Volume 2 [Quite a Few Canadians :)]

Patricia Barber, Cafe Blue (Premonition 1995)
Overall Rating: 7.0 (Good)
Vocals and instruments are seamlessly integrated.
Best piano imaging and placement I've heard.

Its quite complex stuff. The type of CD you eventually grow to love and appreciate as opposed to loving straight off.
Being honest with myself, I don't really understand it completely at the moment, and thats why its only got a 'good'. I suppose the more sophisticated will love it straight off.(hmm, I still don't understand Tori Amos' Boys for Pele)

Yes, Cafe Blue, the infamous Stereophile Record to Die for that Stereophile Reviewers and raving about (eg: "what she does with her voice is postively illegal") has finally landed in Singapore. Its not really accurate to characterise this as a female vocal album. Her evidently views her voice as merely one of the instruments there. Most of the songs have extensive vocal-less portions and sound like your typical audiophile jazz instrumental recording.

As for her voice, she sings with a generally clear alto voice though slightly husky at times (or is that the reverb?), though of course, everyone knows how her voice soars for Too Rich for my Blood. In line with the voice not being anything special, the vocals are at quite a low level most of the time. Its a slightly detached sort of voice (compared with say, Holly Cole), but careful listening rewards you with glimpses of the nuances of her voice.

And to the music, its quite complex not some simple 'She sings the Jazz Standards' sort of disc. Wondering whether or not its just that I'm simply unsophisticated, I sought 2nd opinions from jazz lovers and basically they agreed that this is not your ordinary jazz disc. Kudos for her imagination and creativity then, though I definitely need more time to begin appreciating this CD, and given the sound quality, I'm sure I'll be returning to it. There piano is beautifully miked. The listener is slightly higher than the piano and looking down (slightly). Further, the whole piano is 'observable'.

Well, just be warned of the cereberal contents of this CD before you rush off to buy it on the strength of the ravings of Stereophile.

Jann Arden, Living Under June
Overall Rating: 7.0 (Good)/ 7.5 (Very Good - US press)
A good attempt by a songwriter with great potential. Songs like Insensitive and Good Mother highlight her potential.
She has a nice voice which fortunately, does not sound that much like Alanis Morissette.

It is, unfortunately, a processed pop album. The soundstage and instruments are murky and undefined. The back of the CD has this label 'SPATIALIZER' proudly emblazoned. I don't see why anyone would be proud that they've distorted the music by adding artificial reverb (natural reverb, by recording in some Cathedral, is fine by me :))
The is a sameness in sound throughout the whole album. Processed pop claims another victim.

Yes, yet another Canadian reviewed in these pages. And yes, her voice could be compared to Alanis Morissette. Fortunately, its nowhere as screechy as Alanis but it could be categorised as generally angst-ridden. The singing does convey some hint of emotion but unfortunately, the recording only offers a superficial glimpse of her singing ability. It is possible that Alanis is a better singer than Jann Arden, however, Alanis hasn't proved this theory correct yet. One note is that I haven't bought the CD yet, but I've listened to it quite extensively on my 'little' office system as well as on my home system. Thanks to JL and SW who lent me their copies of the CD :)

On to the music. The songs are generally of the sad sort, and are generally about love or some other aspect of human relationships. Well, most of the best one of this type of CD in their closet (eg: Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing). The question is whether you're able to put a new spin on it. By and large, the songs are good. (addendum: and as pointed out by a careful reader, Insensitive, one of my favourite tracks, was not written by Jann. (ooopss!!)

On the other hand, the persons who lent my the CD think that Demolition Love and/or Good Motheris the best track on the album. Different messages for different persons I suppose. Ultimately, whether or not you should get this CD would depend on your aversion to processed pop. Her voice is good, and its well recorded, but not good enough to make me forgive instantly the other defects. I see myself forking out the cash for this CD in some distant future, but I'm putting it behind the loads of other CDs that I want to buy. Maybe if they have a sale I would buy it upfront...

Footnote:Tower Records finally brought in the US press of this at $26.90. Definite gains in clarity means that the score goes up.

Sarah MacLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (Arista 1993)
Overall Rating: 9.0 (Excellent)
Beautiful songs, good mixture of faster and slower songs.
The 'processed pop' aspect of the music is thankfully heavily understated.
Well recorded compared to the Freedom Sessions.

Nothing really. Introduce your friends and yourself to Sarah by getting this CD!
But for really picky audiophiles, in the song 'Mary', there is a drum machine hi-hat which seems to float in front to Sarah. Also, because of the 'close-miked' effect, the voice breaks up and loses focus at higher volume levels.

Before listening to these CDs, and judging from the hype from other audiophiles, I would've thought that I would prefer the more acoustic Freedom Sessions to the more processed Fumbling. I was wrong. The songs are beautiful, and Good Enough and Mary, my favourite songs of this disc, sound far better here. The percussion, the synths and other instruments are sympathetically arranged and the music really gels. It doesn't sound like processed trash at all. Actually, the use of synths is basically minimal, in fact, there're loads of synths in the Freedom Sessions as well.

Then there're those who feel that theres more emotion in her voice in the Freedom Sessions. Sure she sounds different, but IMHO, the singings more ponderous and drawn out. Theres a limit to how much you can milk a song for :). Also, please not its that the Freedom Sessions is bad per se, its just that Fumbling is sooo much better.

Mary walks Down to the waters' edge
There she hangs her head to find herself faded
A shadow of what she once was.

She says "How long have I been sleeping
And why do I feel so old
Why do I feel so cold my heart is saying one thing
But my body won't let go"

Totally brilliant. The image of someone walking to the edge of a lake in the early morning mists (suggested by the fact that she has just woken up), and looking into the water to see her reflection is really beautiful. Coupled with all the references to age and time, this is a work of a gifted songwriter.

Holly Cole, It Happened One Night (Metro Blue 1996)
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)
Wonderful sound quality.
And to add to that, its live!
Yet another rendition (no.3) of Cry (If you want to), and the best yet.
[if only I can see clearly now was on this album]


Nothing new.

I won't be dwelling much on this Enhanced CD since the songs are basically the same. In this live album Davis and Piltch are still around, and they're joined by a guitarist and a percussionist. Overall, an excellent sounding album. Note though, that there're only 8 songs + the multimedia stuff.

Footnote: it seems that the CD I got was indeed enhanced, but that my CD Rom drive had difficulty reading it. After clicking on 'Retry' several times, it did in fact load. Pretty Cool CD! HMV sells this for S$16. Recommended.

Holly Cole,Yesterday and Today (Capitol 1994) [Compilation
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good -- refers to the new material.)
4 new tracks, a remixed version of "Cry if you want to" (my favourite track on Don't Smoke in Bed)
Nice insert with new photographs.

CD mastered from analogue copies. Audible degradation of some aspects of sound quality.
Its a compilation. Only you can decide if its worth the money for the new stuff.

A Japanese issued CD with tracks from her first 3 albums plus 4 new tracks and a remix, its difficult to recommend to non Holly Cole fans. More of a collectors item. The very good rating is basically an evaluation of the new material.

It should be noted that her albums were apparently recorded on analogue masters; this means that in order to make this CD in Japan, there had to be copies of the analogue masters made. Listening to I can see clearly now, I immediately notice not quite right with it. Normally, the taut and rhythmic bass line which opens the piece makes me get up an pay attention. However, it now sounded woolly and unfocused. Careful A/B comparisons (level matched as Yesterday & Today is a softer CD) highlighted clearly this difference. I failed to notice any obvious differences in other areas (life is too short for A/B testing -- if you can hear the difference straight off, forget about it :))

Holly Cole, Temptation (Metro Blue 1995)
Overall Rating: 6.0 (Good)
If you're a die-hard Tom Waits fan, there're 17 songs.
Still, good audiophile quality sound.

Incredibly pedestrian performance for the most part. Fails to grab the attention.

Isn't it depressing when a talented singer turns in a bad CD? Especially when you're doing someone else's songs and that someone happens to be Tom Waits? His songs have of course been done by countless people, of which 2 notables are Shawn Colvin and Sarah MacLachlan. Of course, they haven't done complete albums, but their interpretations of his songs are so much more interesting. Comparing with Shawn Colvin's stirring rendition of "Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night", Ms Cole's version is laid back pedestrian lounge music. A question that keeps on popping up in my mind as I listen to this CD is: Wheres the emotion?

Furthermore, her voice sounds closed in and she really doesn't flex her voice the way she did in Don't Smoke in Bed. Its not really singing, more like reciting the words tunefully ala Suzanne Vega (who has a voice suited to that kind of singing unlike Ms Cole).

Twila Paris, Where I Stand (Sparrow 1996)
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)
Very acceptable sound quality. In all the tracks, her Voice very well presented with body, depth and width.
The basically vocals+piano "I will listen" is wonderful.
Pretty good soundstage. The instruments are behind the singer, to her sides. Voice has that sort of ShawnColvinesque fragility. Maybe if Shawn were a happier person, she would sound more like Twila. But in the immortal words of Kirk: "I need my pain".

Though vastly improved over earlier efforts, Sparrow recordings still sound 'thin', especially the instruments.

I must admit that quite a lot of the female vocalists/groups on Christian music charts annoy me. Well, at least their CDs annoy me. They're all sooo harsh and fatiguing. Not this one.

If there's a must-listen track on this album, its 'I will listen'. The whole track has depth and her voice has a wonderful spaciousness and airiness about it. The soundstage is wonderful, with piano placed on 1 side, strings on the other, and both behind her voice, which is in the centre. Superb. All her other tracks basically share this marvellous soundstaging and imaging. Can Christian Music be audiophile quality? The proof is in this recording. If they could only make it a little bit warmer (maybe cos' my system is on the leaner side I suppose)...

Footnote: Voice does appear a bit thin or hollow, but still, quite enjoyable to listen to.

Holly Cole Trio, Don't Smoke in Bed (Manhattan 1993)
Overall Rating: 8.0 (Very Good)
An interesting vocalist, sympathetic accompaniment from piano and bassist.
Nice selection of songs

Her voice is very forward. Play the recording too loudly, and the soundstage collapses.
The piano wanders occasionally.

Oh no! Its a Canadian invasion :) Basically, its a CD of jazz interpretations of some familiar songs, ranging from I can see clearly now to Everything but the Girls 'Don't Let the Teardrops Rust your Shining Heart' to a campy version of Que Sera Sera. Of note is the very sensitive and sympathetic accompaniment from Aaron Davis on Piano and David Piltch on bass and percussion.

But first her voice. (Manhattan is a Blue Note label, so shes in fine company) Ella at her crystalline best is still better than Ms Cole, whose voice suffers from a bit of thinness and some sibilance. (still, we're talking about Ella at her best here). But Holly's voice has more flexibility and she adventurous takes on a selection of popular songs. 'I can see clearly now' must be one of those excessively recorded songs, and up to now, I loved Rod Stewarts (!) version best. However, on listening to the stunning introduction by the bassist to Holly's version, I knew this was something special, and it is. She sings the first verse accompanied by a lively bass line, and the piano joins in at 0.50 and leads in to the 2nd verse. Gentle strings float in and out after that as well (totally unnecessary IMHO). The voice is on the right side of forwardness and its delivered with marvellous old-world poise.

Cry (if you want to) as another gem. This time, she sings it with a 'girlish sparkle' (hmm I had better expand my vocabulary soon :)). Its a light hearted rendition which starts with an infectious bass and her voice providing a introductory bass line. Then she launches into the song and the piano joins in (no strings this time). She shows off her flexibility in the lower octaves to good effect too (in case you're thinking 'Mariah Carey', let me assure you its nothing like that).

Sonically, very competent, though the forwardness of her voice presents soundstaging problems. The soundstage can collapse if the volume is too loud, which is sad, because I really want to play some of this wonderful music really loud :) But still, I like a more forward presentation as compared to the laid back Chesky Recordings of Sara K. and Christy Baron (review soon). Though one can argue that thats how it sounds if you were sitting in a cathedral and listening in. Though I agree, having had the pleasure of listening to performances in a couple of cathedrals (from lousier seats in the rear :)), I prefer more forward presentations.

There is some hiss, which makes me wonder how come Blue Note hasn't embraced the latest in recording technology yet (ADCs at mike pre-amp stage). The pianos wanders occasionally too. All these lead me to respect the greatness of Chesky's (and Bob Katz's) achievements.

Sarah MacLachlan, The Freedom Sessions (Arista 1995)
Overall Rating: 7.0 (Good)
Lives up to part of the hype surrounding the 'Acoustic EP Recorded Live in the Studio', as the promotional materials proclaim.

For an acoustic EP, its rather muddled sounding. What kind of equipment do they have in that studio anyway?
Unfortunately, there was a failure of communication. It just didn't click. That is all subjective, so quite a few (a lot actually, judging by the rave reviews it got from audiophiles everywhere) will actually like it.

This CD contains some nice .mov files (I just wished the clip for 'Vox' was longer....) and 8 'live studio recordings', and some overdubbing (unfortunately). There are informative notes describing the circumstances in which the tracks were recorded, but I always listen to the music first without reading liner notes so I won't get prejudiced :)

Unfortunately, the recording is sonically muddled and can't even compare to Amanda McBrooms 1970ish live studio recordings. For a 1995 album, we should expect better than this. Sure, the emotion is present, but the voice lacks the body and 3 dimensional solidity found in her 'processed' albums. If this means that those albums apply the use of reverb sympathetically, so be it -- I like that better.

3 songs -- Mary, Good Enough, and Hold On are recorded basically with vocals and piano. However, I don't think they're really suitable for such treatment. Her singing didn't really inspire or move me though. For Hold On, I clearly preferred the livelier 'pop' treatment in Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I haven't got that album yet, so I'll make further comparisons after I do. Theres a cover of Ol'55 too, but it sounds quite confused too. Shawn Colvin's Live rendition of the song is several notches above this.

Basically, the album is a must for Sarah MacLachlan fans, but for audiophiles seeking a high quality 'live studio album', this ain't it. I'll probably learn to live with its faults and appreciate the music, but its a pity.