Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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XTC

  • White Music [Virgin International, 1979] B+
  • Go for 2 [Virgin International, 1979] B-
  • Drums and Wires [Virgin, 1979] A-
  • Black Sea [Virgin/RSO, 1980] B+
  • English Settlement [Virgin/Epic, 1982] B+
  • Mummer [Geffen, 1983] B-
  • Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982 [Geffen, 1984] A-
  • The Big Express [Geffen, 1984] B
  • Skylarking [Geffen, 1986] A-
  • Oranges and Lemons [Geffen, 1989] B-
  • Rag and Bone Buffet [Geffen, 1991] Dud
  • Nonsuch [Geffen, 1992] Dud
  • Upsy Daisy Assortment [Geffen, 1997] ***
  • Apple Venus, Pt. 1 [TVT, 1999] B+
  • Wasp Star (Apple Venus Pt. 2) [TVT, 2000] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

White Music [Virgin International, 1979]
Although it took a year and a half for this debut album by the premier English art-pop band to get released in the States, two Andy Partridge songs on side one aim directly at the American market--"Radios in Motion," which mentions Milwaukee, surely isn't about the BBC, and the avowed purpose of "Statute of Liberty" is to get a look up her skirts. The third, "This Is Pop," is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter. Colin Moulding's songs, on the other hand, are aimed at bored Yes fans, which is why he missed--the lad doesn't know that Yes fans like being bored. B+

Go for 2 [Virgin International, 1979]
Last time they were calling it white music, this time they've released a dub version, and what can you call that except au courant? Or here's another one. It's Andy Partridge who puts the pop in their art-pop, right? If you can tell me whether his "Mecanik Dancing" is pro or con, I'll prove to you that his "Life Is Good in the Greenhouse" means it. B-

Drums and Wires [Virgin, 1979]
My reservations about this tuneful but willfully eccentric pop are ideological. With its playful clash of cross-currents (crossed wires, really, to go with the jingle drums) it's just a "Complicated Game"--like everything else under the sun, Andy Partridge believes. This idea is an attitude rather than an analysis, and it assures that the music's underlying passion will be strictly formal. But I like games, especially three-handed hearts or this record--which require concentration but not lifetime dedication, and Partridge and Colin Moulding are moving toward a great art-pop mean that will set standards for the genre. Catchy, funny, interesting--and it rocks. A-

Black Sea [Virgin/RSO, 1980]
Virtuosos shouldn't show off--it's bad manners and bad art. I'm suitably dazzled by the breathless pace of their shit--from folk croak to Beach Boys croon in the twinkling of a track, with dissonant whatnot embellishing herkyjerk whozis throughout--but I find their refusal to flow graceless two ways. On what do they predicate their smartypants rights? On words that rarely reclaim clichés about working-class futility, middle-class hypocrisy, militarist atrocity--not to mention love like rockets and girls who glow. They do, however, show real feeling for teen males on the make and, hmm, the recalcitrance of language. B+

English Settlement [Virgin/Epic, 1982]
With voices (filters, chants, wimp cool) and melodies (chants, modes, arts cool) ever more abstract, I figured Colin Moulding had finally conquered Andy Partridge and turned this putative pop band into Yes for the '80s. But it's more like good Argent, really, with the idealism less philosophical than political--melt the guns, urban renewal as bondage, o! that generation gap. And fortunately, the melodies aren't so much abstract as reserved, with the most outgoing stolen from Vivaldi or somebody by none other than Andy Partridge. B+

Mummer [Geffen, 1983]
Having retired full-time to the studio, the definitive English art-poppers sound more mannered and arid than ever, which is no less bothersome just because it's one way they have of telling us something. By now, there are hints of guilt-tripping in Andy Partridge's awareness of what he isn't, and while "Human Alchemy" ("To turn their skins of black into the skins/Of brightest gold") and "Funk Pop a Roll" ("But please don't listen to me/I've already been poisoned by this industry") are notably mordant takes on two essential rock and roll subjects, Partridge deliberately limits their reach. The eccentric dissonances that sour his melodies and the fitful time shifts that undercut his groove may well bespeak his own sense of distance, but art-poppers who command both melody and groove are rare enough that I wish he'd find another way. B-

Waxworks: Some Singles 1977-1982 [Geffen, 1984]
Proof, or at least evidence, that they're the pop band they claim to be: though most of these songs were also album cuts, not a one of them--not even the samples from Drums and Wires, their most hard-edged and least fussy long-player--sounds more at home on its respective album than it does here, in the company of its peers. In short, this is the essential collection, less compelling than the Buzzcocks' comparable Singles Going Steady only because they mean to stimulate rather than compel. More equal than others: "Statue of Liberty," "Senses Working Overtime." A-

The Big Express [Geffen, 1984]
Remember when Difford & Tilbrook were writing a musical? Sounds like a job for Partridge & Moulding. They could name it after "The Everyday Story of Smalltown." Which would keep them working at the proper scale and be the best thing for steam-powered trains since Ray Davies. B

Skylarking [Geffen, 1986]
Imagine Sgt. Pepper if McCartney hadn't needed Lennon--if he hadn't been such a wet--and you'll get an inkling of what these insular popsters have damn near pulled off. Granted, there's barely a hint of overarching significance, but after all, this isn't 1967. With Todd Rundgren sequencing and twiddling those knobs, they continue strong for the first nine or ten (out of fourteen) songs. Only when the topics become darker and more cosmic do they clutter things with sound and whimsy; as long as they content themselves with leisurely, Shelleyan evocations of summer love and the four seasons, they'll draw you into their world if you give them the chance--most enticingly on a song called "Grass," about something good to do there. A-

Oranges and Lemons [Geffen, 1989]
Compulsive formalists can't fabricate meaning--by which I mean nothing deeper than extrinsic interest--without a frame (cf. Skylarking, even the Dukes of Stratosfear). The only concept discernible on this hour-long double-LP is CD. Def Leppard got there first. B-

Rag and Bone Buffet [Geffen, 1991] Dud

Nonsuch [Geffen, 1992] Dud

Upsy Daisy Assortment [Geffen, 1997]
The best songs come from the best albums, an inconvenience ("Grass," "Making Plans for Nigel," "Dear God"). ***

Apple Venus, Pt. 1 [TVT, 1999]
Since their outtakes weren't even rags or bones and their idea of a class pop arranger was the same as Elton John's, I figured that if they were feuding with their record company their record company was right. But after years of orchestral fops à la Eric Matthews and Duncan Sheik, I'm ready for McCartney fans who can festoon their famous tunes with something resembling wit and grace. Studio rats being studio rats, the lyrics aren't as deep as Andy and Colin think they are, but at least irrelevant doesn't equal obscure, humorless, or lachrymose. The next rock and roller dull-witted enough to embark on one of those de facto Sinatra tributes should give Partridge a call. B+

Wasp Star (Apple Venus Pt. 2) [TVT, 2000]
Up to their old craft ("Standing In for Joe," "Stupidly Happy"). **