By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
When Apple Venus Volume 1 was released last year, no one should have expected XTC's Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding to live up to albums like 1979's Drums & Wires or 1982's English Settlement; it's like asking someone to slip comfortably into the jeans they wore in high school. After more than 20 years, Partridge and Moulding were basically punching their weight on Volume 1, so no one should have complained when they traded in their electric guitars for symphonic loops and the Brodsky Quartet leftovers Elvis Costello didn't bring to Burt Bacharach's house. Partridge and Moulding made a seamless transition from the prickly pop of "Life Begins at the Hop" and "Radios in Motion" to don't-wake-the-kids fare like "Mayor of Simpleton" and "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead." Apple Venus Volume 1 is exactly where XTC should have ended up two decades into their career.
But although it's acceptable, even admirable, to grow old without glancing backward, Partridge and Moulding went a bit too far, turning into humorless, crotchety old men. Apart from the quietly caustic "Your Dictionary" and cover-band quality "I'd Like That," Apple Venus Volume 1 was about as interesting as a Ken Burns film based on a George Will book, a disc that was sprawling yet never really went anywhere, paying more attention to the details than the plot. Apple Venus Volume 2 is, sadly, more of the same, only worse. For some reason, Partridge and Moulding cleaned decided to plug back in and rock...sort of.
When Volume 2 kicks off with "Playground," it doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Lyrically ("School is out but never over/That's the only lesson you can learn") and musically, the song bridges the gap between young and old; it's your dad's garage band, except the songs are written by two men who know their way around a hook better than most boxers. "Stupidly Happy" and "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love" are welcome additions to the XTC catalog, mainly because they sound like everything else in it (if not as good). Beyond that, Volume 2 is even less interesting than its predecessor; at least Volume 1 used new words to tell the same old story. Longtime XTC guitarist Dave Gregory left the group during the recording of both albums, fed up with Partridge's insistence that the songs be released on two separate discs. Gregory believed that the band would have a much better record if they combined all of the best songs onto a single collection, and he was almost right. The problem: The best songs from Apple Venus Volume 1 and 2--all five of them--barely add up to a good EP.