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Ye Olde XTC Swings

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Valerie Phillips

Knights in Shining Karma: Literate lyrics and hummable tunes make 'Apple Venus' a must for people who don't care to be on the cutting edge.

Beatlesesque 'Apple Venus, Vol. 1' is worth the seven-year wait

By Gina Arnold

EVER SINCE Picasso discredited the idea of conventional beauty as the supreme achievement, mere prettiness has been frowned upon in the modern arts. In painting, that act led to Cubism, modernism and, eventually, Damien Hirst. In music, it means that dissonance rules. Melody is considered sentimental, conventional and totally old hat--the moral equivalent of Velvet Elvii.

This stricture explains the 20th-century critical predominance of genres like jazz, techno, hip-hop, punk and tune-free rock bands like Korn and Rage Against the Machine. There are still, however, many doltish listeners who prefer their music to be hummable as well as cutting edge, and for us, happily, there is XTC.

An early New Wave band with punk-rock overtones, XTC has evolved over the last two decades into one of the quirkier bands of the period. It manages to blend classical instrumentation, catchy tunefulness and a jolly rhyme scheme without ever stooping to the degraded level that such combinations so often imply. Though hardly a household word (due in part to the band's refusal to play live), XTC enjoys a cult following so intense that advance copies of its much-anticipated new album were allegedly selling for over $200 on Ebay.

XTC is also the blueprint for a whole host of Britpop bands. Blur, Pulp and Oasis owe almost everything they have to XTC's early-'80s update of Beatlesesque music and literate, highly Anglophiliac lyrics. XTC is responsible for two megahits, "Dear God" and "The Mayor of Simpleton," both of which are classics in the "questioning God" school of songwriting. "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" is also a wonderful Jesus parable that touches on the stupidity of politicians.

Apple Venus, Vol. 1 (TVT Records), XTC's 11th album, boasts nothing quite as pithy, but its songs are as tuneful and literate as one might hope from a project that was seven years in the making. (The band's been held up in the studio by contractual problems, which explains why they have so much excess material: Vol. 2 is expected later in the year.)

Apple Venus starts out with what's almost a loser, "River of Orchids," which uses classical music concepts like contrapuntality and syncopated horns and violins for a sound that's far too esoteric for real pleasure. But from then on, it's clear sailing through the heady harmonies and lovely landscape of Andy Partridge's nutty-but-nice mentality.

Britpoppers like Blur and Pulp often write about suburban English home lives in a rather wry and critical way. Apple Venus is also about England's green and pleasant land, but not in such a negative vein as, say, "A Different Class." The album's real topic is domesticity--and the joys and vicissitudes thereof.

Partridge writes about simple things like bicycling in the country without a mac (raincoat) and having a glass of stout in a pub, which might be considered a bit adult. Perhaps that's why this LP doesn't really rock out so much as it swells and heaves on aural waves of orchestral sounds, similar in feel to old-fashioned film soundtracks.

But Partridge's real strength is his use of language. No, wait--it's his melodies! No, I take that back, it's language. Well, anyway, he's adept at both, which is a rare combination in rock. Time and again, he truly rises above mere lyrical cleverness and makes his words count.

"I'd Like That," for example, uses a series of bizarrely clean metaphors for sex and romance. "I'd be your Nelson if you'd be my Hamilton," Partridge sings, then, after a line about boating, adds, "each stroke would make me grow up really high, really high, like a really high thing--say a sunflower."

"Frivolous Tonight"--the "Penny Lane" of Apple Venus--is a seemingly gentle song about the difference between the sexes that has a bit of an edge: "Let's reveal our childlike nature and leave our stocks and invoices to rot ... let's go to pot!/Tell our jokes about mothers-in-law, but watch us jump when she comes through the door!"

"Knights in Shining Karma" and "The Green Man" are folk-art relics, half "ye olde England," half swinging London. The latter begins with a tuba opening reminiscent of "Peter and the Wolf," then segues into a Middle Eastern pattern played on violin. "I Can't Own Her" sounds like the theme to a '50s musical, and is probably the most straightforward love song that Partridge has ever written.

PARTRIDGE is oft accused of being a bit too Beatles-damaged. But although here he sometimes inevitably evokes Sgt. Pepper's and the second side of Yellow Submarine, he is not half as derivative as Oasis or the Verve. This is partly because his voice is so distinctively nasal; it doesn't remind one of either John, Paul, George or Ringo.

In the past, his music did sometimes evoke the smarmy uxoriousness of late Lennon and McCartney, but here that tendency is gone, particularly on "Your Dictionary," which is about his own divorce. The song is one of those spell-check specials, like Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" or the Pixies' "Velouria," and doesn't quite work. "S-H-I-T/Is that how you spell 'me' in your dictionary?" Partridge asks, and so on, but the song's inherent nastiness just doesn't suit the jaunty musical atmosphere that Partridge habitually surrounds himself with.

In fact, despite its long gestation period, Apple Venus doesn't quite achieve the lyrical or musical heights of XTC's greatest moments. One can't help but think that Partridge is holding something back--perhaps for Vol. 2. But thanks to the album's intricate and unusual instrumentation, Apple Venus is a very great pleasure to listen to, and a must-own LP for Anglophiles who love the Kinks, Robyn Hitchcock and the Beatles.

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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