I'll get right to this: listening to Stevie Wonder's landmark 1976 release Songs in the Key of Life via the 192 kHz, 24-bit download available on HDTracks.com is more than enough reason for most music lovers to invest in a DAC and join the world of high resolution digital downloads. In many ways, it is like hearing the album for the first time.
Here's why: silence. There is virtually no noise floor other that what might exist on the original analog tapes. There are some recordings which -- in order to have a maximized listening experience and to fully appreciate the tremendous power of the music -- you really want the delivery medium to disappear as fully as possible. Many of us learned this with albums like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, where even though Mobile Fidelity's pressing LP is spectacular, the Blu-ray Disc version in the Immersion box set more or less makes that the go-to choice for listening.
At least it is the go to choice for me, even though I have a pristine MoFi pressing. Why? Because it is an album I like to put on and listen to as a start-to-finish, non stop listening experience -- that means not having to get up to flip the sides of the disc. And now, Songs in the Key of Life has entered that realm.
From the opening notes of the first track, "Love's in Need of Love Today" -- a song that has always been hampered (dare I say "crippled"?) by inevitable surface noise on the less than stellar mid-70s original pressings (remember, the oil crisis was on so corners were being cut on the vinyl process, resulting in noisier and thinner albums, for the most part) -- the HD Tracks download is dead silent in the background.
Then there are the sonic details: listen to the drum intro on "Isn't She Lovely" and if you close your eyes you can see the baby crying and witness the drum heads flexing as the sticks make their way around the tom toms. "I Wish" has never sounded more funky and detailed, revealing all the little interlocking noodley-riffs dancing around the drum groove. The LP version sounds really great, but this version has a sense of air and space that fills up the room -- I suspect this has to do with lack of compression necessary for the physical LP mastering process, but there are probably many contributing factors. The bass is tighter and more full bodied, particularly on Nathan Watts' absolutely badass zoops (if you will), ripping parts that probably gave Bootsy some pause back in the day.
Tracks like "Pastime Paradise" come to life with Stevie's layered analog synthesizers sounding just lush and fat, complemented by congas and other latin percussion. When the choir voices kick in, you can more readily make out the different voices. The subsequent segue into "Summer Soft" -- with its tweeting birds and children's voices -- is just gorgeous, while Stevie's piano sounds huge and his voice sounds less muffled than on the LP. You can feel his sense of voice dynamics and control as he is singing in a "hushed" tone, detail that gets kind of lost on the LP.
I think it is also fair to say that you have never really heard the four tracks on the bonus EP sounding as good as they do on this HDTracks download. "Saturn," "Ebony Eyes," "All Day Sucker" and "Easy Goin' Evening" all sound big and full. They had been crammed on a 7-inch 45 spinning at 33 1/3, a cute but ultimately cheesy cost-cutting move back in the day. They really should have just made the album a three LP set, giving the tracks more groove space and likely improving the album's overall sound for the ages.
That, however, is all a moot issue now when you hear the multi-tracked piano fun of "Ebony Eyes" which is about as close as Stevie Wonder ever came to sounding like The Captain & Tennille (and I mean this is a good way). The phase shifted Fender Rhodes piano on "Easy Goin' Evening" fills the sound stage while you can hear Stevie breathing air into his harmonicas on this lovely album-ending track, a song I suspect most of us heard a few times back in the day but forgot about when we lost the bonus single. Its all fresh and new on this HDTracks download of Songs in the Key of Life, right down to the long decay cymbal at the end of the tune which probably got lost in the single's surface noise anyhow.
I only have one nit on this release and that is the lack of liner notes of any sort. It would have been nice if they had at least given us a PDF of the booklet that came with the original LP and reproduction of all the album art (such as the cool inner sleeve art). Other than this, this one is a gem.
File under: essential listening.
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.