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  AM’s Top 10 Pop/Rock/Folk Surround Discs - SACD, DVD-A, DTS, etc…Part 1

      Date posted: January 21, 2009

Bela Fleck & FriendsLongtime readers will remember me as a quad booster in the 70s, and I was even recording concerts and organ recitals in SQ in those days. Well, now I’m doing it in 4-channel 96/16 or occasional 24-bit (eats up hard -disc space fast!), as well as building a library of commercial recordings in the various formats. All of our CDs are in what I call NaturalSurround, a matrix encoded through microphone technique and driven by understanding of acoustic phase relationships. When the format fuss clears, there will be some surround releases from Audio Ideas, but the authoring gear for SACD in particular is still a little too expensive for us, that cost driven largely by movie-company paranoia.

But there’s lots to listen to from the initial supporters of the existing formats represented here, so let’s get going:

10)  The Bluegrass Sessions - Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Volume 2/Bela Fleck [and many friends]  Warner 9 47325-0 DVD-Audio only

Imagine sitting in the middle of the floor on a cushion or two, surrounded by the cream of the Bluegrass world on their stools, settees, and couches, instruments in hand. That’s what you get here, with Bela on banjo, Tony Rice, guitar, Sam Bush, mandolin, Mark Schatz, bass fiddle, Jerry Douglas, dobro, as the core group, with guests on certain songs like Earl Scruggs, banjo, Vassar Clements, fiddle, and vocal contributions from John Hartford, Vince Gill, and Ricky Skaggs, all country royalty who love the old tunes, too.

But what’s old is really new in the hands of Fleck and friends, with the jazzier qualities of the genre coming to the fore here. There’s lots of improvisation, and many original tunes among the 19 tracks, most extended jams. This is a very generous single-disc collection, running about 75 minutes in total.

The sound is very natural, as I noted in my previous review, as laid back as the players in this intimate setting. I find the best way to listen to (and appreciate) this disc is to do it in, say, three sessions over several days. There’s just a lot of virtuoso playing to encompass, best heard with a little concentration. After all, it’s coming to you from all corners, and points in between, and there’s just a lot to sort out and enjoy. But why shouldn’t a dobro come from behind right, and a mandolin at back left? As Red Green says, “We’re all in this together, eh?”
Michael McDonald's Motown
9)  Motown/Michael McDonald  Universal Motown B0003131-19 DVD-Audio or Video

Michael McDonald is the smoky-voiced white soul singer who took the Doobie Brothers from being a bar band to become one of the hottest rock bands around, up there with the Eagles, one could say, going from stoners to owners. His accomplishment was rather like what David Clayton-Thomas did for B,S & T. In this post-Doobie album, McDonald puts his own stamp on a bunch of soul classics, bringing his great voice, and a remarkable interpretive ability framed in sometimes audacious arrangements. Thinking man’s Motown.

The range of material is much bigger that Detroit, starting with CCR’s Heard It Through The Grapevine, and motoring to I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, Ain’t Nothing But The Real Thing, and other sometimes sappy soul songs. But McDonald brings new life to most of them. The arrangements are excellent and often imaginative, How Sweet It Is a standout, completely different in style and tempo from James Taylor’s rollicking hit version. He’s got a special knack for the Ashford & Simpson and Stevie Wonder tunes, too, and the ginchy girl chorus sings up a storm: I can just see them, all chubby black girls swaying and throwing their straightened hair around in swirls in Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours. Unabashedly romantic, this album has a particular charm that surprises me that I like it so much, generally preferring a little harder edge to my rock.
The surround is definitely all about you, but not as aggressive as on some of the rockier discs in our top 10. A little electric guitar in one back corner, a string section in the other, but most of this is spread across 2 or more speakers. Like JT in Hourglass, McDonald’s voice is firmly fixed in the centre channel on most tunes, but the girls do get around, sometimes on the sides, and behind.

The musicians are worth noting, a jazz group called Fourplay, consisting of Bob James on keyboards (he’s the guy who brought some baroque and other classical keyboard music to synthesizer), Larry Carlton, guitars, Nathan East, bass, and Harvey Mason, drums and percussion. They’re supplemented by chorus and orchestra in most tunes. These guys also know how to rock! I keep enjoying this DVD-A, and maybe you will as well.
Lyle Lovett in repose
8) Joshua Judges Ruth/Lyle Lovett  Curb/MCA/DTS 710021-54430-2-7

DTS 5-Channel Audio Only

Two more different singers than Lyle Lovett and Michael McDonald would be hard to find. Before I sprung for this, I had little respect for DTS audio from an audiophile point of listen. This album changed my mind because of its excellent sound. It isn’t bit-starved or resolution poor, but has a clean, open and enveloping quality. This is exemplified by Church, a song that satirizes long sermons: “To the Lord let praises be/It’s time for dinner now let’s go eat..” The gospel chorus is incredible and all around, with girls with unstraightened hair, and bottomless baritone and soaring tenor voices. This ain’t no De-troit soul, honey!

This is followed by one of Lovett’s signature sad songs, She’s Already Made Up Her Mind, and as the album progresses, we hear more great songs sung with that laconic style and mesmerizingly melancholy nasal voice that evokes the eternal human struggle. And the bursts of wry humour that populate this album keep one from committing suicide before its end. Enough said: you either like or don’t like our Lyle. I’ve been captivated since seeing him in Robert Altman’s The Player some years back. But, then, maybe I feel a kinship with guys with big noses.

The mix here is fairly austere, but with nice touches. An anchor is the bass of Leland Sklar, who gave that same solidity to several early JT albums, and ditto for Russ Kunkel on drums. There are evocative background vocals from Rickie Lee Jones on Dakota and Emmylou Harris on She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To. Also providing background vocals are some names seen on Taylor and Bonnie Raitt albums, Arnold McCuller, Sir Harry Bowen, Sweet Pea Atkinson, and Francine Reed. It all emerges as a wonderfully inclusive confluence of engaging voices and instruments, country with an edge of soul.

Also distinguishing this collection is true dynamics, the willingness to let silence and softness intrude, bringing real contrast to the rousing choruses that keep cropping up, a perfect counterpoint to Church being Since The Last Time [Somebody Died], which also brings to mind a key funeral scene in Robert Altman’s The Player that Lovett absolutely steals. But I’m going on… If you like Lyle and love surround, buy this album. Hallelujah!
The Ghost of Charles Past
7)  Ray Sings, Basie Swings/Ray Charles, Count Basie Band  TELARC SURROUND SACD-63679 Hybrid SACD/CD

This album was a project of Concord records producer John Burk, who discovered the tapes from European concert dates in the Fantasy Records archive that contained these unreleased Norman Granz Pablo masters. Burk had spearheaded Ray’s last great recording project, Genius Loves Company (see below), and saw potential in the great vocals in otherwise unreleasable multitrack tapes.

The challenge here, with Ray already dead, and Basie, too, was to bring them back to life in digital surround sound, the third element, of course, being the Raelettes. Burk turned to engineer Gregg Field, previously a drummer with both Ray Charles’s and the Basie band, who knew the music intimately. Says Burk in the liner notes (written by Ray’s biographer, David Ritz): “It was a delicate and exacting process…It involved Gregg’s re-connecting with the current Basie band, led by Bill Hughes, and supervising orchestrations that would fit seamlessly with Ray’s vocals. A couple of engineers told us it was impossible.”

Impossible it was not!  But it was a careful reconstruction that managed to succeed through sheer effort, ingenuity, and musicianship. As the title says, “Ray Sings, Basie Swings”, Ray in posthumous reality, the Count (to paraphrase another “count”) loved to count, in rhythm and in working around the beat. In this respect, the band sounds and swings sensationally!

The sound achieved in the surround mix is also sensational, especially when the reconstituted Raelettes start whispering sweet nothings in your ears, and Joey DeFrancesco starts punctuating Ray’s vocals on the Hammond B-3 on Every Saturday Night. It doesn’t just swing, it rocks! Another standout is The Long and Winding Road, a Lennon/McCartney classic, given the full treatment, including a very appropriate finale in view of this project. Other of Ray’s own classics are here: Busted, Crying Time, I Can’t Stop Loving You, and Georgia on My Mind. Ray has never been in better voice, and his highly charged singing is perfectly portrayed and complemented.

The spatial realism of the recording is enhanced by a really big soundstage-cum-studio ambience, and great intimacy and detail in both vocal and instrumental textures. Speaking of which, the aforementioned Raelettes, all eight of them, are amazing throughout, their swinging up-tempo version of ‘Loving You a whole new take on this ballad, and enough to wake up the Anita Kerr Singers from the dead. And Joey D’s B-3 solo could bring back Doug Riley, I’m sure.

Production, precision, emotion, and ingenuity combine here in one of the great Ray Charles collaborations, making for a great companion disc to Genius Loves Company, which itself has been reinvented in surround sound. It’s too bad Ray and The Count couldn’t have been around to hear the playbacks of this seminal musical resurrection!

6)  Ray Charles Duets…/Genius Loves Company  Concord/HEAR Music SACD-63679

This is one Ray recorded before his passing, so to speak, a late project to include some of his own favourite singers. These were (in the order on the album cover) Natalie Cole, Elton John, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Michael McDonald, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor. An eclectic lot, to be sure, they all seem to bloom in the Charles universe.
Ray Carles/Genius
I was blindsided by this disc, having heard it in both LP and 2-channel SACD versions without getting too excited. But like the Beatles’ LOVE (that review leads off Part 2, coming soon), this is a recording that just leaps out of the speakers in surround! It’s no coincidence that John Burk was also producer of these sessions, though joined by others on some tracks. I’ve reviewed the disc in vinyl already, so don’t have to say much more than this. I’d love to have heard a duet with Lyle Lovett, but perhaps these two singers were each in a different country, if not in different areas of country music.

Andrew Marshall

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