Most Americans know XTC -- if they know them at all -- from 1989's Oranges And Lemons, with its one American chart single, "Mayor Of Simpleton." Shame, that. XTC is The Great Undiscovered Pop Band; consistently ahead of their time, they have consistently delivered intelligent, quirky, and mature pop music that was just a little too clever for most audiences to get. XTC has also had more than its share of personal difficulty, ceasing touring because of lead singer Andy Partridge's paralyzing stage fright. And then there's Skylarking.
Skylarking may be XTC's greatest release ever, but it arose out of difficult circumstances. Producer Todd Rundgren may have been brilliant, but his relationship with the band was apparently a little rocky. Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding were still refining their songwriting, though this was the CD where it blossomed into pure genius. And yet…damn, this is a good CD. Rundgren's production is rich and clear, serving up XTC's pop sound with shimmering elegance and clarity. The musicianship is solid, with Dave Gregory's keyboard skill taking the featured role; on songs like "Summer's Cauldron" and "Ballet For A Rainy Day," it is the very core of the sound.
Anyone who was at all paying attention in the '80s remembers what passed for a hit off Skylarking, an acidic and biting expression of Partridge's lack of faith in traditional religion called "Dear God." That's only the tip of the iceberg, though; Skylarking is a romp through clever, precise, and intelligent songwriting, especially when it turns standard subjects upside down; songs like "Grass" take mundane subjects about which a million songs have been written -- in this case the sexual peccadilloes of the young -- and turn them into something special, complete with soaring strings and complex vocal harmonies.
Other songs worth checking out include the excellent vocals of "The Meeting Place"; the let's-take-a-metaphor-to-ridiculous-and-wonderful-extremes "That's Really Super, Supergirl"; the Beatlesque "1000 Umbrellas" with its rich string section; and my favorite by far, the wonderfully Pagan "Season Cycle." And then, of course, there's "Dear God" -- which is still as angry, shocking, and damned good as it was fifteen and more years ago.
Skylarking is a truly great album from a truly great, underappreciated band. Do yourself a favor and add it to your collection today.