Reviews: XTC: The Big Express

The Minnesota Daily
March 1999

the big express

Yeah, I know. There basically could have been any XTC record in this space, but there is a logic to this choice. Released in 1984, possibly the biggest year for music aside from 1964, The Big Express was neither XTC's most accessible record nor their best one. However, it came along at a time when the ground was fertile for change to be planted in the garden of rock. People wanted it. People needed it. Somehow, and not for the first or last time, XTC's seeds were blown out of the planting ground and onto the highway, where they were repeatedly run over.

It was a critical time in their careers. The band had much to prove. Frontman Andy Partridge had blown a fuse from "excessive touring," the spotty and unpredictable Mummer (released almost simulateneously with REM's Murmer -- confused?) worsened the circumstances of what the band calls "the worst record contract of all time," and well, no one in this country knew who they were after five fucking albums.

So the band did a 180 and recorded The Big Express as if to say "Fuck all y'all." Recruited for production duties was David Lord of Peter Hammill's posse and, boy, he sure brought out the noise in the band. If the serene Mummer was a gentle back rub, then The Big Express was getting hit in the face with a large piece of cinder block in a dirty sock. The jarring syncopation of battling guitars in "Wake Up," begins the album as well as the descent into the diary of a mad band who would soon be known only for a particularly blasphemous proclamation and a goofy anti-politician radio song.

Despite textbook XTC melody-driven rockers like "All You Pretty Girls" and "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," the pre-jungle drum 'n' bass stutter of "Shake You Donkey Up" and the nonsensical "You're the Wish You Are I Had," this one will be (not) remembered for the car crash of "Train Running Low on Soul Coal" and "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her," an expertly executed poem about that crucial moment when one has to make a move. What fun.

Musician #75
January 1985
Record Reviews

XTC The Big Express (Geffen)

Compulsively bursting with invention, originality and wit, The Big Express clacks away from the floral and pastoral scenery of English Settlement and Mummer, and delights with its range of moods, textures and topics. Indeed, this musical excursion is rather more suggestive of XTC's Black Sea period, in which each song seemed to plumb a different exotic world. By combining provocative lyrical metaphors with rich soundscapes, leader Andy Partridge is becoming adept at creating three-dimensional travelogues. XTC is not happy unless you smell-touch-taste the music.

Take for example the witty "Bless You All You Pretty Girls", a sailors' homage to all those young maidens with "your pale arms waving". From there we travel to the country-flavored "Shake You Donkey Up", a kinetic square dance complete with mule-like sound effects. The eccentric love song, "Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her", rolls in like the fog with a haunting repetition of Mellotron, thundering drums and unresolved tensions. So kiss her already!

But XTC can also pack a direct emotional punch. "Reign Of Blows", with its heavy backbeat and screaming harmonica, and the jarring discordant breakdown of "Train Running Low On Soul Coal", show off XTC at their most effective. Moulding makes two other lovely contributions: the abrasive, angelic "Wake Up" and the wistful "I Remember The Sun".

The Big Express' theme is implied by its symbol of an antiquated British railway. Here, Partridge expresses his distaste and caution for the arrogance of progress. A Beatlesque "The Everyday Story Of A Smalltown" pays tribute to the simplicity and "backwardness" of a burg. ("You're just too fast for little old me ... next you'll be telling me it's 1990", Partridge scoffs.) At the other extreme, "This World Over" features Police-like rhythms and a flowing wash of sadness as Partridge movingly addresses the survivors of a nuclear war.

XTC is never short of ideas; their only real flaw is a propensity for crowding together too many. But in this day of pop cliché, I'd take XTC's senses-working-overtime anytime. I just hope they're still not too far ahead of their time. - Erica Wexler

[Thanks to David Oh]

Musik Express / Sounds
lp kritiken


Virgin 206 613-620

In England nennt man sie inzwischen die „three wise man of pop”. Späte Reputation für eine Gruppe, die dem Rock seit Jahren neue musikalische Wege weist. Das kompositorische Talent von Andy Partridge is unbestritten; neben Paul Weller ist er der groß Innovator unter den Rock-Song-Schreibern. Aber während sich jener zuletzt auf die Roots im Jazz besann, strebt Patridge weiter vorwärts in Gefilde noch nie gehörter Melodie-Puzzles.

Daß ihm bei seiner ständigen Suche auf dem letzten Album MUMMER nicht alles zum Besten geriet, gibt er selbstkritisch zu: „Die Texte auf MUMMER hatten einen sehr begrentzen Horizont — ungefähr in der Größe meines Gartens. THE BIG EXPRESS ist eine härtere Platte, auf der wir wieder über den Zaun blicken.”

Als inzwischen konsolidiertes Trio schlägt XTC auf ihrer neuen LP night nur härtere Töne an; es gelingt ihnen auch, die ruhigen, akustischen Elemente ihres Landausfluges mit der Schärfe früherer Produktionen zu verbinden. Das Resultat ist ein fesselndes Hörerlebnis, eine gekonnte Gratwanderung zwischen Kinderlied und abstrakten, mit Synkopen gespickten Melodieläufen, zwischen Hard Blues und psychedelischer Magie.

„Wake Up”, der Eingangstitel, von Colin Moulding geschrieben, klingt noch am konventionellsten; er erinnert an die „Black-Sea”-Phase. Doch schon „All You Pretty Girls” zeigt auf, wie es weitergeht: Die ersten Takte, nach Beach-Boys-Manier gestrickt, münden in eine Art Ringelreihen-Vers, um danach in eine swingende Blues-Grundstruktur überzugehen — alles nach XTC-Rezept verfremdet.

„Shake You Donkey Up” spielt mit schrägen Fiddle-Sounds; „This World Over”, der vielleicht im üblichen Sinn „schönste” Song der Platte, hat eine mit Reggae-Touch unterlegte melancholische Melodie und steigert sich gegen Ende fast zue Symphonie.

Seite zwei beginnt mit der Alltagsgeschichte einer englischen „Smalltown”, ein mehrstimmig gesungener Marsch! „Reign of Blows” ist ein verzert-verfremdeter Hardrocker, doch das kompromißloseste Stück ist „Train Running Low On Soul Coal” — hier werden XTC ihrem Namen gerecht: reine Ex-Stase. Wenn je einer eine Synthese zwischen Colemans „Free Jazz” und Rock geschafft hat, dann Partridge mit diesem fünfminütigen haßliebenden Seelenschrei.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, das soll man hören.

(6) Bernward Meier


(6) ——— phänomenal
(5) ——— sehr gut
(4) ——— gut
(3) ——— nicht übel
(2) ——— lau
(1) ——— mies

[Thanks to Bernward Meier]

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23 January 2021