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Thursday, January 27, 2011

LIPPS, INC. - MOUTH TO MOUTH


Casablanca (1980, Jan.)
Original U.S. pressing NBLP 7197

Rating: 7.5/ C 

Category: Disco / Dance Music (synthetized)
Format: Vinyl (120g at 33 1/3 rpm)

SIDE 1:
"Funkytown"
"All Night Dancing"

SIDE 2:
"Rock it"
"Power"

Produced and Written by Steven Greenberg
Executive Producer: Steven Productions

Recorded between October and December 1979 at Sound 80 Studios Minneapolis
Engineered by: David Rivkin
Assistant Engineer: Mike Severson
Mixed by Youth in The Study, 2010
Mastered at Allen Zentz Studios, Los Angeles by Chris Bellman
Pressed at: ?

Musicians:
Steven Greenberg: Drums, Synthesizers, Percussion, Keyboards, Vocals, Bass.
Cynthia Johnson: Lead vocals, Background vocals.
Terry Grant: Bass.
Roger Dumas: Synthesizer programming.
Tom Riopelle: Guitar.
David Rivkin: Guitar.
Ivan Rafowitz: Keyboards, Piano solo on "All Night Dancing"
Violins: Karl Nashan, Brian Mintz, Bruce Allard, Herman Straka & Bob Zelnick.
Horns: Bruce Allard, Dale Mendenhal, Jack Gillespie & Richard Jorgensen.
Background vocals: Steven Greenberg, Cynthia Johnson, Dana Greenberg, Joyce Lapinksy, Vera Jenkins, Marilyn & Danny.
Charts by: Scott Jones.
Vocal assistant: Sandy Atlas.
Art Direction & Design: Michael Kevin Lee/Gribbitt!
Illustration: Jan Kovaleski and Michael Kevin Lee


The artwork is rather non-inspiring and is typical of the New Wave period and early 1980's with it's short hair androgynous figureheads bathing in the oh so popular blue and pink hues of the time.


My copy was bought many years ago in 'near mint' condition and is still easily found in excellent condition for under ten dollars, this is not a rare sought after album in any sense.  The fact that the music does not present any low level passages will in most cases mask any mild surface noises.
Before getting into details, the thin pressing (concurrent for the times) and general sound was typical of what I expect from the Casablanca catalog.  That is to say the Neil Bogart (as in NBLP 7197) label has never released a bad sounding record nor a spectacular DEMO worthy neither; they are for the most part rather slightly above average than their counterparts but less impressive than Philly International, Salsoul or the Sunshine T.K.Disco Florida label.  


Synchronized Music, Side One:

Let's get something straight right up front: there's nothing funky about "Funkytown" at least not in the JB's, Clinton/Parliament, or even those Wild Cherry white boys kind of way.  No this is about as square as it gets south side of Chicago.  Neither should it be confused with the just released semi-fact based Quebec movie sharing the same title.


"Funkytown" made it's first appearance on the (then shrinking) Disco scene the last week of December, right on the heels of a new decade.  Fittingly many consider it the last Disco Hit.  I've always viewed it as the bridge between Disco and Dance Music to the same degree that Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes 1973 hit "The Love I Lost" can rightly be interpreted as a defining moment; i.e. the bridge from luscious Soul to Disco, codifying by the same token "The Philly Sound".


In both cases it reflects a transition to a new era possessing a slightly different musical structure than it's previous one.  In the case of "Funkytown" the structure retains the typical 4/4 mid-120's bpm kick drum, plus percussion, bass, rhythm guitar, violins and female vocal chorus but does so in a more strip down version than 1970's Philly Soul or complex Eurodisco.  I guess you could call it Diet Disco; it stimulates on the spot but it doesn't satisfy long term.  It's an offshoot of cheesy Eurodisco-pop the likes of Silver Convention's "Get up & Boogie" but a more direct influence would be The Michael Zager Band's late 1977 hit "Let's All Chant" with it's minimalist metronomic beat along with built up intro and delayering outro, disappearing in a (synth)bass fade out.


With it's mid tempo, steady beat, monotonic bass line and electronic flourishes it'll blend well with - and predates by nearly three years - Roni Griffith's "Love is the Drug" along with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean".


The song opens with the 4/4 kick drum, followed closely by the repetitive rhythmic percussion and snare drum marking the 2 & 4 with good snap.  The Bass line comes in solid and deep, soon accompanied by the cheesy synth run.  Processed male vocal enters before the females take the lead, the latter a bit too forward in the mix plus some slight distortion in the trebly percs give rise to some smearing; a short 'break' ensues, the rhythm guitar riff - resembling The Doors "The Changeling" (1971), clean, strong and forward enters stage with lots of presence interspersed by the chorus and finally the electric(?) violins take up the lead with too much reverb and presence in the mix, lending a certain coldness to the sound.  Ditto for the horns.  Towards the coda before the fade out, a male vocoder-processed voice adds a dash of density and bite.

Overall the sound is well balanced from lows to highs.  There is some compression typical of the period, that is more so than the average 1970's Disco cut but less so than 1983 onward and nothing compared to the onslaught hardness of this last decade.  To make an audiophile analogy, the sound is more of a cool running Class AB transistor amp than a warm romantic tube design.  Precise but a bit sterile to my taste.  I don't posses the (identical version) 12inch single to compare it with, but my experience with the Casablanca label is that it should be close enough, save for maybe a tad more punch in the kick drum which in this case wouldn't hurt in the warmth department.  An '7.8/ C+'.

Lipps Inc.

"All Night Dancing" fits more the typical Disco mold of 1978-79 not only in style but in sound.  The kick drum is much better, being bigger and stronger in the mix than the opening track.  The Bass is good while in the treble counterpart, the tambourine comes out clean and extended on the top.  Voices are much better integrated also, rendering it easier on the ears especially when turning up the volume.  Further along the 'break' showcases again the solidity of the kick adding good 'slam' with the snare panning between left to right channels.  The electric piano solo adds a fresh twist to the mix followed by the tambourine once more.  Male and female vocals alternate in counterpoint lending a somewhat odd dissonant combination.  The song ends with a second last 'break' characterized by a long fadeout ideal for a DJ to segue into the next song without even the trouble to lower the fader of the exiting song.  This one earns an '8.5/ B'.


Side Two opens with the minor hit "Rock it", an uptempo Disco beat with violins a la French 'Cerrone/Costandinos' mold.  The Bass riff has a touch of funkiness in it.  At one point the song structure morphs into an electro sequencer copied on Donna Summer + Giorgio's "I feel love" before returning to the end 'break' with hi-hat and percussion in background.  The sound lacks some weight in the bass compared to side one.  '6.8/ C' at most.

'Power' closes the album.  Sounding more synthetic and more early 1980's in a way, it can be considered "filler up" material.  With it's cheesy synths and highly repetitive chorus, one can skip this one and move on to something more inspiring.  '7.0/ E'

In conclusion,

Lipps, Inc.'s debut album Mouth to Mouth is respectable in sound but will not blow you away or your audiophile friends; nor do I find that it merits the attention of a remaster issue - there are plenty of more worthy titles begging for such treatment.

Music wise it did not change the course of music, Disco was already in decline after a seven year run and thanks to New Wave, Synthpop was on the horizon anyway.  Rap, House and Techno would live to see the day in the emerging eighties decade.  No, the real reason that 'Funkytown' should occupy a place in your collection is that it represents the beginning of the end of "Where the Happy People Go".
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Postscript: I don't usually review movies on my blog but considering that 'Funkytown'-The Movie spotlights the primary hit of this evaluation as well as centering around music, I decided to give my opinion on a subject I know quite well that is the 1970's Montreal Disco scene.

The movie is loosely based on the short lived music career of TV and radio personalities Alain Montpetit as well as 'jet setter' Douglas 'Coco' Leopold spanning the years 1976 - 1982.  The latter is played brilliantly by actor Paul Doucet who's not only got the look and mannerisms of 'coco' but also the 'franglais' down to a t.  Unfortunately such is not the case for actor Patrick Huard in the leading role.  While still giving a convincing performance as a fast rising Star soon going down the coke laden bandwagon, he does not convey the warmth that the real Montpetit displayed on camera, on air and in person with his many fans.  The rest of the cast give worthy performances and compliment the interconnected lives to the central plot.  The tense relationship between father and son - owners of The Starlight club (the actual Limelight at the time) - although completely fictional, are nevertheless hard and almost comic at the same time. 

The music soundtrack is very disapointing for three reasons:

1) The music selection is very commercial Disco and thus does not represent the type of Underground Disco that played at this legendary North American discotheque called The Limelight that premiered in September 1973 under the baton of DJ pioneer George Cucuzzella and DJ extraordinaire Robert Ouimet from 1974 to 1981. 

2) Over half the songs are new covers instead of the original versions supposedly to lessen the prohibitive cost of the music royalties of the original recordings.

3) Lastly although the movie starts out in 1976 we hear "Knock on Wood" playing which originally came out in late 1978.  At many instances during the movie we hear Disco songs playing in the background at the club that do not match the incremental time line. 

It's these small details that robs the movie of true credibility.  Also the drama that unfolds, entertaining as it is, leaves a bitter aftertaste to the great souvenirs of this wonderful period for the many who lived it and visited The Limelight.

Once again a Disco film depicting more the decadence of the decade rather than celebrating the "Dancin the Night Away" spirit on the dancefloor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

LADY GAGA - THE FAME MONSTER


Streamline Records (2009, Nov.)
Canadian CD 8001387202

Rating: 1.5/ D+

Category: Dance Pop
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k)

Producers: RedOne, Ron Fair, Fernando Garibay, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Teddy Riley
Co-Produced by Lady Gaga
Executive Producer: Vincent Herbert

Recorded at Record Plant, Los Angeles, FC Walvisch, Amsterdam, Metropolis, London, UK, Paradise, Hollywood,  CA, Darkchild Studios, Los Angeles.
Recording & Tracking Engineers: RedOne, Dave Russell, Eelco Bakker,  Space Cowboy, Tal Herzberg, Frank Wolff, Jonas Wetling, Dan Parry Christian Delano, Hisachi Misoguchi, Johnny Severin.
Mixing Engineers: Mark "Spike" Stent, Robert Orton at Sarm Studios, London, England, Jack Joseph Puig, Rodney Jerkins at Chalice Studios, Los Angeles, CA, Dave Russell & Teddy Riley at Masons Sounds, North Hollywood, CA.
Mastered at Oasis Mastering, Burbank, Ca.
Package Design: ?

All tracks written by RedOne, Lady Gaga, Space Cowboy, Fernando Garibay, R. Jerkins, Lashawn Daniels, Lazonate Franklin, Beyonze, Taja Riley.



The CD is housed in a standard jewel box containing a twelve page booklet featuring five shots of the protagonist printed mostly in two tone with black or grey as the predominant theme.  All song lyrics and individual credits are listed so tiny to either give you eye strain or pass them entirely.  The packaging is thus a bit lacking and does not help what is becoming more and more a dwindling market.  Having not examined the LP, I cannot comment if the artwork is equal or more extravagant but I suspect the sheer size of the same content would go a long way in improving the situation.

Unless you've been living on another planet for the past three years you need no introduction to the monster protagonist of fame but for those (fortunate ?) few who have, just imagine if Madonna and Marilyn Manson had hit it off together in the mid eighties and you'll get a pretty good idea what to expect music wise and image wise from the gag lady of shock & awe.

Take two parts Madonna and add one part Marilyn.  Add a dash of Vocoder to the mix.  Shake & stir and voila, a Star is Born...

 


And because Mr Manson was by all accounts an updated version of the original Shock Rock Jock of Detroit Glitter - Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper...


...- we are in reality in an incestuous recycling of past genres and envelope pushing, namely to shock!


Unfortunately the envelope in question being pushed is not one of musical creativity but rather one of MAXIMUM LOUDNESS.  In effect this is pretty much one of the loudest CD's to greet my NEC transport and as you know this is becoming the 'new normal' since a few years.  No doubt when One (no pun intended Red) aspires to become the heir to the throne to 'Queen of Mainstream Dance' One must push the limits of physics; in this instance we're talking heavy compression ratio followed by hard limiting.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Example of compressed and limited waveform (top) vs non treated dynamic waveform (below)
                              


Beware the mighty scalpel in the wrong hands
 
This is no Gag...

The Fame Monster opens up with "Bad Romance" a dance-pop song with a pounding beat and catchy chorus evoking Boney M's 1978 Disco hit "Rasputin".  The mix is very dense with the vocal track standing out too loud.  The extreme compressing/limiting gives instant listener fatigue yielding a puny 3dB of dynamic range on the sound meter.  We're fast approaching white noise territory! 

"Alejandro" hints at Madonna's "La Isla Bonita".  Nasty synths grace the intro followed by an emphasised beat plus a 'flanging' type effect from lows to highs.  Even though this is the best (ahem) sounding track it is still too loud and hard, producing listener fatigue.


"Monster" gives false hope with a very punchy intro.  Unfortunately this short reprieve for the ears is shattered by extreme compression/gain maximizing giving rise to a dense hard mix.  Vocoder is applied on vocals ala Black Eyed Peas and company, accompanied by an unbearable cheap synth; not to mention highly repetitive in song structure.

"Speechless" is indeed most appropriate for describing my utter disbelief on how low mankind has descended and totally lost it regarding the art of recording.  Yes my friends this is a new low point as far as I'm concerned in how NOT to Record, Mix and Master a song.  Ditto for the next track.  Is there something between the ears or are there in fact any ears involved in the numerous steps to suck the life out of a song.  One must ponder the question.  This the lone power ballad of the album borrows freely from The Beatles "Something" for the guitar sound.  Once again it is processed with extreme compression/gain; a major auditory assault leaving me in dire need of rest for my tired ears.  This one
earns an all time low of 0.5/ E rating.


"Dance in the Dark" along with "Alejandro" and "So Happy I Could Die" one of the three strongest songs, could have come out much better with better sound/production values.  As from the start high compression/gain is at the rendez-vous but instead of the typical no bass plus thin sound so common, the "miracle"(?) of Multi Band Compressor's comes to the rescue giving an inflated bottom end.  Not surprisingly, audible distortion of  non artistic value is quite evident on the bass and artificial (16 beat) high hat.  It is exaggerated to the point of camouflaging the electro kick punch.  In effect it would have slammed much more with a better bass balance.  Again the ears sound full and bloated.  Rest.

"Telephone" sports better punch in the intro before the chorus comes on way too loud.  I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record even though this is even worse: a broken CD.




"So Happy I Could Die" actually offers an interesting 32 bar of inflated lows until the ext. comp. makes the ears feel full.  They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then U2 must be quite flattered 'cause the melody here borrows quite heavily from "Sunday Bloody Sunday"'s 'I heard the news today...'

Finally "Teeth" is biting hard in Madonna's mid-1980's recipe with "Vogue"'s intro as the main dish.  The lows are exaggerated plus compressed and would have slammed more with a different EQ putting more emphasis on the 80hz instead of 30 or so.
 
THE FRIGHTENING FINALE

When the last note ended my ears were completely full in the bad sense.  An awful feeling and such a waste for everybody concerned in the project and of course the poor listener who even with a Dynamic Expander couldn't possibly restore any sound decency to what resembles mud at times. 

It is an ironic fact that in this 21rst century we are faced with an onslaught of recordings that have less dynamic range than the very first wax cylinders and even more so the 78rpm Shellac's of the 1930's.  I'm not talking S/N ratio here and please don't confuse these two intertwined but different specifications. 


As an example listen to any of Louis Armstrong's or Bix Beiderbecke's early Chicago years and compare Lady Gaga or any mainstream pop/rock of this last decade, be it with your ears, soundmeter or soundwave analysis software and it will be plain to see or hear, that regardless of the poor (small) S/N ratio of the 78rpm Shellac versus the superior (large) S/N ratio of the CD - theoretically close to 95dB (peak) given the 16 bit binary encoding - the former 85 year old recording has so much more DYNAMIC RANGE that it is truly scary, more so than this Monster of Madonnaesque and Mansonesque combined!


After all she may be the Million Dollar Baby just now but this ain't no Killer album.
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Postscript: After reading mrbrian200's comment regarding the compression/limiting issue, it could very well be that the vinyl edition of 'Fame Monster' has more dynamic range than this CD.  For those who like her music I sure hope so.  Sadly I will not take up the task of confirming or denying if such is the case.  Regardless I would be surprised if the major part of the 'squashing' was not embedded in the tracking and mixing stages.  If anybody has done the comparison or has the LP, please feel free to leave your comment for interested readers.  Thanks mrbrian200.

Postscript2: After finishing writing my evaluation I stumbled upon this related article.  It is long and detailed but if one takes the time to look into it, you'll soon notice how often the words "compression", "compressors" and "limiters" come back in Mixing Engineer Robert Orton's description of mixing Lady Gaga's "Just Dance".  Although that song is from her first album, you can extrapolate for 'Monster' and better understand how much sound manipulation is involved in today's mainstream music as compared to previous decades.  No wonder it sounds so awfully artificial.

Below is the link:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar09/articles/it_0309.htm
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