The seven-year itch

It's one step forward, two steps back for XTC

It has been seven years since XTC released a record--so long now that Andy Partridge, the band's co-singer and co-songwriter, cannot believe there are people left on this earth who remember him, much less actually want to talk to him. He figured that by now, XTC would have been long forgotten, reduced to a fragment of memory in the cutout bins, where XTC reissues sell for The Nice Price. The band all but disappeared in 1992 after the release of Nonsuch. XTC, unhappy with the way it had been treated by its British label, went on strike, refusing to record a single note for Virgin Records. So it went into hiding, fearing that one day it would emerge from a cave and find the world had gotten along quite nicely without XTC...or whatever that band's name was.

Partridge now insists he has sat through "hundreds of interviews," but he is not complaining at all. Rather, he jokes that he must owe money to all these people calling to ask questions about the forthcoming Apple Venus Volume 1, which will be released next Tuesday. He is genuinely surprised that so many people like the album (that's what they tell him, anyway), astonished there's any interest at all left in this still-warm corpse known as XTC. And Partridge was afraid people would dismiss Apple Venus as "square...middle-of-the-road light entertainment."

The record certainly is all of those things--the sound of middle-aged men grown tired of playing electric guitars, the result of seven years spent experimenting with string sections and symphonic loops and horn charts and other concert-hall errata. It picks up where much of 1986's Skylarking and 1992's Nonsuch faded out...or is that Abbey Road? The new disc sounds so much like the soundtrack to a stage production of something very British, maybe Our Town set in the band's hometown of Swindon, right beside the railroad tracks that cut through the tiny city like arteries. It even begins with a prelude of sorts, an opportunity to allow the orchestra in the pit to warm its hands. Apple Venus will likely go aluminum in the United States, where XTC was never more than a mere tangent anyway, save for one or two accidental, minor hits.

There are moments on Apple Venus (which was once to be titled The History of the Middle Ages) when the record feels as though it was worth the wait: The opener "River of Orchids," with a 40-piece orchestra plucking and plinking its merry-go-round melody, is especially delightful; it's art-pop-meets-chamber-pop, what Elvis Costello aimed for with the Brodsky Quartet on a grander, sweeter scale. "Easter Theatre" and "Greenman" never surrender to the grand arrangements. And "Your Dictionary" is the complete package, sounding like a love song, only offering nothing but bitterness and hatred. Partridge's song to--and for--his ex-wife, who left him for another man, is the prettiest fuck-you in recorded history: "H-A-T-E / Is that how you spell love in your dictionary? / K-I-C-K / Pronounced as kind...S-H-I-T / Is that how you spell me in your dictionary?" And it goes on from there. Partridge insists, without any irony, that he would like "Your Dictionary" to become a radio single.

"I know a lot of stations just won't play it because of the implied cuss words--the cussing by spelling," he says. "That's what your mother used to do when you were a kid. They'd get the neighbors around, and they'd say, 'Oh, she's had her W-O-M-B removed,' and you knew exactly what that meant. You knew how to spell. Maybe stations will play that. Maybe it will appeal to the mischievous side of some stations."

Partridge speaks often of his desire to get on radio. It's almost as though 22 years of being ignored by the medium--with rare exception, especially in this country--has turned him into the ultimate optimist. Or perhaps having emerged from his legal woes with Virgin Records--the label that signed XTC in 1977, then kept almost every penny the band would make for the next 15 years--Partridge is simply giddy at the prospect of starting over again, even if on a smaller label like TVT Records. It must be a very British trait--hope built upon a foundation of burning rubble. Instead of retreating in defeat, Partridge and his longtime mate Colin Moulding return with a whisper of a record and the honest-to-God hope that this is the album that will make them stars.

Apple Venus Volume 1 is the record--sort of--Partridge wanted to make after Nonsuch, which had spawned the slight hit "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and featured such quasi-orchestral pieces as "Rook," "Omnibus," "Wrapped in Grey," and "Bungalow." He had grown so fixated with the idea of making what he now calls an "orchestral-acoustic" record, he went out and purchased a sampler loaded with symphonic loops. Ensconced in his home studio, he spent the next two years, from 1992 to '94, writing dozens of songs on acoustic guitar, then layering orchestral textures on their thin frames--as though he were covering skeletons in silk and lace. He had planned on releasing the songs through Virgin, but when the label refused to renegotiate the band's original contract--one that called for the label to pocket most of the royalties made from each album--XTC stopped recording and, Partridge says now, stuck the songs "in the fridge." They sat there for four years, during which time Partridge began writing again on electric guitar...and then stopped once more.

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