critic’s pick 238

About half way through Wing Beat Fantastic, you would almost swear Andy Partridge was singing. And in a way, he is.

The song this occurs in, You Kill Me, is one of the more immediately arresting works on an album largely co-written by Mike Keneally, guitar stylist and all-around pop scholar, and Partridge, chieftain of the long dormant British post-punk pop troupe XTC.

You Kill Me has all the earmarks of classic XTC. The lyrics read like a droll socio-political diatribe (“You kill me, with your ‘praise the Lord’ and your waterboard”), the melody is draped in delightfully askew pop and the singing possesses authority, lightness and an almost parlor-style formality.

That said, much of the rest of Wing Beat Fantastic willfully strays from XTC, especially the latter’s more raging music. But neither is the record an exclusive showcase for Keneally’s seemingly limitless guitar vocabulary. Sure, you get ample (but contained) blasts of instrumental mischief during the jangly, Beatle-esque It’s Raining Here, Inside or the patiently paced guitar coda that caps Bobeau. But even in these instances, the music is far removed from the busier, wide-eyed work that defined Keneally’s early albums and the wildly complex musicianship that recalled his one-time employer, Frank Zappa.

Wing Beat Fantastic instead operates very much as an album of pop craftsmanship as opposed to a means for guitar exhibitionism. Take the closing Bobeau solo. It emerges not as some blast of bravado, but as an almost jazz-like device that weaves its way into a melody built around keyboards and trombone. What results is less like Zappa and more akin to Steely Dan.

In fact, the primary platforms for Keneally’s solos are three instrumental vignettes – the two-part The Ineffable Oomph of Everything and Friend of a Friend – composed without Partridge’s help. Each couples acoustic guitar with an unlikely dance partner. Oomph 1 lets in an island/country whiff of pedal steel-style slide guitar, Oomph 2 adds bell-like chimes of celeste and Friend of a Friend employs keyboards that simulate lazy strains of mariachi horns. All three are a minute or less in length and essentially serve as preambles to the more fully realized pop works that follow. But the schooled and spirited lyricism of these miniatures are also tip offs to the pop charm that blooms throughout Wing Beat Fantastic.

Within the Keneally/Partridge songs, that sound manifests in often unexpected ways. Your House is a lightly embellished piano ballad that is nonetheless unsettling – a romantic remembrance of a past that never really was (“If I were to meet you, what could I really say? You’d think I was insane”) while Wing Beat Fantastic’s title tune brings us back to XTC country. Its summery, psychedelic sweep exemplifies the common ground discovered by these two unlikely pop allies.

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