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December 30, 2008

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Oranges and Lemons - XTC

It even surprised me that this little gem made the list.


Because it's a bit of a compromise. In fact, I'm gonna start a category for this type of album: the "too many great albums in a row so I'm picking the one in the middle" category. Or something like that.

In the incredibly eclectic XTC catalogue, Oranges & Lemons is sandwiched between Skylarking and Nonsuch - both almost made the list. But I just couldn't pick 'em all or I'd have to pick all of Steely Dan and all of REM and the Beatles etc etc...

So let me talk a little about XTC albums in general before I get to this album. An XTC album has three things going for it:

i) Several brilliant pop songs by Andy Partridge
ii) Several clever songs by Colin Moulding
iii) Several interesting/experimental/psychedelic songs by Partridge (and/or sometimes Moulding.)

With those elements in mind, Skylarking boasted i) Dear God, Earn Enough For Us ii) Grass, Dying iii) 1000 Umbrellas, The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul...

...and Nonsuch gave us i) Dear Madam Barnum, Omnibus ii) My Bird Performs, Bungalow iii) Rook, That Wave.

But in Oranges & Lemons, it's the second element that really sealed the deal for me. Let me explain.

In the Andy Partridge stream, Mayor of Simpleton might be the most perfect pop song he ever wrote. Lyrically and musically. Bolstered by solid drumming and a rolling guitar/bass, the song never lets up, keeping me high and happy from the first cymbal crash. The Partridge lyrics, as clever as anything Elvis Costello writes..."Well I don't know how many pounds make up a ton, of all the Nobel prizes that I've never won, and I may be the Mayor of Simpleton, but I know one thing and that's I love you. When all logic grows cold and all thinking gets done, you'll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton."

Then comes the middle eight, a melody unto itself that compliments the original tune with the walk-down and lyrics leading us happily back to the main tune: "I'm not proud of the fact that I never learned much, just feel I should say, what you get is all real, I can't put on an act, it takes brains to do that anyway. (And anyway...)"

I just love this song! Combined with his other treats on the album, The Loving, and Merely a Man, Partridge does not disappoint on Oranges & Lemons. Even moving into the experimental/psychedelic stream, Partridge shines again. Garden of Earthly Delights is dreamy and trippy - just look at the album cover and that's the experience I get when listening to this opening track. Peter Max anyone? Across the Antheap and the cheeky Pink Thing illustrate Partridge's depth in song writing and experimenting with sound and voice.

[Man, I sound like I'm writing an essay! Don't worry, not all my missives will be so deep and drippy...promise!]

And then there's the Colin Moulding factor. His trifecta of songs on this album are beautiful and dark at once. Maybe it was the time I first heard them, me a little dark too, but there's no doubt that his songs stand out for me, even surrounded by the beauties I've already talked about.

King For a Day
A peppy, little jingly jangly song. On first blush, that is. Then you listen to the lyrics and your realize it's about ass-kissers and sycophants among us... "Everyone's licking up to the new king pin, trying to get way up with a smile. Sing for your supper boy and jump to a finger click, ain't my way of living in style." You're tapping your toes to this and feeling just a little uncomfortable, when Colin's middle eight emerges in true Beatles style (and homage!)... "You're only here once so you got to get it right. (No time to fuss and fight.) 'Cause life don't mean much if measured out with someone else's plight. (In time you'll see the light.)"

Colin's pissed at someone, that's for sure!

One of the Millions
This song, in a lilting 6/8 time (um, I think that's what it is anyway), is so lush with sounds and tricks that you will hear something new every time you listen to it. A jangly guitar, a bass line that guides you through the complex cacophony, a Penny Lane-ish trumpety thing...

And the irony of it all is that this song is about being mundane and unadventurous, it's about being complacent and staying ordinary even if you have extraordinary ideas. "And everytime I get the urge to strike out on my own, insecurity wraps me up, it's cold outside the fold. So I won't rock the boat, 'cause I'm scared what might happen. I won't rock the boat, 'cause I'm one of the millions."

That's what's so great about Colin's songs on this album. He strikes out at bad behaviour in others and himself. Consider the third in the series:

Cynical Days
Colin is really bummed out here. "I try and make my world a better place (my efforts seem in vain), but I'm competing in a human race (falling deeper down the drain) that value things that just don't count, makes me wonder what it's all about." But he's wrapped the dark mood in a hopeful melody filled with droopy, dreamy bass lines and a warm muted trumpet. When he cries for help at the end of the song, there's an echo of encouragement by Andy Partridge...is he saying, "Hear my song"? Or "Years go by"? I can't figure it out, but it leaves me feeling hopeful amid the dark pain of Colin's, "Help me get through these cynical days..."

Cheery eh?

So that's Oranges & Lemons. I know, too many words. But there's just so much to say about it. Thanks for hanging in!

Released: February 1989
Recorded: 1988, Ocean Way Recording, Los Angeles
Label: Virgin Records
Producer: Paul Fox

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