Oranges And Lemons (1989)
There’s a fine album tucked away inside Oranges And Lemons. To find it, though, requires some mental work of scraping away the gloss and polish that first-time producer Paul Fox and engineer Ed Thacker liberally applied to these sessions, and imagining a more stern hand cutting away the LP’s dead weight. And there’s a fair amount to be found during its 60+ minutes.
Partridge’s ethos for this album appears to be a continuation of the Dukes Of Stratosphear aesthetic — exploring the sound and colors of their ’60s influences — but he makes the unfortunate step of trying to filter it through modern instrumentation and technology. Add to it a larger recording budget and placing the sessions in Los Angeles, and Virgin seemed to be practically begging him to overreach.
Just listen to the lead track “Garden Of Earthly Delights.” Ostensibly a late-’80s rewrite of “2000 Light Years From Home,” a track from the Rolling Stones’ post-Sgt. Pepper’s psych epic Their Satanic Majesties Request (one of Partridge’s favorite albums), the five-minute long song is overfilled with ideas. Gregory’s faux-sitar guitar lines and the drums (played by Pat Mastelotto, ex-Mr. Mister) are compressed to the hilt, over which Partridge piles on synth squiggles, percussion, and lost-in-space vocal asides. It’s as exhausting as it gets, and it’s the first track on the album.
Partridge returns to this too-generous mode throughout his 12 songs: the furtive “Across This Antheap” has voices and trumpet bleats attacking from all sides; “Here Comes President Kill Again” matches the lyrics’ strident hue by choking the tune in digitized guitar washes and leaden rhythms.
As ever there are exceptions to be found. The album’s final two tracks, “Miniature Sun” and “Chalkhills And Children” also brim with incident, but they manage to overcome the bloat thanks to the fact that they are simply better written songs. The former is a perfect example of Partridge’s ability to spin out a long form metaphor (in this case, using imagery of the sun’s wonder and danger to capture a tale of love and betrayal), the latter one of his sweetest songs about staying connected to his hometown of Swindon. Most everything else can’t compare, particularly “President,” a slog of sociopolitical commentary (“Here comes President Kill again/ Broadcasting from his killing den/ dressed in pounds and dollars and yen”).
Oranges stays aloft thanks to those sweet-spot songs where the lyrics/melody spark and the music is restrained and taut. “The Mayor Of Simpleton” was rightfully a minor chart hit for XTC (#72 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on the Modern Rock chart), as it is as perfect a pop song as Partridge has ever crafted, with bright, jangly guitars and ruefully funny/sweet phrases throughout (“What you get is all real/ I can’t put on an act/ it takes brains to do that anyway”). “The Loving” turns the sentiment of “All You Need Is Love” into nicely glam-dipped candyfloss. And, unlike “My Brown Guitar,” Partridge’s ode to his penis has a naughty swing that works nicely with the novelty hit-style lyrics (“Pink thing/spit in my eye/I’ll love you for it”).
Before we delve into the work of the band’s other songwriter, let’s heap some much-deserved praise on Dave Gregory. Ever since joining XTC in 1979, he’s long served as a secret musical weapon, and on Oranges, he comes up with some of his greatest instrumental performances. Even amid the disorder of “Garden,” his guitar solo is a blast of multicolored hues and pinprick notes. He deliriously channels Mick Ronson on “The Loving,” and he turns over rich bluesy chords with ease on the otherwise lumbering “Across This Antheap.” Listening to Gregory evolve with and elevate each song is a master class in guitar, and the album would have been even farther gone without his input.
The same can be said for Moulding. He’s relegated to only three songs here, but what three songs they are. Sure, “King For A Day” is a bit of a throwaway, pseudo-Tears For Fears jam, but it’s a mighty catchy one (listen, too, for the double-tracked guitar lead played forward in one channel and backward in the other). The other two tunes — “Cynical Days” and “One Of The Millions” — are nothing short of wonderful, addressing very adult concerns with a tuneful and almost light touch. If only there were more of Moulding’s voice to counter Partridge’s heavy-handedness, Oranges might have stayed more in balance.