XTC started as a poppy new wave band boasting jerky rhythms and quirky vocals. On their debut, guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge's latent dictatorial tendencies had yet to fully manifest themselves, as he allows bassist Colin Moulding to write six out of the album's 19 tracks.
White Music tends to be unjustly maligned by the music community, most likely by fans who are impatiently waiting for the band to progress to Skylarking-caliber material for the duration of the album.
This is unfortunate, as White Music is a highly auspicious debut, filled with catchy tunes and clever, jerky riffs. Partridge has yet to come into his own as a singer, but his vocals are for the most part decent enough.
The album is highly consistent, though in a sense this becomes a problem, as the sound on the album is markedly uniform. The band had devised a formula, and for the most part religiously adhered to it.
The main albatross around the album's neck is their atrocious cover of Bob Dylan's classic All Along The Watchtower, featuring one of the most obnoxious vocal performances of all time. This is a pity, as Moulding came up with a clever bassline and the harmonica breaks are quite effective, but any merits the song has are dispelled by Partridge's butchery of conventional speech patterns.
Aside from this misstep, however, the album is extremely strong, with little in the way of filler. Partridge was already adept at composing hyper-catchy melodies, and the brand of new wave/pop that he operated in sounds highly idiosyncratic and helps differentiate XTC from other new wave bands.
The uniformity of the sound is a problem, but due to the strong songwriting each track has something to distinguish it from the others. While some more diversity would be welcome, the uniformity of the album is hardly an insurmountable barrier to enjoying the album.
Ultimately White Music is an excellent debut. While some may deride it for sounding nothing like their more polished, revered later albums, the strong songwriting and distinctive performance make for an immensely entertaining listen. Criminally underrated, White Music proved the group's talent from the beginning, resulting in an album that should appeal to any XTC fan who'll listen to it with an open mind.
Go2 is pretty much more of the same; Partridge continues to pen hyper catchy new wave anthems, while Moulding continues to play Tobin Sprout to Andy's Robert Pollard, contributing a few gems per album.
Partridge's vocals eschew the punk overtones they'd displayed on White Music, now sounding considerably more melodic, which better complements the band's poppy style.
It's said that Go2 was rushed out, with its material hastily composed in a matter of weeks as opposed to the lengthy development process of White Music, but this is hardly evident from the caliber of the songs here. The album is bereft of any crimes against humanity along the lines of their notorious, reviled cover of All Along The Watchtower, and is in fact completely devoid of any fillerish content at all, with each song featuring a catchy, poppy melody that will become lodged in the listener's mental jukebox for quite awhile.
Go2 shares the primary deficiency of White Music in that the sound is quite uniform throughout the duration of the album, but once more the quality of the songwriting is sufficiently high that this flaw can be overlooked. The endless jerky rhythms can be a bit monotonous at times, and one might long for a track that isn't yet another pop rocker, but if the listener can accept this handicap they'll receive an excellent new wave experience, fraught with myriad hooks and highly memorable riffs and melodies.
Ultimately Go2 is an excellent listening experience, on par with White Music. While it's very much a sequel to their debut with only a modicum of advancements over it, which compromises its having an independent identity, the band's early formula was sufficiently strong that they can be excused for milking it for yet another album. While the band risks the perils of stagnation with their lack of development since their debut, as long as Partridge's (and occasionally Moulding's) songwriting remains this accomplished they can be forgiven for their dearth of growth or progression.
Frustrated with dealing with the notoriously difficult Partridge, keyboardist Barry Andrews left the group. Rather than filling this void with a new keyboardist, Partridge opted to recruit a second guitarist, Dave Gregory, to handle the lead guitar work so that the less gifted player Partridge could focus on rhythm guitar. This results in a fuller sound, which greatly enhances the overall product. The album derives its name from this new group arrangement, a highly successful one wherein the lack of keyboards is never bemoaned.
The songs feel more developed than on previous XTC albums, and Drums And Wires also boasts greater diversity and clearer production than previous LPs featured. The songwriting is once more dominated by Partridge with Moulding delivering several contributions of his own, including the group's signature anthem, the classic Making Plans For Nigel.
The caliber of the songwriting is strong throughout, featuring a plethora of excellent tracks without any traces of filler (though the ultimately dissonant shout-intensive Complicated Game is anathema to quite a few fans of the group for understandable reasons).
The band has definitely grown since Go2, as the album no longer feels like one long track with only a modicum of variations in the disparate sections. Each track sounds different here, with a vast array of melodies that truly stand out from one another. There are no weak links, and XTC classics abound, from the quirky, bouncy Helicopter to the saga of the fabricated superhero Scissor Man wherein the music emulates the snipping of the title character.
Ultimately the album is a true classic, eclipsing the already strong first albums with its greater diversity and superior songwriting. The album does have a somewhat mechanical feel to it, but that seems apt enough, as at this stage of their career XTC get by more on their intelligence rather than their emotional resonance. Drums And Wires is one of the greatest achievements of the new wave movement, a jerky, eccentric and clever cornerstone of the genre.
For many fans XTC doesn't begin for real until this album. While this is a consummately wrongheaded philosophy, XTC hadn't developed many of the traits that typified their later, more well-known work until this release.
The primary manifestations of this metamorphosis arrive through the medium of the band's overall sound. No longer are the band's tracks uniformly mechanical and soulless; replacing these universally calculated songs are far more organic pop masterpieces, filled with diversity and spontaneity.
The tracks span a wide spectrum of diversity, from Latin tinged harmonies to lush pop to hyper catchy bubblegum fare to Eno-esque soundscapes to tunes more along the lines of their usual forte (namely jerky, quirky rockers).
This is a vastly different brand of experimentation from what defined their previous releases; rather than providing an endless stream of every conceivable form of new wave jerkiness, the genre exercises depicted on Black Sea all sound fluid and organic, with the band shedding the trappings of their old style and embracing more conventional variants of pop.
None of this transformation would work if the band weren't adept at composing songs of this nature; fortunately, Partridge is more than up for the challenge, penning myriad hook filled classics. Moulding once more emerges as a strong creative force, with his offerings including the pop brilliance of Generals And Majors, an enormously catchy track boasting an infectious chorus.
While many tracks derived from Drums And Wires sounded quite different from one another, the diversity portrayed therein was always of a limited nature, confined to what their jerky new wave style encompassed. Black Sea is their first truly diverse outing, effortlessly shifting through pop paradigms without ever sounding ill-equipped to handle any given style.
Ultimately Black Sea is a pop masterpiece, an excellent album filled with catchy, memorable tracks that cover a lot of ground stylistically. While the band has eschewed many of their more abrasive tendencies this is hardly a sellout, sounding just as idiosyncratic and eccentric as ever, merely in a different, somewhat more accessible context. The album points a way to the future, though certainly not at the expense of their past; while Black Sea is a turning point for the band, their prior work should never be forgotten.
One must be wary when dealing with a double album, as there's almost an innate aspect of self-indulgence inherent to them. It's difficult enough for a band to fill a single album with good songs, let alone a double. Likewise, there's often a dearth of material to fully fill the entire runtime, resulting in incessant padding in the form of overly inflated lengths for any given track.
Fortunately, this is not the case with English Settlement. While the tracks are uniformly long, they never feel over-extended, always evading monotony or tedium through clever song construction.
Likewise, quality control is never an issue due to impeccable songwriting that ensures that every track has something to offer. Partridge and Moulding are in top form when it comes to song composition, resulting in a pop masterpiece that's utterly bereft of filler.
Like its predecessor, English Settlement is quite diverse, with material ranging from hyper catchy pop (such as Senses Working Overtime) to moody, tenebrous dirges (like Runaways). Diversity is essential in the context of such a long album, and fortunately the group recognized this and composed the album accordingly.
Partridge's pop instincts have greatly evolved, as each track, irrespective of its style, is filled with high quality pop hooks and memorable melodies. This profusion of poppiness never compromises the band's usual eccentricity, as even tracks as bizarre as the epic Jason And The Argonauts are consummately catchy.
Ultimately English Settlement is yet another brilliant pop album, overflowing with idiosyncratic, skillful songwriting. Partridge and Moulding's aptitude for pop composition continue to increase with each successive album, resulting in another high quality affair. The band has established a unique sound that brilliantly complements their quirky songwriting, with their identity no longer eclipsed by the group's roots in the new wave movement. The band has developed a personality wholly independent of their new wave origins, evolving into a fantastic, unconventional pop outfit that truly sounds like nothing else.
Due to a severe case of stage fright, Partridge opted to abstain from any future touring, choosing instead to focus on the studio side of the band. One would assume that with this rededication toward concentrating on studio material the band would record a masterpiece; sadly, this was not the case, as Mummer was a lackluster affair, easily XTC's weakest album to date.
The album isn't bad per se, with most songs at least sounding pleasant enough, but a dearth of hooks cripples the proceedings. While many of the tracks are interesting while they're on, the majority aren't even remotely memorable, dissipating from your recollection mere minutes after they're over.
It's impossible to say what to attribute this sharp decline in the caliber of the songwriting to; the tracks all sound like normal XTC songs, save for the fact that they're predominantly devoid of pop hooks or catchy melodies, and without these no matter how cleverly arranged or performed the tracks may be they're all condemned to fail in the long run. XTC were at heart a pop band, and thus they could never get by on atmosphere alone.
Strangely enough, the bonus tracks are universally stronger than the album material. Good as they are, however, they're not sufficient to raise the album above the level of 'decent.' Were there more songs on the album at the level of Toys, a catchy pop number that boasts a plethora of hooks, then the album would indeed be much stronger; as it stands, however, it merely comes off as a reward for the listener for enduring the rest of the LP.
Ultimately, Mummer is a consummately frustrating experience. Arriving after a streak of brilliant albums Mummer is a huge disappointment, yet at the same time none of the tracks are terribly offensive and at least a modicum of enjoyment can be educed from it. Thus it can't be called a bad album; rather it feels like an enormous waste of potential. A great deal of effort was put into the composition and execution of these tracks, yet without an adequate supply of hooks it never amounts to much. The bonus tracks ensure that the album achieves at least a decent rating, but by the group's standards it's an undeniably weak outing.
After the relative misfire of Mummer the band immediately got back on track (no pun intended) with one of their best albums, the brilliant The Big Express. Containing nearly every facet that made the band great, from hyper complex yet rewarding arrangements and melodies to a charming quirky, offbeat sensibility, The Big Express truly depicts the group in top form.
For the first time the band makes full usage of their studio environment, crafting truly dense sonic soundscapes wherein myriad disparate aural elements unfold simultaneously without marring the melodies in the slightest. This can make the album seem inaccessible, or even impenetrable at first, but once the listener has adjusted to the sound they'll find a plethora of pop anthems wherein the hooks are never obscured or obstructed by the complex arrangements.
The track that best displays this penchant for sonic chaos is the opener, Moulding's exceptional Wake Up, wherein each speaker features a different riff while the vocals, wholly independent from either, launch into jerky rhythms, while seemingly unrelated bass passages enter the track. This may sound like headache inducing cacophony, but somehow it all works, with the song emerging as a catchy, eccentric classic.
This capacity to transfigure hyper complex, inaccessible arrangements into immensely enjoyable and memorable pop is what makes The Big Express such a great album. Partidge's unerring pop sensibility shines through even the most daunting tracks, with each song containing a multitude of exceptional hooks that effortlessly transcend the complexity of the arrangements.
The songwriting on the album is brilliant, easily on par with Partridge's best work. Unimpeded by the album's innate tendencies toward convoluted structures, the material on The Big Express is just as catchy as highlights from the band's less challenging work.
Ultimately The Big Express is a masterpiece for the band, filled with great riffs and vocal melodies. Rather than hindering the songs, the complexity makes the melodies that much more rewarding, while the band retains their surreal edge with offbeat tracks like the mind bogglingly bizarre Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her. A case of extreme ambition coming to its fruition, The Big Express presents all sides of the band at their finest, resulting in the quintessential XTC album, which is every bit as great as one would expect it to be.
Finally fully shedding the trappings of their new wave origins, XTC released a true pop masterpiece, a collection of meticulously crafted pop gems utterly devoid of the jerkiness that had been an inherent part of the band's sound since their inception. The timing couldn't have been better, as the group had taken their new wave sound as far as it could go on The Big Express, and were truly ready for some real musical progression, which this album delivers in spades.
Skylarking is generally considered to be the band's magnum opus, an assertion that's difficult to dispute. Partridge and Moulding's songwriting capabilities are at their peak, while pop guru Todd Rundgren brings excellent glossy production to the proceedings. While this production would have been woefully out of place on any of the band's prior albums, it fully complements the pop modality of Skylarking, greatly ameliorating the already strong set list.
The LP is the first and only concept album in the band's discography, depicting the cycle of a full day in a move somewhat akin to The Moody Blues' classic Days Of Future Passed. While this premise in and of itself isn't especially interesting, it lends the album an effective structure, with the sound of the album progressing in a highly organic fashion that suits it very well.
The songs are uniformly brilliant, filled with creative hooks and irresistible melodies. While many bemoan the inclusion of Partridge's atheist anthem Dear God on the CD release, as it breaks up the otherwise immaculate flow of the album, it's a sufficiently good song that its intrusion can be forgiven.
The album is filled with pop gems, from the riff based Earn Enough For Us to the gorgeous Summer's Cauldron. Each song is immensely catchy, and there's enough diversity to prevent the album from ever growing monotonous.
Ultimately Skylarking is a true pop masterpiece, filled with brilliant songwriting and an array of spectacular pop classics. The songwriting, production and performances all gel together to form a truly great experience, an album that's a must have for not only XTC fans but any fan of the pop genre at all.
The Dukes Of Stratosphear was an XTC side-project wherein the band mimicked some of the more prominent rock outfits from the sixties, tackling everything from music hall to psychedelia to bubblegum pop, and emulating acts from the Beatles to Barrett era Pink Floyd to The Electric Prunes.
This album compiles every track composed under the guise of The Dukes Of Stratosphear, with this content manifesting itself in the form of the initial EP 25 O'Clock and the full fledged LP Psonic Psunspot.
As far as side-projects go, The Dukes Of Stratosphear were quite successful (artistically, not commercially), adopting a formula and executing it perfectly. The songs sound like authentic lost sixties tracks, more reminiscent of a Nuggets collection than anything XTC had attempted before.
But while the songs sound like authentic sixties material, none of the tracks are rehashes or plagiaristic in nature, with the band composing brand new melodies for each track, and very good ones at that.
From the Beatlesque Mole From The Ministry to the Electric Prunes homage 25 O'Clock, each song is filled with hooks and catchy retro melodies, using these impersonations as springboards for their own strong songwriting.
The group shows a true understanding and love for the source material they're using as inspiration, always careful to get the sound right without outright lifting elements of the songs. They do right by each band's memory they conjure, always sure to make the songs sound like tributes rather than parodies.
Overall Chips From The Chocolate Fireball is an extremely enjoyable listen for fans of sixties rock. Rather than deciding to toss off some half-baked role play, the group took the project very seriously, and it shows with all the careful effort that was put into fashioning each song. Thus the final product is an album that, rather than functioning as a novelty, is a fully fleshed out project that ranks up there with some of XTC's best conventional work.
A producer can have a profound effect on an album, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the follow-up to XTC's masterpiece Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons. While it's true that Skylarking received a glossy treatment from Todd Rundgren, his production complemented the material perfectly, adding greater clarity to the songs themselves. Paul Fox's approach differs, however; as a purveyor of his epoch's production style, he completely drenches the album with noxious 80's production values, bombarding and burying the material in them rather than working with the material as his predecessor had done.
The production isn't the only deficiency of the album, however. While much of the album is insanely catchy, it isn't necessarily the type of material you'd actually want lodged in your brain. Songs like The Loving, for instance, are extremely catchy, but ultimately vacuous, derivative and generic, rendering its memorability a nuisance rather than a merit.
This is in sharp contrast to the band's usual work, which is highly original and idiosyncratic. Perhaps in a move to attain greater mainstream success the group opted to pen more conventional material, but this dispels much of the band's charm, replacing distinctive, eccentric tunes with sonic blandness like The Loving.
Meanwhile, what tunes emerge unscathed by this new songwriting approach fall prey to the invidious 80's production style, having their melodies diluted and obstructed by an armada of superfluous instruments.
There are a few gems on the album, however, like the catchy Scarecrow People which manages to retain a distinct personality unlike most of the other material which is catchy but ultimately lifeless and overly familiar.
In the end Oranges & Lemons isn't a bad album, containing myriad catchy tunes (whether you want them to be catchy or not); it's hardly a worthy follow-up to Skylarking, however, eschewing that album's songwriting brilliance for a more inert, derivative and generic approach. The flawed songwriting philosophy is greatly exacerbated by the 80's style production which is truly anathema to me. Still, some songs manage to evade both the new songwriting mentality and the flaccid production, and if you're willing to keep an open mind then even the rest of the material can be somewhat entertaining as well.
Apparently the overproduced, comparatively mainstream approach implemented on Oranges & Lemons was an anomaly, as the group immediately reverted to the more classic sound of albums like Skylarking, casting Nonsuch as the spiritual successor to the group's pop masterpiece as opposed to allowing its actual chronological follow-up to fill that role. This is certainly good news, and led to yet another excellent album from Partridge and company.
Much like Skylarking, while pop is the dominant mode the album features quite a bit of diversity, from the poppy parable The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead to the moody political commentary of War Dance. While some songs are admittedly weaker than others there's nothing I would dismiss as absolute filler, and for the most part the album maintains a very high level of quality.
The producers of XTC material tend to have a profound impact on the final product, whether it be Todd Rundgren ameliorating the sonic brilliance of Skylarking or Paul Fox exacerbating Oranges & Lemons as he submerges the melodies in layers of overproduced cacophony. Nonsuch is no exception, with veteran Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon's production functioning as a crucial component to the album's sound. Fortunately Dudgeon does quite a good job, ensuring that each instrument emerges from the mix with extreme clarity.
The songwriting on the album it topnotch, whether it be the poppy harmonies of The Disappointed, the subtle beauty of My Bird Performs or the rapped out verses of The Ugly Underneath. Both Partridge and Moulding are in top form, resulting in a highly consistent, rewarding final product.
In the end Nonsuch is the true sequel to Skylarking that the fans have been waiting for, continuing on in the tradition of the masterpiece while being sure to forge its own identity. While the caliber of the songs isn't quite on the same level as Skylarking's, Nonsuch remains a brilliant album, filled with instant XTC classics and unimpeded by the horrors of 80's production values that Oranges & Lemons had succumbed to.
Conflicts with the record label led to a six year sabbatical for the group. This extended vacation, however, didn't prevent Partridge and Moulding from penning a plethora of new songs during this period, resulting in a surplus of material when they finally signed to a new label.
Realizing the folly of releasing a double album as their comeback LP, Partridge opted to bifurcate his new songs into the categories of electric pop and more ambitious acoustic material. After this compartmentalization had transpired Partridge decided to release the acoustic set prior to the electric one, and thus Apple Venus Volume 1 was born.
Driven by his myriad artistic pretensions Partridge decided to recruit an entire orchestra for this album, coining the phrase 'orchoustic' to describe this musical phenomenon. While one would think that an omnipresent orchestra would clash with the dynamics of a quirky pop group, the ubiquitous orchestral flourishes actual gel with the album quite well in an instance wherein Partridge's ambitions actually augmented the album rather than detracting from it.
While one would assume that track after track of this 'orchoustic' gimmick would grow monotonous, the group does enough to vary the sound, ranging from the bouncy pop of Greenman to the vitriolic invective of Your Dictionary, infusing as much diversity as the parameters of the album would allow.
As for the quality of the album itself, while it's certainly somewhat erratic it's ultimately yet another strong addition to their canon. Apple Venus Vol. 1 is filled with moments of true beauty, from the gorgeous Easter Theatre to the majestic closer The Last Balloon. The orchestra compounds the potency of these moments, making for a highly moving experience. While some of these songs would retain their strength without the orchestral arrangements, rendering them rather superfluous, in the cases where they truly blend well with the material the band achieves some glorious heights in the world of pop music.
In the end AVV1 is a strong comeback album for the band, an LP filled with sublime moments of true sonic beauty. While it's a tad uneven it's still one of those rare cases of unbridled ambition truly paying off. Partridge and Moulding's facility for songwriting have not diminished with time, leading to a strong and truly unique outing for the band.
One might assume that it's easier to make a good, basic pop album than an experimental, ambitious LP like this album's predecessor. Eschewing the lofty pretensions that governed Apple Venus Vol. 1, Wasp Star provides a more conventional set, and ergo one might think that less effort was required to compose an album of this nature.
This, however, is a pronouncedly wrongheaded notion. In their past, XTC were always at their best when they were at their most adventurous, be it their early experimental new wave format found on albums such as White Music and Go2, their sonic explorations on The Big Express, their chameleon like genre exercises in their Dukes guise or the tackling of a concept album on Skylarking.
It's when the group abandons these pretensions that trouble tends to arise. On their most recent attempt at a straightforward glossy pop album, Oranges & Lemons, the band failed to provide a compelling set of pop numbers, descending into the realm of overproduced genericism. Without the band's experimental leanings there was little to distinguish the album from hordes of other contemporary pop groups, with only a modicum of clues to identify that it was indeed an XTC album.
Thus a return to a basic pop approach was fraught with perils, evoking memories of derivative melodies and intrusive production. It seemed that the band could only attain greatness via their experimental side, causing one to approach this album with a degree of skepticism.
Fortunately this wariness was not required. As long as the songwriting is strong the group needn't concern itself with lofty pretensions, and in this respect Wasp Star certainly delivers. Filled with clever hooks and memorable melodies, the album proves the group's innate pop acumen and displays that they're more than capable of crafting a strong, basic pop album.
Featuring classics such as the riff driven Playground and the hyper catchy I'm The Man Who Murdered Love, Wasp Star is what an XTC basic pop album should be, well written and tightly performed. While the group lost guitarist Dave Gregory during their prolonged hiatus, the instrumentation on the album is never lacking, still providing a lush, full sound.
While the album almost defiantly breaks no new ground for the band, electing to restrict such ambitions to volume 1 of the series, Wasp Star accomplishes all it sets out to do, providing an entertaining, if somewhat superficial, experience. Taken with its predecessor the fruits of the Apple Venus sessions exhibit two sides of the band, coming together to make a brilliant single product. Taken together the albums are an enormous musical achievement; while neither album independently ranks up there with the band's best work, with both suffering from a degree of erraticism, when viewed as a whole the albums display the brilliance and versatility of XTC better than any single album could.