Matt Kaden Reviews

January 1999

White Music | Go 2 | Drums and Wires | Black Sea
English Settlement | Mummer | The Big Express | 25 O'Clock
Skylarking | Psonic Psunspot | Oranges & Lemons | Nonsvch
White Music Top
White Music     They're up to no good; this much is clear. At once traditional and rebellious, values reassigned, standards redefined. In the face, up the pace, spastic, elastic, drastically enthusiastic, sarcastically ecstatic. You try to tap your feet but you lose your breath as the adrenalined voice crams in more words and sounds per second than you thought possible. The singer's been shouting all night and you just tuned in. The guitar attacks with crunch and slippery slapstick and percussive precision (I can't help but imagine this guitar to be strung with wires and springs with spokes sticking out of it) steadily chewing into every song until its finish. The drums are slapping you repeatedly and this is not going to stop. The bass is gleefully off, jagged and unrelenting with its rubber fret jumping and deliberate wrong notes. The tinker-toy piano is tapping with unlikely repetition, then the organ is churning out carnival waves and whirlwinds, contradicting all the other tones with a childlike irreverence and fearless victory. XTC are not out to make friends. They are professional confusers - this is good; we need more of them out there. After stripping the structure of rock music to its bare spinal column, they rearrange the bones and mangle and mutate what's left to reconstruct the form under the name of uncontrollable frenzy... "just like a needle that keeps sticking to the same old groove".
Go 2 Top
Go 2     XTC's follow-up to their debut LP, White Music, could not disappoint anyone already in tune with their sound. The energy still radiates out and the nature of their sound has not been sacrificed in any way. There are a couple numbers with a slower tempo which don't seem to stifle singer / guitarist / songwriter Andy Partridge one bit; he still sings with the vigor of a madcap maniac who does not know of the concept of holding back. The anger which surfaced on tracks such as "All Along the Watchtower" on White Music is further developed here on the song "Red" with his guitar more distorted and his raspy voice more venomous as he spouts out incoherent rantings all throughout the extended ending with bassist Colin Moulding's classic wrong note scheme punching through the speakers; sends chills down the spine. Go 2 is a promising record in that it maintains the integrity of their first record, yet it points forward with more innovative music and words. The song "Are You Receiving Me?" is really a retro pop song played with the fervor of a speed-addict. It will fly right past the common ear, but it will devastate those who crave more of a rush than what's currently available. Don't miss that great moment where the entire band speeds up for the heroic finish. A moment I don't see ever ceasing in its impact. Another exciting aspect is Colin's songs taking form on Go 2. He had a few on the first album, but they weren't quite signs of real songwriting prowess. Here he has created some great songs full of color and motion, songs which stay with you and beckon you to visit again, songs with an addictive quality which is unexplainable. Keyboardist Barry Andrews takes credit for sprinkling in his classical scales where least (most) appropriate, thus adding yet another dimension to these songs. This band is unique. It's hard to imagine anyone else replacing any of the members.
Drums and Wires Top
Drums and Wires     They did it! They changed members and kept the same name like no one will notice. It is a different band; their sound has changed completely. Keyboardist Barry Andrews was swapped for Guitarist Dave Gregory. Now: the sound of clashing changs and chongs, more tones and textures from the guitars... Now we have an album full of songs founded with extraordinary vision and sculpted with musical expertise. The nuances lurking inside are countless. This band plays with more force although notably slower and more controlled than the previous band. Their barbed wit is still intact and so is their sharp sense of the edge. The edge of accessibility,the edge of the scalpel which peruses the brain once the needle is dropped, the edge of the groove which is characteristically jagged. Mr. Partridge has now created a significant external other which lives and breathes whenever someone spins an XTC record - this 'other' consumes each song (you can hear him clawing and crunching away as the song plays) and this makes it all sort of scary... This is without question the greatest album of the decade.
Black Sea Top
Black Sea     As is evident on the cover, this band is now an army, a squadron, a fighting unit. Judging by their countenance, they are angry and they're standing behind what they believe in 100%. This suspicion is confirmed when the band breaks into track #1 - "Respectable Street". How can they be so mad and so comical at the same time? Once again there is far more in here than there needs to be; they go all the way and cram so much into these recordings and generally work far beyond the call of duty. Their use of effects is self-indulgent and incredibly effective. It's refreshing to hear a group with such conviction use flanging and delay and get away with it without fail. They have a great sense of timing, as well as spacing, and this is key. The effects, along with supplementary sounds, illustrate the line of the lyric and the same is true of the musical flourishes from musician extraordinaire Dave Gregory: what we get in the end is an idea taken to its full extreme, illustrated and accented by injections of explosive oil paint splotches. "Towers of London" conjures up moods initially stirred by The Beatles, though with an entirely new sound. An outstanding accomplishment on all counts. "No Language In Our Lungs" is a surprise to everyone, including those in the band I suspect. Although it's played with the usual crashing force, this is the first song by XTC to receive 'ballad' status. The words are about the loopholes in communication and the frustration in ultimately not being able to translate what is going on with your emotions. A brilliant performance and perfectly captured by producer Steve Lillywhite... Overall the sound is more metallic than their past records. The drums sound a bit obtrusive from song to song but this is good or bad depending on who you are and what you want out of life. These revolutionaries have released yet another revolutionary batch of powerful entities, full of melodic illusions and genuine inspiration.
English Settlement Top
English Settlement     Pastoral and insatiable, trading off, crossing over, reaching forward, stretching out the horizon, expanding, enlarging upon, growing growing changing learning... This double-album signifies an important landmark for XTC. Their sound has now officially metamorphosed into a different realm of music. Still cutting edge, still quirky and bouncy, yet more spacious and warm. The opening track "Runaways" fades in with a lucid, liquid sunpatch of contemplative tones trickling and streaming, intertwining and breathing, fluctuating color. We hear a sea of acoustic and electric guitars strumming an introspective, unresolved chord - this is accompanied by cymbals / bells to create a winterwonderland effect. When the drums kick in, the arrangement is sparse and the emphasis of the downbeat is exaggerated with what must be a room-sized timpani. Later we hear the high-pitched single keys of a piano puncturing the canvas and resonating deeply. One might get the impression that these lads have eaten the magic mushrooms (or at least read about them). The last track of the album "Snowman" is a chilling and challenging song. I'd say it's Andy Partridge's masterpiece, if it weren't for the suspicion that there are more to come. For all those who don't have this, you must correct that right now.
Mummer Top
Mummer     XTC have lost their only drummer. How am I to survive the summer? No fear - they're back with their latest: MUMMER. A strange record which seems to ramble along, waltz, march, swim and float... out of context into the vortex... dabbling in black magic, farm life, simplistic mating calls and vindictive resentment. A return to nature, an appeal to the elements. Mummer is Out There. A truly fantastic record. It covers such a wide range that there is no logical sequence for the songs. They all exist in their own right. The approach is more studio oriented and not so band-based. Instruments come and go as passing whimsy. The percussion is more diverse and ecclectic, and so are the rhythms. A remarkable work considering the recent departure of monster metronome Terry Chambers. There's no stopping Partridge, Moulding & Gregory in their quest for further musical horizons.
The Big Express Top
The Big Express     Industrial landscape. Metallic, brash, clanging machines driven by steam, setting the pace for this new batch of pop tunes from today's magical maestros XTC. All channels are infested across the board with anger, passion, determination and good ole' fascist mantelpieces - sorry, good old fashioned masterpieces. Well, they're progressive, certain, but they do tip their hat to tradition and invent new exciting nuances within standard themes. They've grown quite clamorous for a drummerless outfit, and quite cross for a glamorous outfit. Should I say they're angry - again - but for a different reason this time. Overall, and quite cross for a glamorous outfit. Should I say they're angry - again - but for a different reason this time. Overall, The Big Express is busy, cluttered, vicariously demanding yet victoriously surrounding. The production could be toned down a notch, but the material here is top notch. Very edible.
25 O'Clock Top
25 O'Clock     From the look of it, from the sound of it, these were unreleased tracks recorded by an unknown band in 1967 when psychedelia was second nature. There's no way it could be produced these days and sound like that. But wait, the year on the back cover says 1985; could this just be the release date? No. The unpredictable supermen from Swindon have outdone themselves... again. As Syd Barrett says "Yippee, you can't see me but I can you." XTC I know you're in there. Nowhere on this record is there any mention of XTC or any of their names. They are now called Sir John Johns, Lord Cornelius Plum, The Red Curtain and E.I.E.I. Owens. Their drum set is underwater and their guitars are flying writhing serpents. Laughing voices and indistinguishable sounds are cascading and soaring all around, as I try to throw labels onto the instruments and impose roles on the sounds. It's not like that. Innovation in full-force. A hope for the future. Fun in the studio? Color in sound. Flavor in tone. Double-exposure in fidelity. Live action cartoons. 25 O'CLOCK until the end of TIME!
Skylarking Top
Skylarking This is a special record which requires all sorts of horrible words in order to describe it. It's full of magic and addictive harmonies. It's fruity; that's undeniable, yet they pull it off so well they get away with it and with flying colors at that. This is 2nd to Sergeant in terms of its unexplainable charisma and its sustenance. It should give them some of the attention they deserve, though it is still too eccentric to really make a splash. Todd Rundgren produced this one and finally earned himself a warrant to be a producer. This is his finest work, including his own. It's not only the most coherent batch of recordings from Todd or XTC, it is also crafted with an inspired vision. Example: the perfect-pitched bee that flies by your ear after the first line "Drowning here in summer's cauldron". The general tone of Skylarking is pastoral and soft, but their trademark of elasticity still parades fearlessly. The songs seem to fit together so seamlessly with a continuity which is contrary to XTC's previous records. It holds together and holds its own in the face of time.
Psonic Psunspot Top
Psonic Psunspot     XTC's alter-ego is back. This is just what I wanted them to do next. Before Skylarking we heard the madcrazy 25 O'clock. Now The Dukes return with vengeance. This time more of a range is covered, from Syd's Pink Floyd to The Beach Boys. The recordings are more disciplined and less psychotic. The album is very tasty. It is rather chewy and tangy if you must know. A handful of the songs are on the fringe of recent XTC although dressed up in 60's gear. This works very well. Rumour has it, while recording Skylarking they found it difficult not to play like The Dukes. They must really have a passion for the psychedelic twinge. I'm glad somebody's out there doing this kind of stuff, since 'retro' usually means 'processed garbage' - these reels is real. Keep it up, Lads.
Oranges & Lemons Top

Oranges and Lemons     "Hope you enjoyed your meal, it's only gas and chemicals, we thought that you'd prefer something not nature made". And now XTC introduce themselves to the average record-consumer conglomerate. They restate what they've said already, but now more clearly and refined, recycling their favorite motifs from their vast repertoire of pop trickery, and exhuming the best of their hooks out from the drudges of obscurity. "In case you missed out... Here, this should go down better." Here we have a record that caters to the formulas which dictate what the radios play = what the greater public buys, and it's about time! XTC are not known for their cooperation or for their commercial acumen. They have, however, created a staggering quantity of exceptional records overflowing with genius, innovation and unrivaled craftsmanship. The extra mile is what they are known for. As a fan, I am disappointed with Oranges & Lemons. Maybe it is because I was expecting the Dukes/Skylarking melange as advertised... It was not to be. For once, elements of current chart prancers are surfacing in the dearly beloved sounds of XTC. The sign of the times was always gleefully absent from the products of these masterminds - now it's a pipe of a different color. I sense shady ulterior motives in many of the choices made by the until recently uncompromising Andy Partridge. This is an album with a theme and the theme is "We give in - please buy this record" - this does not become them. The songs are still technically 'clever', though I can't help but feel suspicious - they don't have that drive, that fire, that unblinking will and burning necessity to exist anymore.

There are a few gems and I'd be really worried if there weren't. "Scarecrow People" is a twisted song; the best in the lot. One more optimistic lyric that hopes to reach the inert masses and make them think, wake them up and hopefully change the rancid state of inertia to one less complacent and more ambitious. This record should study that sentiment and learn a thing or two overnight, but sadly - things don't work like that. Colin Moulding's "One of the Millions" is another redeeming factor that doesn't alter the equation terribly but still emanates classic XTC. Other songs like "Mayor of Simpleton" and "Pink Thing" are ruthlessly catchy 'feel-good' songs - this is numerous steps below the normal rank of an XTC song. Worthy of mention are two Beach Boys spin-offs located at the end of the fourth side. "Miniature Sun" and "Chalkhills and Children" are undeniably brilliant. They don't sound like XTC, but they are definitely works to be proud of, and for us to marvel over... However, even the exquisite exceptions are tainted by one thing or another. In the last fading moments of the album. in case you had any doubts that this is the wrong drummer for the group, once and for all it is confirmed, as one of Andy's more entrancing loops is cluttered with a string of tasteless, inappropriate, stumbling drum fills. What would be a perfect song and a perfect ending for the record - is ruined by what some random session musician thought were impressive frills without first considering the mood of the song.

The real members (Partridge/Moulding/Gregory) display flawless musicianship. In this way, the record is dazzling. If you don't know this band, by all means go out and get Oranges & Lemons. It's a friendly introduction in many ways. If you are already familiar with the hypnotic qualities of XTC music, proceed at your own risk. It's unquestionably worth a listen. You may very well find your favorite record here.

Nonsvch Top
Nonsvch     One mixed bag, please. Okay I'll throw these out and keep these. What? I can't? Oh, alright... As a whole, Nonsvch falls short, falls apart, crumbles, does not hold together, therefore is not a 'whole'. I won't insult the songs that shouldn't exist since the titles get me down. Nevertheless, this record does contain some of my all-time favorite XTC songs. "The Ugly Underneath" kicks and bashes, stomps and crashes alongside a jittery tremolo electric guitar and then crosses a peculiar threshold into a floating velvet shelter which cradles and soothes the nerves, and alternates between these moods like second nature. The track "Crocodile" is reminiscent of the angst which reined Mr. Partridge in the early days. The lyric targets the subject of jealousy with such remarkable marksmanship, it's bound to have a grave impact on all those who listen. "Then She Appeared" dazzles the ears with its distinguished simplicity and delectable melodies. A song to hear a string of times in succession. Beatles influence used intelligently and uniquely. In fact there are a number of songs which blend the psychedelia of '67 with a progressive modern fidelity (for instance, "Dear Madam Barnum", "That Wave", "Holly Up On Poppy", "Wrapped In Grey", "Humble Daisy" and Colin Moulding's "My Bird Performs"). This is what I've been waiting for so, although there are everal throw-aways trapped in here, I've got mine so I'm a satisfied customer.

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[Thanks to Matt Kaden]