Friday, November 27, 2009

Michael Fremer Album Review

I am very proud to continue our new feature (look for this every Friday), music reviews that are written by the senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine- Michael Fremer. It has been a pleasure to speak with Michael and learn more about audio sound and equipment. In fact, his new DVD, "It's A Vinyl World, After All" has hit the shelves and is selling out very quickly. This is a must have for anybody who loves vinyl, it is a true masterpiece.

Beck (new reissue)
Sea Change

DGC/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 2-3082 180g LPs/CD
Produced by: Nigel Godrich
Engineered by: Nigel Godrich
Mixed by: Nigel Godrich
Mastered by: Rob M. LoVerde

Review by: Michael Fremer

Music - 10
Sound - 11

Sea Change, Beck's late-afternoon, mid-tempo reverie of an album, harkens back to the great old days of painstaking production, carefully drawn arrangements, and a concern for—and love of—sound and musical textures for their own sakes. Tempi are languid, notes are caressed, and gaping atmospheric spaces welcome listeners willing to be drawn in.

While the sumptuous sonic and musical concept is far removed from his two-turntables-and-a-microphone collage days, live-in-studio references to classic records abound. You'll hear Beck's iPod mind sampling favorite tunes and layering freshly made elements from them into the musical mixes. A Led Zep string reference here, a Mike Garson "Alladin Sane"-era Bowie piano there, even lessons learned from George Martin's arrangements for The Beatles. And always lurking in the mix is Nick Drake, especially on the chilling "Round the Bend." "Sunday Sun" sounds like Beck's tribute to Brian Wilson.

There's an unmistakable melancholic L.A. vibe to Sea Change, as the late-afternoon gold runs from a comfortable glow to an unnerving pre-eve desolation. If you've lived there or still do, you know exactly what the light and air catch as the sun sinks, and Beck captures the city's beauty and the chilly isolation brilliantly in the sweeping ascending violins and digging celli, accented by producer Nigel Godrich's always tasteful electronica.

I've been told that much of the multi-instrument recording at Ocean Way was done live (as in the old days) instead of being individually tracked. There's an organic completeness to the production and a sense of communication between the musicians that makes it sound that way, and you can almost imagine the core group—including Joey Waronker and two Jellyfish alumni, Roger Manning and the hugely underrated Jason Falkner—leaving the darkness of the studio for breaks on the bright, bleak Sunset Boulevard sidewalk. (Falkner's brilliant solo albums on Elektra and the Sony-issued Bedtime with The Beatles are well worth finding.)

Detractors complaining that the album is "boring" are simply not allowing themselves to be drawn into its atmospheric spell (or they're listening on boomboxes). You need a system that can communicate the textures, explore the depths, and reveal the harmonic and spatial complexities embedded within the cinematic arrangements. Listening to this production as an MP3 would be like eating a gourmet meal with a head cold.

As for Beck's vocal performance, he occasionally strives to reach beyond his emotional and vocal range, delivering an empty monotone where he intends a subtle communication. But that's easily overlooked as he connects more than he misses, and his stretching on the vocals adds it’s own drama.

When first reviewed on in February of 2003 as an excellent sounding SACD that included an Elliot Scheiner surroud sound mix, I wrote “ It's a shame that such a brilliant sonic production, probably all-analog, will never see vinyl.”

That was wrong on two counts. First of all it did get a limited vinyl issue years ago but that double LP doesn’t come remotely close to what the Mo-Fi guys have done here.

The recently issued Mo-Fi CD is extremely fine too but “for CD.” I’ve been playing this record for years and now, finally, what I long expected was in the recording is revealed. YIKES THIS IS AWESOME! The string sound is luxurious, the bass extension deep and full, the dimensionality extreme and the atmospherics full 1080P high definition.

All of the care that went into the recording, all the of electronic textures, bell-toned percussion and low level detail all of the gestures, grand and tiny have finally been let out. The SACD is very good. The Mo-Fi CD is outstanding and the original vinyl was very good, but this is insane.

This is sinfully luxurious sound and meticulous production that's guaranteed to overwhelm your senses and best of all its in service of a superbly musical and thoughtful set of tunes.

As Beck sings in the opener, "Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin." Sea Change is a finely crafted, thoughtful, and enduring album. Highly recommended. No, that’s too eqivocating. This album is mandatory.

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