The best part of hearing a really great reissue, remaster, re-invention of a favorite album is the joy of discovering new things which were heretofore masked or buried in the mix. The new 2016 edition of XTC’s Skylarking, available exclusively through BurningShed.com is one of those joys.
Birthing this remaster has not been an easy process for our heroes from Swindon, England. It started with remastering back in 2011 when it was discovered that original producer Todd Rundgren’s original mix had a big problem: its polarity was reversed; this is somewhat fancy tech speak indicating that some wires got crossed somewhere along the way, negatively impacting the way the final recording sounds.
And this meant that every CD and LP ever made before this time was imperfect. Even the fancy Mobile Fidelity editions.
I reviewed that version back in the day for another publication which is now defunct but you can read the article here if you’d like.
Those crossed wires were a pretty significant problem, resulting in what band founder and main songwriter Andy Partridge has estimated was a 30-percent degradation of the sound quality (he was never happy with the final recording in 1987 and with this discovery 25-plus years later he learned just why!)
Partridge explained it in layman’s terms in the booklet for the reissue: “If a connector or important piece of gear is wired wrongly on the way to the mix, the sounds that should be pushing out from your speakers are in fact pulled in, playing out of the back of the speaker instead of the front. Yeah, I know, took me a while to grasp too.”
And here are some other things to also grasp which I never realized: Skylarking was recorded digitally. I was surprised to learn that; somehow, I missed that detail. Yup, this glorious, warm, lush, sparkling album is an early digital production. And it is a testament to Todd Rundgren’s skills that he was able to make it sound so great, reversed polarity and all!
I compared this new LP to two original US promo copies I have (one with “Dear God”; one without) and the difference is indeed night and day. This is a huge improvement over even the best of CDs that I’ve heard over the years. Those earlier versions just sound thin in comparison.
This is even an improvement (in many ways) over the first attempt at an LP reissue of Skylarking in 2011 (which I own).
You see the folks in XTC have been struggling over the years to regain control of their master recordings and around 2011 or so got permission to do an LP-only reissue of Skylarking through Partridge’s own Ape Records independent label imprint. And along the way, I’m guessing that Andy and his team probably learned some difficult realities about LP production and international record business. First off, part of Andy’s admirable vision was to “restore” the original artwork he’d designed for Skylarking back in the day. That was a lovely golden-hued design which admittedly featured somewhat “eyebrow raising” (if you will) artwork, replete with photos of florally-adorned naked male and female pubic regions (yes, you read that correctly).
In retrospect, I could understand the label’s concern about the artwork back in the day, what with Tipper Gore and the album ratings and such… the last thing this band would need would be some sort of mad boycott from closed-minded middle Americans stalling sales and halting radio play.
Thus that cover was nixed by the record label issuing the original album back in the day, opting for the more mass-market friendly line-drawing cartoon-like drawings of twee lovers playing flutes somewhere in the garden of earthly delights.
Could the restored nudie cover be a problem for stores to carry these days? Probably not so much and it was after all being sold by mail order (I saw a copy used at Amoeba Records once!). No, I think that the bigger problem for retail is quite simply that — like it or not — the original 1987 teal blue cover is well established among fans and has become fairly iconic. Even casual XTC fans who came on board at that point of in their career know that album design, not the golden nudie design.
I have a T-shirt with that design on it!
That said, the original 2011 re-issue came in a lovely golden hard bound book edition with the LPs delivered in cardboard slip sheets (which could scratch easily if not careful).
The bigger problem on that 2011 run — at least in my experience — was that there was something of a quality control problem with the LP pressings. No amount of fancy heavy weight vinyl is going to help if the pressings are noisy and/or off center. And unfortunately some of mine were. To their credit, Andy’s support staff immediately sent me a replacement set of LPs. But ultimately what happened was essentially I ended up with four LPs, each of which had one well centered side!
Of center LPs are a problem with music like this which often has strings and long held musical lines that can waver in and out of tune. So that was an issue for me.
So… by now, you probably want to know how the NEW edition faired?
]]>The really GREAT news with this new set is that all those problems I experienced previously seem to have been resolved fully! All four sides of my copy of the new edition are perfectly centered and perfectly quiet. The stampers seem to be the same as the original run (each bearing cute phrases etched in the dead wax including: “Solar Barbeque,” “The Little Bear” “Beefsteak and Brew” and “Cardboard Pizza”) but the pressings sound quieter and clearer — I asked and have been told that the earlier pressings were 180-gram and these new ones are 200-gram (for what that is worth).
Whatever the case, there is a nice sense of love and care in the pressings this time around. Each album comes housed in a reproduction of the alternate golden cover art and comes in a plastic lined inner-sleeve to protect the discs, keeping them clean and quiet. Good job Vinyl Factory!
Its all in the little details, so goes the cliche.
As expected, the sound is pretty remarkable and wonderful. For example, on a track like “Sacrificial Bonfire,” the tom toms at the start of the song deliver a sense of air pressure from the drum heads being hit. Over four sides spinning at 45 RPM you hear Skylarking sounding as huge as you always dreamed it might sound. Lots of little details like that emerge from the mix beautifully.
Another nice thing about this new reissue is that it includes a copy of the polarity-corrected master on CD (the 2011 reissue was unable to include one).
But, I’ve gotta say: after hearing this on 45 RPM, 200-gram vinyl I have trouble listening to this on standard CD. Not because of the sound of the CD but because I really really love how the album flow has been broken out into four sides, resulting in miniature suites of music that require a mental and physical pause for you to get up and flip the album side.
It makes the album listening experience feel that much bigger, much in the way that XTC’s English Settlement achieved a sense of grandeur from its two-disc presentation.
While pausing, I stopped to think just how many copies of this album I have owned over the years… there was the initial Geffen pressing with “Dear God”…. then I got a UK import LP with “Mermaid Smiled” but no “Dear God” … then I found a UK CD with “Mermaid Smiled” but no “Dear God” … and then I found the two different US promo LPs (one with, one without the tracks-in-question)…and then I got the LP reissue in 2011….
Thankfully, this new edition feels pretty definitive.
So, after all this madness of enduring multiple editions of this album one would think that I’ve achieved some sort of Skylarking nirvana.
Not quite. I’m still waiting for a Steve Wilson-produced 5.1 surround sound remix off the master tapes. When that happens, perhaps then I’ll be in heaven.
But for now, this new reissue of Skylarking is a lovely sort of pop purgatory which I can live with for many years to come.