Volume 4 / Aug 97

Janis Ian, Breaking Silence (Analogue Productions 1992 - Gold CD)
Overall Rating 7.5 ( Very Good)
Natural, well recorded acoustic recording
Beautiful, unaffected singing

Quiet, laid-back recording may not be to everyone's tastes
I wish she would sing with more 'force' (ok, I admit I want her to sing more like Joni Mitchell, cos' there are some parallels here)

Possessing a delicate waif-like voice, Janis Ian sings her songs with what I can only describe as 'quiet determination and focus'. No bland and indifferent delivery here, despite whatever first impressions one may have.

All 12 songs on this CD are written or co-written by her. The songs are good, but nothing exceptionally brilliant. Quite a few in the 'narrative-story' form like 'Tatoo', which is about Jews in Nazi Germany, and'What about the Love' What is interesting is that despite the generally quiet nature of these songs, the variation of pace and rhythm, particularly when the song crosses into the chorus, sustains the listeners interest. A fine example being 'The train still Runs'

Times when I tried to jump the track
weight of the world upon my back
Still, after all is said and done,
this train still runs

'Guess you had to be There' is another delightful song that sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell's 'Come in from the Cold'. They sound alike, and the theme is somewhat similar :) Well, lets compare :

Back in 1963
We walked a fine line
We were taking to the streets
skating on a thin dime 

Way back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawk-eyed us
From the sidelines
holding their rulers without a heart

As for the recording, its excellent. The microphone of choice is the U-47 (same as Amanda McBroom in a Waiting Heart). The system used is the Sheffield Labs 20-16 whereby an analogue master to converted to 20 bits and the 20 bits are dithered down to 16 bits for CD transfer. There is a wonderful naturalness to this recording. This is one recording which would benefit from a system with a low noise floor. A record can be soothing and relaxing without being bland and this proves it :) A highly recommended audiophile recording.

Sara Hickman, Misfits (Shanachie 1997)
Overall Rating: 6.5 (Good)
A wonderful collection of Sara songs, some real gems.
Listening to it makes me smile :)
Highly recommended to all Sara fans.

Non-Sara fans may not appreciate it, as it is, after all
a collection of 'odds and ends'
Don't expect good sound quality from all the tracks

Sarah McLachlan, Surfacing (Arista 1997 - US pressing)
Overall Rating: 9.0 Excellent
Excellent songwriting, improved recording, expressive singing.
More acoustic than Fumbling.

Nothing, only a wish that she would record with some audiophile label...

Favourite Tracks: Building a Mystery, Angel, Adia

This album reached No.2 in the US and No.1 in Canada and the single, Building a Mystery is receiving lots of airplay in Singapore. Could this be the album that catapults Sarah to pop stardom? The album has been toted as revealing Sarah's happier or more contented side and they point to a contented-looking Sarah on the album cover. I agree that the album is less dark than Fumbling (her previous album), which contained songs like Possession, Good Enough and Hold On (the titles sound depressing enough). Its about the same mood as her first album touch. Though there are notable exceptions, the songs are still generally slow-paced to match the way Sarah seems to like to sing; in slow deliberate phrases with a slight slur on the words (as compared to Touch), e.g: in Angel, theres the line "You Spend all your time waiting", she slurs the word 'all', pronouncing as "ORRRLLL", well you should get what I mean.

The song 'Building A Mystery' is a nice fast-paced song; she really rocks on this one with just the right sprinkling of distortion guitar. Once again, the hi-hat is in the centre behind her voice. A mild annoyance, at least there's soundstage depth to separate her voice from the hi-hat. Can't they move the stupid hi-hat to the right? This is an obviously a song written for airplay, so I won't hold the rather excessive repetitions of the chorus against her as the main lyrics are really simply wonderful. 'Angel' is a sad piano+vocals song about those who died from drug overdose, but the album, coming as it did in Singapore at about the time Diana died, strikes me as a very fitting tribute to her.

You were born from the Wreckage
Of your silent reverie

(no lyrics in my album notes, transcription by ear :))
Adia is another catchy tune, with the chorus "We were born...Innocent" echoing in my mind a lot. This is an excellent acoustic recording; guitars, drums, bass, keyboards clearly separated with a wide and deep soundstage (yes, its a studio recording). Anyway, all the songs highlight Sarah's songwriting talent. View her as a sort of specialist that covers certain genres, as opposed to Joni Mitchell who has probably done everything :)

Sound quality. Not audiophile but still good. Everything is crystal clear leaning towards clinical brightness but not crossing the line (currently, I draw the line with Beth Nielsen Chapman's Sand and Water which is on the bright side on this line) -- remember, my system is a bit lean so it'll sound fine everywhere else. Sound quality is a notch higher than Fumbling, in part due to the more acoustic recording, better seperation of instruments. As for vocals, it sounds fine, with a pleasant spaciousness but Its a bit difficult to hear the microdynamics.

And its also an enhanced CD with lots of goodies. In the US, there was a limited 2 CD set of surfacing. That is soo annoying to us non-US people. Anyway, this album is highly recommended.

Christy Baron, I Thought about You (Chesky 1996)
Overall Rating: 7.5 Very Good
Glorious Chesky Sound. Beautiful highs, sweet midrange.
Very interesting interpretations of some standards.

A bit laid back, program material a bit on the slow side.
Personally I do not favour her selections for this CD.
Soundstage deep but a bit narrow by audiophile standards.

Well I finally got around to buying it. My first impressions were that it was all a bit laidback and slow. Further listening improved my opinion about this CD though. She has an interesting voice, being a non-American, I don't know what sort of accent she has, but she does have an accent. She has a sweet altoish/mezzo-sopranoish sort of voice and clear diction. Her voice is expressive but more controlled that the occasionally over-the-top (nothing wrong with that actually) Holly Cole. Also, the way she pouts on the album cover and on the inside sleeve, you did think she has some husky, sultry voice. None of that here. Of course, full credit to Bob Katz and gang for the excellent miking of Christy's voice that lets the listener hear all the subtleties of her voice.

I would call this album quiet, and for the most part it is. The fastest paced song would be her excellent rendition of Noel Brazil's Columbus, which appeared in Mary Black's 1989 album, No Frontiers (a non-audiophile CD much loved by audiophiles and the deisgners of Mission speakers). Both are sound different, but are faithful to the mood and atmosphere which the songwriter intended to convey.

Overall this is a find-sounding CD consistent with Chesky's high standards. Recorded in their usual Church, I noticed that the soundstage is a bit narrower. Perhaps the instrumentalists were more closely bunched together for this recording. The depth is wonderful as usual, with the Christy behind the speakers and the other instruments behind her. It all sounds so wonderfully natural from a middle of the hall perspective. If you want to take a break from forward-sounding CDs of Jazz Chanteuses like Holly Cole, this is it.

Amanda McBroom, A Waiting Heart (Gecko 1997)
Overall Rating: 9.0 Excellent
Another Strong McBroom album.
Best sounding one too. Tubed mikes. Yeah.

Yes, all the songs are about love, and may be a bit too old-fashioned for the 90s.

There are as many different faces to love as
There are hearts to hold it ... And ways to sing
About it. These are some of my favourite love
Songs. From my heart to yours...

Amanda's back! With a combination of songs written by herself and some written by others, including Lori Liebermann. Mainly songs that have something to do with love. Errol Flynn is a beautifully sad narrative/song about her father. I rather prefer the slower, more dramatic delivery in her live album; as she continues to narrative, you'll be desperately hoping that it all ends happily.

Now I'm sitting alone in a house in reseda.
Watching the late show as moonlight shines in
and up on the screen... well here comes my daddy
Its a sad funny feeling. Now I'm older than him

Her last album, the 1994 Midnight Matinee, unfortunately sounded a tad bright and harsh. As the album notes reveal, on this album, she goes back to using a tubed microphone. The miking of her voice  (Telefunken U-47 tubed mikes?) is magic and is better sounding than in the excellent Dreaming and Amanda (with its high noise floor due to the analogue transfer). She sings the songs with some pace, which successfully captures the listener's interest. Her rich, wonderful expressive voice with all the subtle nuances are captured beautifully in this superb recording. In addition, the excessive synthesisers are gone and she's backed by a chamber orchestra on several tracks.

For anyone who loves female vocals, the CD is way recommended. Why can't every female vocal album have this kind of voice miking?

Julia Fordham, East West (Virgin 1997)
Overall Rating: 8.5 (Very Good)
Finally! Julia is back in great songwriting form.
A wonderful decision to have a (relatively) more acoustic album

Still lacks crystal clarity relative to the best out there.
Inevitable changes in her voice due to the passing of time
(may be good or bad, but it takes getting used to).

Favourite Tracks: East West, My Last Goodbye

Julia Fordham is indeed back in top form with this delightful new album. Inevitable comparisons with Porcelain, which I consider to be Jules' best album, will follow :) Following her tradition, she starts of with a depressing love song, here its Killing me Softly (no not that), basically,

Its the sweetest suicide

Some songs sound like they came from Porcelain, like I want to Call you Baby (which is better than saying that they came from her later albums). There is a more 'acoustic' presentation (relative). The song 'East-West' is the real gem here, bringing to mind Jules' best songs. It couples a cool percussion intro, attractive melody and lyrics, with a depth of meaning.

Going strong, holding on
trying to find a place where I belong
I've been east, I've been west
but I'm still not over you yet

More Than I can Bear is a reinterpretation of the 2 girls attracted to 1 guy theme explored earlier by Jules in Girlfriend. Its a piano+vocals piece which shows just how much her singing style/voice has changed since the incredible song TowerBlock. We can't hear the expressiveness and all the wonderful nuances we could hear in Porcelain, and the lack of air in the recording doesn't help as well. It may be that she's just changing her singing style. The sound quality. I still prefer the sound of Porcelain. Her voice is really allowed to breathe in that there, whereas here, its a bit tight and congested at times. Of course, this is a 1997 recording, so it does do some things better than Porcelain, like tighter bass, but not the voice. Piano sound is mediocre (sigh). As mentioned, its more acoustic than her last album (quite disappointing), but still, I can't help but feel its still sonically muddled. Misses an excellent rating because of sound. The same way Porcelain did.

Beth Nielsen Chapman, Sand & Water (Reprise 1995)
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)
Nothing outstanding, just good songwriting and a good voice.

Bright and harsh. sigh.

On listening to the first track, "Color of Roses", I thought I was listening to Jennifer Warnes in Famous Blue Raincoat. She does sound a bit like Jennifer Warnes. A slightly husky Alto, a propensity to speak the words rather than sing. She sings a bit higher than Ms Warnes.

There is a central theme to these songs, and it appears to be "Good Bye". The whole of the album is greater than the sum of its parts because of this. There is a definite sadness that runs through the whole album. The individual songs suggest a songwriter of some ability, and they do resemble poetry in some respects, and herein lies the dilemma; the difficulty in integrating the words with the music. There is a single upbeat song "Heads Up for the Wrecking Ball" (allusions to Emmylou Harris?) which is enjoyable despite a rather simplistic rhyme.

Due to its brightness, I do most of my listening on my office system. It is indeed a good sounding album except for the brightness. Listening to this made me return to Mary Black's Shine which I considered too Bright. I've decided that Shine is on the lean side, but not bright. This is bright.

10,000 Maniacs, MTV unplugged (Elektra 1993)[compilation/live]
Overall Rating: 6.0 (Good)
Well recorded voice, interesting acoustic versions of their other songs.
Pretty reasonable soundstage spanning the space between the speakers

Though the voice is OK, overall, the recording sounds a bit harsh.

General lack of subtlety
I don't think you can sing half as well sitting down

This is basically a compilation of old 10,000 Maniacs songs written by Natalie Merchant (i.e. their lead singer) between '87-'92. except for a cover of Bruce Springsteen's Because the Night.

She has made great strides in her songwriting as shown in her solo album reviewed elsewhere, but in general, the songs here are a bit on the dull side. Furthermore, she isn't in top form in this recording. Maybe because of the noisy nature these MTV affairs are, you don't hear the detail, delicacy and vocal microdynamics her voice is capable of. Its all she can do to make herself heard above the din. Her voice is quite soft and is a bit lost amongst the instruments; but then, this is often realistic as the vocalist is often drowned out in this sort of occasion.

Still, Natalie does sing well, and that might be the only redeeming feature of this album. Not really recommended.

Shawn Colvin - Live in '88 (1995 Plump Records)
Overall Rating: 10.0 (Excellent)
Due to my totally subjective love for things Colvinesque, I wonder if I can be objective reviewing this album which I got from Chua Joo Huat at S$20 (HMV - $30 hello???). This is a 1995 release of a 1988 recording of Shawn and her guitar. 6 of the tracks can be found on her first album Steady one, 1 track on her 2nd album and 3 other tracks. [Knowing What I know now did find its way onto the Everything she does is magic single, but thats a different live recording. Get both :)].

The recording is good with the guitar sounding slightly metallic, Still her voice is brilliant. The expressiveness and emotional edge to her voice shines through (and she doesn't go over the top with it). When she plays the guitar, its hard to imagine that its the only instrument besides her voice.