One for Friday: XTC, “Your Dictionary”

By the late-nineteen-nineties, my connection to new music was in dire shape. It had only been five years since I’d last had the opportunity to log some regular hours on a college radio station, but my instincts for sniffing out the top newcomers had atrophied thanks to some time toiling for a commercial alternative station, where only bands that had a sound within echoing distance of Pearl Jam need apply. I did what I could with the resources at hand — including the increasingly fruitful but not yet fully helpful land of web-based music coverage — but I was finding myself more and more detached from what was going on. (At the end of the month, I will officially acquire the new Sleater-Kinney box set as penance for stupidly missing out on most of those albums the first time around.) In that context, getting a new album from a longtime favorite artist still crafting fine music was like a beam of light from the heavens. And few albums felt more like the clouds shifted to deliver it than XTC’s Apple Venus Volume 1.

The ingenious English pop band were a staple of my college radio days, releasing albums at an admirably prolific pace throughout the eighties and still managing minor masterpieces at a reasonable clip into the early nineties. Then the already fractious relationship with their label, Virgin Records, broke down entirely over the last minute refusal to issue “Wrapped in Grey” as the third single off of Nonsuch (a handful of copies did make it out, and you can own one for a few hundred bucks). The band effectively went on strike, refusing to create or release any more new music. The label held fast, refusing to negotiate the contract. Just like that, there was a gap of seven years between XTC albums, a long enough span that band member Dave Gregory, lost interest entirely, leaving midway through the recording process of the eventual release. It was also a stretch that saw a significant enough change in the alternative music scene — notably the flaring of grunge and the scorched earth it left behind — that XTC had a difficult time finding a suitable place to exist upon their return. They went from a group to be reckoned with to a cult favorite to those with long memories. Such is the curse of primary airplay happening on stations where, by definition, the staff turns over almost entirely every four years.

That hint of indifference in the marketplace of music fandom was especially disheartening because Apple Venus was very, very good, maybe not on a par with the dizzying peaks of the band, but certainly an expression of creators who understood the potential elegance of modern songcraft like few others. The smart (and smart aleck) playfulness of “Your Dictionary,” my favorite track on the album, proves that decisively. Turns out Apple Venus would land as a final statement for the band, including the following year’s Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2, which was essentially the other half of a double album that they decided to split in two. Except for the occasional stray track, there would be no more new music released under the XTC name, with chief songwriter and lead singer Andy Partridge instead raiding his own archives for Fuzzy Warbles releases and generally trying to correct the record. There’s no evident movement towards any sort of XTC reunion, and that’s fine by me. What’s already out there is more than enough to treasure.

Listen or download –> XTC, “Your Dictionary”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Apple Venus Volume 1 is currently out of print, and indeed far enough out of print that used copies go for a pretty penny. Similarly, there seems to be no real urgency on the part of Partridge or anyone else to sort through whatever licensing, copyright, and ownership issues may be in place to facilitate a return to record bins anytime soon. Therefore, this track is shared here in this space with the understanding and belief that it is not available for purchase as a physical object in a manner that would duly compensate both the artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. Still, I will gladly remove the track is asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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