Release Date: 2/17/99
XTC’s penultimate album, Apple Venus, Vol. 1, is a masterpiece of (mostly) Andy Partridge’s unique brand of orchestral pop and one of XTC’s finest moments.
Let’s set the scene: several months prior to first hearing this album I first discovered XTC by listening to Drums and Wires. At first, I admit I wasn’t terribly impressed, though I had a feeling I’d ultimately wind up loving the band from the first time I heard “Helicopter”. Regardless, I gave it a couple listens because, as has been proven time and again, albums I’ve been lukewarm on, even hated, have wound up becoming some of my all-time favorites. I next went to White Music, which, by contrast, blew my mind, with its mix of what was ostensibly high energy punk-based pop, mixed with short bursts from all over the musical spectrum from that time period. In other words, it was a perfect introduction to XTC for me, given my musical background, and was ultimately a huge reason why I continued exploring the band. After skipping ahead a bit to sample their later stuff, I realized I should definitely spend some time with their earlier discography and work my way up. And so I did. It took me five months almost exactly to the day to finally get to Apple Venus, Vol. 1. Imagine my surprise when “I’d Like That” came on. Imagine my surprise for a rather random and unlikely reason that is… the song is in Me, Myself & Irene. One of very few movies I can cite direct quotes from, because I watched it so many times when I was 10-11 years old. I never would’ve guessed I’d have heard an XTC song when I was 10 years old, but after spending 5 months with the band, I couldn’t even believe my ears.
I can’t say this was the first shock listening to this album. From the very beginning you know you are in for something wildly different, and not just for XTC. “River of Orchids” is built entirely upon string arrangements with a type of repetitiveness that’s almost Philip Glass-esque, but with Andy’s brilliantly layered and harmonized vocalizations and gorgeous, poetic lyrics. It is a great way to set the pace for the what’s to come in this record. Next up is “I’d Like That,” which is one of XTC’s most straight-forward pop songs, and in my opinion, massively underrated from that perspective. It is also by contrast, one of the simpler songs on the album in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, but the songwriting, as per usual, is top-notch. Then, there’s “Easter Theatre”. Before I heard this song, I’d always struggled with the conception of “what is a favorite song?” If there ever was a qualifier for such an absurd title, this would be it. It is a powerful and emotive song with brilliant lyrics, moving vocals, and perfectly placed string arrangements. Enough couldn’t be said about such a powerful song. In terms of emotional power, “Harvest Festival” and “The Last Balloon” really get me too, though in different ways. “Harvest Festival” feels so good, but “The Last Balloon” is a sad, sad sendoff. The trumpet solo towards the end is devastating (but don’t worry, you can head on over to Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2) to immediately cheer you right on up).
There are other unique passages in XTC’s overall output as well: “Greenman” is essentially a movie soundtrack piece featuring Andy’s vocals; “Knight in Shining Karma” is perhaps best described as a baroque pop piece driven by overlaid vocals and a solitary, shiny reverb-laden guitar. Bassist Colin Moulding’s two contributions to the album are excellent additions as well. They are some of the most fun moments on the album. My one gripe, albeit a very minor one, is that Colin sounds like he aged immensely between this and Nonsuch, which I find all the more strange, considering on the very recent TC&I release, Aspirations, featuring none other than Mr. Moulding and original XTC drummer, Terry Chambers, his voice sounds like it did on Nonsuch. But I digress, it is to be expected with each release that XTC will throw something different at us, whether it’s Colin or Andy, or both.
One of the best things this album has going for it is the superb incorporation of various orchestral elements. Namely, that they did not sample the string elements. The fact that they spent approximately 40,000 pounds from their own funds proves their dedication to their craft. Of course, this basically ended the bands relationship with guitarist Dave Gregory, which did sort of negatively impact their final album Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Vol. 2), but you simply have to admire the completeness of Mr. Partridge’s vision for this album.
I can’t think of a more unique and impressive album in the pop realm since… gosh, you know who.
P.S. can someone please get this and Wasp Star on streaming services please?!
Highlights: “River of Orchids,” “I’d Like That,” “Easter Theatre,” “Harvest Festival”
Purchase: Burning Shed