Black Sea by XTC

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Black Sea by XTC
Black Sea by XTC

Album Released: 1980

Black Sea ::: Artwork

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1.Respectable Street3:37
2.Generals And Majors4:04
3.Living Through Another Cuba4:43
4.Love At First Sight3:06
5.Rocket From A Bottle3:30
6.No Language In Our Lungs4:52
7.Towers Of London5:24
8.Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)4:14
9.Burning With Optimism's Flames4:15
10.Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)3:56
11.Travels In Nihilon6:56


Those who know me will attest to the fact that I am The Anti-pop, that when it comes to anything resembling danceable happy music, I'll be plugging my ears. I am so white Anglo-Saxon that I think funk is when Black Sabbath play fast.

My wife and I recently went to Shambhala, a 'Techno' (?) festival in the woods where some of the world’s best DJs perform to thousands of people for three days. While the masses danced around me into the wee hours, I stood motionless and confused, wondering why people are dancing and cheering for a guy playing records. There weren’t even any guitar players on the stage.

So why, you may ask, would I be reviewing Britain’s XTC, that quirky, cheery, danceable band from the late-70's onwards. Well, because they're different. They're far smarter than you and I - well, me anyway. In a time of punk rock nihilism and social hopelessness, XTC managed to deliver thought-provoking intelligent music that you could dance to. Blending punk politics with pop, ska, and perhaps some Art Rock, I found myself whistling along to songs about social unrest and disenfranchised youth. Bloody brilliant.

Black Sea was released in 1980, it was the band's fourth full-length album, and only made a small dent in the charts. To me it is XTC's crowning achievement. Most likely you’ve only ever heard their minor hit, “Making Plans for Nigel”. That is one odd song, but it's only one element of a band thick with creativity.

The opening "Respectable Street” is a bouncy little number that takes a sarcastic look at the stuffy world of upper middle-class England. Rather than spew moronic hate at the issue like some of their peers of that time, XTC choose wit instead. Next is another pop anthem, riddled with melody and poignant anti-war lyrics - “Generals and Majors” is a prime example of how the band can get you dancing to their political offerings.

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by Reviewer: Mike Hodsall (blogging at Mike Hodsall)

Boasting no less than five singles (though all had little success) and the big sound that was introduced on Drums and Wires, XTC’s fourth album in three years finally succeeds in delivering a consistent batch of songs.

Whereas the previous albums all had a handful of highlights that suggested XTC were capable of greater things, Black Sea is the first of their releases that’s completely devoid of half-assed attempts at uniting classic pop and frenetic quirkiness.

On top of the increased quality, the duo of Partridge and Moulding also came up with a bunch of better lyrics this time round, repeatedly stressing their infatuation with typically 'English' matter, offering songs about suburban superficiality (“Respectable Street”), the “Towers of London”, and army officials yearning to reinstate Britain’s former stature.

As before, the show is stolen by the singles (to realize what a great singles band they were, get a copy of the magnificent 2-CD set Fossil Fuel - not one weak track), the best of which is probably the hard-hitting album opener “Respectable Street”. While Partridge’s vocals could still be described as 'manic yelling' (actually quite a contrast to the song's main theme, about trying to be anonymous / unnoticed behind the hedgerows of shiny suburbia), the band’s attack is less wicked, but as relentless as ever, with drummer Chambers especially showing off his considerable skills.

Moulding only turns in two songs, but at least one of them is a classic in the XTC songbook. His jumpy ska-indebted anti-war song “Generals and Majors” treats a serious theme with an ironic lightness-of-touch that makes it even more likeable. It’s an example of XTC in 'classic mode', rivalling the great British songwriters of the 60’s, while the silly boy scout whistling adds an extra quirky touch.

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by Reviewer: Guy Peters (blogging at Guy's Music Review Site)

This time XTC come out with guns blazing, bigger and brighter than ever before.

The politics are still present, but they're more concrete, coming in the form of anthems for the British working class on “Paper and Iron” and “Towers of London”, from the sidelines of the Cold War with “Living Through Another Cuba” and “Generals and Majors”, else regarding the hypocrisy of middle-class pretensions on “Respectable Street”.

But the band's pop side is clearly in the ascendant here. Minor hit “Sgt. Rock” finds Partridge mocking his own geekiness, as he fantasizes about being a muscle-bound misogynist babe magnet; “Rocket from a Bottle” reconfigures the runaway train rhythms of “Complicated Game” for pure pop joy; and “Burning with Optimism’s Flames” rises majestically from a sea of bouncing / clattering rhythms, as Partridge spits out rapid-fire lines like I learnt her lesson - in like flint - and styling. All the world is neatly curled around my littlest finger.

Even the epic closer, “Travels in Nihilon”, with its dense soundscape of droning guitars, slashing drum loops, and bitter lyrics on the failure of the punk revolution, feels like part of the exuberant pop mixture, rather than in opposition to it. Whatever else it is, this is just a damn fun album - focused, and nigh-unstoppable.

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by Reviewer: S M Hellebore

XTC’s career can be divided into two relatively distinct phases, separated by a brief transitional period.

The band's first four albums were recorded with a vague punk ethos - energy levels were cranked up, and the band only play what they could recreate on stage. By 1980 XTC were a self-sufficient band, with the songwriting duo of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding augmented by drummer Terry Chambers and guitarist Dave Gregory. Then - after frontman Andy Partridge’s nervous breakdown in 1982 - XTC ceased touring and retreated to the studio to create more intricate records.

While I prefer the band'ss more sedate and crafted albums, such as 1986’s Skylarking and 1999’s Apple Venus Volume 1, there’s no denying that 1980’s rockier Black Sea is admirable in its own right.

While most of XTC’s albums are disconnected from contemporary trends, Black Sea makes a more blatant bid for commercial success, with producer Steve Lilleywhite seldom deviating from a 1980 New Wave sound. So whilst the album has dated, and all sounds the same, the songwriting is generally strong enough to overcome such limitations.

Moulding contributes three songs, all of which are in a similar vein, linking upbeat bouncy tunes to pessimistic lyrics about militarism, lust, and pollution. Partridge is more adventurous, with the 7-minute experimental "Travels in Nihilon", and the surprisingly effective bonus track - the dub "The Somnabulist" - which is far better than anything on Explode Together, his album of dub experiments.

Elsewhere Partridge is also in splendid songwriting form. The social commentary of "Respectable Street" rocks, the political "Living Through Another Cuba" is all sorts of historical fun (It’s 1961 again and we are piggy-in-the-middle), and "Towers of London" should've been a hit single.

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by Reviewer: Fyfeopedia (blogging at Fyfeopedia [Defunct])

Black Sea is much better than that Drums and Wires stuff, with only two bad songs this time - "Travels in Nihilon" sits on its arse for 7 minutes, and "Living Through Another Cuba" is really friggin' annoying political commentary.

Still, Partridge pens several of his best early-period tunes for this album ... the "Rain" rewrite "Towers of London", the social critique "Respectable Street", and the uplifting "Burning With Optimism's Flames". I really like "No Language in Our Lungs" too.

Moulding contributes only two songs this time - "Generals and Majors" and "Love at First Sight" - and whilst I wouldn't rank either as an album highlight, they're both silly fun. The former is an upbeat discoey tune with a great Gregory guitar line and even a whistling part, and the latter a bouncy little ditty about er, love, with Terry Chambers locking into a neat tom-tom-dominated groove.

I'd say this album is probably the best of XTC's early period.

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by Reviewer: Cole Reviews