Showing posts with label bruce springsteen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bruce springsteen. Show all posts

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Working On A Dream

A couple questions.

First, why is it that every time I buy an LP from a major label that promises a bonus MP3 download, the download doesn't work? I've purchased dozens of LPs from indie labels like Sub-Pop, Merge and Matador, and never had a single problem downloading the MP3's. But with nearly every LP/MP3 package I've purchased from Universal or Sony, there has been some problem with the download (Warner and EMI are apparently still too afraid of big bad MP3's to even pretend to offer them with their vinyl). The zip file I downloaded for Springsteen's latest, Working On A Dream, was totally corrupted and couldn't be decompressed, despite the fact that I tried with several different applications.

It's no big deal I guess; I'll just rip the LP when I get a chance. And considering this is Sony we're talking about, I may be lucky the file didn't work because it might have turned my computer into some sort of evil spy-bot for the RIAA that would, in the fullness of time, rise up against its master and destroy him. But considering I'm one of the few people left on earth willing to shell out $25 for a new album, I think I should get what I've been promised.

Second, what the hell is up with Bruce Springsteen's album covers these days? Born To Run, Born In The U.S.A., Nebraska, Darkness At The Edge Of Town... those albums offered iconic images that carried nearly as much force as the music inside. The cover for Working On A Dream, on the other hand, looks like it was done by an eight-year old who just discovered all the wicked cool things you can do with filters in Photoshop. And his past few albums haven't looked much better.

Unfortunately, the same over-reliance on technology creates a problem for the music too. Brendan O'Brien's production sounds sterile and stitched together in ProTools just as surely as the cover looks like a Photoshop monstrosity. (I hope Springsteen works with a producer he's a little less comfortable with next time.) But, as was the case with 2007's Magic, their are some really good songs here if you can listen past the production. It's not impossible, and perhaps even worth the effort.

It's a nice, quiet, 2 LP pressing anyway.

UPDATE: The support team at Hip Digital Media (the company Sony outsourced the download to) were very helpful and responded to my emails right away (an all too rare occurrence these days). It turns out the problem is that most unarchive utilities on the Mac are incompatible with the zip file, but they found one that worked, called The Unarchiver. So if you've had a similar problem and have a Mac, download this utility, and it should solve your problem.

The other good news is that the MP3s are encoded at 320kps, and at first glance do not appear to suffer from the overly-aggressive dynamic range compression that plagued Magic. Perhaps we really are nearing the end of the loudness wars. Also, it was nice of the Boss to name the eight-minute lead-off track after me. I'll have to thank him for that (and gently take him to task over the cover art) next time I see him.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dream Baby Dream

I just noticed that Bruce Springsteen's live cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" was recently made available for download on eMusic. This was previously only available as part of an import 10" record.

It's definitely worth getting if you are interested in hearing a different side of the Boss.

This is the most sparse, hypnotic music he's released since Nebraska.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

None Of This Has Happened Yet

Bruce Springsteen's Magic was one of my favorite albums of 2007. But in my end-of-year roundup, even as I praised the music on the album, I expressed some reservations about the sound quality of the CD: "I like Phil Spector's 'wall of sound' as much as the next guy, but the mix here is just too in-your-face and lacking in dynamics and subtlety." I also wondered if their was a chance the LP would sound better than the CD: "Does anyone know if the LP features a less compressed mix (as is sometimes the case)? If so, I'd buy it again, because the songs are really, really strong."

I didn't get any responses to my query, so it seemed the only way to find out would be to shell out $15.99 for the 180 gram virgin vinyl pressing of the LP that had been sitting around In Your Ear Records (formerly Zingg Music) in Warren, RI for several months. After a modest infusion of birthday cash, I did just that.

The short answer to the question (at least as far as I'm concerned) is, "Yes, the LP sounds better."

In my first post on the subject of dynamic range compression, I cited Magic as one of the worst offenders in the race to the sonic bottom that has become known as the "loudness wars." Take a look at the snapshot of the waveform for the track "Livin' In The Future" taken from the CD:

Bruce Springsteen - "Living In The Future" CD (2007)

Nearly everything has been pushed up to the 0dB limit, so there's no room for any dynamics. In my experience when a song is this severely compressed it results in a sound that is tiring in its relentlessness.

Now take a look at the same track ripped from LP and normalized to -.3dB in Soundbooth so that the loudest part of the track approaches the 0db limit:

Bruce Springsteen - "Living In The Future" LP (2007)

You still have a fairly compressed looking waveform, but there is some room for natural dynamic peaks in the music, which are clearly visible.

What does the difference sound like? Honestly, I hardly trust my own subjective impressions in these comparisons anymore. After repeatedly "seeing" differences like this between LPs and CDs I have to admit to the possibility that my brain has become pre-conditioned to "hear" the differences experience and/or my own personal biases have led me to expect.

Nevertheless, to my ears, the LP version was easier to listen to. The relentless, fatiguing qualities I noted with the CD were mostly absent. The most obvious difference was in the treble region. The CD sounds much brighter than the LP, and as a result the CD's treble has a harsh quality that is mostly absent from the LP. Some people might find the CD's brighter treble appealing. I am not one of those people; on the CD cymbals didn't sound much like cymbals to me, they sounded closer to an irritating mechanical noise like a spray can. By contrast, on the LP cymbals sounded more like what I think cymbals should sound like, and they were less of a source of sonic fatigue.

It's important to note that whatever differences I heard, they are not a result of the limitations some people attribute to digital audio in general. I was comparing one digital file (sourced from the CD) to another digital file (sourced from the LP). Further, I'd be shocked if Magic wasn't recorded digitally and in ProTools in the first place. It is also entirely possible that the inherent flaws in LP playback "added" something to the music that I just happen to find appealing, but that others might not. I strongly suspect that most of the differences I heard are a direct result of the way the LP was mastered compared to the CD, but there is no way for me to be certain of that.

Also, I don't want to exaggerate the differences I heard between the CD and the LP. Some people might not notice them at all, or for that matter care about them even if they do. And while I thought the LP sounded better than the CD, it still wasn't the kind of recording audiophiles prize and use to discern differences between speaker cables. I simply found the version I ripped from LP less fatiguing to listen to, and for me that's enough. Magic is a very good album, and I suspect I'll listen to it more often now.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Born To Compress

I wanted to follow up on the post I did on dynamic range compression in popular music. Actually, I plan to do a series of posts on the subject in which I compare recently released CDs to their LP counterparts. Today I compare the 2005 remastered reissue of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run to a garden-variety 70s or 80s pressing of the 1975 LP.

Before I get into this, I want to say a few things upfront: I am not an expert on audio engineering and I don't claim to be. I've never set foot in a recording studio or even spoken to an audio engineer. I have absolutely no familiarity with the tools audio engineers use to record and master albums. I'm just a music fan with a set of ears, a computer, and a passionate interest in music. I don't claim there's anything scientific or definitive about what I'm doing. I'm sure there are valid questions that could be raised about my methodology (I have some myself), and I'm happy to answer them as best I can as they come up. Basically, I'm doing this to satisfy my own curiosity, and if I shed some light on the subject in a way that others find illuminating, great. So consider those caveats in reading my analysis, and see the comments section for technical details--how the vinyl to digital transfer was done, equipment used, etc.--if that sort of thing interests you.

I'm also not looking to generate a discussion about whether LPs or CDs sound better. I have my own feelings about that, and I'm sure you have yours. If you're looking for that kind of thing, there are many, many places on the internet where you can satisfy that desire. In my experience, debates about the relative merits of audio formats tend to go nowhere: they typically devolve into orgies of name-calling, accusations of deafness, and ultimately allegations of allegiance to Hitler. I don't want to go there. Whatever you happen to like is fine with me.

As I noted in my previous post, I suspect that Sony's remastering engineer added some extra dynamic compression to the 2005 reissue of Born to Run in order to bring the CD more in line with current industry conventions (i.e. to make it sound louder). After having ripped the title track from my LP copy of the album and comparing it to the CD version, I am further convinced of this.

I used Adobe Soundbooth to analyze the tracks this time. Unlike Fission, Soundbooth shows you both the left and right channel separately. It also shows a volume level reference in dBs on the right hand side of the diagram (you can click on the diagrams below to see them enlarged). Otherwise, what you see in Soundbooth is pretty similar to what you see in Fission. The closer the green lines are to the top and bottom of the chart, the louder the sound is at any given moment.

The most obvious difference between the two tracks is that, on average, the remastered CD is much louder. Excluding the fade out at the end, the remastered CD track ranges from around -6 db to just below the maximum limit of 0 db. But as you can see, quite a lot of the music is up very close to the 0 db limit. By contrast, the LP track ranges from around -12 dB to close to the limit of 0 dB. Also, relatively little of the the LP track goes all the way up to 0 dB. In fact, it only gets that loud for a very brief moment near the end of the song (right around 4:20). The average volume of the remastered version is probably around -2 dB, while the LP probably averages around -6 dB (I'm guessing here, anyone who knows how to calculate RMS in Soundbooth, let me know).

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" CD (1975, remastered 2005)

Bruce Springsteen - "Born To Run" LP (1975)

Other than that the tracks actually look pretty similar. Loudness aside, in many respects they sound pretty similar to my ears too. I must say, I hear a certain muddiness in the LP version that has been at least partly cleaned up in the remastered version. The remaster sounds a bit "cleaner" and brighter to my ears. It also must be said that while there is very little evident dynamic range in the 2005 remaster, there is not a tremendous amount of dynamic range in the LP version either. Springsteen was going for a "Wall of Sound" presentation on this track and he succeeded. It's worth noting that this was a relatively compressed recording to begin with.

But there are a few moments on the LP version where the dynamic range is much greater (seen as brief "spikes" on the graph). I want to focus on a couple of those moments because these are the kind of contrasts that are inevitably lost when a mastering engineer chooses to push the average sound level as loud as is the case on the 2005 Born To Run remaster. The sounds made at those moments are still there on the CD, they just don't stand out as much with respect to the rest of the music as they do on the LP. Loudness has its price.

As anyone who has ever heard a performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture can tell you, sudden changes in dynamic range can have a tremendous impact on the way the human brain perceives music. When music suddenly gets much louder or softer it can startle and surprise us. Used properly sudden shifts in dynamics can create a shock or jolt that makes a piece of music more exciting, and can increase the listeners' engagement with and emotional reaction to the music. "Born To Run" is a textbook example of that in the realm of popular music recording.

The best example of this in "Born To Run" occurs right around 3:00 minutes into the song; the music builds to a dramatic crescendo, then briefly quites down. Next you hear the Boss count off "1, 2, 3, 4..." Bam! The band suddenly kicks in at full force again "Highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive..." It's the song's single most dramatic moment, and fortunately the dynamic shift in that section is relatively well preserved on the CD remaster. Without it, you really don't have the same song.

But there are other similar, but more subtle, examples of this technique that get completely obscured by the remastering job. At right around :50 into the song you can see a very brief peak on the LP version that is buried in loudness on the CD. That's the exact moment Spingsteen sings "baby" on the first chorus of "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run." It makes a difference. Springsteen packs a lot of emotion into that one word, and hearing it at a higher volume relative to what's around it emphasizes that.

Another good example occurs almost at the end of the song, right around 4:20. That big peak you see on the LP version is the final cymbal crash before the fade out. The relative loudness of the cymbal crash puts a sonic exclamation point on everything that's come before it. Unfortunately, the CD remaster does not preserve that dynamic moment. The cymbal crash is still there, but it's no louder than anything else, so it doesn't have the same visceral impact as on the LP.

There are other moments like this on the LP that are mostly lost on the remastered CD. But what--if anything--do these differences mean in terms of listening experience? In a word "goosebumps." For me personally, the LP version, despite its relative murkiness, never failed to deliver goosebumps. Whether I was listening to it in my car, on headphones or on my home stereo, I consistently had a more visceral reaction to the LP track. I tapped my toe and pumped my fist more often when listening to the LP version. I just felt the music in my gut more. It's not like listening to the CD was painful. In fact, on an intellectual--if not visceral--level, I appreciated the added sonic clarity of the remastering job. With the CD it sounded like a slight layer of sonic murk had been scraped off the music, and I appreciated that. I wish that clean-up operation could have been combined with the superior dynamics of the LP version.

The experience of listening to the two versions was not the same, and invariably in ways that did not favor the remaster. The LP version of "Born To Run" is a one-of-a-kind, rock-and-roll thrill ride. It's the equivalent of a ride on Coney Island's Cyclone, while the remastered CD was more like a ride on one of those generic "Himalaya" style rides that travel from town to town with the carnie folk. It's true that the carnie rides go around and around really fast (and they're often really loud too), but they're never very exciting. A ride on the Cyclone though, that's something you never forget.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2007

As I mentioned in my previous post, few people are less qualified than me to declare what the 10 best albums of 2007 were. My focus on this blog is on music of the past, and I don't keep up with new releases the way I once did. Nevertheless, any idiot can have an opinion, and I certainly have a lot of them. So without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2007.

1. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
I wanted to be a little more contrarian in my top choice, but there is just no getting around the fact that this was my favorite album released in 2007. I opted for the fantastic sounding two-LP vinyl release that is packaged with a bonus CD of the whole album. The quality of the pressing is outstanding, and I urge anyone who has yet to buy this album to pick it up on vinyl--it just sounds so good.

Perhaps I am showing my age by picking an album derided as "dad-rock" by the young whippersnappers at Pitchfork as the best of 2007. I suppose I can understand why fans who discovered Jeff Tweedy and company through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album that alienated many of the bands older, alt-country fans as much as this one alienated their younger, post-rock fans). Compared to YHF, Sky Blue Sky sounds like classic rock, or perhaps the kind of music that might show up in a Volkswagon commercial. One can either hear this as a retreat into musical conservatism, or as paring the music down to it's essentials. I hear the later more than the former. Yes, there are elements of 70s soft-rock abundantly in evidence here. But the brilliant guitar interplay between Tweedy and Nels Cline recalls Television more than The Eagles. Whatever, I don't have to defend my choice--I just loved this album.

2. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog
My friend Peter had this to say about this album: "Funny to think that many people saw Sam Bean as a Will Oldham bedroom-tape knock-off. It seems to me he's probably been way more successful in his maturity and growth than Oldham has in all of the 25 records or so he's released." I couldn't have said it any better, Sam Beam has shown remarkable artistic growth over the past few years. From the start it was clear that Beam was a gifted songwriter, but his early, lo-fi, acoustic recordings--lovely as they were--are no preparation for the intricate, fully developed music found in the grooves of this album. The sound of The Shepard's Dog is at once lush and inviting while also being challenging and difficult. Beam incorporates unexpected elements from juju and dub into his melodic, folky, psychedelia, and somehow it works. The effect is mesmerizing.

Is it just a coincidence that my two favorite purchases of 2007 were on vinyl? Sub-Pop includes a free MP3 download with purchase of the vinyl. Who needs CDs anyway?

3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
Sharon Jones has been performing since the seventies, but has flown under my (and just about everyone else's) radar until recently. Damn, we've been missing out. On 100 Days, 100 Nights (and her other Daptone releases) this former corrections officer and her backing band, The Dap-Kings, deliver some of the most soulful and funky performances in recent memory. While the music sounds like it could have been recorded for Stax in 1966, it also sounds entirely fresh for 2007. Music this good is simply timeless.

4. Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low
It should come as a shock to no one that the infant for whom "End of the Rainbow" was written would grow up to have a strong melancholy streak. While one might expect Thompson's voice to be a bit too light and airy to pull off these covers of hard-core honky-tonk classics, he finds a way to cut to the emotional core of the songs without replicating their rough-hewn, distinctively American twang. And Thompson's sole songwriting contribution, "Down Low" is a stunner that lyrically recalls his father's best (and darkest) work. Fans of Nick Drake will be happy to learn the brilliant Robert Kirby contributes some beautiful arrangements. This is an overlooked gem.

5. Glenn Mercer - Wheels In Motion
Glen Mercer has been pretty quiet since the break-up of his underwhelming post-Feelies band Wake Ooloo. This is by far his strongest outing since the Feelies' demise. The album is heavy on the atmospheric quality that characterized the best Feelies albums, but sounds altogether more mellow, relaxed and mature. If you wrote Mercer off after one too many mediocre Wake Ooloo records, you're missing out. This is a strong return to form.

6. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Magic
This is another strong album from Bruce Springsteen, who has been on something of a roll since releasing The Rising. "Living In The Future" sounds like classic Springsteen but speaks directly to 2007.

My only beef with this album is that the sound is too compressed. I like Phil Spector's "wall of sound" as much as the next guy, but the mix here is just too in-your-face and lacking in dynamics and subtlety. Does anyone know if the LP features a less compressed mix (as is sometimes the case)? If so, I'd buy it again, because the songs are really, really strong.

7. Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart

I'm glad we only had to wait five years for Linda's third solo album (rather than seventeen years we had to wait for her second).

8. Peter Case - Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
If, like me, you lost track of Peter Case's music sometime after The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditional Guitar, now is a good time to rediscover him. Case's voice and songwriting are as strong as ever, and the simple folk-blues settings for these songs work very well, better in fact than the slicked up Americana of his major label days.

9. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
I admit it. I figured this band was nothing more than the latest great white hype when their debut album received all the glowing over-the-top praise in the British press. But this is a very good album, it sounds a bit like Wire circa 1978 if that band knew how to cut loose and party (which, granted, is hard to imagine).

10. The Innocence Mission - We Walked In Song

Thanks to Peter for alerting me to this lovely album that I would have otherwise ignored. He wrote very eloquently about this release on this blog earlier this year.

Honorable mention: Amy Winehouse - Back To Black, Bruce Springsteen - Live In Dublin, David Kilgour - The Far Now, Dean & Britta - Back Numbers, Feist - The Reminder, Kristin Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star, Meat Puppets - Rise To Your Knees, The National - Boxer, Nick Lowe - At My Age, Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full, Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior, Robyn Hitchcock - Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas (EP).

There is one more 2007 release I wanted to draw your attention to. It's called Song Poem Hits Of 2007 by The David Dubowski One Man Band. David--an eBay entrepreneur who sets other people's poems or lyrics to music in the grand song-poem tradition--gathered together some of his favorite song-poems that he recorded over the past couple years and released them on CD. Unlike most song-poems of the past, David actually put in a lot of work on these songs, and it shows in the music.

My own song-poem (previously featured on this blog) was among the songs included.

The David Dubowski One Man Band - Ballad of the Boy in the Plastic Bubble [right click to download]

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A short history of the car song

Car songs have played an important role in rock and roll's mythology virtually since its inception. Typically the car has represented adolescent dreams of freedom and sex, but the best rock and roll car songs present a more complex picture of the role of the automobile in middle-class American adolescent life. Chuck Berry set the gold standard in the 1950s with "No Particular Place to Go," by making the automobile simultaneously serve as both a sex machine and a chastity belt.

In the 1960s the Beach Boys' carried on the tradition with songs in which the automobile is sexualized to the extent that when Brian Wilson sings "Oh what she does to me, when she makes love to me" in "Don't Worry Baby" you can't be 100% certain he isn't singing about the car instead of a girl. But the Beach Boys' car songs are also shot through with an increasing level of anxiety and ambivalence about the automobile’s ability to deliver on its promise of freedom.

In the 1970s the automobile as sex machine theme becomes even more explicit in songs like "Chevy Van", but also finds deeper and darker expression in the music of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen seems all too aware that the automobile's promise of liberation is at best temporary and illusory, and it brings a level of desperation to his car songs that is almost operatic in scope.

You just know the narrator of "Born To Run," despite his desire to escape the confines of the working class world, will end up knocking Wendy up and working at a dead-end job. Or worse yet he'll end up like the narrator of "Darkness at the Edge of Town," offering bitter recriminations from beneath some bridge on the outskirts of town. But then of course the 1970s were a time of diminished expectations, when America seemed to be literally and figuratively running out of gas. (When I was in grade school in the 70s I vividly remember teachers telling us that we were the first generation of Americans who would end up worse off than our parents. That and we had to learn the metric system or the Japanese would eat us alive.)

Anyway, here is a weirdly wonderful car song from The Beat of the Traps, a compilation of songs from the "Send us your poems and we'll put them to music! Big money could be yours!" stuff collected by Tom Ardolino of NRBQ in thrift shops over the years. Where does this fit within the history of the rock and roll car song? Well, it doesn’t. Instead it’s a reminder that real life is too messy, and often too weird, to fit into the tidy historical narratives we construct in order to make sense of our world.

I genuinely enjoy listening to stuff like this. I like to imagine what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, the anticipation they felt waiting for their record to arrive, and their reaction when they got it. I like to think about what the performers must have thought of the lyrics they were assigned to put to music, if they thought about them at all. This is the stuff that happens outside the contours of official history.

And, not that it matters, but "Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers is my all-time favorite driving/car song, because it really is about the journey, not the destination, and nobody gets that like Jonathan Richman. And you can't drive around in the rockin’ modern moonlight of Massachusetts listening to "Roadrunner" and not feel good. Please feel free to share your favorite driving/car song in comments.