Virgin 1984 / Ape House 2023
Dressed in the cleanest dirty shirts, Wiltshire wardens of traditional wisdoms repair their engine to roll on down memory rails.
There are records that, in time, acquire a film of patina – and there are platters that have cinematic grime from the beginning. Belonging to the latter category, the Swindon ensemble’s seventh album may have also amassed a few layers of slander from naysayers who, denying the band’s right to explore different sonic facets, balked at their use of drum machine and refused to see mechanical groove as part of the railroad-related concept “The Big Express” offers to its listeners. An urban approximation of nostalgia which THE KINKS’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” imagined as a rural pastorale, it seemed to buck sensual serenity outlined on XTC’s own “English Settlement” and “Mummer” by introducing industrial themes to the collective’s psychedelic idyll and remodeling their sound in a way their fellow fowl-watchers BE-BOP DELUXE did between "Modern Music" and "Drastic Plastic" several years earlier.
“Keep your fingers busy / Mentally or physically”: here’s a couplet from a song called “Work” – one of the cuts which, in Andy Partridge’s words, were “doomed to lay dormant” until now – and that’s what the group had been doing, in an attempt to catch up to the ’80s’ aural landscape, since the release of their previous full-length effort. Still, the results of Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory’s initial instrumental interplay – so clean on the wordless mixes stored on Blu-ray disc alongside original album audio and other delights, including the prototypes of the platter’s tracks – would get somehow smeared with overdubs and the presence of a human skin-hitter, Peter Phipps, to become more cinematic, more artificial – just as “The Big Express” creators wanted – and, arguably, more dated from a four-decade-long perspective. It could feel fantastic in a newfangled de-mixed form, rather than a fresh stereo version as fashioned by Steven Wilson – who somehow managed to tap into the immediacy of the trio’s demos, anyway – only this might, to a degree, undermine the record’s experimental intent, and repeated spins remedy the picture to endear the eleven numbers even to the most doubtful headphones-dweller.
Such an approach may not be too apparent on pure-pop opener “Wake Up” that, punctured by writer Moulding’s ear-splitting bass, busts stereo panorama and stacks Partridge’s exclamatory vocals before the “Who cares, you might be dead” chorus statement is inserted into the piece’s jive to slack its taut and streamlined, synthesizers-polished drive, while the sea-shanty-shaped “All You Pretty Girls” doesn’t take a lot of sweet time to inject thunderous Éire-to-Burundi rhythms into its tune’s infectious swirl. But if the funky “Shake You Donkey Up” whips the drift into a reserved frenzy and lets Gregory’s twang propel this gaucho dance towards the nearest barn for a bout of dust-raising hoedown, “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her” infuses the period’s neon shimmer with a brass-splashed funfair folk, and “This World Over” allows its a cappella intro to bring on atmospheric fear, so typical for the Cold War era’s anthems, and enshrouds a magnificent electric piano motif in tight cocoon of guitars. However, the autobiographically exuberant “The Everyday Story Of Smalltown” finds the band return to their home turf to rollick through honeyed memories until the Caribbean-tinged “I Bought Myself A Liarbird” ushers in a bit of bitterness to paint a vaudevillian verve over a voice-and-strings riff.
But then, there are “Reign Of Blows” pitching blues harmonica into the melody which is drenched in distorted effects, and the unhinged, yet arresting, “You’re The Wish You Are I Had” where Andy’s occasional falsetto lick and Colin’s grounded rumble anchor Dave’s patchouli-scented ivories and slider roll, all this leading to the crazed, loose opulence of “I Remember The Sun” that reveals the ensemble’s fusion leanings. The album’s final scene will be delivered by “Train Running Low On Soul Coal” – the first song Partridge composed for “The Big Express” – that’s chugging from the country-smelling depot intensity to the pacifying open-air passages and back again to leave the space on a high. Of course, the B-sides “Blue Overall” and “Washaway” don’t disappoint either, and “Red Brick Dream” could perfectly fit the platter’s context, so it’s nice to have those and a couple outtakes added to the flow.
Nice – and not exactly necessary because, strictly on its particular terms, this platter has long redeemed any foibles one could perceive from the start and became influential and precious in equal measure. It’s not immaculate; it’s simply awesome.