I’ll be up front with y’all here: While I love Joni Mitchell’s music and have most of her albums on vinyl or CD, I must come clean as an audiophile-esque person of honor and report that I have never, ever owned any sort of fancy edition of her watershed album Blue.
(“gasp”… I know…)
It gets worse: My LP was an early ’80s Reprise stock copy, one of the “Square Deal” copies that popped up around that period (factory-inspected resealed returns, from the time when stores could actually return stock that was damaged or not selling).
(“… the horror,” exclaims the crowd)
Despite the heinous sticker on the cover, the album actually plays fine with quiet vinyl and well-centered pressing. It sounds pretty nice, especially for two bucks!
I didn’t really know what I was missing, however.
Now that I have heard the 24-bit/192-kilohertz download version of Blue, available from HDTracks.com, I hear all sorts of tasty nuances which get sort of mushed over — not really glossed over — on the LP.
Of course, writing about this kind of audio microscopy is tantamount to writing about the differences between soft-serve chocolate ice cream from a fast-food place like Dairy Queen vs. an artisanal hand-made craftsman making small batches of rich ice cream from local sources somewhere in France. It’s difficult and not everyone will get it or agree.
I’ll try, however.
My old machine-churned stock LP version of Joni’s Blue was plenty crisp-sounding, with a fair amount of pluck and vigor (yes, pluck AND vigor!) coming across from her strummy guitars and a shimmering vibrance to her rich emotional vocals.
On this high-resolution download I feel that one of the curtains of technology have been removed between listener and artist. In a way it has, like I’m right there in the ice cream shop as the chef is mixing ingredients into the bowl before hand-turning it into an amazing delectable delight. I hear all the ingredients in the mixing bowl: the cream, the dark bittersweet chocolate, the organic unprocessed sugars and spices, and perhaps some chopped roasted coffee beans used for brewing espresso … all mixed up into a treat that plays oh-so-sweetly across my speakers.
When “River” comes on, one feels almost like you are sitting near Joni in the studio while she is performing it. Her vocals are intensely direct, kind of like she is singing right to me, the only other person in the studio. You can hear her pull away from the microphone when she goes for the high notes on the line “I would teach my feet to flyyyyy.”
]]>Imagine listening to the sound of a fine dark chocolate espresso ice cream … it tastes so good … and it sounds like Joni Mitchell.
Out of curiosity I played a version of “River” that I found up on YouTube — streaming at 1080p, but it was probably ripped off a CD — and there is none of that sense of dynamic authority there. It is just a very flat sound.
So in food terms, that YouTube (probably MP3) stream was the generic supermarket brand fudge pop version in contrast to the soft serve milk chocolate custard of my LP or the artisanal dark chocolate ice cream download with all its high-resolution sonic butter fat ‘n flavor.
There was a definite lack of sonority (how’s that for some fancy audiophile record reviewer speak for ya?).
And as good as this tastes I can imagine what Blue would sound like if it received some high tech lovin’ via the Plangent Process, which can virtually eliminate the ill effects of tape wow and flutter. Listen at the end of “River” and you’ll hear there on those final notes a wavering of the sound — that is most likely some sort of tape speed fluctuation (or perhaps a stretch on the tape). Those sorts of little details are more readily apparent on a super-high-resolution download like this.
You hear it also at the end of “My Old Man” where she holds that long final piano chord.
Don’t get me wrong, this HDTracks download sounds amazing. But this recording might eventually sound quite a bit better someday, if we’re lucky.
Still, this sounds pretty stunning all things considered and for now is probably about as good as we’ll get. On “All I Want” and “Carey,” you can almost feel her pick as it crosses the strings of her dulcimer. Joni’s acoustic guitars never sounded quite so sweet. On “Carey” you can make out individual conga hits, like so many sprinkles on a waffle cone of French vanilla ice cream … and her backup vocals are like a sweet drizzle of butterscotch over the musical sundae.
I could go on but I think you get the idea. This a really nice download, especially if you are a Joni fan.
I don’t know about you but all this is food analogy stuff is making me hungry for more Joni in high resolution.