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Sunday, August 22, 2010

COUNT BASIE & HIS ORCHESTRA - "88 BASIE STREET"

Originally on Pablo  2310-901 (1984)
Reissued by Analogue Productions AJAZ 2310-901 (2003) 

Rating: 9.5/ A

Category: Jazz / Big Band
Format: vinyl (2x 180g at 45 rpm)

Arranger & Conductor for Big Band sides only: Sam Nestico 
Produced by: Norman Granz
Recorded at: Ocean Way Studios, Hollywood, May 11 and 12, 1983 
Recording Engineer: Allen Sides
Remastered and Lacquer cut by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at AcousTech Mastering
Pressed at: RTI, California, USA
Cover photo by: Phil Stern



A bit of swing history

The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1925
 
The Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1937

A royal flush

Along with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, the Count and his Orchestra must be regarded as one of the great pioneers of the Big Band Era. What the Count lacked in complexity and sophistication when up and against the Duke he more than compensated for in pure swing and Basie blues.

The Count Basie Orchestra with singer Jimmy Rushing in 1943

Starting in the early to mid-1930s, Basie and the Band accompanied by some big names throughout the years like Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Rushing and Frank Sinatra just to name a few kept up swinging for half a century. 

Always the Entertainer

The Pablo years

Here on what is one of his last recordings before his death in 1984, the same year as the original release date, we find him in great shape accompanied by this sixteen member band. With a fine mixture of swinging blues and ballads, "88 Basie Street"–no doubt in reference to the 88 notes on the grand piano–delivers what one might expect from such a classy jazz icon.



The recording of an icon
 

Legendary Audiophile Recording Engineer Allen Sides at the command post

Ocean Way Studio

Recording engineer Allen Sides did a fantastic job capturing the essence and the energy of this terrific Big Band with what must be some mighty impressive equipment, not discounting wonderful acoustics and experienced savoir faire in the art of mike placement and level adjustment. Granted, obtaining excellent sound from a jazz ensemble or Big Band is easier than from a pop or rock group (because of numerous reasons); still it's rare to get everything just so. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Even though this remastering, cut at 45 rpm requires 2 records instead of the original Pablo single LP cut at 331/3rpm, it's quite disappointing that the album jacket is not gatefold and sourced from carton that with time tends to get unglued. In addition, no gloss or premium finish is added which is odd considering the higher price of this limited series. This must be rectified for future 'Top 45' series to insure it's long time collector's value. Despite this, the records are well protected in generic paper with polyvinyl lining sleeves. Both 180g vinyl were black, shiny, flat and silent; with the dead wax starting about an inch from the label perimeter for most sides except the last side at barely half that; in other words perfect.


Side A

Track - 1 

"Bluesville" as the title implies starts things rolling with a slow bluesy swing. Composer and arranger Sam Nestico and The Count opens with a few notes on the piano; the Bass, amplified and 'elastic', accompanied by the light hi-hat, provides a 'sound bed' for the sparse piano intro leading up to the sole muted trumpet. Already with only a minute or so elapsed you know this is going to be a treat for the ears and soul. Soon, smooth saxes followed by powerful anchored trombones enter the picture with their crunchy, brassy tones paving the way for a slow buildup, provided by trumpet fortes plus punchy drum kicks and syncopated snare shots. Together they elevate the 'sound ceiling' to new heights confirming the great dynamic range and transparency of this sound take. Towards the middle, the energy softens temporarily to finally come back in a strong, proud, punchy and dynamic finale.


Track - 2
 
"88 Basie Street" another penned by Sam Nestico is a slow swinging sophisticated ballad.  The classy muted trombones reminiscent of the Dorsey Brothers 'sweet sound' set the stage for the muted saxes and trumpets, every instrument blending to perfection, making it so easy to follow. The delicate piano playing reaching down to the lowest octaves while the 'cushionny' Bass and the precise sound of the drumstick on the hi-hat explores the wide bandwith of this recording.



Side B

Track - 3

"Contractor's Blues", the first of two Basie originals, is a fast uptempo number that intro's with clean upfront descending and ascending piano chords followed shortly by close intimate tenors plus muted trumpets handling the higher register. The drummer's ride and hi-hat pick up the ever growing, swinging boogie woogie vibe. After the saxes have their say, it's time for the one and only Joe Pass, superbly captured on guitar, to take it down a notch to prepare the terrain for Basie to reappear soloing with Pass, comping close behind before the brass take it back up a couple of notches playing harder, turning the riff in one mean jive jump blues machine. Heading towards the coda the party energy decreases to a very close mike intimate feel bringing us inwards and 'waking us' a last time with a forte four bar finale.


Side C

Track - 4

Both pieces on this side are Nestico's originals and arrangements. "The Blues Machine", an uptempo blues, is probably the strongest number on the whole album at least for showcasing the chops and tight cohesion of this 'well oiled' outfit. Starting out quite simply in trio–piano, Bass and hi-hat plus snare establishing the tempo–with the swing feel picking up early on in the tune. You can feel the low end of the keyboard reaching down deep giving incredible dimension and realism to Basie's piano rarely heard on record. The rest just falls into place, the blend of the trumpets, saxes, muted trombones doing their glissandi, very crisp brass 'barking' and  tight syncopated rhythm section. The perfect mellifluous combination of  woodwind and brass, dynamic shading and staccato phrasing creating a wall of sound, powerful but never painful. Tremendous snap from the kick and snare drum 'til the very end. A showstopper for sure.  

Track - 5

"Katy" is a sumptuous ballad rich in sound with grain-free brassy tones, that right from the start, sweeps you off of your seat. Every detail is simply spot on: the Bass always a bit rounded yet articulate and–all too rare–at the perfect level in the mix in turn supporting the floating melody of the muted brass. Outstanding and embracing arrangements coupled with lush, warm and 'earthy grunt' tones permeates the piece. Lots of audiophile goodies in this short gem. Huge dynamic crescendos that seem to have no upper limit. The ride cymbal has a realistic metal resonance which would be so welcome on rock recordings instead of the usual lofi fare we must put up with. The impressive build up culminating in the end, feels like an immersive ocean of sound waves.


Side D

Track - 6

The last track, "Sunday at the Savoy", a Basie original is the only small letdown of the package. Not bad, but definitely less inspiring than the previous numbers. It's a very slow 'dirty' blues with a '3am final set' open-form feel when the joint is empty, not when it's jam packed. Joe Pass is first to solo, the alto takes up on the right with reverb lessening the intimate impact, followed by the tenor on the left and finally the trumpet comes in the center. Overall this one was a bit less dynamic in range and also in intimacy. 9.0/ B at the most.


SUMMING UP

Thanks in part to recording engineer Allen Sides plus the trusted remastering team of Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at AcousTech Mastering and not neglecting all the plating and pressing steps to achieve such an outstanding reissue of reference calibre; Acoustic Sounds' Analogue Productions should be commended highly. The better your system, the bigger the reward soundwise. A definite must have!

This 45 rpm reissue is non compressed or limited, has wide dynamic range, full-range sound, warm richly dense mids reaching deep down in the bass and up to the highest overtones. All tracks had a perfect blend in the mix of the many musicians making every melodic line easy to follow. No listener fatigue whatsoever from beginning to end. Startling, lightning fast kick-ass dynamic drum kit. Although Basie has been generally well served soundwise throughout the years, this is most probably the crème de la crème.


Top 10 All Time for piano weight and realism. Also for articulate, dynamic shading shifts in a drum kit and rhythm section in a jazz Big Band ensemble. In addition for Big Band brassy tone, grandeur, realistic size, panoramic imaging portrayal and intimacy. Crisp and warm at the same time with sweet extended top end and spot on treble detail, level and tonal balance.
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

ARCADE FIRE - "THE SUBURBS"

 
Merge (2010, Aug.)
RIP-V test pressing
Original Canadian pressing MRG 385

Averaged Rating: 5.0/ B (detailed below)

Category: Indie Rock borrowing liberally from Pop Art meets Electro-Pop 
Format: Vinyl (2 x 180g at 33 1/3 rpm)

Co-produced by the band and Markus Dravs.
Recorded at Petite Église in Farnham, Magic Shop in New York, Studio Frisson in Montréal, Public Hi-Fi in Austin and various bedrooms, living rooms and basements in Montréal.
Mixed at Studio Frisson in Montréal.
Tracking on 24-track analog tape mixed on a vintage 1940's tube console.
Recorded by Mark Lawson, Additional Recording by Marcus Paquin, Don Murnaghan & Noah Goldstein
Mixed by Craig Silvey & Arcade Fire, Additional Mixing by Nick Launay
Mastering engineer unknown
Master lacquer cut by Ray Janos at Sterling Sound N.Y.
Pressed at RIP-V in Saint-Lambert, Québec, Canada
For the CD and dig. files, each song was mastered and cut on it's individual 12 inch lacquer to be transferred to digital to make the CD master. Now that's what I call dedication to the cause of vinyl and analog sound.
Album Artwork Design by Caroline Robert.


Just on the heels of sweeping up four awards at The Junos and winning 'Album of the Year' last February 2011 at The Grammy's, I thought it timely to offer this review for those still sitting on the fences. So buckle up for a ride in "The Suburbs".

 
The album cover artwork is elegant with a light gloss to it. The back cover is really classy with the silver letters engraved on the dark background; you can't help but want to touch it.  The rigid carton opens in two, each record housed individually in it's carton sleeve with no inner plastic film to protect the grooves.

 
Both 180g slabs of vinyl were flat and perfectly silent throughout the four sides which is promising for this relatively young pressing plant. Indeed it is fairly rare these days that one encounters not even one 'tick' or 'pop' on a double LP from what is considered an 'idependent' rather than an 'audiophile' label. I would say it's in the same league as RTI in the U.S. and Pallas in Germany as far as being noise-free.

 
I'll start off by saying I wasn't an Arcade Fire fan before listening to this album nor do I now consider myself a convert to the 'second coming'--if I adhere to all the hype coming from the main music press--but will say I genuinely liked it and kind of grew into it after a few plays. I find it's a mature album, strong and inspiring in musical content and in vision. Sadly such is definitely not the case sound wise. This is truly unfortunate because it robs the power from what could have been a powerful album. And because it's so unequal in sound we don't have a choice but to analyze it track by track.

 
Track 1 - Rating: 8.5/ A

The opening track "The Suburbs" makes a great entree and impression with a strange mixture of melancholy and 'happy-go-lucky', reminiscent of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds intertwined with a hint of Pixies "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and REM's "Losing My Religion". The sound is just slightly compressed with deep enough lows creating a nice foundation, good detail on the strumming acoustic guitar, good ambience, big high soundstage plus a sweeping crescendo towards the end that segues into the next track. So up to this point I was quite enthusiastic, preparing myself for some great artistic/sonic splendor but then...


Track 2 - Rating: 3.0/ B

horrors of horrors it all fell apart. The heavy compression made the sound bright, the guitars distorted--i.e. the recording of it, not the musician's own amp--which made the whole thing too loud so I had to get up and lower the volume. The latter is always very frustrating, for it breaks the mood & defies the 'original intent' of the producer or musicians by which I'm guessing was to sound more intense than the previous lighter song. So not surprisingly, listener fatigue set in a short time, too bad 'cause the song possessed a good catchy riff.
A word of advice, heavy compression and hard limiting is not the solution, it is the problem!  It makes you sound loud, thin & wimpy instead of powerful, big & menacing. In the end we'll just turn down the level, skip to the next track or shut the damn thing off.


Track 3 - Rating: 7.0/ B+

"Modern Man" is a great little song in the Pixies mold a la "Here Comes Your Man" not only in form but sound also. Good punchy kick drum on the warmish intimate side. Less compressed, less loud & slightly less distorted. A relief after the previous one. Was there a glimmer of hope after all?...


Track 4 - Rating: 1.5/ D

NOOOO..."Rococo".  MUCH TOO COMPRESSED, distortion on acoustic guitar, sibilance on vocal. The last half of the song gets louder still, with even heavier compression and a 'crescendo' of distortion causing listener fatigue so I lowered the volume. Simply unbearable.

On to 


Track 5 - Rating: 2.5/ B+

The pace shifts into higher gear with "Empty Room" as the torch is passed for the first time from Win to Régine with great energy. Once again compression shows it's ugly head making the track too loud. The lack of bass gives it an up tilted tonal balance as we segue into ...


Track 6 - Rating: 1.0/ E

...worse with NO BASS WHATSOEVER! Only things left are the very compressed exposed mids & highs.  Like the song says it feels/sounds like a "Private Prison". The listener fatigue was at the max making a convincing argument for a quality remote control attenuator (which unfortunately is not an option with my present preamp). Coincidentally this sonic low point is matched by the less inspiring song, music wise also. To think that back in 1984, I figured we'd pretty much reached 'rock bottom' in sound with the release of "Girl Just Want To Have Fun" and "Footloose"; I guess nobody can rightly predict the future.


Track 7 - Rating: 1.5/ D

Musically repetitive, not much more interesting than the previous track. Heavy compression, distortion, overly bright, no lows. Even with the volume closed, with my ear next to the stylus in the rotating groove, I could easily detect the distortion! Once again this is not artistic distortion as Radiohead employs now and then, juxtaposed with cleaner sounds for 'contrast' effect.


Track 8 - Rating: 2.5/ C

Opens with a 4/4 electro-pop kick which brings a welcome relief that reassures us that the percs are not totally forgotten in the mix. Drawing from early 1980's Simple Minds/Human League territory; some low chords help but too bad again too distorted. Probably around 15 to 20 % signal distortion the whole tune! Listener fatigue of course.

So Side 2 was worse overall than Side 1 effectively making it the most objectionable of the four. Because of the exaggerated compression and distortion, I had to stop my evaluation at the end of Record 1 and resume Record 2 the following day to let my ears recuperate from this assault that eventually could lead to 'hard ear' syndrome. I'm not joking.

Win & Régine

Track 9 - Rating: 4.5/ B+ 

Good keyboard on this excellent new wave/cold wave/early 1980's electro-pop rhythm, marred by too much compression & annoying brightness. Because the guitar is too loud, the vocal gets lost a bit in the mix. Staying faithful to the concept form; just like Side 1 & Side 2, the first song segues into the second.


Track 10 - Rating: 7.5/ B+

Strangely but nicely done we are transported to what feels like a simpler place & time by way of a folksy 'Americana' vibe. At last we're spoiled with some good bass and less compression. As you can imagine, it's quite welcomed.


Track 11 - Rating: 5.0/ B

Here 'echo's of  "Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!" off of Sgt. Peppers can be felt.  Compressed but at the limit of tolerable but also gets worse as the song progresses.


Track 12 - Rating: 6.0/ B+

Introduced by the piano followed by syncopated beats. Synth chords add to the ambiance ending with the piano playing a single note in perpetuity like an infinite echo sliding into the dead wax; too bad they didn't cut an endless groove.

Musically, Side 3 is up to now the strongest; with a more even, though far from, great sound.


Track 13 - Rating: 8.0/ B+

Radiohead-influenced with a sad reflective mood. Floating clean sound.


Track 14 - Rating: 7.0/ B

Change of ambiance with Régine singing in an uplifting '1980's Kate Bush' mode plus some male backing adding a nice touch. Starts off with kick drum plus nice very deep lows, giving it a very early 1980's electro feel. A bit of compression but good tonal balance compensates.


Track 15 - Rating: 5.0/ B

"Suberban War" gives a hint of Springsteen/Tom Petty. Smooth sound, nice tonal balance.  Less compressed at first but last half gets quite louder and distorts, weighting down the rating.


Track 16 - Rating: 8.0/ B

The album ends with the continuation of "The Suburbs" this time they both sing with synth accompanying them in the background. Finally we are greeted by superb powerful deep notes.

So an equally strong side confirming that Record 2 is musically more inspiring & consistent in sound than Record 1. 


SUMMING UP

What I find really awful for the band is that they obviously went to so much trouble and money no doubt to merge (no pun intended) the wonders of the past--tubes, analog tape, lacquer, vinyl--with the present multi format 'web era' we live in but end up with subpar sonic glory. What they forgot or didn't know perhaps is that heavy compression was not part of the golden era of tubes & wax, rather it is 'the cancer' of our era.

In retrospect when you think about it, it's not surprising that the album varies so much in sound (1.0 to 8.5), just count the number of  locations and engineers that contributed to this 'jack in the box' outcome: no less than 4 studios (church included), not to forget the various apartment rooms and 6 engineers; too many cooks in the kitchen is often a recipe for disaster. Even more so when you're creating a concept album where preserving a unified sound is more important than a 'compilation of singles' with no sound correlation.

Of course this review won't make a dent in sales nor take away their well earned musical praise from the mainstream, simply because most music critics and--let's admit it--people in general, just don't care about sound quality. But fortunately for you, dear reader, here at soundevaluations we do care.

To conclude Arcade Fire's 3rd effort "The Suburbs" is musically satisfying and recommended strictly on this basis, but definitely stay away from a sonic perspective.
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