Release Date: 02.23.99
Record label: TVT Records
by: mark feldman
Jangly pop's best kept secret for over 20 years now, XTC are still around and still throwing curveballs at even its most devoted fans. Apple Venus is the band's first release of new material in almost 7 years, but picks up right where 1992's Nonesuch left off; band leaders Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge delve deeper into abstract psychedelia than ever before, this time leaning as much towards Andrew Lloyd Webber as the Beatles, at least in a few songs. "River of Orchids" leads off with a multi-layered orchestral production, complete with plucking cellos, slightly reminiscent of 1986's "1,000 Umbrellas" but even more extreme. "Easter Theatre" follows in the same vein, a lush piece about nature that XTC have become masters at in their latter years. "I Can't Own Her," a timeless ballad in the Money-Can't-You-Love vein, evokes images of a rich British fob kneeling upon a Broadway stage in broken-hearted agony. And "Frivolous Tonight" could be the comedic number in the same show ("Let's all explore our childlike nature"), a cockney rave-up in the grand music hall tradition.
But for all the pretentions hinted at, this is still very much the same XTC we all know and love. Angular melodies and complex vocal arrangements full of unexpected turns that only twisted geniuses such as Moulding and Partridge could think of. In fact, Apple Venus contains more acoustic guitar than any XTC album since the early '80s. "Knights in Shining Karma" may not make much sense but is a beautiful jazz-folk ballad. "Greenman" and "Fruit Nut" are the sort of imaginative countryish hoedowns that we all loved on older albums like "Mummer" and "The Big Express," the latter contains more hilarious puns and allusions to various fruit than one could possibly imagine. But "Your Dictionary" is lyrically the most interesting, a biting accusation at a former lover along the lines of "H-A-T-E / is that how you spell love in your dictionary?" This has all the elements of a classic single - a refrain that's easy to sing along to, and a message with mass appeal.
The great songwriters of the rock era all have one thing in common - they change musical styles radically throughout their career, yet have a distinct personality, often too difficult to put into words, that unifies even their most varied work. Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge have jumped all over the map stylistically, but always come back to what makes them unique, and "Apple Venus Volume One" is no exception. For example, "I'd Like That" is a simple sing-along that could have fit very well into 1982's masterpiece "English Settlement" but is far from retro; of course, this is because XTC's music has always been ahead of its time and transcended most, if not all of its contemporaries with an intelligence so rare in simple pop music. Volume Two, which will be released later this year, is allegedly more of a rocker, but this disc proves that violins, clarinets, pianos and acoustic guitars can rock too. Those of us who know good music when we hear it can make Apple Venus Volume One our newest guilty pleasure.