Monday, June 28, 2010

272. The Dukes of Stratosphear: Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

In my introduction to this review-every-XTC album project, I wrote about how The Dukes of Stratosphear were responsible for my XTC fandom, even before I ever heard a note of their music. It was the idea that piqued my interest and set me on the path to obsession.

That's worth a lot, but looking at the Dukes now, I find I enjoy them for what they are, a minor sidetrack in XTC's musical career. They revel in the pure joy of music-making, but only rarely rise above homage.

The Dukes appeared in two phases, first in 1985, post-Big Express, on the 25 O'Clock EP, then again in 1987, after Skylarking, on the full length Psonic Psunspot. The two albums were subsequently packaged together as the compilation you see on the right, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. Here I'll be sharing my thoughts on all things Dukes, along with some interesting historical tidbits dug mostly out of Neville Farmer's 1998 book XTC: Song Stories.

The Dukes of Stratosphear basically came from three places: 1) Andy Partridge's fondness for sixties psychedelic garage rock, 2) guitarist Dave Gregory's hobby of recreating old records, and 3) a failed project with singer Mary Margaret O'Hara wherein Andy would write songs and John Leckie would produce. As the story goes, once the project went south, Andy convinced Virgin Records to give him 5000 pounds, took Leckie (who had helmed the band's first two albums White Music and Go 2), and the Dukes were born.

Though the effort to conceal their identities was never more than half-hearted, the band did take on pseudonyms. Andy became Sir John Johns (a nod to the DC super-hero Martian Manhunter, whose Martain name was J'onn J'onzz), Colin was The Red Curtain, Dave was billed as Lord Cornelius Plum, and his brother Ian, who played drums, took the clever name E.I.E.I. Owen. Producer Leckie did his work as Swami Anand Nagara.

All of the Dukes songs are originals, but most have spiritual guidance from a notable sixties band or song. I'll (mostly) spare the song-by-song breakdown and let you suss them out on your own, but trust when I tell you that the styles of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, The Electric Prunes, The Hollies, and The Beach Boys are all well-represented. The band used vintage equipment, and Leckie's production work was genius. In fact, it boosted his reputation quite a bit, and led too him producing some of the most beloved British records of all time (Elastica's first album, The Stone Roses' debut, Radiohead's The Bends).

25 O'Clock features 6 songs, the best of which are the doomy, nonsensical title track, the lusty My Love Explodes, and the bouncy The Mole from the Ministry. Your Gold Dress and Bike Ride to the Moon are enjoyable but a step down in quality. All 5 of those were Andy compositions. Colin's offering, What In the World??..., is the worst thing on the EP. It's about "shocking" future events (marijuana is used to make tea, women fight wars while men stay home) and is a clear sore thumb. To be fair, it wasn't written strictly as a '60s pastiche; it was a leftover given a production makeover and shoehorned in.

From a songwriting standpoint 25 O'Clock is definitely the lesser of the two Dukes releases. It's sort of like a warm-up for the real show. Grade: C+  Fave Song: My Love Explodes


Psonic Psunspot, a sequel released after the successful XTC release Skylarking (review forthcoming), is where the Dukes really put it together, though Colin's contributions are still the weak spot, with one very notable exception. Opener Vanishing Girl is a burst of suspended chord fresh air. The lounge act chorus of The Affiliated and the carnivalesque Shiny Cage are lackluster.

Andy's work, however, is strong throughout, from the gender-confused Have You Seen Jackie? to the joyous You're My Drug to the druggy Collideascope. But the two real standouts are Brainiac's Daughter (a piano-driven piece about the irresistible offspring of a Superman villain; the character doesn't exist in the comics, but should) and Pale and Precious, a spot-on Beach Boys tribute that manages not to be derivative (a feat much much harder than it sounds, and Andy did again - and better - with Chalkhills and Children on Oranges and Lemons).

Add in the enchanting book-on-tape children's story bits between songs and you have a great product overall. Grade: B+  Fave Songs: Brainiac's Daughter / Vanishing Girl

The Dukes of Stratosphear were always an exercise in escapism and controlled lunacy, and ultimately their legacy is one of style over substance. Unlike the vast majority of Andy and Colin's other songs, they're not really about anything, and ultimately they can't be taken too seriously. However, they sound fantastic. They'll always hold a special, if not particularly large, place in this XTC fan's heart.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rock Solid: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

"If you only own one album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *
First, let's all agree that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a crack singles band. From American Girl in 1977 to Mary Jane's Last Dance in 1993, they gave us an amazing string of pop classics, songs that you still hear regularly on the radio, and will for as long as radio exists. Unfortunately, the label "singles band" often means that your albums weren't all that remarkable outside of your hits. Interestingly, Petty and the boys morphed into album artists with 1994's Wildflowers, and haven't looked back, for better (Echo) or worse (The Last DJ), producing strong records without standout singles.

These are the two extremes of modern music-making, though the very best albums manage to marry the two. It's rare for an artist to not hit on the balance at least once in his career, even accidentally, and yet it seems that's the case with Petty. Thus, his Rock Solid is a chance to see which one the critics and fans value more: Hit singles or consistent albums.

Probably not surprisingly, it's hit singles. The All Music Guide gives a 5 star rating to only one Petty album, and that's 1979's hit-laden Damn the Torpedoes. Amazon.com reviewers backed that up with a 5 star average. It's his only album to score so high, but the two closest challengers - '81's Hard Promises and '89's Full Moon Fever - are also products of Petty's radio days.

Fully aware that he can't just praise the singles and remain a member of the Rock Critic Union, good old Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide calls the music on Damn the Torpedoes "modern yet timeless" and concludes that it's "one of the great records of the album rock era."

The fans on Amazon.com are less assuming, if also less coherent. Aussie Petty Fan states, "As the album reads almost like a Greatest Hits collection, it is by far the album to get if you enjoyed the Greatest Hits because you don't get better TPATHB as this, some albums come close, none are poor, yet none better this here one." Nestor Alfredo Balbuena writes (translated from Spanish with the help of BabelFish): "The truth is that all the album I pleasure to me. Each sound was so well put, the battery sounded like the Gods, the adjustments, the guitar, in aim. I hit to me."

And The Footpath Cowboy adds, "The fact that Petty, like most rockers of his generation, advocates sanctions against Indonesia in retaliation for that country's trumped-up drug-smuggling conviction of a young Australian tourist makes this an essential purchase for both your ears AND your conscience." Though why that makes Damn the Torpedoes an "essential" purchase over any other Petty album or any album by any other "rocker of his generation" I'm not quite sure.

Non sequitur reviews aside, Aussie Petty Fan's insistence that Damn the Torpedoes is the first place to start after the 1993 Greatest Hits (or 2000's Anthology) compilation is a common theme throughout the Amazon.com write-ups. Though it's a praiseful assertion it's also an admission that, when it comes to Petty and the Heartbreakers, the hits are the main thing.

Overall, Damn the Torpedoes is not a bad choice for Rock Solid considering the circumstances, but it's important to remember that it's all relative to the career of the artist in question. The album may be one of Petty's best, but it's no masterpiece. In fact, a quick run through the Thriller Test finds it passing on only 2 of the 4 counts. It's got the singles, for sure. Four songs from the album made it on to the Greatest Hits, and serve as bonafide Petty classics. Those are Refugee, Don't Do Me Like That, Even the Losers, and Here Comes My Girl. Nothing to complain about there. The album also has some strong could-have-been hits, namely Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid) and You Tell Me. I'll even add country closer Louisana Rain, despite the noodling, minute-plus intro. That still leaves 2 not-bad-but-just-kinda-there songs (Century City and What Are You Doin' In My Life). And the cover photo may be an iconic Petty image, but it certainly doesn't belong in the pantheon of great album covers.
Since we're stuck in relativity here, failing the Thriller Test is no big deal as long as no other album in Petty's catalog does any better. So consider Full Moon Fever. The hits (Free Fallin', I Won't Back Down, Runnin' Down a Dream) are bigger, and the non-hits (A Face in the Crowd, Love Is a Long Road, Yer So Bad, I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better, Zombie Zoo) are stronger. I think it's a better choice for Rock Solid.

Personally, I'll always have a weak spot for 1994's Wildflowers, the second Petty album I bought. That's right, the Greatest Hits were first, just as they should be.

Monday, June 07, 2010

271. XTC: The Big Express (1984)

After the commercial letdown of Mummer, the boys in XTC swung for the fences on The Big Express. That album title isn't incidental. The album has a BIG sound. Mummer sounded like the work of a group bound to the studio. Though XTC's no-touring stance had not (and would not) change, The Big Express sounds like a set of songs made to be played in enormous open-air arenas.

And of course this is still XTC, so the songs, for all their bluster, are still idiosyncratic and quirky.

Colin Moulding gives us an arresting opener, the single Wake Up. Lyrically it's somewhat obtuse, with two verses about the work day, a final one about the scene of an accident (supposedly a recurring dream for Colin), and a chorus that's basically the title phrase delivered from a whisper to a shout. The guitars clang, the words come at a rapid pace, and a heavenly choir wraps things up. Colin's only other song, I Remember the Sun, is quieter and less assuming. It's a collection of hazy childhood nostalgia set in a jazzy form.

Andy's songs on The Big Express cover a wide range of emotions and styles. Single All You Pretty Girls is a lustful, singalong sea shanty. (The Everyday Story of) Smalltown sets vignettes of daily life and a staunch anti-urban sprawl message ("If it's all the same to you / Mrs. Progress / Think I'll drink my Oxo up / And get away / It's not that you're repulsive to see / In your brand new catalogue nylon nightie / You're too fast for little old me / Next you'll be telling me it's 1990") to wide-open pop songwriting. Andy also gets personal, taking on the temptation to cheat on his wife (the sporadically amelodic Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her; Andy did end up cheating, and marrying the other woman) and crooked managers (the scathing I Bought Myself a Liarbird).

But he does his best work when writing about he ravages of war, which he does twice on The Big Express. The first, Reign of Blows (Vote No Violence), is musically forceful but lyrically elegant. It's also sadly still applicable 26 years on. Witness lines like "So torture raises its head / Decked out in blue, white, and red" and "When death draws up in his car / And talks in terrorist tones / Remember violence is only a vote for the / Black Queen to take back the throne."

The second is definitely the band's finest achievement up to this point, and maybe ever. It's called This World Over, and it imagines a the aftermath of nuclear war through the eyes of a father surveying the wasted landscape with his mutated children who know nothing of the world before. Answering their questions, he lays blame squarely on an overzealous world leader with a "famous face" (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan) and his iffy motivations. I get chills at this bit, every time:
"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?"
Musically, it's minor key and melancholy, wisely letting focus stay on the lyrics.

Unfortunately, as wondrous as that song is, The Big Express also contains prime examples of Partridge at his most over-the-top. The psycho-county of Shake You Donkey Up and the chugging Train Running Low on Soul Coal both feature Partridge at his least restrained and most annoying. Neither is an especially awful song, but anyone who doesn't like XTC could definitely use them as compelling evidence.

Overall though, The Big Express is another fascinating album in a catalog full of them. But the boys' next move would prove to be even more audacious, surprising, and innovative.

Grade: B
Fave Song: This World Over

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Rock Solid: The Rolling Stones

"If you only own one album by The Rolling Stones it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Holy logjam, Batman! The Rolling Stones have no less than 8 albums statistically tied for Rock Solid status. That's definitely the most so far. We can choose to attribute this to the band's sheer longevity, or we can choose to believe they truly are The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. I'm leaning toward the former.

Anyway, as I said, eight albums received 5 star reviews from the All Music Guide and a 4.5 star review average on Amazon.com (no R.S. album got the full 5 average from fans). They are: 12 X 5 (1964), The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965), Aftermath (1966), Beggar's Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), and Some Girls (1978).

To break up the logjam we have to look the percentages of five star ratings within the 4.5 star average on Amazon.com. And then it becomes clear : With an impressive 87%, Sticky Fingers is our winner.

The All Music Guide's tireless Stephen Thomas Erlewine finds that Sticky Fingers has "a loose, ramshackle ambiance that belies both its origins and the dark undercurrents of the songs." He also praises its "offhand mixture of decadence, roots music, and outright malevolence."

As per usual, the hyperbole birds come out in full force on Amazon.com. Loren sez: "In my not so humble opinion, Sticky Fingers is the greatest rock n roll album of all time." Charles R. Stewart III remarks that Sticky Fingers, "will be my favorite album until I die....then they can bury me with it..." And hopefully they remember the record player, too. James McDonnell believes that, "In 50 yrs. they will still be playing this album at college dorm parties." But Patrick Farrelly, obviously speaking from experience, warns: "In a lame crowd, this is an instant party killer."

And though Amazon.com reviewers are rarely known for their vocabularies, two, count 'em, two reviewers used the word "apotheosis" (a Greek term meaning "the appearance of a theme in grand or exalted form") in their review: The Dirty Mac ("Here we've got the Stones at the apotheosis of their raunchiness, decadence and political incorrectness") and Nathan ("with the Mick Taylor period, the Stones reached the apotheosis of their own, unique, mature sound").

But does Sticky Fingers stand up to the Thriller Test?

1) At least 3 hits
Oooh, this is close. Brown Sugar and Wild Horses are the only bonafide hits on the album. Both are instant classics, with the horns highlighting racy lyrics about interracial sex (other interpretations say it's about heroin, for which the title phrase is slang) on the former and the latter is a genuinely-felt statement of commitment in an f-ed up relationship (romantic or familial, I'm unsure). No other songs were even released as singles. Fail (Though to be fair, only one of the 8 Rolling Stones' Rock Solid contenders features more than two hits; more on that momentarily).

2) Great album tracks
Bitch serves up a rockin' riff and hot horns. Sway provides the blueprint for the Black Crowes' entire output. Can't You Hear Me Knocking is a guitar orgy. Sister Morphine takes the torch from the Velvet Underground's Heroin and runs with it. And I'll even throw in Dead Flowers, though Mick's overdone twang in the beginning bothers me because the rest of the song is so respectful and affectionate toward the country genre. Pass

3) No filler
Amazon.com reviewer Robert Bykowski feels that "of the Stones' 'golden four' albums (Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street)," Sticky Fingers is the best because "though each of the four is an unquestionable masterpiece, the other three DO have at least one or two filler tracks on them." I'd argue with him on You Gotta Move (unremarkable minimalist blues), Moonlight Mile (hypnotic and mysterious if you're in the right mood; boring if you're not), and I Got the Blues (not bad, but it's standard stuff). Fail

4) Memorable cover art
Um, yeah. Whichever way you swing, you have to give kudos. Andy Warhol provided the cover photo (it's not Mick's crotch, in case you were wondering) and the original vinyl had a workable zipper! Bonus for this being the first Stones album to sport the lips logo. Pass

So, a sound fail on the Thriller Test (which doesn't mean Sticky Fingers isn't a good album, by the way; it is). So what deserves the spot instead?

Well, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Exile on Main Street, especially in light of its recent reissue and its status as the "it pick" for Stones' masterpiece. The rambling double album performed okay at the time of its release and started to pick up steam later thanks to ardent rock snob support, culminating in Rolling Stone placing at #7 on their "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list (Sticky Fingers was only at #63). Exile has some great moments, but I'm glad it wasn't Rock Solid (in fact, it fell out at third place overall, with Beggar's Banquet taking second).

My own personal favorite is Some Girls, and I'm willing to put forth that it actually does pass the Thriller Test. It's got 3 hits (Miss You, Beast Of Burden, and Shattered), lots of killer extras (When the Whip Comes Down, a cover of Just My Imagination, Respectable, the title track), and not a dull moment. Plus, the cover art is interactive, weird, and arresting.

Author's Note: This is album review #270.