Song of the Day, June 22: When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty by XTC

XTCDrumsNearToday’s song is a celebration of the overwhelming power of attraction. After two albums of raw post-punk dance pop, XTC began shifting direction when Barry Andrews left the band. Their third album, the delightful Drums and Wires, features a more refined sound and richer themes.

One of the standout tracks is When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty, written by Andy Partridge. The long title hints at the energy of the song, with the mere presence of the object of the singer’s affections causing nearly crippling effects. Partridge stumbles nicely through the lyrics, offering a rush of feeling that fits the lyrics perfectly. The tight playing of the band behind him makes the energy flow while keeping Partridge from going completely off the rails. It’s a smart package and a fun bit of edgy dance pop.

When you’re near me I have difficulty respirating
When you’re near me I have difficulty concentrating
When you’re near me I have difficulty standing upright
When you’re near me I have difficulty sleeping at night

Enjoy this great song today.

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Song of the Day, November 18: Season Cycle by XTC

XTCSeasonToday’s song is a thematic centerpiece of XTC’s finest album. Skylarking has strong natural rhythms, and Season Cycle represents them well. A joyous celebration of all that nature has to offer, it finds Andy Partridge in especially fine voice. With his best naive wonder, he points out the seasonal changes on his ride through the year. The music conveys the feeling of a cycling tour, moving round and round as the lyrics whirl by. It’s a lovely conceit, beautifully exectuted.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, June 23: Making Plans for Nigel by XTC

XTCNigelToday’s song is a standout track from XTC’s wonderful 1979 album Drums and Wires. “Wires” refers to guitars, with the title indicating the change in sound that resulted from the departure of keyboard player Barry Andrews. On this third disc, the band really stretch, moving from their punky dance rock to more complex New Wave sounds while maintaining their distinctive edginess. The songwriting is stronger as well, with more topical songs and deeper reflections.

Colin Moulding wrote Making Plans for Nigel, one of the group’s finest early songs. It’s a scathing indictment of shallow middle-class values. Terry Chambers’ drum work is astounding, propelling the song with an angry, martial beat as Moulding’s bass thrums with menace. Andy Partridge is in fine voice, making the most of the lyrics as he simmers with barely controlled disdain. Newcomer Dave Gregory’s guitar ties the whole package together neatly.

An incisive bit of social commentary that you can dance to, it’s one of the best singles of its era. Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, March 13: Dear God by XTC

XTCDearGodToday’s song is an afterthought that paid off. Andy Partridge wrote Dear God during the sessions for the band’s masterpiece, Skylarking. It was not included on the album, but showed up as the B-side to the single Grass. DJs flipped the record over and gave Dear God enough airplay that the band’s US label, Geffen, decided to slot it into the American release of the disc, replacing the charming but lightweight Mermaid Smiled.

Darkly cynical and powerfully reflective, the track fits in with the latter part of the album’s meditations on mortality. Producer Todd Rundgren recruited the daughter of a friend, eight-year-old Jasmine Veillette, to sing the first verse and closing line. (A young British boy is used in the video, lip-synching.) The use of a child’s voice to introduce the deeply skeptical lyric is brilliant, making the Partridge’s energetic delivery even more resonant. The song questions the intentions of a supposedly benevolent supreme being that allows “The wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and never found” and other suffering. Partridge concludes with the observation that “God’s words” are created by man as an explanation and an excuse. Cleverly crafted, nicely structured, and powerfully sung, it’s a standout in XTC’s long career.

Enjoy this potent song today.

Album of the Week, November 16: Skylarking by XTC

XTCSkylarkingXTC formed in the early 1970s in Swindon, England. Andy Partridge (vocals, guitars), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass) and Terry Chambers (drums) started with influences from the Glam movement, performing as Star Park and the Helium Kidz. By 1976, keyboard player Barry Andrews came aboard. The band began incorporating sounds from the New York punk movement and settled on the name XTC. After two well-received albums of edgy punk-pop, Andrews left the band (going on to form Shriekback), replaced by Dave Gregory who also played guitar. The group’s sound gradually became more melodic, with the punk edges giving way to more polished pop gems with just a bit of bite. Partridge, who had always suffered from stage fright, had a breakdown during their 1982 tour. As a result, the band gave up touring and Chambers left, not interested in being part of a studio-only unit. Two more albums and a number of side projects later, the studio trio of Partridge/Moulding/Gregory was critically acclaimed but not achieving great chart success, especially in the US. Given a list of producers by their label, they picked Todd Rundgren, a name they recognized from his work with their early idols the New York Dolls.

Title Skylarking
Act XTC
Label Virgin/Geffen Release Date October 27, 1986
Producer Todd Rundgren
U.S. Chart  70 U.K. Chart  90
Tracks
  1. Summer’s Cauldron
  2. Grass
  3. The Meeting Place
  4. That’s Really Super, Supergirl
  5. Ballet For A Rainy Day
  6. 1000 Umbrellas
  7. Season Cycle
  8. Earn Enough For Us
  9. Big Day
  10. Another Satellite
  11. Mermaid Smiled
  12. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
  13. Dear God
  14. Dying
  15. Sacrificial Bonfire

The album is notorious for the difficult recording sessions. Tensions — especially between Rundgren and Partridge — made the creation of the album painful for everyone. Despite this difficulty, the final result is a polished, cohesive masterpiece, critically lauded with some commercial success, and eventually praised by all the participants. Partridge noted years later:

[Rundgren] did do great things musically. The arrangements were brilliant and I don’t know how he came up with them… The bloke is ludicrously smart when it comes to certain things.

Drawing its name from Shelley’s poem To A Skylark and its day-in-the-life concept from the band’s decade-long evolution and some shared enthusiasm with Rundgren for the Beach Boys and the Kinks, the song cycle is a wonderful, brilliantly sequenced flow of music. Things kick off with Summer’s Cauldron, Partridge’s celebration of nature’s joys. It’s a wonderful start, opening the disc with enthusiasm and brightness. Moulding’s Grass segues in nicely, a bit of nostalgic wordplay about amorous pursuits. His The Meeting Place follows, a perfect snapshot of early romance, with all the emotions lovingly sketched in song. This trio of lovely vignettes sets the stage, showing band at their musical peak, challenged to turn out their finest work.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl is a bitter love-gone-wrong track by Partridge, showing off his trademark wry analyses. He sings of the frustrations of dating a woman who has a split identity and the power to see through walls, somehow making the extraordinary super-heroic romance resonate with everyday frustrations. It’s one of the band’s best songs, buoyed by music that soars like the title character as the frustrated suitor is left on the ground.

The next two tracks form a Partridge-penned mini-suite, looking at rainy weather through two divergent lenses. Ballet For A Rainy Day is a celebration of nature and joy, a nice fit for the pastoral themes that run through much of the disc. Its uplift is pulled down by 1000 Umbrellas, a series of watery metaphors for coping with the end of a relationship. Each song is wonderful; as a pair, they are a moment of musical inspiration.

Season Cycle is a solid centerpiece for the album, an ode to the forces of nature and the cycles that run our lives. Seriously joyful and smilingly somber, it captures the spirit of the disc and moves the listener to the heavier themes of the second half. Earn Enough For Us is reminiscent of the earlier Love On A Farmboy’s Wages, but a bit grittier. A determined plea to make ends meet in Thatcher’s England, it manages to wring enough hope from the despair to shine with real humanity. Big Day is a similarly two-fold track, Moulding’s pensive look at marriage as a celebration and a serious undertaking. This is another smart pairing in the wonderful sequence of songs.

Another Satellite is one of Partridge’s best songs, inspired by a reluctant flirtation that eventually ended his marriage. It’s a haunting song with powerful, echoing keyboards and a fragile, distant vocal. The lunar imagery fits the natural tone of the album at an appropriate remove, allowing the dark tune to fit into the cycle nicely.

Mermaid Smiled is a fine but lightweight track that was quickly removed from the U.S. release to make way for a later single. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul is a charming, jazzy experiment, a pleasant enough song that doesn’t quite fit on an otherwise tightly constructed album. The two tracks don’t detract from Skylarking, but they’re close to filler.

Dear God, on the other hand, is a powerful afterthought. Recorded after the album and released as a single, it was successful enough to be added to the U.S. version of the album in place of Mermaid Smiled. A bitter broadside at a hypothetical all-powerful force who allows too much suffering, it features one of Partridge’s most powerful vocals as he presents his outrage. Another stunning moment of brilliance, it belongs to the album and adds just the right moment before the final pair.

Moulding’s Dying and Sacrificial Bonfire wrap things up. The first is a quiet look at a couple near the end of their days. It implies a long, probably happy time together, but the spectre of mortality brings a bitter edge to the narrator’s nostalgia. Bonfire takes all the darkness that weaves through the life cycles of the album and purges them, offering a striking anthem of hope and rejuvenation. It’s a fitting end for a stunning set.

FURTHER LISTENING: XTC’s gradual evolution from edge punkish pop to lush pastoral rock is a fascinating journey with many wonderful songs. The seven prior to Skylarking all have a slightly transitional feel as the very talented band members stretch themselves into new musical shapes. The best of these is the edgy, New Wavish Drums and Wires, a fairly cohesive set with some of their best songs. The two that follow the masterpiece are very consistent, well-executed sets, with Nonsuch being more cohesive and Oranges and Lemons offering more delightful high points. After a long, label-battling hiatus, they released two more discs before slowly dissolving as each member of the trio pursued his own interests. Fossil Fuel is a great two-disc set from 1992 that shows off  most of their best songs.

Song of the Day, October 21: That’s Really Super, Supergirl by XTC

XTCSupergirlToday’s song is That’s Really Super, Supergirl by XTC. It appears on their brilliant 1986 album Skylarking. Written by vocalist Andy Partridge, it bears his distinctive wry stamp. As the title indicates, it’s sung to Kara Zor-El, Superman’s heroine cousin. The narrator is a depressed beau, tired of Supergirl’s frequent heroic absences and suspicious of her multiple identities. Partridge stikes a perfect balance of bitter and bemused and delivers a fine vocal. Enjoy this charmingly skewed look at just what super can get up to today.

Song of the Day, May 2: I Need Protection by the Colonel

ColonelProtectionToday’s song is I Need Protection by the pseudonymous Colonel. The members of XTC were fond of alternate names, recording as the Dukes of the Stratosphear and the Three Wise Men. When bassist and frequent songwriter Colin Moulding embarked on a solo experiment, he dubbed himself “The Colonel” and released one single. This track is the B-side of that disc, a wonderful Moulding track that fits nicely in the larger XTC canon. With an urgent delivery, powerful backing rhythms, and a spooky chant around each chorus, the musical framework emphasizes the lyrical themes. Moulding sings of the many threats — of widely varying degrees — that fill our everyday lives.

Enjoy this rare treat today.

Song of the Day, November 11: Complicated Game by XTC

XTCDrumsGameToday’s song is Complicated Game by XTC. It appears on their powerful third album, Drums and Wires. The disc was something of a reinvention, with co-founder Barry Andrews having recently departed. The band took on a more directly political bent and a tougher sound while retaining their wordplay and New Wave sensibilities. This track originally closed out the album (although it was sadly displaced on some re-packagings). It’s a potent wrap-up to a great album, looking at the decisions we make and how much — or how little — they matter in a complex world.

Andy Partridge is in fine voice, starting in a bare whisper and working up to a rousing bellow. The band builds with him creating a desperate intensity as the verses move from the trivial (moving one’s finger) to the cosmic.

God asked me should he ought to put his world on the left, no
God asked me should he ought to put his world on the right, no
I said God, it really doesn’t matter where you put your world
Someone will come along and move it
And it’s always been the same
It’s just a complicated game.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, November 14: Another Satellite by XTC

Today’s song is Another Satellite by XTC. It appears on their 1988 masterpiece, Skylarking. Using lunar imagery (a nice complement to the pastoral settings used in most of the album’s songs), writer and singer Andy Partridge assures a would-be paramour that he needs no one else in his orbit. Combining strong instrumental work with Partidge’s trademark wry wit and sincere emotion, it’s a sad song of gentle rejection. Enjoy this marvelous performance today.

Song of the Day, July 20: This World Over by XTC

Today’s song is This World Over by XTC. Taken from their 1984 album The Big Express, this song is a bleak, cautionary tale. Framed by the weary, understated repetition of the phrase

Ah well, that’s this world over

the song is sung from the perspective of a parent on a post-nuclear-war Earth wondering what stories to tell his child. Alternating between the horrors of such a life and rage against the foolishness of the forebears who let this happen, it is one of the band’s darkest  songs.

Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land
And how a child to the virgin came?
Will you tell them that the reason why we murdered
Everything upon the surface of the world
So we can stand right up and say we did it in his name?

The music is perfectly suited to the quiet, building anger of the lyrics, and vocalist and writer Andy Partridge is in top form. Take a listen to this plea for peace and common sense today.

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