Apple Venus Volume I

XTC

TVT Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Dan Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/31/1999

XTC, perhaps the most intelligent and eclectic of the New Wave combos that emerged from Britain in the late 1970's, has returned from a seven-year absence from the pop music scene with Apple Venus Volume I, released earlier this year. After releasing the critically acclaimed Nonsuch in 1992, XTC fell out with label Virgin Records and a five-year stretch of court skirmishes began.

Finally released from their Virgin contract, XTC entered the studio to record the tracks that would become Apple Venus. Guitarist/bandleader Andy Partridge recently explained that the band has written and ready to go some 40 tracks and originally wished to release a two-disc set to celebrate their comeback. Financial problems doomed this idea, and so XTC split up the tunes - half "orchoustic" (a mix of orchestral and acoustic sounds) and half rockers more reminscent of the group's 1980's output.

Apple Venus Volume I represents the "orchoustic" side of the group (presently composed of guitarist/vocalist Partridge and bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding--multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory left the group during the album's recording) and consists of eleven highly eclectic, catchy, and inventive tunes.

True to form, XTC's lyrics celebrate nature and are packed with as many gardening metaphors, fruit references, and hints of English folk themes as possible. "River Of Orchids", for example, with it's priceless lyrical hook "push your car from the road," builds from staccato bursts of strings and brass to a lovely Beatle-esque delivery from Partridge. Featuring a middle section reminscent of the vocal fugue in Gentle Giant's "On Reflection", "River of Orchids" gives the listener a glimpse of the new XTC -orchestral, majestic, owing a much greater debt to the Beatles, Beach Boys, and even Yes than to their harder-rocking roots.nbtc__dv_250

The first two singles from the LP, "I'd Like That" and "Easter Theatre" follow, the former a catchy acoustic bit which reminds me a lot of the Beatles' "Two of Us" (with a sly tip of the hat to David Bowie's "Golden Years" in the backing vocals?). "Easter Theatre" is the best track on the record, another rustic-themed track with excellent vocal interplay and neat crescendos leading into the chorus. "Knights In Shining Karma" follows, another soft ballad that fails to match the brilliance of the first three songs.

A respite then emerges, with Moulding's "Frivolous Tonight", a song about embracing the mundane framed with delightful piano/orchestra backing (instrumentally similar to REM's "At My Most Beautiful") and a clear reference to the songs of old musicals (Partridge has cited West Side Story as a big influence on the songwriting on Apple Venus). While not the most lyrically portentious song on the album, "Frivolous Tonight" is one of those songs that is just ridiculously pleasant and a guilty pleasure for even a jaded listener like Your Humble Narrator.

"Green Man" follows, an expansive track that utilizes the orchestra with greater success than any other song on the album. It just feels "big", that's the only description I can give! A lot of the songs on Apple Venus are about love, but "Your Dictionary" describes a more pessimistic viewpoint (the lyrics are obviously a pointed barb directed at Partridge's ex-wife). The first two-thirds of the cut are excellent, but frankly I find the coda (with its triumphant vocal conclusion "and let the marriage...be...undone!") silly; it breaks the fragile illusion the beginning parts create.

"Fruit Nut" is Moulding's other contribution, a paean to his gardening fetish/hobby/obsession. Not nearly as sparkling as "Frivolous Tonight", "Fruit Nut" is still a good catchy tune. "Harvest Festival" is the final truly excellent cut on the album, a tale about young love tied into pagan and pastoral imagery. Once again, XTC exhibits incredible orchestra/group interplay in this final triumphant tune.

The last song is called "The Last Balloon", and for me is the weakest (and ironically also the longest) track on the album.

However, the first ten tracks on this record (with a few quibbles here and there) present a unique brand of late 60's Beatle-esque orchestral pop combined with XTC's trademark '80s sound. The best album of the year I've heard, so far.

Rating: B

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© 1999 Dan Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of TVT Records, and is used for informational purposes only.