XTC: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
by George Graham
(TVT Records 3260 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 05/03/2000)
Surely one of the most interesting bands to come out of the late 1970s punk and post-punk scene in England was XTC. In a nearly quarter-century career, the group has remained unique in their brand of I call "art-pop" -- sophisticated, often unexpected and quirky music that nevertheless has a very appealing pop quality, in the grand tradition of the Beatles. The group has just released their latest CD called Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2).
Formed in 1976 in Swindon England, where the principal members remain, XTC started out as a punk group called the Helium Kids, but after a while gravitated to what has become their always interesting sound replete with clever, unconventional lyrics, and often herky-jerky rhythms, all imbued with an undercurrent of classic English eccentricity. By the early- to mid-1980s, XTC had produced such masterpieces as English Settlement and Skylarking. And like the Beatles, XTC soon gave up touring to concentrate on occasional studio albums. Unlike the Fab Four, XTC's reason for retirement from the stage was principal songwriter Andy Partridge's chronic stage fright.
By the early 1990s, XTC had been immobilized by a contract dispute with their record company, which kept them from recording. But they continued writing and amassed over 40 songs during their seven-year recording hiatus. After going through such travails as firing their manager, a tough divorce for Partridge, and even an ear-infection that robbed Partridge of his hearing for a time, the group set to work on a new recording, doing it in part in a home studio, due to budget restrictions. Then during the making of their comeback album, Apple Venus Volume 1, 20-year member Dave Gregory decided to exit the group, leaving XTC, like Steely Dan, essentially a creative duo, in this case Partridge and Colin Moulding, with added studio musicians.
Apple Venus Volume 1, released just a year ago, marked a departure for XTC, with the group venturing into orchestral arrangements, albeit typically distinctive, and well-integrated into their always-interesting songs. Though perhaps a surprise to some of the group's fans, the record, with time, proved itself to be a brilliant effort, on the par with some the XTC's best. At the time of its release, Partridge and Moulding said that the project was intended as a double album, but budgetary considerations scaled it back to a single CD. They promised that there would be a "Volume 2," which was to be the outlet for the rockier songs that the group accumulated during the period they were kept away from the studio.
Now, right on schedule, and just as advertised, XTC have released Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), a collection of rockier, and in many ways simpler and more direct songs. It gets back to the more electric sound of XTC, but not without the group's trademark cleverness. The album definitely rocks, and most of the tracks are love songs in one way or another. There are fewer of the group's ventures into polyrhythms, but the compositions themselves are generally wonderfully constructed pop songs, with catchy melodic lines, and occasional shifts in direction that keep the music interesting, and usually taking it someplace you would not expect. And of course, both Partridge and Moulding continue to excel as lyricists, with some great turns of phrase, on this album sometimes dancing around the issue of sex.
Because this was intended as a more basic rock album, the arranagements on Wasp Star are not quite at the musically sophisticated level of Apple Venus Volume 1, but there are probably long-time fans of the group who might like this one better, just because of its rockier sound. The famous XTC cleverness is not much diminished on this CD, even when they re-visit some song topics they have previously dispatched.
For this album, Partridge and Moulding were joined by drummers Chuck Sabo and Prairie Prince, who used to be with the band The Tubes, who alternate between tracks. Producer and engineer Nick Davis played "the more complicated keyboard parts" and there are string and horn players who are heard from time to time.
Wasp Star leads off with Playground, a rocky song that revisits the subject of school-days. The Andy Partridge composition is typically well-honed, and with some adroit lyric lines. <<>>
XTC has been known for what sound like simple pop songs, taken to a much higher level than at first seems apparent. A good example is Stupidly Happy, which starts out with a rock groove that seems to go with the title. But the song soon builds into one of XTC's pop masterpieces. <<>>
One of three Colin Moulding compositions on the CD, In Another Life, is a bouncy, deceptively clever song fantasizing about what a pair of lovers could do if they had the means. <<>>
Another of Moulding's tunes is perhaps the most pessimistic song on this generally upbeat album. Boarded Up is about a dying town, with its entertainment venues being shuttered. <<>>
From the pen of Andy Partridge comes another of his pop tours de force, I'm the Man Who Murdered Love. It's an attractive piece with curious lyrics, whose main character feels he is making the world a happier place by eliminating love and the problems it can bring. <<>>
XTC are well-known for the off-center rhythms, sometimes with two beat structures superimposed. Wasp Star has less of that kind of thing, but they do try something rather unlike XTC: a song with a vague funky beat. We're All Light expounds on the Einsteinian idea of the interchangeability of matter and energy and turns it into another roundabout love song. <<>>
But just to assure us that XTC has gone not completely conventional rhythmically, there is You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful, which has all the classically quirky XTC trademarks. <<>>
The album ends with what amounts to being Wasp Star's magnum opus, a song called The Wheel and the Maypole, a multi-faceted work that epitomizes the concept of art pop, while its symbolic lyrics are subject to various interpretations, including those of let's say, a suggestive nature. <<>>
The veteran British band XTC's new release, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) fulfills a promise from the group a year ago, when their long-awaited Apple Venus Volume 1 was released, following a seven year hiatus between albums. Though the songs came from the same period as those of its predecessor, the new CD features the rockier side of the group, with lyrics that are more conventional in subject matter than on the previous album, and by design, represents the other face of XTC, after the sophisticated orchestral arrangements of Volume 1, But even when XTC supposedly "dumbs down," they are still two of the cleverest people in rock and pop.
Sonically, the album is recorded and mixed to be loud -- it is a rock album after all -- but given that intent, it still sounds rather pleasing, with a combination of a classic Beatles-style English studio approach and some hints of more contemporary elements. Producer and mix engineer Nick Davis did a first-class job.
XTC is one of those groups who has attracted a relatively small, but devoted and in many cases, patient following, who waited seven years before their last album. Now that they are back in the recording mode, only a year has elapsed, and they are out with another, intentionally different release. Among their fans, I guess one's opinion of this CD probably depends on the taste of the listener. Fans of rockier music will probably like this CD more than Apple Venus Volume 1. My taste goes the other way. I found last year's release to be one of their best ever. But Wasp Star is nothing to be ashamed of, and at its worst is still more creative and interesting than 99% of other rock and pop bands at their best.
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