XTC - Topic

Nonsuch Play

Since Skylarking, each XTC album was carefully composed and crafted, and Nonsuch is no different. Working with producer Gus Dudgeon (Elton John), XTC crafted their most immaculate album to date with Nonsuch. A measured and reflective record, recalling the Beach Boys more than the Beatles, the album retains some of their late-'80s psychedelic flourishes, but those have been integrated into an elaborate, lush pop setting that falls somewhere between Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons. While it lacks the thematic unity of Skylarking, as well as the grandstanding eclecticism of Oranges & Lemons, Nonsuch is in many ways more musically consistent, presenting a set of 17 wonderfully detailed and immediately catchy pop songs, ranging from the relatively rocking "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" to the sweet "Holly Up on Poppy." Occasionally, the album dips slightly lyrically -- Colin Moulding's "The Smartest Monkeys" and "War Dance" are a little too preachy -- but never musically, making Nonsuch a modest, minor masterpiece. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Oranges & Lemons Play

Skylarking was an ambitious yet concise record, one that recalled such graceful concept albums as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, so it wasn't entirely a surprise that XTC embraced psychedelia on its double-album follow-up, Oranges & Lemons, especially if their celebrated Dukes of Stratosphear side project was taken into consideration as well. Oranges & Lemons lacks the singular focus of Skylarking, but at its best, it's just as impressive as its predecessor. Instead of revelling in the form of psychedelic pop, as they did with the Dukes, XTC bring the genre's sensibility to the mature pop of Skylarking, spiking it with a wry, occasionally absurd sense of humor missing from its predecessor. The result is a record exploding with details, not the least of which are backward guitars, sound effects, and head-spinningly eclectic arrangements. It's sonically rich and filled with immaculately crafted songs, but Oranges & Lemons falls just short of being a tour de force, since each song feels like an island -- they work well as individual tracks, but they don't form a cohesive statement. However, that's a minor complaint, because Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge in particular are in peak form, contributing some of their very finest songs in "Garden of Earthly Delights," "The Loving," "One of the Millions," "Merely a Man," "Pink Thing," and the elegiac "Chalkhills and Children." Such songs make the relative weaknesses of the album well worth enduring. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

English Settlement Play

Andy Partridge's discovery of the 12-string guitar set the tone for English Settlement, an album that moved away from the pop gloss of Black Sea in favor of lighter, though still rhythmically heavy, acoustic numbers with more complex and intricate instrumentation. There are plenty of pop gems -- "Senses Working Overtime" stands as one of their finest songs -- but the main focus seems to be the more expansive sound; most of the songs are drawn out to near-epic length, ultimately taking some of the impact of the songs away. Despite several terrific tracks, English Settlement seems more a transitional album than anything else, although the textural sound of the album is quite remarkable, indicating the direction they would take in their post-touring incarnation. ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Mummer Play

Mummer, the first album to follow Andy Partridge's mental breakdown, which led to XTC's retirement from touring, is very much the work of an eccentric in isolation. The album is a collection that builds on the groundwork of English Settlement with gentle, acoustic songs that evoke pastoral images and peaceful times. There are moments of real inspiration, resulting in some of the band's finest songs to date -- "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," "Great Fire," and "Lady Bird" -- and the sound sets a pleasingly consistent mood, although the sameness tends to work against the lesser material. Only the out-of-place afterthought of "Funk Pop a Roll," a tirade against the music industry, breaks things up, recapturing the abrasive Partridge of past. [When Mummer was reissued on CD, six tracks were added to the middle of the album. While "Jump," "Toys," "Gold," and "Desert Island" are welcome additions of pop confection, the atmospheric instrumentals "Frost Circus" and "Procession Towards Learning Land," from the simply bizarre Homo Safari Series, serve to disrupt the album's flow.] ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

The Big Express Play

XTC took full advantage of their studio-bound status with The Big Express, creating their most painstakingly detailed, multi-layered, sonically dynamic album to date. The more upbeat material and brighter sound recall some of the band's earlier moments, but most of all, The Big Express signals a turning point for the band, setting the blueprint for their later approach -- a combination of studio perfection matched with impeccable songcraft that results in a thoroughly consistent and enjoyable album beginning to end. Skylarking, the album that followed, gets much more glory, and certainly its impact was greater (this one was virtually ignored), but really, The Big Express covers much of the same territory and is just as strong an album in many ways. [Three songs were added to the middle of the CD reissue -- "Red Brick Dream," "Washaway," and "Blue Overall" -- but they fit seamlessly into the complete picture.] ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Skylarking Play

Working with producer Todd Rundgren didn't necessarily bring XTC a sense of sonic cohesion -- after all, every record since English Settlement followed its own interior logic -- but it did help the group sharpen its focus, making Skylarking its tightest record since Drums and Wires. Ironically, Skylarking had little to do with new wave and everything to do with the lush, post-psychedelic pop of the Beatles and Beach Boys. Combining the charming pastoral feel of Mummer with the classicist English pop of The Big Express, XTC expand their signature sound by enhancing their intelligently melodic pop with graceful, lyrical arrangements and sweeping, detailed instrumentation. Rundgren may have devised the sequencing, helping the record feel like a song cycle even if it doesn't play like one, but what really impresses is the consistency and depth of Andy Partridge's and Colin Moulding's songs. Each song is a small gem, marrying sweet, catchy melodies to decidedly adult lyrical themes, from celebrations of love ("Grass") and marriage ("Big Day") to skepticism about maturation ("Earn Enough for Us") and religion ("Dear God"). Moulding's songs complement Partridge's songs better than before, and each writer is at a melodic and lyrical peak, which Rundgren helps convey with his supple production. The result is a pop masterpiece -- an album that has great ambitions and fulfills them with ease. [The initial release of Skylarking didn't feature "Dear God," which was originally the B-side of "Grass." After "Dear God" became an unexpected hit, "Mermaid Smile" was pulled from the album so the hit single could be added.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Black Sea Play

XTC continue on with the big drum sound of Drums and Wires, adding more polish and an even heavier-hitting approach for Black Sea -- their arrangements are fuller and they rock harder than ever before. Where Drums and Wires implied social commentary, Black Sea more directly addresses sociopolitical concerns, handling them not strictly in a theoretical sense, but rather showing a human response to the circumstances. Of course, the band's skewed outlook and mid-'60s pop sense keeps things from becoming too heavy -- included are some of their finest songs, like "Respectable Street," "Generals and Majors," and "Towers of London," as well as the thoroughly enjoyable pop fluff throwaway "Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)" to keep the mood light. All in all, there isn't a bad song in the bunch -- Black Sea is their most consistent album to date -- and although XTC always operated on the fringes, the album is their most commercial-sounding, fitting in perfectly with the new wave of the late '70s/early '80s. [The 1987 CD reissue adds three tracks -- "Smokeless Zone," "Don't Lose Your Temper," and "The Somnambulist" -- to the middle of the album. And while the extras are welcomed (especially "Don't Lose Your Temper"), they really should have been tacked on to the end rather than disrupting the original.] ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Drums and Wires [2002 US Reissue] Play

Following Go 2, keyboardist Barry Andrews left XTC and, rather than finding a replacement keyboard player, the band opted to recruit another guitarist (who could also play keyboards), Dave Gregory. The album that followed the lineup change, Drums and Wires, marks a turning point for the band, with a more subdued set of songs that reflect an increasing songwriting proficiency. The aimless energy of the first two albums is focused into a cohesive statement with a distinctive voice that retains their clever humor, quirky wordplay, and decidedly British flavor. Musically, Drums and Wires, titled to reflect the big drum sound they developed for the album, is certainly driven by the powerful rhythms and angular, mainly minimalistic arrangements, but the addition of a second guitarist also allows for some inventive and interesting guitar work (the "wires") that made up for the lack of Andrews' odd flourishes -- the tension between the two sounds creates some truly inspired, nervy pop. Colin Moulding also comes into his own as a songwriter, penning XTC's first substantial hit, the new wave classic "Making Plans for Nigel." [The CD reissue contains tracks from the bonus single originally included with the LP -- "Limelight" and "Chain of Command" -- as well as "Life Begins at the Hop."] ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

White Music Play

XTC's first full album, White Music shows the band going full-throttle in true punk spirit. More dissonant than their latter period, the young band shines with directionless energy and a good sense of humor. Highlights include the catchy singles "This Is Pop" and "Radios in Motion" as well as a jumpy version of "All Along the Watchtower." Their first release, 3D EP, has been appended to the CD version. ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Go 2 Play

Recorded in a rush, less than a year after White Music, Go 2 predictably suffered. The album, while slightly more melodic, reprises much of the quirky, high-energy playing of White Music, but the material is considerably weaker this time out. Aside from a couple of standout tracks like "Mechanic Dancing," Go 2 is probably most memorable for its witty, word-heavy cover art. ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 2 Play

Although XTC the band performs on several numbers on this second volume of Fuzzy Warbles, it is essentially an Andy Partridge solo record like the other three in the series. Volume 2 is similar in content and scope to the Beatles' Anthology set, with polished demos and unreleased originals sitting side by side, except the Beatles would have never shelved something as infectious as "I Don't Want to Be Here." Partridge shows himself to be the heir apparent to the Beatles and the Kinks in the Great Uncompiled Children's Album stakes, with "Everything'll Be Alright," another James and the Giant Peach outtake that seems much more fitting than the Randy Newman songs that eventually comprised the soundtrack. Also included are a couple of psychedelic spoof tunes that were supposed to be unearthed "lost" numbers from unknown '60s bands that were slotted to appear on a flexidisc in Strange Things Are Happening. The magazine folded before this occurred, but listeners are left with two songs that could fit snugly on the British Nuggets compilation. The most anticipated track at hand, "Ship Trapped in the Ice," might be the catchiest song ever written about being caught in a major-label recording contract. The only misstep is the "Chain of Command" demo -- a good early XTC song, but too herky-jerky compared to the pop gems surrounding it. You cannot avoid frustrating randomness in style and placement in such a collection, but Partridge's "scraps" are better than other bands' entire recorded output. XTC/Partridge fans should find enough memorable moments here to justify the hefty import price tag, with the hope that this is just an appetizer, and not the final course, from the oft-delayed genius from Swindon. ~ Brian Downing, Rovi

Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 1 Play

At the time XTC's long-awaited box set, Coat of Many Cupboards, was released in the spring of 2002, it was mentioned in accompanying press interviews (most notably one in Record Collector) that the band was working on an archival series entitled Fuzzy Warbles, ostensibly to combat the flood of bootlegs cluttering the collectors' market. Given that anything involving the XTC camp moved very slowly in the '90s, it was easy to assume that this was a flight of fantasy on the level of the group's much-rumored shelved bubblegum album, but, lo and behold, the first installments of Fuzzy Warbles appeared at the end of 2002. By that time, the plans had shifted and Colin Moulding had pulled out of the project, leaving Andy Partridge to run wild with the multi-volume rarities series. Moulding's departure really wasn't that big of a deal, since Partridge always was the general of XTC, dictating the sound and style of the records and writing the lion's share of songs. So, Fuzzy Warbles would have wound up as a clearinghouse for Partridge's demos, outtakes, and goofs even if Colin had been involved with the series, but without him, the records were issued under Partridge's name, even if all the material was intended for XTC and sometimes Moulding and departed guitarist/drummer Dave Gregory appear on the recordings -- so, for most intents and purposes, they should be considered XTC recordings, not Partridge solo recordings.
To say that Andy Partridge is prolific is understating matters slightly. He records as both vocation and hobby, never quite separating the two disciplines. He spends as much time on his demos -- which are as polished and produced as most artists' official releases -- as he does on the official albums and, as anybody who's compared the Apple Venus demos to the finished product can attest, all the arrangements, sound, and feel are in place on the demo and only polished for the final album. So, apart from the stiffer swing of a drum machine and a somewhat compressed final mix, listening to the outtakes on the inaugural volume of Fuzzy Warbles isn't much different than listening to a new XTC album, provided that this is a rare XTC album that careens from point to point, stopping occasionally to slip out a joke or a rude noise. Evidently, Andy wanted to retain the home-spun feel of both his demo tapes and the haphazard bootlegs, so there is no unifying theme on this or any of the other volumes of Fuzzy Warbles, as it provides a jumble of unreleased songs, radio jingles, goof-offs, unfinished ideas, and demos for released album tracks. There is no precedent for a currently active artist -- which Partridge and XTC allegedly are in 2003 -- so thoroughly exhuming the archives for rarities, and even for older artists, only the T. Rex/Marc Bolan series Unchained comes close to this kind of sprawling, exhaustive treatment (it could be argued that being a Bolan obsessive requires greater patience than an XTC nut, considering his unreleased repertoire boils down to either choogling boogies or spacey folk-rock). Partridge may be tipping his hat to the Unchained series by kicking off Fuzzy Warbles with "Dame Fortune," a song he compares to Tyrannosaurus Rex in his typically humorous, detailed track-by-track liner notes. It could just be a coincidence, but given that this volume is filled with other jokes and pop allusions -- from the Joe Meek-meets-Link Wray "Space Wray" (quite a pun there), to a seemingly endless run of impressions on "That Wag," where Andy mocks Robert Smith, Bob Dylan, and the Smiths (the former pair very, very funny; the latter really, really bad) -- it's likely that Partridge meant to slyly draw comparisons like this. After all, why bother with an overly exhaustive rarities series if you're not gonna have some fun with it?
But the question is, will the audience have fun with Fuzzy Warbles, whether it's the first volume or any of the subsequent discs (planned to end at ten as of this writing, but things can change)? Yes, but it's a qualified yes. First of all, it should go without saying that anybody who purchases these discs knows exactly what they're getting into, since they're only available as imports or through Andy Partridge's Ape website. It takes effort to get these discs, so nobody gets them by mistake, and those who do acquire them will be thrilled to this mess of rarities. After the first listen, more discerning listeners may wish that Partridge had spent more time assembling these discs, because they are hard to listen to for pleasure, even when there are pleasures to be had. And volume one has more pleasures than any of the subsequent editions, debuting the series with a bang. There's the aforementioned "Dame Fortune," but also the sparkling "Born Out of Your Mouth," the James & the Giant Peach reject "Don't Let Us Bug Ya," his vaguely creepy female-masturbation salute "Wonder Annual," "I Bought Myself a Liarbird," and the gloriously shambolic "Goosey Goosey." Each and every one of these are actual unreleased songs, a species that comes in short supply not much later in this series, which is a shame, since that's precisely what the hardcore fans crave. The other stuff -- the Howlin' Wolf impressions, the instrumentals, the demos -- are all interesting one time through, but it's the unreleased songs that make this and all other installments of Fuzzy Warbles worthwhile. It would have been too much work to arrange the volumes chronologically or thematically, so what we get is a mess of outtakes and rarities, presented in no logical form. Here, the material is good enough to make up for the incoherence, plus with the first volume, it's still easy to get suckered in by the novelty of hearing new, unreleased Andy Partridge songs. As the series wears on, however, it's hard not to wish he had exhibited more care from the start. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

A Coat of Many Cupboards Play

XTC fans are a dedicated lot. There may not be many of them, but nearly all of them need to hear everything the group ever recorded. They'll happily spend hundreds of dollars on rare singles and bootlegs, or buy official releases of demos, even when they sound nearly identical to the official release, so a four-disc box set of rarities, demos, alternate takes, and live versions like Coat of Many Cupboards is essentially manna from heaven. If there's any problem with the set, it's that Virgin and XTC didn't go far enough and dedicate the set entirely to unreleased material; they hedged their bets, devoting 41 of 60 tracks to previously unreleased cuts, with the lion's share of the rest -- a full 14, actually -- being album tracks any XTC fan already has. No matter how good these songs are -- and they include such masterpieces as "Chalkhills and Children" and the Dukes of Stratosphear's "Vanishing Girl" -- their presence on a lovingly assembled rarities set is a fairly major irritant (even if the band is reportedly working on an even larger archival release, provisionally titled Fuzzy Warbles, that may span as many as eight volumes). Still, if this set had just one disc of rarities, XTC fans would have purchased it anyway, and they'll overjoy in the sheer volume of unheard music here. And rightly so, since even if there aren't that many demos and alternate takes that are radically different from the finished product -- there's an acoustic run-through of "Senses Working Overtime" and an embryonic version of "Mayor of Simpleton" that are fascinating rough drafts, while an early version of "Life Begins at the Hop" is appealingly awkward -- this is still rich listening, filled with such delights as three White Music outtakes showcasing Barry Andrews (who would leave not long afterward), Colin Moulding's Nonsuch reject "Didn't Hurt a Bit" (which should have been on the album), and the live "Atom Medley," one of several in-concert performances that illustrate how good the band was on-stage, no matter Andy Partridge's stage fright. These moments and the uniform high quality of music, along with the track-by-track annotation by Partridge and Moulding, make the repetition of album tracks easy to forgive, since this is as close to a perfect gift for fans as imaginable (until Fuzzy Warbles materializes, that is). Although fans would have settled for anything rare, XTC has returned their affection with a box that shows as much love as the fans have shown over the years. It doesn't get much better than that. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Drums and Wireless: BBC Live Play

Drums and Wireless does a good job of collecting the bulk of the band's BBC appearances from 1977 to 1989 -- many of which have previously been available only on inferior bootlegs. While many band's BBC sessions differ only slightly from the studio recordings, XTC was able to stretch out on their sessions for significantly different interpretations. This is a necessary addition to any fan's collection. ~ Chris Woodstra, Rovi

Transistor Blast: The Best of the BBC Sessions Play

XTC finally shook themselves loose of Virgin Records in early 1998, freeing themselves to finally begin recording and releasing records. The first album out the door was not the long-anticipated sequel to Nonsuch, but Transistor Blast: The Best of the BBC Sessions, a four-disc set chronicling the majority of the group's BBC recordings, from White Music through Oranges and Lemons. There have been a handful of limited releases of this material, most notably on Drums and Wireless, but usually these tracks haven't been seen anywhere outside of bootlegs -- and a significant number of cuts on the collection haven't even appeared there. All of this makes Transistor Blast seem like an ideal release for collectors, and it is. However, it's a little more than that, since the performances here are often exhilarating. Essentially, the earliest material -- and much of this dates from the pre-stage fright years, meaning White Music to English Settlement -- boasts identical arrangements to the recorded versions, but quite a few live cuts crackle with nervous energy which is undeniably exciting. Similarly, the acoustic arrangements of latter-day songs from Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons aren't necessarily revelatory, but they do present familiar songs from a welcome, different angle. And that's what's neat about Transistor Blast -- nothing here is essential to understanding XTC, but it only enhances a dedicated fan's appreciation of the group. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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