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As much as I love XTC, I can't bring myself to say, as some have on this site, that they are better than the Beatles. They really aren't! However, their album Wasp Star contains several songs that are truly right up there with those of the Fab Four. The opening track, 'Playground', hangs on a relentlessly repeating guitar riff that is mesmerisingly catchy, and perfectly evokes the feel of a nursery rhyme or playground chant.
The second track, 'Stupidly Happy', continues the theme of building a song around one riff. Here, though, the riff stays right the way through the song, from beginning to end. Everything - words, melody, guitar solo, vocal harmonies - revolve around it perfectly. These elements slowly build until the whole thing pulses with an intensity and joy; by this stage Colin Moulding's bass swells with beautiful flourishes that only add to this happy mood.
Other catchy numbers include 'I'm the Man Who Murdered Love', and 'Standing in For Joe'. The final track, 'The Wheel and the Maypole', shows Andy Partridge at his eccentric best.
Like most of XTC's best work, 'Wasp Star' contains a quirky Englishness, superb arrangements, great bass and guitar playing and fabulous harmonies. Not bad for a band that haven't played live for 20 years!
Oh well, I’m off on holiday so I might as well be controversial (it works for some!) before I go, as I won’t be here to answer any criticism! I’ve only recently got into the Beatles and while I can now appreciate their music and their influence on other bands (including XTC) for me, XTC are quirkier and, quite frankly, write better songs. I know I’m fighting a losing battle here and none of you believe me, but before you judge don’t you think it’s only fair that you go out and buy the entire XTC back catalogue just to check? (They deserve the money!) XTC hail back to the seventies, their early music was very much influenced by punk albeit with a very strong sense of melody. The four-piece from Swindon flirted with the charts in their early days, most famously with "Making Plans For Nigel" and "Senses Working Overtime". Then they became completely unfashionable for a number of years, partly because they had to stop touring due to their lead singer Andy Patridge’s terminal stage fright. Andy is now the main songwriter and singer and also plays guitar, original member Dave Gregory having quit. Colin Moulding is the other one to have stuck it out, a master of bass guitar who also writes the odd song and sings on his own compositions. I always find it difficult to describe the sound of this band because they really only sound like themselves. A few bands have sprouted up over the years that have had some similarities before disappearing back into obscurity, so if you’ve heard anything by They Might Be Giants or Crash Test Dummies, you’re heading in the right area, but the originals are supreme. I can’t help feeling that if REM had come from Swindon this is what they would have ended up sounding like, and there are a couple of tracks on their recent "Reveal" record that remind me of XTC. I could recommend just about any XTC record to you as an introduct
ion to the band, they’ve been that consistent over the years but if I had to narrow it down the shortlist would contain "English Settlement", "Oranges and Lemons", "Skylarking" and this, "Wasp Star – Apple Venus Vol. 2", their latest. This is the second album recorded with new label, Cooking Vinyl, having gone nearly a decade without recording any music, waiting out their label, Virgin, because they didn’t want to record for them anymore. For some reason, Virgin refused to release them from their contract, despite the fact that they never promoted their records to any great extent. Vol. 1 was a bit of a departure for the band focusing on orchestral elements with very little guitar. These songs, recorded at the same time, are more traditional with lots of guitar riffs and plenty of catchy tunes, full of energy and passion. I’ll give you a quick taste of the album: 1. Playground "School is out but never over That’s the only lesson you can learn" A fantastic song to kick off with, bouncy, infectious and full of life. It points out that grown-up life is very much like still being at school, having to deal with bullies and authority figures. This would have made a great single but no one ever buys XTC singles anyway! It features Andy’s daughter, Holly, on backing vocals. Like many of their songs, you’ll find yourself singing this one because it makes you feel happy, and as the verse is as memorable as the chorus, it’ll be the whole song! (10/10) 2. Stupidly Happy "I’m stupidly happy Everything’s fine" This song sounds exactly like you think it would from hearing the title! Bouncy and full of fun it’s about the joy of being in love. Mr Partridge was pursued for years by a female acquaintance but always kept true to his wife. Until she had an affair. They then separated
and Andy felt free to pursue the woman he really loved. I can’t help but think that this song is an ode to his feelings regarding his new partner. Musically, it is very simple, as it has the same guitar riff recurring right throughout the song. He wanted to try this to see if he could write a song around it and he has managed beautifully. This should definitely have been a single. (10/10) 3. In Another Life "Or maybe a Chippendale On girls night out Make mine the biggest pouch In another life" Now we come to Colin Moulding’s first song on the album. Colin has been responsible for some classic XTC tracks over the years, including "Nigel" but it was only recently that I realised that he actually sings his own songs! To be fair, his voice is quite similar to Andy’s, if a little more throaty. Perhaps it’s the Wiltshire accent? His recent songs have been quite stylised and often likened to Noel Coward because of their quaint ‘Englishness’. This song is really a slice of life. The lyrics go on to state "And beer tastes good in tins, Test Matches we might win, And your mother buys her gin"! This makes it idiosyncratic and therefore not to everyone’s taste, but many of the critics actually preferred Colin’s songs, so, still worth a listen. (8/10) 4. My Brown Guitar "We can play, every day, we can play on my brown guitar" Andy loves to sing about his genitalia! His most obvious was probably "Pink Thing" but apparently it has changed colour over the years! I don’t know why he wants to sing about his penis, but hey, if we get this musically beautiful song from it, who cares? When he sings, "You want some lovely I got some lovely", the melody really is quite gorgeous. This is a classic XTC song with Andy’s vocals doing that strange stretching that he does and which I’m c
ompletely incapable of describing! It really has to be heard to be appreciated. (9/10) 5. Boarded Up "Music venue has had its day Deathwatch beetle band moved in to play" Another Moulding song, surely about their hometown of Swindon. It applies to many once-thriving towns that no longer seem to have any life about them. It’s actually a ‘non-song’ (see my REM review!) but a very strong one. Everything is ‘boarded up’ because "some town planner didn’t know when to stop". Colin’s songs are very real, even if that reality is sometimes exaggerated to an absurd conclusion, and I can think of no other band that could have recorded this slow, simple song. (8/10) 6. I’m The Man Who Murdered Love Another classic XTC song. Reminiscent of many of their great songs. Great recurring guitar riff, Andy’s sweet voice, and a cynical yet sweet lyric. (9/10) 7. We’re All Light "Don’t you know, ‘bout a zillion years ago Some star sneezed Now they’re paging you in reception" Fine quirky lyrics, even though I don’t agree with them, and the best song on the album. It’s about the size of man in the cosmos contrasted with the power of love inside of us. Or something. (10/10) 8. Standing In For Joe "Joe called up to ask me Would I do a favour While he’s gonna be out of town Said his girl needs company She gets so restless Would I keep her safe and sound Softly softly in the night Well you can guess the rest Now these shoes fit all too well Standing in for Joe! Another quirky song which demonstrates the band’s sense of humour. As the sample shows this song is told as a story and I guess I should object to the morals but it is a great song! Colin’s third and finest on the album, sounds different to everything else. (9/10)
9. Wounded Horse Another song unlike everything else on the album. Andy twists the vocals to suit the sombre mood of the song which is about his discovery of his wife’s adultery. Brutal honesty makes it almost too personal a song to listen to. (Actually, it’s a ‘non-song’ - see my REM op!) (8/10) 10. You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful "And every morning before I’m awake I walk around the world To make sure she’s alright" Despite all the conflict in the world, there is still the beauty of nature and of the woman you love. Ahhhhh! (9/10) 11. Church of Women "Men have gargoyles round their hearts Men have thorns around their minds" Quite literally, a hymn to women. He’s just a big suke (sook?) if you ask me! A slower song with a great chorus. Can’t really argue with the lyric (I’m a suke, too!) (9/10) 12. The Wheel and the Maypole "And what made me think we’re any better And what made me think we’d last forever Was I so naive? Failing to perceive" The last track of the album is another challenger for best song. The title evokes that other side of XTC’s Englishness, this time the deep-in-the-heart of Mummerset with Morris dancers and olde worlde beer-drinking devil-worshippers performing fertility dances. Or is that just me! The strings and flugelhorn (I think!) are excellent on this track and the extra orchestration is more like their last album, especially the track, "Green Man". One of the few songs to use the phrase "axis mundi"! And that’s yer lot! Nearly 51 minutes of sheer brilliance! The songs are great, the music is wonderful, excellent production (courtesy of Nick Davis), it even has great packaging and a nice cover! Lyrics are included for you to sing along to. And special mention to Chu
ck Sabo and Prairie Prince who share drumming duties. There’s nothing else I can say about this album. I love bands that have been around for a while and have evolved and explored different avenues while retaining that something special that defines them. XTC are that band and this is one of their finest moments. If you want to listen to some intelligent pop that still knows how to rock and have a good time then this is the album for you. Go on - what’s the worst that could happen?
Who'd have thought it. After many years of making clever muso records, then many years of making no records, XTC return with two albums in a short space of time. The first was Apple Venus vol one and very nice it was if a little flowery and barogue for some tastes, then they bring out Apple Venus Vol two, call it Wasp Star and it is one of the brightest and breeziest pop albums of the year. No navel gazing on this one, it's the kind of album that just demands to be played in the car at high volume on a hot summer day. Not the sort of thing one usually expects from XTC. Having said that it is still very intelligent, well played music of the very highest calibre. Andy Partridge, XTC's main man has been through some turmoil lately. He seems to have got it out of his system on AV Vol one though leaving himself bright and refreshed for this their latest. He sounds like a man in love with life and music agagin. If you haven't listened to XTC since their classic early 80's period, check back in here, and then work your way back through. You'll be glad you did.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Stupidly Happy
3 In Another Life
4 My Brown Guitar
5 Boarded Up
6 I'm the Man Who Murdered Love
7 We're All Light
8 Standing in for Joe
9 Wounded Horse
10 You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful
11 Church of Women
12 Wheel and the Maypole