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XTC

Upsy Daisy Assortment
Rating: 5 (library disc)
   Whoever put this packaging together deserves a stern reprimand. The order of the songs listed on the back bears no relation to the order they play on the CD (it's like those old records that say "see label for sequence" only there's no label to see). Since a couple of the songs don't have obvious choruses to announce the title, I was left guessing which song I was listening to.
   Since XTC are probably not responsible for that goof, I won't hold them accountable. I will, however, hold them accountable for making stiff rhythms and obnoxious lyrics. Although many of these melodies and quite beautiful ("Generals and Majors", "King for a Day", "Grass", "The Disappointed") and are supported with lush arrangements and warm production - especially on the guitar tones - this band does not know how to catch a groove. Even the "funky" numbers ("Funk Pop a Roll", "Life Begins at the Hop") are built on awkward, ahead-of-the-beat riffs that drive the beat into the ground, rather than riding on top of it. This rhythmic clubfootedness seriously hampers my enjoyment of otherwise well-written tunes.
   Vocally, the group leaves much to be desired as well. These guys just don't have the lung power (or the ability to hit notes) to deliver these melodies as well as they deserve to be sung. You know you're in trouble when you sing about as well as the ten-year-old girl featured in a guest spot.
   The tunes being well-written, I must take serious objection to a lot of these lyrics. XTC give the impression of being self-righteous prigs with a long list of things that are wrong (the music business, religion, middle-class values, capitalism, girls that don't like XTC) and a short list of things that are right (the opinions of XTC). "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" makes him a hero because he "told the Truth." It's this sort of thinking that worries me - we've got enough Truth; it was the Truth that led people to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center. A little humility and tolerance would be more to my taste. I'd like to take on just a few items here, if I may.
   "Generals and Majors" seems to be accusing the military of causing war, which is like accusing a car of causing an accident. XTC are British, and Britain, like the United States, has a civilian-controlled military. The military's job is to be ready when the politicians call it into action. Whether that action is just or not is a political issue; let's not drag these poor officers into it. They're just doing the job their government asks them to, often at great personal sacrifice.
   "Funk Pop a Roll" declares that XTC's lack of commercial success is owed entirely to music business machinations. Yes, of course, record companies hate to sell records! It just makes them money! Is it at all possible that people aren't buying XTC records because they don't want to? Also, I'm not sure calling potential listeners "willing slaves" because they like other bands is the best way to win them over.
   "Dear God" plays the atheist's favorite trick: making a straw-man profile of God and then knocking it down. I think atheism has a case to be made, but it should be made on the terms that theism proposes. This argument should take on the ideas of people who really think about God - theologians, bishops, and popes - and not what some nuts from the Moody Bible Institute say. I've always been a bit puzzled by the vehemence with which atheists attack religion; it's not like there's any penalty in a free society for being a disbeliever - we're not exactly Iran! I don't believe in negative numbers, but I'm not going around bashing mathemeticians.
   A recurring theme is mocking or debasing middle-class values. XTC aren't the only band that does this, it's quite popular, and I don't know why. Middle-class values are just as valid as any others, built from collective experiences and striving to establish community standards of behavior, but it certainly wouldn't be acceptable to go around trashing inner-city culture or rural traditions. And, if I may, I'd like to say a few words in favor of the middle class. The values of the middle class, as belittled by XTC, epitomize the great accomplishments of Western society. To live in peace, to have your children grow up safe and happy, to have a stable neighborhood and secure property - if not these goals, then what is it that our democracy was established to achieve? It's not the middle class who terrorize the cities with gang warfare, or gouge the government for ever greater tax breaks. In fact, the middle class encompasses the diversity that makes our society great: everyone's welcome, as long as they keep their lawns neat! I'm sorry if Andy Partridge's parents made him go to high school when he wanted to go hiking through Spain (or whatever his trauma was) but that's no reason to despise the people whom he hopes will buy his records.
   I hope these rants don't make me sound like some sort of reactionary crank - I've never voted for a Republican in my life, and I'm not about to start now - but I believe the best music can oppose injustice while embracing tolerance, and XTC's lyrics mostly fall on the first side of the equation. That said, they come through with a number of great lyrics detailing the struggles of the working class to remain cheerful in the face of hard times ("Earn Enough for Us," "Love on a Farmboy's Wages") and lots of terrific Impressionistic love songs ("Grass", "Chalkhills and Children").
   I've read lots of critics calling XTC "criminally underrated", but I think they're rated just about right: appealing to a cult audience, and occasionally interesting to the average pop fan.

READER COMMENTS

  • From Rich Bunnell: Just a couple of things I think I should note -- "Funk Pop A Roll" isn't about the band's frustration at their inability to sell records; they were under the control of a very corrupt manager at the time who pretty much openly squandered their money, and combined with Andy Partridge's mental condition he was understandably a mite bitter. Also, I'm not sure where you got the whole "making fun of the middle class" thing, the bandmembers are about as middle-class as you can get (they all live in a pretty small British suburb); when Andy sings "I may be the mayor of Simpleton," he's not being condescending.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Awheeghuah." Steve says: "Since this was a library disc, I wrote this review from my first impression. Your note got me thinking I might have been mistaken, so I went to chalkhills.org - a great resource for XTC fans - and checked out the lyrics to "Funk Pop a Roll"; you're right, it's not specifically about the failure of XTC to sell records. Instead, it's a condemnation of the entire music scene as banal and crude. Since XTC were part of the music scene, this puts them in one of two positions: either including themselves under the banal and crude heading, or trying to distance themselves from the marketing they decry as creating such a scene. Since I doubt they'd go for the former, I suspect the song is an attempt to position themselves outside the circle of blame they've drawn - hence my conclusion that they're pinning their troubles on the record company. That's just my feeling, though, I may be wrong. As far as the issue of middle class values, check out this track listing: "Respectable Street", "Making Plans for Nigel", "No Thugs in Our House". While XTC may be middle class, there's a distinct theme of criticism for the values they grew up with. As far as condescending, I realize it's all a matter of perspective, but I think it's quite demeaning to assume that uneducated people are proud of it; most of the people I know who dropped out of school are a little bit ashamed of it, actually. There's a song in that topic, for sure. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Jessica (aka Mrs. Steve and Abe): Wow... they really get your underwear in a twist.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Uhwaaga." Steve says: "Nah, it's not that bad, this review just caught me in a ranting kind of mood. Nothing like viciously deconstructing the works of strangers to satisfy that old political instinct. I actually think that with a better singer XTC would be a new favorite of mine, regardless of the lyrics. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Cole Bozman: Point one: I think athiests attack religion because of its poor track record (the crusades, the inquisition, etc.). I'm glad in recent years we've gotten away from the dominance of the church over society - just imagine what would happen if people took nuts like Jerry Falwell seriously! (If it matters, I'm agnostic.) I'm not sure if that comment made any sense. Anyway, let's move on!
    Point two: I don't think Andy Partridge is stupid enough to make a blanket condemnation of middle-class life. In "Respectable Street", he's just lambasting the type of people who always have their noses up in the air and say [affecting shrill British tone] "there goes the neighborhood!" when someone moves in next door who doesn't present the clean, shiny middle-class image they do. "Thugs" I can't comment on because I can't stand that song - the music, not the lyrics. And as for "Nigel"... well, I wouldn't take Colin's lyrics too seriously, at least until you get to the mid-80's.
    Point three: c'mon, the singing isn't that bad... if you want to hear a possibly good band ruined by awful singing... I have to trot out my favorite whipping boy, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Bahwuh." Steve says: "As you can see by my previous response, I was mostly in the mood to rant when I wrote this review. I do understand what the lyrics are driving at, and I guess I can see their point, but it's still not particularly insightful - wasn't The Catcher in the Rye all about that topic, too? I don't think the singing is bad; in fact, it would be fine on many other records - I just think that the tunes XTC write are challenging enough that they deserve better vocalists; that's a compliment to the melodies. Thanks for writing!"

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