Messed up audio mixes are legendary in the music business. From the painfully obvious, such as Billy Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor (mastered at the wrong speed), to the less noticeable to us (but harrowing for the artist) faulty noise reduction that “ruined” seminal ’70s Steely Dan albums like Katy Lied, there are many nightmare tales artists have told that at one point or another seem to get rectified. Heck, even classics like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue had mastering problems resulting in it playing at the wrong speed!
The latest tale falls somewhere between those extremes and comes from our fab heroes in Swindon England: XTC. When band mainstay Andy Partridge set out to prepare a deluxe edition reissue of the band’s seminal 1986 release Skylarking — with the aim of restoring the original banned cover art and playing sequences of deleted tracks — his engineer discovered something rather remarkable: the original master tapes used had their “polarity” reversed, which resulted in every release of this landmark album sounding significantly thinner than it should have sounded!
I promptly pre-ordered the uber deluxe edition with coffee table book quality artwork and 180-gram “deep cut” audiophile vinyl LPs designed to play at 45 RPM for the best possible sound. In listening to this glowing restoration of arguably one of the best records from the 1980s, as a relative layman (in engineering terms) it is not always clear just how much difference that the polarity made in the overall sound. But, I will say that this version sounds much much much better than any LP or CD copy I have ever heard. If you have heard the original UK pressings of XTC’s landmark 1982 release English Settlement, then you know how good that sounds. You also know from that album how important the sequencing is, with each side playing like a mini suite in its own right, all contributing to the collective whole….
Skylarking now plays with that same spirit and feel. Consider this new version of Skylarking a record of four musical miniatures. The first suite (opening with “Summer’s Cauldron” segued into “Grass”) sounds much more open than on the first press US Geffen LP (or the equivalent UK Virgin CD, which I own as well). The wiry edges to the guitars and voices are warmer and smoother and the harmonies lusher. You can hear the sound of the parade drum’s head being hit and moving air, not just a generic “big drum” sound. Violins sound pure and guitars are big and roomy. “Meeting Place” is much more distinct, with distinct left-right stereo action on the machine sounds, as well as punchier bass.
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl” rocks harder on the new version as well, wrapping up Side One before launching into the moody song cycle on Side Two of “Ballet for a Rainy Day,” “1000 Umbrellas,” and “Season Cycle.” Here again, the strings just soar on songs like “1000 Umbrellas” — you can feel the bow crossing the strings as you ride the wave of Dave Gregory’s spectacular arrangements (he also arranged strings on “Dear God”). The whole mix pops out of your speakers more naturally.
Side Three comes out swinging with “Earn Enough For Us” sounding bigger than the original LP. The vocals are more upfront and the bass tighter. You can really hear the tambourines now and the sharp ping of Prairie Prince’s snare drum. The cymbals no longer have the odd swishing going on — just a tight crisp tang. “Big Day” has lighter, airier acoustic guitars and you can hear the texture of the strings being strummed.
“Another Satellite” puts you in the studio with what is likely a drum machine pumping through an amplifier. You can really hear the amplifier swelling now with the treated guitars flowing through it. That is not just a random weird sound — that is that warm sound of an amplifier you are hearing. And when the cymbal’s tings come in toward the end, it’s just magical. And you can now make out the marimba-like parts.
The album takes you from outer space to the deep ocean sea with “Mermaid Smiled,” a swinging bongo-driven dreamscape. Now you can feel the sound of the room the instruments are being played in. Mingo Lewis’ percussion hits are amazingly detailed — to the point where you can feel the slap of fingers on the skins; on the original LP they just fall into the background. There is a big wash of an ocean sound that I’ve never really noticed before — on the old LP it’s just a rumble; on the new one it jumps out of the speakers! The song swings even more now because Colin’s walking bass is so clear.
Side Four wraps up the album with a suite of songs dealing with God, Greed, Life, and Death. “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” checks in like some out take from West Side Story, with finger snaps on the left and Beatnik bongos on the right. It really puts you in the room with the band and you can feel the crisp cymbal hits slicing through your heart. When the group kicks in it feels almost like Chick Corea is in the house — really tight playing that just shines through on this new reissue! Drum hits resonate. The Steely Dan-like horns punch out fat harmonies while surf guitars punctuate the mix.
The first pressings of Skylarking always felt a little funny in their abridged sequence — after this swinging tune, the album got suddenly dark and gloomy with “Dying” and “Sacrificial Bonfire.” That is because the original sequence cut out “Dear God” from the album, which was later stuck back in (cutting out “Mermaid Smiled” instead on LP; eventually tacked on to the end of the 2001 CD). So now the whole group is back together in its proper sequence. And the songs sound fabulous together.
“Dear God” always sounded incredible, mind you, but now it takes on a whole other level entirely when experienced in its proper place. I also compared this new LP to the 12-inch UK single (B-side of “Grass”) and this new version wipes that one as well as the original Geffen LP. The guitars are big and full, the string quartet is distinct and searing — you can feel the ache in Andy’s voice. The drums are really impassioned, bound tightly to the acoustic guitar strums at the bridge in particular. But really, it is the way “Dear God” segues into the next song — “Dying” — that just sent a shudder down my spine. It is just haunting and makes the whole sequence a whole lot more cohesive.
Ending with a song of peace, “Sacrificial Bonfire” puts the demons at bay to make way for another day-in-the-life ahead. “Burn up the old / Ring in the new.” On the original LP, the acoustic guitars sound kind of boxy and the fire sounds indistinct. The strings are kind of mushed together. Now, you can hear that the opening drums are Tympanis or a big Parade drum — you feel the swell of the drum heads stretching in and out. The nylon string guitars are round and fat. The fire sounds like fire, not like scratches on the record. You can better distinguish the cellos from the violins and horns.
All in all, the new Skylarking is everything Andy’s label promised and more. They said it sounds 30% better. I’d say it sounds 50% better! My only nit to pick is that Sides Two and Four of my set came through pressed off-center, so on some portions you can hear notes wavering. Fortunately, Andy’s label has been very responsive to my complaint (they are not aware that I am reviewing this, by the way) and has told me that they have shipped me off a new set of LPS to replace the bad ones. I can’t wait to hear them!
Oh, and what about a remastered CD version of this new gem? Well, if the Wikipedia is accurate: “Partridge has stated that the remastered album cannot yet be released on the APE imprint through digital formats because Virgin has retained the digital rights.” Maybe, just maybe, this is the excuse you need to go buy a new turntable!
Support our heroes in Swindon and order your copy from Ape House at http://www.ape.uk.net/acatalog/XTC.html
Here’s a rare and very trippy promo video someone posted on YouTube for the song Grass, which ties neatly into the themes on the original banned album covers (flowers, love, etc.):
And if you’ve never heard “Dear God,” here’s the still stunning video that helped put XTC back at the top of the pop charts: