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Genre: Pop Rock, Baroque Pop
Preceded by: Nonsuch (1992)
Followed by: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000)
Related to: not available yet
We’re only making plans for Nigel, we only want what’s best for him. We’re only making plans for Nigel, Nigel just needs this helping hand. You know the song, I knew the song. But only after some months of enjoying XTC’s Apple Venus Vol. 1 I discovered that that song came from a band with the same name. Of course I guessed that it must have been another obscure end seventies new wave band, as I was convinced that I had been listening to the official announcement of Brian Wilson’s Smile during my hot summer.
Swindon, South-West England, has a typical maritime climate, alternating mild winters with cool summers. So Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge, who were both raised there, must have been developing a thorough appreciation for those rare hot summer days that come around a year. The explosive peak of this process might maybe be heard on XTC’s 1986 album Skylarking. An album they could not even have imagined (I guess) 14 years earlier (at the age of 17 and 19 respectively), when they formed The Helium Kidz.
After Terry Chambers (1973) and Barry Andrews (1976) joined the band on drums and keyboard, they released their debut album White Music in 1978 as XTC. Later on that year Andrews left the band and was replaced by keyboardist/guitarist Dave Gregory, whose sixties oriented guitar playing resulted in a classic rock sound that can be heard on the third album, Drums and Wires, which contains the hit single mentioned above. While Nigel must have been happy in his life, Partridge wasn’t during the support tour of their fifth album in 1982. As he suffered from stage fright, he personally signed the end of the band’s touring history. But as four dudes from Liverpool had proven earlier, this doesn’t necessarily goes at the expense of the band’s sound.
This new studio band consisted of three members, after Chambers left one year later due to his migration to Australia and missing incomes from touring (not being a song writer). Somewhere in 1986 then, the band ran into the legendary Todd Rundgren, probably because he had produced The Band’s Stage Fright earlier. So not very surprisingly Rundgren (who was hired to launch a commercial comeback) and Partridge would clash frequently during the recording of Skylarking, an absolute pop gem. Although worth a review of its own, we travel on to 1999. XTC had released their last album in 1992, after which the band went on strike till 1998 as a result of a dispute with their record label. Again: this doesn’t necessarily goes at the expense of the band’s sound. With their own home-studios and on their own label, they started the Apple Venus project: bringing together the songs they had written during their break…
It must have been immediately clear for them that ‘River of Orchids’ had to kick off this ambitious project. Push your car from the road, walk into a forest and put on the album. What follows is a small pop opera about this beautiful world that would come to light if all roads were overgrown with flowers. A little dull and passé you might think, but even the greatest victims of today’s society might prefer walking into London on their hands instead of playing a consciousness killing game on the IPad after hearing the mind blowing, multi layered bird call from Partridge. This outstanding vocal performance is supported by some plucked cello’s at first, but when the orchids start growing and the concrete slowly disappears, all kinds of orchestral instruments are thrown in.
On ‘I’d Like That’ we run into somebody we would like to share this new world with. Less orchestration this time, but simply Partridge’s voice and an acoustic guitar, with a nice effort to introduce Paul McCartney in this idyllic scene. Talking about the Fab Four, on ‘Easter Theatre’ it even sounds like the entire Sgt. Peppers’ orchestra is with us now. Performing together with Partridge, whose vocals are again peaking here, it looks like they even deviate from the song during the chorus and start playing fragments of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. It’s alternated again with a very calm song, ‘Knights in Shining Karma’. It’s a slow ballad and in my opinion one of the least tracks on the album.
After four songs from Partridge it’s time for one of Moulding’s two songs (‘Frivolous Tonight’). Musically not as strong as the previous songs, especially because of the fact that Moulding’s voice doesn’t reach the same level as that of Partridge. However, a very recognizable song for guys who like to hang out in a pub now and then: talking about nonsense, drinking beer and telling jokes while they reveal their childlike nature. It is followed by the absolute highlight of the album: ‘Greenman’. For me it’s representative for and the midpoint of the whole album: the lyrics that describe a purist adoration for nature, the sophisticated vocals (Partridge), the richly orchestrated parts with a different instrument in every part of your ear,… But above all it’s the way the song develops during the song itself as well as the way it keeps developing while listening it over and over. Every time you hear it you’ll discover another interesting sound, another effect, another place to imagine.
‘Your Dictionary’ gives the album some variation again, as it’s another vocals + acoustic guitar song. However, it’s by far the most poppy one on the album, although it contains the most cynical lyrics of them all. This song about relational troubles is without many doubts based on Partridge’s own personal life and contains a beautiful piano part in the middle. ‘Fruit Nut’ is the other song that Moulding contributed to the album, which indicates more or less that he had a less creative seven years than his bandmate. But again, this one is kind of comical. It lyrically reminded me somehow of Brian Wilson’s ‘Vega-Tables’ but also musically, Smile (and its predecessors) is not far away.
We’re nearing the end of the album with the ninth track, ‘I Can’t Own Her’. Another intro with string arrangements here, with piano and harp joining subsequently. Good song (entirely dominated by the bombastic orchestrated parts), but no highlight. The last song that really stands out musically, is the penultimate track ‘Harvest Festival’. It’s built around (again) Partridge’s magnificent vocals (especially during the chorus) and Dave Gregory’s keys. Gregory by the way left the band during the recording of the album as he favored more guitar playing instead of all the orchestral instruments on the album. This of course made XTC in fact a two men project at that point. For us it’s also about time to leave, as ‘The Last Balloon’ is leaving. Although lyrically not bad at all, Partridge is looking one more time at this sad and materialistic world and decides to leave, it’s musically a little too elaborate in my opinion but you might disagree on that one.
So if there’s a Vol.1, there must have been a sequel, right? Although this is not always the case, there indeed was. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was released one year later (the original plan was to release them as one double album), and contained more (electric) guitar songs. Dependent on your taste you might prefer that one but in my view it doesn’t have the magic of Vol. 1, about which I once read in a review: ‘Apple Venus is unlikely to win XTC many new fans’. Well, this certainly wasn’t true for me and somehow I’m happy that this was my first acquaintance with the band. If only for the fact that I could not have been affected by the syndrome of thinking that an artists’ early work is pro definition better. Enjoy and dream away.