This is Pop

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."

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."  

The result is a cornucopia of pop inference in which one detects the obvious strands of McCartney and Wilson and medieval fertility rites and perhaps the slightest whiff of both the Minimalists and the Tijuana Brass. To winnow eclectically through the pop wastebin is currently all the rage, but the trick remains for the musician to find a voice in so doing. Partridge accomplishes that extremely well, consistently demonstrating in an almost textbook way how to give a song lasting value: You don't pile on the sugar all at once, you parcel out it out, and you try a pinch of something very bitter. For example, "I Can't Own Her" combines richly melodious orchestral textures with lyrics of a rueful and sober intent, triggering a resonant third entity where doubt and ambivalence become a trace of comforting acceptance. The music seems to go behind the words and push them open.

"Singing scales that aren't inherent in the chords does something as well," he says. "It takes you to a sort of dreamlike place, or there's something that sounds out of sync, or you sound a little lost within the music."

IT MUST BE REVEALED THAT XTC ARE NO LONGER CHEEKY lads larking about with herky-jerky rhythms and nonsensical sounds-groovy words; while there's no chief concept to Apple Venus, the songs revolve around time and its passage, perhaps the relishing of life at whatever stage one finds oneself in.

"A few weeks ago," says Partridge, "Colin and I were going up to London, and we were talking in the car, and he said to me, 'Do you think we write outdoor songs or indoor songs?' And we came to the conclusion that I'm an indoor person who writes outdoor songs, and he's an outdoor person who writes indoor songs. Colin's songs take place in living rooms or sheds or kitchens or bedrooms, and my songs seem to take place on seashores and hills and fields. I think we try and make the circle complete for ourselves by writing towards the other side of the scale."

Moulding's two contributions to Apple Venus are only apparently frothy pieces that grow funnier yet more poignant with each listen. His furtive wit and shrewd observational skills are revealed in perhaps his best song ever, "Frivolous Tonight," a Mellotron- and sittingroom-piano-laced ditty concerning the joys and horrors of middle-class complacency. It is a Noel Coward­worthy gluing of yearning and contentment.

The album finds Partridge taking satisfaction in revisiting his childhood, deriving pleasure from his memories. Knowing that he has gone through a load of emotional and physical turmoil in the last few years -- divorce, a blown eardrum, financial ruin -- one should think it took enormous reserves of strength not to make an album of caustic, dark tunes. Apple Venus is a distinctly and consciously beautiful album, and a pleasing springtime companion. In stark contrast to its more florid junkets, however, is "Your Dictionary," a dirty laundry list in which he lets his ex-wife have it with a cold biliousness.

Partridge didn't want to include "Your Dictionary" on the album, but his friends talked him into it, just as they did when it came to the lavish and lovely "I Can't Own Her." "You know, you expose this soft side and people go, 'Ooh, that's nice,' and you feel tentative about it yourself, you think, Oh my god, have I lost my mind or something? Or are people gonna say, 'Ooh, he's gone all loungy, look at him'? I'm very sensitive about too much sweetness."

I'm reminded of what original XTC drummer Terry Chambers once said about Partridge: "He's as sensitive as shit. He sees a sunset and he wants to ride off into the bastard."

XTC HASN'T BEEN HEARD FROM FOR A WHILE; they went on strike against their former label, Virgin Records. "We couldn't work for them," says Partridge, "because whatever we did they'd own it, and we'd never be free, so we just had to deny our labor. We were for sale through Virgin for 19 years before we went into the black. And that's incredible."

The band has formed its own company, Idea Records, which licenses its releases on an individual basis. The arrangement has earned them a bit more clout at the bargaining table.

"In talking to record labels," says Partridge, "we found that they just gave us the same old sort of crappy deals, and then when we went back to them and said we were a record company, the deals started to get a lot more sensible. It was as if they were willing to shit on a band but not on another company. So it's a good little trick for young bands to remember: Call yourself a company and you get a lot more respectful treatment."  

If you'd like to get a picture of XTC's manic power at its potent youthful best, pick up TVT's recent compilation of live and BBC-studio broadcasts called Transistor Blast. Or find a copy of the recent book XTC: Song Stories (Hyperion). Or perhaps do both.

XTC will follow up Apple Venus Vol. 1 with Vol. 2 in about six months' time. It'll be a more scaled-down and electric set, "including a couple of the most banal things I've ever written," says Partridge, "but I think they're kind of joyful, in an idiot way. We intend to orchestrate just using electric guitars. But if it gets anything like Brian May of Queen, I'm gonna start lopping hands off."

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