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Wasp Star is XTC’s second part of a collection of material conceived while the band was ending its imbalanced relationship with Virgin Records. The songs were roughly split into “orchoustic” and “eclectric” categories, but the more tangible difference is exuberance in place of the sedateness of Apple Venus Volume One. (“Wasp Star” is a translation of the Mayan Venus, “Xux Ek.”)

Wasp Star covers some of the familiar ground of Oranges and Lemons and Skylarking. By Andy Partridge’s estimation, Wasp Star is “the noisy guitar album (XTC) should have made in ’95.” Suitably enough, “Playground” begins with electric guitar and drums (alternately provided on Wasp Star by Skylarking’s drummer Prairie Prince and Chuck Sabo). It ends with the admonition “You may leave school, but it never leaves you,” an unnervingly accurate maxim on school’s clandestine function in impressing a societal template. XTC’s trademark sweet/sour methodology is also evident in “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love,” an instantly memorable concoction (even missing the bed of acoustic guitars present in the demo version).

Not that Wasp Star overdoses in cynicism: “Stupidly Happy” uses “the one riff that Keith Richards hadn’t” to build an euphoric account on the airheadedness of the first drunken days of being in love. “We’re All Light” at first seems to have metaphysical significance until you realize it’s a clever montage of chat-up lines.

“My Brown Guitar” is also borne of Andy’s formidable libidinous impulse. Originally, “My Brown Guitar” was intended for XTC’s infamous bubblegum project in which XTC was to assume the guises of numerous late 1960s bubblegum bands that had recorded for the nonexistent Zither Records label. Using such noms de plume as The Sopwith Caramels, The Lollipopes, The Four Posters, and Funnel Of Love, the premise was to record songs with cunningly sexual overtones like “Lolly (Suck It and See),” “Visit to the Doctor,” and “Cherry in Your Tree” (which did get recorded for the Out of This World With Carmen Sandiego album). Sadly, the impasse with Virgin Records apparently caused the concept to wither on the vine. Remade for Wasp Star in a sumptuously slow tempo, “My Brown Guitar” is one of its crucial tracks.

All three of Colin Moulding’s compositions on Wasp Star sparkle but “In Another Life” is especially brilliant. Written in reaction to his wife’s struggle with agoraphobia, he playfully negotiates and cajoles to spice their relationship, e.g. “Well, I’ll be your Burton if you’ll be my Liz” and “I’ll take your mood swings/Well, if you’ll take my hobbies/It all works out in the end.” His “Boarded Up” depicts the musical decline of longtime XTC hometown Swindon.

Like “My Brown Guitar,” “Standing in For Joe” originated as a Zither song in which the protagonist becomes an understudy — or perhaps more precisely, a body double — for his absent friend, a back-to-back adultery theme which continues in Andy’s “Wounded Horse,” a self-effacing country and western pastiche distorted to humourous effect (the opposite of AV1’s vitriolic “Your Dictionary”).

“You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” begins Wasp Star’s stunning concluding sequence, overlapping with the exhilaration of “Church of Women” and concluding with “The Wheel and the Maypole.” “You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful” compliments its subject wonderfully; “Church of Women” puts women on a higher pedestal, and “The Wheel and the Maypole” binds and unbinds the concepts of decay and rebirth and entrapment and release. The latter two belong amongst the best songs XTC has ever recorded. “The Wheel and the Maypole” is an ingenious construction so seamless that it’s hard to imagine that it originated as two separate, unrelated songs.

©2000 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.