A Masterpiece to Compare with "Pet Sounds" or "Revolver"
John Stodder | livin' just enough | 02/22/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I didn't know much about XTC when a family member talked me into buying this CD shortly after it came out. I knew they were a British new wave band, so in my mind they were part of the trend that gave us Elvis Costello, Squeeze and the Police, but they seemed more novelty-oriented -- a skinny-tie outfit that had a following that I wasn't part of.
So imagine my surprise upon hearing the first note of this album played by...a raindrop! Then, plucked strings, a whole orchestra's worth. As the song unfolded, all these pieces dropped in and took their place -- trumpets, overdubbed singing voices, coming from different directions as if they were part of some other piece of music, then coming together into a whole. A tour de force, to be sure, but a strange one! Then after the last raindrop, a new song, "I'd Like That," that was like a an airy chocolate truffle, a fluffy ode to love and kisses, except with an underlying rhythmic momentum coming from a heavily-strummed 12-string guitar.
There was nothing here to remind one of early hits like "Making Plans for Nigel." Instead, it was this highly sophisticated, lyrically precise, brilliantly orchestrated work of art, every song touched by genius and shimmering with beauty, even the ominous "Your Dictionary" which is as bitter lyrically as the other songs are sweet and fanciful. The album's last two tracks, "Harvest Festival" and "The Last Balloon" are literally transporting. "Harvest Festival" is almost indescribable; another song performed primarily by an orchestra but arranged with a strong beat, almost a march, evoking a bucolic moment of ritual but combining it with memories suffused with regret. As it fades out, a harpsichord plays the opening chords of "The Last Balloon." The orchestra is gone, replaced with a Brian Wilson/Paul McCartney-like arrangement -- imagine "Caroline No" married with "Hey Jude," but with a lyric unlike either of them, and a long closing jazz trumpet solo over this echoing wall of sound.
The 10 years since I bought this album have been very kind to it. It seems even more brilliant today than it was when I first heard it. I've since picked up quite a few XTC CDs, including the related but harder-rocking successor, their final album "Wasp Star," which has several songs as stunning as what's here. Apparently, "Apple Venus" followed a period of protest, so that the album immediately prior to it, "Nonsuch," came out seven years earlier. On a few "Nonsuch" songs, you can hear the ideas for "Apple Venus" begin to come together, especially "Wrapped in Gray" and "Rook."
A running theme through all their CDs at least going back to "English Settlement" is a very unusual take on vocal harmony. It's the two main singers, but it's also a lot of overdubbing to leave you with the sound of a men's choir singing jazz chords but without jazz inflections, i.e. blue notes. The Beach Boys are the obvious comparison, but Brian Wilson's heart is somewhere else, and so his harmonies tend to embrace you, while XTC's can be somewhat disquieting at times. The closest comparison out there might be the harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash (and other singers) found especially on Crosby's solo album "If I Could Only Remember My Name" and on the first Crosby-Nash album. But with lyrics that as often bite as they soothe, and voices in lower registers, voices that mean business.
XTC is a grossly underappreciated band that will get its due someday. Fans who get their music are rabid about it. Someday, there will be concerts to reproduce their best songs, probably with different singers given Andy Partridge's famed stage fright. At such a concert, there will be a small orchestra, and it will be there to play "River of Orchids," "Harvest Festival" "Greenman" and other amazing songs off this album. It is, quite simply, one of the 10 greatest albums of the rock era. That few are yet willing to concede that is only due to the band's lack of cachet. XTC might be the worst-marketed great band in music history. It's up to listeners to find them, and you won't regret having done so. m"
chicvibe | Henderson, WA | 06/08/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I think this is an album that grows on you with each listen. Lush, introspective, a natural progression for Andy Partridge & XTC. I love the whole album, but River of Orchids is particularly interesting."