Saturday, 5 December 2020

XTC ‎– Black Sea (1980)

Style: New Wave
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Virgin, RSO

01.   Respectable Street
02.   Generals And Majors
03.   Living Through Another Cuba
04.   Love At First Sight
05.   Rocket From A Bottle
06.   No Language In Our Lungs
07.   Towers Of London
08.   Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)
09.   Burning With Optimism's Flames
10.   Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)
11.   Travels In Nihilon
12.   Smokeless Zone
13.   Don't Lose Your Temper
14.   The Somnambulist

Drums, Synth Drums, Vocals – Terry Chambers
Guitar, Synth, Piano, Vocals – Dave Gregory
Producer – Steve Lillywhite
Tape Op– Nick Launay, Phil Vinnal
Vocals, Bass – Colin Moulding
Vocals, Guitar, Synth – Andy Partridge
Written-By – A. Partridge, C. Moulding

It’s no secret – in fact it’s a point of pride for the band – that XTC never quite fitted in. Whatever the prevailing breezes, they resisted them or blew along in an awkward marriage of convenience. In 1980 they were roped in with New Wave, pushed as an English Talking Heads because they used ‘jagged’ rhythms somewhere between punk and pop and blurted wilfully smart lyrics.

Black Sea, their fourth album, kept up the hefty – often overbearing – drum sounds of Drums And Wires, consolidated the twin guitars and upped the sociopolitical snark. Yet while critics flocked to call their work “perfect pop”, it was, despite frequent catchy melodies and hooks, just too dark at heart to pass as such with the general public.

Producer Steve Lillywhite was having a wild breakthrough year – in 1980 alone his key collaborations included U2’s Boy, the third Peter Gabriel solo album and Psychedelic Furs’ debut. The shiny gated reverb drum sound was the new deal of the day. Sexy at the time, it hasn’t aged well, and on occasion drowns out the songwriters’ wit here. So as Steven Wilson remixes go, perhaps this expanded edition presented our man with different challenges. There’s not much he can do about the crashing rhythms – the elephant in the room – but as ever he skilfully takes a duster to the sounds and allows Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory’s interplay to deliver defter dynamics. Only the repetitive seven-minute closer Travels In Nihilon is still a slave to domineering big beats.

These are minor reservations about a largely upbeat album – originally titled Work Under Pressure, until the manager’s feelings were hurt – which powers through bona fide hits like Generals And Majors, Towers Of London and Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me). Living Through Another Cuba grates, but Colin Moulding’s Love At First Sight is bright and precise.

The additional versions, mixes and from-the-period songs stress how busily fizzing XTC were back then. Black Sea remains full of fresh water.
Chris Roberts  / LOUDER