Review Summary: XTC sets an example for other bands on hiatus, as they return in style with 'Apple Venus, Pt. 1'
It's something of a trend these days for bands that take extended breaks between albums or go on "indefinite hiatus" to come back rather unexpectedly and put out music that, most of the time, never lives up to what they put out before this break. In a lot of cases, this isn't much of a surprise. Why? Because bands that can actually afford to go on an hiatus are either dabbling in side projects or are just filthy rich because they're todays top artists, only putting out music when they feel like it, real motivation to create seems to be lacking more often than not.
And then sometimes there is one of those bands that can catch you by surprise and live up to whatever standards they set for themselves. XTC is one of those bands.
What's perhaps most surprising about this is that the road for XTC has been extremely long and hard. After lead vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge suffered from a breakdown on stage at the peak of their popularity in 1982, the band stopped touring altogether. After putting out several albums, the band wanted to be released from their label, Virgin at the time. Virgin wouldn't let them go and so the band stayed on the label (not putting out anything during seven years) until they were released.
Over this period of time, the band wrote what would become the 'Apple Venus' project, which was originally supposed to be a double CD with one featuring orchestrated and acoustic tracks, and have songs with their more traditional, rockier sound on the other.
Lead guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory didn't like that idea at all and left during the recording sessions of the album, to dismay of the fans, and leaving vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge to arrange the string sections of the first disc.
Since Gregory's influence on XTC's sound thus far had been huge, the question was whether or not the other two members of the band could pull it off on their own.
The answer is a loud YES. While the first part of the Apple Venus project might not be XTC's best, it comes close. Opener 'River Of Orchids' captures the listener with catchy string arrangements with horns and various instruments being added throughout the song, next to the fact that it also features Partridge's best vocal performance to date. Due to the fact that XTC are now strictly a studio band, they often have Partridge vocals layered or him singing multiple things at the same time, which works extremely well as it melds his vocals in as an instrument in the arrangements.
While the band rarely employs any electric guitar on this album, it doesn't stand in their way. The variation of acoustic and orchestrated tracks make for a very diverse and vibrant album. The orchestrated and eastern-tinged tracks such as "River of Orchids" or "Greenman" being very ambient with seemingly a dozen instruments going on at the same time. These are traded off with the acoustic tracks, such as "I'd Like That" and "Your Dictionary" which sound more introspective, the latter being about divorce with lyrics such as; ''H-A-T-E, is that how you spell love in your dictionary? K-I-C-K Pronounced as kind/Now your laughter has a hollow ring, but the hollow ring has no finger in." As they're often just Partridge accompanying himself with acoustic guitar, these songs tend to build up slowly, though later on instrumentation is added, which is by no means a bad thing as it keeps the songs dynamic and alive.
While I've been putting Partridge in the spotlight, the band's other (founding) member, bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding doesn't exactly deserve it. Whereas Partridge had really developed his songwriting abilities and musical prowess(partially forced to after Gergory's departure), Moulding wasn't exactly creative over a seven year time span, contributing only two tracks to the album with neither being a highlight. If that wasn't enough, his vocal performance, while above average on its own, comes short next to Partridge's songs who is at the top of his game.
The other weakness on this album is that some songs tend to drag on a little, especially towards the ending with ''The Last Balloon" clocking in at 6 minutes and 40 seconds which seems forced and makes the album end on somewhat of a sour note, but only makes a small impact on the album as a whole.
While a departure from the sound of their earlier work( I wouldn't recommend to buy this album if you're just getting into this band, get 'Skylarking' or 'Nonsuch' instead.) the band has managed to create an album that seemed doomed to fail yet is triumphant and even shows progression. Not bad for a two man band that has been on a seven year hiatus and doesn't tour.