High Resolution Americana From Chris Whitley and Dave Alvin

On the surface, the notion of wanting to get a rough ' n tumble bluesy recording on a high resolution playback format may seem counter intuitive. I mean, this stuff is supposed to be raw, right? So if there are some scratches on your well worn thrift shop find of an old country blues LP or if its a bit off center, you pay it no mind because ultimately its about the music.

That formula, if you will, all holds up fine ... until you get to hear some of this kind of music in a more pristine form such as on an SACD, DVD Audio, Blu-ray Audio or high resolution download.

AR-chriswhitley.jpgFor example, I recently cracked open an HD "DAD" from the folks at Classic Records by the bluesy country Americana roots (pick your favorite label!) artist Chris Whitley. I don't purport to be an enormous Whitley fanatic, but I have one or two of his CDs and enjoy them from time to time. But perhaps I would be playing them more often if they were all on high res form like this album called Dirt Floor, which is just breathtaking in its simplicity: a man and his acoustic instruments in a room captured purely via some well placed microphones.

This is one of those recordings that sounds like it might have been made without any additional processing. The vocals are up front and in your face dead center, dry -- ie. no reverb added and little in the way of room sound there -- and yet very rich.

Actually, at times the guitars sound almost like they are being picked up by the same vocal mic and -- assuming the wiki is accurate -- that seems to be the case : "It was produced by Craig Street and recorded live direct to a two-track analog recorder using a single stereo ribbon microphone by Danny Kadar at Blue Moon Racing Shop (Whitley's father's barn) in Bellows Falls, Vermont." 

This translates into a very natural sounding and warm recording with loads of acoustic wood instrument tones, from finger picked guitar to banjo. It sounds amazing. Fortunately, the music is also superb, with some really great tunes that warrant repeated listens. I really like the album opener "Scrapyard Lullabye" and I can imagine in my mind's ear the haunting "From One Island to Another" blown out into a big ethereal soundscape with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. This is really compelling good stuff and definitely a keeper.

AR-davdalvinUDSACDsealed.jpgThe first thing I noticed when putting on the Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc SACD by southern California roots singer / songwriter and ex-Blaster Dave Alvin is the sound of his fingers scraping against the strings of his 1957 Martin 0018 acoustic guitar while switching chords as he launches into title track, Blackjack David. That sense of sonic detailing underscores the overall feel and finesse you hear on this fine recording, released initially in 1998 and remastered for SACD in 2002.

This is a wonderful travelogue of reflectivity culled from Alvin's prior five years on the road, (according to his liner notes) capturing thoughts of "endless miles of track homes, cornfields, industrial parks, abandoned neighborhoods, silent desserts, convenience stores, empty parking lots, discount motel rooms, distant city lights, overheard conversations and the sad whine of passing cars on the interstate."

Blackjack David is a lost gem (at least for me) and I am glad to add this into my collection. Beyond it being a compelling recording in the vein of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, this is modern, real world storytelling based on sights and sounds of our country. Its the kind of recording that reminds you that as far as we have come as a society, things haven't really changed that much since people like Woody Guthrie started documenting the American experience -- people are still struggling to get by, moving families around the country in search of a bit of solace and perhaps a taste of the classic American dream.

This is all captured here in lovely fidelity, finely detailed guitars to rich, in-your-face vocals and occasional sonic ambiance, nice production touches (ala Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno) courtesy of producer Greg Leisz and engineers Paul duGre' and Dave Ahlert. This is really nice stuff. You should pick these up if you like acoustic music and Americana.

Unfortunately, the discs are commanding some stupid high coin on places like eBay but keep your eyes open and I suspect you'll find them around. At minimum, pick up the recordings on regular CD or an MP3 download until you find these nice audiophile worthy pressings -- after all, its ultimately about the music and this is timeless stuff.

Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.

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