5/5 (Hip-O Records)
5/5 (Hip-O Records)
Late Christmas gift or early birthday present to myself? Who cares. It finally arrived, just seven weeks after they shipped it from the UK… and I’ve been listening to it practically non-stop ever since. XTC’s Black Sea is the 1980 album by these British heroes of the new wave, and it was an amazing slab of wax: muscular power pop, thinking man’s rock, whatever you wanted to call it, it was an album like no other in their catalogue, past or present.
This November 2017 reissue of Black Sea is the latest in a series of surround sound spectaculars released by XTC’s Andy Partridge’s Ape House label. With new 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album by celebrated remixer Steven Wilson (he’d already done the same thing to Drums and Wires, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch), along with a big ol’ bucket of bonus tracks (single mixes, soundtrack tunes, demos, instrumentals), this Blu-ray/CD set is a big deal for us XTC fans. Wilson’s new mixes add additional in your face sonics to what was already a big, brash production by Steve Lillywhite (with Hugh Padgham), at least in their stereo guise. [Once again, like with last year’s Skylarking, my surround system’s not set up so I can’t speak for the 5.1 mixes.] I’m sure Wilson’s lost none of his understanding of what makes a good production or mix, so the surround mixes are likely to be just as mesmerizing. And when I say that, I mean, songs like “No Language in Our Lungs” and “Travels in Nihilon,” both extended grooves that build and build, stand out as so much better than they did in 1980. Perhaps that’s a bit of my maturity speaking; I was naturally drawn to singles “Respectable Street,” “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock” as a young man. Those songs still excite me — I never get tired of ’em! — but the side enders “Language” and “Travels” are pure pummel now, with both their lyrics and their gargantuan grooves coming through loud and clear!
What is also crystal is that Black Sea stands as the first great XTC album, bridging the gap between their own youthful material and the mature stuff that followed: English Settlement, Skylarking, etc. It spawned four great singles (noted above), was presented in a nice green bag (my US copy pictured at right), and showcased two songwriters (Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) who could write with equal amounts of humor and politically savvy satire. Whether it’s the comic book hero/mentor in “Sgt. Rock,” the imagined nostalgia for simpler, more grateful times (“Towers of London”), or the silly warmongering of “Generals and Majors,” Partridge and Moulding, with XTC guitarist Dave Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers, crafted an album that at the time could’ve been considered New Wave’s Sgt. Pepper. That is, until 1986 when they gave us the magnificent Skylarking.
For the price (less than $30 USD), this combo Blu-ray/CD package is an excellent presentation of XTC’s fourth album. Sure, they could go all 12″x12″ and give us a deluxe book, super lengthy liner notes, a vinyl pressing and more – and charge sixty or seventy bucks for it – but you get so much Black Sea in this lil’ treasure chest (including some fun videos), I can find no fault here. I’m sure we’ll get a nice vinyl reissue one of these days [c’mon, Andy, you know you should!], so for now this high value XTC package is a superb way to wade into Black Sea.
5/5 (Ape House APEBD104, 2017)
[Originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]
FINALLY two of the greatest albums that mix rock and “synth pop” in a way that dumbs down neither have been issued on CD. CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, sometime guitarist for my favorite band of all time, The Damned, put these two out in the early ’80s, on the heels of his surprise hit “Happy Talk” (yes, from South Pacific!), as he took his turn at becoming a pop star. He had more than his 15 minutes, at least in Britain, and of course he’s been back with his punk chums for longer than a decade now, but these A&M elpees were never put out on CD until the 2000s, first as limited edition Japanese issues (with uncharacteristically mediocre mastering), and now these superb versions on Cherry Red. Women And Captains First came out in 1982 and featured not only the aforementioned hit, but the further single “Croydon” (a sublime tune about his childhood and growing up “cleaning toilets”), “Brenda,” and my personal fave, “Wot!” (which also charted). Tony Mansfield gets the producer credit for both albums, and on the first one especially he really did a fantastic job… great pop songs bolstered by production and arrangements that really bring out the uniqueness of Captain’s take on rock ’n’ roll. The Power of Love followed in 1984 with real great singles “Stop the World” and “I’m a Spider,” though the hits kinda trailed off. Whatever… this was another good one, though not quite as.
Cap’n went on to do more solo stuff, and eventually rejoined The Damned after former drummer Rat Scabies departed, and the band returned to former glories with 2001’s Grave Disorder. Sensible has slowed down on the release front, but hell, he did run for political office in the Blah! Party he formed in the UK, and he has been an active campaigner for animal rights and a lot more. These two slabs of early ’80s pop are proof that not everything that had a synth back then sucked.
5/5 (Women And Captains First), 3/5 (The Power of Love)
(Cherry Red CDMRED 408, 409)