Drums and Wires (1979) ****
The wires are guitars. Jettisoning keyboardist Barry Andrews for multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory, the helium cheese is considerably deflated and the real XTC, as we either love or loathe them, arrives. Partridge and Gregory tangle their wires together to spin dissonant and scraggly but hooky webs, Moulding offers dazzling bass counterhooks (he may be the most accomplished musician in the band), while the drums roll on. It's an anomaly in the XTC canon in that sidekick Moulding pens nearly half the tunes, and not only that, the A-side worthy material - the mechanized pound of "Making Plans for Nigel" (dullwitted boys graduate to dull factory floors) and "Ten Feet Tall", which may or may not be a penis joke but certainly points the way to the band's future in peddling straightforwardly melodic Beatlesque guitar-pop, being based not on jerky rhythmic patterns but on a warm acoustic guitar melody. Perhaps Partridge was falling upon a temporarily fallow period; only "Helicopter," which is so tangled up in trip wires it constantly threatens to spring apart at any moment, and "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty," are up to his best standards. Not that it matters, as their singing and writing styles are barely distinguishable from each other. It's a transitional album: maturity is signified by dropping the silly hyperactivity for a variety of mostly mid-tempos, but it's still mechanically bouncy new wave. As with every XTC album, there are a few duffers, but I won't bother going into a track by track review; instead I'll state my main beef with XTC, which is nowhere as obvious as on this particular disc: their music simply does not flow naturally. XTC's music sounds fussy and labored, as if Partridge and Moulding are sweating over every carefully sculpted hook and forced melody line. They obviously take a lot of work and care into constructing their songs, and the problem is that you can tell. Their songs run like clockwork, but it's a transparent clock where you can see the inner workings, all the gears and strings and levers pumping and tugging. That fastidious cleverness-on-their-sleeves, along with their (even fans will admit) awful hiccuppy vocals, prevent XTC from truly soaring to the heights of Beatles quality tunesmanship, despite their obvious brains, talent, and taste.
The CD adds three bonus tracks, culled from the "Life Begins at the Hop" single and its two b-sides. All three could have easily been A-sides and are considerably more uptempo than the rest of the album's material.