing on here really means a thing, but then again, neither do most of Paul McCartney's albums, and they're still genius. This is formula, but it's as inventive, creative and user-friendly formula as can be. It's hardly possible for me to name all the highlights, so I'll just name a few. 'Radios In Motion' is a stunning opener, with the kicking drums, rumbling two-note bass riff (it's two notes, isn't it? or three?) and seemingly punkish, yet not so punkish in reality (heck, it's almost syncopated) guitar line announcing the big arrival of XTC just as well as Stewart Copeland's onslaught at the beginning of 'Next To You' announced the big arrival of The Police that same year. 'This Is Pop' is completely adequate to its name and content - it is pop, and mighty fine, too. How come Ric Ocasek never wrote that song?

'Statue Of Liberty' is playful and cheerful, and funny how XTC never got outlawed for even suggesting the frivolous idea of sailing 'beneath your skirt'. Hey, what's that, sexual harrassment of America's First Lady? We'll have none of that, you impudent Brits. Moulding's 'I'll Set Myself On Fire', with its ridiculous 'whoah whoah hoo hoo haa's. Partridge's rambling Iggy Pop-style social protest number 'I'm Bugged'. And, of course, all those early tunes from the '77 EP - like 'Science Friction' with its beautiful contrast between the Cars-ish, thoroughly contemporary, keyboard solo, and the short Chuck Berry-lick infested guitar solo from Andy, so thoroughly retro. And then there's all those neat touches like the bass on 'Heatwave', and all the ass-kicking like on 'Traffic Light Rock' which displays a tightness undreamt of by most punk bands of the time.

I know, I know, it all sounds the same (which is why the rating is lower than it could have been), and 'All Along The Watchtower' is a crime against humanity only comparable with Rod Stewart's butchering of 'In My Life', but creativity is creativity, and it's easily one of the best debut albums of the epoch (although, granted, most of the talented New Wave artists had excellent debuts - somehow, nobody ever really had to grow up to something, ooh, what a bore). Although, of course, I'll have to reiterate the warning that this sounds nothing, or almost nothing, like their later glossy-poppy records. But you needn't worry about that. All of their later glossy-poppy records have been collected in huge piles and burned, according to the orders of Master of the Universe. Only this one has remained because he happened to like the title 'Into The Atom Age'. Hey, I like it too!

PS. Through personal communication from my good friend Rich Bunnell I just learned that 'Statue Of Liberty' was banned on the BBC. Hey, sounds cool: "let's ban the Statue of Liberty". Maybe that was the phrase Partridge expected to be pronounced so much?


GO 2 ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1978

Gotta love those titles, often more telling than the music itself. It is said in the great and cloudy lore of X-T-C that the band threw this follow-up record together rather hastily, and it shows. There's no progression in sound whatsoever, just more of the same punk-grown Cars-nurtured New Wave that you either love or hate. (When the Russian pirate market threw the XTC catalog out on the shelves, sarcastic guys in the Internet catalog wrote something like 'miserable British New Wavers that had been forgotten by the mid-Eighties even in their homeland, so what the hell do we need them for'? I assume Go 2 was the only album these twats have listened to, and only a few songs at that).

Seriously now, it is still obvious that these guys are excellent songwriters, because for an album hastily thrown together, it has some really strong hooks and some really fresh excitement throughout. It also lacks a hideous low point such as 'All Along The Watchtower', and I guess if you scratch your head enough to get all the dandruff on your shoulders, you can also say something really clever like "Well, duh, they are now more experienced and self-assured than before, I guess." But on the other hand, I already sat through nineteen songs that all sounded the same, and here's thirteen more. There's not a tiniest hint at stylistic diversity; it's rocker after rocker after rocker, just about every one of which is really tight and well put together when taken on its own, but when placed in a row, they just merge and merge and merge together. It's like you're listening to a bunch of whackos who are so busy whacking themselves out in a flurry, speedy, messy way, that you can't even have enough time to give yourself into the groove.

Then again, who really cares. Listen to this one song per day and watch your hemorrhoids shrink without surgery. Here we go, blow by blow. 'Meccanic Dancing' is again true to its name, very "meccanic" sounding (or was it Medinanic?), very paranoid, very keyboard-and-bass-filled and with a Beatlesque line in 'can't wait until the weekend comes'. 'Battery Brides' is subtitled 'Andy Paints Brian' and I have no clue to what it means - it ain't Brian Eno Andy is painting, now is it? the tune really souds very Enoish to me. But unlike Eno's material, this one never really takes off; you might like the ba-ba-ba-ba-battery brides chorus with the descending piano swirl that envelops it, but apart from that obvious hook, the rest is very moody and very nothing-like.

'Buzzcity Talking' gets us the first great jangly pattern on the album and almost starts getting into jam mode (and I'd really like to hear these guys jam in the, well, traditional sense of the word - they wouldn't display the greatest technique in the world, but they would sure be inventive enough to make you gasp) before it is replaced by the nerdy 'Crowded Room', perhaps the best tune on here, perhaps not, you never can tell with New Wave. The quirk here is how the "traditional" parts, like the 'pushing me out, pushing me out' section, almost seamlessly merges with the entirely modernistic 'down the fire escape, down the fire escape' section. It's like one minute you're having yourself a nice solid power pop number, and the next minute it's like, 'Oh no! They're mocking my very soul!'

From there on, the band seems to display more and more power and fire, alternating "poppier" and "rockier" numbers in a way that escapes categorization because most of the "poppier" songs are bound to have a "rockier" section and vice versa. I've changed my mind about namedropping every single song because it won't do the neophyte no good, but I'll just say I love the mad saxophone on the politically charged 'Red' (I actually think it predicts some of the similar, but more disciplined work of the same kind by the Police on Ghost In The Machine), and 'Beatown' almost develops into that kind of 'jam' I was dreaming about, but it's not really a jam, more like a furious rocking coda where Moulding has the patience and humility to limit himself to endlessly repeat the same two bass notes and it works admirably. Great driving power.

It's also quite possible, if not necessary, to enjoy the stupid catchiness of 'Jumping' (anti-religious rant, eh?) and even the unabashed sexism of 'My Weapon', but I should reiterate the word 'stupid': personally, I think these guys occasionally exaggerate with their nerdiness and faked schizophrenia, exactly the kind of things that give New Wave a bad name when they give it any name at all. It takes a lot of tolerance and good will not to dismiss 'My Weapon' as a dumb modernist sexist joke, and heck, it is a dumb modernist sexist joke. But a cool one.

Note that the CD edition appends 'Are You Receiving', a contemporary single that's among the band's best work of the epoch, mindbogglingly catchy and just urging you to sing along, but then again, it's not all that different from the rest either. But I noticed its charms anyway, even after being really tired of the same mood and same style all over the place. It does get to you. Maybe I should be a good lad and get back to my Grand Funk Railroad instead.



Year Of Release: 1979

You know, sometimes I do get around to thinking that New Wave might not have been such a good idea after all. Oh sure, you've got your Police, which are just absolutely mind-blowing, and you've got your Talking Heads, which give the word "paranoia" a whole new meaning, and you've got your Cars which are just way cute to dance to. But for every Reggatta De Blanc or Remain In Light you have yourself something like this. Drums & Wires just makes me entirely blow my cool, and not even repeated listenings help.

It's not a bad album, nossiree, at least, not a hopeless one, because it does get an acceptable rating. It has its share of solid melodies, which I'll get to in a minute, right after I bash the stuffing out of everything else. I'll go further and say that almost no songs on here are "uninteresting" - just like in the case of Go 2, you can take any selected tune and it'll turn out exciting on its own. But what I'll also say is that in general perspective, this is where Partridge's and Moulding's fiddling around with New Wave gets extremely stale.

The album simply gives the impression of being way too mechanic, too preconceived, too soulless. Oh sure, so were the previous two. But at least those two had some goddamn energy; the quirky intellectual side of the band presented itself in the untrivial chord changes and lyrics, and their emotional kick-ass side - in the guitar roar, the speed and the fury. Combined together, the two sides really worked. Drums & Wires drops the 'emotional' side entirely. It's like a weird, seriously entangled absurdist concept slowly unravelling itself, but never actually resolving itself. The entire record is filled with songs like 'Roads Girdle The Globe', which are kinda interesting, from a technical point of view, but just way too nerdy and pointless to make any impression. Okay, so 'we're all safe in your concrete robe', that's nice to know, Andy. What else? What's the goddamn feel of that song supposed to be?

The dissonance of 'That Is The Way', as far as I'm concerned, is supposed to produce some kind of "majestic" feel, but it's way too obvious and way too simplistic and, from the other side, way too ear-destructive to be appreciated. 'Scissor Man' is kinda novel in the way Andy goes 'snipping snipping snipping' while the guitar probably imitates the instrument in question, but again, in my mind the song is mainly relegated to "a complicately sounding nothing". I mean, dzhing, it's not really enough for a song to be catchy, a song has to convey something. I dunno, whatever, from teenage lust to Learian absurdity, anything. 'Scissor Man', or a good half of these tunes in general, convey nothing. It's probably a gas to analyze these songs - there's so much going on - but hardly a gas getting entertained by them. That's what happens when you're way too clever, I guess. Hey Mr Partridge! Can we have some of these brains out on a plate?

The absolute nadir is 'Complicated Game', though, arguably the band's worst song after 'All Along The Watchtower'. I'm ready to agree that the lengthy ferocious bacchanalia of the song's coda might appeal to some, but forgive me, I can only tolerate wild screaming when it's done with real gusto and justified - for all I care, there is no emotionality to the song at all, it's just an exercise in noisemaking, and thus pretty similar to the Police's 'Mother'. It's just ugly. There are few songs I really have a hard time sitting through, and this is one of them. Ooh, give me Tim Buckley instead, please.

There, I said it. Now that the worst excesses of New Wave have been pinpointed at, let's discuss the good things. There's a bunch of solid pop tunes on here anyway - and, of course, the best thing happens when the band just drops their quirkiness and "hyper-constructivity" and goes for a simpler (which still is never that simple, of course) approach. 'Making Plans For Nigel', the band's anti-steel industry rant, is a hell of a song, for instance, with a really catchy chorus and a really cute minimalistic guitar riff. 'Helicopter' theoretically belongs to the same pseudo-constructive mess, but at least it's bouncy and funny, and I don't have to spend my days scratching my head in dismay trying to decipher the profound message.

'Ten Feet Tall' is the natural precursor to the band's upcoming major pop period, a boldly-moving acoustic-based ballad with folksy vocal harmonies and nice guitar jangle... did I mention that this is the first album that features new guitarist Dave Gregory? Ha! NOT A SINGLE SONG on here sounds like the Cars now! Barry Andrews is out forever! His legacy still lives on in the crappy half of the record, though, but that wouldn't be for long. 'Real By Reel', or whatever it's called, is also a classy song - now there's a magnificent New Wave guitar riff and a super-duper catchy chorus, just look at the vocal melody resolution, goddammit. And 'Outside World' is pretty much the only reminiscence of the band's punk-influenced beginnings; maybe in the context of White Music it'd be just a piece of filler, but here, tucked in between two energy-devoid exercises in hollow intellectualism, it feels just right. Plus, the bonus tracks are good - particularly the funny 'Life Begins At The Hop'.

So in all, there's enough solid material to guarantee a decent rating, but the record as a whole just doesn't cut it - too much 'drums and wires', too little actual substance. By all accounts, it's a transitional record, of course, but some bands make great transitional records and some make crappy ones, and it's not like if you make a transitional crappy record, you're hopeless, so don't despair! Things would get better.


BLACK SEA ****1/2

Year Of Release: 1980

Gotta love the absolutely symbolic way the album begins. Instead of something jerky and quirky you'd expect to hear, the first thing to hit (or, rather, to softly tinkle) your eardrums is a minimalistic piano melody with Partridge humming a few lines in exactly the same way you would think Paul McCartney initiated a piano demo of some future megahit. Of course, in just a matter of seconds 'Respectable Street' does transform into something jerky and quirky, a catchy, well-harmonized, New Wave-encrusted, Elvis Costello-blessed pop-rocker, but the damage has been done, want it or not. This is no longer the technophilian nerdy XTC of yore. From now on, XTC doesn't just want to be 'odd', it wants to add substance to style, even if that means discarding some of the style.

There are no weak spots on the album; Partridge and Moulding unleash all of their composing forces, heretofore obscured by misguided misunderstandings of the true charms of post-modernism like 'All Along The Watchtower' or intentional uglinesses like 'Complicated Game', and although I do think a couple of the tracks could have been moulded in the old style just for diversity's sake, that's a minor complaint. It is also said that Black Sea was the closest the band ever came to capturing their live style on record, but I can only understand that if it means there weren't too many overdubs on the record. Whatever. It's just a bunch of very good pop songs, often marked by Partridge's pedantism and "way too much intelligence" - meaning this is a record for your brain rather than your soul, but hey, that's XTC for you. It's not the friggin' Beatles.

The songs? 'Generals And Majors', with wonderful whistling and Britpop rhythms. The song's biggest hook? The soft near-falsetto hush of "generals and majors everywhere!" in direct counterpoint to the shrill "calling generals and majors!" It's easily the smoothest-running XTC song so far, and if you ever have any urges to be a pop genius, you gotta have smooth running songs, you know, when the verse melody starts off in a good way, then develops into something unpredictable, then manages to come back again to a natural conclusion in a perfectly natural way. 'Generals And Majors' is up there with the best. 'Living Through Another Cuba' is probably not, but it's still a pretty hilarious exploration of Latin rhythms in a lyrical setting that equates the current political situation of the Cold War to the Cuban missile crisis of 1961. Other bands would pretty much make the lyrics the focal point of the song, but not XTC - for them, it's the ridiculously loud rhythm section (percussion particularly), the scraping minimalistic guitar riff akin to the kind of riffs Tom Waits would love, and the unpredictable emphasis on 'BA!' in the chanted refrain. And the extended coda to the song, of course, when the political message is no more but the chorus still lives on.

Other highlights would be, for instance, 'No Language In Our Lungs', where the guitar sound is for the first time entirely ripped off the Beatles circa Abbey Road - but in a creative way, with an obligatory twist like a time signature rupture in the middle of the verses. Or maybe it would be 'Towers Of London', although that one is a bit lazy on the move, just plodding along like another Beatles rip-off but nowhere near as cool guitar-wise. Still a good song when you get used to it, and the chorus is nice to sing along to - 'towers of London, when they have built you, did you watch over the men who fell?' Or maybe it would be 'Paper And Iron', which eschewes Beatlesque imitations in favour of a more direct New Wave pop sound this time. Or the lyrics-heavy 'Burning With Optimism's Flames'. Or the almost bubblegummy 'Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me)', with the immortal line 'if I could only be tough like him, then I could win my own small battle of sexes'. Seriously, that song almost sounds like the Monkees. It's hilarious.

Anyway, like I said, the songs are all good. I wouldn't even want to criticize the seven-minute long sci-fi epic 'Travels In Nihilon', because weird and psychotic as it is, it still beats the hell out of 'Complicated Game'. Instead of wild uncontrolled - and ultimately dumb - paranoid screaming, or even dumber hiccupping and sillier goofing on 'All Along The Watchtower', Partridge goes along with a near-hypnotic, quasi-mantraic chanting scheme set to a wild onslaught of drum machines and throbbing post-punk guitars that sounds truly atmospheric instead of annoying. Okay, so it can be annoying if you want it to, but personally I found it quite easy to get into the mechanic, grinding groove. It's one thing to let your voice present you as a brainless dork and pass it for "avantgarde", and another thing to actually attach a meaning to the way you're singing, I gotta tell you.

So - for many people XTC seems to start off right here, with nothing particularly perverted, inverted, or extraverted to offend their tastes. I'm certainly not of the latter conviction, finding a lot to like about the band's Seventies' records, but it must also be said that the post-punk/New Wave period of the band certainly left enough traces in their image and songwriting to help them forge a distinctive personality in the Eighties. In other words, there would be no Skylarking without Black Sea, and there would hardly be a Black Sea without White Music. This is important to remember.



Year Of Release: 1982

This album is now awarded the dubious "G.S. award for triggering most divergent emotional responses". Upon first listen, I hated it; upon the second one, I loved it. You see, one thing that seriously grates me about XTC's transition into the pop period is their approach towards vocals. The band's music has undergone a serious evolution from White Music to this record, going from the trendy New Wave jerkiness of the day to a far more pop-oriented, 'normal' approach. (Not to say that these are all 'normal' pop songs: they're artsy and lots of them are still essentially built upon the same punkish and ska/reggae rhythms the band mastered early in their days, but it's more like a side effect than an intentional preservation). However, one thing that had remained totally intact were the vocals: both Partridge and Moulding still sound like exactly the same kind of post-modernist nerds they were on Drums & Wires. It might just be because neither of the two really have a strong pair of vocal cords, and it's far tougher for them to sound "soulful" than for your average, um, Paul McCartney. But whatever be the reason, I can't help but wonder how much better many of these songs would have been had they employed different vocalists.

Ah well, apart from that one major problem, I have no real gripes with the record. It was written almost entirely by Partridge, and also marked the end of the band's touring schedule - for stage fright reasons, Partridge eliminated touring altogether soon after Settlement came out. (Then again, maybe he was just trying so hard to step into the Beatles' shoes, the twerp). It's also a double album, with fifteen songs, many of which stretch out to five- or six-minute length, the usual thing when you come up with enough material for three sides but not enough for four. The overall sound of it doesn't differ much from Black Sea, essentially the same mix of weird art-pop compositions and occasional ska-style throwbacks to the earlier times. The hooks are just as strong, though, and while some might experience problems with the overlong duration of some of the songs, well, if a song is good, it can be allowed to go on for five or six minutes, I think. There's no reason to doubt that stuff like 'Jason And The Argonauts' or 'Melt The Guns' was seriously padded out, but at least Partridge tried to be moderately creative even when padding out the songs, churning one tricky gimmick after another.

I think out of the fifteen tracks, there's not a single one that does nothing for me. As is typical with XTC, these are not exactly "catharsis-inducing" tunes, they just fall into the category of "how delightfully clever these guys are" numbers, but what's wrong with that if the actual cleverness is used to create musical and vocal hooks? For instance, the big hit single 'Senses Working Overtime' is supposedly telling me about how overjoyed Partridge is to actually be in this world and how he likes to exercise his senses even though there might be bullies around giving him black eyes - so sue me, I'm a "classic rock" guy, whatever that means, I don't really get any optimistic emotional uplift from the song. At least, not in a direct way, no. I enjoy the catchiness of the chorus (and of the verses, and of the middle eight, for that matter), and the delicate acoustic sound, and how well everything is put together, and the overall warmth of the song, and the terrific lyrics, but that's still nerd territory, for all it's worth. Were I a composer and a musically talented guy, I'd probably be writing something like that, too. Great song anyway.

As are most of the others. You probably don't think I'll go out of my way describing every song on here, and you're right. Problem is, there aren't really any totally stand-out-ing tracks I could concentrate on. Hmm. Okay, just to highlight the various amount of individual styles that the band could be working on at that moment I'll select these few. Moulding's 'Runaways' is a weirdly gloomy opening for the album, mourning the sad fate of kids running away from home to a backing of steady unnerving acoustic chuckling, minimalistic ambient synths and ethereal backup chanting of 'please come home...': weirdly gloomy because it's really the only song on the album with an openly pessimistic message. And used as the opener? Talk about giving the wrong kind of impression.

'Jason And The Argonauts' is Partridge's mildly psychedelic tale of the diversity of human character disguised as a confession of Jason. (Goddamn those clever Mr Know-it-alls: how's your average music fan supposed to know who Jason and the Argonauts are? And while we're on the subject, what a cool name for a rock band that would be. If you're named Jason by any chance, that's your chance!). Phasing, ethnic percussion, multiple pseudo-operatic vocal overdubs and God knows what else are all used here to great effect. 'No Thugs In Our House' promises to have one of the most terrific choruses in XTC history, and Partridge's wild growl in the middle of the song certainly hints at the band's "pop-punk" roots. 'Melt The Guns' is probably the goofiest anti-war song ever recorded, and one of the "cleanest" New Wave numbers on the record, with jerky guitars and all. 'It's Nearly Africa' is a hilarious world beat romp with an amusing 'shake your bag o' bones' chorus and all; in direct contrast, 'Knuckle Down' is a perfectly normal music-hall influenced pop number; give it a generic pleasant piano line and there you go, but the fact is the band has no piano on that song, which immediately takes it out of music-hall territory and firmly lands it in the XTC camp. If you don't end up chanting 'for my sake, won't you put your knuckles down' by the end of the first verse, you must be dumber than Helen Keller. Then there's also the great synth-pop song 'Fly On The Wall'. (Trivia question: what is the second prophetic reference to an AC/DC album title found in the album lyrics?). And the 'oh why oh why does she treat me like a snowman' ditty that ends the album might be Partridge's most personal song on the album (even if the vocals suck big time again).

All in all, when approached with the inevitable question 'would you like to see the album trimmed down?', I'll firmly say "NO". I'm not even sure I'd want any of these songs trimmed down from their actual length. It's not like I'm pleased with everything that the weird intellectual mind of Andy had decided to plant on these two chunks of vinyl, but most of it is pleasing enough, and besides, I'm not sure XTC would really be capable of a double album better than this one. Hey, a band needs a double album, and if English Settlement is XTC's obligatory submittance to this rule, then so be it.



Year Of Release: 1983

No such luck with this half-assed effort, I'm afraid. Maybe it's not such an obvious toss-off as I thought originally, and in fact, it'd be deeply strange if it was one - because this album was recorded in the wake of Partridge's retreat into the studio as he swore off touring for good due to stage fright. But maybe touring gave the band an extra kick in the butt or something, because for the most part these songs are rather flaccid and confused. Confusing, too, as Partridge keeps trying to merge the unmergeable, picking up normal songs and screwing them around. When you have a folk-rocker shaped into a psychedelic Eastern-influenced raga, or a reggae song mutated into a Gregorian chant, you know it's not just your average album.

Instead, it's an above-average failure, at least by the high standards of the two preceding albums. There's really nothing absolutely weak on the album, except maybe for the unbearably boring, slow-moving, pointless popster 'Me & The Wind', but there's nary a highlight to be found, either. The record as a whole is pretty mellow, lacking the formerly aggressive punch of the band, and that's another reason to get disappointed; at this point, Partridge didn't quite have the ability to connect mellowness with soulfulness, if you get my drift. And it boasts a devastating lack of hooks - repeated listenings will bring out some potential in most of the songs, but really, why should you even bother?

Perhaps the correct answer lies in the fact that Partridge is still deeply rooted in his New Wave-inspired eccentricity, and when he takes that eccentricity and sets it off the stable rhythm-and-drive foundation it was once firmly attached to, it can really become grating. Or maybe it's just that he attempts to cover too much ground at once, biting off more than he can chew. Or maybe he was just in a way too confused state of mind at the time; in any case, there must be some reason to explain why Mummer is usually counted among the band's least inspired albums, and I actually tend to agree with that.

I don't even know what to write of these friggin' songs... they're all intricately constructed enough so there can be a lot to say about them, I just don't feel like doing it because at the very same moment I could be praising some XTC chef-d'oeuvre instead! Okay, here goes: 'Love On A Farmboy's Wages' is a very pretty piece of acoustic diddling culminating in a nice chorus, kind of like Partridge merging a very folkish chant with a New Wave atmosphere. I also respect 'Deliver Us From The Elements', a weird ode to nature's powers built around a gloomy Krautrock-like bassline and ending in a flurry of psychedelic backwards guitars and synths and what-not; I get my little bit of romantic fluff from the retro jazzy 'Ladybird', which is hardly memorable but at least features a really lush vocal delivery from Andy; I don't really like 'In Loving Memory Of A Name' much, but it's kinda fun to see XTC performing a Steely Dan-like number; and the closing 'Funk Pop A Roll', a sarcastic music industry condemnation, is the album's only fast-paced number with at least a limited store of energy, so it gets my props even if it hardly stands a chance against any of XTC's really cool hard rockers.

So scrap this album anyway and let's get back to business - the bonus tracks on this album are uniformly better, much more better than just about anything on the album itself. I have no idea why, but it is so; make sure, if you get a copy of the record, that it's the one with the six bonus tracks on it, 'cuz all of them are ace. Even the two instrumentals are fun: 'Frost Circus' is a perfectly normal moody composition that lives up to its name (half-Christmas carol, half-circus music), with almost unbearably sincere, non-post-modernistic chimes in it and all, while 'Procession Towards Learning Land' really sounds not unlike something the Residents could have invented - gotta love all those bloooping rhythms coming out of the band's instruments.

But the vocal numbers are, of course, the main attraction. 'Jump' is exquisitely gentle, optimistic, and uplifting: 'if that's really what your heart is trying to say, this is really your lucky day... go ahead and jump...', with real hooks all over the place and no senseless experimentation to bog the song down. 'Toys', for all I know, is the only candidate for a true Top 10 XTC classic on the entire album - not only are the lyrics about the "alternate toys' world" among Andy's most imaginative, the chorus of the song is also among the most inspired of his career. 'Oh dear what can the matter be', the gentle backup vocals softly chirrup, and this is contrasted immediately with Andy's paranoid 'my children, sweet children!', and this is utterly gorgeous. It is a bit weird that this gorgeous pop chorus is actually inserted in the middle of a bluesy composition (heck, there's even harmonica throughout), but they merge together excellently.

'Gold' is another excellent number, bouncv and lively, with an energy level that will certainly shake off the lethargic cobwebs of Mummer - if you don't start chanting 'and it's okay, the setting sun will colour everything around you gold' on second listen at the latest, you must be Trent Reznor or something. And finally, if only all the mellow songs on Mummer could only have sounded like 'Desert Island', I wouldn't have to endure a miserable twenty minutes trying to come up with something cheerful to say about that album. What a beautiful acoustic melody, and what a fun set of lyrics - 'cast away on a desert island, with Great Britain written on its name plate'. I guess never before had the poor old British empire been put down so viciously in the context of such a light-natured song.

In all, Mummer certainly gets my award of "Best Bonus-Tracked Album Ever", because, of course, the bonus tracks have to be judged by how they relate to the main body of your CD rather than on their own. That's reason enough to own it.



Year Of Release: 1984

This one really took a LOT of time to set in, and it's actually not over yet. On here, XTC obviously take much more advantage of their "studio band" status than on Mummer: the production is so dense and thick that upon the first three or four listens all I really got was the impression of wading through an impenetrable musical jungle, getting tripped over interlocking guitar riffs, hitten in the face by weirdass harmony arrangements, and bitten in the ankles by all kinds of keyboards effects, and God knows what else. Tricky time signatures and changes, Andy's usual unbearable vocal deliveries, and the band's relentless post-modernist stance - this is easily one of their most complex albums ever made, maybe even beating out Drums & Wires in that department.

Fortunately, it's also much more listenable than Drums & Wires in the long run. Once the weirdness has rubbed off, once your ear got a little bit adjusted to the unusual instrumental combinations and crazy overdubs, Big Express delivers the goods - much like any other XTC album, but maybe you'll have to work over yourself a little bit more in this case. It's also one hell of a loud album, too, as if Andy wanted to prove that even deprived of stage access, the band could still be a gritty hard-rockin' ensemble. Heck, that's what the "train" analogy (in the album title, selected song titles and photos inside the liner notes) is there for.

I guess if you can sit through the first track, you can sit through all the others as well, because the opening thirty seconds of 'Wake Up', with one guitar riff in one speaker, another guitar riff in another speaker, a lazy bass that sounds as if it doesn't belong, a steady drum beat that sounds as if it doesn't belong even worse, and a vocal melody that has nothing to do with the time signatures of either of the riffs or the bass or the drum, are very typical of the album. Yet somehow all these sounds do merge together in one cohesive whole. The "who cares? - you might be dead!" chorus, then, actually soothes the pain by being moderately catchy, and the lengthy coda, with that five-note descending chimey riff repeated over and over, defines "XTC moodiness" for the ages.

That's one example - no other song on here sounds like 'Wake Up', but most of them deal with much the same type of musical aesthetics. A perfect way for you to nurture and cherish your individuality: five or six listens, and you're getting your kicks out of these songs while your "shallow" friends arriving at your house want to scream and leave immediately, never to come again, as soon as they hear something like the New Wave-meets-country-western madness of 'Shake Your Donkey Up'. Before that one, of course, you get a pretty straightforward poppy gem in the form of 'All You Pretty Girls', where both the verse and chorus vocal melodies easily rank among Andy's most memorable ever. Beat that whistling, too! Some of the best whistling around since the days of 'Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay' and 'Jealous Guy'. And the lyrics? Pretty simplistic for XTC standards, aren't they? A sailor's farewell to his favourite sex.

But then, of course, along comes 'Shake Your Donkey Up' and that's when your best friend starts saying about how he's got this bunch of guys waiting for him to play baseball at around 10 pm and he'll be meeting you next week or maybe next month in case his trip to Timbuktu gets unexpectedly laid off. The lyrics don't make any sense (I mean, you don't expect me to believe it's a song about a girl punishing a donkey, right?), the rhythms are more industrial in nature than anything else and then there's this country fiddle spicing things up. If it weren't so weird catchy in a kinky way of its own, I'd probably have dumped the song together with those weird-for-weirdness-sake numbers on Drums & Wires.

Occasionally we do get a glimpse at the guys taking things seriously, like in the "sophisticated adult contemporary" ballad 'This World Over', telling about the world's future after the nuclear war - a pretty beaten-up topic, but presented in quite a different way. 'The Everyday Story Of Smalltown' has Partridge stepping into the shoes of Ray Davies as he extols the virtues of small-time provincial living, denouncing 'Mrs Progress' along the way... geez, if only this band had a great vocalist to boot. Partridge's and Moulding's grating, detached singing really spoils so much of the picture for me. 'I Bought Myself A Liarbird' could be a great little jazz-poppy tune, for instance, but Andy's vocals are SO much the center of all the 'excitement' I can't take the song seriously at all. He sounds like a goddamn goofman all along the way (except for maybe the little bit of 'softer' vocalizing in the middle eight).

Anyway, I'll refrain from commenting on the other songs because XTC now enter that phase where, even if few of the inidividual songs are really all that great, you could still write a poem on each - the lyrical ideas, the harmony arrangement, the rhythms, the overdubs, with every new listen you may be sure that something will be jumping out at you. I don't see "genius" in Big Express; I see lots and lots and lots of hardship and toil, an unsatiable strive for originality, perfection and as much profoundness as possible, so it would be a shame for me not to give the album thumbs up.


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