"Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)"
The '90s were lost years for XTC frontman Andy Partridge. Ever since the trio's first punky EP in 1977, music has always been Partridge's therapy. He would write about domestic gloom, Jesus Christ or his "pink thing." Like his hero, Brian Wilson, Partridge stopped touring in his 20s after a nervous collapse. Off the road, he created some of the most timeless pop music of the 1980s on "English Settlement," "Skylarking" and "Oranges & Lemons."
By mixing strings and brass with Rolling Stones riffs, unexpected chord twists with Mersey hooks, Partridge made it safe to call your favorite music art rock. And then in the early '90s, he and his musical partner, Colin Moulding, disappeared. They didn't mean to pull a Salinger; the duo and then-guitarist Dave Gregory went on strike when Virgin wouldn't renegotiate the band's contract. Unwilling to cave in on their demands or tour again, XTC had no place to exist.
Partridge and Moulding reemerged in 1999 with a new album, "Apple Venus Volume 1," and a new label, TVT. It was hard to believe seven years had passed. Recorded from a reported 42-song backlog, the orchestral "Apple Venus" made a beautiful comeback. It was framed by a nasty open letter to the wife Partridge had split with during the exile. "F-U-C-K," he crooned on one song, "is that how you spell friend in your dictionary?"
The follow-up, "Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)," is a return to the gorgeously crisp electric pop Partridge has been writing for more than 20 years. It is also a tad more upbeat, full of Partridge's clever sense of humor. On "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love," the killing is actually more of an assisted suicide. Love has been out of work and pleads to be put out of his misery. After the deed, the angels cheer and shake the heroic narrator's hand. No more pain, broken hearts or lovers torn apart. "I'm guilty," Partridge shouts, a believer plowing through a church-choir break.
"Wasp Star" opens with a hard electric guitar line and hardly quiets down. The center of the sound is Partridge's distinctive voice. He can sing pretty, throw in low harmonies and throat it like Big Mama Thornton. As usual, Moulding delivers three songs. He is George Harrison to Partridge's Lennon, McCartney, Ray Davies and Syd Barrett, except that you get the sense Moulding is content as second wheel, not a frustrated sideman looking to strike out on his own.
Moulding's "Boarded Up" is soul music, a ballad about Swindon, the decaying English town where he and Partridge formed XTC. He also sings with Partridge on "Stupidly Happy," which could make up the first lesson plan in the school of pop music. It opens with a simple riff that remains intact throughout the four-minute song. With each verse, Partridge and Moulding paste on another layer -- cascading harmonies, "Bang-a-Gong" groove guitar and that relentless, start-up riff -- until they have a pop symphony.
Of course, nothing XTC does in the studio will cut off the inevitable inquiries about touring. Last year, nearly every interview with Partridge included the question: "Why not?" After all, even the notoriously skittish recluse Brian Wilson is taking to the streets. Partridge, who has answered the question a thousand different ways -- all with a clear "no" -- put it beautifully to a writer from People magazine last year. "Why would you want to see my fat [posterior]," he asked, "when you can buy a slice of my soul and take it home."