XTC, SKYLARKING

Skylarking

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #24 – released October 27, 1986)

Track listing: Summer’s Cauldron / Grass / The Meeting Place / That’s Really Super, Supergirl / Ballet For A Rainy Day / 1,000 Umbrellas / Season Cycle / Earn Enough For Us / Big Day / Another Satellite / Mermaid Smiled / The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul / Dear God / Dying / Sacrificial Bonfire

In the four years between English Settlement and this record, XTC lost a bit of their mojo. Some blamed Andy Partridge’s refusal to tour anymore, rendering the band entirely studio-bound; others cited drummer Terry Chambers’ sudden departure (not unrelated to no longer touring). Mummer (1983) and The Big Express (1984) have their moments but neither album is as consistent or convincing as the three preceding them. Partridge’s settling for the studio cuts both ways, suitably buffing his newfound pastoral nature into a fine folk-pop sheen (“Love On A Farmboy’s Wages”) while using this retreat as an excuse to spew bitter venom about the music business (“Funk Pop A Roll”, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird”). In either case, the public didn’t buy it—25 O’Clock, an EP of late ’60s pastiches the band released in 1985 under pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphear sold more than The Big Express in the UK!

Thus, their label Virgin insisted the band hire an outside producer for their next record and gave them a list of names; they picked Todd Rundgren, a pop polymath best known for his ‘70s singer/songwriter hits “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” but also a seasoned studio wiz, having produced the likes of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, etc.; Not that XTC hadn’t employed producers on their previous albums, but Rundgren took charge to a far greater degree than any of them—supposedly, after the band sent him their demos, he shaped and sequenced the whole album before any of them set foot in his recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Naturally, Rundgren and Partridge (who was used to having more control) clashed throughout the making of Skylarking and never worked together again, but even Partridge now admits the final result is one of their better albums.

I’d go as far to say that most days I think Skylarking is the band’s best album, partially thanks to Rundgren’s overseeing. What immediately sets it apart (and above) the previous two records is a unified structure, its songs passing through two recognizable, interrelated cycles: The Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) and Life itself (birth, death, rebirth). Granted, not every single moment fully adheres to these trajectories (for complex reasons we’ll address later), but the songs more or less superficially fit together in this way, making for arguably the first XTC album as obsessed with the whole enchilada as each individual trinket. In addition to following a tighter structure, Partridge and Colin Moulding also each contribute a strong set of tunes, as if they’ve crossed that threshold from touring to studio band, at last mastering the type of composition best suited to the latter arena.

Skylarking’s unification is further heightened by how some songs are deliberately crafted to either thematically complement each other or literally flow into one another. “Summer’s Cauldron” opens the album in a gauzy, blissful haze of humid but sparkling light psychedelia. As its chorus builds for the final time, gaining momentum, instead of a pause, a new chord and melody immediately announces the next track, “Grass”. With an almost East Asian-like fanfare, the song sustains the previous track’s tone, only wedding it to a lyric about making love out in the open. Concluding “Grass” with a musical callback to the beginning of “Summer’s Cauldron” nourishes the connection between the two tracks even further. Similarly, a few songs later, when the relatively laid-back “Ballet For A Rainy Day” reaches the last word of its final chorus, it ends on a slightly different chord than the previous choruses, instantly going right in to the swirling, string-laden “1,000 Umbrellas”, which sounds not too far off from the quirky psych-orchestral pop Prince was dabbling in on Parade at the time.

“The Meeting Place”, with its playful, faux-mechanical arrangement and crystalline chorus continues the cheerfully idyllic mood of the first two tracks. Some might argue “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” pushes it further, maybe even too far into self-parody. Fortunately, Partridge is a master of imbuing precious and coy subject matter with enough care and ingenuity that it becomes digestible through the sheer force of its melodicism and musicality—just listen to those intricate backing vocal overdubs or how easily and unexpectedly the band arrives at that chord change before the chorus. “Season Cycle” does a similar thing only with the chorus feeling more like a natural extension of each verse. Coming just about right in the middle of Skylarking, it blatantly reiterates the album’s overarching themes; it’s also significant for being the first XTC song with a heavy Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys influence, which will surface repeatedly throughout much of the band’s subsequent work.

The general air of optimism and breeziness gives way to weightier themes and somewhat darker (and more varied) moods on Skylarking’s second half. However, the song that kicks it off is one of XTC’s most triumphant: “Earn Enough For Us” is a socio-economical sketch both musically and lyrically worthy of the Kinks, driven by a classic guitar riff and an impassioned sense of both defiance and pride (“Just because we’re on the bottom of the ladder / we shouldn’t be sadder / than others like us / who have goals for the betterment of life”). It’s certainly one of the catchiest, most urgent working class anthems of the ‘80s (why in the world wasn’t it picked as a single outside Canada and Australia?). Moulding’s “Big Day” takes a few steps back from the previous song’s family-struggling-to-make-a-living to where it all began, pondering getting hitched with equal anticipation and dread as autumnal, chiming 12-string guitars signal colder weather ahead.

At this point, the album’s concept wavers a bit. In contrast to everything preceding it, “Another Satellite” feels like an outlier, a remnant from the band’s prog-rock recent past, although the sweet harmonies rub up nicely against the flanged synth-guitar hook and the song’s spacious, echo-y arrangement. Then, things get a little complicated. Initial pressings of Skylarking included “Mermaid Smiled” a brief, nautical-themed, showtune-ready sigh of a song, followed by “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, a jazzy spy music pastiche that, like “Season Cycle”, introduced another new path the band would develop further on later albums. However, after “Dear God” (the B-side of the “Grass” single) actually started to get radio and MTV airplay, it was added to the album (placed after “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”) and “Mermaid Smiled” was deleted—“something had to go and so I took off the shortest song,” said Partridge. While not especially profound, “Mermaid Smiled” is charming, buoyant and a good lead-in to “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”. It really should’ve remained on Skylarking (with it, the album still clocks in at under 50 minutes), which is why I’ve kept it in the tracking listing here. (If your copy doesn’t have it, you can find it on the band’s 1990 rarities comp Rag and Bone Buffet.)

Although “Dear God” was the album’s biggest hit, it doesn’t fit too comfortably on Skylarking. Despite encouragement from his bandmates and Rundgren to include it, Partridge was never at ease trying to write about his atheism: “such a big subject… in three-and-a-half-minutes,” he lamented. Still, what three-and-a-half minutes! With an eight-year-old girl (played by a boy in the iconic music video) singing the entire first verse, “Dear God” grabs hold of the listener right at the start; then the drums kick in and the minor-key acoustic arrangement turns electric as Partridge sings the second verse. A string quartet slowly creeps in, at times sinister enough to peel paint off the walls (think of the strings in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”). The whole track builds to a ferocious final minute where Partridge lays out his blasphemy with eloquent but intense, blunt force. Arguably the catchiest and most original single in the band’s catalogue since “Senses Working Overtime”, the song repositioned them as both modern rock stars and controversial figures in America, even inspiring a firebomb threat to a Florida radio station and moving one college student to hold his principal hostage at knifepoint, demanding that the song be played over the school’s PA system. To this day, it’s still one of XTC’s best-known songs in the US; although aesthetically Skylarking doesn’t need it, without it, the album might’ve fallen into obscurity.

Thankfully, the band chose to keep the closing sequence intact and not tack “Dear God” on at the end, even if the overlapping transition between it and the penultimate track “Dying” jars a little. But these two final songs, both written by Moulding are essential to Skylarking’s allure. “Dying”, like nearly every other XTC song of this period contains a healthy dose of Beatles-isms: it could be a track off The “White” Album or side two of Abbey Road. However, it’s more of a link to “Sacrificial Bonfire”, one of Moulding’s very best songs and the latest in a long line of spectacular XTC album closers. Over tumbling percussion, an almost classical-sounding guitar riff provides the hook, while deftly employed orchestration carefully draws us further in, the strings eventually mirroring that initial riff. Moulding sings, “Burnt up the old / ring in the new,” and later, “Reign over good / burnish the bad.” Rebirth may be an obvious theme to end on here, but it’s an effective, compelling one for the sense of majesty and sincere awe the melody and arrangement together conjure up. Skylarking is nearly a perfect circle of an album—as “Sacrificial Bonfire” fades out, I recommend utilizing the “repeat all” function on whatever listening format you prefer, for that opening instrumental haze of “Summer’s Cauldron” becomes more enticing and resonant with each passing cycle.

Up next: Lonesome for a place I know.

“Summer’s Cauldron/Grass”:

“Earn Enough For Us”:

Jellyfish, BELLYBUTTON

Jellyfish-Bellybutton

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #28 – released August 7, 1990)

Track listing: The Man I Used To Be / That Is Why / The King is Half Undressed / I Wanna Stay Home / She Still Loves Him / All I Want Is Everything / Now She Knows She’s Wrong / Bedspring Kiss / Baby’s Coming Back / Calling Sarah

Some albums I’ll write about here were genuinely popular when they came out, while others sold poorly but later proved massively influential to a generation of listeners and artists alike. Bellybutton, the debut from early ‘90s power pop band Jellyfish falls into neither of these categories—it received some college radio and MTV airplay at the time but now it’s mostly forgotten. Three years after its release, the band put out a second album, Spilt Milk and then split up shortly afterwards. Spilt Milk was my gateway into Jellyfish and the impetus for my belatedly inquiring Bellybutton, which I liked even more. A perennial in my music collection, I had no trouble finding a place for it on my first favorite 100 albums list in 2004, and there was never any question as to whether it would appear here.

I’m inclined to chalk up Bellybutton’s lasting appeal to its timelessness–none of it particularly sounds like 1990 (in contrast, portions of Flood seem explicitly of its era), but that’s not entirely accurate. Actually, just about all of it could’ve been recorded before 1990 (and most of it prior to 1980), which is a longwinded way of calling it retro. If the playful, psychedelic cover art and band logo (and outfits!) did not already tip you off, Jellyfish was an unapologetically retro outfit, riding the late ‘80s wave of ‘60s revivalism and anticipating the ‘90s mass appropriation of ‘70s pop culture (see everything from “Groove Is In The Heart” to The Brady Bunch Movie). You don’t have to be a music geek to hear not-so-faint echoes of The Beatles, Big Star, Queen, etc.; throughout the record’s ten immaculately crafted tracks.

What elevates Bellybutton from just-a-pastiche status (even though “All I Want Is Everything” is a glorious Cheap Trick simulation) is the songwriting. Most Jellyfish compositions are co-written by the band’s two constant members, singer/drummer Andy Sturmer and keyboardist Roger Manning (guitarist/future solo artist Jason Falkner and Manning’s brother Chris on bass round out the lineup here). On opener “The Man I Used To Be”, you immediately sense their ambition and talent: after a reverent church organ intro gives way to a trembling piano rhythm punctuated by guitar stabs, Sturmer comes in with his sweet choirboy tone, growing huskier and louder as the song builds but never overwhelms. Subtle orchestration colors the background, a Stevie Wonder-ish harmonica takes the place of a guitar solo, and the outro repeats the intro organ melody, only this time with somber, more reserved violins. It’s as if the band is laying all its cards on the table at the outset, emphasizing those influences I mentioned earlier (to a greater degree than the Beatles-influenced XTC, for instance) but also making them their own, expertly, cunningly inserting them into a structure ultimately defined by their own melodies, lyrics and arrangements.

Thus, Bellybutton proceeds solidly, one potential single after another. “That Is Why” unabashedly recalls Supertramp in its electric piano and the Beatles by stretching out the word “Why” to eight syllables (it also throws in some knowing “doot-doot-doot” backing vocals), but neither its unique stop-and-start rhythm nor such evocative yet knotty phrases as “it’s partly cloudy with trouser stains” have any obvious precedents. “The King Is Half Undressed” combines a “Tomorrow Never Knows”-style drum roll with electric harpsichord and Pete Townshend power chords and then transcends all of it with a classic, ringing power pop chorus complete with backing “ba-bup-ba-bah’s!” (followed by ensuing breakdown of swooning Beach Boys harmonies). “I Wanna Stay Home” is semi-acoustic mid-tempo pure pop of your dreams, driven by a tight, classic-sounding melody that’s simultaneously cheerful and tinged with melancholy, an aesthetic alt-rock followers like The Gin Blossoms would flatten out (and hit big with) as the decade wore on.

The rest of Bellybutton is just as insanely tuneful and bright-eyed but also clever and knowing enough to explain why it never moved anywhere near the units The Gin Blossoms did. “All I Want Is Everything” is the closest thing the album has to an alt-rock rave-up and is perhaps the best showcase for Sturmer’s vocal prowess: he’s alternately urgent, defiant, bratty and even sincere. However, his first line is “Ever since I was a twinkle in my father’s pants.” An opening declaration for the ages, but not necessarily something that’ll get you on top 40 radio. “Baby’s Coming Back” actually did get some radio airplay (it was the band’s sole Billboard Hot 100 entry, peaking at #62)—catchy, concise and handclap-heavy (the album’s best liner note, by the way: “We all clapped our hands.”), it might’ve gone even further if it didn’t so blatantly wink at bubblegum music (or wasn’t quite so reminiscent of “C’mon Get Happy” by the Partridge Family). The cheeky, even-more-harpsichord-heavy “Now She Knows She’s Wrong” could be a track by XTC retro-pop alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear (now we’re talking a pastiche of a pastiche!). By the time closer “Calling Sarah” arrives, you can practically hear Falkner thinking “oh, fuck it” as he lays into a shameless rip of a multi-tracked Brian May solo while the whole song plays more as inspired homage to than lazy copy of “You’re My Best Friend” (and Spilt Milk even has a song on it called “He’s My Best Friend”).

I know, for most, Bellybutton is just too clever, too arch, too in love with its own braininess to really contribute something meaningful and original and lasting for the world at large. And then, I look back to the messy, affecting emotion coursing through “The Man I Used To Be” or the elegant, bluesy extended piano intro that sets the scene for all the lovely intricate harmonies and similarly sharp observations of “She Still Loves Him” (such as, “All they wanted to be was as happy as couple number three on their favorite game show.”) I also think of “Bedspring Kiss”, a slinky, soothing, exotica-flavored five-minute bossa-nova complete with stand-up bass and sitar. It’s the album’s least representative track by a considerable margin, but its otherness stands out in a positive way; it’s also as catchy and accomplished as anything else here. I once called Bellybutton a ‘90s power pop primer, which seems a little strange having argued how un-‘90s it now seems. So, let’s just call it a great album from the early 1990s that actually looks forward in how ingenuously it cultivates the past. Cliché that it may be, the idea that everything old is new again is something we’ll keep coming back to throughout the decade.

Up next: another 1990 album with a one-word title beginning with the letter “B”!

“The Man I Used To Be”:

“The King Is Half Undressed”:

The Go-Betweens, 16 LOVERS LANE

16-lovers-lane

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #26 – released August 1988)

Track listing: Love Goes On! / Quiet Heart / Love Is A Sign / You Can’t Say No Forever / The Devil’s Eye / Streets Of Your Town / Clouds / Was There Anything I Could Do? / I’m Allright / Dive For Your Memory

We view the past through a slightly titled lens. Mention of a decade, an era, even a specific year elicits a set of cultural signifiers—not identical for everyone, but most can name a few defining characteristics as some things endure and others fade away. Limiting our scope to popular music, if I asked you to describe what it sounded like in the 1980s, genres such as new wave, synth-pop, hair metal or old school rap might come to mind (or you could just name artists like The Police, The Human League, Poison or Run DMC). Three decades on, there is a canon of ‘80s music that most recognize as such and accept; many albums from that period I’ve written about here have a firm place in it—Remain In Light and Avalon regularly appear on other “Best Albums of All Time” lists, while you often hear singles from Hounds of Love and Skylarking on Sirius XM radio’s First Wave, a channel with a “classic alternative” format.

I’m in favor of such a canon existing, but after having heard so much of it so many times, I often find myself looking elsewhere—a canon can’t contain everything, obviously, so what of all the good stuff that never made it in? You could argue that it wasn’t popular enough, but practically everybody now identifies songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough”, “Blister In The Sun” or “How Soon Is Now” as ‘80s classics, despite not being top 40 hits at the time (in the US, anyway). Still, there’s just so much music out there, past and present, that you’ve never heard (and likely will never hear) because for whatever reason, it just never permeated the culture. This brings us to The Go-Betweens, a band from Brisbane, Australia who recorded six albums in the 1980s, barely made a dent anywhere commercially, and is only well-known by fellow musicians and music obsessives like myself. However, a few critics adored them (most notably Robert Christgau), and reading about them moved me back in 2002 to pick up a used copy of Bellvista Terrace, a single disc compilation of their greatest non-hits (which I rarely listen to anymore because I now have all five albums it draws from).

16 Lovers Lane was the last of their ‘80s albums, and the only one to come out on a major label (Capitol Records) in the US. Like every other Go-Between’s record, it sold poorly, although, perhaps thanks to Capitol, it at least got some radio airplay: “Was There Anything I Could Do?” actually made its way onto Billboard’s then-brand new Modern Rock Tracks chart, and “Streets Of Your Town” is probably the best-known song in the band’s entire catalog. Over twenty-five years after it came out, my first thought when listening to it still is, “Good lord, WHY wasn’t this record a hit?” Easily the poppiest set of songs the band ever recorded, 16 Lovers Lane is by no means difficult or challenging. The Go-Betweens were always a jangly guitar band, albeit one that initially came out of a post-punk, DIY aesthetic. By 1988, The Cure-like angular chords and sudden tempo shifts of earlier albums such as Before Hollywood (1983) had gradually given way to a more direct, emphatically melodic style. It’s fitting that a major-label move should be so accessible, but the album’s triumph is that it not only retains all of the band’s intelligence and warmth but also bolsters those qualities to new heights.

As with The Beatles, The Kinks, XTC and many other Anglo-centric artists, The Go-Betweens are, at their core, two talented singer-songwriter-guitarists (augmented by a rhythm section). As with nearly all their albums, the ten tracks here are evenly split between them. First-time listeners may struggle in telling Grant McLennan and Robert Forster apart, but after a few spins one can easily discern a McLennan song (heavily melodic, more pastoral, voice like a rougher Neil Finn of Crowded House) from a Forster one (looser, gives off a devil-may-care vibe while maintaining tight song structures, sounds a little like Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCullough’s younger brother). Two other things set 16 Lovers Lane apart in the group’s discography: Mark Wallis’ lush but lucid production, which pulls off the trick of seeming simultaneously crisp and clear but also immense, as if it was recorded in in a cathedral; and fifth member Amanda Brown (who joined them on their previous album Tallulah (1987)), a multi-instrumentalist (how many other rock bands have an oboe player?) whose string arrangements and backing vocals anticipate later indie chamber-pop stalwarts such as Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura.

Recorded shortly after the band returned home to Australia following nearly a decade based in London, 16 Lovers Lane exudes a sustained feeling of renewal and spring-like joy, present in everything from the deliberately simple, two-chord progressions of “Quiet Heart” and “Streets of Your Town” to those moments in “Love Is A Sign” and “Clouds” where the acoustic intros suddenly bloom into full-bodied exultations of strings and ringing electric guitars. Beyond all these pleasant hooks and sounds, however, there’s some tension. Someone (I can’t figure out exactly who) once dubbed this album the “indie Rumours”; like Fleetwood Mac’s masterpiece, some of the band were romantically involved with each other during its making (McLennan and Brown were just falling in love, while Forster and longtime drummer Lindy Morrison had recently broken up).

It follows that McLennan’s songs are among his most euphoric ever: feisty opener “Love Goes On!” says all it needs to with that exclamation point in the title and a chorus of “ba-da-da-da, ba-da-da-DOW!/ Love goes on anyway,” and “Quiet Heart” simmers like U2 in all their majestic splendor (Wallis helped mix The Joshua Tree) but thankfully without any of Bono’s pomposity. Naturally, Forster’s songs come off more darkly and conflicted in comparison: “You Can’t Say No Forever” has a cathartic outro drenched with wah-wah guitar and Forster’s faint cries in the background while “Dive For Your Memory” is a beautifully sad, eloquent closer, a relationship post-mortem affecting and graceful in its simplicity. But neither man is a one-trick pony, for McLennan tempers the breeziness of “Streets of Your Town” with lyrics referencing butcher knives and battered wives; Forster also breaks from his misery in the cheerfully defiant “I’m Allright” and supplements his yearning and damage with wisdom and perhaps, even a hint of optimism on the sparkling “Love Is A Sign”.

Although I could have easily written about at least three of the band’s other ‘80s albums here, I chose 16 Lovers Lane because I felt its impact most immediately when I first heard it six years ago. Despite changes in tempo and temperament throughout, it all registers as one unified piece in my mind. Those robustly strummed guitars kicking off “Love Goes On!” instantly place me in the aura of an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, nature all coming back to life as I walk head held high alternately through a blue sky metropolis or endless fields of green; I remain entrenched in this mindset all the way to the oboe melody that concludes “Dive For Your Memory”. I could offer many practical, cognizant reasons as to why this album never found a wide audience or became part of the ‘80s music canon (or even the more compartmentalized sub-canon of late ‘80s modern rock), but it would amount to little more than conjecture. Truthfully, there is no single or good reason for The Go-Betweens’ relative obscurity in the pop firmament, and it’s futile to bemoan this fact or ponder any more at length a past we cannot change. All I can do is ask you to listen to this record, and if you like it, encourage you to ask others to listen to it. In this process, we end up building our own personal, individual canons, influenced by the culture at large, but altogether more potent for how they enrich our inner selves and reflect them back to the outside world.

The Go-Betweens split up a year after 16 Lovers Lane, but, as with the changing of the seasons, McLennan and Forster will eventually appear in this story again.

Up next: Through being cool.

“Streets of Your Town”:

“Quiet Heart”:

Gimme It, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

As a postscript to my Top 50 Tracks of the 1980s, here are my 25 favorite albums of the decade, accompanied by a gloriously deranged video for the first track from # 1.

1. Kate Bush, The Dreaming
2. XTC, Skylarking
3. The Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane
4. Talking Heads, Remain In Light
5. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead
6. Everything But The Girl, Idlewild
7. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
8. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
9. XTC, English Settlement
10. Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow
11. Erasure, The Innocents
12. The Mekons, Rock N Roll
13. R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant
14. XTC, Oranges and Lemons
15. Pet Shop Boys, Introspective
16. Roxy Music, Avalon
17. Was (Not Was), What Up, Dog?
18. The Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball
19. New Order, Substance
20. Madonna, Like A Prayer
21. The Go-Betweens, Tallulah
22. R.E.M., Murmur
23. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes
24. George Michael, Faith
25. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man