Not many bands release their finest album 20+ years into their career but XTC aren't really like other bands. After a long lay off whilst they were in a contract dispute with Virgin, the band returned in 1999 with this stunning collection of pastoral and orchestrated pop music. Great throughout, the final three songs are the best of their career. Surely this is Swindon's answer to Pet Sounds.
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Welcome to my actual favourite album of all time. Well certainly my favourite album of all time that has two or three songs that I don't like. The quality of the good stuff on this record is so high that they could have had a track of them eating pizza and it wouldn't dent the overall quality.
You see not only was 'Apple Venus' XTC's last great album it was their actual best album. It was the one where they hunkered down in a studio armed with all the songs they'd collected whilst on strike with their record label and made their avant-garde orchestral masterpiece. The first thing to do is take what you think you know about XTC and throw it in the waste paper basket. This is the band thrillingly creative as exemplified on opener 'River of Orchids' which layers Andy Partridge's vocals over each other and winds them up around each other on a track that owes more to Steve Reich than the Beatles. Never mind if you do like the Beatles because there's several tracks (I'd Like That', 'Fruit Nut' and 'Frivolous Tonight') that all have a granny glassed McCartney feel to them. Pleasant as they are it's the big Partridge productions that you need to hear.
First up 'Easter Theatre' is an absolute wonder of a track. A thrilling orchestral thing with a melody climbing and climbing until it almost becomes discordant before a wondrous tuneful chorus that sounds like the arrival of spring after a hard winter. It's quite the achievement. I don't think there's an orch-pop track I've ever enjoyed more. There's necessary grit amongst the sweetness with 'Your Dictionary' a quite unbelievably bitter 'F.U.C.K is that how you spell 'friend' in your dictionary' but it's just setting the album up for it's final run of songs.
Reminiscent of the closing tracks on the Beach Boys 'Surfs Up' it seems 'Apple Venus' (as good as it is) is all a set up for three of the most brilliant yearning things ever to be committed to vinyl. 'I Can't Own Her', 'Harvest Festival' and 'The Last Balloon' or all brilliant, emotional and superbly orchestrated tracks that is hard to find a comparison for in pop music. I don't really want to separate them as they work perfectly as a suite. XTC often get the reputation of being perhaps a bit frivolous but this is them deadly serious, stretching and pulling themselves to make music way, way ahead of the usual stuff. It's quite astonishing.
So the epilogue goes that no-one bought it and after one comparatively disappointing LP (Wasp Star) XTC split up forever. But they left us with this. And every time I listen to it, it gets better. Don't let it escape your attention this time.
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- Apple Venus Vol. I by XTC
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