1. The most interesting album from a band of straight-shooters whose mission statement seemed to be no more than the answer to “Whatever happened to British Invasion?”
2. There are more obvious examples of what I mean, but I’ll use “Respectable Street” and “Generals and Majors” to start. The latter does the opposite of traditional pop songs, having the chorus stripped away of most of the instruments and as a result, is extremely softer (and feels deceptively slower) than the verses, relying on the vocal counterpoint of Partridge and Moulding (“Calling generals and majors…” “…Generals and majors everywhere”), while the verses were a whirlwind of whistling and guitars (of the electric and acoustic variety).
3. ”Respectable Street,” on the other hand? The best XTC opener there ever was, and yes, I am more than well aware of that anthem that gave all the Nigel’s in the world a reason to stop being niggled by their name. Whenever else would XTC open an album with thirty seconds of vocals and piano that sound like it was recorded from way down the hall—a good decade before lo-fi was cool? But even without that addition, the song kicks all sorts of ass, from the chainsaw-guitar riff that screams post-punk in a way that no other following XTC song would ever to the verses which, like “Generals and Majors,” are interesting because the verses pack much more melody than the chorus does. Andy Partridge’s social commentary lyrics are already starting, here an attack on the upper echelon of the bourgeoisie, but it’s surprisingly clever, especially in the rhymes of, “Now they talk about abortion / In cosmopolitan proportions…”, “Now she speaks about diseases / And which sex position pleases her old man”, and my personal favorite, the way the line doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go, “As they speak of contraception / And immaculatereception on their portable Sony entertainment centers.”
4. Unfortunately, as with all other XTC albums, it’s not all good. I don’t know what possessed Andy Partridge into thinking the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was at all a relevant reference to make in1980, let alone write an entire song about it, but he does. Partridge channels David Byrne by yelping his way through the verses, but unlike the entirety of Fear of Music just the previous year, the paranoia here is unbelievable; it feels imitated (maybe because of the fucking subject matter). But it’s not just the words; “Living Through Another Cuba” follows the worst of XTC’s 70’s output, a wrongful belief that the power of songs lies solely in its hooks (whereas the best parts of the opening two songs weren’t its hooks). That being said, the hook is worth hearing at least once, the way Partridge shouts the last syllable, “Living through another cuuuuuu-BAH!” and the sounds of missiles launching in the air underneath it is a nice touch.
5. Andy Partridge has tried to separate himself as much as possible with “Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me).” To me, it sounds like a second-rate version of the Kinks’ “David Watts,” which sort of dealt with the same topic—a loser who couldn’t get girls who wished they could be someone with more testicular fortitude—but this one doesn’t have the homosexual connotations of “David Watts,” and as a result, it’s not nearly as funny. That being said, the pre-chorus, “If I could only be tough like him / Then I could win / My own small battle of the sexes” is the best melody the second side has to offer. On a whole, though, “Burning With Optimism’s Flames” is significantly better.
6. Elsewhere, the only interesting part of “Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)” is the last 40 seconds, which is just a precursor to “Travels in Nihilon” anyway. In other words, there’s no reason for it to exist.
7. On that one, despite the fact that tons of people have critciized closer “Travels in Nihilon,” I think it’s the one time Andy Partridge’s experimentation actual yields profits. Though as with all XTC tracks that eschew traditional pop/rock song lengths, it could have benefitted from some trimming around the edges, especially since “Travels in Nihilon” doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s clear that it was the background music to a lot of smoking sessions of Animal Collective; Panda Bear has recently adopted Partridge’s singing style on “Travels,” and Avey Tare obviously took to its tribal rhythms.
8. If I can use Pitchfork’s Chris Dahlen’s words to close my review, “On [Drums and Wires], they nailed the visceral sound described by the title– the jagged, jittery guitars and earth-thudding drums. Songs like “Helicopter” and “Scissorman” owed a lot not just to the hooks and tunes, but to the impact of Gregory and Partridge shredding fingers on strings, and Chambers and Moulding’s loose-necked rhythm section. On Black Sea, however, they act more like a pop group. The guitars are less nervous, and the songs– sharper and catchier than ever before– get more room to breathe.”
That basically sums up any of the tracks that I haven’t spoken to; each of these comes with a melody somewhere, but despite that, they don’t do much else to stand out. If you’re a blossoming bass player, I’d suggest paying special attention to what Colin Moulding is doing here, because on most of these tracks, his bass just grooves, man.
9. That being said, the most valuable player award on Black Sea goes to producer Steve Lillywhite. In a decade’s time from Black Sea, everyone will lose their shit to what Steve Albini does to make the drums on Surfer Rosa stand out, but Lillywhite more or less does the same thing here. He apparently toiled to get a sharp drum sound and he does so in a way that the rest of the band’s sonic integrity isn’t lost. As a result, if nothing else, every song on Black Sea sounds huge.