Volume 9

Bonnie Raitt, Fundamental (Capitol 1998) US press
Overall Rating:6.5 (Good)
Overall Rating: 6.5 (Good)
Good voice, great minimalist recording

I just don't understand rock...

Favourite Track: One Belief Away

For the audio enthusiasts with more rock-oriented inclinations, Bonnie Raitt is a must listen to. How often do you get sensitively recorded rock recordings? She has a good, full-bodied voice and her tone is more plaintive than upbeat (I'm still remembering her famous rendition of 'I can't make you love me' from her earlier album) with her signature hoarseness at the edges.

Sonically, I can appreciate the minimalist nature of the recording. The sound is open with plenty of space between the instruments and apparently nary a synthesiser in sight to fill up the spaces with pointless string chord. (though the credits do state that keyboards were used, they are definitely used sparingly). The producers include Bonnie & Mitchell Froom (Suzanne Vega's husband I think).

However, the slightly jarring rhythms dictated by the percussion, and to which Bonnie someone manages to sing along to are something that one has to be used to. This is not 'rock' as in loud noisy rock, but looking at the arrangements, and sometimes percussion driven rhythms, I would classify this as 'soft rock' :) [arrgh, the limitations of my vocabulary for unfamiliar genres] Fortunately, there're easier listening tracks on the album like 'Lover's Will' and 'One Belief Away', which she co-wrote with some others and sounds extremely familiar (one day I'll figure out where I heard the tune before).

It's a good album, and if you like rock more than I do, this is a superb album of demo quality.

Gretchen Peters, The Secret of Life (1996 Imprint Records) HDCD, US Press
Overall Rating: 9.0 (Excellent)
Great lyrics, great singing and great sounding, well rounded.
Should sound even better on HDCD
Free multimedia on CD.

Slightly processed feel makes the song sound slightly the same.
This album screams out for a more acoustic treatment

Favourite Tracks: Waiting for the light to go green, Africa

Definitive Artist for comparison: Mary Chapin-Carpenter

Wouldn't it be nice if an award winning songwriter stepped into the limelight herself? Matraca Berg wasn't too successful, perhaps because her voice was merely 'good' (to be successful, your voice has to really stand out. Alternatively, you wear skimpy clothes and have a good marketing).

This album consists of 11 songs, 9 of which are written by her and 1 which she co-wrote with Suzy Bogguss while stuck in a traffic jam (its one of my favourites, guess what the title is? :)) Comparing her to Mary Chapin-Carpenter, she has a higher voice, and like all successful pop cross overs from Tennesse, the thick country accent isn't there, though any keen listener will no doubt know that she must have done a stint singing country music in Nashville. The voice has a wonderful sweetness clarity and warmth that catches your attention.

Onto her songs. I have to admit that they are literary/poetic creations on par with the very best, but still, I find them enjoyable. She has her own refreshing slant to writing her songs, and so, even where the themes are familiar, they still sound original. (which is an asset that all my favourite singers have as well)

"Waiting for the light to turn green" is a really fun piece co-written with Suzy Bogguss while in a traffic jam, and its an illustration on how to turn the mundane into something special. Perhaps in Singapore, we can emphatise with traffic jams more than other country & western themes :)

It's raining in my coffee cup
comin' down since I got up ... today
cold and gray
And lookin' in my rearview mirror
I could be anywhere but here I am
traffic jam

The writer then observes others stuck in the jam with her and reflects on the common theme of time passing by etc...

"Over Africa" is another of those 'dramatic' pieces that are great as demo tracks. When you see "Africa" in any song title, you know that you're going to get a big spacious sound with big drums :)

Even though HDCD discs aren't supposed to sound as good on a non-HDCD player, this disc sounds great. A slightly processed pop feel, a bit of dynamic compression just prevents this disc from getting a red star (its extremely marginal). In some areas, this disc sounds better than 1 or 2 I've given red stars too, but those with red stars turn in a better all-rounded performance.

Patricia Barber, Modern Cool (Premonition 1998 US press)
Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)
Better than her previous album. Lyrics that flows with the music.
Great voice, though no showing off like in her previous album

May be too laid back for some (note:not as sleep-inducing as Diana Krall)

Favourites: Winter (not the Tori Amos song :))

Could Patricia top her Stereophile-Record-to-Die-For Cafe Blue? Yup. She's done it. As a short intro, she has a low smoky voice with the capability to soar for extended periods into the higher registers. The words 'cool' ,'sophisticated' and 'intelligent' come to mind when I listen to her voice.

The album comprises of 6 original songs, 1 poetry arrangement, 4 covers and an instrumental. The strength of this album is that her lyrics now flow more freely and are better integrated with her music. In her previous album, you can't helped but feel that her voice was distant, detached, and isolated from the whole. In a sense, this was refreshing, as it suggested that she viewed her voice as only an equal (and not dominant) part of the music, and so she placed it to one side, ranking equally with the other musical instruments. A refreshing change from all those all-too-prominent in your face vocal recordings. Of course, the downside is that slow music is sometimes sleep inducing. Here, the vocals are slightly more forward than Cafe blue and its slightly more pacier.

Getting down to her original songs, I love Winter. Its so cool :)

the season changed and the sky turned gray
without the sun there is no night or day
the hours stack like sand in a glass
i suppose i should sleep to spring
like the grass

Winter is of course a common theme (I like the Tori Amos song as well).  This is a song about love and it's Winter in the singers mind/heart. Reductivism always make songs appear corny but really, this one is brilliantly executed. Not the least because the theme is not apparently obvious and that it could mean different things to different people as well. Also, I would say that she was moved towards a simpler, more flowing sort of musical style, which is a virtue, whereas Cafe Blue was too deep for me (and a lot of other jazz fans).

I'm not sure what to make of the covers, but they are interesting, especially 'Light My Fire' and 'She's A Lady', sung in her typical style.

As for the recording quality, superb as usual with good soundstage and natural timbre, basically, similar to the Chesky style of recording; minimalist, with instruments recessed in the soundstage (trade-off - not as much detail [or not as etched, take your pick]), and natural timbre.

Preferred over Cafe Blue.

Tori Amos, from the choirgirl hotel (Atlantic 1998 US press)
Overall Rating: 9.0 (Excellent)
A genre defining/creating album. Perhaps her best work yet.
Great sound, songwriting, an album that speaks to the '90s generation

There is a sort of Bjork-like Techno sound to the album that some might not like, but which is integral to the album.

Favourites: Jackie's Strength, Black-Dove (January)

Tori follows the curious trend of singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega who have 2 great albums, a bad 3rd album and a fantastic 4th album. Her first album, Little Earthquakes, was a very special album with enormous impact. All hailed her as a worthy successor to Kate Bush, the British singer-songwriter-arranger-producer who constantly has the adjective 'sublime' attached to her work. Of course, Kate was still on a 'high' then and the burden of proof was on Tori, to show that she could do more than write mushy love/relationship songs, which is what Little Earthquakes consisted primarily off (though off, written in her unique style). Her previous album (reviewed elsewhere) went off a tangent and she became, frankly, strange, but more worryingly, without any consistent 'voice' in her songs.

Fortunately, she's back with a superb album. She has de-emphasised her piano playing (its still prominent on some songs), and replaced her previous sound with a Techno sort of sound with multilayered synths and generous dollops of synthesised low-frequency tones to give your subwoofer a workout. But before you can say 'Bjork', I must clarify that is certainly not a techno album, in fact, despite sounding like one, it clearly isn't, and that perhaps is what makes it unique.

Listening to it, you can deduce that this album is the product of an immensely talented singer-songwriter who is searching for a voice with which to address her listeners, circa 1998. Amidst the cacophony of disparate synthesised tones, her voice (aided by the superb recording as usually) stands out, clear and articulate. She has taken this techno sound, and has transformed it into a medium for her message. The lyrics, her message to the listeners are still central, and this perhaps seperates this album from a Bjork album.

There are plenty of gems in this album. From the sad, yet inspiring 'Jackie's Strength' (shades of "Silent All These Years" here!) to the rather tongue-in-cheek 'Northern Lad'
a Bouvier till her wedding day
shots rang out the police came
mama layed me on the front lawn 
and prayed for Jackie's strength

- Jackie's Strength

Had a northern Lad
well not exactly had
he moved like the sunset
god who painted that (?)

-Northern Lad

Natalie Merchant, Ophelia (Elektra 1998 US press, HDCD)

Overall Rating: 7.5 (Very Good)

Nice voice, good recording, decent songwriting.

Enough of the La-La-La-La-La... & hey, he-he-he-he-hey already.
Not as good as the first album, shows weakness in writing non-sentimental mushy love songs.

Because of Lilith and what not, Natalie's big in the US. When I was there in August, driving along the wonderful freeways & state roads, listening to the radio (have to change stations each time every 100+ miles :)), I noticed that Natalie's 'Kind & Generous' received tonnes of airplay, even more than Natalie Imbruglia's 'Torn' (thats another story).

Evidently, she's sought to do the album as a sort of a story about someone named Ophelia. Ophelia, the title track, introduces her several things, and there pictures of Natalie all over the album (Natalie as human cannonball, Natalie as nun, Natalie as homeless drug addict, etc etc) that relate to this description of Opehlia. It is quite a pleasant song, but it is basically a piece that goes on and on describing who Opehlia is, without offering any insight to her life (is she a metaphor, an abstraction, or what?)

Songs like 'Life is Sweet' recall the sweet, elegant sound of her earlier album (slow/moderate pace, light piano and other instruments accompanying her without overwhelming her). It is a sad song as the Natalie struggles to comfort someone and to get the message across that:

But I tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There's so much more, be grateful
Well, who do you believe
Who will you listen to
Who will it be
'cause it's high time that you decide
in your own mind

Her voice tries to go higher in 'My Skin' (ala Sarah MacLachlan magnificent's Ben's Song) but her voice is more limited. Its a slow contemplative song which is pretty good too.

'cause I've been treated so wrong,
I've been treated so long
As if I'm becoming untouchable
Well, contempt loves the silence, it thrives in the dark
With fine winding tendrils that strangle the heart

But the problem is, her slower songs, though elegant and all that, are not that strong lyrics wise, and also, they lacked the infectious pop 'hook' that made a lot of her songs in her first albums very listenable (and enabled listeners to forgive weaker lyrics more easily). In an album like this, you are apt to pay close attention to her singing and the lyrics, and you'll notice that its not that wonderful. She adopts perhaps, the viewpoint of an observer, a third party, who is comforting, advising, or simply describing something. The listener gains minimal insight.

Still, it is a pretty good album and can be recommended, despite the lack of any one 'hit' song. It is an album that grows on you.