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Vinyl Tap: XTC – Nonsuch

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #62:

Life begins at the hoppin’ pop-rock sounds of XTC, and it never seems so seamlessly so with than with the British group’s cohesive and resplendent 1992 release, from a recording career conspicuous by its Nonsuch. Coming out on the heels’n’peels of a neo-psychedelic squeeze of Oranges & Lemons — when XTC sounded like, say, toned-down Dukes of Stratosphear music minus the Mellotron, backward looping, and Nehru jackets – Nonsuch is an understated masterwork of precision pop production by Gus Dudgeon, made up of 17 tracks of characteristic craftsmanship (mostly by Andy Partridge), noted for musical whimsy and wistfulness, replete with effortless infectiousness, lyrical poignancy and wit. All in all, Nonsuch is so much XTC excellence.

And it all starts with "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," the most rollicking XTC opening track since the Kinks-size kick-off on 1980’s Black Sea, “Respectable Street.” The herky-jerky “Crocodile” is a more direct evocation for its recall of the up-and-front rhythms of 1979’s Drums and Wires, while the more hummable and hook-driven “Dear Madam Barnum” proves a saga is born every RPM.

“Omnibus,” an alternate “Penny Lane” of sorts, seems to be a summons for ambivalence or delirium when a driver casts an invitation to “find a friend unfound”: “Put your foot upon the laughing gas / And drive your grin around.”

On the other hand, another song, the logically slightly less upbeat but yet almost disturbingly bouncy standout “The Disappointed,” belies its somber lyrics:

The disappointed
Are coming in their millions
They're spilling from the bus
At a monument to us
Made of bits of broken heart
The disappointed
Are growing every second
They blot the sun to black
At the bottom of the pack
I'm the king of broken hearts

Lovely mid-tempo tunes come with “Holly Up on Poppy” and the Pet Sounds of “Humble Daisy,” both of which set up the spotlight for Nonsuch’s highlights – the  lilting if off kilter “Then She Appeared” and the gorgeous offering that comes “Wrapped in Grey,” two songs that need to tread around the album's weakest tracks ( though that's still high enough praise), “That Wave” — which may be a tsunamic  parody of Tears for Fears’s “Sowing the Seeds of Love” — and Colin Moulding’s heavy-handed “War Dance”(Everyone wants a slice of / The jingoistic cake).

In any case, when the “She Appeared” she emerged not as only as a slight “Something Else” from Ray Davies’ imagination, but, fully Partridge, “I was a little dazzled / Catherine wheeled and senses frazzled,” and then she appeared.”

All yelled “Surf’s Up,” however – the Van Dyke Parks variety, that is — during the transcendent Brian Wilson-laced “Wrapped in Grey” when the expressiveness exclusive to XTC hits its power and its peak:

Some folks see the world as a stone
Concrete daubed in dull monotone
Your heart is the big box of paints
And others, the canvas we're dealt
Your heart is the big box of paints
How coloured the flowers all smelled
As they huddled there, in petalled prayer
They told me this, as I knelt there

Awaken you dreamers
Adrift in your beds
Balloons and streamers
Decorate the inside of your heads
Please let some out
Do it today
But don't let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey

Because it’s all stuff and nonsense, I tell you – but it makes up such great Nonsuch!

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://everythingisamess.wordpress.com Tom Johnson

    Couldn’t agree more – one of my favorite albums, and one of my top 4 XTC (Skylarking, Oranges And Lemons, and Apple Venus being the other 3.) I hope this gets a “deluxe” treatment when they get around to issuing them. (I’d read O&L, Skylarking, and … English Settlement (?) were getting deluxe editions, but not sure if that was the extent of it. And then nothing after the Dukes reissues, so no idea what’s come of that.)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Tom – something to keep an eye on. In the meantime, I’ve dug out all my XTC albums and got my senses working overtime with multiple replays.

  • Greg Barbrick

    I need to go back and listen to this one again, it has been a while. I remember liking it pretty well at the time, then kind of just filing it away. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Well, it is one of their more nondescript covers, despite the flashy red.

  • John J. Hancotte III

    Loved this when it first came out, as I worked in a CD store in the Atlanta area and welcomed a new XTC like it was a long lost family member. Serious Beach Boys harmonies, DG’s rocking 90’s guitar tones, Colin’s whimsical bass counterpoints… Dear Madame Barnum and The Disappointed carry the rest of the weireder ones on their proud-to-be-modern-pop shoulders. Even like That Wave now but couldn’t get into it back then. I think it’s better than Skylarking but to this day I don’t like O&L quite so much. The Dukes are fun to figure out the inspirations on each track. AV1&2 are wonderful codas to a too short career. Andy, you could tour a lot easier these days – just ask Steely Dan! AP is the king of the middle eight!!!

  • Remco

    XTC!!!