XTC – Nonsuch [The Surround Sound Series] – Ape House (CD+Blu-ray) APEBD110, CD: 67:80; Blu-ray: 5.1 PCM Surround mix (24bit/96khz), 5.1 DTS-HD Master (24/48), PCM stereo mix (24/96) [11/7/13] (Distr. by Panegyric) ****:
(Dave Gregory – electric guitar, electric 12-string guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, synthesizer, Hammond organ, backing vocals, church bell, string and horn arrangements; Andy Partridge – vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, harmonica, tambourine, percussion, shaker, keyboard programming, bell tree, string and horn arrangements (tracks 6, 9-10); Colin Moulding – vocals, bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, string and horn arrangements (track 13); Dave Mattacks – drums, tambourine, sitar samples, shaker, percussion; Guy Barker – flugelhorn, trumpet; Stuart Gordon, Florence Lovegrove – viola (tracks 2, 6, 9, 14); Gina Griffin – violin (tracks 2, 6, 9, 14); Rose Hull – cello (tracks 2, 6, 9, 14); Gus Dudgeon – producer, tambourine, backing vocals; Neville Farmer – backing vocals)
Fans of British alternative-pop band XTC are some of the most devoted of any group, and often accumulate everything related to XTC’s past history and current evolution. Which is partially why XTC’s various previous labels have kept most of XTC’s albums in print (there are some exceptions), and why bandmembers have gone through the vaults to reissue older material and odds and ends (B-sides, live tracks, demos, et al). Fortunately, co-founder and XTC leader Andy Partridge now has control of XTC’s music, and has started to make available audio collections with superior remixes with lots of bonuses, via his new imprint, APE House, which is a home to new productions as well as archival work. The first APE reissue effort is for XTC’s 12th album, the underrated Nonsuch (1992), re-released late in 2013 in two formats: CD+DVD or CD+Blu-ray. This review refers to the CD+Blu-ray.
Nonsuch was the follow-up to the lush pop LP Skylarking (1986) and the Day-Glo, psychedelic-pop successor, Oranges and Lemons (1989). Nonsuch was not as big a hit as those items, even though it was nominated for a 1993 Grammy for Best Alternative Album (it lost to Tom Waits’ Bone Machine). In retrospect, though, Nonsuch is top-notch and ready for either re-discovery or a first-time experience. Either way, the sound quality and the extras make this CD+Blu-ray compendium well worth owning.
There are several reasons this version of Nonsuch is better than previous ones. Upmost on the list is because it has a new, stereo edition mixed and produced by Steven Wilson (with Partridge’s guidance and input), from the original multi-track tapes, using a flat master transfer. Wilson’s 2013 stereo and 5.1 format is found on the CD, and the difference is definitely noticeable from the original 1992 stereo mix (which is on the Blu-ray), produced by legendary Gus Dudgeon (Elton John, et al), mixed by Nick Davis and engineered by Barry Hammond. The initial production was spot-on splendid (nothing wrong with it at all), but Wilson’s revision brings a vivid vibrancy to the songs, emphasizing the intricate layers of percussion, guitar, horns, strings and other instrumental bits and affording sonic dynamism to electric guitars and drums. Wilson’s surround mix is considerately immersive. Examples abound. The charmingly strummed acoustic guitar, woven vocal harmonies, and airy mellotron on the rural and reflective “Humble Daisy” sound sweeter. The classically-tinged organ and Beach Boys-shaded vocal synchronization during “The Ugly Underneath” are further animated; and the electric guitars on “Books Are Burning” have more intensity. Throughout, the expansive ambiance of the Chipping Norton studio is palpable. Another reason this edition of Nonsuch is first-class is the generous bonuses. As mentioned, the Blu-ray has the 1992 stereo mix; it also has instrumental renderings of every track (those nicely highlight and accentuate the contributions from horns, a string quartet, and XTC’s rich arrangements); 23 Partridge demos; eight work-in-progress pieces from bassist Colin Moulding; two promotional videos (for the singles “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” and “The Disappointed”); plus, nearly 50 minutes of fly-on-the-wall, home video footage shot by Dudgeon in the Chipping Norton studio, which shows XTC, the production team, and musical guests (such as drummer Dave Mattacks) in the process of shaping or reconfiguring the tunes.
There are a few things to note. The 2013 stereo mix on the CD dispenses with the crossfades between songs which were utilized on the initial release. Some may miss them, but losing them was a safe choice, since the songs now stand out properly from each other. Also, the CD includes the zippy, Beatles-esque bonus track, Moulding’s “Didn’t Hurt a Bit,” which was inexplicably left off the 1992 Nonsuch. XTC collectors, however, may already have this: it is also on the 2002, four-disc assemblage, A Coat of Many Cupboards.
XTC aficionados will truly enjoy the Blu-ray (which is the best way to go: the DVD-Audio does not have as much material as the Blu-ray, due to reduced capacity). The Blu-ray has two audio selections: a PCM 5.1 surround mix (24bit/96khz) mixed from the original multi-track tapes, and a DTS-HD Master Audio stream at 24/48. The 17 instrumentals may appear a frivolous supplement, but provide a keen way to nestle into XTC’s sophisticated arrangements, and take a closer listen to Mattack’s firm but graceful drums; the way acoustic piano or guitar melds with horns, cello, viola and violin; or how specific harmonic and melodic elements blend. Partridge’s home demos are also intriguing, and offer insights into the development of the tunes. These are comprehensive demos, complete songs, not fragments. Some demos (possibly all) are also sprinkled amongst the five-volume Fuzzy Warbles series, from the early 2000s. Unlike most artists, Partridge spends much time on his demos (which are as honed as official releases by some other musicians), thus they are appealing in a half-finished way.
Nonsuch is packaged in a double-disc digipak inside a cardboard slipcase, and has a 16-page booklet which features a few photographs, and freshly-penned sleeve notes by Partridge, Moulding and guitarist Dave Gregory. One caveat: song lyrics are not included, which seems a mistake, since Partridge’s lyrics in particular are frequently filled with puns, double meanings, and have revealing details which impart heightened value.
CD [2013 Stereo]: The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead; My Bird Performs; Dear Madam Barnum; Humble Daisy; The Smartest Monkeys; The Disappointed; Holly Up on Poppy; Crocodile; Rook; Omnibus; That Wave; Then She Appeared; War Dance; Wrapped in Grey; The Ugly Underneath; Bungalow; Books Are Burning; Didn’t Hurt a Bit [bonus track]
Original stereo mix [same as CD, minus bonus track], 5.1, and instrumental mixes of all original stereo mix tracks.
Andy’s Home Demos:
Always Winter, Never Christmas; Books Are Burning; Goosey Goosey; Wrapped In Grey; That Wave; Goodbye Humanosaurus; Dear Madam Barnum; Crocodile; Difficult Age;The Ugly Underneath; Holly Up on Poppy; The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead; Then She Appeared; It’s Snowing Angels; Rook; Humble Daisy; Rip Van Reuben; I’m the Man Who Murdered Love; Omnibus; The Disappointed [First Reference Recording]; The Disappointed [Second Reference Recording]; The Disappointed; Wonder Annual
Colin’s Work Tapes:
My Bird Performs; Didn’t Hurt a Bit; The Smartest Monkeys; Down a Peg; Bungalow; War Dance; Car Out of Control; Where Did the Ordinary People Go?
Promotional videos for “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” and “The Disappointed”; 49 minutes of studio footage shot during the recording on Nonsuch.