XTC‘s The Big Express pulls into the top 100 station at number 82. Roughly in the middle of the band’s discography, The Big Express successfully melds the awkward New Wave-y XTC nicely with the more lush, Beatlesque XTC to come.
Picking my favorite XTC album or albums is sort of like trying to choose my favorite limbs or organs. Yes, when absolutely necessary, I could choose. That’s not to say that I’d be happy losing any of them.
This isn’t ‘nam, there are rules…
Likewise, I had to impose some rules on my top 100 to keep it being absolutely overrun with a few bands. Specifically, no more than three albums by any band or artist, and if I pick more than one, try to encompass as much of the band’s career as possible. Or at least as much of their career as I actually enjoy.
The Big Express is full of angular rhythms that reconcile with compelling melodies, coupled with Andy Partridge’s Lennonesque lyrics and patented “barking seal” vocals.
“Wake Up” kicks off with a jarring guitar figure and a throbbing beat. One of three tracks on the album by Colin Moulding, it’s one of my favorites on the album. Drummer Peter Phipps (not an official member of the band) does a standout job on this track, as it fades into a drum/piano/chorus breakdown.
The bulk of the tracks on Big Express are big, extroverted songs that just bang down the door. “All You Pretty Girls,” “Shake You Donkey Up,” and “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her, Kiss Her” follow “Wake Up” and shake the walls.
The cold war looms
“This World Over” is a little more mellow. This number has a lovely tune to carry the weighty topic of nuclear war. Not the first time XTC would wrestle with the looming threat of a cold war gone hot, or overzealous nationalism and militarism, but maybe the most wistful.
Will you smile like any father
With your children on a Sunday hike?
When you get to a sea of rubble
And they ask ‘What was London like?’
If you were playing along at home with the LP, this is where side one winds down and preps you for side two.
“The Everyday Story of Smalltown” leads off the second side of the album with a rousing tale of an everyman small town faced with progress.
XTC warms up for Skylarking
Partridge’s “I Bought Myself a Liarbird” toys with the fleeting promise of fame. It’s got some clever wordplay and a hook that will stick with you like Velcro. The chorus is brash and original, but also you can see how it just isn’t made for mainstream audience.
“I Remember The Sun” is another introspective piece, penned by Moulding. This one is bass and piano/keyboard heavy, with the occasional jangly guitar interlude. “Remember the Sun” foreshadows Skylarking‘s “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” with more than a touch of jazz about it.
At least one song on Big Express had to have a train theme, and that’s “Train Running Low on Soul Coal.” Again, this one features jarring guitar that bookends an impressive melody. The way that the band dexterously weaves between harmonious sections to almost punishing guitar hammering at your eardrums, and back again, is amazing. Partridge really breaks out the barking seal on this one, but if you’re sold on XTC it works so well.
On the original album, “Soul Coal” is the final track. Remastered versions of Big Express include “Red Brick Dream,” “Wash Away,” and “Blue Overall.” These are fine, but not quite as memorable or solid as the original tracks.
If the world were fair, “You’re The Wish You Are I Had” (track 9) would have dominated the charts when Big Express was released. To quote Douglas Adams, about a fictional song in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy universe, “a tune which would have enabled Paul McCartney, had he written it, to buy the world.”
In an alternate universe, where XTC continued to tour and more effectively promote their work, they are bigger than the Beatles. Alas, in this one, the band is moderately popular but largely unheralded for its amazing work.