XTC

Fuzzy Warbles, Vol. 1

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At the time XTC's long-awaited box set, Coat of Many Cupboards, was released in the spring of 2002, it was mentioned in accompanying press interviews (most notably one in Record Collector) that the band was working on an archival series entitled Fuzzy Warbles, ostensibly to combat the flood of bootlegs cluttering the collectors' market. Given that anything involving the XTC camp moved very slowly in the '90s, it was easy to assume that this was a flight of fantasy on the level of the group's much-rumored shelved bubblegum album, but, lo and behold, the first installments of Fuzzy Warbles appeared at the end of 2002. By that time, the plans had shifted and Colin Moulding had pulled out of the project, leaving Andy Partridge to run wild with the multi-volume rarities series. Moulding's departure really wasn't that big of a deal, since Partridge always was the general of XTC, dictating the sound and style of the records and writing the lion's share of songs. So, Fuzzy Warbles would have wound up as a clearinghouse for Partridge's demos, outtakes, and goofs even if Colin had been involved with the series, but without him, the records were issued under Partridge's name, even if all the material was intended for XTC and sometimes Moulding and departed guitarist/drummer Dave Gregory appear on the recordings -- so, for most intents and purposes, they should be considered XTC recordings, not Partridge solo recordings.

To say that Andy Partridge is prolific is understating matters slightly. He records as both vocation and hobby, never quite separating the two disciplines. He spends as much time on his demos -- which are as polished and produced as most artists' official releases -- as he does on the official albums and, as anybody who's compared the Apple Venus demos to the finished product can attest, all the arrangements, sound, and feel are in place on the demo and only polished for the final album. So, apart from the stiffer swing of a drum machine and a somewhat compressed final mix, listening to the outtakes on the inaugural volume of Fuzzy Warbles isn't much different than listening to a new XTC album, provided that this is a rare XTC album that careens from point to point, stopping occasionally to slip out a joke or a rude noise. Evidently, Andy wanted to retain the home-spun feel of both his demo tapes and the haphazard bootlegs, so there is no unifying theme on this or any of the other volumes of Fuzzy Warbles, as it provides a jumble of unreleased songs, radio jingles, goof-offs, unfinished ideas, and demos for released album tracks. There is no precedent for a currently active artist -- which Partridge and XTC allegedly are in 2003 -- so thoroughly exhuming the archives for rarities, and even for older artists, only the T. Rex/Marc Bolan series Unchained comes close to this kind of sprawling, exhaustive treatment (it could be argued that being a Bolan obsessive requires greater patience than an XTC nut, considering his unreleased repertoire boils down to either choogling boogies or spacey folk-rock). Partridge may be tipping his hat to the Unchained series by kicking off Fuzzy Warbles with "Dame Fortune," a song he compares to Tyrannosaurus Rex in his typically humorous, detailed track-by-track liner notes. It could just be a coincidence, but given that this volume is filled with other jokes and pop allusions -- from the Joe Meek-meets-Link Wray "Space Wray" (quite a pun there), to a seemingly endless run of impressions on "That Wag," where Andy mocks Robert Smith, Bob Dylan, and the Smiths (the former pair very, very funny; the latter really, really bad) -- it's likely that Partridge meant to slyly draw comparisons like this. After all, why bother with an overly exhaustive rarities series if you're not gonna have some fun with it?

But the question is, will the audience have fun with Fuzzy Warbles, whether it's the first volume or any of the subsequent discs (planned to end at ten as of this writing, but things can change)? Yes, but it's a qualified yes. First of all, it should go without saying that anybody who purchases these discs knows exactly what they're getting into, since they're only available as imports or through Andy Partridge's Ape website. It takes effort to get these discs, so nobody gets them by mistake, and those who do acquire them will be thrilled to this mess of rarities. After the first listen, more discerning listeners may wish that Partridge had spent more time assembling these discs, because they are hard to listen to for pleasure, even when there are pleasures to be had. And volume one has more pleasures than any of the subsequent editions, debuting the series with a bang. There's the aforementioned "Dame Fortune," but also the sparkling "Born Out of Your Mouth," the James & the Giant Peach reject "Don't Let Us Bug Ya," his vaguely creepy female-masturbation salute "Wonder Annual," "I Bought Myself a Liarbird," and the gloriously shambolic "Goosey Goosey." Each and every one of these are actual unreleased songs, a species that comes in short supply not much later in this series, which is a shame, since that's precisely what the hardcore fans crave. The other stuff -- the Howlin' Wolf impressions, the instrumentals, the demos -- are all interesting one time through, but it's the unreleased songs that make this and all other installments of Fuzzy Warbles worthwhile. It would have been too much work to arrange the volumes chronologically or thematically, so what we get is a mess of outtakes and rarities, presented in no logical form. Here, the material is good enough to make up for the incoherence, plus with the first volume, it's still easy to get suckered in by the novelty of hearing new, unreleased Andy Partridge songs. As the series wears on, however, it's hard not to wish he had exhibited more care from the start.

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