8-disc 'Fuzzy Warbles' the highlight of a low year for singer

Andy Partridge is looking forward to New Year’s Eve so he can give the finger to 2006.

The leader of genius British rock band XTC spent six months this year recuperating from a tendon tear on his left hand that threatened his guitar-playing career; a studio mishap on the last day of mixing his next project saw him lose some of his hearing and develop tinnitus; and a muscle tear in his left foot recently left him housebound.

“And the stress from everything has led to heart palpitations,” he said. “Some years are great and some years things go really wrong. I’ve also had some relationships go bad this year, too. It’s a bad year.”

The exception is “Fuzzy Warbles,” an eight-CD collection of songs in various stages — home recordings, band demos, proposed soundtrack pieces. Collection is comprised mostly songs that members of XTC or a label or film company rejected for one reason or another, assembled so that each album holds together cohesively. (It’s subtitled “Hit Record and Play or A Brief History of Home Sound Capture”).

The fourth quarter, even when you’re working alone, stirs a need to wander into the vaults. The holiday season has brought out a number of interesting collections. Anti has released “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards,” a spectacular three-CD set of Tom Waits recordings — 30 of them are new and the rest appeared in films and compilations. The latest complete reissue of the Doors’ albums, “Perception” (six CDs from Rhino), distinguishes itself with the inclusion of outtakes and live recordings. Neil Young’s tour of the tapes has yielded “Live at the Fillmore East” (Reprise), a concert recording with Crazy Horse from 1970. And Mosaic, the fine mail-order/Internet-only jazz reissue label, has assembled the seven-CD, 173-track “Duke Ellington: 1936-40 Small Group Sessions.”

Partridge’s albums were released individually although the idea of a boxed set was one he had at the start. In fact, Partridge also worked on two discs worth of songs by his XTC partner Colin Moulding, which would have made it a 10-disc set. Moulding pulled out when he didn’t feel comfortable exposing the songwriting process.

Partridge, who has released the set on his Ape House label, started a year before the first disc was released in 2002. He created a chart and listed the songs he had on tape, the condition they were in and who owned the copyright. From there, he went about cleaning the recordings, finishing vocals and, on nearly half the 152 songs, remixed the recording.

The idea, he notes, was to make a little film out of each so that the discs had a dynamic flow.

“You don’t want to do it chronologically because that doesn’t make for a great banquet,” he notes. “All the better recorded stuff goes to one end and the other side is (lousy) cassette recordings. It would be like starting a feast with a great appetizer and ending with some cheap meat from Bulgaria.”

It’s not the easiest box set to listen to as there are no truly finished recordings and nothing that displays the grandness of such Partridge-composed XTC hits such as “The Mayor of Simpleton” or “Another Satellite.”

“This is a good deck cleaning,” Partridge says as he starts a listing of the reasons for the project. “I thought why am I being stupid and holding onto bad copies of these songs when bootleggers are selling 10th generation cassette versions. I’ll bootleg myself better than anyone else. People have been asking for material. I’ll actually make some money because it’s my own label and I won’t rip myself off. And it feels good to get rid of the past, to make a nice bonfire of your past.”

The first step into the future arrives in January when Ape Net releases the first disc from Partridge’s band Monstrance. Made up of Partridge and two former members of Shriekback — keyboardist Barry Andrews, who left XTC in 1978, and drummer Martyn Barker — the trio went into a studio in March at a university in Partridge’s hometown of Swindon, about two hours west of London.

They went in with no songs, no keys and not even “a feel” for the music they wanted to create. After three sessions, they had about eight hours of instrumental music; it has been turned into an 80-minute two-CD set. Partridge describes the music noisy in parts, a little out and sometimes very pretty. “In places you expect Miles Davis to step up and play.”

Jazz and XTC are two words rarely heard in the same sentence but Partridge owes his musical upbringing to the Beatles and Kinks and their heirs and improvisational jazz masters of the 1960s — John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler. (He was also a fan of Captain Beefheart, Steve Reich and Pierre Schaffer’s musique concrete movement.)

“I was a split rail,” he says, “torn between these styles. You can hear that in the writing as its never truly straight pop or rock music.”

Rather fearless for a man who won’t tour because he can’t cope with flying and doesn’t perform live because of uncontrollable stage fright. XTC has not performed live since a San Diego show in April 1982 and Partridge doesn’t see that changing.

“If somebody said at the time of ‘Drums and Wires’ (the influential XTC gem from 1979) how many more records will you make, I would have figured I have no more than two albums worth of music in me. Dozens of albums later … So I’m prepared to be surprised.

“I don’t think it would be in the same capacity (as the front man for XTC). That was a nervous 24-year-old. I’m a little too sultan of Araby now. Maybe it will happen in a different way, maybe with Monstrance.”

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