XTC – Skylarking [Corrected Polarity Edition] [TrackList follows] – Panegyric/Ape House/Virgin APCECD113, 49:00 [4/14/14] ****:
(Todd Rundgren – producer, engineer, orchestral arranger, computer programming, melodica (track 1); synth (tracks 2, 4); backing vocals; Dave Gregory – vocals, guitar, piano, synth, chamberlin, strings arranger (tracks 6, 13); Colin Moulding – vocals, bass guitar; Andy Partridge – vocals, guitar; The Beech Avenue Boys – backing vocals; Prairie Prince – drums; Mingo Lewis – percussion; John Tenney – leader, first violin; Emily Van Valkenburgh – second violin; Rebecca Sebring – viola; Teressa Adams – cello; Charlie McCarthy – alto and tenor saxophone, flute; Bob Ferriera – tenor saxophone, piccolo, bass clarinet; Dave Bendigkeit – trumpet; Dean Hubbard – trombone; Jasmine Veillette – child vocal (track 13))
British group XTC’s finest moment came in 1986, when the formerly herky-jerky, new wave-inspired band melded their pop smarts into a cohesive LP, Skylarking, which balanced Beatles-esque post-psychedelic pop and the lusher side of the Beach Boys, with a classically-tinged English countryside texture. XTC got renowned producer Todd Rundgren to help bring their expansive and ambitious sounds to life. Rundgren also acted as arranger and engineer and assisted in song sequencing. The result was XTC’s most focused record, and most graceful and lyrical project up to that date. Skylarking is also noteworthy for Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding’s consistently strong and expressive songs. Each of the co-leader’s tunes is a mini treasure which merges fragrant and likable melodies juxtaposed with adult themes. The compositions often blend from one to another, which generates a semblance of a song cycle.
Skylarking has been reissued several times since 1986. This latest version, via XTC’s imprint, is digitally remastered, expanded and corrected. Initially, this re-release was available in 2010 as a deluxe edition, 45 RPM vinyl import. This review refers to the CD format which came out earlier this year. For audiophiles, the good news is that a heretofore undiscovered reverse polarity problem has been rectified. This is not a reversed left/right channel, which positions the stereo out of phase and creates an unlistenable sound. This type of polarity incidence can occur when a badly-wired plug subtracts some of the punch and prominence from a completed recording. Thus, possibly in the transfer from Rundgren’s multi-channel tape to the stereo master, a polarity was reversed. Fortunately, mastering engineer John Dent noticed this glitch when Partridge hired him for this reissue, and undertook the needed adjustments. The outcome is a much better stereo output with more instrumental and vocal detailing, and improved highs, lows and midranges. Check this against the 1994 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Gold disc, and there is an audible difference. Both have been mastered at agreeable levels but the MFSL disc has a slightly muddier quality when matched alongside this new edition.
There are two other updates. When Skylarking was originally released in the UK, then-controversial hit, “Dear God,” was not included, because it was the B-side of first single, “Grass.” After “Dear God” became an unexpected success on alternative-music radio stations, “Mermaid Smile” was removed so “Dear God” could be added. This was in the LP era, so it made sense at the time to delete one to make space for the other. Happily, both numbers are now on the same album, which now has 15 tracks. The equally provocative and sexually graphic album artwork has also been reinstated. The imagery is probably still too explicit for some retailers, but the illustration is closer in spirit to the carnal content than the substitute sketch the label insisted on back in the 1980s.
Time has not aged the material. It has been nearly three decades since listeners first heard this music, but everything still works wonderfully, which cannot be said for many music artifacts from the same period. Moulding’s four tracks have a definitive pop structure with ringing guitars, winsome melodies and a distinct 1960s approach. “The Meeting Place,” his ode to youthful trysts “under grimy skies” has a sunny disposition despite a compulsive plea to an ex-lover to repeat a dirty frolic near a smoky factory. His correspondingly pessimistic pop piece to marriage, “Big Day,” has a somewhat passé synth line, but the other sonic aspects transcend pastiche, particularly the resonant guitar lines, hints of wedding bells and excellently etched acoustic instrumentation. Partridge wrote the other cuts, and each is masterful. He echoes XTC’s early days with the cynical break-up composition, “That’s Really Super Supergirl,” where Partridge admits even a superhero could not save his relationship. Another exceptional excursion is “Earn Enough for Us,” which combines romantic elation with relentless angst. The upbeat, shiny arrangement emphasizes a straightforward rock band template which proves XTC could rock out with a celebratory mood, even when the subject matter is one of matrimonial and financial strain. The once-missing “Mermaid Smiled” is replete with brilliant audio subtleties: horns, rolling acoustic guitar, and sensitive percussion. Even more exquisite is the jazz-tinted “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” with swinging saxes and trumpet, finger-tapping drums and percussion, and some fine flute. Imagine Burt Bacharach teaming up with Lalo Schifrin. The CD also has a 12-page insert booklet with liner notes, credits and full lyrics, which are a must-read for those interested in well-scripted musical wordplay.
Summer’s Cauldron; Grass; The Meeting Place; That’s Really Super, Supergirl; Ballet for a Rainy Day; 1000 Umbrellas; Season Cycle; Earn Enough for Us; Big Day; Another Satellite; Mermaid Smiled; The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul; Dear God; Dying; Sacrificial Bonfire