XTC – ” Nonsuch ” Vinyl Reissue

Posted: April 27, 2022 in MUSIC

Several years ago I was very excited when a new reissue of the 1992 album by Swindon band XTC “Nonsuch” was released as a deluxe and expanded edition. The CD-plus-Blu-ray package was (and still is!) phenomenal, including new high resolution Stereo and Surround Sound remixes by Steven Wilson, instrumental-only mixes and high-quality transfers of the original mix as well as scores of out-takes, alternates and demos .

XTC had long toiled in unfair obscurity. They got as high as the U.K. Top 5 with 1982’s “English Settlement” after just missing the Top 40 with 1980’s “Black Sea“. But then XTC stopped performing in concert because of Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright.

“When we were playing live, I felt as if we were howling out in the wilderness and no one was particularly listening,” Partridge told The Boston Globe in 1992. “You can stir into that discontent a big pinch of stage fright that got worse and worse. I think my subconscious was telling me, ‘Look, you don’t want to be doing this, so I’m going to make it difficult for you to do.'”

Meanwhile, they were still in litigation with an ex-manager. Partridge’s marriage was failing. They also still had to secure a drummer, since XTC stopped employing one when they left the road.

Is it any surprise that Partridge was hard at work completing a song called “The Disappointed”? “My marriage, my disappointment with that, is in there,” Partridge said in 2009. “I think the disappointment with the musical career, with not getting the recognition that I thought we were due, and certainly not getting the financial recompense that we were due, is in there. All that genuine disappointment filtered into this.”

XTC finally tabbed drummer Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention and he, in turn, recommended Gus Dudgeon, a veteran producer who arrived with a resume including Elton John, David Bowie, Queen and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. (The latter convinced Partridge and coleader Colin Moulding.) Dudgeon also arrived with an overflowing briefcase of quirks – but XTC were too antsy to push back.

At this point, Partridge told Past Daily, he “would have done it with the window cleaner.” Things had taken so long to get going that Moulding and bandmate Dave Gregory were reportedly reduced to working at a car-rental store to stay afloat between royalty payments.

Mattacks walked into a situation that might have felt hermetically sealed, considering how long XTC had spent tinkering while all of this played out.

“Though it was challenging, it wasn’t difficult. The experience was enjoyable – great songs!” said Mattacks “Some drum parts were mine – ‘My Bird Performs,’ for example. Others had loosely defined demo drum-machine parts programmed by Andy, which I used as templates.”

Partridge liked what they ended up with, as XTC created a more orchestral, more thoughtful distillation of elements from their previous two albums – with a dash of their psychedelic the Dukes of Stratosphear side venture. It may have been determinedly uncommercial at times, but the album was shaping up to be something far more artistically honest than simply trying to create with an eye for the stage.

Partridge remained wary of losing artistic control, however, since something similar had happened the last time XTC worked with a well-known figure on 1986’s Todd Rundgren-produced Skylarking. So when Dudgeon suggested that they omit Partridge’s song “Rook,” it created a wound that never quite healed. Dudgeon later announced that he wanted to handle the final mixing of the LP himself, and Partridge simply refused. With tension rising, XTC fired him.

Only later did Partridge realize, even more appropriately, that “Nonsuch” was the name of an incredibly ornate palace built by Henry VIII atop an entire razed village.

There would be one final issue: The head of Virgin Records didn’t hear a hit. Partridge told Past Daily that he rejected the LP while demanding “12 Top 10 guaranteed singles.” The label executive eventually stepped down, but not before XTC again lost whatever momentum they’d managed. It had now been two long years since the Moulding-composed “King for a Day” became XTC’s most recent U.K. charting song

As great as that was, some of us were still a bit sad because the album “Nonsuch” was not yet reissued on vinyl. Not many of us have actually gotten our hands on one of the elusive UK vinyl pressings of “Nonsuch” which came out in limited quantities back when it was first released. It has become a very pricey collectors item.

Fast forward to the present, the album has finally been reissued on long playing vinyl records!  I just received my pre-ordered copy of the brand new two-disc 200-gram version of “Nonsuch” and the results so far are excellent. Housed in a high-quality, thick cardboard double-disc gatefold package as opposed to the single-pocked design of the 1992 edition it features original cover artwork (it had been modified over the years in different CD editions around the world) and custom inner sleeves. The black vinyl discs are indeed thick, dark, dead quiet and perfectly centered so there are no complaints on that front. Arguably, this reissue is designed to be superior in every way to the 1992 original. I have no complaints at all really on this set! 

Sonics-wise, it is curious as I am wondering if I am hearing more detail than even on the high resolution Blu-ray Disc version.   

It has been interesting comparing this new vinyl pressing to the corresponding Stereo mix on the 2013 Blu-ray Disc version. Beyond that they are different playback formats with different processing, the new LP boasts new mastering separate from what went into making the 2013 versions on the Blu-ray.

This new vinyl version of “Nonsuch” indeed seems to have this other thing (if you will) going on which the Blu-ray doesn’t quite have… It is a bit odd to consider this conceptually as the album is a full digital recording to begin with… So “common sense” might make you think they would sound near identical. But as many of you know by now, there is nothing common about the processes of mixing and mastering an album for the digital universe as well as for vinyl release. There are so many variables.

A distinct difference I’m noticing is that there seems to be a greater depth perception and detailing on this lovely LP version. 

For example I’m more clearly hearing different details I’d never really noticed before such as the teensy little birdy tweets on “My Bird Performs.” The trumpet playing in the background through much of that song sounds positioned quite distinctly in the right corner of an imagined stage I say “imagined” as this is a studio recording, so it was probably an overdub, not made with the band at the same time as the basic tracks on an actual performance stage. Curiously, the producer pans the trumpet more toward the left-centre for its solo, reminding the listener that this is a studio creation and not necessarily representative of an actual live performance (which I’m perfectly fine with, mind you, but I know its an issue for some audiophiles). 

The decay on the shimmering splash cymbal in the initial measures of “Peter Pumpkinhead” is much larger and distinct than on the Blu-ray. Whatever is delivering this imaging, it’s impressive….

Of course some of you will ask if this release is “better” than the Blu-ray Disc version?  I can’t say that because of the aforementioned variables. They are “Oranges and Lemons”, if you will. 

In this instance, I’m noticing these differences comparing my vinyl.

My primary reason for owning the Blu-ray Disc is the wonderful 5.1 surround sound mix (which I listen to in my living room “home theater” area, on a separate playback system) and all the bonus goodies (and there are many there!).  My primary reason for wanting the vinyl is to be able to enjoy exactly that special inexplicable something extra which comes from that playback medium’s experience.  

Scientists and fans of “hard data” might look at it on paper and dismiss the vinyl format as inferior. But in this case I will side with the wizards of sonic alchemy, the mixdown and disc mastering engineers who possess seemingly secret magical powers most of us can’t comprehend to make the music contained on these flat black discs magically soar into the sonic cosmos.

Whatever it is, it works and even with its all-digital ’90s sheen, “Nonsuch” is ultimately a grand listening experience on the new vinyl reissue.  And isn’t that all that matters?

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