Home Read Classic Album Review: XTC | Coat of Many Cupboards

Classic Album Review: XTC | Coat of Many Cupboards

Four CDs of unreleased fare, exceptional rarities and classic cuts from the U.K. duo.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Major-label bands are usually too busy rushing forward — to the next album, the next tour, the next video — to spend time looking over their shoulders.

Then there’s XTC. Their schedule almost makes Sly Stone seem like a workaholic. They’ve released a grand total of about two dozen new songs in the last 10 years. They haven’t mounted a full-scale tour in nearly twice that long. In fact, now that they’re down to a duo — longtime musical partners Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding — they barely even qualify as a band. In short, they’ve got nothing but time.

Lately, they seem to spend much of it puttering about in their own back garden. And with handsome results. In the last few years, Partridge and Moulding have become masters at plundering their archives and making the most of their meagre musical output. Singles collections, live box sets, remastered reissues, entire discs of home demos — it’s become quite a little cottage industry. Even when they were scrappy young punks rushing headlong toward fame, it seems Partridge and Moulding were foresighted enough to preserve every note they played. Now, as semi-reclusive semi-retirees semi-resting on their laurels, they’re apparently determined to release it all.

This head-on collision of packrattish anal retention and closet-clearing commercialism reaches its zenith in the superlative new box Coat of Many Cupboards. This 60-track set may be the ultimate trophy for XTC fans: Four CDs of unreleased fare, exceptional rarities and classic album cuts from their first 15 years, all chronologically presented, housed in a snazzy box and annotated with an exhaustive critical essay and extensive track-by-track comments from Partridge and Moulding. Exactly what’s in these Cupboards? Well, I sorted it out on four shelves:

Demos and Rehearsal Tapes

No. of Songs: 20 — the largest chunk of the set.
Includes: Home recordings, band rehearsals and studio demos from their pre-fame days (a twitchy, Stranglers-influenced version of Science Friction from 1977) through their pop-hits period (a rehearsal tape of Life Begins at the Hop; a band demo of Making Plans for Nigel) to their later and more pastoral offerings (Partridge’s home demos for Mayor of Simpleton and The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead, later covered by Crash Test Dummies).
What’s Cool: The amazing attention to detail. As anyone who’s heard their more recent demo collections Homespun and Homegrown already knows, Partridge’s home recordings are often so close to the subsequent recordings you wonder why he bothered redoing them.
What’s Not so Cool: We’ve already heard so many XTC demos over the years — first as bootlegs, than in official versions — that the novelty has pretty much worn off.
What it Teaches Us: That Partridge and Moulding may be the two most inventive and inspired pop craftsmen since Lennon and McCartney.

Alternate Versions and Outtakes

No. of Songs: 17.
Includes: Assorted studio leftovers and orphans — a handful of tracks left off of White Music, including the walloping pop-punk treat Let’s Have Fun; a disco track called Sleepyheads that didn’t make the cut for Drums and Wires; revamped recordings of Life Begins at the Hop, Real by Real, Helicopter and others, intended as singles but never released; two long-lost tracks from former keyboard player Barry Andrews.
What’s Cool: Partridge swallows his pride enough to admit he sabotaged Andrews’ songwriting aspirations because his fragile ego felt threatened.
What’s Not so Cool: If you go by the bootlegs, there are tons more outtakes than these. Perhaps the boys are saving them for yet another box set down the pike?
What it Teaches Us: No matter how much various producers tried, they couldn’t change XTC’s core sound — for better or worse.

Live Recordings

No. of Songs: Just nine — presumably since they put out a four-CD live box just a few years back.
Includes: Club recordings of jittery punky fare like Traffic Light Rock; an encore medley from a Australian gig in the late ’70s; fiery versions of Paper and Iron and Crowded Room from London shows in 1980; and a couple of TV appearances including a rare live performance of Books are Burning on BBC’s Late Show in 1992.
What’s Cool: How mazingly heavy and tight they are live. For a band whose radio hits usually consisted of melodic, poppy new wave ditties, they could kick out the jams onstage.
What’s Not so Cool: That you have to buy a different box set — 1998’s Transistor Blast — to hear more of this stuff.
What it Teaches Us: These guys quit touring way too early.

Album Tracks

No. of Songs: 14 — a few too many, if you ask me. After all, anybody’s who’s enough of an XTC fan to buy this box already has these songs.
Includes: Bits and pieces from their first 10 albums, along with a couple of cuts from their psychedelic ’80s side project The Dukes of Stratosphear.
What’s Cool: The selections tend to bypass the hits for lesser-heard tracks — for instance, Black Sea’s No Language in Our Lungs instead of Respectable Street.
What’s Not so Cool: These tracks take up the space that could have been used for 14 more rarities.
What it Teaches Us: No box set is perfect. Although this one is pretty close.