The 3 Clubmen EP is one of the most exceptional set of tracks you are likely hear this year. There are complicated elements working like duck legs under the surface but they coalesce above the waterline to make sublimely intelligent pop tunes.
Andy Partridge (XTC) and Stu Rowe (Future Sounds of London) met during the recording of Monstrance, Andy’s 2007 improvised record with Martyn Baker and Barry Andrews. They remained friends, playing with ideas in Stu’s Swindon studio and working on releases for Andy’s Ape Records label. Jen Olive sent a cassette of her music to Ape from her home in Albuquerque, which led Andy to sign her to his label, as well as mix and arrange her 2010 release Warm Robot.
The 3 Clubmen project has been 10 years in the making. A side-hustle that was born out of tracks Stu had been working on with Andy that were also sent to Jen in America. Jen came over to Swindon and played some gigs with Stu, and at the same time, they all recorded together before she returned home. This massive jigsaw of fragments and improvisations sat on hard drives and Stu would occasionally tinker with them, discuss ideas with Andy and Jen, and put pieces together to see how they fit. From time-to-time, when he played these sketches from Frankenstein’s songbook to someone, they would light up and exclaim “you should finish that!”. COVID restrictions meant an opportunity for Stu to get all the musical Meccano pieces out and finish the four tracks on this EP.
‘Aviatrix’ was the first to be completed. It’s built around Andy’s subconscious reworking of the 1900 song ‘Shortnin Bread’ (also used as part of the tune on XTC’s 2001 track ‘Meccanik Dancing’). In my review of its single release I said that the divine vocals are held aloft by buoyant guitar lines, drums that dance around like the murmuration of starlings and flutes as a call and response with the dawn chorus. Over the top are the delicious tandem vocals of Andy Partridge and Jen Olive meshing together at a quantum level and dancing like excited atoms.
‘Racecar’ sits on a layer of crunchy dissonance from guitar chords that would need a Rosetta stone to decipher as they collide, swirl and all vie for position as if they are the race cars with Jen’s tune flying overhead like an airship. In the way that The Beatles used the studio to add gloriously bonkers elements, so the Clubmen have added sliding strings, upright piano, a fairground mid-section and a fabulous lounge-singer coda.
‘Green Green Grasshopper’ has the most XTC-DNA, but Jen Olive’s eastern-scale vocal lines take it to another level, twisting like ribbons in a gymnastics tournament. The song is transformed from a captivating walk across blades of grass to a stratospheric leap into a cloudless blue sky. Andy Partridge is a master at layering vocals and he has met his vocal twin in Jen Olive who has a preternatural ability to meld multiple voices. As Stu Rowe says in Joyzine’s 3 Clubmen Interview “The first thing Jen ever sent back was 35 vocal parts for “Up on Hi”. It was a one-woman Disney chorus.”
‘Look At Those Stars’ starts like the theme song to a 50s sitcom, a muted shuffle with glockenspiel that gives off Hawai’ian vibes before bursting out of the TV into the most uplifting cinemascope chorus. It’s a luau for the soul with time-stopping harmonies and a simple but profound message: you can be downhearted and blue but if you just look up at the stars, you’ll get some perspective. In a set of outstanding tracks this is the one I kept coming back to for my dopamine fix.
This EP will easily make my top five releases of this year. Artists of this calibre can make the complex sound effortless and craft songs that delight, challenge and ultimately put some much-needed joy out into the world. Fans of XTC, Andy’s solo work, Jen Olive or Stu Rowe will recognise their individual contributions, but the true joy of the Clubmen project is how cohesive the music is and how their combined talents have created an exciting new element on the musical periodic table; Clubmenium anyone?
NB: I gleaned some of the information for this review from Mark Fisher’s excellent show What Do You Call That Noise? The XTC Podcast which has been looking at all aspects of XTC for a few years now and also spawned a book of the same name as well as The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls. If there was a galactic XTC pub quiz you would want Mark Fisher on your team. He has conducted three forensic and fun interviews with each of the Clubmen (links below) which I can highly recommend listening to.
You can also read Joyzine’s interview with The 3 Clubmen here.
Andy Partridge – vocals, guitars, programming and production
Jen Olive – vocals and guitar
Stu Rowe – bass, guitars, keys, programming and production
Frank Abrams – flute and sax
Mikey Rowe – piano
Curtis Tweed – slide guitar
Andreas Rebhuhn – drums
‘Bangy’ – percussion
Mixed by The Encyclopedia Salesmen / Mastered by Jason Mitchell at Loud Mastering / Artwork by Carl Glover at Aleph Studio
Review by Paul F Cook
Bonus Fun facts:
Swindon is twinned with Salzgitter in Germany, Ocotal in Nicaragua and Torun in Poland.
Albuquerque’s ten ‘sister cities’ include Alburquerque in Spain, Chihuahua and Guadalajara in Mexico, Helmstedt in Germany, Lusaka in Zambia, and Sasebo in Japan.