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Record Reviews: Pop

XTC: Apple Venus (Cooking Vinyl). Seven years since XTC's last album, this LP - a truly enchanting collection - has slipped out with no advance publicity at all: typical of a band who are destined to dodge success. They could claim to be the archetypal Britpop combo, but they stayed out of sight for the whole Britpop era. They rediscovered Sixties psychedelia years before anyone else, but they've now shelved it in favour of acoustic strumming and George Martin-inspired chamber orchestras. On Apple Venus, XTC have been nibbled down to the core duo of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, but they retain their love of wordplay, lulling melodies, and lyrics about cycling to country pubs for a glass of stout. If anything, they're more bucolic than ever, with the opening track advocating the conversion of motorways into "rivers of orchids", and Partridge's high, swooping vocals recalling Sting. Apple Venus is as lovely as a sunset, if hardly likely to make XTC millionaires. Nothing's changed, then.

Blondie: No Exit (RCA). The Beatles' comeback single only got to No 2. A fortnight ago, "Maria" went straight to No 1, which makes Debs and co's get-together officially the most worthwhile rock'n'roll reunion ever. Blondie have still got it. But before you rush out and buy No Exit, it's worth remembering what it was that they had in the first place. Their LPs had their share of sleek, sharp, pure pop - represented here by "Maria" and "Nothing Is Real But the Girl", both written by keyboardist Jimmy Destri - but they were also repositories for the band's more eccentric, eclectic whims. No Exit is true to this tradition. "Screaming Skin" is robotic ska, with Harry hamming up the vocals shamelessly. The title track is a terrifying experiment in gothic rap opera. "The Dream's Lost on Me" is a hillbilly waltz and "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" is a dash of swishy nightclub jazz. You've got to admire Blondie for returning to the fray in such a fearlessly contrary mood. Nor can you fault the undimmed power of the musicianship: Clem Burke's drumming, in particular, is awesomely muscular. In short, No Exit sounds like the next album Blondie would have made if they hadn't split up when they did. The bad news is that such an album would have come out in the mid-Eighties, and No Exit's dated soft-rock production lets it down: the synthesisers are horrible and the guitars on "Happy Dog" could be the work of Dire Straits. If only the group had employed the producers of Elastica or the Cardigans. They've carried the Blondie blueprint into the Nineties without any trouble at all.