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coverpic flag England - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 30 - 03/31/99

Apple Venus Volume 1
Cooking Vinyl/Idea Records

Our favourite pop orchestra of the 1980s and early 90s is finally back. Not long ago a 4 CD box of sessions and live recordings for the BBC from 1977-89 (Transistor Blast - The Best of the BBC Sessions) saw the light of day. Also, at last they were freed from the contract with Virgin and recordings of new songs could continue after a 6-7 years long sit-down strike. Now they've found refuge at Cooking Vinyl (along with another old favourite of ours here at the Luna K. headquarters - Pere Ubu).

Dave Gregory left the band during the recording of Apple Venus, which means that by now there are but two XTCers left: tunesmiths and lyricists Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Because of Dave's departure, Mike Batt was hired to deliver the orchestral arrangements. The orchestration adds a fresh new touch to the album along with the crisp production. It's very delicate, the details stand out, just listen to the first seconds of the opening track River Of Orchids. Otherwise the songs sound very much the way they ought to do, with most of the XTC characteristics we've learned to appreciate during the last, say, 20 years. The rock elements are nearly absent here, and pure pop songs flower with melodies and hooks that you (well, at least I) never seem to get fed up with no matter how many times you play them - or whistle them on your afternoon stroll in the park. The second volume of Apple Venus is supposed to be rougher, with less orchestration, by the way. The lyrics are probably still original reflections on small events of the world, not only on the domestic side. There's no lyrics printed on the sleeve, which is a shame and makes it hard to catch all the words at least for a non-native English speaking person like me. No doubt Andy Partridge has had a rough divorce since we last heard from him. You need go no further than Your Dictionary. Some of the other songs also include scars and wounds, I am guessing, despite the seemingly optimistic surface. Let's hope he manages to sort out his life and doesn't end up as a bitter and lonely man in the living room of his Swindon Old Town home. The world needs more merry eccentrics of the Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding kind!

So far Apple Venus doesn't quite match the level of its predecessor Nonsuch in my humble opinion. But the comparison is unfair. Nonsuch is probably my all-time favourite XTC album, and has been growing for almost seven years. Apple Venus has only been around for a month by now, and will surely keep growing for years to come, especially now that I've just found the lyrics on the XTC Chalkhills site. So far a few of the songs seem to be somewhat,, anonymous. At this stage tracks like I'd Like That (dreams of better days), Knights In Shining Karma (XTC as beautiful, quiet and relaxed as can be), Fruit Nut (the merry eccentric in his English back garden) and I Can't Own Her (a heavily orchestrated bitter pill in the worst American or Lloyd Webberian musical style, which somehow works, probably because of the voices) stand out. And of course Easter Theatre - a homage to spring - is great and very appropriate at the time of writing. Let's pray Andy and Colin keep their muses alive & kicking and keep recording as XTC for years and years to come!

Copyright © 1999 JP

Aah - XTC! 7 years has passed since this gloriously English band made their pleasant Nonsuch album, and I for one was quite excited by the fact that they were doing a comeback this year. 7 years and a lot of trouble for the persons involved, we are told. Their contract with Virgin Records had been broken, long time member Dave Gregory had left the band during the recording sessions, and with Andy Partridge's marriage down the drain, XTC should be back with a vengeance.

So, what do we get, then? The opening track River of Orchids is not a opening track to gain more friends, but rather XTC's way of saying: We're back, and we've changed! Starting off with something sounding like drips from stalactite (recorded in their hiding place of the early nineties, perhaps?), pizzicato strings, intricate horn arrangements and finally Andy Partridge's voice at its most forced. I am not convinced. Hmm.... Sound quality is great, though.

I'd Like That is a step in the right direction, this is a more "typical" XTC song, and the four seconds of Jeff Lynnish keyboards coming in at 1:53 (making a lot of the music journalists go: This record sounds just like an ELO record - which is bullshit of course) are quite charming. My spirit is further lifted on track three, Easter Theatre. Ignorants hearing strings like this in the nineties, compare this with the music of Brian Wilson in the sixties. Nonsense. On this track XTC make an attempt to demonstrate how string arrangements can be (and should be) done. A mini symphony with a guitar solo lifted straight from Pilot (the Scots)! Compare the string arrangements on this album to the dilettantism of, say, John Paul Jones on REM's Automatic For The People (which he was greeted for (!)), and be convinced! But is it real strings or keyboards?

Knight In Shining Karma is Andy Partridge doing his Paul McCartney chord change progression, again delightfully arranged again. Could have been an out-take from Skylarking, their 13 year old masterpiece, to which Apple Venus volume 1 has been compared. Colin Mouldings first attempt on this album is Frivolous Tonight, and it is with great sadness I have to say that this is the least interesting track on the record. Sounding like The Red Curtain (his alter ego in the Dukes of Stratosphere days) doing a Rutles cover, this is just parodic. Eastern-sounding Greenman, arranged by Mike Batt (English airy-ballad-maker, the composer of Bright Eyes, which was yodeled to the chart-tops by Art 'King of Brylcreme' Garfunkel - editor's note) and Your Dictionary (his much-mentioned attack on his ex-wife), I Can't Own Her, are three songs where Andy Partridge shows strong songwriting skills, but I feel that something is still missing. Fruit Nut, Colin Moulding's second contribution, is slightly better than his first, but where is the songwriter of Making Plans For Nigel, Ten Feet Tall, Fly On The Wall, etc.?

With I Can't Own Her and Harvest Festival, the two other highlights here, we are back in Skylarking-land. Again strong, near-bombastic arrangements (the latter including slightly out-of-tune recorders probably played by an un-credited Roy Wood) and Andy Partridge's ear for good SONGS. The slowest song of the album, The Last Balloon closes the record, and I am starting to long for some real rock'n'roll (and, it must be said, Andy Partridge's voice is beginning to get a little, you know, tiresome...).

After seven years of silence, Apple Venus delivers 50 minutes of music spread over 11 songs, but I am not quite convinced. It is great to have them with us again, and OK, it is their best record since Skylarking, but I think we should be permitted to expect more after so many years. Volume 2 (a collection of rockier stuff, I am told) is to be released later this year. It could be the redemption we were hoping for.

Copyright © 1999 Pingo e-mail address

You may also want to check out our XTC articles/reviews: A Coat of Many Cupboards, Black Sea, Skylarking - 30th Anniversary Definitive Edition, Skylarking.

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