XTC: Apple Venus (Volume 1)
by George Graham
(TVT Records 3250 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/28/99)
In considering music, one generally thinks of a scale which runs from lightweight pop on the one hand to serious more difficult to fathom music on the other. Usually one does not associate melodic pop with more profound art, but the seeming oxymoron of creative, artistic pop has had some notable practitioners, most famously the Beatles, whose music was very appealing on its surface, but always had some interesting and creative aspect, which became more profound as the band progressed.
For quite a few years now, the epitome of "art pop" has been the British band XTC, who have just released their first album in seven years, called Apple Venus, Volume 1.
The core of XTC was formed in 1976 in Swindon, England where they remain to this day. Songwriters and guitarists Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, along with drummer Terry Chambers formed a group called Star Park. The time was just at the beginning of the punk rock movement, and the group became absorbed in the style, changing their name to the Helium Kidz, and finally to XTC in time for their first release, an EP in 1977. They followed with a succession of albums that soon moved away from punk and into a highly original brand of catchy pop but always with some twist -- herky-jerky rhythms, acerbic lyrics, and all manner of unexpected influences. Among their creative milestones were the brilliant English Settlement in 1982 and Skylarking in 1986. Throughout most of the group's existence, the third principal member was guitarist Dave Gregory.
Like the Beatles, XTC retired from touring, with Partridge suffering from severe bouts of stage fright, and a nervous breakdown at one time. Since then they have been holed up in Swindon devoting their energies to the occasional album project.
Apple Venus turned out to be an especially difficult project for XTC. The were essentially immobilized by a contract dispute with their record label that kept them out of the studio for years. They also fired their manager. Partridge and Moulding kept writing songs, though, and when they finally were able to get back into the studio, more difficulties arose, including an unpleasant divorce for Partridge, then a severe middle ear infection that burst Partridge's eardrum and left him deaf for a while. Then during the making of the album, Gregory decided to leave the group, after being with XTC for nearly 20 years. Apparently attempting to finance this album on their own, Partridge and Moulding ran out of money and ended up recording part of it in Moulding's living room.
Because they had so much material built up in their long hiatus between albums, they originally intended their new effort to be a double CD, but the scaled back their plans, after the budget problems, and decided to release two separate albums, thus the name Apple Venus Volume 1. The group, especially Partridge, also decided to try some new directions, going for a more acoustic, and even orchestral sound, which Partridge calls "orch-oustic." The pieces in that vein were put on Apple Venus Volume 1, with more the electric rock material to follow on Volume 2, when they get are able to get back into the studio.
When a group has such a long period between albums, one does not know what to expect -- either something that shows they got rusty, or an effort that demonstrates the time was put to good use. XTC's new release is certainly in the latter category. Having done so much writing in the intervening time -- 42 songs, according to Partridge -- they had a chance to edit the material, disposing of second tier songs, and working on the arrangements of the ones they chose. Though Apple Venus Volume 1 is a sonic departure for XTC, it stands as one of their best releases. The songs show all the brilliance Partridge and Moulding are so well-known for, both melodically and lyrically, and this time it features an interesting palette of musical colors. Around the time of their last album Nonesuch, Partridge got himself a sampling keyboard with various orchestral sounds, and became enamored with them, and said at the same time that he was getting bored with electric guitar. For Apple Venus there is a combination of a few apparent sampled sounds, but most of the orchestral instruments are real, including quirky string and woodwind arrangements by Mike Batt.
Dave Gregory is still heard on the album, playing both guitar and keyboards. The drummer is Prairie Prince, who was part of the San Francisco band The Tubes back in the 1970s, but there are several drumless tracks. Like most XTC albums, the lion's share of the material comes from the pen of Partridge. The group holds true to its philosophy of melodic pop with twists, and the instrumentation provides surprises even for the band's long-time fans.
Leading off is the multi-hued River of Orchids, in which a motif is dripping water which opens and closes the piece. <<>> Then the group gets into something that is somewhere between classic XTC and the minimalist music of Philip Glass, with circular melodic lines that revolve and seem to fold in on themselves. The piece is pretty ambitious, even by XTC standards, and is a highlight of this thoroughly interesting album. <<>>
The more acoustic pop facet of the album comes out on I'd Like That, a kind of pastoral love song, with hints of the Beatles and a trail of influences that runs as far back as English Music Hall. <<>>
Another of the orchestral tracks is Easter Theatre, one of two seasonal songs. This one is set in the spring, and again borrows some of XTC's long-running 60s psychedelic-era influence along with a kind of maturity and musical depth that shows this already brilliant band at a new level. <<>>
One of Colin Moulding's two songs on the album is called Frivolous Tonight, a clever set of lyrics about just wanting to make small talk and avoid the bigger issues. It's the kind of tune that shows how stalwartly British XTC remain, with more hints of the Beatles. <<>>
Perhaps the most laid-back piece on this un-rocky album is Knights in Shining Karma which is more or less a lullaby. <<>>
Another of the more musically interesting tracks is Greenman, which is imbued with a vaguely Middle Eastern quality, along with creative use of the orchestra. <<>>
Moulding's other composition on the CD is Fruit Man another typically English piece, whose lyrics are about one of those classic British benign eccentrics. <<>>
The seasonal companion to the spring song Easter Theatre is Harvest Festival, whose lyrics are about love in a school function. In the context of a really interesting album, this is one of the less memorable tracks. <<>>
The album ends with one of its more curious and experimental pieces, The Last Balloon. With its constantly shifting colors and dissonance, it is reminiscent of some of the music of the fabled British art rock band Gentle Giant. <<>>
XTC's new album Apple Venus Volume 1 was a long time in coming, appearing seven years after their last release Nonesuch. After weathering a lot of difficulties, from the departure of long-time member Dave Gregory to a legal imbroglio to the heath problems of Andy Partridge, this always-interesting band has released one of its most fascinating albums yet. XTC has pretty much defined the concept of art pop, clever melodic music that's outwardly appealing but soon reveals surprises and considerable depth. And this album shows another facet of their style, along with a degree of maturity and even greater subtlety than their previous efforts. For many fans of this reclusive group, now essentially down to a duo, XTC hit their pinnacle on the English Settlement and Skylarking albums during the 1980s. But Apple Venus is on the par with those, though it marks a significant musical departure.
Sonically, the album is generally well recorded and mixed. The recording has a quality reminiscent of the Beatles' latter albums, with whimsical sonic touches like sound effects and extreme stereo panning. The sound is also heavily compressed, which is a trademark of British pop, but a bit more dynamic range on this CD would have been appreciated given this album's range of musical colors.
XTC has long been one of the cleverest bands in British pop music. Now they are back, the result is an album that for me is an instant classic.
This is George Graham.
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