Volume 1

Mary Black, Shine (Grapevine 1997)
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)
Well, its standard (but livelier) Mary Black, with new songwriters, which you might like...

Loads of sibilance
Looks like an attempt to break into the American market. Wow, she looks young (and dare I say hip?) on the album cover -- they must have used Adobe Photoshop :) This album has more of an adult contemporary pop feel with some Irish influences, rather than the traditional Irish folk of Mary. If shes going in this direction, she has loads of stiff competition from some very talented Americans (and Canadians)

Yes, another Mary Black Album, this time with some tracks recorded in California. Its much livelier than her earlier albums, which is possibly a welcome change. Unfortunately, she has a rather sibilant voice, and when she sings these up-tempo songs, you can hear the sibilance. Why can't she just sing further away from the mike?

The songwriters are changed, no more Noel Brazil (just when I was getting used to him) for the moment; maybe he can't write enough songs to keep up with Mary Black's releases :) The songs are all very pleasant, but theres NO quiet piano+vocals piece. Aaargghh. I was getting used to having at least 1 per album. The songs are OK, and perfectly listenable if you can get past the sibilance.

Footnote: Stereophile's May 97 review calls this her best album yet. Did I say 'made for the American market'? (I must be prescient 8)). On the other hand, the rest of the world doesn't think this album is one of her better moments.

Footnote: After more intensive listening, and comparing with some recordings that are annoyingly bright, I've changed my mind about the sound quality of this album. It ranks below Circus but its very fine sounding, especially the tight and controlled bass. If only there could be more warmth. Upgraded from 7.0 to 7.5.

Michelle Shocked, Kind Hearted Woman (Private Music 1996)
Overall Rating: 9.5 (Excellent)
I have no idea why I like it so much.
Music so honest and intimate that it cuts straight to the bone.
Recording quality the equal of any Chesky Disc.

No obviously brilliant songs. Strength not in the songs but the way she sings it.

I'm not exactly a Michelle Shocked fan. Sure, I have Short Sharp Shocked on LP, and I taped a concert of hers shown over the TV, but I've never returned to them (hmm now where are they?). My impression of her was as a sort of folksie whose lyrics I unfortunately was unable to relate to.

Flipping through Hi-Fi News & Record Review, I came across a glowing review of Kind Hearted Woman. My interest piqued, I surfed the net and found generally positive reviews. Initial listening didn't reveal much. Good recording quality. More upfront than a Chesky disc (which I very much prefer in this case), but soundstaging, imaging, and the way her voiced is miked is top class [ok, ok, so theres a tiny amount of mike hiss - probably because they haven't converted to having an Mike pre-amp/analogue-digital converter stage next to the mircrophones]. Produced by Bones Howe (who is evidently one of the better recording engineers 'legendary' was how HFNRR put it), this disc certainly qualifies for audiophile status. The instruments and vocals are nicely separated and spread across the soundstage, and more importantly, you hear her sing, there is no microphone between you and her. Contrast this to recordings where you hear the singer sing into the microphone. (unless you're doing so for a specific effect). Unfortunately, in some tracks in Sara Hickmans Necessary Angels, the microphone is soooo obvious.

But on to the music. You have to hear her sing to understand. Some of the songs are story-telling ala Suzanne Vega's Magnificent Queen and the Soldier. The very sad 'A child like Grace' (echoes of a child like Bernadette?), which is about the death of a (her?) child and 'No sign of Rain' are exceptional examples of her story telling ability. Cold Comfort is another beautiful but sad song about someone close who was killed by someone, but

They found him guilty but it don't fell like justice and it wasn't a first offence.

Friends can only watch as the seasons slowly change
Its a fact of life as we learn to live again

And it returns to the observation of how we cope with our loss, and how alone we feel. Her references to the seaons (and you note that the photographs of her indicate that her chosen season is winter) are typically Keatsian in the sense that they are used to show lifes neverending cycle of renewal and rebirth. Though of course, spring is never more than suggested, while she focuses on the bitterness of the winter.

No Sign of Rain appears adopts the theme of journeying and leaving the past behind, and she imagines as she travels aways that:

Maybe I will call from a truckstop on my way.
I'll say, "Howdy, y'all... still no sign of rain."

But wow, is her singing awesome. Note, she doesn't scream like that Morissette woman, but the amount of emotion conveyed in her voice is totally amazing. The sound of her Fender Stratocaster (and deluxe reverb) is rich and full-bodied, very much like a Mo-Fi remaster. Coupled with her guitar playing, and the intimacy of this recording, its a total winner.

Having said that, the sparse emptiness of the recording does not make it one I will listen to all the time (unlike say, the a nice relaxing Amanda McBroom disc), but that really doesn't detract from its greatness as a truly, truly, superb disc. Get it now!

Sarah McLachlan, Touch (Arista 1988)
Overall Rating: 8.0 (Very Good)
She can sing.
Vox is an incredibly infectious song :)
Its a mid-price CD. [S$15.90]

A fine 1988 recording, but a 1988 recording.

Sarah McLachlan is another Canadian singer-songwriter. One of the many fine audio exports from that country (along with Classe and Sonic Frontiers :)) This album can be characterised as adult contemporary pop with a celtic flavour (rather than heavily celtic like Loreena McKennitt, also a Canadian FYI). Anyway, its about time I got a Sarah McLachlan disc. I was kind of hoping to get the Live and nearly direct to disc Freedom sessions, but the local distributor doesn't to bring it in. Must fork out $$$ for an import then, ugh. In fact, the only one of her 5 (I think) albums distributed in Singapore is Touch. Fortunately, its pretty good. When I listen to her she reminds me at times of Sara Hickman, and at times of Loreena McKennitt, with her soaring soprano voice, for example, in tracks like 'Ben's Song'. But my favourite is the infectious pop tune 'Vox'. Its a poised and stylish delivery of the lyrics (aka Amanda McBroom). I love her lyrics. For example:

The crowds were standing staring faceless cutting off my view... to you
They start to limply flail their bodies in a twisted mime

Shawn Colvin, Every thing little thing he does is magic (Columbia 1994) /CD Single
This CD single contains a gem of a song, a cover of Fearless Heart which was not included in the album Cover Girl (which I rated as a 10.0). Maybe its because its out of theme, being a very energetic song, or maybe its because she chats a bit before launching into the song. In any case, Cover Girl didn't give you any idea whether Shawn's voice can deal with energetic material, this will dispel all doubts. Her 'muscular' guitar playing is evident here, but what is noticeable is how silky smooth her voice still sounds soaring to new gut-wrenching, heart-hendering heights. Nothing is held back as pure emotion pours out. Incredible.

Suzanne Vega, Nine Objects of Desire (A&M 1996)
Overall Rating: 8.0 (Very Good)
Retains essentially the same sound as the excellent 99.9F, but see 'Against'.
Her voice.

More of the same, though not as good lyrics-wise. Will we ever get Queen and the Soldier again? Sound is a bit too upfront most of the time. Further, rather than timbral accuracy, the recording opts for a grungy sort of distortion more annoying here than on 99.9.

More than mere coincidence perhaps, but Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin appeared within the space of a week to promote their new albums on Letterman (and yes, I video-taped both.. yahoo!). Remarkably, when they play live on stage, they have sort of the same, lively, noisy sound (pointing to a trend in the NYC neo-folk scene?) However, in her album, Suzanne retains her minimalist style which was suggested in 99.9, which still retained a fuller sound by the simple method of using more musicians, but the stark sonic pictures drawn in that album was one of the stunning features of that album. Its basically some keyboards (thankfully not overwhelming), guitar and percussion sparsely laid out across the soundstage. A minor quibble is that the percussion is too up-front; its basically on the same plane as the speakers. The recording could have benefitted enormously from placing the percussion a few feet back. Other than that, the percussion sounds great, fast with plenty of low-level extension.

On to the songs. I'm naturally drawn to "World before Columbus", which is vocals,guitar, tom-toms & occasionally a sampled grand piano. I like it when Suzanne sings, as opposed to "speaking words tunefully" which how I would characterise some tracks, such as 'Casual Match' (which is pretty OK too) and 'Birthday' (which is too harsh for my tastes).

Tori Amos, Boys for Pele (1996 EastWest)
Overall Rating: 7.0 (Good)

Yes, the Bösendofer sounds as beautiful as ever (so does her playing)
The vocals are wonderful too
There are gasp, 18 songs
Instead of synths, she relies on string sections and brass sections on some tracks. Bravo.

Do you need to know what the song means? This might trouble you if you do.
I hate harpsichords. That means I can't stand 5 of the tracks.

Well, 3 albums have passed and I'm still thinking about whether she's the next Kate Bush in terms of her songwriting ability. Its a fine line between being sublime and being simply ridiculous. Problem is, unlike the simple, elegant lyrics in Little Earthquakes which managed to convey a profound sense of being, shes becoming more and more obscure (a la Morissey). But its more of a mixed bag, thankfully, with some songs still able to convey their meaning to a careful listener. I'll write more about the lyrics after listening more.

But one of the strengths of all her albums must be the sound. The richness and fullness of the piano is conveyed beautifully. Its the best piano sound on any 'pop' CD I've ever heard. I don't think its the typical stuff the mike into the piano miking, because you can sometimes hear her pedalling. Her voice, as usual, is close-miked, and is palpably present.

But really, its an oddball of a CD. Superb sound makes listening to it a pleasure, but sometimes, the lyrics are a wee bit too obscure for me to recommend it as an introduction. Little Earthquakes is still the best bet.

Amanda McBroom, Dreaming (1986 Gecko - Gold Disc produced in Hong Kong)
Overall Rating: 8.5 (very good)
Her most famous album, filled with 10 great songs all written by her. When first released, was probably the best sounding CD ever released. Because of that, it still sounds spectacular today -- I can't find any fault with the recording. Vintage McBroom -- lyrics delivered with superb style and poise.

More of a comment, that theres quite a bit of synthesiser music (of the primitive 1986 kind). But nothing overboard thankfully. I would have preferred a string section instead of synthesised strings, but thats asking for too much.

Well, I finally bought it. 11 years down the road and it still sounds good. Dreaming must define what an audiophile quality recording is. Her voice his a richness and warmth similar to that found in Amanda, a Sheffield Labs remaster, but which is lacking in her live album and Midnight Matinee. At least in terms of the texture of the voice, its superior to Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat (and guess what, Jenny does backing vocals in Dreaming!) The pace of the 10 songs (7 of which she wrote and 3 which she co-wrote) can be described as "graceful". They're not slow love ballads or anything like that. The music moves along nicely, but she delivers her lines with such superb style and poise. And its all seamlessly integrated with the music. The word "liquid" comes to mind often. This can be contrasted with the more dramatic delivery in Midnight Matinee, which is wonderful in its own way. The lyrics are generally related somehow to love. Apart from "the Rose", "From Time to Time" and "The Way of the Heart" are fast paced and extremely catchy tunes. The interesting exception is the dark "For Nothing" which is about the hopelessness caused by war. I would say that the quality of her songs in Midnight Matinee is slightly higher. Or maybe because I'm judging the songs by modern 1990s sensibilities.

From time to time
You come sailing in
Easy as a summer breeze
Stirring up the memories

Now, about "the Rose", the version in Amanda, with piano and string section is still superior. Over here, there're quite a lot of synthesisers and gasp, a choir that joins in the chorus. As for the title track "Dreaming", the full, analogue like sound of the synthesised bass lines which come in during the intro and continue through the sound sets the stage. Its a graceful, pulsing rhythm that ties in with a vocal delivery of great poise and style. When she sings,

We got a big old house with a hundred rooms
And a fine rose garden that always blooms

Its slow and the pulsing rhythm suggests hesitance, and the emotion conveyed to you is one of despair, and you can hear the 'lie in her voice'. Her voice drops lower and she somehow manages to mutter:
It's a very happy life
Oh yes a happy life.

Overall a flawless album, but its a bit short with 10 songs clocking in under 40:00. If there were 2 more equally superb songs, its grading would be Excellent.

Dee Carstensen, Regarding the Soul (1995), Exit Nine
Overall Rating: 7.0 (good)
For :
A relaxing, unfatiguing listen
An album with light lyrics, yet most of the songs are tied together thematically.
Primarily an acoustic album with sensitive playing by the band, and some cool electric harp playing by her. Excellent soundstage and stereo image. Hi-Fi demo quality.
Wholly pleasant voice, well recorded with minimal sibilance.

Not the most brilliant of lyrics though, but definitely more compelling than Enya
Restrained rather than expressive singing

Well, I discovered this when a CD/Hi-Fi shop I was visiting played this through their AudioMecca system with some $6,500 speakers. It was pretty good. Took it home and found it pretty good too. She has a silky, fragile sort of voice but she doesn't really stretch her voice or display that much expressiveness. I would call this album an acoustic alternative to Enya. Like an Enya album, theres an enormous sense of space, and her the way her voice is presented is very "airy". Yet, its done with mainly acoustic instruments. Further, the lyrics are easy on the ear, yet definitely more compelling than Enya's. Before I confuse people, I would like to say her lyrics do not resemble Enya's at all, her lyrics are more of the light wispy folkie kind of music. Its just that the recording just compels me to compare it to Enya.

She plays electric harp throughout, save in the delightful "To You, From Me", in which sings and plays solo piano. Cool tracks include "Time" and "This Time Around". Longing for the past is a recurring theme throughout this album. There are songs about love, and they too are tied to this theme about the past. Songs with titles like "Before You" and "Stay" can only reinforce this impression. The gravamen of this feeling is probably captured in the song "What a Little Love can do":

There are times I regret
all those damn wasted years...

...but I came around a little too late
for the road to be easy to walk on

As she wrestles throughout the album with the theme of coming to terms with the inevitable march of time, she seems to accept that time marches on, and she has to move with it. Yet her worries are never really resolved; she hopes somehow, that time will sort everything out.

time's gonna teach you how to feel

and if we'd hurry, we'd forget our woes

Beautiful. Sadly, its not available in most mass market CD shops, being an obscure label distributed by an equally obscure distributor (at least around here).

Along the Road (1994, Sparrow Corp SPD1389)
Susan Ashton, Margaret Becker, Christine Denté

Overall Rating : 6.0 (Good)
Great variety -- 3 good soloists singing a variety of songs, some of which they co-wrote.
Music that encourages you to think happy thoughts. Generally, a competent recording

Guitars are clear, but a bit metallic
Vocalists don't stretch themselves with challenging material
Lyrics... well, nice and cheerful (but not inane, thankfully) but not thought-provoking

This CD is a collection of 12 Christian music songs by 3 popular Christian music singers. Each of them sings 4 of the songs. Strongly recommended to me, I thought it would be interesting to see how good the recording studios are in Tennesse compared to New York.

Time to start with Christine Denté, who has the Shawn Colvinesque sort of voice. The first track, "Angels", starts of with a gentle guitar intro into her breathy, wispy voice. Her voice soars in the chorus "We're lifted up by Angels..." (which has loads [ok, normal by trashy pop standards] of reverb), however, it all seems quite strange. The strain in her voice is more implied that heard, and it doesn't seem like shes trying that hard. Which suggests that she was actually singing very softly at first, but the recording levels were cranked way up. So, not much expressiveness in her voice. Shawn Colvin she ain't. But I suspect that if she tried to sing their Shawn Colvin, given the apparent level of recording technology in Tennesse (circa 1994), we would have an excessively sibilant recording. But for generally listenability, I like her voice a lot. "Taking my Time" has an infectious country shuffle tempo that is quite pleasing. The whole track is politely understated so it doesn't sound like one of those inane country and western numbers. She co-wrote the track -- another Mary-Chapin Carpenter in the making?

One further criticism of this album is that it still sounds all very digital and metallic, despite it being basically acoustic instruments + some synths. This is a 1994 recording and it still sounds like it was made in the early days of CD. The acoustic guitars could be more natural sounding, and as they form a big part of the music, its quite a serious problem.

Margaret Becker is more of an alto. Which is always tough, since through hi-fi, altos often end up sounding wooden and unexpressive. Still, her voice manages to sound good on "No other". Theres enough of a "lift" to it. Susan Ashton sings higher than that, but her singing is basically average, and the songs she chooses to sing are basically very slow songs. Opportunity to stretch your vocal cords with some expressive over-the-top singing, but nooo....

Mary Black, Circus (Grapevine 1995)
Overall Rating: 8.5 Very Good

Vintage Mary Black, superb singing, superb songs
1995 brings with it superior recording quality
Its "gold coated" for the same price (if you can find them)

Nothing. Never heard her sound better.

Despite being a Mary Black fan, I didn't buy Circus when it came out cos' someone told me about a gold Circus CD. Never did manage to find it, and in the meantime, moved on to buying other CDs. Recently, the 'gold coated' Circus appeared on the shelf of my regular CD shop at the normal price, so I snapped it up. Its not a gold CD, but an aluminum CD with a yellowish cast caused by a coating of gold over the aluminium. Pretty neat. But now on to the sound.

Simply superb. The obligatory vocals with piano and a bit of other stuff (aka Song for Ireland, Thorn upon the Rose, Holy Ground) is found in Donnegal Breeze which is the equal of all the abovementioned. There are catchy radio friendly songs like Looking Forward and Soul Sister. The pace is as frenetic as regular pop, but there an undeniable sense of rhythm in her singing. This album is decidedly faster in pace than her previous albums. A wonderful shift in direction (as long as she keeps on recording slower pieces like Donnegal Breeze as well)

A mere heartbeat from happinees
A stone's throw from the soul

Recording quality is up to the mark. Its a 1995 recording (which makes it roughly equivalent to a 1993/4 album recorded in NYC). They managed to remove excessive sibilance from the recording while keeping bright and airy. Previously, I would have recommended Babes in the Wood as an introduction to Mary Black, but I think that Circus is an even more brilliant introduction.