XTC could concoct perfect formula pop songs if they'd just take it easy. But the group's glory is that songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Mouldings won't take it easy: they're compulsive hook factories on overtime, cramming every tune with more clever ideas than formula pop can bear. Even a comparatively low-density number like Mouldings's "Life Begins at the Hop," which opens the American version of Drums and Wires, sprinkles Layla, falsetto oohs and a guitar riff over its already catchy verse and chorus. Like a magician offhandedly pulling rabbit after rabbit from a hat, XTC acts as if pop razzle-dazzle were a snap, merely something to keep the fingers busy. Since they know every trick in the book, they speed read.
To amuse themselves, Partridge and Mouldings see how many antipop tangents they can sneak into their songs. Most pop tunes, from Cole Porter's to Paul McCartney's, are designed to pull us irresistibly toward their final chords, but XTC's compositions constantly test their own momentum with static passages, dissonances and atonality.
Actually, Drums and Wires is XTC's least-dissonant album. White Music and Go 2, which included keyboardist Barry Andrews instead of current lead guitarist Dave Gregory, were more thickly layered with Andrews' brilliant digressions. Still, the new record has plenty of gleeful discord. The guitar riff that opens "Life Begins at the Hop" outlines a major chord, while the bass riff implies its minor. XTC piles them together without a qualmand the strategy works. Andy Partridge's "Roads Girdle the Globe" gets a massive, steamroller sound from the clash of overtones between Colin Moulding's sliding bass and Partridge's and Gregory's guitars. Partridge's "Complicated Game" makes abundant use of grating chromatic intervals. Even in Moulding's aimed-for-airplay "Ten Feet Tall"with its unironic love lyric and a made-for-AM upward modulation Dave Gregory's first lead-guitar break pays only token obeisance to the chords beneath it.
XTC's current obsession is Philip Glass Steve Reich-style static harmony, and their favorite complicated game is to stalemate pop progressions with immobile arrangements. (Talking Heads try related ideas, but they're less committed to forward motion than XTC is.) Moulding's "Making Plans for Nigel" is overlaid with static, interchangeable rhythm-guitar riffs, while Partridge's "When You're near Me I Have Difficulty" and "Scissor Man" build up static outros. This band is finding the link between the way a good pop song repeats its hook and the way a Philip Glass piece hooks you by repetition, and it's an odd, fertile netherworld. Is the circular guitar lick that opens "Life Begins at the Hop" a hook or an ostinato? Bothand neither.
Because they're firmly entrenched in Brain Pan Alley, it's annoying when XTC stoops to cop from outside sources. Partridge and Moulding, like most self-conscious poppers, have a Beatles fixation, but they usually confine it to oblique tributes. Moulding's "Limelight" (from an EP included with early pressings of Drums and Wires) starts with a feedback note that turns into the tune's first chord, a gambit lifted from the Beatles' "I Feel Fine." Partridge's "This Is Pop?" a British single that's XTC's finest three minutes opens with the same chord as "A Hard Day's Night." Very smart. But Partridge goes too far when he pulls the Cheap Trick trick of basing "When You're near Me I Have Difficulty" on "Please Please Me." He shouldn't have to borrow melodies.
Just as XTC's music alternately accepts and abuses pop, the group's lyrics are about being titillated or trapped by the modern world. Partridge writes about the impact of technology on feelings: 1984 surveillance ("Real by Reel"), the near-religious joy of driving ("Roads Girdle the Globe"), a girl like a "Helicopter" and the use of entertainment to drown out the "Outside World." If Andy Partridge can be frivolous, Colin Moulding is dour, obsessed with control. The factory worker in "Day In Day Out" (on the EP), the child learning manners in "That Is the Way," the deluded characters who believe in free will in "Complicated Game," and young Nigel in "Making Plans for Nigel" are all at the mercy of external forces. XTC's love songs also have a mechanistic tinge: Partridge's "When You're near Me I Have Difficulty" ticks off symptoms like a maintenance checklist, and Moulding's "Ten Feet Tall" shows a boy happily at the mercy of "chemistry."
Drums and Wires' most intriguing selection is "Millions," which ignores conventions instead of subverting them. The lyrics are about China and (Partridge's specialty) culture shock, while the tune is a wonder of techno-Orientalia: an intricate modal loop of syncopated guitars punctuated by tiny cymbals and synthetic gongs. "Millions" suggests that pretty soon XTC won't need pop to kick around anymore. (RS 312)
(Posted: Mar 6, 1980)