To Be Determined

    XTC: Steven Wilson Remix/Remasters on CD and Blu-ray, Part Two

    Issue 166

    This follow-up to Part One in Issue 165 covers the last of the currently-available Steven Wilson XTC catalog album remix/remasters in 2-disc CD/Blu-ray sets — well, almost. I’m still missing the pseudo-XTC Dukes of Stratosphear’s Psurroundabout Ride, which collects two albums, 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987) in a CD/Blu-ray set. That corresponds with all the others in terms of high-res stereo and surround tracks and gazillions of extras – it’s on the way, just hasn’t gotten here yet.

    There are still a few XTC albums that await the Steven Wilson treatment; I touched on the ongoing search for the multi-track masters of English Settlement last issue. I’m also particularly interested in a remix of that album’s underrated follow-up, 1983’s Mummer, which has also yet to appear. Apparently the multi-track master tapes are missing for it as well, and you get the impression that Wilson is particularly unhappy with not being able to do that particular remix, because it was the first XTC album that he ever heard in its entirety. I just stumbled onto an XTC fan site, xtclimelight.com; the link from September 2021 takes you to an episode that includes a podcast that features an interview with Steven Wilson moderated by Mark Fisher of xtclimelight.com. It’s over an hour, but contains a ton of interesting information about Steven Wilson’s remix process for both high-resolution stereo and surround, as well as his experiences in remixing the XTC catalog albums. It’s fascinating, to say the least, and well worth your time and effort. Steven Wilson is irreverent, brilliant, and charming at the same time, and his insight into the process is both intensely interesting and totally captivating. Check it out!

    In addition to my upgraded digital front end, I also just received the KLH Model 5 loudspeakers for review, and took another listen to my 24/96 rips of all these albums on the new setup, after the Model 5s had about a week to get broken in, of course. I think the sound quality is pretty intoxicating, though my neighbor Bob came over for a listen, and after several, several 9.9% dark beers, he rather drunkenly pronounced that he was “unimpressed.” You can’t please everybody!

     

     

    XTC – Black Sea (Steven Wilson remix/remaster)

    1980’s Black Sea was the band’s fourth studio album, the follow-up to Drums and Wires, and used the same production team of Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. The working title for the record was Working Under Pressure, which Andy Partridge felt epitomized the crush of attempting to balance the demands of constant touring and studio work on new albums. Record label execs at Virgin expressed their discontent with the title, and Partridge relented and changed it to Black Sea. After its release in September 1980, XTC toured extensively in support of the album as the opening act for the Police. Andy Partridge’s level of fatigue and near-nervous breakdown reached a head during the tour, and by the time 1982’s English Settlement had been released, XTC had ceased touring completely.

     

    Prior to beginning work on Drums and Wires, Colin Moulding had already pronounced that XTC were ready to move beyond the “quirky nonsense” that had pervaded their first two studio releases. And while that record was definitely a move in that direction – yielding some of the band’s most recognizable tunes – Black Sea solidified XTC’s ability to crank out hit singles. These included tunes like “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London,” Respectable Street,” and “Sgt. Rock (is Going to Help Me),” which combined to help the album reach No. 16 on the UK charts, and it even dented the US charts at No. 41. The album debuted to very favorable reviews, and helped propel XTC to the next level artistically, despite Andy Partridge’s escalating problems with the band’s relentless touring.

     

    The songs absolutely sparkle on the new remix and in high resolution, this record has never sounded better! Steve Lillywhite did an excellent job of capturing XTC’s desired bass and drum sound to underpin the proceedings, and Dave Gregory’s guitars absolutely crunch throughout the songs. This is a great-sounding record! This reissue is probably the first time that it’s been remastered from the original source tapes in any digital format. I have to admit, listening to the remixes of this album was probably the first time I’d listened to it in quite some time, and it’s a truly excellent album. XTC was moving in a new direction musically, but was still able to retain the poppiness that gave so many of the songs such mass appeal. As the precursor to English Settlement, it unquestionably laid the groundwork for the band’s next phase.

     

    The CD contains not only the remixed album tracks, but there are also eight (!) bonus tracks. Of course, the gem is the Blu-ray disc, which contains all the 24/96 high-res remixes of the original album in both stereo and surround versions. That goes for the eight bonus tracks as well – one of the highlights is the final bonus track, Andy Partridge’s tongue-in-cheek “History of Rock ’n’ Roll.” The duration is only 20 seconds, but it’s maybe the most entertaining 20 seconds on the entire album. You get the high-resolution instrumental tracks of the studio album in both stereo and surround mixes, along with a flat transfer of the original album mix in high-res. As well as tons of demos, work tapes, rehearsals, and rough mixes from the sessions. As well as official videos for “Towers of London,” “Generals and Majors,” and “Respectable Street.” For XTC fans, it doesn’t get much better.

    Ape House Records, CD/Blu-ray 2-disc set

     

     

    XTC – Oranges & Lemons (Steven Wilson remix/remaster)

    1989’s Oranges & Lemons was XTC’s ninth studio album, and the songs were intended to evoke a sort of Sixties psychedelia. The album cover art was commissioned to specifically resemble the work of German artist Heinz Edelmann, who served as the lead art director on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. In appearance, it is a de facto homage to the artwork of the movie, lending even more of an aura of psychedelia to the proceedings. The album was recorded in the US at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, a first for XTC, and was produced with American producer Paul Fox (it was his first job as an album producer!) in tandem with drummer Pat Mastelotto (later of King Crimson fame). Production costs for the album exceeded a quarter of a million dollars; at several points, Virgin Records threatened to pull the plug on the project as the costs continued to skyrocket.

    Oranges & Lemons really resonated with me; I felt at the time of its release (and pretty much still do) that it was one of the most perfectly-realized albums released by anyone in the Eighties. That said, I felt parts of the album were almost and perhaps even outright unlistenably shrill. Any CD version I owned sounded basically awful; when an LP became available, I grabbed it, in hopes that it would tame some of the CD’s harshness. Nope – the LP was marginally better, but not nearly enough to satisfy me. One of the worst moments comes at the very beginning, at the intro to “Garden of Earthly Delights,” where the instrumental mix is a bouncing, “Summer of Love-y” fusion of sitars, tabla, percussion, and voices that comes to a crescendo at the song’s start. At the point where the intro transitions to the main body of the song, the crush of piercing high frequencies is painful and exceptionally distorted. While the rest of the album has its share of overly hot treble response, that opening track transition has almost completely ruined my ability to enjoy this album, even 30-plus years later.

     

    In the Steven Wilson podcast I linked to in my intro, he talks extensively about Oranges & Lemons. He refers to the album’s harsh sound quality as what’s known in the recording industry as a “cocaine mix,” where the high-frequency content of everything on tape was mixed at a grossly exaggerated level. Because that’s what the coked-out engineers, producers, band, and listeners wanted to hear! Wilson does go on in his statements in the podcast to clarify that he has no idea if anyone in the band or in the studio was actually doing coke at the time. But the end result of the overall sound of Oranges & Lemons is emblematic of a classic “cocaine mix.” Here’s the good news: while consciously avoiding reducing the high-frequency sound content of the album too drastically, Wilson has managed to achieve a perfect balance. The new remixed version of the intro to “Garden of Earthly Delights” now exhibits perfect clarity, and the transition to the main body of the song is infinitely listenable. You can crank the song to reference levels now without any fear that the painful oscillation of the previous mix might actually damage your eardrums!

     

    The overall effect of the new mixes on this classic album is that now, a record that was only a triumph on an artistic level is now a sonic triumph as well. This album always had the potential to be absolute ear candy, and now, with Steven Wilson’s new remixes, it finally is. Much of this album has a very poppy Eighties sound, and now, hummable songs like “The Mayor of Simpleton” and “King For a Day” sound so very much more listenable without the edginess of the previous mixes. Steven Wilson’s realization of Oranges & Lemons is a dream for XTC fans everywhere.

     

    The two-disc set has the now-expected assortment of extras; but the CD only has the remixed stereo tracks. The Blu-ray disc adds 24/96 high-res remixes of the original album, along with a bonus track, “My Train is Coming,” which was recorded live at Ocean Way. There’s also the now de rigueur inclusion of the high-resolution instrumental tracks of the studio album in both stereo and surround mixes. On the podcast, Wilson commented that while he originally just kind of decided to throw the instrumentals in because there was plenty of space on the Blu-ray and it was effortless to simply turn off the vocal tracks, the feedback from fans has been unbelievable. There’s also a flat transfer of the original album mix in high resolution, as well as tons of demos, interesting work tapes, and rough mixes from the sessions. You also get five videos – one of them, “The Road to Oranges & Lemons” is a making of video that will be of particular interest to fans. Very highly recommended.

    Ape House Records, CD/Blu-ray 2-disc set

     

     

    XTC – Nonsuch (Steven Wilson remix/remaster)

    XTC took a two-year hiatus after the recording of Oranges & Lemons, with the various members pursuing side projects and Andy Partridge even getting involved in a proposed kids’ game show for television. Partridge had also been busy writing songs in that period, and towards the end of the prolonged break, was ready to return to the studio. Virgin Records wasn’t too keen with the songs Partridge presented them, and even went as far as to demand a rewrite. Partridge and Moulding refused, and after many months, Virgin caved and gave them the go-ahead to proceed. Unfortunately, during Virgin’s waffling over the songs, XTC’s first choice of producer for the new album, Steve Lillywhite, became unavailable, as did an ongoing cavalcade of choices. Over a period of months, Andy Partridge was growing discontented about not being able to secure a producer, and was even quoted as saying that “he would have given the job to a window cleaner, had one been available.” At the bottom of the list was Gus Dudgeon, mostly famous for his work with David Bowie and Elton John, but Partridge was too anxious to get on with it to be excessively choosy. The band arrived at Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire in July 1991, and recorded the album in about four months. Nonsuch would become the band’s tenth studio album.

    XTC moved away from most of the psychedelic influences that were so prominent on both Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons, and crafted songs that displayed a much wider range of musical styles. Andy Partridge composed many of his songs for Nonsuch on keyboards, which was a significant departure for him. Partridge reportedly clashed with producer Gus Dudgeon repeatedly throughout the recording sessions, especially after Dudgeon initially refused to include the song “Rook” on the album, which Partridge felt was one of the best tracks laid down during the sessions. Partridge never allowed his disagreements with Dudgeon to devolve to the level they did during the recording of Skylarking with Todd Rundgren at the helm. However, he and Dudgeon clashed strongly over the mixing of the album, and Virgin Records was none too pleased with the sound of three master tapes Dudgeon presented them. Sound familiar? Somewhere Todd Rundgren is laughing his (expletive deleted) off. Dudgeon was fired after strike three, and Nick Davis (the man who did the awful remixing of the Genesis catalog in 2008) was brought in for the album’s final mix. Partridge has been said to have frequently made light of his encounters with Dudgeon in the years following Nonsuch’s release.

     

    Nonsuch was undoubtedly XTC’s darkest album ever, thematically, with many of the songs reflecting Partridge and Moulding’s discontent with the political environment in the UK at the time. Partridge’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” was one of the lead singles, and the most rocking song on the entire album, spinning a tale of greed and deceit and one man’s attempt to rise above it all. Partridge has stated that the song is about a pumpkin he carved for Halloween for his children, and rather than disposing of it, he left it in his garden to decay and disintegrate. As he observed the ongoing decay, it birthed one of his best songs in the process! The album’s other single, “The Disappointed,” tells a tale of people who have been unlucky in love, and form an organization to commiserate. A proposed third single, “Wrapped in Grey,” was rejected by Virgin Records due to the album’s relatively poor performance. The rejection ultimately fueled Partridge to hasten the band’s split from Virgin following the release of Nonsuch; they eventually signed with Cooking Vinyl, a more artist-centric record label. The album closes with the song “Books are Burning,” where Partridge opines that “where they burn books, people are next.” Very cheerfully dystopic, no?

     

    Apparently, Kirsty Wark, then host of BBC 2’s The Late Show, somehow managed to coax Andy Partridge to assemble XTC into the studio for a one-off live recording of “Books Are Burning.” Just watching the video, it’s amazing to see XTC playing live, especially after a nearly ten-year absence from the stage. Andy Partridge’s guitar solo at the end of the song is absolutely incendiary! Oh, what might have been…I was totally reminded of seeing the Beatles on the rooftop during the filming of Get Back. They hadn’t played live in forever, but they hadn’t lost a step as a live band. Also true for XTC in this video; the similarities here are quite eerie, to say the least.

     

    True to form, the CD contains the remixed album tracks and a single bonus track, Colin Moulding’s “Didn’t Hurt a Bit.” Of course, the Blu-ray disc also follows form and contains all the 24/96 high-res remixes of the original album in both stereo and surround versions. There’s also the high-resolution instrumental tracks of the studio album in both stereo and surround mixes, along with a flat transfer of the original album mix in high resolution. The extras also include demos and work tapes, along with short films for the two singles, “The Disappointed” and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” The Blu-ray contains an additional 48 minutes of footage shot during the recording sessions, and that alone will prove invaluable to true XTC fans. This set is a no-brainer; don’t dilly-dally, grab one while they’re still available!

    Ape House Records, CD/Blu-ray 2-disc set

     

    Header image courtesy of the author.

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