Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Wrapped in Grey" / XTC

From what I've read and heard, XTC was even more dysfunctional than the Kinks. Continual personnel changes, internal snits, on-stage breakdowns, disastrous record deals -- they did it all. Some of their music is just plain genius, but they blew their own chances at every turn, pretty much guaranteeing they'd wind up as art-rock cult favorites. Still, there's something to be said for having a devoted cult (and I mean devoted -- just check out www.xtcidearecords.co.uk). I'm not sure I've got enough time to join it -- my fangirl soul is pretty deeply mortgaged at the moment -- but every once in awhile one of their deliciously quirky tracks pops up on my shuffle, and I ponder an alternate universe where I could easily be obsessed with Andy Partridge.

In that alternate universe, this might be my favorite song today. (I know myself; even if I were an XTC devotee, I wouldn't prefer the obvious big hits like "Making Plans for Nigel" or "Senses Working Overtime.") First of all, I dig that it's in 3/4 time, tripping along briskly with flamboyant surges of volume that almost sound distorted, even psychedelic. Then there's the lush strings and double-tracked vocals, with California-esque falsetto counterpoints twining around -- it's pretty darn romantic sounding. Not lovey-dovey romantic -- XTC never seems to go for simple love songs -- but romantic as in passionate about nature and the imagination and Big Ideas.

The central conceit has to do with painting: "Some folks see the world as a stone /Concrete daubed in dull monotone /Your heart is the big box of paints /And others, the canvas we're dealt." I swear, with all this flower child imagery, this song sounds more like it was written in 1972 than 1992. He claims that the flowers are talking to him -- and why not? -- bursting into the rhapsodic chorus, "Awaken you dreamers /Adrift in your beds /Balloons and streamers /Decorate the inside of your heads." The flowers advise him, "Please let some out /Do it today /But don't let the loveless ones sell you /A world wrapped in grey." It's classic Us Vs. Them thinking, the nonconformist vs. those People in Grey that Ray Davies is always warning us against.

You have to love the lyrics Partridge comes up with for the second chorus: "Awaken you dreamers /Asleep at your desks /Parrots and lemurs /Populate your unconscious grotesques." LEMURS? Name me another pop song that's got lemurs in it. That line thrills me right to the bone. And then there's the ending, where the tempo completely changes so that Partridge can tack on this mischievous coda: "And in the very least you can /Stand up naked and /Grin."

It's hard to believe this song was released in 1992 -- it's got this sort of gauzy innocence that's really amazing for the era. All those layers of sound remind me of late Beach Boys, or early Association, or some bits of the Moody Blues. Meanwhile, here in the States we were already listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by this time. It just boggles the mind.

Wrapped in Grey sample


Natsthename said...

Great. Firefox crashed in the middle of my comment.

In any case, quirky works for XTC and They Might Be Giants, and even for Barenaked Ladies, but that's ok. It keeps the fan base satisfied and devoted, and keeps out the riff-raff. I'm cool with that.

I do prefer the obvious as my favorites, though, and "Dear God" is mine, mostly because of the lyric "Did you make mankind after we made you?" It sort of validated thoughts I'd had since childhood.

Natsthename said...

And, Holly, since you're a fab music fan, I invite you to vote in Contrast Podcast's annual Festive Fifty countdown. Even if you're not a listener or contributor, you could help us flesh out the best.

Instructions are here:

It'd be great to have you participate!

Uncle E said...

Might I be so bold as to suggest the pastoral "Skylarking" and Apple Venus Vol 1"? Excellent stuff, and great post.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the link, Nat, I voted up my quirky favorites.

Skylarking, Unc? You betcha. The only song from that I know is "Grass," so I'm happy to check out more.