Wasp Star, "Apple Venus Volume Two" (TVT)

Great Lake Erie: Imagining an Inland Sea
They Might Be Giants once wrote a song titled "XTC vs. Adam Ant," a geek rock battle royale pitting the literate, fractured pop of the former against the gaudy, disposable new wave of the latter. The song awarded Ant a cautious victory, mostly on the merits of his brief '90s comeback hit, "Wonderful." After a seven-year silence (no doubt spent brooding on this matter), XTC has reemerged to take its revenge. Last year's Apple Venus Volume One sounded Ant's death knell, and XTC announced its glorious rebirth through an awe-inspiring cycle of orchestral art-pop and lush, evocative lyricism. Now comes Wasp Star, ostensibly known as Apple Venus Volume Two, but commonly dubbed "the electric record," as surviving members singer-guitarist Andy Partridge and singer-bassist Colin Moulding have replaced the strings, trumpets, and sweeping orchestration of Volume One with good old electric guitar. Actually, Wasp Star stumbles out of the gate -- both "Playground" and "Stupidly Happy" rely heavily on one endlessly repeated guitar riff, the latter sounding almost exactly like Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go." Whereas Volume One transcended mainstream pop, Wasp Star caters to it. In the end, though, XTC prevails.

Partridge still delivers shrewd, smart, and uncompromisingly Beatlesque pop gems, like the syncopated shuffle of "My Brown Guitar," the Stevie Wonder soul of "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful," and the faux-blues slur of "Wounded Horse." Surprisingly, Moulding's contributions steal the show. Both his tunes on Volume One devolved into dorky, lightweight Monty Python sing-alongs. But here, "In Another Life" delivers breezy romance, "Standing in for Joe" offers coy, devilish infidelity, and the set-stealing "Boarded Up" provides a soulful lament on how his hometown has deteriorated.

Taken alone, Wasp Star provides a great ride from two arch songwriters and pop maestros; only the Volume One comparisons hurt. Compared to former milestones such as "Easter Theater" and "Greenman," the songs here take a step back -- a composition as lyrically ambitious as "Church of Women" deserved the full orchestral treatment, while the set-closing "The Wheel and the Maypole" grates in a relentlessly upbeat sort of way. But consider "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love," an insightful, instantly catchy single about which Adam Ant can only dream. Wasp Star won't reach the head of the class, but that's only because XTC is in a class all to itself.

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