I KNOW QUITE a few self-professed audio buffs for whom the live album artifact is a kind of Holy Grail of the recorded arts. If it isn’t live, then it isn’t seen as being truly authentic to the idea of music, which in their eyes is performance.
The obvious problem with this contention is that most live recordings are just as bowdlerised and compromised by overdubs and fix-up edits as their studio counterparts, and in the case of recordings by rock groups, to get the “authentic” audience effect, faked crowd noise is added.
To add insult to injury, they rarely sound as good as studio recordings, because it’s simply impossible to get as up-close-and-personal as it is in the recording studio, and incredibly hard to get the same balance between individual musical parts.
Once in a while, however, I come across a live recording that perfectly captures a moment in time, is well recorded, and usually this takes place in an intimate setting with maybe just one or two instruments. Neil Young’s Live At The Cellar Door (Reprise) is one such example.
Young has been pumping out ancient recordings in his Archives Performance Series, some of which I have found lacklustre or just plain boring or featured audio that made him sound like he was performing from an adjoining room. This disc is completely different. If you haven’t got a stomach for the winsome singer-songwriter’s uniquely pitched voice or a penchant for the reflective singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s, then this may prove hard going. Everyone else, come on in.
Live At The Cellar Door sounds great, which may seem an odd thing to say when the next thing I’m going to tell you as that the first thing you hear when you press ‘play’ is prodigious hiss. It’s a sign of authentically old tape, and audio buffs will know what I mean when I say it’s not “bad hiss”. I’m glad Young and his technicians left the hiss in, because if they’d used some computer program to remove it, then for sure, some of the music would have been vacuumed away as well, or at the very least, part of the ambience will have been lost.
Recorded just as he came of age as a singer-songwriter in 1970, the album catches him in a tiny venue, and it’s an up-close recording of a performance in which he switches between rudimentary guitar strumming and, well… rudimentary acoustic piano. He’s no instrumentalist in this setting (although he can make a heck of a racket on electric guitar) and the charm is mostly in his singing of these terrific songs, although the piano, in particular, has that nicely almost out of tune Sunday school feel about it.
But those songs. Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of Neil Young will recognise many of them. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, unsurprisingly, is one of his most covered pieces: artists as varied as St Etienne, Everlast, The Corrs and Rickie Lee Jones have interpreted it their way. But Young’s own version highlights the fragility of his voice and temperament – something that is reinforced over and over in his bulging catalogue.
He reprises two songs from his tenure with folk-rock pioneers Buffalo Springfield, ‘I Am A Child’ and the still haunting ‘Expecting To Fly’, and both of them contain that same fragility. Indeed, Young’s voice does often have a childlike feeling, making him seem like a boy/man, or someone stuck perpetually between the two. The original version of ‘Expecting To Fly’ featured an ornate orchestral arrangement by Jack Nitzsche that was mixed into a hallucinogenic dream: an absolute masterpiece of its era. This version is in stark contrast, but shows the song’s inherent strength.
And the hits just keep on coming: ‘After The Goldrush’, with its unforgettable line: “Look at mother nature on the run/In the 1970s.” If only they had listened to the era’s eco-warriors, the world might have been a greener one in the 21st century! But then, as if to concede defeat in the same song: “There was a band playing in my head/And it made me feel like getting’ high.” Can’t change the world? Smoke a joint, then!
He’s the best and worst of the confessional singer-songwriter strain, and you can’t help having a little chuckle at a song title like ‘Bad Fog Of Loneliness’. And then there’s ‘Old Man’ a couple of years before it appeared on Harvest, and a song to end it all, ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’, which he announces is “a song about dope”, and on which he gets inside the piano for some rather interesting sound effects.
Perhaps the only downside is the flimsy cardboard packaging, with no liner notes and a real budget feel. But maybe that fits the nature of the release.
Bottom line: There are too many Neil Young albums in this world, but Live At The Cellar Door captures him at his early peak, live and up close.
If, however, you’d prefer something a little more contemporary, and a fine example of the promise inherent in high-tech recording environments, then try Beck’s Morning Phase (Capitol), his first album in six years and a supposed companion piece to 2002’s Sea Change. I’m only just beginning to get to grips with the songs on this album, which seem to be exploring one of popular music’s perpetual themes: broken relationships, and the different shades of loss, many of which are coated in a beautiful autumnal melancholy.
The real joy for this stereo nerd is hearing a complex digital recording that eschews the default use of compression and luxuriates in not only full spectrum sound, but a terrific detailing of sonic colouring. For instance, on ‘Heart Is A Drum’, there’s a banjo that suddenly peels away from its close-miked accompaniment to the acoustic guitar and gets all echoey, as if it’s intentionally out of phase. It’s not just a gimmick, because it really intensifies the emotional impact of the song.
There’s attention to detail in each area of this record: the engineering, the arrangements, the song craft. And what’s great about it is that despite all this, Beck has resisted the temptation to fill up all the space. So there’s complexity, but also enough room to take a deep breath and let the mood lull you as you relish the exquisite texturing.
Bottom line: Beck Hanson has returned with an album that’s contemporary yet classic, as well as being an audio master class.
And now for something completely different. Just like your favourite hi-fi company (Perreaux, you dummies!), local record label Rattle has for 20 years been making exceptional audio art, and with it gained extraordinary kudos, while at the same time remaining somewhat under the general public’s consciousness-radar. If anything, the label can be likened to Germany’s much-awarded ECM, where each album is beautifully recorded and mastered and every detail down to the distinctive cover artwork is carefully rendered.
ECM’s jazz, world-influenced and modern classical recordings are instantly recognisable, and NZ label Rattle too, has an enviable reputation for the same reasons.
Since owner Steve Garden sold the label to Wellington’s Victoria University Press last year (he is still the boss), it has been churning out so many great new releases that they tend to get somewhat neglected by the media, possibly because none of their albums aspire to commercial popularity, or feature scantily-clad women on the front cover, or booty-beats.
Alternating between compositions by guitarist Callum Allardice and alto saxist Jake Baxendale, the record has a beautiful smoky ambience, and it’s a rare opportunity to hear a well-recorded horn section, both in unison and solos.
There are elegiac ballads and tunes that could almost be 1970s TV cop show themes, and both are enhanced by a revealing recording where the grain in horns and the muscularity and dynamics of the bass and drums are both equally apparent.
It’s impressive, and I just wish there was a bigger audience for this kind of thing. Sometimes, it feels as if there’s no room to celebrate more than one thing at a time (currently, that’s Lorde), in the same way that the whole country seems to such down for a big rugby match.
Bottom line: Anything with the Rattle logo on it is worth checking, but Nerve is a standout for anyone who likes smoky jazz.
Next month: what would you like to read about? CDs? DVD-Audio discs? Blu-ray audio releases? High definition downloads? Vinyl? Post your thoughts in the comments below.