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Wednesday, April 17, 2002

XTC – Coat of Many Cupboards (Virgin).

This box set, chronicling the well known (and less well known) hits of English music pioneers XTC, is not your ordinary LP beast, and needs a good few goings over before the gems inside come to the surface. Having spent the month or so since its release playing the 4 CDs in sequence, one by-one, track-by-track or, dammit, on random play, one thing sings through in the music: XTC are a great, great, great band.

So, says the knowing record-buying public, why aren’t they more famous, had more hits, seen more on VH-1. Well, not touring for twenty years as a result of stage fright of band member and songwriter Andy Partridge would be one reason. Having a nitwit record company which failed to give them the backing they needed and held them in musical purdah for seven years in the ‘nineties is another (Virgin, you should be ashamed). Any also..well, they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, truth be told. Well, more fool those who don’t drink to XTC. This collection of hits, off-cuts, rough cuts and the old favourites is top-end stuff: it’s premium sliced, not tinned.

The four CDs (and fantastically detailed integral booklet cum potted history of the band) take the listener chronologically through XTC’s repertoire, demonstrating clearly their evolution from shouty (but nonetheless melodic) post-punk urchins to the band they are today (Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge), writing some of the most intelligent, emotionally charged and evocative music written on the planet. They are, ladies and gentlemen, that good.

This collection, however, varies in quality (though only ever from good to fantastic, with the odd dog here and there), but like a good box of Terry (Chambers’) Old Gold, there’s a flavour in here for everyone. The many sides of XTC musically are in evidence here: catchy up-tempo 2-minute wonders like ‘This is Pop’ and ‘Science Friction’ from their early period show just how energetic the playing and the singing could be…but always maintaining a strong hold on tunefulness and word play. On the other end of the scale, pastoral beauties like ‘Grass’ and ‘Chalkhills & Children’ display the very English centre (most probably hazelnut) at the heart of the bands’ music.

One convention which XTC has recently cottoned on to is the issuing of demos and early versions (they have released two demo versions of their most recent albums), and Coat of Many Cupboards contains a fair few. For the fan, there are rarities and songs here which have never been heard and which you wish could be polished up and re-released (‘Terrorism’ is a paean to anti-violence tinged with middle eastern musical references, and ‘Find the Fox’). Scraping the barrel? Selling off cuts? It’s open for debate. I think: why not. If people buy Leonardo sketches, then why not XTC’s musical versions?

XTC rarely produce anything other than quality aural sustenance. This box set is no exception. Sublime.