Fans of XTC -- arguably Britain's finest export amidst the the flood of punk and new wave bands that emerged in the late 1970s -- may be scratching their heads over the inaugural release in a new "surround sound series" of reissues: 1992's Nonsuch. You see, this was the group's last for Virgin Records and overall was a huge disappointment for the band sales-wise despite its artistic high-water status. However, this re-release and re-invention makes a great deal of sense to this writer since (a) not a whole lot of people listened to it at the time and (b) the album was impeccably produced by Gus Dudgeon, lovingly recorded/engineered by Barry Hammond and sweetly mixed by Nick Davis.
What better time to ask the fans to revisit an album with fresh ears, an album that the band considers a crowning achievement? This is especially true now that Steven Wilson has remixed it into 5.1 surround sound and is presenting the music for the first time on a high resolution, audiophile-worthy Blu-ray Disc.
Why this album wasn't bigger back in the day is open to speculation and all answers are valid and probable contributors to the record's stalling. Consider that XTC put out this lush, mostly very English flavored record just after Nirvana's Nevermind broke open (so called) "grunge" to the world and suddenly everything getting mainstream music attention (aka airplay) was all about distorted guitars, power chords, growling vocals and flannel shirts. And there were our heroes from Swindon swinging keen pop gems like "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" chockfull of chiming guitars and crisp production. Sweet pastorals like "Humble Daisy" and the circular "My Bird Performs" were the antithesis of the driving teen spirit of the time.
For new fans who came on board during 1989's technicolor sunrise that was Oranges & Lemons, Nonsuch must have appeared to be a bit of a downer. The sophisticated (but ultimately somber) red and gold cover art, was probably not a great marketing choice all things considered, especially given the times.
Even the title was possibly misinterpreted by many -- myself included. Andy Partridge explains in the liner notes that that when naming the album, he was surprised to learn that Nonsuch doesn't mean non-existent or never existed but instead it actually means 'A person or thing that is perfect or excellent, beyond compare."
The title Nonsuch was a statement of band pride and not some sort of self-depreciating ironic commentary on society (or something like that)?! Who knew? Alas, not us dumb Americans, that is fer durn sure. Sorry boys, our education system ain't what it should be.
Anyhow, fast forward and the group has finally navigated the murky waters to regain rights to their recordings which have been imprisoned in major label limbo for years. So, now in 2013, we have the first in a series of proper restorations and reinventions. So let us celebrate! Nonsuch IS indeed excellent beyond compare! It sounds timeless and is very well recorded. And the new mixes by producer/engineer Steven Wilson offer an excellent new view into this richly layered recording.
I purchased the deluxe edition with the Blu-ray Disc version of the album as well as the remastered CD and that is really what you want to get. In that package -- and mostly on that one Blu-ray Disc -- you get the four or five different incarnations of the album including: 24-bit, 96 kHz high resolution stereo LPCM and 5.1 surround sound mixes (plus a DTS HD Master Audio option). There is a complete instrumental version of the album (so, now you have no excuse and can practice your very own sing-along Nonsuch set to wow your friends at Karaoke night -- you know you've always wanted to do this!). A full set of demos by songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding provide wondrous insights into the development of the tunes here. There are also two promotional videos ("Peter Pumpkinhead" and one I'd never new existed, for "The Disappointed"). Perhaps most importantly, there is a 45-plus minute video of XTC recording the album in the studio (shot by producer Gus Dudgeon when he... um... wasn't busy producing).
How does this disc sound? Pretty amazing for what seems to be an all digital recording made back in the -- arguably -- early days of digital recording. I say "seems" specifically, by the way, since while doing some back up research for this review I read conflicting reports and comments on various forums discussing this album. We may not ever know for certain. And ultimately, it doesn't matter since the recording does sound really great!
Steven Wilson's new 5.1 surround mix is -- as we are now accustomed to expect from this masterful mixer -- tastefully immersive, making sure the music doesn't loose its rock tightness yet taking advantage of the surrounds wherever it makes sense. "Peter Pumpkinhead" sounds really huge, with harmonica, harmonies and "hoo-rays" popping up in the surrounds. Dave Mattack's drums are ginormous, filling the room with loads of presence yet not overwhelming the other instruments and vocals. Colin Moulding's bass is more pronounced and clear than the original CD.
On "My Bird Performs" the surround mix is sweetly immersive with patter drums percolating in the rear speakers. Ok, I can't resist including a cheesy pun here: the surround mix almost puts you in the birdcage. Really. I think I heard actual birds tweeting in the song that I never noticed before!
"Humble Daisy" features beautifully plucked guitars this side of John Sebastian's "Daydream" and places harmonies and mellotrons around the sweet spot. "The Ugly Underneath" comes alive in the surround mix, with swell Beach Boy-styled harmonies and groovy organ sounds. "Books are Burning" fires up the guitars behind you and opens up the big room sound of the Chipping Norton studios.
Nonsuch is definitely a worthy album to revisit, whether you are a hardcore fan of the band or you are simply interested in checking out a nicely done surround recording featuring sophisticated pop music with distinctly British flair and personality. Highly recommended.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.