Tuesday, March 2, 2010

XTC English Settlement 1982

XTC was always an up and down band, with great records followed by pretty lousy ones from time to time. They began in 1978 as a punk-ska-art-pop band formed around two singer-songwriters, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Four records in, they added Dave Gregory on guitar and headed for a slightly more accessible, more standard rock sound, although nothing about the band has ever been standard. In the art-punk category, they were England's Talking Heads. By the time they made Oranges And Lemons, their 1989 masterstroke, they had become the new Beatles (circa Magical Mystery Tour). In between they made some awful records (1984's Big Express, 1986's Skylarking, not only XTC's mistake, but also Todd Rundgren's), and some classics. 1980's Black Sea, the first featuring Gregory, was a huge hit with Generals And Majors, Sgt. Rock, Living Through Another Cuba, and Respectable Street all great songs. And in 1982, English Settlement, the brainiac grown-up art punk answer to the Clash's London Calling. It's that good.

The record opened with Runaways, a rhythmic, echo-y opener that sets an ominous tone. A plea to return home from the abusive parents, it's a scary number. Ball And Chain is a stomper that decries the wrecking ball of progress. The syncopated Senses Working Overtime has an edgy lyric to accompany the quirky song structure, hook-filled chorus at no extra charge. Side One ends with Jason And The Argonaouts, another twisted rhythm, and a beat and guitar figure reminiscent of the Police.

Side Two opens with No Thugs In Our House, a classic tale of parental denial with a psychotic twist and a punky sound that hearkens back to their early hits. Yacht Dance is an English folk song dragged into the future. All Of The Sudden (It's Too Late) is a mid-tempo ballad of suburban despair, "life's like a jigsaw, you get the straight bits, but there's something missing in the middle". And that's just the first half.

Melt The Guns kicks off Side Three in fine form. A cross between the Police and Talking Heads, you can almost dance to it, and the message is delivered in spades. Then comes Leisure, a lyrical highlight of the record with a crazy chorus that somehow works. I can't describe it really, but it's gloriously funny. It's Nearly Africa (dance now) and Knuckle Down both rock hard with twisted beats and great ensemble playing.

Fly On The Wall that starts the last side is another ode to paranoia with a solid chorus. Down In The Cockpit is a fun, sprightly look at the battle of the sexes, English Roundabout rocks with that Police/Talking Heads syncopation, and Snowman ends the record on an angry lyrical note dripping with venom, "why oh why, does she treat me like a snowman". There isn't a really weak one in the bunch.

I can't really describe their sound as well as I would hope. It's English quirky pop with great lyrics, interesting rhythms, solid playing and great songwriting. Partridge writes twice as many songs as Moulding, and their styles are different enough to keep things far more interesting than bands with only one songwriter. Nothing they've done quite compares to this one. Nothing any other band has done sounds like it either. It's a classic of the post-punk early eighties, without a synthesizer in sight.

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