Wasp Star is the kind of album that can reinvigorate the listener in the belief that pop music is wonderful and hasn't degenerated into carbon copy boy bands.
Of Partridges and Mouldings: The life and times of a fanboy
I was a mere stripling of a boy, all of 14 years old, when I first was introduced to the music of XTC. The year was 1989, and the band had released its classic Oranges and Lemons album, with the radio and MTV friendly pop tunes "Mayor of Simpleton" and "King for a Day" catching some air time. Just before my birthday that year, I mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed "Mayor of Simpleton," and would drop everything to watch the video if I happened to have the tube turned to MTV. So he bought the tape for me on my birthday. I've been hooked ever since.
So hooked, in fact, that I became a fanboy. My love of XTC was not the average, "I've got this tape I really like and I play it in my room a lot," it was more of the "I've got to own everything ever recorded by this band!" variety. XTC became something of a quest for me, something that led me through the annals of the pop lexicon, expanding my horizons of music well beyond the Dr. Demento/Weird Al Yankovich stage I had emerged from.
Although everyone accuses me of loving the band because bandleader and singer/songwriter Andy Partridge and I share the same last name (you'll have to read the bio page to figure that one out). Lead guitarist Dave Gregory's last name happened to be my middle name. Nothing really tied me to bass player Colin Moulding, except that in 1989, I really wanted his hair. No, these were just synchronistic coincidences, feathers in my cap. The true devotion was to the music. I could sing the words to every song on every major album release.
I went back to 1977 and XTC's first album, White Music, and continued my travels up to 1986's Skylarking, the album that spawned their most famous footnote in music history, "Dear God." Then I started buying CD singles for the bonus tracks, searching high and low through record stores for vinyl copies and T-shirts. I subscribed to the fanzines. I saved VHS copies of whatever videos I could glean from the TV. I read the interviews, caught whatever appearances by XTC I could, and painted hand-made T-shirts. When my family went to Hawaii for my dad's re-marriage, the one cherished souvenir I brought home with me were those 6" x 6" cardboard posters that record stores use to promote albums and which I located in a blissful random moment after the release of 1992's Nonsuch. When I went to England in 1993, I spent all my time on Portobello Road scouring the bins for bootleg copies of concerts and whatever I could find that would save me the cost of buying imports. My favorite item in my collection is the stack of Oranges and Lemons book covers that were given away for free at 7-Elevens (who knows what Geffen was thinking with that one!).
Fanboys and fangirls are not like the average cheese-eating Nine Inch Nails freak who populate high schools. They're freaks of an entirely different order. They listen to bands, usually one in particular, all the time. They know everything about the band. They collect with the voracity of Pokémon card traders. Religion becomes supplanted by music, by posters and promo photos. They spend considerable amounts of time and money in the pursuit of anything that even bears the remote stamp of their obsession.
Being a fanboy of XTC in my high schools years was especially difficult, particularly freakish. This was before the Internet connected people all over the world quickly and easily. XTC was a relatively obscure band, especially among teens that were infatuated with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Wearing an XTC T-shirt to school wasn't going to get me beat up, but it wasn't doing me any social favors. I didn't care. Even my friends who listened respectfully to their music and to my rants of adoration were unable to understand the depths of my devotion. This was a band that never toured, fer Chrissakes!
It was through the contacts that I made in the pages of their fanzine that I was able to develop a sense of fan community. If they read this, I owe massive debts of gratitude and love to Ian C. Stewart and Rhubarb (my XTC pen pals) for their help in supporting my XTC habit over the years. My compulsive reading on the band led me to discover that critics and other musicians around the world in all genres had a great deal of respect for the band, even if they never had enormous commercial success.
Then XTC went underground and I went off to college. In an extended contract dispute with Virgin Records, XTC went on strike and refused to record any more music. Going to college meant I had little to no money with which to support the life of a fanboy, and I slowly slipped out of the fold. It took seven years from the release of Nonsuch for XTC to finally break away from Virgin, sign with a new label, and finally put out 1999's fabulous Apple Venus Volume 1. Putting that CD in my stereo for the first time was like coming home to an old friend. It was one of the most emotional musical experiences I'd had in years.
So, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I placed Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) into the CD tray and pushed it gently into the port. You see, Apple Venus Volume 1 was what Andy Partridge cheekily named an "orchoustic" album, referring to the fact that it eschewed the traditional pop electric guitar in favor of orchestration and straight up acoustic guitar. It was beautiful and amazing, but it was a slight break from the XTC of yore. Wasp Star is what Andy calls an "eclectric" album, going back to jangly guitars and reverb. I held my breath as I played it, hoping they still had the particular beauty of songcraft and musicianship with electric pop that they used to. I needn't have worried.
Wasp Star is the kind of album that can reinvigorate the listener in the belief that pop music is wonderful and hasn't degenerated into carbon copy boy bands. The 12 songs are a collection of gems, each more precious than the next. Although I obviously don't have a position of objectivity in this regard, I challenge any serious fan of pop in the vein of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, and British psychedelia to listen to this album and disagree.
"Playground" is giddy opener that swirls in the images of childhood tempered by the somewhat idea of the trials of the playground as a rehearsal for the everyday life to come. It also features the dynamic vocals of Partridge and Moulding in their best pop fashion, and even includes some backing tracks by Partridge's daughter Holly. "Stupidly Happy" is a grinning love song played with simplistic precision that reveals Partridge's self-effacing wit hasn't evaporated with age, including the line, "I'm stupidly happy / Like the words to that song."
The anti-pop record formula that XTC developed on Apple Venus Volume 1 continues here on Wasp Star. As the tracks progress, they become increasingly impressive and more diverse. The guitars take on added complexity and the music begins to hit you with hooks that make other musicians drool. It's definitely not the radio formula of putting the singles in the order of first, third, and fifth song.
"In Another Life," Moulding's first contribution to the disc, reaffirms his subtle and humble nature, crafting a nostalgic piece about the give-and-take of marriage as based on his parents. "My Brown Guitar" is the first innovative piece to really make use of the electric sound, and as a Beatles song it could be on Revolver or Sgt. Peppers, but is more likely to be an out-take from the Dukes of Stratosphere, XTC's psychedelic rock side project. The reverb and sexual imagery combine almost elegantly, yet fully conscious of a sense of humor.
"Boarded Up" is Colin's second song on the album, and really seems like a jump from the strictly pastoral pieces he's so wonderful with. With simple foot stomps for a beat and a twangy acoustic guitar line, it's almost bluesy in it's brooding heaviness and the theme of a town of buildings abandoned after a flurry of capitalism evokes a grim visage of XTC's hometown of Swindon, England. The transition to "The Man Who Murdered Love" is made even more energetic by having the low-key "Boarded Up" precede it. "The Man Who Murdered Love" has classic XTC written all over it. It's "Mayor of Simpleton" and "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and every other pop gem that spills out of Partridge's pen. It actually has some potential for radio as well, although mostly for the AAA audience.
The album begins to expand after this point, inflating like a balloon with "We're All Light," "Standing in for Joe," and "Wounded Horse." The lush feel of "We're All Light" is a compliment to the airy lyrics, and the peaceful, loving theme of the song. This is easily my favorite song on the album. "Standing in for Joe" is Moulding's final contribution and proves that his quiet style still has some pop verve left in it. As the song of a man who is guiltily cheating with his friend's wife, the title becomes ironic in that it sounds like it could be an old Joe Jackson song. "Wounded Horse" is the counterpoint to "Standing in for Joe," being one of the songs that developed from Partridge's messy divorce. It's a slow, drunken songs that slurs, both musically and vocally, through a chorus of "Well I bit out my own tongue like a wounded horse / When I found out you'd been riding another man." It's probably the closest XTC have ever come to sounding like country and western music.
"You and the Clouds Will Still be Beautiful" is on the level of "We're All Light." It's a rollicking song that is reportedly Partridge's peace offering to his ex-wife. It evokes a Sting-like element that gives it a peppy edge, and the guitar hooks are excellent, punctuated with peppered horns. I've definitely decided that a Sting-XTC collaboration would create some amazing pop, but it's probably not likely. "Church of Women" is Partridge's celebration of the female sex and an apology for centuries of dealing with men's bullshit. A beautiful song, it sounds very much like where XTC left off with 1992's Nonsuch. The final track, "The Wheel and the Maypole," returns XTC to their pastoral British countryside roots. A May Day celebration of love and love gone wrong, it signals Partridge's break with the frustration of failed marriage and divorce. Its happy, crescendo-heavy music is not the poignant ending that Apple Venus Vol. 1 had with "The Last Balloon" and it's painfully beautiful ending sax (flugelhorn?) line tapering off, but it's a positive ending, full of hope and promise for the future.
I wanted exceedingly badly to give this album my first 10.0 ranking, and it came close. There is one major thing missing from the disc that I couldn't ignore, and that's Dave Gregory. Gregory split during the final recording of Apple Venus Vol. 1, mainly due to the fact that Partridge took control of the orchestral arrangements (which was Gregory's domain since Skylarking, with masterful orchestration) and the fact that Vol. 1 didn't have electric guitar parts, Gregory's other forte. Gregory's guitar is missed in songs like "Playground" and "Stupidly Happy," where the single guitar line of Partridge is somewhat repetitive, the songs relying more on vocal hooks than musical ones. For an example of why they sounded so great together see Nonsuch's "Books Are Burning," with its incredible dueling guitar.
If the album had Gregory, and had been produced by Paul Fox (whose clean productions are always excellent and made Oranges and Lemons absolutely amazing), this would have been the 10.0 rating that it could have been. The songs are there, the album is consistent, and XTC is still at the top of its game. Wasp Star is probably going to top critic's lists once again, as Apple Venus Volume 1 did last year. And it's well deserved. Buy this album.
And as for me, I've moved out of the fanboy stage enough that I probably won't be going back. Then again, if Partridge lifts his 20 year moratorium on touring and commits to the flatbed truck tour he's been teasing fans with for years, then I'll be in the front row, screaming and singing, wearing a hand-made XTC T-shirt, and loving every minute of it. Even if he doesn't, Wasp Star has entrenched my decade long belief that XTC is one of the best pop outfits of all time. And as XTC fans know, Partridge and Moulding are fairly prolific, so hopefully we won't have to wait long before we get another dose of XTC and continue to feed our habits.