The New Music Scene - September 1992

(Geffen Records)

Photo Credit: Kevin Westenberg

The Summer of 1992 has been characterized by one common theme among 90% of New Music fans that I have spoken to... Nothing.

In the words of Lou Reed, there's nothing happening at all! Sure, there was Lollapalooza II featuring seven bands I didn't really care about seeing, and then there's the new Morrissey album for the many of you who still care, but generally nothing. Nada, zippo, zilch. I've been more excited by the music at a 70s / Disco party I recently attended than by any thing trying to pass itself off as “New Music,” “Alternative,” “Modern Rock,” or any of those other stupid tags attached to all things un-mainstream. Oh yeah, there is a new album by XTC. Those ancient warriors of pop quirkyness are still kicking, and they have a pretty good disc out to boot.

My All Time Favorite Band (I capitalize to emphasize my undying devotion), XTC have always been the “Oh yeah... them” type to most “hipper” music fans, while being a virtual religion to others. Never the teenage masses' fab-faves or flavo(u)r of the month (and all the better for it), XTC have been relentlessly unhip while releasing the most vital of intelligent pop over the past 15 years. Formed in 1977, XTC did have a run up the U.S album charts in 1980 with Black Sea, but it wasn't until 1986 when Skylarking was released with “alternative hit” “Dear God” that the band came anywhere near a U.S. sales gold medal.

1989's Oranges and Lemons looked to be a surefire smash, with can't-miss AOR anthems “Mayor of Simpleton” and “King For a Day.” XTC even broke their 6-year live performance embargo with an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, but still Oranges fell short of U.S. gold. Three years later XTC's new disc has hit the top of the Gavin Report's “College Album” charts, but hasn't skimmed the Top 100 of Billboard as of this writing.

Nonsuch carries on XTC's tradition of peculiar pop excellence, yet Billboard success still seems unlikely. Songwriters Andy Partridge (guitar) and Colin Moulding (bass), backed by guitar craftsmen Dave Gregory and Fairport Convention's drummer Dave Mattacks, have put together an uneven, yet ultimately charming sixty-minute magical mystery tour. Produced by David Bowie / Elton John boardman Gus Dudgeon, Nonsuch opens with first single “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” The buoyant rocker explores the plight of Partridge's “every hero,” a conglomeration of JFK, Jesus and other historical figures who “told the truth.” Along the way, Peter “made too many enemies” before his unavoidable descent into martyrdom, an eerie parallel-drawing parable considering those whom it was written about.

After “Peter,” it's time to use the “program” feature on your CD player. Although slow songs do not necessarily mean bad songs, the herky-jerky track sequence of upbeat rockers broken up by the more sedate tunes can certainty become grating.

With their peculiar pop excellence, Billboard success still seems unlikely for XTC

First, one should visit the perfectly crafted rockers, “Dear Madam Barnum” and “The Disappointed.“ Both songs provide a positive musical punch despite negative lyrical content. “The Disappointed” finds Partridge playing pied piper to a band of broken-hearted, while “Dear Madam Barnum” has Partridge resigning his clownship to the queen of the circus, stating “If I'm not the sole fool / who pulls his trousers down / then Dear Madam Barnum / I resign as clown.”

Another gem worth clicking over to is “Then She Appeared,” a pretty paean to love at first sight which features a delicately building arrangement and odd drum pattern that's sure to win many a heart. For raucous fun, the jealous anthem “Crocodile” and the angry ravings over an organ-driven beat of “The Ugly Underneath” should get your blood pumping.

Cohn Moulding contributes the sprightly “My Bird Performs,” and a rumination on homelessness “The Smartest Monkeys,” two solid songs which stand up well despite being nestled in between the more eloquently wordy Partridge songs. The anti-censorship epic “Books are Burning,” ends the disc in dramatic literary-reverent fashion.

Great disc? Well, yeah if you cut it down to a 40 minute tape of the above, but interspersed are too many one-dimensional slow ones such as “Rook” and “Humble Daisy” which don't hold up to repeated listenings as well, and Dukes of Stratosphear leftovers “That Wave” and “Bungalow” whose pseudo-6Os sound doesn't mesh with the rest of the album. Although Partridge admits to loving the ability to “pick through other people's trash” on longer-length releases, I'd much prefer the smart sequencing of Skylarking, which lent an air of cohesion to the collection.

Certainly not the best XTC has ever produced, Nonsuch is an enjoyable, intelligent, mostly compelling release from peerless pop craftsmen, which satisfies for most of its over 60 minutes. This year, that is equivalent to my proclaiming it my hands-down choice for “Album of the Year.”

- Doug Mash
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[Thanks to Bill Wikstrom]