With Psonic Psunspot, the Dukes of the Stratosphear's full-length follow-up to 25 O'clock, the masquerading members of XTC broadened their swipes. Where the first EP primarily looked to British psychedelic nuggets for its influence, Psunspot crossed the ocean to perform the same affectionate pillaging from American artists, including winking refs to bands like the Byrds, Quicksilver Messenger Service, even the Theremin-drenched Beach Boys. The results, but for a frivolous series of whimsical spoken interludes performed by the studio manager's daughter, proved less broadly spoofish than 25 O'clock.
The adjustment in attitude is readily apparent from the first track, Colin Moulding's "Vanishing Girl," which takes its cue from the Hollies circa "Dear Eloise" or "Jennifer Eccles," and holds until the luminous finale, "Pale and Precious," Andy Partridge's tribute to Brian Wilson and the TM Boys. Colin triples his contributions to this set ("Girl" “Shiny Cage” and "The Affiliated"), though his presence is also felt more strongly on the disc's other tracks, too.
With 25 O'clock, you get the impression at times that the rest of the band was invited late to Andy's party. Here, listening to Colin's nimble bass work on the "Eight Miles High"-influenced "You're My Drug," for instance, his involvement in the Dukes sounds much more substantial. Moulding's "The Affiliated," his third compositional contribution to the disc, leans toward a world that he'd explore further in XTC's Apple Venus discs ("Frivolous Tonight").
In fact, where all six core cuts of the Dukes' debut rested on the listener's knowledge of sixties studio excess for a full appreciation, many of the follow-up's selections could have easily been put on a straight-faced XTC disc without too much tweaking. Partridge's McCartney-esque "Brainiac's Daughter" could've been a companion piece to Skylarking's "That's Really Super, Supergirl," right down to the lyrics' Silver Age comic book refs, while "Pale and Precious" anticipates Oranges and Lemons' equally SoCal-inflected "Chalkhills and Children."
But for its palpable "I'm Only Sleeping" nick, "Shiny Cage" could've easily fit among the songwriter's other observations of working class not-so-quiet desperation. At times, in fact, you can't help wishing that the XTCers had held some of these tracks for their next elpee where they might have gotten more serious critical attention.
Still, the disc's few acid-y japes remain enjoyable. Bad trip reconstruction "Collideascope" (dig that Turtles "Sound Asleep" sawing in the middle) and the gloriously dopey, San Fran-influenced "Little Lighthouse" remain personal faves. To these ears, the only track that works more as a concept than an actual song is the gender bending "Have You Seen, Jackie?" Maybe it's the insertion of that irritating little girl's voice in the middle of the song.
Ape House's new reissue of the disc contains six demo versions of songs from the disc — no unfamiliar songs on this 'un. (A video for Partridge's pub crawl tribute, "You're A Good Man, Albert Brown," was also planned for the disc but is unfortunately M.I.A.) Of the demos, the most intriguing proves to be Moulding's "No One at Home," an early version of "Vanishing Girl" with less mysterious lyrics in its chorus. I miss Dave Gregory's sparkle-icious guitar work on the finalized "Girl," though.
To fans who already own Psunspot from its CD release as a part of the Chips from the Chocolate Fireball set, Ape House's new release may not have the advantage of less familiar extras to pull in the hard-core collectors. But for latecomers just coming into this criminally underappreciated art-pop band, this set might be the one to select. Where the original "Dukes" releases (including the Chocolate Fireball CD) contained no acknowledgment of the group's "true" identity, Ape House's two reissues plaster "XTC as The Dukes of Stratosphear" on both the cover and CD label.
Rather like the moment Stephen King had his "Richard Bachman" books reissued with his real name splayed on the cover. Yanking the (red) curtain aside brought an audience to those obscure early works that would otherwise have missed 'em. Perhaps Andy is hoping that something similar will occur for the Dukes' oeuvre. If so, that alone justifies both discs' re-release.