Monday, July 25, 2011

The Dukes of Stratosphear - Chips From the Chocolate Fireball

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (1987) ****1/2

This album is every '60s fanatic's strawberry alarm clock dream, a loving parody of Sgt. Pepper's era mod psychedelia that amazingly pulls it off not merely as a picture-perfect tribute but also the finest collection of tunes that Partridge & Moulding ever penned.  I know, I know, you hate those smarmy ain't we clever bastards with hiccupy vocals in XTC, but seriously - even if you hate the band, you need to check this record out.  I wouldn't go so far as to say need NEED, but any fan of '60s British Invasion and psychedelia has a hole in his collection that isn't complete until he's heard this compilation (1985's 6-track 25 O'Clock EP and 1987's full-length, 10-track LP Psionic Sunspot).  Actually, you know what?  It's actually better than any psychedelic album actually released during the flowerpot power era, excepting the Move and the Beatles themselves, but not excepting the lightweight and inconsistent Piper at the Gates of Dawn and certainly not the psychedelic efforts of B-listers the Hollies, the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, or the Rolling Stones' great folly.  Oops, forgot about a certain LP by the Zombies I recently gave five stars to.  And there's Love's magnum opus which rivals this platter, but let's forget about that, as the Dukes are content to more or less completely bypass West Coast psychedelia and concentrate exclusively upon the U.K. variant.  I said almost, as the closing track on the CD, "Pale and Precious," is a loving Beach Boys tribute - and not the surf-era BB's, but the post-Pet Sounds  Manson-era BB's.

Which is an anamolous track anyway, being a clearly clear direct tribute to a specific band's sound.  Most of the rest of the tracks swipe specific elements of specific songs from the Beatles, Kinks, Move, Stones, etc., as well as one-hit Nuggets blunders - "Bicycle to the Moon," clearly derives lyrical inspiration from Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle," and there's at least a couple of "She's a Rainbow," piano line cops, and the clock chiming intro to the CD obviously was swiped from the Floyd, and etc. etc. etc.  We could play this game all night.  But better to go straight to the horse's mouth and read Andy's info in the XTC biography where he lays out the specifics of which Dukes track stole from what '60s songs.  I'm sure you can look it up for freebies on one of the more comprehensive XTC fan sites.  The point is that Andy and Colin took a grab bag of elements of psychedelic cliches, from backwards instruments to vocal phasing to stereo panning to fake Indian sitars, lit the lava lamp and pushed the GO OVERBOARD! button.  For once Partridge & Co.'s devotion to studio gimmicrackery that throws in the production tricks kitchen sink not only works, but actually feels like it flows naturally and unforced.  The tracks don't so much specifically pinpoint any specific band as they lovingly recreate the devil-may-care-let's-try-it ethos and spirit of the era.  Spirit?  Nah, I don't really hear any steals from them.

What makes it work doubly is not just the excessive production job, which in and of itself would make this side project worth a few giggles and not much else.  No, XTC have given the Dukes some of their finest-ever tunes, directly catchy and more easily accessible than most of their "real" XTC work.  "The Vanishing Girl," isn't psychedelic at all - there aren't any production gimmicks in sight, it's simply a straightforward pop song, and the most instantly winning song on the CD for that.  The growling "25 O'Clock," the swishy-swooshing "Mole From the Ministry," the winsomely bouncing "Brainiac's Daughter," the barrelhouse rollicking, "You're a Good Man Albert Brown," - these are simply excellent XTC songs of the first order.  In sum, this is far, far more than merely a novelty record.  It's not only a brilliant conceptual coup but a great, very fun barrel of tunes.  Perverse as it is to think about, XTC's greatest triumph was a side project intended as a joke.


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