At first, the album pales beside the lush Apple Venus, a masterpiece of longing moved fussily through studio gears until every song could be swallowed like a capsule. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) shares its predecessor's arching romance but injects optimism through volume and hooks that feel refreshingly uncalculated. It's the sound of Partridge moving on after stifling periods of divorce and inactivity. Wasp Star is downright chipper.
Producer Nick Davis, who has worked with Genesis and its keyboardist, Tony Banks, has pared down XTC's sound, locking the members in a closet without an orchestra. Some songs, such as "We're All Light," have an anachronistic sound that's off a few years, as though Davis put in a disc marked 1991 to capture lightly whap-whapping drums and snake-charmer keyboards. (That song, actually, sounds a lot like Genesis' 1991 "Living Forever.") Of course, XTC spent most of the last decade in stasis, waiting to get out of a bad contract and steering clear of the studio. Wasp Star, then, sometimes sounds like the natural follow-up to 1992's Nonsuch, eschewing contemporary trickery. For such shuffles as "We're All Light" and "Standing in for Joe," the lack of modern polish works fine. "Church of Women" and "My Brown Guitar," though, would have benefited from a thicker sound. "Church" hints at a fuller arrangement, with bits of trumpet and acoustic guitar, but never gels.
Wasp Star goes down easy by itself, even if most of its songs fail to grab on first listen. It makes sense best when played right after Volume 1. Leave it to XTC to follow a disc of blooming dispirit with a summery album that beams like high noon. Together, the volumes become an achievement rather than just a great album and its solid sequel.