Written by: Dave Cantrell
While admittedly rare in the digital blur that constitutes our lives these days, it is still mercifully the case that the arrival of a particular thing through the post can bring a type joy seldom conveyed via the ones and zeroes, one that, once fully grasped in hand and heart, quite often elicits a quick gasp of oh boy! in the recipient, that little electric thrill that can make one’s day. Needless to say, as anyone that knows the XTC-addicted me would attest, seeing that padded packet in the mailbox, return address Swindon, UK, did exactly that. No matter that I’d known it was coming, to have the actual eponymously-titled new debut EP from The 3 Clubmen in my clutches with the water bill and the toss-away junk mail was worth a couple somersaults were I prone and even remotely able.
Paradoxically, while the aforesaid would normally suggest a ‘drop everything’ scenario, clear the calendar pop that sucker in the tray and hit ‘play’, I knew it had to wait. I mean, y’see, I’d already been sent the download but that too sat unopened for the past couple weeks and, yes, I know, obsession’s a strange mate but to not follow its dictates is not an option we all know that and anyway, to me, releases of this personal magnitude, if I’m to be writing about them, demand fresh ears, spontaneous responses, an in-the-moment on-the-ground account. So, after a bit of quick background I’m going to jump in head first but this time, this one and only time, I’m not going to swim this or that way in some leisurely, semi-didactic manner but rather, in a way that respects both the spirit of the thing and, more pointedly, the extraordinarily buoyant and sustained manic pop effect a certain Mr. Partridge has had on my listening life since that moment in 1977 when the needle found the groove on the 3D EP and “Science Friction,” in an instant, burned like some sort of natal spark into my memory, I’m going to go at this with something approaching reckless, unedited, full-steam, edge-of-your-seat abandon. Think of it as an experiment of sorts, a (potentially ill-advised) go at automatic writing that will, with any luck, be as critically accurate as it is slapdash. Prior to that, though, that background.
Andy shouldn’t really require any introduction but for those few in their sad/innocent unawares he was, with bass-playing mate Colin Moulding, the heart and inimitable soul of XTC who blew in from Swindon in the late-ish 70s with enough whimsy and craft to sink any cynic in their path. The were a force of sorts, one that couldn’t – or wouldn’t – decide on being iconic or idiosyncratic so simply settled on being both in one fell swoop, a swoop that, in band form, lasted a couple decades give or take and whose impact and legacy have, as they say, passed unto perpetuity. Since then Mr. P., aside from founding the label Ape House, home to his own music and that of others he fancies, has been variously involved in projects solo and collaborative (Planet England with Robyn Hitchcock, for instance, the startling Gonwards with Slapp Happy’s Peter Blegvad for another and there are dozens more) and just pretty much turning his attention toward what interested him. One direction he turned was toward Stu Rowe who, in both a geographic and creative sense, lives, rather handily, just down the road and who, over the years, has worked with not only XTC alumni Barry Andrews in Shriekback and Colin both solo and in TC&I but as well Paul Weller, the stunning Amorphous Androgynous and others, none of which is to mention the guy’s all-encompassing Lighterthief project. The third leg of the mildly wildly dancing stool is Albuquerque-based Jen Olive, whose inclusion in this, umm, club is nothing less than a fit of perfect adjacency given her own playful and eccentric – and wholly sui generis – proclivities as a songwriter that found her 2010 Warm Robot landing on Ape House and, on occasion, loitering about the Lighterthief premises around that same time, a time that allowed the three to finally work together as surely destiny intended and over pints at The Roaring Donkey The 3 Clubmen was born. Obviously, considering the interim between that ‘then’ and this ‘now,’ much water has flowed but not a splash of it matters as here they are now at our door with this debut EP and let the promised mad scramble and dash out of the gate and down the track(s) and hope against hope the whole endeavor doesn’t end up at the finish line riderless and lame.
“Aviatrix,” instantly tricky yet warm of tone, the deftly plucked hook of an acoustic, slight jazz slight mischief. A flute flies overhead, trilling away then gone because the percussion’s here – hooray! – and it is deeply addictive just on its own but even if it were not the vocal melody is upon us, it’s stately, it’s grounded, it’s Andy in a voice that has apparently aged in the way of most metaphors – wine, bourbon, flannel sheets – then the flute flits back in to, as is its role here, carry us forward to Olive’s multitracked self-harmonizing passage that includes the phrase “I’m coming undone“, which, considering my reaction inside this song, is most appropriate indeed in that, one, the theme here is what it is and we’re six miles above the earth where the atmosphere guarantees its own peculiar giddiness – we hear her intone “oxygen, oxygen, oxygen” at one point – and, two, as an introduction to this long-awaited collaboration I could just about pass damn out from how it sounds, the spry intelligence of its melody, the rich yet nonchalant authority of Stu’s production and, yes, the track would fit well on, say, Skylarking what with its lively, almost toss-away complexities but even if that or the band that made it never existed I’d still be in no less a degree of carried-along joy. “Straight into the sun/you shoot me like a gun/I’m flying, flying” are the words that precede the aforementioned “coming undone” line and that kind of says it so why say more and let’s push on to the next one, the heart doing cartwheels.
Beginning as it does with the sound and atmospherics of a mundane roadscape – car horns in an air redolent of exhaust – but being titled “Racecar” ensures, again as always, that we remain within that subtly not-so-subtle paradoxical hijinks we’d expect and rely on given the lineage of those involved, an impression confirmed as said toots of horn are incorporated into the mix to become, briefly at least, as integral as the xylophone that soon appears – also however briefly – as the whole thing begins its process of building itself into a kind drunken euphoric mess of the most precisely designed kind and I’m brought to realize as I’m drawn and folded into this Escherized Rubik’s cube of a pop construction with its touches of deconstructed funk and slightly avant-garded sass, Jen’s vox enticing, taunting, flirty and blunt, that our listening life just isn’t as interesting, as vexing and fulfilling without what can only be described as Partridgisms, in all their weird agility and grace, fluttering and glinting like chrome-plated confetti in a partial sun. I’ve missed it, I’ve always missed it, which makes sense seeing as how embedded XTC’s DNA is in my bio’s bloodstream and thus do I feel equal parts wistful and grateful (SO grateful) to have this peculiarly crafted madness playing inside my ears again and damn here I am plumbing the strictly personal and we’ve only but halfway gone. Gonwards then we go and no I couldn’t resist and no I’m not sorry.
“Green Green Grasshopper” sneaks in past the sheeny sound of crickets and is indeed pastoral in the broadest sense but only if you can square whatever impression that word evokes with the dual overlay of seemingly detuned acoustic guitars possibly air-dropped in from “Aviatrix” (I wrote ‘Joe Pass on mellow acid’ in the margins just now for whatever that’s worth) and the lurk of some very low and likely reverbed vocals. In truth, as it happens, neither the rural inference nor my puckish lysergic aside fall far from the target and in fact if grafted together give as strong a sense of this song’s charms as any more academic attempt could likely fashion. With Andy and Jen rather back-and-forthing it at the mic, the latter, in a lengthy middle passage, taking the track a bit further into the dark of the woods than theretofore expected, this ain’t no trifle and in fact underlines the efficacy and intricacy involved in the 3-headed improv process from which these four cuts emerged, a process which, quoting Andy, always proves “heavy on the reject percentage. Miles Davis and Can knew that” and any- and everywhere I listen to this EP that fact unfurls, you can almost feel that loving conflict between the more unmoored freedom of coming up with ideas and chord patterns all the creative what-ifs and the more bare knuckle no-nonsense act of actual composition catalyzing into the tightened expansiveness of this material.
In the end, “Look at Those Stars.” Clicking along in a kind of hyper-calypso stylee – a steel drum appears in exactly those places it’s needed to reinforce that Caribbean flavor – with a chorus that just bursts out into the open like, well, okay, a starburst, the fact that its quote unquote sunnier disposition is canted up against a no uncertain melancholy – “I get this lonely feeling,” Olive sings, “but heyyy, wouldja/look at those stars!” – could not more expressly bring home how the heart pulses inside the standard irresistibility of the track’s arrangement and really that’s the gist of the gist, isn’t it? Beauty, the enduring, satisfying kind, thrives on tension, a fact we all know but too seldom encounter. These three here, these 3 Clubmen, thrive within that well-worn conundrum as if inside some secret treehouse deep in Nightingale Wood and there, THERE!, done, I’ve said my runaway say and whether I captured any essence or let it squirt away from my grasp every chance I got is not my call but I do harbor a hard held hope that the effort was not a misbegotten one, that the flurry of sustained wonder and sheer enjoyment of being in the unabashed presence of such inspired songwriting, performance, production and sheer bloody craft that I meant to present to you has come across with all its passion and meaning intact. But, really…
Look. All that unhinged run-on gabble said, in the end I’m not going to mince words. The work here on The Three Clubmen is genius. It is gorgeous, it is brilliant, it is nothing else you’re going to hear this year, next year, perhaps ever, so, though I’m seldom so blunt on the pages of SEM, buy the damn thing. Just buy it.
Listen to The 3 Clubmen on Stereo Embers The Podcast