Category Archives: reissue

XTC • Black Sea (The Surround Sound Series) [BD/CD]

Late Christmas gift or early birthday present to myself? Who cares. It finally arrived, just seven weeks after they shipped it from the UK… and I’ve been listening to it practically non-stop ever since. XTC’s Black Sea is the 1980 album by these British heroes of the new wave, and it was an amazing slab of wax: muscular power pop, thinking man’s rock, whatever you wanted to call it, it was an album like no other in their catalogue, past or present.

This November 2017 reissue of Black Sea is the latest in a series of surround sound spectaculars released by XTC’s Andy Partridge’s Ape House label. With new 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album by celebrated remixer Steven Wilson (he’d already done the same thing to Drums and Wires, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch), along with a big ol’ bucket of bonus tracks (single mixes, soundtrack tunes, demos, instrumentals), this Blu-ray/CD set is a big deal for us XTC fans. Wilson’s new mixes add additional in your face sonics to what was already a big, brash production by Steve Lillywhite (with Hugh Padgham), at least in their stereo guise. [Once again, like with last year’s Skylarking, my surround system’s not set up so I can’t speak for the 5.1 mixes.] I’m sure Wilson’s lost none of his understanding of what makes a good production or mix, so the surround mixes are likely to be just as mesmerizing. And when I say that, I mean, songs like “No Language in Our Lungs” and “Travels in Nihilon,” both extended grooves that build and build, stand out as so much better than they did in 1980. Perhaps that’s a bit of my maturity speaking; I was naturally drawn to singles “Respectable Street,” “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock” as a young man. Those songs still excite me — I never get tired of ’em! — but the side enders “Language” and “Travels” are pure pummel now, with both their lyrics and their gargantuan grooves coming through loud and clear!

What is also crystal is that Black Sea stands as the first great XTC album, bridging the gap between their own youthful material and the mature stuff that followed: English Settlement, Skylarking, etc. It spawned four great singles (noted above), was presented in a nice green bag (my US copy pictured at right), and showcased two songwriters (Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) who could write with equal amounts of humor and politically savvy satire. Whether it’s the comic book hero/mentor in “Sgt. Rock,” the imagined nostalgia for simpler, more grateful times (“Towers of London”), or the silly warmongering of “Generals and Majors,” Partridge and Moulding, with XTC guitarist Dave Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers, crafted an album that at the time could’ve been considered New Wave’s Sgt. Pepper. That is, until 1986 when they gave us the magnificent Skylarking.

For the price (less than $30 USD), this combo Blu-ray/CD package is an excellent presentation of XTC’s fourth album. Sure, they could go all 12″x12″ and give us a deluxe book, super lengthy liner notes, a vinyl pressing and more – and charge sixty or seventy bucks for it – but you get so much Black Sea in this lil’ treasure chest (including some fun videos), I can find no fault here.  I’m sure we’ll get a nice vinyl reissue one of these days [c’mon, Andy, you know you should!], so for now this high value XTC package is a superb way to wade into Black Sea.

5/5 (Ape House APEBD104, 2017)

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Captain Sensible • Women And Captains First, The Power of Love [CD]

[Originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

FINALLY two of the greatest albums that mix rock and “synth pop” in a way that dumbs down neither have been issued on CD. CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, sometime guitarist for my favorite band of all time, The Damned, put these two out in the early ’80s, on the heels of his surprise hit “Happy Talk” (yes, from South Pacific!), as he took his turn at becoming a pop star. He had more than his 15 minutes, at least in Britain, and of course he’s been back with his punk chums for longer than a decade now, but these A&M elpees were never put out on CD until the 2000s, first as limited edition Japanese issues (with uncharacteristically mediocre mastering), and now these superb versions on Cherry Red. Women And Captains First came out in 1982 and featured not only the aforementioned hit, but the further single “Croydon” (a sublime tune about his childhood and growing up “cleaning toilets”), “Brenda,” and my personal fave, “Wot!” (which also charted). Tony Mansfield gets the producer credit for both albums, and on the first one especially he really did a fantastic job… great pop songs bolstered by production and arrangements that really bring out the uniqueness of Captain’s take on rock ’n’ roll. The Power of Love followed in 1984 with real great singles “Stop the World” and “I’m a Spider,” though the hits kinda trailed off. Whatever… this was another good one, though not quite as.

Cap’n went on to do more solo stuff, and eventually rejoined The Damned after former drummer Rat Scabies departed, and the band returned to former glories with 2001’s Grave Disorder. Sensible has slowed down on the release front, but hell, he did run for political office in the Blah! Party he formed in the UK, and he has been an active campaigner for animal rights and a lot more. These two slabs of early ’80s pop are proof that not everything that had a synth back then sucked.
5/5 (Women And Captains First), 3/5 (The Power of Love)
(Cherry Red CDMRED 408, 409)

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Electric Light Orchestra • Out of the Blue [40th Anniversary Picture Disc]

Another anniversary, another reissue. Yet, ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA’s Out of the Blue is truly deserving of a celebration. The double album was first released in October 1977, amid all the hype about punk rock and the desecration of our beloved rock ’n’ roll. Forty years later the prophecy that punk would destroy all stands unfulfilled; rock ’n’ roll carries on as “classic” music, mostly of a bygone era, via countless repackages of the best it had to offer.

This here double picture disc of Out of the Blue is truly something to look at (I’m going by the photos I’ve seen), although it can’t be quite as awesome as the original issue. That was a 2LP album in a gatefold cover with printed inner sleeves, a mini poster of the band and – wait for it! – a cut-out space station/rocket ship just like the one on the record jacket! And YES, I did assemble mine as a 14 year old and hung the poster, too. Today’s picture disc release comes with none of those extras, just Jeff Lynne’s masterpiece carved into the grooves of records that can’t possibly show all the magic that is Blue. I mean, picture discs are naturally pressed with shallower grooves to accommodate the picture inside, thus making for a quieter and (likely) less expansive sound. The original pressing, as well as some of the many reissues over the last four decades, is really the one to have.

With five singles hitting the charts, Blue was ELO’s biggest bang, eventually selling some 10 million copies worldwide. You know many of them: “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and the nowadays ubiquitous (thanks to its inclusion in dozens of movies) “Mr. Blue Sky.” The band’s sound had evolved to a unique hybrid of rock, classical and pop. What started out as a great idea (their classicalized cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” was among their early singles, along with the epic “10538 Overture”) hit its zenith with this sprawling double album, which even included a side-long Concerto for a Rainy Day. Judging by the DVD of one of this era’s shows, the ELO of ’77 must have been something to see and hear in person.

Heavy on harmonies, stacked in layers thanks to 24-track recording and Jeff Lynne’s amazing ability to take melodies and turn them into major statements, Out of the Blue was like The Beatles smashed into The Beach Boys and The Everly Brothers while Phil Spector got the entire shebang on tape. My guess is Lynne was as focused on dense, dynamic arrangements as Brian Wilson was before him, though I don’t expect Jeff was wearing a fireman’s helmet in the booth… But I’ll bet it was really hot in there!

As for the strings, well, the Electric Light Orchestra at this point – lavish, grand – was six or seven band members plus the extra violins, cellos and what have you that accompanied them on record and on stage. Blue is ELO at its most magnificent. From this peak there was nowhere higher for Lynne & Co. to go, and so on the next LP, Discovery (cynically also known as Disco Very), the band shed most of the genuine strings and accomplished its orchestral manoeuvres mainly via synthesizers. It doesn’t matter that ELO’s biggest hit in America was “Don’t Let Me Down” (Bruuuuuuuuce!); Out of the Blue was the album that finally captured what was in the boss’s head and displayed it like a gigantic billboard for all to see. Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race!

In 2007 a deluxe anniversary CD came out in a limited edition book-bound cover with the cutout space station (albeit in much smaller form) and 24-page booklet; that version and the standard jewelcase version included bonus tracks and new mastering. Sadly, one of the songs had a noticeable dropout thanks to the age of the stereo master tape and so this reissue loses a point. A vinyl reissue on Simply Vinyl was also issued (in 1999) and it suffered from over the top digital mastering (not usually a plus for vinyl reissues), and since then it had also been issued properly via Epic/Legacy (on clear vinyl, 2015). I’m not sure whether these vinyl versions – or the picture disc set that gave me reason to write this review now – include the aforementioned dropout, which is considerable but not a deal breaker since this album is such an essential piece of the ELO (and rock ’n’ roll in general) discography. You should give them a shot if they’re easily available. Otherwise, I’d try and hunt down an original on Jet/United Artists or even the slightly later Jet/CBS version (USA), or maybe even a UK import on Jet/UA. Hell, whatever version you get, Out of the Blue is something you must own.

5/5 (Epic 8898545616S1, 2017)

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The Who • Live at Leeds (40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set) [CD]

[Review originally published 12/2/2010 on Skratchdisc]

It finally came the other day! A little over forty years after the concert was recorded at a “uni” in Leeds, England, THE WHO’s legendary Live at Leeds is still hailed as one of the best live albums ever. Of course, when they finally put it out with the entire concert included (with the entire Tommy rock opera, even), it made it even greater. Now, they’ve released it in a be-all end-all edition that includes the double CD aforementioned, the original 6-song LP (on 180 gram vinyl), a 7″ replica of the original UK (or is it German) single of “Summertime Blues” b/w “Heaven and Hell” (the latter of which was not on the original album), a hardcover 60-page book, and a vial of Keith Moon’s sweat (that version already sold out).

The other big deal about this version of Live at Leeds is they released it with the entire concert from the next night, Live at Hull. Yes, I know… the title “Live at Leeds” is so iconic that “Live at Hull” sounds like a Rutles joke (and it is, sorta, since they claim that Dirk McQuickly put out a solo record called “(When You Find the Girl of Your Dreams in the Arms of) Some Scotsmen from Hull”). It’s a great show, almost as good as Leeds, and they had to really do some work to make the first handful of songs presentable. Apparently, John Entwistle’s bass was not recorded for the first five or six songs, and that’s why the show was originally shelved. (They actually only listened to the first song or two at the time and decided the whole tape was bass-less so they passed on it.) But the shit they can do nowadays with a computer and a little gumption! keith moonThey actually “flew in” the bass from the Leeds show and digitally manipulated it to fit the performance at Hull. Man, I love technology! Sure, the show is pretty identical to its way more popular brother, but it just goes to show that to have seen The Who in ’69-’70 must have been like witnessing godhead incarnate. Of course, I couldn’t have appreciated it as well at the age of seven as I can now, or even when I first really heard the original album, probably 1980 or so, but listening to this amazingly awesome concert almost erases the memory of seeing them Moon-less at the Kingdome in 1982 (which is memorable primarily because it was the only time I got to see The Clash).

Now, you don’t get all the little inserts that came with the original LP issue, though they are reproduced in the book, but you do get a pretty cool poster of Pete Townshend doing his windmill routine, and as I said, early pre-orderers do get a sample of Moon’s sweat, which must have been prodigious considering how crazily-yet-brilliantly he plays during these concerts. Personally, I was hoping for a locke of Roger Daltrey’s hair, but I guess the sweat will have to do. BTW, as great as I think The Who were, I still think “Happy Jack” is a pretty dumb song, despite the great music.

6/5 (Polydor/Universal)

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R.E.M. • Automatic for the People [LP]

It’s already been 25 years since R.E.M. put out their last great album, Automatic for the People. This anniversary sees the release of a few different configurations to choose from (as is the custom these days), including a 3CD/BD deluxe set, a 2CD version and what I’m primarily concerned with here, an all-analog remaster on vinyl. This 180 gram audiophile pressing comes in your basic LP cover (faithful to the original release), with a printed inner sleeve and digital download voucher card. Mastered by industry vet Stephen Marcussen* at Precision Mastering, this vinyl is pretty quiet (as in, in between songs and in quiet moments) and has a very rich sound.

Some of that richness might be attributed to the fact that Automatic was a fairly orchestrated affair, with a handful of tunes bathed in strings arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. Another factor is that, by this time in R.E.M.’s career, they were trying out a lot of different styles and arrangements beyond their standard guitar/bass/drums/Stipe archetype. Peter Buck’s often arpeggiated 12-string guitar is typically replaced by more inventive guitar parts, organ and other keyboard pads that make the record a much more moody thing than previous releases. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” used bits ’n’ bobs of the old pop classic (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) to interesting effect – not sampling, more like paraphrasing – though the “deeee dee deee deee” gets a little trying. Meanwhile, “Star Me Kitten” uses the F-word in place of the star in its title and, despite being a cool track with a lush vocal bed, is slightly overshadowed by the version R.E.M. did with writer William S. Burroughs narrating the lyrics. (It appeared on a soundtrack album for The X-Files.) Also present is “Everybody Hurts,” which feels a little syrupy but really works when the drums kick in and the orchestra just goes for it. I think “Man on the Moon” is still one of their greatest songs, and was so well regarded that it was used for the title and soundtrack of the film about comedian Andy Kaufman. In all, R.E.M. achieved something pretty daunting with Automatic for the People; it sold over 18 million copies worldwide, so clearly this was something much bigger than anything Murmur hinted at.

Those going for the 2CD version of Automatic will get a live concert recorded in 1992 at Athens, GA’s 40-Watt Club, the place where R.E.M. cut their teeth. This is substantial, as the band didn’t tour behind the album and this show was their only one of the year. And if you’re plunking down the extra bucks for the deluxe release you’ll also get a CD of demos and a Blu-ray disc with a new Dolby Atmos mix of the album. (Atmos is sorta like surround sound, but with sound coming at you from the ceiling if your system’s wired and hardwared that way; otherwise it will play as a 5.1 surround mix via standard AV surround receivers.)

Though it wasn’t necessarily the album for many of us who discovered the band when they first showed up with 1982’s Chronic Town EP, Automatic for the People was a watershed for R.E.M. It demonstrated that there was much more to this foursome than mumbly vocals and jangly guitars.

* Marcussen mastered the original vinyl, and appears to have done this version, too (though that credit could be a holdover from the artwork for the original album sleeve).

4/5 (Craft Recordings CR00046, 1992/2017)

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Nick Lowe • Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, Party of One [CD, LP]

YepRoc has been working the NICK LOWE discography for some time now. Starting out with Labour of Lust, Pure Pop for Now People (Jesus of Cool) and the Rockpile-attributed Seconds of Pleasure, plus a best-of (Quiet Please) and a handful of new releases, the label finishes things off with the final six albums Lowe put out before he went independent in the mid ’90s.

Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman and Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (Columbia US, 1982-1984).

Granted, the half dozen releases here are among Lowe’s least successful, but that concept is only relative when you consider what Nick has knocked out in his career. His first couple of releases after his band Brinsley Schwarz called it a day – Pure Pop and Labour – have stood the test of time as power pop classics. But Lowe was never interested in being the torchbearer for that genre. So on his further releases he slowly but surely expanded his reach by tackling a wider range of pop flavors, including rockabilly, straight country, country-politan and more.

1982’s Nick the Knife cut closest to the Pure Pop/Labour one-two punch, with “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” “Burning” and the reggae-tinged remake of his tune “Heart,” flanked by most of Rockpile (who made the original “Heart”). A year later Lowe had put together the band that would support him on the next few records, releasing The Abominable Showman (excellent title!) and scoring artistically with “Raging Eyes” – in his typical time-tested vein – but moving along into greener pastures with “Time Wounds All Heels” and the sublime sounding/lengthily titled “(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There’s a Woman Made A) Man of a Fool.”

Without a hit or hint at the Top 40 since “Cruel to Be Kind,” Nick’s label was leaning on him to come up with something chart-worthy. He gave them 1984’s Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, a cleverly-titled (though too clever for its own good) album with a surefire single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” which went nowhere fast. Despite a likely successful cover of The Springfields’ “Breakaway” and Mickey Jupp’s kick-ass “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those),” a worthy successor to “Switchboard Susan” (from Labour of Lust), Cowboy Outfit mostly stayed confined to the closet. Too bad, too, because Lowe penned some great album cuts (“Awesome,” “The Gee and the Rick and the Three-Card Trick”) that really showcased some of his untrumpeted strengths.

1985’s The Rose of England seemed to have the panacea to Lowe’s lack of chart time despite its boring cover art. (The US version featured a high school artist drawing/collage that was actually worse than the all-type treatment used in the UK.)  The remake of Nick’s own “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’N’ Roll)” was produced by then-chart topping Huey Lewis and played by him and The News. A catchy tune that was already great before Lewis helmed its second coming, it still didn’t have that certain-something to bother the charts. Neither did the excellent reading of John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody,” the rockabilly killer “7 Nights to Rock” or even Nick’s “The Rose of England.” Still… nothing.

A few years later, after taking a breather presumably to have a rethink, 1998 saw the release of Pinker and Prouder Than Previous. A peculiarly-titled little troublemaker, it had some likely candidates for stardom, such as Lowe’s “Lovers Jamboree” and the fun take on Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love,” but nothing that actually made a stab at bringing Nick something other than a consolation prize.

The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous and Party of One (Columbia US 1986, 1988 and Reprise 1990).

His US label, Columbia, decided they’d had enough and Mr. Lowe moved on to Reprise for 1990’s Party of One, arguably his best album since Nick the Knife. But even with quintessential all-time Lowes like “(I’m Gonna Build A) Jumbo Ark” and “All Men Are Liars” (which contains the clever couplet “Do you remember Rick Astley?/He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly”), as well as the more mature but just as good “What’s Shakin’ 0n the Hill” and “I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On,” this party was a bust.

What was it going to take to bring Nick the kudos that seemed to be his for the taking? Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard movie, whose 1992 soundtrack featured a cover of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” though the song’s author’s name was probably completely unknown to those who saw the movie and bought the soundtrack album. Perhaps it was the success – and royalty checks – from this project that helped Lowe to figure out what he wanted to do next.

Not content to age disgracefully, Nick embraced a personal path without the pressure to write what the label thinks will be a hit (I mean, were they ever right in the past?). Lowe’s albums since 1990 have been much more relaxed affairs, with the kinds of songs (originals and covers) that better reflect his life and role as one of new wave’s elder statesmen. You still get the humor, just not the sophomoric kind. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, though, for those of us who came aboard because of his association with the punk/wave scene and thanks to songs like “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Crackin’ Up” have found the ensuing releases to lack the spunk of the early albums. And even though we may have the self awareness to realize that those who don’t mature are doomed to come off as perennial punchlines, we can’t help but listen to the early records and wish our hero’s future releases had continued in the same vein.

YepRoc should be commended for taking the torch and keeping it lit. Though the packages themselves are devoid of any frills (no lyrics, inserts or anything like that, at least in the CD configuration), they have added bonus track rarities such as demos and live versions from B-sides and elsewhere, when applicable. The CDs feature these items on the single disc; vinyl buyers get them on an included bonus 7″. Applause! And – if you bought all six albums during the pre-order period – you get a Nick Lowe lunchbox. Sure, there’s no thermos included, but you’re probably not taking this thing to school anyway. Unless you’re one of those who refused to grow up and still wish there was a “Switchboard Susan” on every Lowe LP.

3.5/5 (entire series) (YepRoc, 2017)

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Chris Bell • I Am the Cosmos [CD, LP]

Big Star’s ascendance to America’s best loved, most under appreciated rock band reaches its zenith with Omnivore’s authoritative reissue of the CHRIS BELL retrospective, I Am the Cosmos. Once again presented as an exhaustive 2CD compilation of the man’s life’s work, this version of Cosmos is a more focused affair than Rhino Handmade’s 2009 version or the original 1992 Rykodisc (single CD) release. I’ll admit: At first I thought it was going to be too much. After all, there are four versions of the title track included, and multiple versions of some of the other tunes. On paper it sounded like more than even this fan would want. I was wrong.

I won’t go into the whole Big Star story here, except to say that Chris Bell left the band after their debut, the critically acclaimed, consumer-ignored #1 Record (1972). After that, only one 45 of his own material (“I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister,” both included) was released in Bell’s lifetime. Yet this ample release shows that – despite the numerous versions of songs – he had a lot more in him. His harder rocking side is represented by “I Got Kinda Lost” and “Make a Scene,” his softer side by “You and Your Sister,” and the spiritual by “Look Up.” Then there are the yearning, burning tracks like “Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself,” the winning pair that opens all versions of this compilation. Hard edged guitars anchor some tunes while strummed acoustics steal the scene in others; you even get funky Moog synthesizer (I believe) in the rollicking “Fight at the Table.” Bell’s talents were many and they’re all on display here. It’s hard for the Paul McCartney fan in me to not draw a parallel between Macca and Bell’s early ’70s smorgasbord of styles – and that, as you may know, is a high compliment in these quarters.

Omnivore Recordings has been on a Big Star bender for some time now, what with numerous band releases (including Complete Third, the comprehensive look at the band’s final album), Alex Chilton refreshers (I particularly like, but never reviewed, Free Again: The “1970” Sessions) and Chris Bell’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star. It’s clear from the liner notes in these various releases that label head Cheryl Pawelski and her crew will not rest until they have covered every angle of the Big Star story, and for that I’m grateful. Many lesser bands’ stories have been examined with an even larger microscope, so there’s definitely room in the world for just about anything Big Star related. Certainly some will think it’s all too much, and that’s okay. The rest of us can happily discover more of what Chris Bell, Alex Chilton and Big Star wrought during their musical careers by letting Omnivore lead the way.

I Am the Cosmos is released 9/15/17 as a 2CD set, as well as a single LP on clear vinyl (initially, and with download code for the rest of the material), and digital download.

4/5 (Omnivore OV-231)

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Alex Chilton • A Man Called Destruction [CD, LP]

Last month Omnivore reissued ALEX CHILTON’s 1995 album, A Man Called Destruction. Aptly titled, Chilton himself described it as “a soulful effort by a fairly primitive mind.” The album is a musical stew of rock ’n’ roll, New Orleans R&B/jazz and more – recorded the way this kind of stuff used to be recorded: live in the studio, one or two takes, minimal overdubs.

Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Destruction’s twelve songs (and this reissue’s bonus tracks) have a wonderful feel because they’re not perfect. Those who only know Chilton via the Big Star records will be thrown for a loop by Destruction. The arrangements aren’t power pop at all – sorry, Radio City fans – this is what Alex sounded like when he led the band all by himself. The songs, too, are primarily Alex’s, though there’s a handful of cool covers, including Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go” and Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired.” The latter track is one Chilton had been doing in his solo shows (when not “reuniting” Big Star with half of Seattle band The Posies). Buoyed by his own soulfully raw guitar sound, the arrangements include a rough but ready horn section and some real primal organ (check out his “Don’t Stop” to hear what I mean).

Omnivore’s reissue adds seven bonus tracks to A Man Called Destruction, including some alternate takes, a couple of originals that didn’t make the final album, and a cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do,” kind of a fitting sentiment about how some of us feel about Alex Chilton. Apparently, those who knew Alex Chilton say the two spheres of sound (power pop and primitive rock) were equally at home in the man’s psyche, a reflection of his own personality. Sometimes affable and agreeable, sometimes contrary and difficult, like it or not that was Chilton. We don’t know why we love him (at least we can’t exactly pinpoint it), but we do.

Available now on download, CD and 2LP vinyl (clear blue for the initial pressing) including all of the bonus tracks.

3/5 (Omnivore OV-227)

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The Dukes of Stratosphear • The Complete and Utter Dukes [Box Set]

They’ve taken both of XTC’s alter ego releases as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR and put them into an ultra-mega-deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes that includes both CD and vinyl versions (180 gram, too!), a 7″ single, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, some Dukes Dollars, and a coupon for a Dukes t-shirt of your very own. All of this comes in a real nice purple velvet box. So if you haven’t picked up 25 O’Clock or Psonic Psunspot since they were reissued by Andy Partridge’s Ape House label, now’s the time. The remasters are much better than the ones Virgin originally put out, the CDs feature extra demos and stuff, and the vinyl is very psychedelically psupreme. (The vinyl versions come out separately in their own right anytime now.)
5/5 (Ape House APEBOX002)
[blurb originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]
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The Dukes of Stratosphear • 25 O’Clock [EP], Psonic Psunspot [LP]

As alter egos go, there aren’t too many as psychedically pspot-on as THE DUKES OF STRATOSPHEAR. The nom de plectrum of Swindon, England’s XTC, it was used as the name of a pfictitious rock group circa mid/late ’60s that was actually a mid/late ’80s “tribute” to the music that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory grew up on. Thirty years ago this month the Dukes released the second of their two records, Psonic Psunspot; as the successor to 1985’s 25 O’Clock it was the logical conclusion of an exercise that started out as a lark and ended as a favorite pair of platters by both band and fans alike.

By 1985 XTC, a nominally successful new wave/alternative rock group started in the late ’70s, were starting to run out of psteam. The band’s last two albums (Mummer and The Big Express) had failed to capitalize on the momentum gained by hit singles “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime,” and their label (Virgin Records) was noticeably worried. To keep their creative juices flowing, the record company agreed to give the band a tiny budget to record what became the 6-song 25 O’Clock EP and for them a fun break from the pressure of trying to write and record a proper XTC LP. Partridge, Moulding & Gregory enjoyed themselves immensely. Free to do basically whatever they wanted (within the reported £6,000 budget), the musicians fuzzed-up their guitars, played tapes backward and did anything else they felt psuited the concept. What they created in 25 O’Clock was not only a half dozen great tunes, but a virtual Trivial Pursuit of Psychedelic Rock. Here there’s a mellotron like the one on “Penny Lane,” there there’s a guitar lick recalling The Pink Floyd. Though the Dukes didn’t do actual cover versions of the psych and pop songs they got their inspiration from, they clearly channeled their heroes in a wholly believable manner.

25 O’Clock did so well for the band and Virgin Records that XTC had a new mandate (and pressure) to make a successful record under their own name. Their 1986 album Skylarking was just that, with the song “Dear God” becoming a ubiquitous track on alternative and college radio in the USA. By 1987 XTC was given the go-ahead to do another Dukes of Stratosphear record, with a larger budget than the first release. Psonic Psunspot, a 10-track album, expanded the Dukes’ influences so much that it actually comes off as more of a hybrid Dukes/XTC album—too current-sounding to be believable as a ’60s release, but too psychedelically inclined to be credited to XTC. Still, some of the songs, such as the Beach Boys-influenced “Pale and Precious” and single “Vanishing Girl,” are XTC in all but name.

This time, XTC’s US label, Geffen Records, took notice and released the album on both vinyl and CD (under the title Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, including the 25 O’Clock tracks). Once more XTC took a backseat, not hopping into the driver’s seat again until Spring 1989’s Oranges & Lemons. Thirty years after their final release, the Dukes of Stratosphear continue to thrill with their recorded righteousness—often outshining releases by XTC proper. If “Little Lighthouse,” “What in the World??” and “My Love Explodes” don’t smother you in their organic guitar goodness, you may well be a lost cause.

In 2009, frontman Andy Partridge’s record label, Ape House, reissued the albums separately on both vinyl and CD (and in a super deluxe box set called The Complete & Utter Dukes). The 180-gram vinyl versions sound even better than the original UK records do (I still have mine), and the CDs added bonus demos and unreleased tracks to fill in the rest of the picture. These days the band members look back at the Dukes fondly, if maybe a little jealously—after all, if it weren’t for them, XTC may have never had another chance to dazzle us with the likes of Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and 1992’s Nonsuch. Declaring, on their debut record, that “it’s time to visit the planet smile… it’s time the love bomb was dropped… it’s time to drown yourself in soundgasm,” the Dukes of Stratosphear were both of their time and of all time.

4/5 (Ape House APELP023 [25 O’Clock] and APELP024 [Psonic Psunspot])

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