Wasp Star (Apple Venus Pt. 2)
TVT Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/15/2000
Many XTC fans throughout the years have moaned and groaned about the band's lack of commercial recognition. "If only Andy Partridge hadn't developed stagefright," they say, "they would've kept touring, and become as big as the Police. Instead, all XTC ever gets to be is a cult band, while their imitators like the Crash Test Dummies go multiplatinum."
But what those fans are forgetting is that most bands that become as big as the Police or the Crash Test Dummies either burn out in the fire of their success (like the Police) or fade away when the public moves on to the next flavor of the month (like the Crash Test Dummies). Meanwhile, XTC goes chugging along with more critically-acclaimed-but-commercially-ignored discs on independent labels.
I like it this way. Partridge and Colin Moulding (i.e., XTC) apparently don't at the moment, as they are trying their darnedest to break into the airwaves with a bunch of songs that (for the most part) sacrifice the expansiveness of more recent XTC in favor of some relatively straightforward lyrics, and the tight, spare, jangly-guitar based sound of much of their earlier work.
Moulding's "Standing In For Joe" is about as plain vanilla as XTC has ever been - a story of a man assigned to "take care" of his best friend's girlfriend while he's out of town, and what happens as a result (gee willakers, I didn't see that coming!) The fact that the melody bears an uncanny resemblance to Steely Dan's "Barrytown" doesn't help. "We're All Light," one of those we're-all-going-to-die-someday-so-give-me-a-kiss songs, doesn't do much for me either. Though it's cool to see XTC sound a bit more hip once in a while, they're way to intelligent to pull off the philosopher-as-seducer thing.
The singles "Wounded Horse" and "I'm The Man Who Murdered Love" sound more like XTC at least; the former a pokey (or perhaps a slowly galloping) messed-up ballad like "The Ugly Underneath," fitting every possible equestrian metaphor into the plight of a breakup victim, and the latter a power-rocker reminiscent of "Earn Enough For Us" whose title pretty much speaks for itself. But both are also relatively irony-free, sort of like XTC on a kids' menu.
The grownup songs, though, are as biting and unpredictable as they've ever been. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2) kicks off, in fact, with three immediate entries into the vintage XTC category, as far I'm concerned, and three entries which pretty much summarize the songwriting styles of Moulding and Partridge throughout the years. The gritty "Playground" would fit in well on Black Sea and contains the priceless line "You may leave school / but it never leaves you." Then the cute "Stupidly Happy," which does more with only one measure's worth of chords than just about any piece of music ever has, thanks to XTC's innate ability to pile layer upon layer of production without making a song sound overproduced in the slightest. And who but Andy Partridge would be able to think of a line like "If the Devil drove up with his business card I'd tear it into confetti?"
"In Another Life" completes this triad with the utmost elegance, combining elements of classic British / Irish folk with some almost-jazz-like musical themes, much like they did on Mummer. It also incorporates some of the cockney stylings of "Frivolous Tonight" from last year's Apple Venus CD, but with much more interesting lyrics - "I'll take your mood swings / you'll take my hobbies / it all works out in the end."
Coming a bit later is Moulding's "Boarded Up," an acoustic portrayal of a dying industrial town (could it be his own Swindon?), and one of the real highlights of the album. The fact that a band originally known for its high-energy craziness can handle a folk song with equal eloquence speaks volumes. The calypso-like romp "You And The Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful" is wonderful too - it sort of feels like the emotional pickup that Partridge needed in the more depressing sections of Oranges And Lemons and Nonsuch. Though coming after "Wounded Horse," it serves that purpose here as well.
So yes, Wasp Star does get a little watered down at times. But fortunately, this is not the norm for the album as a whole. Every XTC album (with the possible exception of Skylarking) has one or two clunkers anyway, and that's the price we pay for following a band that isn't afraid to go out on a limb. This is both a solid introduction to one of the most underappreciated songwriting tandems of the rock era for the uninitiated, and an album that is worthy of the XTC name for longtime fans.