SKYLARKING – XTC – a mini review – yes, the polarity, and a few other things, have been corrected!

Hello. This is a review of the re-released ‘Skylarking’ CD by XTC, written in a new style that I like to call, ‘stream of consciousness’. In headphones, my very first listen to the ‘new’ ‘Skylarking’. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

Ahhhh…..I am back now in “SUMMER’S CAULDRON” – drowning here, in actual, fact, sonically drowning in my headphones, at least! – with the insects buzzing in rhythm all across the sharpest stereo field of any version of “SKYLARKING” I’ve ever heard – from the moment the disc begins, I realise that ANDY PARTRIDGE is right – the original release does sound “thin and distant” – but that has now been sorted by original album engineer JOHN DENT, who, after discovering the album’s polarity issues, then applied just the right amount of 2013 technology to the problem, this strange problem of “incorrect polarity” – but whatever that really is, it’s been fixed, let me assure you – the backing vocals of “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, so clear and clean, the vocal harmonies layered so beautifully, TODD RUNDGREN’S melodica part drifting beautifully through this wonderful, clear new mix – the insects and birds constant throughout, and then we are suddenly brought into “GRASS”, with its swaying, utterly beautiful violins introduction, one of COLIN MOULDING’S best pop songs, ever, from any album – and the guitars, finally, the XTC GUITARS have arrived – jangly, bendy, wonderful guitars – and there seem to still be some crickets lurking here and there in this song – with its double entendre about being “on grass” – lying on grass, or, is it lying on grass whilst BEING on grass – “the things we used to do on grass”…what a lovely tune, and when that big vocal harmony comes in near the end, and the violins switch back from pizzicato to legato – and then, the birds and insects return to help the feedback guitar to gently end the piece in their long fade out. Producer Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “musical” programmed birds and insects sound amazing throughout “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, and then when they reappear at the end of “GRASS” in full, finally fading away so that we can all meet up in “THE MEETING PLACE” – this one is so, so quirky, but I love it, it’s just fantastic – with its gently moving up and down form, and that irresistible descending guitar riff, COLIN MOULDING supplying some wonderful PAUL MCCARTNEY style high register riffs as is his habit, and then “THE MEETING PLACE” gives away to ANDY PARTRIDGE’S ode to superwoman, “THAT’S REALLY SUPER, SUPER GIRL” – a fantastic and underrated piece of pop music, very complex background harmonised vocals, wonderful Electro-Harmonix phaser shifter style sounds, great effects on all of the vocals – this song is really all about harmony, and even counterpoint – the layering of main vocal, background vocals, and harmonising vocals is exquisite – and then, we get the first proper lead solo on the record, an absolutely snappy gem, ending with some truly sublime whammy bar bending, a super (sorry, there’s just no other word to describe it!) clean, super concise lead solo, the kind that XTC have become known for, ever since childhood friend and guitarist DAVE GREGORY joined the band, on their third album, the much lauded “DRUMS AND WIRES”. But now we are back to ANDY PARTRIDGE, and a song that has a very special place in my heart, as I spent many, many hours working up my own very special cover version of the song, for one of IAN STEWART’S wonderful XTC cassette compilations, this one entitled “SKYLACKING”. My version of “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY” wasn’t meant to sound anything like the XTC version, I built the music for the song entirely out of ebow guitars, working in harmony, to emulate the pianos and guitars of the original – and then, I sang a very tenuous, uncertain lead vocal on top of the ebows – but, even if imperfect, working on this song just sent my admiration for XTC through the ceiling – the vocal arrangement, when those background vocals appear, and the amazing piano in the background, not to mention ANDY PARTRIDGE’S remarkable lead vocal performance – what an incredibly beautiful voice…and with the words “slow descending grey” a phalanx of violins introduces us to our next tune, “1000 UMBRELLAS” which features an all strings backing, very, very intense strings, which underpin Andy’s strangely agonised vocal, he seems at the point of desperation here, a huge contrast to the easy and beauty of the previous track, “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY”, which just shows you how multi-talented he is – this vocal is practically a different persona – and then, hope returns at the end, the strings cheer up a tiny bit…Andy’s voice of desperation changes to beautiful pop mode again…and then suddenly, a slow ritard to our all-strings extravangza ending, and it’s the circus-accordion into to the bouncy, jaunty, and extremely fun “SEASON CYCLE” – “pushing the pedals on the season cycle – summer changed by autumn….” this piece is very, very PAUL MCCARTNEY to my mind, like something that belongs next to “GOOD DAY SUNSHINE” – but in this case, “SEASON CYCLE” has a curious central bridge section that is suddenly very solemn and serious, taking the mood down several notches briefly – before returning to the bright and wonderful refrain of this remarkable pop tune from ANDY PARTRIDGE. A very short silence now, for the first time, and suddenly, the incredibly powerful beginning of what may be my personal favourite track on the album, “EARN ENOUGH FOR US”, which every man seeking employment or a better job or a better paying job can instantly relate to, having a wife and family to worry about, but this age-old story here is told to the absolutely popping snare of ex-TUBES then-TODD RUNDGREN drummer PRAIRIE PRINCE, who plays drums on a number of these tunes (and completely kicks ass on this particular tune – it really is an amazing piece of drumming) – and this song, to me, is just THE perfect power pop song – it rocks, that’s all there is to it, it has a really strong drum part, and then, powerful, power-chording and lead guitar playing from both ANDY PARTRIDGE and DAVE GREGORY, a fantastic chord progression that the BEATLES would have been proud to use, it’s just an incredible piece of power pop / rock craftsmanship – and there a million reasons why it’s my favourite – COLIN MOULDING’S bass part is amazing, again, with those PAUL MCCARTNEY like high register sections, working perfectly with the drums – very REVOLVER-like at the end – this song just wakes me up, it’s bright, it’s message, while somewhat dark, is framed in the brightest of sounds – a wonderful dichotomy, and I can’t say enough good about this song. Amazing, beautiful vocals, too. “I’ve been praying I could keep you – and, to earn enough for us” – no sooner has it arrived, then the hopeful, beautiful pop masterpiece “EARN ENOUGH FOR US” has to end…leading into the a cappella start of “BIG DAY”, Colin’s foreboding warning to newlyweds everywhere, which while lyrically is not perhaps the most genius on this record, or as a song – this song still has a lot going for it, including that odd intro, which repeats during the song, which actually comes to a complete stop to allow this burst of harmonised “BIG DAY”S to repeat. I like the stop start feel of the track, it’s nice that it stops, and each time that vocal section plays, it gets odder and odder, the second repeat, a strong tremolo is applied to the vocals, and there are lots of lovely psychedelic sounds in the background…the tremolo then is applied to the verse itself – maybe it’s more of an auto-panner, difficult to tell sometimes, but a great effect nonetheless, this song is all about sonic imagery – and the sounds do evoke a lot of mental, visual images – so it succeeds wildly on that scale. The next song is one of the most eerie, beautiful songs that ANDY PARTRIDGE has ever written, with a vocal that is so remarkable, and has such beautiful effects applied to it – what an amazing piece of music is “ANOTHER SATELLITE” with it’s beautiful delay lead vocal, which then leads to other islands of different types of vocals, including some lyric-less “ta-ta” sounds, then, glockenspiel or similar arrives to accompany our spaced-out lead vocal, the rhythm is sort of drum machine, but with those big ringing, heavily chorused guitar chords ringing out in the background, it sound alive, not machine like – marimbas now appear, to tie up the verses – and then, a long outro of repeated choruses ‘don’t need “ANOTHER SATELLITE”…’ on and on into the distance, which then leads up to…the lovely (and for a time, the “omitted”) “MERMAID SMILED” a beautiful acoustic guitar number, with insane, high speed percussion courtesy of ex-TUBES percussionist MINGO LEWIS, another awesome musician who participates on this amazing album, due to the RUNDGREN-EX-TUBES axis of power. Meanwhile, muted trumpets, and intense bass part, and some just amazing melodic and chordal ideas, bring “MERMAID SMILED” inexorably to its all-too soon ending…but then, more MINGO LEWIS mad percussion begins another one of the albums standout tracks “THE MAN WHO SAILED AROUND HIS SOUL” – with its hippie flutes and jazzy piano and bass parts, this is just an odd, odd song, but somehow, it absolutely belongs here – and it also sounds incredibly “JAMES BOND” – high pitched strings, heavily-reverbed “spy” guitars – in fact a lot of cliché spy guitar here and there in this piece – and then back to those jazz breaks – it’s so odd – but I love it to bits, what an amazing and unique ANDY PARTRIDGE piece – MINGO LEWIS popping the fastest bongo solos you ever heard, PRAIRIE PRINCE’S drumming is insanely clever, a mad break in the middle, then, back to bongo’s and flute for the outro, with Andy singing a lone refrain of the title…an absolute classic, with a perfect spy ending. And then – the other controversial song on the album, the incredibly poignant, sad and musically perfect “DEAR GOD”, this song is the first thing I heard from this album, except, at the time, it was just a single, it wasn’t actually ON the original album, it has only been added in in later years (and some purists object to its presence on these later releases – this one included) but personally, I can’t imagine listening to the rest of SKYLARKING without it. In this short, pop masterpiece, ANDY PARTRIDGE has a long chat with GOD, and he challenges him on several burning issues, whilst amazing, Beatle-like TODD RUNDGREN strings drift in sheer beauty in the background, a great tune – fantastic string arrangement, and ANDY PARTRIDGE’S acoustic guitar and vocals are absolutely sublime – and then, a strident, powerful bridge, where ANDY PARTRIDGE seems fairly disgusted with GOD’S performance – and finally, to an ending that mirrors the song’s beginning, both the beginning lines, and the final line, both being sung by a young girl named JASMINE VEILLETTE that TODD RUNDGREN suggested for the part. The amazing GOD-questioning “DEAR GOD” is followed, suitably, by COLIN MOULDING’S remarkable song, “DYING”, which features among other things, a sort of clip-clop horse-like rhythm (but not quite) some fragmentary acoustic guitar chords, a serious bass part, and then, a beautifully arranged bridge, with lovely clean electric guitars, and a lot of beautiful ATMOSPHERE – and finally, a clarinet during the songs fade out, “DYING” is a song full of regrets, and a song full of forlorn longing, not wanting to end like his beloved relative did – “I don’t want to die like you…” – very, very serious subject, but a wonderful and rewarding song…sitting in the penultimate position on the album, “DYING” is followed by yet another COLIN MOULDING tune, the very unusual “Sacrificial Bonfire” – with yet another absolutely incredible, truly beautiful orchestral arrangement from TODD RUNDGREN, which in the middle part of the song, threatens to overcome the vocalist with its power and presence. Luckily, COLIN MOULDING holds his own throughout, the song is based around a very simple acoustic guitar and bass figure, but it then builds to a fantastic crescendo thanks to TODD RUNDGREN’S orchestral contributions. In 1986, when the album first came out, I admit, I struggled with both “DYING” and “SACRIFICIAL BONFIRE”, but over time, as is their wont to do, their particular magic has worked on me, and I eventually realised just how beautiful, and just how important they are to winding your SKYLARKING experience in just the right way – it can’t all be triumphant highs, and COLIN MOULDING provides just the right amount of sober realism to create a rounded, beautiful end block of two remarkable songs. The contrast between the writing and performing styles of ANDY PARTRIDGE and COLIN MOULDING has always been one of the most important aspects of why the music of XTC is so successful – they each write in a very individual style, but by gracefully peppering a bunch of ANDY PARTRIDGE tracks with a smaller number of COLIN MOULDING tracks – you end up with the perfect masterpiece pop album – and SKYLARKING is damn near perfect in every way – I can’t think of a more consistent, more creative, and frankly, more beautiful pop extravaganza – 15 remarkable tracks by two writers who over time, have become national treasures in Britain – I just wish they were still writing together. So – SKYLARKING – Polarity Corrected version – get it- you won’t regret it. A beautiful setting-straight of the record, this is the way it was meant to sound, and, the way it was meant to look – and now that Andy has the rights, he has set right a grievous error, the release of the thin and distant, incorrect polarity version, from 1986 through to 2014 – it’s now, in 2014, finally “right”. Enjoy the fruits of ANDY PARTRIDGE’S labours: a new, improved, thick and lustrous SKYLARKING. 🙂

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One response to “SKYLARKING – XTC – a mini review – yes, the polarity, and a few other things, have been corrected!

  1. Pingback: scorched !! | pureambient / dave stafford

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