Lately, it seems, I’ve been doing reviews almost exclusively in pairs. From Swervedriver’s two reissues, to the Zero Boys’ retrospectives, the dual solo albums from respective members of the Church, Prince’s double album, and now the second half of a pair of bulked up releases by the infamous Dukes of Stratosphear. I’m not sure what that means, entirely, other than in most cases experiencing twice the enjoyment. Speaking of the number, two years after the release of the 25 O’clock EP, the pseudonymous Dukes returned with a proper full-length, and were by this time more freely recognized as being alter-egos of XTC. In fact, the liner notes of Skylarking give thanks to the Dukes for the loan of guitars, for many a sign of admittance.
XTC were in a different place with the release of Psonic Psunspot, the first full-length album under the Dukes banner. Their last album, though fraught with tension and still lacking blockbuster sales, was seen as a critical hit, and is still considered by most to be the band’s best effort. That, on top of the success and mystique of the Dukes side project led the band to take a bit more time with the second release. That time is evident on Psonic Psunspot. There are notable differences between the initial EP and the subsequent full-length. For the most part, the album seems less frantic. There are fewer bells, whistles, and other various and sundry gadgets that make noise. Instead, the emphasis is purely on the songwriting, and songwriting `as the band, Dukes of Stratosphear.’ Oddly, in trying to embody the idea of the Dukes, in essence making them a `real band,’ the songs on Psonic Psunspot sound more like XTC tracks, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Though there are still touchstones to the psychedelic ’60s within Psunspot, but unlike the songs on 25 O’clock, they seem more polished, or perhaps more of an ’80s homage to the ’60s. Regardless, the album treats us to more Beatlesque wonder, and some of the best songs Andy Partridge and company have created. “Little Lighthouse,” “Collideascope,” “You’re My Drug” and “Brainiac’s Daughter” can easily rank amongst the best songs by the band, under either moniker. The gender bending “Have You Seen Jackie?,” the patchwork Beatles quilt of “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel),” and the amazingly uncanny Pet Sounds homage, “Pale and Precious” are the songs that standout as both faithful ’60s recreations as well as magnificently written songs.
Just as the reissue for 25 O’clock, Psonic Psunspot adds several bonus tracks, in this case six demos and a video for “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown.” Whereas the video on the EP reissue is a Magical Mystery Tour homage, this one is definitely Sgt. Pepper inspired. At this point, even with a fake mustache, there was no way to mistake that Andy Partridge was the face and voice at the center of the Dukes of Stratosphear. The little game was over. The loss of that freeing anonymity may or may not have been the reason for the fact that we’ve not seen hide nor hair of the Dukes since (save for the one-off 2003 occurrence), but the influence of the Dukes upon future XTC work (can a band influence itself?) was incalculable. Oranges & Lemons, Nonsuch and the Apple Venus volumes certainly bore the mark of the ’60s psychedelic pop movement embraced and lovingly recreated by their aliases, the Dukes.
XTC- Oranges & Lemons
The Beatles- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Hollies- Evolution