Saturday, October 03, 2009

Requested Review: "Black Sea" by XTC

it is an album full of whaling chanties (or is "chanties" not a word?)

Ohhh folks. We've got a scorcher for you tonight. This here review has been requested by none other than a living legend - my freshmen year college roommate Nick Hennessey!

Now, OK. In a perfect world Mr. Hennessey would need absolutely no introduction - you would simply see his name and nod to yourself in instant approval, a Pavlovian response to his inimitable genius. But sadly, we do not live in this world, so I will explain. I lived with Mr. Hennessey for a year, and what a trailblazing year that was. Before college I was a nascent waif of an eighteen-year-old, with my only known methods of "partying down" being reading Final Fantasy VIII guidebooks and drinking Mountain Dew Code Red by the liter. A year with Mr. Hennessey changed all that - and when he wasn't busy introducing me to the pleasures of hard liquor and fast women, he was blasting great music into my face every morning noon and night, whether I was prepared for it (read: awake) or not. The list of bands he turned me on to that year - most of which are now among my favorites - is pretty startling: you got your Undertones, your Replacements, your Wilco, your Beach Boys, your Smiths, your Television... the list goes on and on. And it wasn't just music - the guy showed me the British Office for the first time, too. Yes, that British Office! The one that is like my favorite show now. Mr. Hennessey's taste surely knows no bounds.

So yes. Along with close high school bros Luke Coryea and Adam Spektor, Nick Hennessey is one of those indispensible "threw a lot of great music at me all at once when I was a teen'ger" sorts of dudes. A solid guy. And yes, the album he requested for me tonight is one by none other than the biggest band he got me into during my freshmen year - XTC! One of my favorite bands ever thanks to him, and unusually enough, a band that I have not discussed in this blog even a single time. And I have been writing in this blog for, what, almost four years now? Yikes.

Now, mind you, I had been planning on reviewing an XTC album here for quite a long while - my all-time favorite, 1999's Apple Venus Vol. 1. However, the album Mr. Hennessey has requested of me is 1981's Black Sea, a completely different sort of album by what might as well be a completely different sort of band. While Apple Venus is a studied, graceful record by a band in their waning days, Black Sea is a twisted, guitar-driven slice of kinda-sorta-New Wave with a kooky lead singer. It's one the last albums the band made before lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge developed some unfortunate stagefright and kept the band in the studio for, you know, the rest of their career. So here on this album you've got the sound of a live band: pounding drums, screechy guitars, forceful vocals, and so forth (I guess there's a bass in there too). At this point XTC were definitely more Devo-sounding than the Beatles/Beach Boys pastiches of their later work - nearly every song here sounds like, you know, something is horribly wrong. But in a good way!

There are differences in vocal delivery as well. Andy Partridge, in comparison with his more pop-friendly late 80s/early 90s vocals, sounds straight-up frightened in these songs, his voice teeming with wild teenage awkwardness. At this point in his career he did not feel the need to make his voice sound "accessible" in any sort of way - he just sounded like a yelping, nervous man, and he was all the better for it. Then there is the George Harrison-esque Colin Moulding, who at this point in his career had the exact same voice that he would have for the rest of his career, and was also all the better for it. He's a great vocal counterpoint; whereas Partridge sounds like he has something broken deep inside of him, Moulding sings like a nice, charming Britishman, no matter what song he is singing. "Generals and Majors" is an obvious war satire, to be sure, but with Moulding's straight-up adorable vocals it doesn't feel bitter in the slightest. Just fun!! Hey, that's XTC.

Enough with this. Let's talk about the songs, because those are the most important things on a record album, are they not? The first two tracks here are two of the best two XTC tracks ever, all two of them. Andy's screechy tune "Respectable Street" and Colin's aforementioned jaunty "Generals and Majors" both border on experimental dub-influenced New Wave, but are really just great pop songs: why else would the former include those "Oooh-eyy-oooh-eyy-oooh-oooh!"s in the verses, and why else would the latter feature one of the catchiest little guitar riffs EVER?? Yes, yes the answer is obvious. These guys were raised on the finest 60's pop, and it shows. It doesn't let up from there - if anything, things get a little more exploratory, and a little weirder. You've got Andy's hammy vocal delivery in "Living Through Another Cuba," those loopy phaser effects in the piano-driven "Rocket From A Bottle," more super-catchy poppiness with the classic "Towers of London" - the fun does not end, not ever! And while pretty much every other song on here is written by Partridge, the one other track Moulding has - the cutesy, riff-driven "Love At First Sight" - is a real keeper that you'll want to hear. These guys are good.

Oh, no no, I'm not done describing songs yet! "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" is a goofy little song that I used to not like much but has grown on me over the years. It popped up in Hot Fuzz and man that was a good movie, wasn't it? And this is a good song, featured in that good movie. Admittedly "No Language In Our Lungs" and "Burning With Optimism's Flames" have never been my absolute favorites but I like them pretty good. Oh, and man, how about those two atmospheric tracks that do not sound like conventional songs at all?? I used to not like those much either but they sound so much cooler to me now. To be fair, "Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)" isn't that atmospheric, but it does start off with that echoey guitar effect that always makes me swoon like a man. And then there's the album closer "Travels in Nihilon" which I just now realized is like the neatest album closer ever. Those tribal drums! That uncharacteristically creepy Andy Partridge vocal delivery! Those vocal-echoing guitars in the chorus! The fact that it doesn't get boring even a little bit for a full seven minutes!! Oh maaan. That's a good song. Sadly, after '82 they would never write another song like it ever, and where does that leave us? (Not a rhetorical question. I need the answer to this.)

I think a lot of people might have trouble with Andy Partridge's voice. If there was any point of contention anybody could have with early XTC, it is that. He just doesn't have a pretty voice! Not yet, anyway. Even when they write a pretty tune, he does not want to sing it in a pretty way. For me, that makes it sound a whole lot more interesting, but for others it might just sound ugly (and it does kinda sound ugly to me too, but hey, I'm a forgiving man). And sometimes he can get a little hammy or over-wordy. But what can you do? The guy was a great songwriter. I don't know if I can recommend this as a "First XTC Album" - you might want to ease in with their poppier late 80's stuff, I don't know. I don't know how you feel about all this, readers. I don't know what music you like. If you're an ELO fan, check out their later stuff. If you're a Talking Heads fan, check out this one. It 'twill not disappoint.

Thank you for reading, True Believers. As a gift for you, I will present you with nary a slice of Nick Hennessey's genius: the classic "Fresh Lettuce," performed as his rappin' alter-ego Pauley Boom:

Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.

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