Sydney Morning Herald Friday February 26, 1999 Metro, page 7
F E A T U R E     A L B U M S

Apple Venus Volume 1
* * * * *
Transistor Blast: The Best of
The BBC Sessions (4CD box)

(Cooking Vinyl/Festival)
* * * ½

Once in a blue moon, you hear a record that makes you think that everybody else is working in black and white, that you're watching something on a huge screen rather than the television you've become used to. Cue River of Orchids, opening track of Apple Venus Volume 1, the sumptuous feast that is the first XTC album for seven years. A 40-piece orchestra stutters, ebbs and flows, while Andy Partridge bleats in his best traffic-stopping voice: "I wanna see a river of orchids where there was a motorway." It's a daring piece which leaves you totally disarmed for the follow-up, the gorgeous giggle-eyed goo of I'd Like That, the kind of jaunty acoustic love song only Partridge would publish. The electric guitar is no longer the centre of XTC's soundings, so it's understandable that Dave Gregory, collaborator since 1979, has left the fold. Easter Theatre, with its mix of swirling mellotrons and orchestral instruments, pulls out all the psychedelic stops, a universe unfolding in four minutes. Knights In Shining Karma offers a glimpse of Simon and Garfunkel-like intimacy, then we're transferred to the first of Colin Moulding's vignettes. Frivolous Tonight tips a music-hall hat to an after-work pub gathering (shades also of Barrett-era Pink Floyd whimsy), while his second, Fruit Nut, ruminates on the backyard vegie patch.

There's something pagan about the symphonic folk of Greenman, the reek of centuries past. Tracks like Greenman, Harvest Festival, The Last Balloon and Easter Theatre thrive on association. They may evoke the smell of damp earth, time-old revelry or the feeling of a door closing on a life, and these starting points seem more vivid than any direct message. In contrast, I Can't Own Her goes directly for the heartstrings with its Pet Sounds chordings and Your Dictionary pulls no punches in an acoustic outpouring of post-relationship bile.

Transistor Blast is a curious beast, consisting of two discs of radio sessions from 1977-89 and two in-concert discs from '78-'79 and '80. On the studio discs, the nuts and bolts of late '80s tunes such as The Meeting Place and Poor Skeleton Steps Out become more apparent and the challenges of some of the tunes from English Settlement are met with aplomb. It's a random compilation where the similarity of these versions to the originals is at times a bit disappointing. The live discs sizzle.

Disc Three captures the original line-up with Barry Andrews providing organs every bit as epileptic as Partridge's guitars and barking vocals. Two things are of primary interest – the strong influence of reggae and ska on XTC's early repertoire, and the punk rawness with which songs that are far from easy to play are attacked.

Disc Four is from 1980, the Black Sea tour, a snapshot of that transition period where their punk/ska nerviness collided with the classic English pop of the Beatles and the Kinks – at warp speed, with white light energy.

◼ john encarnacao

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[Thanks to Wes Hanks and Graeme Wong See]