After the release of the 1992 album Nonsuch, XTC disappeared, but it wasn't laziness that kept the venerable, prolific act from recording. A bum record deal pushed the trio into the financial red, a situation that led its members to refuse to record under protest. Finally freed from that contract, XTC has returned, minus Dave Gregory, with the first half of a two-part album. (In an attempt to make up for lost time, the second half is due later this year.) Lead singer and chief songwriter Andy Partridge has dubbed Apple Venus Vol. 1 a collection of "orchustic" music, and the label fits. With sidekick Colin Moulding, who contributes two of the album's eleven songs, Partridge has crafted a superb album that largely relies upon strings and acoustic instruments. It's the band's lushest work since 1986's Skylarking, and, though XTC has made nothing but excellent albums between now and then, its best since then as well. The gorgeous, slow-building "River Of Orchids" opens Apple Venus, gradually introducing its tone both musically, with its layers of strings, and lyrically, with its almost pagan adoration of nature and wish for a return to a romanticized pre-industrial world. But, ambitious experimentation and all, there's no mistaking the selections on Vol. 1 for anything but pop music. Twenty years into XTC's history, this is still pop, from the acid-drenched divorce song "Your Dictionary" to the ritualized celebration of "Harvest Festival." Partridge and company have always had one of the strongest claims to the legacy of The Beatles' later work—the sort that dramatically expanded the accepted boundaries of pop music with no intention of breaking them—and Vol. 1 only confirms this. Whether the second, more electric, volume will do the same remains to be seen, but based on this record, it probably will. After such a long absence, it would almost be enough just for XTC to return, but Apple Venus' stellar quality makes the comeback that much sweeter.