Originally on Blue Note CD (2008, June)
Rating: 8.7/ B
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)
The theory that the better the recording, the worse the musical performance and vice-versa is nothing new; in fact J.Gordon Holt had long ago coined the term, even 'framing it' as "Holt's Law". Whether anybody had come to this same conclusion before on their own is irrelevant but what deems a certainty is that we, as audiophiles, have encountered these two seemingly conflictory outcomes at numerous times. On the one hand you've got your Amanda McBroon's, James Newton Howard's and Jazz at the Pawnshop's dishing out dull demo duties while on the other hand, true musical masterpieces such as The Velvet Underground and Nico, In the Court of the Crimson King and most of the Motown catalogue just beg for a better recording engineer or remastering to restore some sense out of the squashed out 'sonic soup'. Fortunately there are also many fine examples that dispel this gloomy scenario; classic gems like The Nat King Cole Story box set, Sonny Rollins' Way Out West, Art Pepper's Plus Eleven, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side of the Moon, Powerfull People, Rumours and lesser known fare such as Steve Albini's Shellac just to name a few. Thus it is with a certain degree of trepidation that I approach this record with 'audiophile inclinations' from singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Priscilla Ahn.
Born in Georgia - Priscilla Nathalie Hartranft - the young artist moved to Pennsylvania and later California, all the time honing her craft and advancing her music career. The latter breakthrough came in 2008 while playing a gig in New York City where she was aptly signed to the prestigious Blue Note Records label; no doubt a good day for both parties concerned. American producer and drummer Joseph 'Joey' Waronker took charge of her debut, wherein the focus of this review. It would not be surprising that the major EMI parent co. would wish to recreate the enormous crossover success that - then newcomer - Norah Jones brought to the scene back in 2002. Like Ahn, the photogenic singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist got her breakthrough with the famous blue & white label upon setting feet in NYC. But by the turn of the Millennium, the music industry was gradually starting to change; Come Away with Me [Classic Records JP 5004 or Analogue Productions APP 042] was more in keeping with the 'old ways' of selling a record - 10 million during the first three years and 26 million copies worlwide ever since - and even Jones later hinted to the fact that there was no way she could ever match those numbers in future releases. Indeed her latest - 2012's Little Broken Hearts [Analogue Productions 509996-24097-1-1] - 'barely' reaching 400 000 copies in the US, merely confirms her dire prediction.
Those days are effectively over so newer artists now have to keep working the live circuit and embrace diversification in order to maintain their place in this bigger evolving world-web market. That in effect seems to be the exact recipe Priscilla is following with 3 songs out of her debut appearing in 11 different films no less plus over 20 television-series song placements amid live shows. Since the initial release of A Good Day in 2008 and the subsequent hit "Dream" extracted from it, she has released 2 other albums: When You Grow Up in 2011 and - the Japanese import only - Natural Colors the following year, where she reprises "Dream" and "Song of Hope" in the East Asian language as well as covers of Japanese songs.
For fans of Priscilla Ahn, Mobile Fidelity decided to give A Good Day the royal treatment by releasing it on their regular 180 gram vinyl series. As usual, the heavy carton gatefold jacket imbues quality and confidence in the delivered product. MoFi's tangerine-hued band at the top tastefully matches with the album title and 'spinning' graphic art on the right, contrasting with the main monochrome grey static grainy photo of the lovely singer in camisole and in slight pensive mood; thus a near duplicate of the original artwork directed and designed by Carla Leighton. The back cover also replicates the original with the top band and the universal barcode with MoFi logos occupying the bottom black strip. In a rare twist, the LP actually contains 3 added bonus tracks not included in the CD format - a reversal of past industry practices - totalling 14 tracks evenly split. Opening the jacket, we are greeted to a beautiful shot - by famed rock photographer Henry Diltz - of the young protagonist, standing barefoot playing banjo flanked by a shadowed grand piano to her left and an open door to her right keeping with the same graphic tones and circular imagery; the latter representing probably her inner 'creative juices'. On the far left are the usual credits while song titles are printed near the bottom right. As always, MFSL's John A. Beck did a splendid job with the LP design adaptation providing collectors tactile satisfaction and long term value.
Inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton comprising 69 album covers adornes the outer sides while CD's, SACD's and various products are featured on the inner sides, bringing further record protection. The heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. Both sides were flat, shiny lustered and deep black, i.e. visually perfect. This reinforces my conviction that MoFi must have superior QC than competing labels that even at times are pressed at the same plant. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Blue Note) but instead is plain black with a silver top rim. Inscribed in the dead wax on both sides are 'kw' for MFSL's cutting engineer. Working in Sebastopol California, mastering and cutting engineer Krieg Wunderlich chose a groove-spacing travel of 3 1/4 inches for side A and 2 15/16 inches for side B; hence a bit more dead wax on B. With roughly an equal 21 1/2 minutes of music per side, this translates to approx. 6.7 min./inch and 11 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. This verges just beyond the accepted 20 min. per side time limit for 33 1/3 rpm before significant sound compromises start to be felt in bandwidth and/or cutting level though softer program material will be less demanding than strong dynamic bass content. Even so the last side cut could be vulnerable to high frequency curtailing. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting technique and typical lower cutting level will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove.
Blue Note and producer Joey Waronker did not spare any effort for this project, assembling 12 musicians plus 2 background singers to complement Ahn on her debut. She herself plays 10 different instruments on the album. Engineer Darrell Thorp at The Bank Recording Studio in Burbank, CA handled the recording and mixing stages. Thorp has been busy since the turn of the Millennium first at Track Record, then Conway and later at the highly regarded Ocean Way, all three studios situated in Hollywood CA; often as assistant engineer on such diverse projects as Beck's Sea Change [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-308] as well as many Radiohead albums just to name a few. In 2004, he along with Nigel Godrich, won the Grammy Award for best engineered album, non-classical for the band's Hail to the Thief [Parlophone 584 5431]. It will be interesting to hear how the three-time Grammy winner treats this more conventional acoustic set.
Side A opens with the hit "Dream". Considering the low modulated levels of the intro and most of the song, the vinyl surface is 'pitch black' silent - if only all LP noisefloor's would be this quiet. First up is acoustic guitar followed by bass recorded quite close and intimate. Priscilla's vocals are also in close proximity to the mic and exhibit a bit of sibilance. The overall balance is smooth. Cellist and arranger Oliver Kraus contributes by building up the layers in a slow crescendo of beautiful string arrangements. When the drum enters the mix, it displays great tom impact. In all, excellent dynamics and superb tonal balance from Thorp's recording/mixing engineering and Wunderlich's remastering/cutting. Very encouraging opener.
With nearly no inter-track silence, "Wallflower" carries on a similar path; the music veering towards a slight country-folkish feel. Priscilla's very intimate sweet voice explores higher registers than the opening track. Superb rendering of guitar strings. Tonal balance is spot on with no apparent compression making it easy on the ears - unfortunately a rare feat since a while. The track seems to strike the right balance between a warmish sound without sacrificing top end detail.
"I Don't Think So" ups the tempo increasing the country influence. She adds harmonica to the mix making it very catchy and accessible, ambiance wise. I found this track a 'notch' lower in sound quality and even more so on musical merit terms but not to the point of completely losing interest.
"Masters In China" makes a complete turn for the better. Here we shift down to a very slow tempo thanks to Waronker's smooth snare brush strokes. Sonus Quartet founder and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith (and not Freebarn as credited by Blue Note) embellishes the ambiance. The versatile musician has prominently established herself in the motion-picture industry in conjuction with frequent touring around the globe with many 'big names' of the recording and performing industry. Impressive delicate detail on the acoustic guitar strings. Subtle autoharp in the background; ditto for the toy piano. MoFi's half-speed cutting 'paying high dividends' on these finely nuanced instruments. The style and sound somewhat reminds me of the Cowboy Junkies' 1986 debut White Off Earth Now!! [Latent Recordings LATEX 4 or Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-292]. Thorp turns in a fantastic perfect mix and MoFi honors it with equal finesse. Delicate Demo-worthy contender and strongest track of the album in both departments for the moment.
"Leave The Light On" comes a close second. Lovely, intimately close, dry vocals in the vein of Norah Jones debut LP. Jim Gilstrap and Oren Waters (and not Orin I presume) contribute backing vocals; Gilstrap is famous for singing the first lines in Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" from Talking Book [Tamla T319L]. Swinging mid-tempo country-ish feel to the track. Panned plucked string steel guitar with great natural tone. Nice 'roundish' bouncy bass accompanying kick drum and light swirling snare brush rhythms.
"Red Cape" strikes a slight change of ambiance. More uptempo alt-pop in writing style and delivery. Mild compression plus some top end veiling. Ahn's vocals a bit sibilant and 'dirty-ish'. Nevertheless it still gets high marks in general.
"Astronaut" closes the first side. Ahn vocals are doubled or overdubbed to add dimension. Again there is a small sound veil compared with the first five tracks. Strangely when the right panned guitar enters the mix this one is clearer sounding. The song clearly shows a huge Beatles influence a la "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" - from Sgt. Pepper's - to the point that some listeners may find it lacks genuine creativity. Though still fairly good sonic wise, it is however the least interesting in sound and musical substance.
Turning to side B and "Lullaby" whose title describes perfectly the ethereal atmosphere of this piece. Opening with exquisitely natural delicate strings that I have rarely heard recorded and transferred so gracefully. 'Oh so sweet vocals caressing me' I whispered to myself. A glockenspiel or vibraphone plays in the back rekindling childhood memories. Cymbals are very lithe and transparent with no aggressive grain, almost 'sweet like'. Thorp's creative use of panned vocal overdubs floating so limpidly, are simply beautiful. As the song progresses, drums and guitar build up the intensity of the moment. This I would say, even surpasses "Masters In China" by a hair. What more can I add but 'Wow!'
"Find My Way Back Home" has a minimalist intro of ultra-transparent ukulele played by Ahn. Her vocals are hauntingly real seeming to sing 'just for you'. Impressive vocal dynamics from such a young innocent voice. This equals the previous song, conferring both tracks as the best of the album for sonics and musical integrity.
"Opportunity To Cry" presents itself in a smooth mid-tempo 6/8 rhythmic beat. Just a hint of a country twist thanks to the drum, harmonica and piano accompanying the singer's lovely higher register vocal doublings or overdubs. Excellent sound.
"A Good Day (Morning Song)" shows Waronker and Thorp a bit more adventurous in the studio production. Vocals, piano and overdubs are treated to reverb and reverse EFX; partial bandwidth filtering; artistic near-saturating vocals plus panned vocal loops. This contrast to a degree with the rest of the album and differentiates itself from say the more conventional Jones debut.
"In A Tree" counts off the intro to an up-tempo toe-tapping 'cushiony' kick drum plus muted snare rhythm. Cello, keyboards and glockenspiel participate in the rich instrumentation. Another fine sounding mix.
"We Were Free" starts with banjo panned to the right. There is some vocal sibilance and smearing. Very slight compression and top end veiling but still quite good overall.
Lastly, "Mine Is Fine" seems cut a bit lower in level, so I turned up the volume to compensate; this is a common compromise in lacquer cutting. Good thumping kick augmented by small brass ensemble a la Beatles' "Got To Get You into My Life" from Revolver. Like the end track of side A, this one is only decent sounding though I preferred it from a musical standpoint. I must reiterate that from beginning to end the vinyl pressing remained dead silent.
Clearly Priscilla Ahn shows enormous talent and potential on this debut and it will be interesting to follow her throughout her career. Producer Waronker, recording and mixing engineer Thorp and mastering/cutting engineer Krieg Wunderlich along with RTI did a heck of a job on every front. Kudos!
So after all, does Holt's Law apply in this instance? I would have to anwer a resounding NO. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that this is a revolutionary musical masterpiece, but my earlier trepidation so to speak has been proven wrong. Yes, this should appeal to the same core 'Come Away with Me crowd' - be that music wise as well as honoring the audiophile community - but with the added bonus of reaching beyond that level creatively up to a certain extent.