Combine One Part Pop, One Part Quirk, Stir Well

English Settlement

by Jim Farber

For those brave souls who gritted their teeth through the hellish nightmare of mid-70's art-rock, the term art-pop may seem like just another thinly veiled dip into the abyss. But XTC blissfully the art-pop — the “art” part means that their hooks just happen to be consistently weird and the “pop” part of it is that the weirdness is so catchy, it hardly ever seems self-conscious. XTC retains what was good about art-rock (believe it or not, in isolated moments, there were a few things) namely, the form-oriented impressive musicianship. But they cut the excess and pseudo-classical crap, make the beat rockier and the choruses more memorable, then add lyrics which actually make sense (no “Siberian Khatru”s for them). Likewise, XTC's vocal offerings reflect human quirkiness, not Yes or ELP's “god-like” virtuosity.

What we may worry about in confronting a new XTC LP is whether their unique art-pop balance is still holding. After all, on a band's fifth album they may get antsy, try to “expand their horizons” (in other words, become arty bores). A dangerous sign is the fact that the album in England is a double LP (U.S. consumers will be happy to learn that only four songs are missing on this generous 50 minute stateside version). Luckily, all our fears are not for naught. On English Settlement XTC manages to add some new splashes while still putting out top notch walked-out pop. Hugh Padgham (former engineer upped to producer) has helped the band get even more depth and dimension.

Lots of songs feature sharply defined upfront acoustic guitar grill-work, separated from Colin Moulding's more eclectic bass and Terry Chambers' broader use of percussion. Chambers personalizes each bang and thwack to set a mood, with more finesse than ever before. Especially attention-getting are his mechanical rhythms in “Melt The Guns” and the resigned thuds in the dour “All Of A Sudden.” In typical XTC fashion each instrument seems to spur on another, as in the chorus of “Jason And The Argonauts” where the daddy long-legs bass seems to push the guitar and voice into an oddly pleasing configuration. Or in “All Of A Sudden,” where an ascending acoustic guitar and bass chase the voice into a neck-stretching hook.

The only less-than-completely lovable tracks come, unfortunately, right at the start of the album. The opener “Runaways,” has a murky smear of sound and foghorn vocals (nature's way of telling you someone got too chummy with the studio technology). Even the lyrics, about some kid watching his mother chase daddy around the house with a knife, can't ease the artiness. The other problem track, “Ball And Chain,” kicks off with a perky riff much like the start of the Beatles' “Getting Better,” but the hooks ultimately seem forced and theatrical. The LP should have begun with the third song, the Brit single, “Senses Working Overtime,” which has a classic XTC, totally natural rabbit-out-of-a-hat hook and some semi-traditional English touches in the percussion and acoustic guitar. Follow that wit the all-out rocker “No Thugs In Our House” or maybe “English Roundabout” and you've really got an opening. The title of that last mentioned ditty would seem to stress one of XTC's closest antecedents the cut-down single version of Yes's “Roundabout,” though XTC's “round” is much catchier and their words avoid such uniquely Anderson touches as “mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.”

As on Black Sea, with its fear-of-war songs, XTC's new songs feature some topical nods, like “Melt The Guns,” an anti-U.S. peacenik plea. The only problem is that the music and vocals of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding are so entertainingly odd, they tend to deflate the stern-faced lyrics. “Melt The Guns” sounds more chipper than protest-angry, and on the last album “Generals And Majors,” about World War III, was their bounciest number ever. But XTC's words should not be taken at face value. (After all these guys seem to have a certain sense of humor). The real emphasis of the band is not just to lyrically knock the world's screwed-up order but also to musically create a new, more optimistic one in reaction to the worrisome words. It's an instant pop antidote with a strong enough, endearingly neurotic feel to prove the lyrics are still relevant, though in a less sour way than they read on paper. As a whole, XTC may not shake, rattle and roll — but they do sputter, twitch and gyrate, and sometimes that can get you through the night just as well.

Which one stole the Keeshka?!?
June 1982

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[Thanks to Bill Wikstrom]