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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater
This section sponsored by ELUSIVE DISC

54 SACD and DVD-A Reviews Total!

December 2003, Pt. 1 of 3 - Pop/Rock/MOR

[Part 2] [Part 3]

Click on any cover to go directly to that review

Aaron Neville – Nature Boy: The Standards Album – with Rob Mounsey, Keyboards; Anthony Wilson, Guitar; Ron Carter, Bass; Grady Tate, Drums; along with numerous guest artists; orchestra arranged and conducted by Rob Mounsey – Verve 440 076 062-2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

Aaron Neville’s voice has become an almost national institution over the last couple of decades; what with his prolific outpouring of albums, constant guest appearances on others’ albums and frequent television and radio jingles, the airwaves are just about saturated with his distinctive warble. And God knows I’ve tried really hard to resist listening, listening instead to those tiny voices that constantly whisper non-flattering remarks about quality over quantity, and how could anyone with his drive and work ethic produce consistently satisfying results? I don’t really think I’m completely unjustified in feeling that not all of his collaborations and guest duets have all been really effective and essential; I definitely shied away from the more R&B-tinged and MOR pop duets – maybe they mostly just weren’t my cup of tea. Needless to say, I was completely prepared to dismiss this album with only a perfunctory listen, and little did I know that I was about to be totally sucked in. This album is really good, and offers incredible music making and an exceptional SACD multichannel listening experience.

I’ll just make it plain and simple: this album is irresistibly, undeniably ear candy. Every track is a highlight reel – this is the kind of music that Aaron Neville should have been singing his entire career, and with superb accompaniment from the core group of Mounsey, Wilson, Carter and Tate. The list of instrumental soloists on the various tracks is stellar and impressive, and nobody disappoints. Neville’s voice has never sounded better, and the superb multichannel mix from Elliot Scheiner makes this one of the most enjoyable and satisfying SACDs I’ve heard in a good while.

One minor quibble – on the disc’s only duet (The Very Thought of You) with Linda Ronstadt, Linda’s voice seems slightly recessed and not quite as transparent as everything else in the track – maybe just a slight difference in the microphone level, perhaps? Anyway, a minor point that doesn’t really subtract much from an otherwise incredible disc. Very highly recommended! Tracks: Summertime; Blame It on My Youth; The Very Thought of You; The Shadow of Your Smile; Cry Me a River; Nature Boy; Who Will Buy?; Come Rain or Come Shine; Our Love is Here to Stay; In the Still of the Night; Since I Fell for You; Danny Boy. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

The Police – Every Breath You Take (The Classics); A&M 069 493 607-2 Hybrid Multichannel SACD:

Fans of the SACD are starting to see releases of popular titles like the Bob Dylan CDs, the Rolling Stone discs, and titles like this one. Fortunately, not only is it available to listen to the disc in stereo SACD (for those who are opposed to surround mixes), but it will work in any old CD player—yeah! On this title, the surrounds are utilized to make the sound more three-dimensional with echo, reverberation, and other effects in the back. On some cuts, there is occasional guitar and instrumentation as well, but it is not bothersome by any means. The fidelity is better than most traditional CDs, but is still a little bright and edgy at times. Some of the tracks are slightly different from the originals. “Walking on the Moon” sounds like it is recorded in a big arena, and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” has been altered completely(!) without any sort of warning on the back CD cover. It is softer and slower in pace that will give you an entirely different interpretation of the song. The quality of this track is at least a notch or two above the others. Some of the later tracks like “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” make heavy use of the surrounds. The same lame version of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ‘86” is on this disc (like the original Singles disc, luckily the original is here as well. The newer mix of “Message in a Bottle” doesn’t seem much different from the original.

If you are a Police fan and don’t already have a compilation CD then this is the one to get. For others (like myself) who own all the CDs, I wouldn’t jump out and buy this just because it is SACD or multi-channel (although some tracks clearly seemed to offer high recording quality). When Synchronicity is released in SACD, I’ll be one of the first to pick one up. Songs included are: Roxanne; Can’t Stand Losing You; Message In A Bottle; Walking On The Moon; Don’t Stand So Close To Me; De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da; Every Little thing She Does Is Magic; Invisible Sun; Spirits In The Material World; Every Breath You Take; King Of Pain; Wrapped Around Your Finger; Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86; Message In a Bottle (new classic rock mix). Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

David Crosby – From The Front Row…LIVE!; Silverline 288190-9 DVD-A:

This concert was recorded at the Tower Theatre in 1989 and mixes CS&N favorites with solo material that was new at the time. The surround speakers contain the crowd noise mostly, and although the sound is better than you’d expect (big and palpable), there is some evidence of congestion in the vocals. The sound is a little gritty, but probably intentionally. Crosby is in good form and the concert has a nice selection of slower songs mixed with more upbeat tunes. “Monkey and the Underdog” is a great song with a bluesy feel while Crosby relates his struggles as the underdog. Although there are several staple songs (from Crosby, Stills, and Nash), the performance isn’t quite as impressive as hearing the entire band playing together. Of course, when Crosby was the original vocalist, the songs faired a little better.

“Tracks in the Dust” is another favorite of mine on this disc. It is a heartfelt remembrance of what is gone, and the realization that things will never be the same as before. He questions: Is it possible to make things right? And, is it possible to really change the world? The sadness, frustration, and disappointment are evident in the performance, although surrender is not an option. “Guinennevere” showcases the recording quality that can be had on this disc. Songs included are: Drive My Car; Lady Of The Harbor; Oh Yes I Can; Monkey And The Underdog; Delta; In My Dreams; Wooden Ships; Almost Cut My Hair; Long Time Gone; Déjà vu; Night Time For The Generals; Tracks In The Dust; Guinnevere; Compass.

-Brian Bloom

David Elias – The Window; Sketti Sandwich Productions SSP 3162 Hybrid Stereo/Multi-channel SACD:

David Elias is a singer/songwriter who plays a variety of folk music. The recording quality on this disc was excellent, but it was strange to hear instruments coming from the surround channels given the gentle acoustic style of the music. Anyway, it can be turned off, or it might be beneficial to some to help feel immersed in the music. I couldn’t get over how incredibly natural and realistic the guitar, voice, and bass sounded on this record. Although David’s voice is nothing like Bob Dylan’s, there is sure to be some comparison due to the musical style and lyrical content. The info sheet I received says that he is often compared to John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Paul Simon as well due to the “honesty of his acoustic approach to music.” Even though this style of music is my favorite, there is definitely something to this quote. Some of the best artists have a way of connecting to the music and audience, and for many who listen to this record I can envision this sort of melding.

The music is soft, mellow, and intimate. The songs are about people going through the difficulties and triumphs in their life. The music is mostly guitar driven, and the only complaint I have is that on occasion Elias struggles in his singing. The appeal of this album won’t be widespread, but for those who enjoy this type of music, it is a find. Songs included are: Freedom On The Freeway; Summer Wind; Go Down Easy; The Old King; Something About You; Half An Hour Away; Her Name Is A.; Transcendental Deprivation Part III; Season Of The Fall; The Window; Picture Of Nothing. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get It On; Motown B0000935-36 Hybrid Multichannel SACD:

In the early days of DVD, I was terribly disappointed in the movies the companies chose to be released. Then, after a year or so, they finally got their heads on straight and started to release a bunch of classic films. That is what is starting to happen with SACD. This title, by Marvin Gaye, is an example of how good some older recordings can sound when given the proper treatment. Music comes from all around on the title track, but vocals are kept up front, and the sound in the surrounds just helps to expand the sense of space and is not overdone. This is clearly the best I’ve ever heard this material sound on CD. If you think about it, the material is a little racy [a little? Look at the titles!...Ed.], but the messages are deep from the soul, and the music is first rate. One listen to this record will make you realize how important a figure Gaye was in the genre, and why his death was such a terrible loss to the musical community. Songs included are: Let’s Get It On; Please Stay (Once You Go Away); If I Should Die Tonight; Keep Getting’ It On; Come Get To This; Distant Lover; You Sure Love To Ball; Just To Keep You Satisfied. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Following are some hi-res alternatives to SACD & DVD-A:
Oteil & The Peacemakers – The Family Secret; Artists House AH00002 CD/96K DVD:

This is the second title I’ve received from Artists House and it is as impressive, if not more so, than the first. Included in the package are two discs: the first is a DVD with all sorts of extras, and the second is a standard CD that can be played in a standard CD player. MP3 copies of all the songs come in the set, so you can leave them on your computer, transfer them to a portable player, etc. The DVD includes a bass lesson by Oteil (35 minutes!) consisting of bass styles, information about bass in general, and some more technical information about the band and the bass instruments used. There is a 24/96 stereo track that plays with still pictures in the background over the music. This audio track trounces all the other sonic formats in this set. If you prefer surround, a Dolby Digital mix is available. The surround mix is accompanied by a video montage that shows recording sessions, set up, outdoor scenes, video footage, music sheets, and all sorts of other things. Audio commentary is available and plays over the music explaining just about everything you’d want to know about the music and its production. If that weren’t enough, there is a documentary video that has interviews with the band members for even more insight into Oteil & The Peacemakers. There is a separate section for information about the production end, and there is even information on the different audio tracks on the disc, and how to best make use of all the disc features.

Because Artists House is not-for-profit and the artists actually own the music, you might think that the material suffers. Well, let me tell you, the music is great! It may not have the airplay or backing of a major label, but after listening to the music there should be no doubt that the band has talent. The music is a combination of bluegrass/blues/jazz fusion. The sound has the feel of a live concert that you’d go see in an open-air stadium or small arena. Track 4 is slower, but has an underlying soul that builds into this jazz funk number. For the surround mix, most of the weighting is towards the front and not overdone in the back. Most of the music has a “hipness” that will appeal to older and younger listeners alike. The fidelity is quite good throughout, although the 24/96 mix on the DVD offers the best sound. It’s a keeper. Songs included are: Too Many Times; Get Ready; Honk If You; Full Circle; Time Won’t Tell; Hard To Find; Rewind It And Play It Again; My Dog Sassy; Thank You; Check Yourself; America The Beautiful.

-Brian Bloom

The Film Studio Orchestra – Immortal Masterpieces of Screen Music – JVC SVCD-1041 – XRCD 24 Super Analog CD: Purchase Here
The Film Studio Orchestra – The Screen Music Masterpieces – The Western – JVC SVCD-1042 – XRCD 24 Super Analog CD: Purchase Here
Megumi Kanda – Amazing Grace – JVC SVCD-1039 – XRCD 2 Extended Resolution CD: Purchase Here

It’s pretty obvious from most of my dealings with the folks at JVC, and especially from the packaging of XRCDs that they’re firmly marketed at a Japanese audience. They generally don’t include much if anything in terms of information about the recording (other than a microscopic reproduction of the original album notes on occasion), and are just not very user-friendly for the U.S. domestic market. The price is always high, too, generally around thirty bucks – but when the releases are anything like the superb RCA Living Stereo series currently out, it’s easier to deal with the packaging shortcomings and just luxuriate in the stellar sound pouring forth from the stereo. Thirty bucks is a true bargain to be transported back in time to Orchestra Hall in Chicago to hear Fritz Reiner making timeless music at the dawn of the stereo age. And as good as the XRCDs and XRCD 2s have sounded with the Living Stereo repertory and the truly excellent Three Blind Mice and OJC label recordings, the cost of these shiny silver discs seems even more negligible. So when JVC announced the XRCD 24 Super Analog disc technology earlier this year, why not rejoice? Taking an already good thing, and making it even better – another no-brainer, right?

Yes, in theory – but one listen to the horrible dreck that has thus far populated the much-acclaimed XRCD 24 discs just makes me want to scratch my head and wonder – what the heck are those guys at JVC thinking? The elevator music that you get for your thirty bucks on the two discs from “The Film Studio Orchestra” is in no way deserving of the level of technology it’s getting on these discs – and you’re not even getting reasonably good renditions of the tunes by a top-shelf orchestra. What you get are relatively thin-sounding versions, accompanied by bass, drums, guitar and keyboards (often synthesizers). And to make matters worse, the treble end of the spectrum is bright on these discs, and both have fairly high levels of hiss throughout.

The last disc here fares significantly better than either of the above, but once again, I don’t really see much of a market for the material here. Megumi Kanda is a really talented trombonist, and the support that she gets from the instrumentalists and the Rochester Community Gospel Choir makes this a truly excellent recording. The choice of gospel material makes it more of an offbeat and less mainstream selection for most folks looking to spend this kind of money on an audiophile-grade recording. Sonically, it’s much more in line with what JVC should be doing in terms of original recordings for release on XRCD, and perhaps a signal of things to come. Let’s just hope they’ll keep those excellent RCA discs coming.

-- Tom Gibbs

Martha’s Trouble – Still – ZoomTone ZOOM002 – Stereo Hybrid SACD:

Martha’s Trouble are the husband and wife team Rob and Jen Slocumb; Rob plays acoustic guitar and Jen provides vocals and various percussion. Additional support comes from guest artists Jerry York and Chris Rosser who fill in with a variety of stringed instruments. From the little bit I’ve been able to gather about their background, the folk duo travels about the North American continent pretty much nonstop, playing mostly small venues to a dedicated following scattered across the US and Canada. This disc represents their fourth album.

The limited amount of info provided on the disc’s accompanying booklet describes the recording process as “direct to DSD” live with no overdubs, so I really had high hopes aurally for what I was about to hear, and the disc starts strongly with the song “Some Peace Tonight.” Unfortunately, the remainder of the songs are pretty much formulaic, and my main problem has to do with singer Jen Slocumb’s voice. While (their website) compares Jen’s voice to Natalie Merchant and Norah Jones, I personally found her voice tone and range more reminiscent of Alanis Morissette, and just about as equally grating to listen to. I listened to this disc repeatedly, giving it ample opportunity to grow on me and it just never did. The two covers, “Every Breath You Take” and “Oh Canada” were nicely done, but ultimately don’t provide enough interest to pull this disc from the doldrums.

Technically, this disc is nothing special either, and most tracks have a pretty pronounced electrical buzzing present, which pretty much negates any benefit that might have been gotten from “direct to DSD.” If you want to hear acoustic instruments sparsely accompanied and well recorded in a realistic performance space, with really sweet accompanying vocals, go get either of the Nickel Creek SACDs. Unless you’re a huge fan of Martha’s Trouble, I’d pass on this one. Tracks: Some Peace Tonight; Waiting; Every Breath You Take; Somewhere in Jenison; The Road Ahead; Where I’ll Be; Meet the Flintstones; Sign of Life; Let It Go; Oh Canada; Am I Alright?; Rising Sun; I Know. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

Kelly Rowland – Simply Deep; Columbia CS 86516 Multichannel/Stereo SACD:

Rowland is one third of the successful band Destiny’s Child, so expectations on a solo album are fairly high. Rowland co-wrote a few of the songs on the record, while she relies on the talents of others on most of the material. Some worthy guest appearances like Nelly and Solange Knowles accompany a few of the tracks. This record is different than the music played by Destiny’s Child—other influences like rock and Sade are prevalent throughout the album. In my notes I have written: “Hip-hop lite blended with popular music—electronic drums and vocal harmonies.” Track 2 was a hit song at #1 for almost 2 months, and apparently is a reworking of an older Patti La Belle song, “Love, Need and Want You.” Songs like track 3 are somewhat formulaic, yet well crafted. Rowland has a very listener friendly voice, and is sure to join the ranks of other young breakaway artists. Track 4 is a dance/club tune, and either is (or could be) another hit song. The fast-paced lyrics are reminiscent of the band Nu Shooz’s hit “I Can’t Wait”—for those who can remember the 80s.

Recording quality is slightly thin in the midrange and sizzly. Vocals, instrumentation, and effects are present in the surround although the primary focus is usually in the front. Overall, the album is fairly even and will satisfy the urban dance beat crowd as well as those who listen to the hit radio stations. Track 9 is R&B and pushes the appeal away from the teenybopper crowd, showing Rowland’s desire to stretch and extend. Only time (and a few more albums) will tell if this transformation possible. Songs included are: Stole; Dilemma; Haven’t Told You; Can’t Nobody; Love/Hate; Simply Deep; (Love Lives In) Strange Places; Obsession; Heaven; Past 12; Everytime You Walk Out That Door; Train On A Track; Beyond Imagination; Make U Wanna Stay. Purchase Here

-Brian Bloom

Suitcase Pimps – Love Is Grand; Suitcase Pimps - (label & number could not be discerned) Hybrid Stereo SACD:

After listening to the first couple of songs on this disc my impression was that the band is polished and reminds me of bands like Eve 6 and Lit, but is a little lacking in substance. The band seems young and their music has a very sophomoric feel, like what you’d hear from a college band on a college radio station. The slightly off-key harmonies make me think of bands like Catherine Wheel, but not really as successful at it. By track 4, this all changed. It was as if the first few tracks were warm-ups and now the band decided they wanted to sound like The Black Crowes, and be good at it too! I’d be surprised if it didn’t become/was a hit song. Track 5 is a bit whimsical and reminded me of the Kinks. This playful quality in the music reminded me of what I like about bands like Blind Melon and Jellyfish. The songs just keep getting better, and by track 7 I was thinking that even if the later songs just maintained this would be a great record. Track 8 has some nice guitar playing and a melody that reminds me of not only another band, but also another time in music (in a good way).

The only hesitation I have is regarding the lead vocalist who has an annoying nasal quality to his voice. If you are used to modern rock in general, then the slightly sub par vocals probably won’t bother you much—they didn’t bother me enough to worry about. Some of the songs have an Eels quality to them, while others are different enough to appeal to a wider crowd. With a few songs removed, this would be a killer record. In any case, I’d recommend it! Songs included are: Miss The World; Succubus; Drown; You Never Know; Love Is Grand; Worthless Loser; Happy Face; Halfway To Nowhere; Vegas; Stuck With You; Opportunity Knocks; Tweak Street; Save Me; Goodbye.

-Brian Bloom

****Multichannel audio writer Brian Moura has created a special non-commercial web site just for other enthusiasts of multichannel Super Audio Discs. If you would like to know exactly what is available in this format both in the U.S. and elsewhere, and what is coming soon, his main page will tell you where you want to go to (scroll down a bit) - with lists for:

Multichannel SACD Albums Now Available
Multichannel SACD Albums - New Releases
Multichannel SACD Albums - Now Available - Only in Europe
Multichannel SACD Albums - Now Available - Only in Japan
Multichannel SACD Albums Coming Soon

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