Written by 4:49 am Audiophile Music

Vinyl Version Saves Sweet Costello/Frisell Concert From Digital Dustbin

Mark Smotroff rediscovers a lost mid 90s gem on vinyl for the first time

With all the music that exists in the universe these days in the digital world, there is a tragic percentage of music that will go unheard or forgotten simply because it exists only in a format which is no longer quite embraced (by the public) or promoted (by the industry) — the compact disc. And, unless you happen to be looking for said specific music from the oh-so-digital era, you won’t just come across it accidentally online (for the most part). 

AR-DDBLP COVER225.jpgFor example, I have wondered about what may become of my old band’s digital music legacy. Much of what we did I’m intensely proud of to the point where I recently had the master (analog) tape of our last album (recorded at The Plant in Sausalito) transferred at high resolution for a potential re-release and (budget permitting) a vinyl pressing for those curious and remembering. www.ingdom.com   And I know that if I don’t push on this, its never going to happen and will just sink further into the recesses of our loving little fan base’s collective psyche. 

One such album which came out in the mid 1990s by a considerably more popular artist than my band was called Deep Dead Blue and it was performed by a somewhat surprising pairing of Elvis Costello with atmospheric jazz guitar improvisor-supreme, Bill Frisell.  (Note: Frisell later issued his own album of instrumental interpretations of music from Costello and Burt Bacharach’s lovely Painted From Memory album, The Sweetest Punch).   

AR-DDBLP backCOVER225.jpgThis performance happened after Elvis Costello was chosen as Curator for The Meltdown Festival in England that year. An honor which resonated around the world, it elevated an already masterful Costello (who by this point had written songs with a Beatle and toured with member of Elvis Presley’s old band, among other accomplishments) to yet another level of pop music royalty. Deep Dead Blue was only issued on CD as a pricey import and perhaps was issued to squelch the inevitable bootleg recordings which would likely surface due to the unique nature of the performance (remember, this was before the Internet and iPhones, when everything everywhere gets released whether the artist wants it out or not).  

As a CD in the mid-90s, Deep Dead Blue was perceived as an odd release as it was relatively — for the times — short. By this point in time we were all accustomed to 70-minute-plus CDs that were packed to the brim with more music than most of us could consume in an average listening session. Regardless of whether the album warranted a 70 minute length, so many releases were padded with fluff to make consumer feel like they were getting their money’s worthy. Thus, at the time, paying premium coin for a roughly 30 minute CD seemed incongruous; but many of us hard core fans coughed up the cash for this lovely haunting set. 

AR-DDBLPlabel225.jpgFast forward to the present, many Costello fans are happily reacquainted with vinyl and turntables, no longer beholden to the CD’s 80-minute storage demands. And it is a breath of fresh air to find certain recordings from the 90s being recovered and reinvented for the 21st Century vinyl era.  Deep Dead Blue is one such release, issued by the good folks at Music On Vinyl for the first time ever on vinyl. It sounds really sweet played back via the dead quiet, perfectly centered 180-gram vinyl — this is actually a very important trait for these intensely personal live recordings of just Bill Frisell on his trademark atmospheric guitar and Elvis Costello just singing, and singing well.

Even more importantly, the album works so much better as a vinyl release than on a CD. After three intense songs, you have to get up and flip the side to experience the thrilling conclusion.  And that pause between sides is just enough to make you realize that as a 30 minute listening experience, Deep Dead Blue is actually quite ideal! Just enough and not too much. It leaves you wanting more, the best trait of any live performance. 

AR-DDBMOVsticker225.jpgThe song selection on Deep Dead Blue is quite wonderful, spectacular even, tackling Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” (which Elvis performed on Hal Wilner’s 1992 Mingus tribute of the same name) and a bunch of songs exclusive to this disc such as a cover of Lerner & Lowe’s “Gigi” — a song Elvis has only performed five times, according to the the Elvis Costello Wiki (yes, there is a dedicated Costello Wiki!). The title track was written with Frisell and the set includes a rare performance of “Shamed Into Love” (written with Ruben Blades, only performed four times by EC). Elvis resurrects a fine tune lost to 1984’s spotty Goodbye Cruel World collection, “Love Field” and delivers heartfelt interpretations of “Poor Napoleon” from Blood & Chocolate and “Baby Plays Around” from Spike.

How does Deep Dead Blue sound? As CDs go, the original disc sounded pretty great but the new LP smooths a lot of the rough edges. You see, Elvis Costello’s voice is something of an acquired taste — you either like it or you don’t — and he can sound a little shrill at times, especially when he goes for high notes. On the CD, those notes get quite angular sounding and thus less appealing to the ear. On the Music on Vinyl LP version of Deep Dead Blue, Elvis Costello’s voice sounds almost as warm as Bill Frisell’s other-worldly guitar textures. 

Why the difference? I’m not entirely sure. Part of it might have to do with the source material which I suspect was recording on digital audio tape (DAT) at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz — so perhaps they did a better transfer from the source with less degradation of the signal along the way.  But I suspect a bigger portion of the effect has to do with the mastering which controls how those hard edges translate when finally played back on your turntable or mine. To that, I again have to applaud the Music on Vinyl mastering engineers for a great job of making a fine performance more enjoyable for all of us. 

Really, when you get down into it, there is no contest between this and the CD. 

If you are a Costello fan, you need this.

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