THE 3 CLUBMEN – The 3 Clubmen EP

XTC’s Andy Partridge is a legend of the alternative music scene. From his former band’s early punk beginnings, through their angular post-punk and dub experiments and, latterly, into a world of epic pop-rock, Partridge’s unique voice always shone through. In terms of grasping off-kilter melodies and making them truly work, he shared a unique talent.

Since the demise of XTC, new music from Andy has been rare, but often very welcome, and this EP from The 3 Clubmen – teaming Partridge with Lighterthief’s Stu Rowe and inventive guitarist Jen Olive – is no exception. It’s a true collaboration, too, giving all three musicians equal space within the arrangements, and feels like something that pushes their artistic agenda into new territory.

The opening number ‘Aviatrix’ is a pleasingly strange beast. The busy acoustic guitar riffs immediately call back to XTC’s underrated ‘Mummer’ album with a very pastoral sound, but that’s almost as far as any connection to Andy’s past goes, at least to begin with. Atop this great riff, the band builds layer upon layer of sound; the drumming – although rather restrained, borrows from funk and adds a pinch of Afrobeat – and a dancing bass sounds like something from a post-punk band dabbling in something with a slight reggae groove. The vocals don’t appear to fall in line with any of the rhythms, instead sharing a world of off-kilter mumbles juxtaposed with a huge pop melody. At the point where your ears adjust and it all starts to sound like a flowing groove with a song attached, they step up a gear, applying some jazz inflected, bell-like percussion and even more of an arty stance, until reaching a peak where a bass boosted groove has a vague hint of some of Partridge’s late 70s dub fascinations. As the last notes fade, you’ll have struggled to find anything you can sing along with, or even half remember by the time the next track hits its stride, but in terms of a studio based creation, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s the sound of three quirky musicians feeding off each other’s ideas…and loving it.

Blending atonal chiming guitars and jazzy percussion, ‘Racecar’ wastes no time in opting for something strange and angular, but its mix of pointed riffs and multi-layered vocals brings just as much musical joy as ‘Aviatrix’ before it. The way Jen’s multi-tracked voice bounces between the speakers celebrates a brilliant old fashioned stereo split, whilst a bouncing bass and sharp guitar noises do battle for a dominant musical role. After falling away to reveal a strange Beatle-esque interlude, the arrangement returns to something that could be power pop’s answer to Pere Ubu. It’s brilliant how this track seems to celebrate a willingness to uplift and confound in equal measure. However, between a very strong vocal melody and a strident piano line that’s occasionally allowed to peek above a parapet of brilliant post-punk sharpness, it is certainly a contender for this EP’s most interesting track – even if it isn’t necessary the best.

For the listener in possession of a more sedate ear, ‘Green Green Grasshopper’ will be the instant standout, in that the bulk of the track sounds like a strange remix of something from XTC’s ‘Apple Venus Volume 1’. Andy’s pastoral guitar is in full flow, and his mumbled vocals also hark back to the final days of XTC and their blend of complex pop and clear narrative. The lyric, concerned with nature, again, will certainly draw easy comparisons to parts of ‘Mummer’ and ‘Skylarking’, but Jen’s brilliantly confident melodies that eventually take over ensure this is never an easy retread of stuff you’ve heard before. As before, she has a tendency to dominate – always in a good way; her natural vocal here is amazing – but her approach to broad melodies suits the track brilliantly. In a change of mood, ‘Look At Those Stars’ blends elements of vocal jazz with piano based pop during a strangely affected intro, only to then take a final twist into a musical world where programmed beats and a soulful melody pulls the 3 Clubmen sound into new territory where a multi-tracked Jen and a very sharp groove collide. There are moments where warm bass is allowed to work through the cracks, and even times when a bright piano adds fine countermelodies in a couple of unsuspected places, but this is mostly about the vocal. Since the EP is sequenced in a way that ensures the listener is left hanging, wanting more, it’s proof that, as well as pushing a few musical boundaries, The 3 Clubmen still understand the value of a great hook or two.

It’s sometimes been hard to listen to Andy’s work with the same loving ear after witnessing him lashing out in an unfortunate social media outbust just before the Covid years kicked in, but separating the work from the man, The 3 Clubmen offers the XTC fan and completist a wealth of music to enjoy, despite featuring just four songs. Being as much about the huge talents of Jen and Stu, it’s often a different experience to the peerless pop of ‘Skylarking’, ‘Oranges & Lemons’ and ‘Nonsuch’, but on its own terms, it has a real spirit. Made with a self-contained charm, this EP plays like something that has an odd appeal, but also sounds as if it might mature over time. It won’t be for everyone, but those who like it will find a strange new love.

August 2023