Radios in Motion

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Their penchant for sub-psychedelic English quirkiness notwithstanding, XTC has always been a hard band to pigeonhole, all the more since their first few years were spent in such a state of flux that three successive albums passed by without the group ever truly settling on a lasting identity. Dating from a 1980 show at New York's Hurrah's, plus two U.K. radio/TV tracks and the band's contribution to the movie soundtrack Uurgh! A Music War, Radios in Motion captures several of these chrysalis stages, a dramatically patchy document which is nevertheless oddly fulfilling. There remains, after all, something distinctly disconcerting about hearing the Making Plans-era live band rubbing shoulders first with the manic punks of their first album, then with the losing-it-but-loving-it mavericks who stumbled into the early '80s with Syd Barrett on their arm. And it's not difficult to play what-might-have-beens throughout. By virtue of bulk, the Hurrah's show is the selling point, but once lured in, it's impossible not to be more enchanted -- first by the TV take on "Neon Shuffle," all harsh chords, splintered vowels, and scattershotting past at 100 mph, then by a fall 1977 "Heatwave Mark Two," which literally revels in its musical redundancy while delighting the band so much that they performed it on two separate radio sessions, just a month apart. This version is the earliest, from a September John Peel session. Dating from over two years on, the gig -- like the band themselves -- loses much of that early spark, snarl, and immediacy in favor of a more calculating brand of pop eccentricity; one wonders sometimes which part of the songwriting process takes Andy Partridge the longest -- writing the tunes in the first place, or thinking of the fiddly bits that will make them sound weird. This album doesn't answer that question, but still the cracked cracks are showing through the shockwave sheen which was XTC's initial calling card. Songs like "This Is Pop," "Rhythm," and "Science Friction" already sound ill at ease alongside "Nigel," "Crowded Room," and the majestic "Life Begins at the Hop," and the band sounds tired of playing them. The next stage in XTC's development was looming, and listeners can only be grateful that this collection caught them just before the last one slipped away.

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