Written by 4:45 am Audiophile Music

A Really Big Show: XTC’s Skylarking, Reinvented

Mark Smotroff has seen Swindon wonders and his bird is Blu…

This year, in 2016, we have now been twice-entertained by fabulous reissues from Swindon, England’s finest popular musical group, XTC.

AR-Skylarking2016MixesScreen225.jpgToday, we will explore the second of these fine, fine restorations of one of the finest pop music recordings of the 1980s, a smash hit musical work that stands proudly even next to the finest of England’s other big name beat group (alternately known as The Fab Four): Skylarking. 

We have previously discussed in these pages at Audiophilereview dot com the fabulous, polarity-corrected version of XTC’s Skylarking on 200-gram vinyl. In case you missed that review, you can click through to read about it here

Right now, however, we have in our hands the spectacular two-disc, CD-plus-Blu-ray super deluxe edition. It not only presents a stunning aural history of the recording, but also offers the music re-envisioned into glistening 5.1 surround sound by the great audio engineer and producer, Steven Wilson.

This version sounds quite fabulous overall, so for those of you who don’t have a turntable or simply don’t want to spring for the vinyl edition, this Blu-ray package should be a good alternative for you.  It doesn’t disappoint.  

Between the vinyl restoration and this new Blu-ray, we — the loyal fans of XTC — now arguably have access what must be the definitive views into XTC’s legendary breakthrough. The only thing that might be better would be hearing Skylarking played directly off the master tape in a studio.

“You tell me that you’ve heard every sound there is… “

Beginning with the 5.1 surround sound mix, engineer-producer Steven Wilson has once again created a compelling and tasteful reinvention of a rock classic without losing its essence. Lush yet non-gimmicky, Wilson leverages the rear channels and overall surround sound fields (if you will) cautiously without sacrificing a cheerful sense of adventure. 

AR-SkylarkingAndyGrassScreenGrab225.jpgFor example, on “1000 Umbrellas,” big drum hits resonate while swirling strings get extra trippy-psychedelic around the listener.  On “Season Cycle,” rich backup harmony vocals emerge comfortably from the rear amidst a nice bed of reverb and room ambiance. 

An organ pops from the right… 

“Earn Enough For Us” features groovy tambourines, harmonies and handclaps in the surrounds. Gongs in “Big Day”percolate from behind.

The hit single “Dear God” sounds downright gorgeous in 5.1 surround.

“You tell me that you’ve got everything you want…”

Four nifty bonus tracks have been mixed into surround sound for this release into a sort of supplemental EP of sorts.

The period B-side “Extrovert” swings much more than the original stereo mix, with its jazzy funky horns jumping joyously from the surrounds.  “Let’s Make a Den” is a super fun neo Bubblegum pop tune which was previously only available in early demo form. While I can hear why it was left off the final track listing for Skylarking, along with these other tracks — “The Troubles” and “Little Lighthouse” — the band could have issued a terrific EP featuring these four songs. It would have been a fun complement to the album back in the day.  

Ah well… better late than never…  

The deluxe edition Blu-ray of Skylarking also includes a huge number of original demos created by both Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (note: some of these have probably appeared on Andy’s Fuzzy Warbles archive series, but I have not had time to compare/contrast those…. even if they are duplicated, it is super handy to have these tracks contextually collected in one place). 

AR-SkylarkingBonusMixesScreen225.jpg“Shaking Skin House” is a Stones-y rocker that includes an early peek at music which developed into the chorus to “Merely A Man” (a song that ended up on Oranges & Lemons a couple of years after Skylarking).  It is fun to hear the rehearsals for a song that only really got as far as a demo: “Ra Ra For Red Rocking Horse” (which hardcore XTC fans will no doubt be familiar with from its appearance on fan club releases and also Andy Partridge’s aforementioned exhaustive collection of home demos, the nine CD Fuzzy Warbles boxed set).   

One of my favorites from this batch is a quite stunning early “skiffle” version of “Dear God,” a track which almost accidentally became a surprise hit after it had been taken out of the album running order.  

Speaking of “Dear God,” the Blu-ray Disc of Skylarking includes original music videos for that hit as well as “Grass,” both produced by photographer / film maker Nick Brandt (who made promotional films for the likes of Michael Jackson, Moby, Badly Drawn Boy and others in addition to XTC).  Watching “Dear God” for the first time on a big screen in a fairly high resolution form — and I say “fairly” as the film elements have not been “restored” so there are some cinematic artifacts apparent, but nothing terrible — I was taken by just how powerful this short form film remains to this day.  A powerful statement back in the day, the video has aged well and Andy Partridge’s acting in it is to be commended, delivering a controversial but resonant warning message for the ages, one which can still elicit a strong emotional response.

When your prized possessions start to weigh you down…

]]>The Blu-ray Disc of Skylarking also includes a complete set of instrumental versions of all the core album tracks for your sing-along-in-the-car enjoyment.

AR-SkylarkingAlbumDemoScreen225.jpgIt also includes several other Stereo mixes for your entertainment consideration. One the one hand, there are indeed perhaps too many versions of the album on the set — you get the original “polarity reversed” version and the great sounding “polarity corrected” incarnation as well as Steven Wilson’s new 2016 mix. 

For the sake of completeness and the joy of easy comparison-contrast, it is great that the producers included everything!  

That said, Steven Wilson’s new Stereo mix is quite modern flavored. I recognize that it may be considered overkill by some fans, but I can understand him wanting to try to offer a different view of the music as long as they were in there playing with the multi-tracks creating the 5.1 surround mix.  

Bright and shiny, the new Stereo mix doesn’t sound as harshly bright as the original polarity-reversed mix from 1987.  However, it still sparkles a whole bunch!  I haven’t decided whether that is a good or bad thing, so I will simply acknowledge it for you, Dear Readers, so there are no surprises. 

When your bird is broken will it bring you down…

I have perhaps a few little critiques-of-sorts with regards to this set. 

My only sonic disappointment with this reissue of Skylarking is that the 5.1 mix doesn’t recreate the wonderful segue from “Dear God” into “Dying” — a quite spectacular transition that appears only on the polarity-corrected stereo version of Skylarking.  

But.. hey…  at least we have that version to relish! 

My other teeny tiny-tiny nit pick has to do with the packaging. You see, on the recent 200-gram two-LP version of Skylarking, the producers quite brilliantly figured out a respectful application for Andy Partridge’s original art design for the album by turning them into the inner sleeves for the two LPs.  For those not in the know, the original art concept involved photography of florally-adorned male and female pubic areas (both images which were used on a very limited edition, mail-order-only hardcover book edition on 180-gram vinyl (featuring the polarity corrected master, issued back in 2011). 

I liked Andy’s art, but recognized its commercial limitations with regards to marketing the reissue so I thought the use of it for inner sleeve art was a quite clever move; every XTC fan would ultimately get experience and enjoy the art without offending any shoppers who came across it coincidentally in the stores. 

AR-SkylarkingInstrumentalMixScreen225.jpgWell, on this deluxe edition Blu-ray Disc version this artwork is all but invisible, buried deep on the inside of the outer slipcase (which does not open up). On one hand its kinda cool when you peek in there to see it, but on the other hand it is near impossible to really look at the artwork this way.  I would have preferred those images being used as the artwork on the inner trays (which instead have some pretty flowers on them).  

This is admittedly a little nit in the grand scheme of things, but its one I had to bring it up…

One last possibly bigger question to consider involves the decision to put the new 2016 Stereo mix on the enclosed CD instead of the “polarity corrected” original mix. Why do I question that? Well, because if it sounds a bit bright on the Blu-ray Disc, it sounds perhaps brighter still on the CD (because that is how CD’s roll, y’know, crisping up seemingly everything in their path). 

Conversely — and this is me being me trying to find a silver lining — since most XTC fans probably already have the fixed polarity version of Skylarking in some form (it has been issued on CD on its own) perhaps inclusion of this new, somewhat more modern sounding 2016 mix on CD makes some sense. 

Maybe that extra bit of sparkle-plenty will help Skylarking get played on radio again, blending in more readily with moderne 21st Century recordings which tend to skew on brighter (and louder!). 

Wouldn’t that be a great thing to hear XTC on the radio again?  Maybe Skylarking could even become a hit again. Lets hope so! Stranger things have happened.

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