Counterbalance: XTC’s 'Skylarking'

You might not hear of bands talking about XTC as a big influence, but they were certainly in the mix that became the music that was to come.



US Release: 1986-10-27
UK Release: 1986-10-27
Label: Geffen/Virgin

Klinger: Sometimes sitting down to talk about an album is a daunting task. Sometimes that's because an album just isn't sparking a conversation in your head. But sometimes it's because you quite simply have no idea where to begin talking. That's the case for me with this week's album, XTC's 1986 masterpiece Skylarking. Arising from a series of difficult sessions with Todd Rundgren ("As if there were any other kind of sessions with Todd," say the New York Dolls), Skylarking polishes up the group's sometimes thorny pop and creates a shimmering, technicolor gem that I'm pretty sure every critic everywhere has called "pastoral"—and for good reason. Not only does it sound wholly organic with its lush strings and instrumentation, but it also conveys an almost spiritual quality in its underlying wisdom, "Dear God" notwithstanding. Skylarking is so nearly perfect to my way of thinking that it's hard to actually pull it apart and turn it into words.

In fact, part of me hopes you'll trot out your lovable Cynical Mendelsohn character and start badmouthing the album just to get me riled up enough to start enumerating the many excellent qualities of Skylarking. But that doesn't seem possible. Even if you were somehow able to resist the siren song of album opener "Summer's Cauldron," you'd still be waylaid by the shiny guitar pop of "That's Really Super, Supergirl" or "Earn Enough for Us". And that's not even taking into account the delicate suite that is "Ballet for a Rainy Day" and "1000 Umbrellas." I guess all that remains is for me to stop talking long enough for you to start waxing effusive so we can make our word count for the week. So make with the effusive, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I like this album, Klinger. It is a glorious, shining benefaction laid delicately across the altar of the Beatles. XTC, behind the leadership of Andy Partridge and Colin Mould, put together an exquisite exhibition of pop song craft —an album that is so impressive in its scope and depth considering XTC’s roots are more power pop in the vein of Elvis Costello than the higher-thinking, multilevel execution of the Fab Four. Effusive enough for you? Good. Because the only thing that sticks around in my head after I’ve listened to this album is a jumble of hummable melodies I can’t place and “Dear God.” How that song got any airplay in Reagan’s America is completely beyond me — but good for them.

Klinger: Behold the glory that was (is?) college radio, where pleasing the populace was tertiary at best. In fact, "Dear God" was first released as a single and was only included on Skylarking when it started gaining traction. Partridge bumped the song "Mermaid Smiled" because it was the shortest song. Cheeky bastard. (Also that's a little girl singing the kid part, but they used a boy lip-syncing in the video! I just learned that!)

Mendelsohn: Seriously, this album is great. Completely forgettable, but great. Maybe I’m just being a little cynical because you asked for it. But as much as I’ve listened to Skylarking, and the rest of XTC’s back catalogue in order to get clear picture of the group, I’m still more impressed by their ability to play a style of music than I am by the music itself. In saying that, it occurs to me that XTC might be one of those bands that rewards repeated listening. This isn’t some one-off album by a no-name group. Skylarking ranks at no. 457, the front runner of five other XTC records grabbing spots on the Great List over the time period of three decades. There aren’t too many other bands who can claim such an accomplishment. And in listening to those albums, I can see why this group held the attention of the critics for so long. But, for whatever reason, they never made the jump to commercial success. Not that true commercial success is necessary but I think it speaks to the bands ability to write excellent music that hit well in certain circles but was completely ignored outside of that bubble. I feel like something is missing or maybe I’m just missing something. Fill me in, Klinger, please.

Klinger: Well, there's the fact that the group was unable to tour after Andy Partridge developed a crippling fear of performing. His 1982 breakdown came at a most unfortunately pivotal time for the group, as they were beginning to break with hittish songs like his "Senses Working Overtime" and Moulding's 1979 "Making Plans for Nigel." Partridge is, for my money, the heart and soul of the group, but the times had changed and he couldn't just Brian Wilson his way around Swindon while the lads were on the road. (Say what you will, I often find Moulding's more workmanlike songwriting to be worthy, albeit somehow curiously lacking. But I'm a grouch.)

And as much as the songwriting is front and center on Skylarking, it's impossible to talk about the album without mentioning the contributions of producer Todd Rundgren. As fraught as the sessions apparently were (and as much grousing as the band has sometimes done about the overall sound—I still don't know what they're talking about with this reverse polarity stuff), Rundgren pushed the band's sound in new directions. Look at "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," which apparently began as a folkish number and ended up a quasi-jazz tune on the strength of his horn arrangement, and in the process became one of the more memorable tracks on the album.

Mendelsohn: “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul,” was an unexpected treat, especially after so much pastoral Beatlisms. I didn’t see the Shirely Bassey-esque track coming and it popped up out of nowhere to round out an already fairly diverse and strong record. I find it interesting that Rundgren’s involvement with this record is considered to be the pinnacle of both his production career and XTC’s musical career. How often do you see to artists collide in such a fashion, fight tooth and nail with each other and yet walk away with something as complex, intricate and enjoyable as Skylarking?

I am still a little conflicted about this record, Klinger. On the one hand, I think its a fairly solid piece of work, but on the other, it still strikes me a bit forgettable. XTC, for all their talent and critical acclaim haven’t left much of a legacy. How are we to view these groups, who have incredible talent but focus on remaking the music of their idols and contemporaries without really pushing forward?

Klinger: Well, I don't think XTC is remaking the music of their idols at all. I think they're bringing a wide range of influences into one place, bringing the Beatlesque sound that seems to be jumping right out at you into the jittery New Wave/post-punk sound that had defined them for years prior. There was a rhythmic propulsion to XTC's music that belies their seeming pastiness (their debut was called White Music, and I always assumed that was ironic), and I think that carries through into this more mature phase of their career.

And I'd also argue that making music that invites favorable comparisons to the Beatles is really hard to do. It's not for nothing that the group's side project was the Dukes of Stratosphear, which gave them an opportunity to recreate note-perfect homages to 1960s forebears ranging from Syd-era Pink Floyd to the Beach Boys. Some of the credit for that goes to guitarist Dave Gregory, who plays with an unparalleled precision that brings an extra sheen to every album he's on. Skylarking is an exercise in craftsmanship, but I don't necessarily think that means they shouldn't be seen as innovators. The album not only aspires to the Beatles musical ambition, but also their willingness to take on the bigger ideas, so Skylarking is presented as something of a concept album, attempting to present a day in the life and a life in a day simultaneously. (And like Sgt. Pepper, Skylarking is really only sporadically committed to the concept, but they get you to believe that the concept is there by sheer force of will. So that's something.)

Again, for people who grew up with college radio in the 1980s, XTC was something of a given. And those are the people who ended up making "alternative" music a force in the '90s. You might not hear of bands talking about XTC as a big influence the way they talk about, say, Gang of Four, but they were certainly in the mix that became the music that was to come. And either way, there's a lot to be said for a group who could continue to push themselves over the course of their first several albums, striving to refine their sound and strengthen their songwriting. It's always amazing to me when a group suddenly hits its stride in a way that few could really have predicted, but that's what happened with XTC. It took them the better part of a decade, but over the course of nine albums their perseverance would eventually lead them to a place like Skylarking.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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