This is Pop 

The return of XTC

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Photo by Valerie PhillipsXTC HAS A NEW ALBUM OUT (FINALLY). IT'S called Apple Venus Vol. 1, it's fantastic and -- well, here's the band's fiendishly gifted Andy Partridge on its "or-choustic" approach. He's describing how the opening cut, "River of Orchids," came to glorious fruition:

"I'd bought myself a sampler-type device with a lot of orchestral sounds in it, because I really wanted to get into this orchestral-texture thing. And I was playing around one day with plucked-string samples, and I built myself a pattern one note at a time, like one-finger typing. And I built this up in a sequencer and let it run, and I became entranced by this two-bar pattern, and a lot of melodic ideas began to spring out. I took my shoes and socks and shirt off and began dancing around my little 12-by-8 home studio; I was totally enraptured by this cyclical pattern going around and around, it just brought so many melodies into my head. I thought, I'd better stop dancing and I'd better get under control here, 'cause if I don't I'm gonna lose this magic. And I opened a book of ideas that I have and I grabbed the first phrase I could find, which was 'I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus.'"

He points out that Piccadilly Circus isn't a circus, and doesn't have lions in it, and that a dandelion is a flower, it's not a lion; also, there are very few flowers in London.

"And so the whole word game seemed to sort of chase itself in a perfect circle. And I began using this phrase, singing these melodies over the top of this pattern going around and around. I recorded a little bit of that, and then I said, 'Wow, there's this other melody that goes great with it,' and I recorded some of that. And before I knew it, I had three really strong melodies, and you could lay them on top of each other, you could make up this sandwich all based on the meat of this revolving string pattern. And in no time at all, this nursery rhyme came out that had an ecological theme and is not a million miles away from one of my pet subjects: cars and my disgust with cars and how we've been sacrificed to them. But I ended up with this three-decker nursery rhyme."

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The spiraling pizzicato-string-, horn-, voice- and water-droplet-laced "River of Orchids" (which new-music composer Harold Budd is now using to teach his students principles of cyclical composition) sets the graciously bracing tone for Apple Venus Vol. 1, a rare successful hybridization of orchestral strains with outwardly "rock" music. The album bursts with challenges to pop's musical strictures, and as an added bonus, it's burnished with irrefutably nimble words, of delight and remorse and nostalgia and love. Truth to tell, I'm deeply moved by the utter sincerity of it all.

XTC spurted out of Swindon, England, in 1975, an upstart bunch of smartypantses pickled and primed with pop-culture reference points, an extended harmonic and textural vocabulary owing equal debts to Captain Beefheart, Slade, Buddy Holly and the Archies, and a raging, rabid verve. White Music (1977), their first album, with its British singles "This Is Pop" and "Radios in Motion," only hinted at the teeming invention that would over the course of several albums give way to a slightly more streamlined Kinks/Beatles pop approach and yield smashes such as "Generals and Majors," "Making Plans for Nigel" and "Dear God." Following the recent departure of longtime guitarist Dave Gregory, Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding now constitute the entire group.

Apple Venus Vol. 1 is XTC's first set of new material in seven years. Abounding with trilling trumpets, recorders, strings and woodwinds, it's awash in idiosyncratic tone color, freshly arching chord schemes and a windswept openness, all stunning in their diversity and minute detailing. In order to achieve this painterly splendor, Partridge looked to the cheese within, gleaning inspiration from the show tunes of his youth.

"I always wanted to work with an orchestra," he says, "but 99 percent of the stuff I heard on the radio as a kid would've been what you'd call 'light entertainment,' light classics or stuff from music halls. The thing I liked most was novelty songs, songs with sped-up voices or sound effects or too much reverb or goofy kinds of things -- the one about the little man who lives in the fridge and puts the light on every time you open the door, that sort of stuff. I sat through so much of the very pungent kind of throwaway music on the airwaves in England in the late '50s and early '60s, all that mass of stuff must've gone in really deep."

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