XTP: Skylarking

Ape House
Music ••••½ Sound ••••

Funny thing about this 1986 album: Despite its Pepper-y production by Todd Rundgren, it has always sounded . . . what, exactly? Thin? XTC itself, per a post on its Web site, “always had a nagging doubt: The album sounded a little too thin and bass-light, not like the band remembered it from the recording process.”

When mastering engineer John Dent was preparing this vinyl reissue for XTC’s own label, he discovered that every previous LP and CD version had been manufactured “with the sound polarity reversed. In layman’s terms, this means that sound waves that should be pushing out from your speakers are actually being pulled back. Something as simple as a wrongly wired XLR plug in Todd’s studio or the mastering room would have resulted in this mishap. Making the record sound distant and thinner.” To me, it’s more like the tight, claustrophobic feeling you get in your ears and head just before you decompress while scuba diving or simply riding in an elevator.

For optimal sound quality, this Skylarking has been pressed on a pair of 180-gram vinyl LPs running at 45 rpm. I compared the reissue with my copies of Geffen’s original LP and CD — and sure enough, the new version has lost the old inner-space pressure and now sounds much fuller. Surprisingly, Side 2 of the original LP doesn’t seem to suffer from the reversed polarity as much as Side 1 does; the original CD, however, is compromised all the way through. At any rate, the reissue beats them both, giving you a genuine stereo spread instead of the sense that the music is being squeezed through two distinct speakers. Bass is richer, with longer-lasting resonance, and even the insect sonics that open the album sound more natural.

Speaking of natural, the band has further upped the ante by restoring the front and back cover art that its original label, Virgin, had censored. You also get both “Dear God” (not on the original LP) and “Mermaid Smiled” (not on some CDs). And in addition to the standard reissue, there’s a Deluxe Edition that comes in a hardbound book with new liner notes by the band and more.

However, I must point out that my standard copy has several vinyl-centric flaws. The label on Side 2 says it begins with “That’s Really Super Supergirl,” whereas the track is actually at the end of Side 1. More egregiously, despite the supposed superiority of a 180- gram pressing (from England, no less), Side 1 has a pronounced warp, and the grooves on the other three sides are off-center (to varying degrees). So, all you vinyl-resurgence Superfanatics: Be careful what you wish for.