Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
By: Eric G.
I was actually looking forward to the self-proclaimed "electric" and "pop" direction of XTC's Apple Venus Volume 2, but I am sadly reminded of why the band has rubbed me the wrong way throughout its history. Apple Venus Volume 1 explored an experimental and compositional side of the band that had rarely surfaced in its sugary, recycled-Beatles, baroque-pop, but this overly sunny and stiflingly happy collection of melodious pop is too sickly sweet and laboriously clever for its own good.
There are hooks a-plenty, but the cheese factor is impossible to ignore. Maybe, when I'm fifty I'll think this is damn catchy stuff, but I dread the day. "Playground" builds on a repetitious but infectious guitar riff; however, Andy Partridge will stoop to any level to keep the melody afloat. In the chorus Partridge sings "playground" while the backing vocals answer "everyday ground." Ugh. And to top it off the band employs children to sing "playground, playground/careful what you say-ground" in a nursery rhyme chorus. Ugh again.
Apart from the cloying, annoying vocals, the music actually delivers on the band's promise of traditional electric pop. The arrangements are surprisingly simplistic while the instrumentation remains relatively sparse, focusing on guitar-based structures. Wasp Star plays like the soundtrack to some kind of psychedelic children's cartoon show with exaggerated inflections and homespun, storytelling-style lyrical deliveries. Bassist Colin Moulding often manages to balance Partridge's tendency for bombast ("Boarded Up"), but it's not enough. XTC has always sounded best when it's been angry. This hidey-ho, happy go lucky stuff is a bore.
The real crime is that Partridge has a kick-ass voice that can be menacing and intimidating when he wants it to be, but too often on Wasp Star he revels in a self-parody of sorts wherein his voice sounds almost cartoonish. I mean, let's face it- which side of XTC do you prefer? "Dear God" or "Mayer Of Simpleton?" Or, need I remind you of "The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead?" Partridge sounds absolutely ecstatic when he sings "I'm The Man Who Murdered Love." I'm all for the juxtaposition of conflicting moods, but this just sounds silly.
Wasp Star is heading straight for the "sell pile." I've given it a fair share of listens just to see if it would redeem itself through closer scrutiny but to no avail. The sticker on the cover proudly claims that this is "an album with more hooks than Mike Tyson." I've heard them, and you can have them back. Wasp Star has all the right ingredients for a classic pop record, so how does a band mess it all up this badly? Ask Sting.