Tuesday, January 31, 2006

English Settlement

Per Mugshot's advice I've thrown on the other vinyl BESIDES english settelement that i have by xtc- mummer- and im waiting for that modulation...here it comes....FUUUUCK! that synth before it happens is just unreal. Only a genius band can make the SAME modulation move sound so awesome on so many different songs, but that one on "Great Fire" really does have a special place in the catalog, doesn't it?

But Mug, I'm gonna have to beat you to the page on English Settlement. After all, that was the first XTC record I played you, driving to center city in my station wagon. I was playing it for you on a tape that a dubbed from my ex-girlfriend's (well, I guess at the time she was my soon-to-be ex, or at least I knew she was soon to be ex, even if she didn't according to the nasty letter i got from her in the mail yesterday) father. A tape that had...wait for it...Genesis' Selling England by the Pound on the other side (Peter Gabriel era of course). It was my England tape, made just before she left for Oxford England about two years prior, and it still is one of my prized possesions.

I bring up the back story for two reasons. First, it shows how English Settlement really is a perfect "first" XTC record for someone. More than any single other XTC album, it has all the great pop moves of their later work AND all the punk energy of the first generation. Some might call it a "transition" record, but for me its definitely their peak. To a first listener, it is the most attractive because it gives a taste of the full range of what the band can do; it makes you think "shit, i cant believe this band can do ALL that!"

The second reason the backstory is relevant is because it shows how special even coming accross this band is, and how random it can be. They kinda exist in a dead zone, both by genre and era, for young listeners of today. Though they were part of the whole post punk scene, their shameless pop sensibilities and perfectionist high fidelity make them unattractive to excavators of that era more interested in the reckless abandon of acts like the Fall and Gang of Four. Instead, people like me and mug are left to discover them for unorthodox reasons. In my case, it was because the ex's father loved XTC (being part of that young baby boomer whose twenties began in 1977, not 1967) and because, oddly enough, the ex loved them as a little kid. which makes sense- this is a band SO POPPY that even a kid who hates rock would love them! But, even then, I would have never even heard XTC if it hadn't been that they had an album with England in the title (that was what ultimately pushed them onto the tape over a rival, who I gladly can't remember now), so, I mean random. And how much more random that, years later, I still had this cosmic tape, and played it for mug. and why did i play it for mug? cause by fate we were thrown together in the hell of shaw middle school, where we embraced music as part of an escapist fantasy about our lives after work, and where i learned he loved the police, which i found pretty random from a classical music afficionado. and i figured any classical music composition minor who appreciates the complexity of the police will DIE over xtc. damn.

about the record itself:

english settlement starts with a totally 80s, not at ALL punk, kinda mysterious and melodramatic groove track (runaways), a song that immediately announces the record as something serious and adventurous, and not reckless at all. it establishes how careful the record is, tells the listener that even later, say in "melt the guns," when things seem out of control, they are nothing of the sort. still, the song stands a bit weak on its lonesome.

next weve got ball and chain, though, a dancey, herkey jerkey pop number that essentially rejects the mid-tempo mysticism of the opener, as if to say, we still know how to pop bitch. indeed, the rest of side a (yes, im listening to this on [french import] vinyl, and in cali no less) basically follows this model: pop genius, more energy than the opener but less than the previous xtc albums...its almost as if the the band is preparing us for the downshift in tempo by lowering our expectations, and then exceeding them.

its hard for me to talk about these songs on their own because the three meaty ones- ball and chain, senses working overtime, and jason and the argonauts- really sound like one in my mind. they are an inseperable sequence of unfathomable pop moves, awesomely nasty harmonies, crazy rhythmic syncopations, and general mastery of the pop rock form.

this is all true until side a's closer, snowball, which basically goes off on its own to a journey to almost world-music territory. this song is useless and bad, but it ends the side by saying "enough, theres only so much genius in one side."

melt the guns, meanwhile, opens side b INSANELY; spinning the plate's b side for the first time couldnt be more different than spinning the a side. everything about the song is exhibitionist; there is no subtlely, from the blatant anti war lyrics, to the truly excessive a ca pella vocal breakdown, which is perfectly executed. they most remind me, in truth, of the best breakdown moments in r kelly's trapt in the closet, but thats another story entirely.

no thugs in our house, meanwhile, takes politics to the home. this song is typical more punkish verse of old xtc, making fun of the boushy british working class for having no idea what the kids are up to. the funny thing about this, of course, is that xtc is totally NOT punk, totally smart, not revolutionary at all. but what the song does is show how even xtc's listener's, who think the band is easy to swallow, may not be so sure anymore after melt the guns.

sadly, i find the rest of side b pretty weak. it gets much tamer, seems to meander, and generally the songs- im talking here about yacht dance, english roundabout, and all of a sudden (its too late)- are more than anything about atmosphere. if anything, thats the bigges weakness of the album: too much about song, not enough about songs. as xtc albums about sound go, ill take SKYLARKING as #1 any day, and so these songs, while evolutionarily important, just dont do it for me in the moment.

all in all, though, the three song block of ball and chaing/senseworking overtime/jason and the argonauts is some of the finest work theyve ever done, and belongs on any enthusiasts mixtape.

yeah i said mixtape- cause i dont got no ipod, no discman, but i do gots my walkman. whose a pretentious asshole now.

freeden if youre going to the akron/family show in sf saturday night, ring me up, u got my digits from philly still i bet.

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Musings on Black Sea

When I really got into R.E.M. (five months ago or so) I got into the habit of ranking the albums and tracks ("Time After Time" was usually one of my least favorite songs). I've listened to XTC's Black Sea several times over the last few days, and I want to rank the songs just as I did with Life's Rich Pageant and Reckoning before. I can't even pick out my five favorite from Black Sea. Every song has its quirks, but "Burning With Optimism's Flames" may just barely top the others for its higher-than-average energy level (impressive for a track on this energetic record) and musical imagery (you can hear the flames, folks). The basslines carry me through this album. Maybe I'll have more success breaking down English Settlement.

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XTC is killing my ears: an introduction

My ears hurt. Badly. I blame the volume of my Titanium headphones as they pipe Colin Moulding's lithe but already loud basslines straight into my brain. Four or five days or so away from British post-punk-funky-pop band XTC, then, would probably cure the pain. But as I listen to the band's material on my iPod, my computer and my record player, and as I expect the three XTC albums I'm missing from my catalog — The Big Express, Apple Venus Volume 1, and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) — in the mail any day now, I know that I must absorb these records as quickly as possible. I'm starting a very important project: to determine which XTC tracks are essential for a career-spanning compilation CD. Or maybe the project will be to figure out which XTC songs (and in what order) to take consistently on long runs through the city. Or maybe I'll do both projects. And why are they so important?

In his book A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, chef Anthony Bourdain notes that it's not just the food but the circumstances in which you ingest it that make a dining experience great. I must be in search of the perfect music. Is the perfect music when you happen to hear XTC's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and R.E.M.'s "Bittersweet Me" on the same radio station on the same day? Is it hearing the first movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony with big-ass headphones on at midnight in a dark room when you're 19 years old? The fact that in the end I will never discover the "Perfect Music" shouldn't deter me in my quest. I used to listen to Sting a lot more than I do now, but his description of music as a "great mongrel" still informs my ongoing search for those monumentally moving sounds and the ways they connect with each other. That blog title will also force me to consider more than just the late-'70s and early-'80s pop that I've been hearing most in the past year or so.

In this blog, I want to chronicle the impact music of all kinds has on me on a regular basis. Expect to read my impressions of what I recently bought or downloaded, or of the shows and concerts I attend here in Philly, or of what I hear children listening to in my inner-city computer classroom, or of why Jason Falkner's power pop is the best out there, or of how I would enjoy listening to R.E.M.'s "Hyena" on repeat for several hours at a time. And look for lots of rankings of bands, songs, and albums based on no criteria other than what I like at a particular time. Also, expect similar observations from our several nationwide correspondents, whose screennames are listed on the side of this page.

And don't worry — my posts won't just be about R.E.M. and XTC. Those groups just happen to have taken turns dominating my life lately. And just bear with me if 90 percent of the next week's post all have to do with the band that put out the song ("Great Fire," off Mummer) with the single greatest modulation in pop music history.

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