The Band: XTC The Album: Apple Venus Volume 1 The Label: TVT
Chalkhills TVT Records Idea Records

"8 out of 10! Triumphs with deep cleverness. XTC sound fresh and unwired."
SPIN, April '99

"Four stars! Beautiful. Plenty to cherish. XTC is back in a very big way."
Stereo Review's SOUND & VISION, Feb/Mar '99

"Astoundingly oblique and original. Prepare yourself for some heady vertigo."
INTERVIEW, February '99

"Apple Venus Volume 1 is impressive, even touching. XTC has done the string thing before, but never so often, or so well"
CMJ NEW MUSIC (Best New Music, March '99)

"XTC masterfully mines more "serious" compositional territory without forsaking the pop simplicity of their signature recordings. The subtle symphonic underpinnings illuminate the beauty of Andy Partridge's concise tunesmithing far better than any traditional rock arrangement could."
OUT, March '99

"The music of XTC has always been delightfully accessible and effervescent, equaling the best of the Beatles"
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, December 6, 1998

"XTC has delivered some of the most splendid, innovative music in pop history"
KANSAS CITY STAR, December 18, 1998

There aren't many rock bands that would return from a seven year hiatus with an orchestral album full of intensely personal songwriting. Then again, XTC have never strived to be like any other band. Over the years, they have gained a fastidiously loyal following by experimenting with idiosyncratic, jagged art-rock, mystical, melodious pop and trenchant, English folk-influenced music. And whether delving in dissonance or indulging in angelically soaring harmonies, XTC have always matched their innovative music with poignant, occasionally biting lyrics, exploring such topics as the horrors of war, the perils of the music industry and the absurdity of organized religion.

XTC's new orchestral album Apple Venus Volume 1 showcases a new, but instantly recognizable side of this eclectic, ambitious outfit. Starting with plucked violins, looping bass and water droplet sounds, "River of Orchids" spirals through a maze of syncopated horns and beautifully harmonized vocals, setting the perfect tone for the rest of the disc. "Easter Theatre" combines a dynamic string section with breathing keyboards and occasionally serpentine guitars, resulting in a sumptuously infectious track. And "Greenman" augments an Arabesque, shuffling rhythm with joyous flute trills and a colorful whirl of strings.

"I've wanted to work in an orchestral environment for a long time now," says frontman Andy Partridge. "Near the end of recording our last album Nonsuch, I bought a sampler with a lot of orchestral sounds, and I just couldn't stop messing with the thing. To be honest, I was getting really bored with the electric guitar. And these orchestral songs have almost a timeless feel to them. They sound like something that could have been written anytime in the last 200 years."

Of course, as is so often the case with complex projects, the conception was much simpler than its execution, which took a year of painstaking work. "It was an impossible album to make. There were so many stones strewn on the road. First, we were in the fridge for five years on strike with the last record company Virgin. Then we had a few false starts in the studio, and on top of that, I went through a very hurtful divorce and suffered several unpleasant health problems as well, including a horrible middle ear infection which blew out my eardrum. Then on top it of all, we ran low on money, and had to finish recording the album in (bassist) Colin Moulding's living room. But for all the setbacks, I think we've created one hell of a great album." In addition to the above setbacks, XTC was dealt a substantial blow half-way through recording, when longtime guitarist Dave Gregory abruptly quit the band. "It seemed quite sudden at the time, but I think he had been willing himself out of the group for the last few years," says Partridge. "There was a lot of anger welling up out of him, and I think he just wanted to make an album where he plugs in the wall and plays his guitar. We were both becoming really unhappy. It was good for everyone that he left."

Since XTC formed in Swindon, England in 1975, they've drawn influence from a wide range or artists including Captain Beefheart, Ray Davies, Charlie Parker and most notably the Beatles. But on Apple Venus Volume 1, Partridge digs further back into his collective pop consciousness than ever before. "The orchestral influences on this record don't really come from classics," says Partridge, "they come from show music, which is something I was exposed to at a very young age, and something I continue to enjoy. Musicals like South Pacific or West Side Story are so wonderful, and My Fair Lady is a fantastic record. There's not a bum song on it, and the arrangements are immaculate. When I was growing up as a kid, there was no such thing as rock radio. You mostly had light music, and 90 percent of that was show tunes. It wasn't until later that I was really exposed to the Beatles and other rock music."

Musically, Apple Venus Volume 1 is winsome and lively, expressing a rainbow of creativity through a diverse array of rhythms and arrangements, but lyrically some of the record is quite dark, expressing the emotional turmoil Partridge experienced throughout its creation. "There's a real mix of stuff," he says. "Something like 'I'd Like That' is very simple, but very joyous, whereas 'Your Dictionary' is simple, but very acidic. And 'I Can't Own Her' is about a real sweet and sour sensation I experienced where I had one woman leaving my life, and another woman coming in, and I realized I had no claim to either of them and how fragile the state of relationships is. You can't own somebody. People will bust your heart and delight you, but you have no control over any of it." Elsewhere, "The Last Balloon" is a contemplative portrayal of how children have so much to look forward to, but how so much of what's out there can harm them. "I actually had to really watch it because in the state I was in, I could have written a lot more really nasty songs, but I didn't want to do 'Songs for Swinging Divorcees' and I didn't want to do a gripey, moany record."

True XTC fans know that the band hasn't toured since 1982, when Partridge suffered nervous exhaustion onstage in Paris, and later suffered a nervous breakdown in California due to intense stage fright and continuous panic attacks. For those still wondering, Partridge emphatically states that he still has no interest in touring with XTC. "I find performance too related to show off mentality. I'm more interested in backroom boy thinking. I really don't get any thrill out of waving any part of my anatomy and saying, 'Hey look at me, aren't I great. Worship me." I'd much rather people went home with the album of their choice and just got into it on a personal level. In my opinion very little live music is really rewarding. A lot of the live situation is people getting off on the buzz of the mass audience or some very juvenile idea of hero worship. And I'm not into that at all." Fans that still have an insatiable craving for live XTC, however, can get their fill with the recently released box set Transistor Blast, which chronicles many of the group's BBC sessions from the late 1970s up to the late 1980s. "It's not a retrospective, but there's some pretty exciting stuff on there," says Partridge. "It's a historic document, really. We're nothing like that now, and a lot of it sounds very naive to me, but it's also very energetic and very sparky. Half of the set was done in BBC studios where you come in for the afternoon and you get four numbers to do, and you bang them out, and you can't over-worry about them like you did in the studio. Then there's two discs that were for a program called In Concert. The BBC would license a hall and you would get a half an hour show to broadcast live to England. And then the last disc is a real gig that the BBC happened to tape. It was a Christmas show in London, and it was very frenzied. I can't imagine doing that nowadays, but it was fun at the time. Overall, I think it's a great package."

And while XTC won't be hitting the road this year, they won't be lazing around either. Currently the band are hard at work recording the follow-up to Apple Venus Volume 1, appropriately called Apple Venus Volume 2. "When we began working on Apple Venus Volume 1, we had a choice of about 42 songs that were written between 1992 and 1996. Eventually, we whittled it down to 21 to work on, and it was originally going to be a double disc set, but finances and time became a premium, so we decided just to release all the orchestral stuff on the first record. Volume 2 will be much more basic, idiotic electric stuff that was written much later in the session. I think the orchestral thing was something I really wanted to do, but I think I've gotten it largely out of my system now. The songs on Volume 2 came when I was reaching out, and I said, 'Oh, where's that electric guitar. I haven't played this for a while." It's all this stuff that is sort of moronic and thrilling on a really basic level."

Although being "moronic" has never been a stated goal of XTC, the band have made a precedent of creating a wellspring of "thrilling" and unexpected material, and they continue the tradition of both Apple Venus volumes. "I don't want to befuddle people, but I do want to surprise them," concludes Partridge. "My favorite kind of art always maintains an element of surprise and delight. It's kind of like clockwork toys. You wind them up and step back, and then they do something a little bit unexpected, almost as if they have an animism of their own-a soul and a life that's more than just the sum of the clockwork. That's what I want XTC's music to always be like".

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[Thanks to Jason Consoli]