XTC - The Big Express
I bought this on a whim at the mighty Rock 'N' Roll Collectibles in the French Quarter, a place where I bought nearly everything that mattered - the whole Beatles catalog one evening, much of the Pink Floyd catalog a year after that, countless forgotten alternative albums offloaded by the Tulane radio station and this. As XTC albums go, this is a rather difficult one, and really I might not have latched on to them had it not been, for in the same batch as this I bought a couple of Anthony Braxton's dense orchestra pieces, Trout Mask Replica and, I think, a Laibach album (this was pre-internet - we latched onto anything and everything). The Big Express is in many ways an amalgam of everything I bought from that store, even that pink c-90 of the first two Psychedelic Furs records and my first copy of The Clash's Sandinista which I did not like and sold back to another used store. (I've bought and sold Sandinista at least three times I think, and yet still I want to like it, and still don't.)
XTC - Mummer
A friend of mine had this album but somehow I've never listened to it. This precursor to The Big Express came on the heels of Andy Partridge's nervous breakdown or whatever happened that has kept him from the stage ever since. I say whatever, there are plenty of touring bands, let a few stay back at the ranch and craft sonic masterpieces. Post-Black Sea XTC was for me what Steely Dan is for other people, a band that trapped anxiety and fear and cynicism and reluctant by overriding love in Fabergé eggs, daring you to peek in and see those spirits swirl around, daring you to undo those ornate clasps to let them out. The exquisite "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" is full of shimmering shifts in a four-minute song, like Yes reduced into a thick syrup, infused with Indian and Celtic flourishes and sly Curtis Mayfield moments. and "Great Fire" is a epic built on the gloriously repeated great fire burning THROUGH my house in Partridge's idiosyncratic crooning emphasis. It is a markedly more listenable album than The Big Express, which I just now found myself having a hard time getting through, and it offers a launch pad for where the band was headed.
XTC - Skylarking
I listened to this record so many times when it came out, I feel it rather than listen to it. One of those that I can remember every drum thud and little cricket in the background and everything. I remember the details of this record better than I remember those of the supposedly all-important senior year of high school for which it was the soundtrack. Even though the band did some fine work after this, I never fooled much with it because this record was more immediately there than anything else was. We would map out the life of a man throughout the album, analyze everything on it, the double meanings of grass, the recognition of male vulnerability in "You're Really Super, Supergirl" etc etc etc. It's all pretty obvious really, but man, it was the supernova of Art exploding above our flocks of sheep back then. And still is.
I mean, that Burt Bacharach shit they pull off on "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul" still knocks me out. I may have to listen to some actual Burt Bacharach to come down from it.
Now, I remember the dub I had (from the LP version) of this had "Dear God" coming right after that one and before "Dying" and its placement being a point of contention among our gang of struggling Christian new wavers. One made a big show of fast forwarding through it where as the punkier contingent would break into it with frequency. The version of Rhapsody has it tacked on at the end, which is correct since it was an off-album single, so I'm wondering how it ever ended up in the middle on my tape. Back then it was a source of pride to cram as much music judiciously on a C-90 so maybe someone did the math and figured that there would be less slack on side A with the reshuffle, or just maybe, the compiler who doled it out (the one of us who had the actual album) decided that it's cosmological defiance should come after the swoon of reflection in "Sailed" and the acceptance of fate in "Dying."
And I started to re-visit their Nuggets-y Dukes of Stratosphear side project, but decided to listen to The Ventures instead.