Short Cuts

XTC
Transistor Blast
(TVT)

In the rarified world of brainy alterna-folk-pop, no absence has been more sharply felt than that of XTC. Six years have passed since the band failed to make a significant impact on American audiences, much to Geffen's consternation. Still, the label forged ahead with an excellent retrospective, Upsy Daisy Assortment, then allowed the band to get out of its contract. After a lengthy hiatus and an unbearable amount of negotiation, major indie label TVT emerged victorious, and for its efforts it has won the right to release the four-disc live rarities retrospective boxed set Transistor Blast.

XTC's Ybersongwriter Andy Partridge has spent the last couple years sifting through BBC archives, culling the material for Transistor Blast (named for a lyric from 1978's "This Is Pop?" -- included here in two separate concert versions). The bulk of the four-disc set is lifted from the voluminous recordings that the band produced for John Peel's Radio One broadcasts. The most consistently amazing facet of this material, recorded live in the BBC studios, is the band's mastery of the songs and their performances. Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, and a shifting cast of bandmates positively nail the essence of the tracks, always finding the perfect balance between a sterile live reading that slavishly recreates the studio version and a sloppy, adrenaline-drunk impression that bears little resemblance to the original.

Transistor Blast documents a substantial core sample of the band's career, from its early role as England's version of Talking Heads to its pure-pop-for-new-wavers phase to its pastoral folk musings to its current sound, which is an interesting combination of those disparate elements. The band's late-'70s appearances, particularly those showcasing material from Drums and Wires ("Life Begins at the Hop," "Roads Girdle the Globe," "Real by Reel"), are highlighted by its initial nervous energy transformed into giddy bursts of sonic ingenuity. But even as XTC matured and altered its style, offering a more sedate and measured output (1984's The Big Express and 1986's Skylarking), a sense of playfulness and the band's patented disjointed dynamism were still included in its presentation.

Also included in Transistor Blast is a momentous Hammersmith Palais concert from 1980, as well as selections from a pair of BBC concert segments recorded at the Paris Theater, that shows the band in possibly its finest live form ever. The Hammersmith show offered raw but impressive live takes on material from the first four albums but primarily featured Black Sea, which was the band's latest release at the time of the concert. The Paris sessions, however, are a detailing of the earliest and edgiest version of XTC, and include spins from Go 2 and White Music (their debut and sophomore albums, respectively), as well as a performance of the early single "Science Friction."

The year 1999 will offer a bumper crop of new XTC material. Early on, the band will release an experimental acoustic and orchestral set, with a more conventional pop album to come in the fall. Until then fans can content themselves with the unqualified live brilliance of XTC on this voluminous and aptly titled boxed set.

-- Brian Baker

Robyn Hitchcock
Storefront Hitchcock
(Warner Bros.)

In Jonathan Demme's latest concert film, Robyn Hitchcock strums his acoustic guitar and offers between-song commentary to an invisible audience, his back to a large glass window overlooking 14th Street in New York City. The metaphor is obvious: While the engaged troubadour warbles about "funky denim wonderland" and other casual ephemera, the world outside passes by without giving him a second look. Back in Britain Hitchcock is considered, not entirely without justification, an antiquated relic kept in business by Anglophile American cultists.

There's no denying that he's always run a decade or so behind the times; back in the mid-'70s, when his teenage compatriots dreamed of punk and glam, Hitchcock played whimsical psychedelia with the Soft Boys. After going solo in 1980, he stuck with a jangly art-folk sound even after college radio had moved beyond it. But since shedding his long-time backup band, the Egyptians, a couple albums ago, Hitchcock has entered perhaps the strongest phase of his solo career. Demme's film, which was staged in December 1996 but has been sitting in the can without a national release date for nearly a year, offers the most concrete evidence of Hitchcock's personal renaissance. But for now the only way to access it is this 12-song souvenir album.

Storefront Hitchcock confidently sticks to his recent repertoire, with only a couple Egyptians-era songs ("I'm Only You," "Freeze") thrown in. Appearing here for the first time on record, the bleakly comic "1974" and "No, I Don't Remember Guildford" are his richest songs in years, evoking the agonizing pain of contemplating a youth that was much more satisfying than muddling middle age.

Hitchcock's traditional obsessions -- balloons, death, the insect world -- are everywhere in evidence, especially in his overlong between-song patter. (His surreal observations are charming in person and in the film, but not when sequenced into every play of the disc.) More impressive than his writing, however, is his flowering as a performer. Always a fine guitarist and never showy about it, Hitchcock is able to command a stage on his own; he doesn't need the 20 additional musicians that are de rigueur in the unplugged format these days. (A pair of brief noncelebrity guest appearances by violinist Deni Bonet and second guitarist Tim Keegan only serve to lighten, rather than overpower, "Beautiful Queen" and "Alright, Yeah.")

Here's hoping the film, like the album, will eventually see daylight and Hitchcock -- like fellow cult idol Jonathan Richman -- will finally get some attention by appearing on celluloid.

-- Mark Rosen

 
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