Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
XTC’s final album for Virgin/Geffen, before a prolonged legal battle that kept them from releasing any new recordings for 7 years, was Nonsuch (1992). It was also the first newly released XTC record since I became a fan in 1989, when I fell in love with Oranges & Lemons and subsequently purchased all of their prior albums. I’ve always enjoyed Nonsuch a lot, with most of its 17 tracks being exquisite pop gems, but there’s something about it that has kept me from ranking it up there with my favorites. Where the best songs on previous albums seemed like effortlessly catchy melodic masterpieces, these songs often come across as meticulously crafted and occasionally the product of overthinking. Their craftsmanship is admirable, and there’s no doubt that much of this album is as good as anything they’ve ever done, yet for me it’s not as rewarding a listen. Whereas Oranges & Lemons breezed by over its 61-minute running time, at 63+ minutes Nonsuch seems a lot longer. I know that a lot of fans consider this the pinnacle of the XTC discography, and many of them are probably yelling at me as they read this, but bear with me. I have a lot of good things to say too.
Joining the longtime trio of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding & Dave Gregory is the amazing drummer, Dave Mattacks, who is best known for his work with British folk-rock legends Fairport Convention. He brings a much more subtle approach to many of the songs than any of his predecessors. Another new collaborator is producer Gus Dudgeon, who oversaw nearly every classic Elton John recording. Like Todd Rundgren before him, Andy & Gus did not get along, so Gus left the project after recording was complete and the album was mixed by Nick Davis. None of this behind-the-scenes drama made it to the record, which begins with the upbeat & super-poppy “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead.” In a nod to Bob Dylan, Andy’s harmonica is featured throughout, and although it was a minor hit single, it may have been more successful had the 5-minute running time been edited down. Colin’s “My Bird Performs” features a cool subtle rhythmic groove & a melancholy fanfare provided by flugelhorn & trumpet. Colin described this as “a metaphor for feeling good about how life’s going.” I love the alternating & intertwining vocals in the final minute. Like “King For A Day” from the previous album, this song reminds me of the incredible one-album band Toy Matinee. “Dear Madam Barnum” predicts the eventual end of Andy’s marriage, with lines like “If I’m not the sole fool who pulls his trousers down, then dear Madam Barnum, I resign as clown” a clear indicator of what was going on in his personal life. Musically it recalls “The Loving” and Andy said it’s “a sort of hybrid of Manfred Mann, The Hollies & English folk rock.” I agree. The mood changes for the light & airy “Humble Daisy” which, according to Andy, was “a piece of dream logic…every few bars sound like they come from different songs.” I especially like the quiet psychedelia that brings to mind late-‘60s Beach Boys.
“The Smartest Monkeys” is Colin’s sarcastic state of the world, of which he said it’s “an excuse for a bit of pomp rock…Genesis, Deep Purple, Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman.” Those are all positive touchstones for me. There’s a great atmospheric back-and-forth guitar part, notably in the intro, and fantastic offbeat drumming from Mattacks. I also love the reggae-ish bassline and Dave’s wonderful wah-wah, effects-laden guitar solo. Andy’s “The Disappointed” is a paean to lonely hearts masquerading as a harmony-laden pop confection that he described as “up musically & dejected lyrically.” It has more in common with Tears For Fears than any specific ‘60s artist. “Crocodile” is Andy’s “noisy pop song about jealousy” where a crocodile represents an inner anger or resentment that eats away at you. It has a slight country music vibe and nice folky/jangly guitar work. “Rook” is a standout track that Andy wrote immediately after an extended period of writer’s block. Dave’s orchestral arrangement is what really makes this song, and I love the tinkling piano at “Soar up high, see the semaphore…” Regarding “Omnibus,” Andy said it’s “supposed to sound like a West End musical impression of a bus ride through London in the ‘50s,” and I can totally hear what he’s talking about. There’s a great ascending vocal line in the verses that’s mirrored by trumpets, and the more I played it the more it reminded me of the music Joe Jackson was making at that time.
“Wrapped In Grey” has a great Burt Bacharach-indebted ‘60s piano melody & a gorgeous vocal performance, especially at “your heart is a big box of paints,” with a baroque musical accompaniment. It moves into Beach Boys Pet Sounds territory at
“Awaken you dreamers…” “That Wave” is occasionally overbaked, especially the verses, but there are also a number of amazing sections, especially the beautiful melody at “I was in heaven, address cloud eleven” and that angular guitar solo. “Then She Appeared” is a lovely, chiming chamber pop tune with jangly guitars and tight music & vocals. There are various hooks, but it’s lacking a huge chorus that could’ve made it a major hit. Album closer “Books Are Burning” was inspired by the book burnings of Salmon Rushdie’s controversial The Satanic Verses, set to a pretty midtempo pop melody. There’s an awesome guitar “battle” between Andy & Dave, where their individual styles shine. I always thought this song needed a much more intricate vocal arrangement since there’s essentially a single feel throughout. So as much as I enjoy it, it doesn’t have the same impact as previous album closers like “Pale & Precious” and “Chalkills & Children.” There are four other songs I haven’t discussed, each of which has some element I enjoyed but I think they’re all a bit incomplete. I really do like Nonsuch, but it’s one of those long albums that would’ve benefited from a good editor. I eagerly await the remixed version that’s being released later this year. I’m especially excited to hear the 5.1 surround sound mix that was overseen by Steven Wilson. I’m no expert but I’ve heard enough surround sound mixes to know that nobody does it better than Mr. Wilson.
As I mentioned above, XTC was unable to release any new music for 7 years due to legal issues between them and Virgin/Geffen. In the interim there were a few CDs that aimed to satisfy their eager fan base. BBC Radio One Live In Concert 1980 (1992) is their first officially-released live recording. Considering that they retired from touring in 1982 there’s very little recorded evidence of XTC as a live act, so it’s a revelation to hear them as a well-oiled new wave/power pop band promoting the Black Sea album (7 of the 13 songs come from that record). There’s a lot of youthful energy on display; it’s punk-y but not “punk.” I know I’ve made numerous comparisons to Joe Jackson throughout this series, and that similarity is once again noticeable here. The inventive playing of original drummer Terry Chambers is the driving force throughout. Although Andy’s voice is occasionally ragged due to a cold he’s in fine spirits, and it makes me a little sad to know that anxiety would soon cause him to stop performing live, as he’s clearly a talented musician & frontman. Of the four studio albums represented, I was most familiar with Black Sea before I began revisiting their catalog for this series, so I probably knew the majority of these songs when I got this CD. However, songs like “Scissor Man” and “Battery Brides” have more of an impact on me now that I know their studio counterparts, and they (along with “No Language In Our Lungs”) document a band with a great sense of dynamics and a well-paced set list.
Drums And Wireless – BBC Radio Session 77-89 (1994) is a 17-track collection (including a spoken-word introduction by famed BBC disc jockey John Peel) of performances for BBC radio, which Andy described as “basically shoot-from-the-hip versions.” At first I didn’t like the fact that the track listing jumps between sessions (and band lineups), but then I realized that it’s more listenable that way; an overview & alternate history of the band featuring both well-known & more obscure songs. In the past when I played this CD, there were probably at least 10 songs that I didn’t recognize by title, but after spending so much time with their catalog this past month I was able to identify every song without needing to look at the track listing. For me, that’s a personal victory, as I’m clearly much more familiar with their music now (which is the whole purpose of this blog). There’s not a bad performance to be found, but also nothing that’s drastically different from the original version other than “One Of The Millions,” which really works in this scaled back arrangement. It’s a very enjoyable collection that’s definitely geared for existing fans.
I usually wouldn’t revisit a various-artists tribute album in my reappraisal of an artist’s work, but in the case of A Testimonial Dinner – The Songs Of XTC (1995) I had to make an exception…because XTC themselves appeared with a previously unreleased song. Billing themselves as Terry & The Lovemen, Colin’s “The Good Things” is an Oranges & Lemons-era recording with a Sgt. Pepper’s/Pet Sounds vibe, moving between various moody & upbeat sections. It’s not a lost classic by any means but it’s a nice addition to their catalog. I was already enough of an XTC fan to buy this CD when it was released, but that may have had as much to do with the artist roster, several of which were personal favorites. Acoustic troubadour Freedy Johnston, who’s best known for his 1994 hit “Bad Reputation” (but whose discography is deep & consistently enjoyable) delivers a nice rootsy version of “Earn Enough For Us.” The Rembrandts, who probably hate being known as “the band who did the Friends theme song,” but also had a hit with 1990’s “Just The Way It Is, Baby,” offer up a straightforward rendition of “Making Plans For Nigel” that’s very good but lacks some of the original’s quirkiness. Oranges & Lemons drummer Pat Mastelotto adds his percussive power to this track. One-of-a-kind Canadian band Crash Test Dummies, who are so much better than their one big U.S. hit (“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”), perform a nicely loping version of “All You Pretty Girls,” with Brad Roberts’ distinctive baritone driving the verses while Ellen Reid’s ethereal vocals highlight the choruses. Andy has gone on record saying that Sarah McLachlan’s version of “Dear God” might be better than the original. I’m not sure about that, but hers is a brooding, moody, intense performance. I was already a fan of Sarah’s from the first time I heard her debut album in 1989, and at the time of this tribute album I was still excited any time she recorded something new.
I’ve been aware of Ruben Blades for years but have never owned anything by him. His upbeat, horn-infused Latin interpretation of “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” might just change that. They Might Be Giants is another band I’ve loved since their first album, and I think a lot of music fans don’t take them seriously because of the humor & quirkiness in much of their output. In my mind these guys are up there with the best songwriters of the last 25 years, and they’ve remained remarkably consistent. Their take on the Dukes Of Stratosphear track “25 O’Clock” is faithful to the original & purposely chintzy (in a good way). Then there’s Joe Jackson, whose name keeps coming up in this series. He’s one of my all-time favorite artists and he doesn’t disappoint here with “Statue Of Liberty.” Featuring two of his long-serving comrades (brilliant bassist Graham Maby & powerfully swinging drummer Gary Burke), the cheesy programmed organ rhythm and maracas really drive the song along, and Maby’s bouncy bassline gives it some extra pep. I didn’t expect to write so much about this CD, but it’s a perfect combination of great songs and artists I love. Depending on your tolerance for these performers, your enjoyment mileage may vary.
Since I don’t own the Coat Of Many Cupboards box set, and Andy’s Fuzzy Warbles series is separate from the band, in my next (and last) post I’ll discuss the final two XTC studio albums (along with the related collections of demos that were released shortly after each). Right now I remember one of them being more of a pop/rock album and the other is more orchestrated, but it’s been a number of years since I played them and I don’t recall much more than that. I’ll be playing them a lot over the coming days and look forward to sharing my thoughts with you once I’ve finally gotten reacquainted with them. For now, please let me know if you think I’m off base with my slight criticism of Nonsuch, and tell me what you think of the other CDs I discussed. Thanks. And don’t forget to visit Chalkills.org for everything you could ever hope to know about XTC.