Friday, May 4, 2007

Runaways, Argonauts, and Thugs

A while back Monsieur Catalogues told you all that we would devote one post a week to a classic album from way back when. Monsieur Catalogues wrote a very fine piece on Original Pirate Material by the Streets and I think I was planning to devote the following week's Classic Album post to Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest. That didn't come to fruition, or more accurately, it hasn't yet. I still plan to write about Midnight Marauders, but as both Monsieur Catalogues and myself have badly fallend down on our job lately, I feel compelled to revive the Classic Album of the Week post with thoughts on a record that I've been listening to obsessively lately: in my living room, and on my iPod walking through Regent's Park and down London's shopping streets.

Now then. XTC's English Settlement is a masterpiece of rich and hypnotic sounds, ridiculously addictive melodies, and some of the finest rock/pop vocals you'll ever hear. XTC had been giving their songs beautiful textures since Drums and Wires (listen to Dave Gregory's guitar on "Ten Feet Tall" and tell me you don't shiver with pleasure); since that album they'd also had the Insanely Catchy Melody thing down pat. Black Sea refined their sound and developed a fuller, more realized post-punk sound on classics like "Respectable Street," "Generals and Majors," and "Towers of London."

English Settlement is an identifiable member of the post-punk sequence going back to Drums and Wires, and it looks forward to the pastoral and orchestral sound that XTC perfected on Skylarking and Apples and Oranges (a sound that continues to delight and dazzle on recent releases like Apple Music and Wasp Star). Its midway position between the two different phases of XTC's career make English Settlement particularly rich and striking, but even discounting the rest of XTC's brilliant career it's a standalone classic, perhaps their most representative and bravura album.

The record opens with "Runaways," a mesmerizing mantra-like chant. Andy Partridge's and Colin Moulding's voices rise out of the mist of shimmering guitars, tribal drums, and ethereal keyboards to sing a tale of exile and loss, and the effect is nothing less than hypnotizing. The moment at 3:28 when the drums stop and the guitars feed into the bridge is spine-tingling, but even more so is the piano riff that descends at 3:40. Just beautiful.

The singles "Ball and Chain" and "Senses Working Overtime" follow from there, and both of them are classics. The Moulding-voiced "Ball and Chain" is a beguiling pop stomp, but somehow melancholy, and "Senses Working Overtime" ...well, what can be said about Partridge's frenzied vocals and the flawless melodies on that one? XTC have a peculiar gift for bridges: "Respectable Street," "Towers of London," "Runaways," "Senses Working Overtime"...that one in particular lifts you off the ground.

The standout track might very well be track four, "Jason and the Argonauts." It is certainly a cousin to "Runaways": ethereal and hypnotic guitars again, only this time Partridge and Moulding are more focused and aggressive in their melody and singing, which makes for a thumping great song. It's difficult to describe just what XTC were capable of at this point in their career...just buy the bloody album.

On an album of great songs the other standouts are the furious "No Thugs in Our House" (about a middle-class household where the clueless parents are oblivious to the fact that their son has joined the National Front) with its spiralling guitar riff, tight rhythmic thwack, and again, Andy Partridge's wonderfully hysterical vocals.

It has to be admitted that the album nods a bit in its second hald (or Side Two or whatever you want to call it), but much of it is very fine indeed, and closing song "Snowman" challenges any of XTC's other songs--on English Settlement and elsewhere--to being one of their career highlights. It's a reggae-influenced number, with a halting rhythm and clicking guitars. Partidge's vocie is, again, note-perfect in both exquisite beauty and neurotic kvetching.

Like I said, English Settlement might be XTC's most fully-realized, most representative album. Moulding and Partridge are one of the finest songwriting teams EVER, for my money, and they have a disconcerting ability to produce masterpiece after masterpiece. And they're still doing it! If you're not familiar with their dazzling work, I think this album is probably the best entry-point into the wonder and delight of XTC.

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