Rush – Permanent Waves – Fortieth Anniversary Edition
Permanent Waves was something of a departure for Canadian power trio Rush; it was their first record since the addition of drummer and primary lyricist Neal Peart that didn’t focus on lengthy, concept-based song structure. And the band were very close to their creative peak from a performance standpoint; a lot of Rush fans seem to think that at this point in the band’s history, they functioned both on album and onstage like never before. And the band chose to record Permanent Waves at Le Studio in Quebec, which then became their de facto base of operations for all studio albums to come, which definitely shaped the sound of their recorded output going forward. “The Spirit of Radio” became their highest-charted song at that point, which also helped garner new fans into the fold, and helped to sculpt the mold for song structure on subsequent releases.
Rush released a remastering of their entire catalog in 2015, with heavy emphasis on the 180-gram vinyl editions; I grabbed a handful of titles I couldn’t live without, like 2112, Permanent Waves, and Moving Pictures. Those LPs were a revelation in terms of sound quality — the pressings were quite nearly perfect; especially considering that my original issue LP of Permanent Waves had one of those endless loop repeating scratches that wouldn’t allow the tune to advance beyond a certain point on side 2. Anyway, the new 40th Anniversary release uses the same remastered tapes from the 2015 LP pressing, so if you ended up getting one of those, there might not be much of an incentive to grab the new release based on that information. However, the real reason for die hard fans to grab this set — or at least have a listen in glorious 24/96 sound on Qobuz or Tidal — is the plethora of previously unreleased live tracks included from the Permanent Waves era of the band. The set shows the band in absolutely top form, and includes well over an hour’s worth of material that spans the breadth of the band’s recorded output up to that point. And the live bonus material has all been remixed and remastered by longtime Rush producer Terry Brown, so the sound quality is absolutely superb.
The three LP set clocks in for purchase at around $70 USD, while the 3-LP/2 CD with slipcase and 40-page hardbound book will set you back closer to $180 USD — it’s probably mostly for hardcore fans only. Although the 3-LP set isn’t too much of a financial stretch for diehard vinyl guys. I did all my listening to the 24/96 tracks on Qobuz, and the sound quality was superb, especially with the live tracks — it’s an absolute must-hear for true Rush fans. Very highly recommended.
Mercury Records, 3-LP box, 3LP/2CD box (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
Jason Isbell is one of those hard to categorize musicians, falling somewhere in between the Alternative Country/Americana/Southern Rock genres; his newest album with his group the 400 Unit probably hews much closer to true Southern Rock than any of his previous releases. He was a member of the group Drive By Truckers for six years and three studio albums, and was a major contributing songwriter to the band. While the official 2007 press release from DBT leader Patterson Hood regarding Jason Isbell’s departure from the group described the parting as “amicable,” a New York Times interview with Isbell that followed very quickly afterwards gave a completely different slant, leading many to believe he was forced out of the group. Anyway, Isbell didn’t waste any time, recording a solo album shortly afterwards, and then forming his current group, the 400 Unit in 2009. The group is named after the psychiatric ward of the Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama; the ward was locally known as the 400 Unit, and Isbell hails from nearby Green Hill. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit have very quickly collected a slew of Americana awards and Grammys; he’s easily eclipsed his work with Drive By Truckers and garnered substantial critical praise, and was recently named an official artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The new album, Reunions, is the 400 Unit’s sixth studio release, and was recorded just prior to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, but the songs read like they could have been taken from the pages of today’s headlines. The opening “What’ve I Done to Help” tells a tale of folks whose lives are in a constant state of flux, not knowing which road they should take in times shrouded with absolute uncertainty. Sounds not at all unlike the chaos so many are currently facing in our new reality, huh? “Dreamsicle” chronicles how children are left to deal with the turmoil they often face as their parents divorce; other songs like “Running With Our Eyes Closed” and “Be Afraid” hew even closer in tone to the calamities so many are currently facing. And “It Gets Easier” deals with addiction and recovery — a topic Isbell is all too familiar with — although the song’s refrain doesn’t offer a whole lot of hope: “it gets easier…but it never gets easy.” The song could just as easily take on the context of our current world situation, and whether anything we know will ever return to anything resembling its previous state. Although many of the songs are basically pretty harrowing, Jason Isbell’s plaintive vocals give everything here a feeling of hope, which is what we all really need in these troubling times.
All my listening was done via the excellent 24/96 stream from Qobuz — Reunions is a brilliant album, and the recorded sound was nothing short of superlative. I was recently turned onto Drive By Truckers in a review experience for another media outlet, but I haven’t gone far enough back to hear any of Jason Isbell’s work — after my exposure here, I’m ready to dig much deeper into both DBT and the 400 Unit’s back catalogs. Very highly recommended!
Southeastern Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Google Play Music, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Deezer)
Dire Straits – Love Over Gold
1982 saw the release of Dire Straits’ fourth studio album, Love Over Gold; while the poppy, irrepressible vibe of “Industrial Disease” was what first caught the airwaves, it was more likely the fourteen minute tour-de-force of “Telegraph Road” that really sucked everybody in. I don’t really need to go on ad nauseum about my impressions of the songs; you’ve heard them countless times and know them all extremely well. Even though, as time has gone along, the two songs I now most likely listen to from this excellent album are “Private Investigations” and “Love Over Gold.” But I would like to talk a bit more about the recorded history of Dire Straits’ catalog issues.
This is pretty much the purchase timeline for my acquisition of a typical Dire Straits catalog issue: Original LP – Import LP – CD – remastered CD – remastered reissue CD – import CD – reissue 180 gram LP. Yeah — I’m one of those guys who has gotten sucked into buying just about every available format, desperately in search of the best possible sound for any given title over the years. So over the nearly forty years since its release, I’ve bought Love Over Gold at least seven times since its original incarnation in 1982. Original LP: pretty good; import LP: surprisingly not so good; CD: meh; remastered CD: pretty good; import CD; pretty good; reissue 180 gram LP: very good. And in recent years, with the ever-increasing improvement in digital-to-analog conversion, with better-than-ever CD players and better-than-ever streaming, I’ve almost gotten to the point where I’m generally very satisfied with the quality of playback I’m getting with most Dire Straits’ (and just about everybody else’s) catalog titles simply streamed across my stereo setup.
So why in God’s holy name would I plunk down $30 for yet another reissue — this time in the all-but-dead SACD format? I guess the answer is that I got a new Yamaha SACD unit last year, which I’ve really been enjoying a lot — and the overwhelmingly positive reviews for the new Dire Straits’ SACD titles on Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. I probably hadn’t bought an MFSL disc of any kind in almost twenty years! Call me a fool, but I decided to test the waters with two titles I decided I couldn’t live without, Love Over Gold and the eponymous first album. Here goes!
The SACD layer of the disc is undeniably the finest sound I’ve ever heard this record offered in, and is maybe the best MFSL disc of any kind I’ve ever owned. My early experiences with MFSL in the seventies were a mixed bag — the LP pressings were always absolutely superb, but I felt they took few liberties with the tapes, and the resultant LPs never sounded quite the same as the catalog issues. From a content standpoint; there were often different edits, and odd fade outs that for me, often ruined the experience, regardless of the quietness and greatly improved sound of the MFSL LPs. When MFSL died and was eventually reborn, I feel like perhaps they’ve done a better job with not taking too much artistic license, and trying to stay true to the artistic intentions of the originals.
For example: one of the things I really liked about the remastered catalog CDs from the early 2000’s was that the songs didn’t fade to digital black in between the tunes; there was a very gentle hiss, which gave very much the continuity and impression of listening to an LP. Even though you were listening to a CD, or much later, a digital rip of that CD. The new SACDs don’t follow that script, exactly, but they do offer a very subdued and gradual fade out — which is much more acceptable — especially when listening through tube equipment, which is the new norm for me. And the overall sound quality betters everything I’ve ever heard, even all LP incarnations; the SACD layer has an organic, more analog quality that places it absolutely in the same conversation with LP playback. I haven’t heard the new LPs, but if they’re anything like this, they’re probably pretty spectacular.
By the way, I did listen to the CD layer of the discs, and while they definitely sound much better than any previous versions, they’re not anywhere in the same league as the SACD’s DSD layer. This is the current state-of-the-art for these recordings — there’s no high-resolution streaming currently available, so if you really love this music, open your wallets. Very, very highly recommended!
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab/Warner Brothers Records, Hybrid SACD/45 RPM LP (download/streaming not currently available for this title)
Dire Straits – Dire Straits
I’ve already given all the intended exposition with the Love Over Gold review above; what I’ll say about Dire Straits is that it may be my favorite of all the studio albums. I’m particularly smitten with a couple of tunes, the opening “Down to the Waterline,” where the opening guitar figures and Pick Withers’ cymbal crashes maybe have more impact and realism here than on any previous versions. Those cymbals just absolutely shimmer across the soundstage as the song crashes into the main theme — the effect is mesmerizing. And I also love the tune “Wild West End,” with it’s very laid back, Mark Knopfler kicking back, enjoying his coffee as the local scene unfolds around him vibe. This album absolutely slayed me in 1977 in terms of the performances, but I always have been relatively underwhelmed by the sound quality, especially on LP — I always felt the original LP was especially bass-shy.
The MoFi SACD does not disappoint — the SACD layer is magnificent in every way possible, and the bass content of the disc is deeper and tighter than I’ve heard on other formats. The CD layer is really good, too, but just can’t hold a candle to the SACD for its improved clarity and more organic overall presentation; it’s almost like the CD is monochromatic, and the SACD is technicolor. This disc is very highly recommended! I’ll probably go ahead and spring for the remaining titles in the series.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab/Warner Brothers Records, Hybrid SACD/45 RPM LP (download/streaming not currently available for this title)
Mark Wigglesworth/Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra – Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 1 & 15
In Copper Issue 100 I reviewed a Susanna Malki Bartok SACD disc; a reader pointed out to me that I was incorrect in my assessment that the SACD was sourced from a DSD recording. I had an interesting exchange with him afterwards regarding BIS SACDs; at the time when I first became involved with SACD and reviewing classical music titles over at Audiophile Audition (2002-2010), I was able to get my hands on quite a few SACD discs on the BIS label. Which, at the time, were all recorded in DSD, or transferred from analog sources to DSD. The reader pointed out to me that all the current (and recent) output of BIS SACDs were transferred from 24/96 PCM sources, and my later investigation bore that out. Regardless, the sound quality of the Bartok SACD disc was superb; maybe it’s got something to do with the transfer to DSD in the process — a lot of current high-end DACs (PS Audio comes to mind) and digital music playing programs convert everything to DSD, and the results seem to be quite excellent.
Anyway, it gets even murkier; I ended up with some extraneous money in an Amazon account, and ordered a couple of new discs recently, including, this SACD, the Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 1 & 15, featuring conductor Mark Wigglesworth and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra ($12). I’d downloaded the 16 bit/44.1 WAV files for this from Naxos (I get reviewer service through them) a while back, and ended up getting the entire symphonic cycle — which I now consider as maybe the finest collection of Shostakovich symphonies extant. The performances are simply off-the-charts great, and the sonics are staggeringly good — it’s almost overwhelmingly entertaining, listening to any of these recordings. I decided that I wanted to get the SACD of this particular performance; it’s kind of become one of my go-to discs for classical music evaluation, and I really wanted the higher resolution disc, for posterity, if no other reason. I generally always find SACDs to be a great improvement over CDs — or CD-quality downloads.
So the disc showed up after about two weeks (Coronavirus monkeying with the business model/shipping industry), and I wasn’t disappointed — the SACD was better in every way possible than the WAV files that I’d converted to uncompressed FLACs using dBPoweramp. It was a win-win in every possible aspect for me.
Until recently, when in a moment of shelter-in-place boredom, I visited the Audio Asylum forum (usually a bad idea), and a poster there was questioning that BIS SACDs were from 24/96 origins. I read through the entire thread, and at some point, someone responded that eClassical.com, which is owned by the same company that owns BIS, posts all the information regarding all performances available for streaming. And that some of the BIS performances actually originated from 16/44.1 files! Convinced that bit of information had to be fiction, or at least misguided at best, I started investigating — sure enough, many of the BIS titles available for download or sale as SACDs there are listed as being sourced from 16/44.1 or 24/44.1 tapes! With this one being from a 24/44.1 original session — I reached out to BIS for confirmation, and got it fairly quickly — the online information was correct.
I know I’m opening a can of worms here — but the sound of this SACD exceeds that of the WAV files in every possible parameter — it’s gotta have something to do with the transfer to DSD that imparts an improved sonic character during playback. And I see tons of commentary online from people who believe the bit rate is the most important factor in overall sound quality — and all these titles are sourced from 24 bit tapes, so that’s a good thing! Anyway, call me a fool, if you wish — I’ll probably be ordering more of these BIS SACDs in this Shostakovich cycle. If they sound anywhere nearly as remarkable as this one, it’ll be money well spent. YMMV, as always, but in my book, very highly recommended!
BIS Records, hybrid SACD (download/streaming via Tidal, Qobuz, eClassical)
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Abby Gillardi.