XTC Keeps Stiff Upper Lip

By Alex Varty

HAD HE not discovered his natural aptitude for writing concise, witty pop songs, XTC's bassist Colin Moulding might have profitably sought employment with the British government's Foreign Office.

Unlike the band's other surviving founder, outspoken guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge, Moulding is a born diplomat. During an interview with The Georgia Straight earlier this summer, Moulding politely dismissed the weighty suggestion that the redemptive power of nature is the underlying theme of his group's latest album.

“D'you reckon?”, said Moulding. “I figure we just came up with a pile of songs, really.”

Moulding suggested that the thematic unity of the Skylarking album has more to do with the band members' current experiences than with politics or any other planned subtext. “Songwriters have a duty to get out their own personal experiences, whether they're to do with wider issues or just moving about in the garden looking at leaves or whatever. It's just something you're living through, like keeping a diary. I don't think we worry about the government: whatever will be is whatever will be. It makes me laugh when governments tell you you'll be 85p better off this winter, y'know.”

Clearly Moulding not only has the archetypically English still upper lip, but a tightly clenched lower jaw to go along with it.

However laconic Moulding may be in an interview session, though, his music does reveal a deeply-rooted and sensuous appreciation for life's small pleasures. Since 1982's groundbreaking English Settlement, XTC has deftly mixed acoustic and electronic instruments, gently satiric lines and heartfelt emotional statements, to give listeners as finely wrought a musical picture of English life as anything heard since the heyday of Ray Davies.

The group's latest offering, Skylarking, is presented in a sky-blue sleeve framing a lightly sketched drawing of nymph- and faun-like lovers, an appropriate package for an album that is roundly full of nature imagery.

“Oh, yes, it is a very pastoral record,” Moulding informed us, “but then again we're all very pastoral people, living in pastoral surroundings. Swindon may not be exactly the centre of the universe, it's pretty much a bumhole of a place, but the places around it, the countryside, are really nice. And initially we started to write about small-town life, got fed up with that, and said, ‘Okay, what's outside the small town?’ Small country. So we write about that.”

And they write about it very well. On “Summer's Cauldron” and “Grass,” the two interlocking openers that set the tone for the rest of Skylarking, the music is almost honey-thick, with sun-warmed chords shimmering in arrangements so detailed and yet so transparent that one can almost see the flecks of pollen in the air, and feel the gentle breezes stirring those curious complex leaves that are so much a part of rural England. Rarely has pop music been so tactile, so sensuous.

Moulding feels satisfied if he can “create an atmosphere” with his music, and here XTC has done just that, with a sound that breathes and that can be breathed.

Taken in the light of songs like “Grass” and “Summer's Cauldron” which glow with a healthy pagan energy, XTC's surprise hit single, “Dear God,” stems less unlikely. Moulding writes this Partridge-penned outing of as “simply a song which addresses a question that most people have to think about at some point or another in their lives.” But this athiest's credo is more than that: it's a sign that there is intelligent life out there in radioland, and it's also a strikingly lovely tune.

Though Partridge's delicate constitution has prevented XTC from touring since 1985, when the guitarist collapsed on stage and had to spend several weeks recuperating in enforced idleness, the group will be visible on Canadian television next Friday (September 18) at 7 p.m. as part of the broadcast presentation of the Casby Awards. XTC's participation in the hoopla was nearly jeopardized when Partridge was overheard making mildly cynical remarks about the awards and pop music ceremonials in general, but as ambassador Moulding explains, “It was construed like he fought not to do the Casby Awards, but that wasn't what he said. What he said was that he wasn't crazy about handing out awards, but would like to do the show. And, of course, the whole thing got turned on its head.” So the TV date, largely a musical showcase, is on as planned, and XTC fans are advised to tune in.

The Georgia Straight    September 11-18, 1987

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[Thanks to Bill Wikstrom]