My social media feeds were abuzz with the news that Mobile Fidelity had repressed its edition of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s fantastic collaborative recordings known as Painted From Memory. I paused for a moment and finally pulled the trigger buying both the SACD and the SuperVinyl GAIN 2 Ultra Analog™ series 180g LP version from MusicDirect (the only place I could find that still had it in stock). I figured it would be an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast — at minimum I figured it had to sound better than my original compact disc version (it was not released on vinyl back in 1998).
I have not been disappointed in that it certainly sounds richer than my promo CD edition of the album. One of the most immediate differences I noticed on both versions is how each processes and conveys Elvis’ voice. One of the most expressive singers of his generation, Costello’s voice has improved dramatically over the years gaining depth and control which his early new wave recordings only hinted at.
Still, like Dylan, Neil Young and many others with more nasal voices, I recognize his sound is an acquired taste. There are admittedly times when he shoots for the big note that can challenge both the playback system and the listener (and mind you this is not a criticism, just a reality). On these new editions those potentially edgy peaks are carefully reigned in and the result is a much warmer, rounder presentation of the music.
While the SACD is better than the CD, for me the clear winner between the three versions is the vinyl for overall enjoyability. The SACD is however a bit cleaner on tracking Elvis’s more sibilant vocal moments and wins over the vinyl in one other aspect I’ll get to later.
But in general this new LP sounds crisp yet full, rich and distinct, especially when the orchestral strings kick in on songs like “I Still Have That Other Girl,” an early peak in the song cycle.
I very much like the division of Painted From Memory into album sides, with the second half’s walloping escalation to the final three-track knock-out album closers: “The Sweetest Punch,” “What’s Her Name Today” and “God Give Me Strength.” You don’t quite get the same listening experience on the CD or SACD when all the tracks just play as one long playlist, if you will.
Jim Keltner’s thick, perfectly placed and paced drums are beautifully recorded as is Burt Bacharach’s distinctive piano playing, the latter sounding especially woody and … well… grand!
The large form gatefold LP cover reveals some special performers on this album which I’d previously overlooked including: Steve Kujala on Flute and Piccolo, Blood Sweat and Tears’ Lew Soloff on Flugel Horn (RIP), David Spinozza on Guitar and Hall & Oats and Saturday Night Live house band alumnus T-Bone Wolk on Bass (RIP). Of course, Elvis’ long time Pianist, Steve Nieve, is very much present on this album as well.
The pressing lives up to the promotional claims. Half-speed mastered from the original master tapes and pressed on high quality MoFi SuperVinyl at RTI, the album generally sounds terrific. They pressed it in a limited run of 2,000 numbered copies, apparently to ensure the quality controls of all the pressings and prevent overuse of the original lacquer. MoFi’s SuperVinyl brand is reportedly a proprietary compound designed to improve noise floor reduction and enhanced groove definition. It is very quiet.
My only complaint is a pressing issue: Side Two of my copy is ever so slightly off center. It didn’t really become significantly apparent until the final track, “God Give Me Strength” where I could unfortunately detect some wavering of the Piano and held Organ notes and rich orchestral swells. That song is just one of those productions where any bit of derivation from perfect center might change the music.
This is the only area where the MoFi SACD version won out over the vinyl.
Which leads me to the headline in this review: Did I need to buy Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach’s Painted From Memory on Mobile Fidelity vinyl and SACD? In this instance, yes. I’m generally very happy with the LP and for those moments where I want to hear the final track absolutely perfectly, I guess the SACD will be there waiting for me.
It will be interesting to see if Universal Music Group continues its reissues of Elvis’ catalog in 2021 or once the Covid pandemic is over and life gets back to a bit of normality. Maybe they’ll issue a new half speed master spinning at 45 RPM in a reasonably priced pressing more can afford to buy. Personally, I would love to hear this album remixed into surround sound and issued on a nice Blu-ray Disc. Time will tell.