Wasp Star (Apple Venus Part 2) (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

"Wasp Star" Was Released In The Year 2000, Roughly A Year After "Apple Venus" Was Issued

"Wasp Star" Was Released In The Year 2000, Roughly A Year After "Apple Venus" Was Issued

XTC’s swan song, and a very powerful moment even when taken separately from it companion album, the critically-lauded “Apple Venus”. As I explained when reviewing it, this is the one disc that was meant to “rock” a little from the pair. Hence, fans often call it “the disc that everybody was waiting for”.

“Playground” and “Stupidly Happy” are positioned at the forefront of this “return to form” or whatever you want to call it. The truth is the previous disc was not a departure but an assertion of the sound that was manifested on songs like “Wrapped In Grey”, and which had began insinuating itself as early as “Sacrificial Bonfire” from “Skylarking”.

“Playground” is another interesting look at childhood, and one that joins “Let’s Build A Den” in its theme of the world of children mirroring the world of adults more than we care to admit. It has the memorable line “You might leave school but it never leaves you”, and Andy’s daughter Holly (yep, she from “Holly Up On Poppy”) supplies backup. “Stupidly Happy” is defined by Andy as “The great Keef Richard riff that never was”, and it was derived from the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff. It is catchy like little else, with that simple but engrossing riff being gradually fortified by bass, tambourine, drums, handclaps…  Andy alliterates a lot on the lyrics, echoing the narrowness of thought he wishes to convey, and the effect when taken as a whole with the instrumentation is fabulous. Continue reading

Apple Venus Part 1 (XTC) – Album Review

XTC's Penultimate Album Surfaced In 1999. It Was Titled "Apple Venus"

XTC's Penultimate Album Surfaced In 1999. It Was Titled "Apple Venus"

After a decade-long strike against their record company, XTC were finally released from their contract with Virgin. The question was how to present the material they had stockpiled over the preceding years. This was to escalate into a rift that ended with Dave Gregory leaving the band, as he disagreed with Andy’s notion that two separate albums had to be released. He did play on the first of the two discs that were to be issued, and he was credited as a session musician. The disc was named “Apple Venus Part 1”, and  Andy has described its sound as “orchoustic” – acoustic instrumentation mixed with elaborate orchestral arrangements. This is evident the second the disc starts spinning, as “River Of Orchids” couldn’t be described using better words. A whimsical tune, a multifaceted tune, a lovable tune. An XTC tune in all its essence. Andy deals once again with his hatred of automobiles in a string-led song that takes up 6 minutes of layered vocals and a permanent crescendo where climax after climax is reached.

The song is immediately counterbalanced by “I’d Like That”, the one cut that everybody liked on the record when it was issued. Because the album had some detractors that were expecting a harder sound, and when they finally got that in the shape of “Wasp Star” the following year they were to eat humble pie and admit that the sound of Apple Venus was far more suitable to this mature stage of the band. “I’d Like That” is a very jumpy track, running through a plethora of chords in which only three strings are strummed most of the time. Only the E chord that is played after the “Sunflower” bit is played in full. Andy slaps his thighs as accompaniment, and his wordplay is delirious, dropping the names of famous couples in a tale of unrequited love that is just an inch from materializing – hence the overall optimism. Continue reading

Nonsuch (XTC) – Album Review

Nonsuch Was First Issued In 1992

Nonsuch Was First Issued In 1992

Nonsuch is a quintessential XTC album in all the good and bad aspects. It is an elegant and refined collection that engages our brains and lifts shadows off our dreams (IE the good aspects), and it is also an album that fared abysmally when released (IE the bad aspect). The good aspects are a merit of the band, and the bad aspect that was mentioned is attributable to the buying public and its limited sight. What makes it all the more aggravating is that the album is nothing short of masterful, and its mastery is nothing short of awe-inspiring. John Alroy cites Andy’s poetic skills, and it is hard to disagree with that. But it must be mentioned that Colin does not necessarily lag behind here – alright, a song like “The Smartest Monkey” could do with a better lyric, but the rest are up there with his best work: “My Bird Performs” is a great “happy with my lot” song, and “Bungalow” is amazing in the way it grows. While my favorite songs of his are the ones found within “Oranges & Lemons“, you can count Nonsuch as the second best.

Andy’s best moments here include “Rook” (a song he has defined as his most personal ever), the gorgeous “Wrapped In Grey” (a fitting epitaph for the band in hindsight) and “Then She Appeared”, a composition that employ an alliterative title to excellent effect.

The album opens with the MTV-popular “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead”, a song that some of you might also be familiar with since it was covered by the Crash Test Dummies for the movie “Dumb & Dumber”. They did it satisfactorily enough, and in case you are yet to sample XTC’s version here is the video:

Besides, the CD includes the mildly-successful “Dear Madam Barnum” (yet another character sketch, and yet another compelling one) and “The Disappointed” (which was chosen as a single). “The Disappointed” in particular is a very refined song, and if the album did not include “Wrapped In Grey” it would be the record’s definitive lyrical high point.

The album’s closer is “Books Are Burning”. The song is not necessarily hailed as one of Andy’s best moments on record. I think the problem arises from the stellar company that it has in Nonsuch, and from the somehow plain sentiment it conveys – “books are burning/and you know where they burn books people are next”. Personally, I find it a good idea to paint with more colors than one. A song like “The Disappointed” is great, but if you were to apply the same approach time after time it would end up being grating. A direct outlook is more thought-provoking than the long way around when it comes to most people, and I am sure Andy knew that. Continue reading

Oranges & Lemons (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of the review. Head here for Part 1.

Colin’s contributions to XTC’s 1989 album come in the shape of “King For A Day”, “One Of The Millions” and “Cynical Days”. I must say that – in my opinion – he had never made such a sparkling contribution to an XTC album. “Skylarking” comes pretty close, but if I were hard pressed I would go for “Oranges & Lemons”. It seems to me that the pressure they all underwent during the “Skylarking” sessions enabled Colin to come up with songs he would have kept to himself otherwise. It is as if some barriers had been taken down, and this is specially true of the song “One Of The Millions” – “I never seem to do anything”, “I won’t rock the boat ’cause I’m scared what might happen”… If he is not speaking to his band mates, he is clearly speaking to himself.

A song which was virtually rewritten for the album was “Merely A Man”. Producer Paul Fox did really like the demo, but it turned out that Andy had written the tune as a wind-up for some music biz executives. Not to let their new (and young) producer down, he rewrote the lyrics and the song ended up being a standout, if only because of  Dave’s thundering performance. Continue reading

Oranges & Lemons (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

"Oranges & Lemons" Was Released in 1989

"Oranges & Lemons" Was Released in 1989

This was the first XTC album I set my hands on. I bought it used but in mint condition for a completely ridiculous amount of money, something like the equivalent to USD 2. Talk about bargains. Looking back, I can honestly say that this was the perfect introduction I could have had to these impassioned artistic rockers. The album has my favorite XTC song overall (“The Mayor Of Simpleton”), and that song in particular and the album on the whole made me pick up the craft of writing lyrics. I don’t think there is a better indicator of the transcendence a piece of art can have than that.

The record has 15 songs, and in more than a couple of instances it resembles the Dukes more than fleetingly. That is true not only when it comes to compositions like “Garden Of Earthly Delights” but also to the cover art, a happy 60s pastiche that once again showcase Andy’s visual skills.

Three singles were culled from the album: “The Mayor Of Simpleton”, “King For A Day” and “The Loving”. More importantly (and maybe even more uplifting for us fans), the band hit the road again to promote the album. But it is not that they “toured” in a conventional sense. Rather, they did several live radio shows to promote the album. They even played one with an audience of about 250 people, and everybody remarked how much Andy enjoyed it. Good for him. Those of us who are fond of the band admire him as an artist but dearly care for him as a person, and it must have been a touching moment for everybody who was there that day.
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The Dukes Of Stratosphear – General Introduction

The Dukes Of Stratosphear: The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding), Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregor), EIEI Owen (Ian Gregory) and Sir John Johns (Andy Partridge)

The Dukes Of Stratosphear: The Red Curtain (Colin Moulding), Lord Cornelius Plum (Dave Gregory), EIEI Owen (Ian Gregory) and Sir John Johns (Andy Partridge)

The Dukes Of Stratosphear were a side project of XTC that was started as a joke, and which ended up bringing a fair share of recognition to them. Basically, Andy and producer John Leckie had been hired to helm a record by Christian artist Mary Margaret O’ Hara. For circumstances too hilarious and too long to reproduce here, the pair were sacked hours before their work was to begin. Having had their agendas disrupted, they decided to employ the time on their hands to do some psychedelic recordings under a different moniker. The name “The Dukes Of Stratosphear” had been around for a long time, actually, as it was one of the names which were weighed up before the “I’m in ecs-ta-sy ba-bee!” incident that settled everything down for good.

The drummer for the project was Ian Gregory, Dave’s younger sibling. They all had alternative egos for the sessions – Andy was “Sir John Johns”, Colin was “The Red Curtain”, Dave was “Lord Cornelius Plum” and Ian picked the moniker “E.I.E.I Owen”. For years, the band denied that they were the Dukes, and if you have a look at the credits of “Skylarking” you will see an acknowledgement to “The Dukes of Stratosphear for letting us use their guitars”. Continue reading

Skylarking (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

As you have just read, “Skylarking” was recorded under a guillotine-sharp atmosphere. Todd Rundgren was determined to produce, and Andy was determined to have his way as usual. You look up “falling out” in Wikipedia and you will probably come across this drawing of Todd that Andy made during the sessions:

Todd Rundgren

In hindsight, the right thing to say is that Todd saved XTC’s career. Andy readily admits it now. He infused the songs on offer (songs that were already very strong to begin with) with a sheen that was commercial without sacrificing any of the band’s trademark wit and whimsicality. This is evident the moment “Summer’s Cauldron” begins playing. A song that describes the inertia which characterizes these summer days when the whole world seems to be put on hold and life resembles an eternal vacation, it was a daring way to start the album made instantly approachable by the production. Continue reading

Skylarking (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

The Front Cover. A Risque One Andy Had Drawn Was Rejected.

The Front Cover. A Risque One Andy Had Drawn Was Rejected.

Skylarking was the album that managed to revive XTC’s career, a career that was at an all-time low ever since they had quitted touring. The two preceding albums (“Mummer” and “The Big Express”) had vanished without trace, and the predominant sentiment regarding the Swindon outfit was one of apathy.

Virgin was concerned about that, and proposed pairing the band with a producer whose ideas could complement XTC’s very own and redound to a creative goldrush. The choice of producer fell on Todd Rundgren, the American musician and producer known then for his work with Utopia. Todd was a no-nonsense person, and the relationship with Andy was to prove nightmarish from start to finish. This was to take an eventual toll on the band, and Colin actually decided to leave XTC as the sessions were climaxing. Continue reading

Mummer (XTC) – Album Review (Part 2)

Part 1 is found here. It deals with the songs on the original LP.

Like every other XTC album, this was to be reissued in the ’90s. Every single CD comes with additional tracks, and I must tell you that the booklets are uniformly subpar. Upon release, Mummer was quickly (and deservedly) hailed as the XTC album that was bonus-tracked the best.

Six songs have been added. Two are instrumentals from the Homo Safari series, and while they are the weak links they do work. If there is an album where you could throw anything into the mix and get away with it, that is Mummer. The songs would have stood as a sore thumb anywhere else.

The four actual songs that have been added, though, would have worked here, there and everywhere. But in the context of Mummer, they work like a dream. You have two incredibly uplifting numbers in the shape of “Jump” and “Gold”, whereas “Toys” is one of Andy’s most whimsical tunes of the period, but it is absolutely lovable because (unlike the Mummer tracks) he stays more true to the sound that always characterized XTC’s most soaring pop moments. Continue reading

Mummer (XTC) – Album Review (Part 1)

The Cover That Was Accepted By The Record Company. A Cover With The Band In Mummer Regalia Was Rejected.

The Cover That Was Accepted By The Record Company. A Cover With The Band In Mummer Regalia Was Rejected.

XTC’s music is characterized by marked twists and turns, both in terms of melody and lyrics. As a new listener of the band, I always knew that any of their albums would be an experience akin to a mystery to be elucidated, and I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, however, ready for Mummer. And the fact that it was one of the last XTC albums I bought makes that all the more significant.

As you probably know, this was the first album to be released after Andy’s nervous breakdown and his decision that the band was to become a studio entity from that point onwards. It was also the first album without Terry – he left the band and moved to Australia with girlfriend Donna (and son Kai), and worked there as a drummer for some time before leaving music behind for good. Also, the ties with manager Ian Reid were to become severed and lead to an exhausting litigation shortly. Continue reading