Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise

By David D. Duncan

JULY 10, 2000: 

XTC Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (TVT/Idea)

After a seven-year dry spell (enforced by their previous label, the tarnished Virgin Records) following the 1992 classic Nonsuch, XTC have returned to the musical marketplace with their third studio effort in a little over a year, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2).

Apple Venus Volume 1 finally appeared in February 1999, to widespread critical acclaim, but non-stellar sales. Part of the problem with Apple Venus Volume 1 was that it focused almost exclusively on the "pastoral" side of XTC, with lush string arrangements and predominantly acoustic-based songs. And while it was a solid effort (with winners like "I'd Like That" and the devastating "Your Dictionary"), and though it was certainly refreshing to hear from XTC after such a long hiatus, true fans yearned for the lush electric pop that put XTC on the map here in the States.

A respectable stop-gap collection of Apple Venus Volume 1 demos titled Homespun was released last fall, mainly for the rabid fans who were starved for any new XTC, even skeletal in-progress versions of songs. Despite the missing years having taken their toll on the band through label servitude, broken relationships, and general malaise, XTC sounded as fresh as they ever were.

During the '90s dry-spell, longtime member Dave Gregory bailed out, effectively leaving XTC as a studio duo composed of stalwarts Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. And although Gregory's contributions to the band are sorely missed, there's no doubt that XTC will carry on strongly without him.

The proof is usually found in the pudding, and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) emerges as a tasty dish. Partridge indicates that the record was originally intended to be the second part of a two-disc set, but economics and deadlines forced them to be released separately. So consider Wasp Star the true return to form, elevating XTC back to the top of the heap in producing clever, melodic pure pop songs.

XTC hits the ground running on Wasp Star with "Playground," a peppy Partridge excursion into the often-cruel world using the analogy that reality begins creeping into human sensibilities via often-cruel children. There's also a delightful slice of Partridge nepotism -- having his daughter, Holly, sing background vocals (remember her from "Holly Up On Poppy" from Nonsuch?).

"Stupidly Happy" stands out as the giddy love song Partridge intended it to be. After a particularly messy divorce, randy Andy P. found a new love to sing about, and it's a charming piece, clearly full of optimism. The first of three Colin Moulding songs is next (the ratio usually being around four Partridge songs for every one of Moulding's, a percentage that's always worked perfectly for the team). Colin Moulding's contributions are usually a little more somber and grounded, and the three on Wasp Star ("In Another Life," "Boarded Up," and his best effort, "Standing In For Joe") are welcome counterpoints to Partridge's more-hyper approach. A perfect example of Partridge's pumped-up pop is the potential single, "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love" (a prime leftover from Nonsuch, in a "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead" vein). There's simply not an inferior song on Wasp Star (with "My Brown Guitar" and "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful" being other notable standouts).

Partridge's notorious aversion to touring and performing live isn't likely to change anytime soon, but with music as wonderful as the tunes contained on Wasp Star, he should be clearly absolved for failing to plug into the dinosaur rock star mentality.

What XTC excels at (outside of not sacrificing their working-class Swindon roots to be pretentious artsy-fartsy types) is injecting the element of pure whimsy into their melodic music. That's something those lively limeys have always been better at than their Yank counterparts, whose wry attempts usually wind up in the range of groaning stupidity.

Partridge has always worn his mainly British musical influences on his sleeve (the Move, Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, Captain Beefheart, and most notably, the Kinks), but instead of slavishly trying to ape their best bits, he's always modified their melodies and wordplay in his own guts, resulting in a new pop monster for our modern times.

Clearly a man in love with the process of making records, Partridge sounds like Wasp Star is the most fun he's had in quite a while. Long may XTC continue without undue interference, and let's hope the next one finds them still at the top of their form.

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