Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett: "Witchcraft"

June 2011

WitchcraftTwo of Britain's Top Musicians Team Up for an Impeccable Album

Linn Records
Format: 24-bit/88.2kHz FLAC (download)

Musical Performance
Sound Quality
Overall Enjoyment

Music lovers have always perceived Claire Martin as a talented singer, but this disc proves she has arrived as an impeccable master artist and one of the greatest living voices in jazz. Listen to "Would You Believe," the last cut from this download, if you have any doubts. Richard Rodney Bennett, film-music composer, concert-hall composer, and jazz pianist-singer, is a true musical everyman. You never feel like he's a serious musician "playing down," as his multifaceted talents form an inseparable whole. He and Martin have been performing together for years, and their partnership has created a rare and special collaboration where the superlative product is truly more than the sum of its parts.

For this program, the remarkable duo turns its attention to songs by American composer Cy Coleman, mainly his pairings with lyricist Carolyn Leigh. Three of their biggest hits are here -- "Witchcraft," "The Rules of the Road," and "The Best Is Yet to Come" (performed with wit and a devilishly clever surprise ending) -- alongside lesser-known gems such as "Let Me Down Easy" (a poignant solo spot for Bennett), "On Second Thought," and "On the Other Side of the Tracks." Shifting away from Leigh as lyricist, we find "Nobody Does It Like Me," Coleman's stellar collaboration with Dorothy Fields, and "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life," one of the definitive torch songs of all time, written with Joseph Allan McCarthy.

A Linn spokesperson told me that this session was recorded and mastered at 24/192 and that the 24/88.2 versions (FLAC or WMA) were downsampled. The result here sounds effortless and natural. In the version I downloaded, piano and voices have appealing presence without a trace of shrillness, and subtle shadings and phrasings are delineated with clarity and accuracy. To suit your particular needs and equipment, Linn offers a wide range of downloads for this album. In addition to the ones already mentioned, there are also CD-quality FLAC and WMA, and MP3, not to mention a Hybrid Multichannel SACD! Prices vary from $11.00 for the MP3 up to $27.00 for the 24/192 download. The options are all made very clear in Linn's detailed listing, and as usual with Linn, there are audio previews of each track that you can audition before you buy.

Be sure to listen to: "That's My Style" (written with Peggy Lee) starts like it's going to be a solo for Bennett, but in the middle Martin comes in with "I'm in Love Again." It's an unexpected goosebump moment that will send a pleasant little chill down your spine.

. . . Rad Bennett

Peter Gabriel: "Scratch My Back"

April 2010

201004_dl_gabrielPeter Gabriel Reinvents the Cover Album, Supported by Superlative Engineering

Society of Sound
Format: 24-bit/48kHz FLAC (download)

Musical Performance
Sound Quality
Overall Enjoyment

It’s been a long time since Peter Gabriel’s last album, and Scratch My Back turns out to be quite a departure from his usual upbeat, percussion-driven fare. For this album, Gabriel recorded songs written by peers who he respects. And the second album, You Scratch Mine, will feature each of those artists performing one of Gabriel’s songs. The idea sounds good on paper, and it’s worked before, particularly in concerts where artists gather to pay tribute to a fellow performer. But Gabriel has stripped the music to its bare bones and has had it arranged by John Metcalfe for orchestra minus drums and guitar. The resulting cinematic sound has met with mixed reviews.

If I have one complaint, it’s that every song shares a similar tempo, making the overall album gloomy. Also, the occasionally effective orchestrations can be just as overbearing. Whether it’s David Bowie’s “Heroes” or Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart,” the build-ups can seem repetitive, like cloned waves crashing on the shore. But when Gabriel is left alone, or when he’s accompanied by just one instrument, his warm, battle-scarred voice convincingly conveys the lyrics. 

Some of Gabriel’s covers are hair-raising. “My Body Is a Cage,” originally by Montreal’s Arcade Fire, starts with a brooding solo piano, followed by a wistful, almost painful French horn melody that’s carried over to string harmonics. Gabriel enters low key and lets the piece build until it slams you back in your chair. It’s the most intense cut on an album with plenty of powerful moments. In Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” Gabriel changes the timbre of his voice so effectively that you’ll shiver.

Of course, this album has been out on CD for a while. But Gabriel is a founder of Society of Sound, a label owned by B&W, a company known for its audiophile loudspeakers. The site offers reasonably priced memberships that let you download two new albums a month, as well as back-catalog releases. You can also get a free sampler membership that lets you download a few tracks from each new album at no cost. Downloads are offered either as FLAC 24/48 or FLAC 24/96, FLAC 16, and Apple Lossless. Scratch My Back, for such a lushly scored set, scores with clarity and precision as a FLAC 24/48 download played through my Squeezebox Classic. The highs sound like good analog, with plenty of impact that never sounds harsh, and the bass is deep and forceful without losing focus. I’d rank this download as pretty near perfect. And because it’s DRM free, you can hear it however you prefer. I should also point out that the album will be released on vinyl, in case you’re a fan of the format.

Be sure to listen to: “Flume,” written by Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon. A sparsely scored opening for piano and voice is soon enriched by lower brass as the volume builds. The clear and emotional contrast between the smooth-as-silk brass and Gabriel’s raspy, honest delivery gave me chills. Heard in high resolution, this is singing and playing without a net.

. . . Rad Bennett

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