“What do you call that noise that you put on?” asks Andy Partridge on XTC’s 1978 debut album. Answering his own question, Partridge, in what might be his most punkish moment ever, sneers, “This is pop!”
Spinning The Big Exercise, the second album by Dutch trio the Homesick, might prompt some listeners to ask Partridge’s question. Still, the answer would be the same: at the heart of the knotty, twisty-turny, sometimes noisy songs on The Big Exercise, this is pop. And, once you get used to it, you’ll find that it’s wildly inventive pop. It might not be conventional pop – it’s certainly not Justin Bieber pop or BTS pop, which, mind you, are just fine pop brands – but it’s pop just the same.
Getting used to The Big Exercise could be an issue though, at least at first. Like many great albums, The Big Exercise doesn’t reveal its secrets on first listen. Listening casually to the album might reveal nothing more than what seems like a complicated wall of noise, varying slightly from song to song. Open yourself up to The Big Exercise, though, and listen to it closer, and all the complexity begins to make sense, and favorite songs will emerge.
The Homesick open The Big Exercise with “What’s in Store”, clearly a candidate for the best-ever title for an opening song. Flowing water and a bed of acoustic guitars give “What’s in Store” a pastoral feel, though the song gets progressively more widescreen. The second track, “Children’s Day”, also features the initial water sound effect, but replaces the acoustics for power-chording electric guitars. Still, “Children’s Day” has a similar feel to “What’s in Store”, making it almost feel like the heavier conclusion to the opening track.
The third tune, “Pawing”, shakes things up, with its swirling keyboards, shifting tempos, and martial drumming. The driving album highlight “I Celebrate My Fantasy” follows. It is a suite-like song with lyrics describing a scary nighttime vision. “I Celebrate My Fantasy” brief, but ominous guitar-bass-drums intro evokes early 1980s dark new wave and showcases the musical interplay between band members Jaap van der Velde, Erik Woudwijk, and Elias Elgersma.
Gradually, though, keyboards and even a clarinet, enter the picture, contributing to the eerie atmosphere of the song. And, while this may just be a coincidence, the song’s chorus has a little bit of an XTC feel to it. “I Celebrate My Fantasy”, like much of The Big Exercise, puts a nifty 21st century spin on music that used to fall into genres/marketing terms like “prog rock” and “new wave”.
XTC isn’t the only possible influence that can be detected on The Big Exercise, though. The band members themselves note that they have been obsessed with Dolmen Music, the 1981 album by American composer Meredith Monk, and the album’s title is derived from a biography of avant-garde pop star Scott Walker. Plus, many of the songs on the album have an overactive Sufjan Stevens “Chicago”-style vibe to them.
All of this, plus the band’s musical attack and intricate vocal interplay, serve to make The Big Exercise a bit of a complicated listen, but only if you planned to listen to the album merely as pleasant background music. There is too much going on for The Big Exercise to be consigned to the background, and the album quickly demands that you either pay more attention to it or turn it off. If you like music that rewards the deep dive, it would be a mistake to turn off The Big Exercise. After all, this is pop.