Mary Poppins and Satan

The pairing has been likened to Mary Poppins and Satan. That's the easy and obvious way out, and it's a load of crap. It's much more difficult than that. They're much more similar than they are different, coming together to tell one story and filling in each other's blanks only when the reverb gets too thick. But I don't want to say any more about it. I'll now speak only of the differences I heard between listening in the office — through my computer's Dell speakers — and listening at home — with the Musical Fidelity A3.5 system and Totem Arro speakers.

I'm talking, again, about Ballad of the Broken Seas. I remember hearing "Deus Ibi Est" for the first time, and simply not getting it. What was this song — hardly a "song" at all — trying to do? What was it all about and where was it taking me? It grew on me, yeah, after a few listens, but never struck me as anything more than an easy opener, an intro, a warm-up. I left it at that.

Listening at home, however, I was immediately impressed by the size and texture of Lanegan's voice and deeply touched by the weight and impact of the bass. Now the song — it really was a song, after all — made sense. Initially lifeless and without direction, it was now thrilling and full of purpose. And that's some of the best that hi-end audio has to offer, I think.

But then there's the other side. The album's production is inconsistent — sometimes pretty fine, other times pretty annoying. "The False Husband" offers the worst of Isobel Cambpell's work. Listening in the office, the effect on her voice is otherworldly and almost enchanting — bemusing — nicely complimenting the reverb-drenched guitar and swaying strings. At home, however, it was all too much. I realized that I couldn't come anywhere close to actually deciphering the wispy, grainy-edged words. Instead of enchanting, the effect was now infuriating. The piece no longer sounded anything like music, but was just a bunch of painful sounds flailing around helplessly, banging its numb head against the cold wall. Here, the system was revealing the recording's limitations. Whereas, earlier, the system was bringing the recording to life, it was now hammering those last few nails into the recording's coffin. If the music wanted to die, the system was going to drag it to the funeral. That's all.

It's almost as though Cambpell knew she'd done wrong, however, and she's desperate to make up for it. "The False Husband" is immediately followed by the wonderfully musical "Ballad of the Broken Seas." This much cleaner, much more honest composition is based on a delicate foundation of piano. Lovely strings and simple bass are set behind deliciously raspy vocals and breathy whispers. It works. What's communicated here is the emotion. Listening in the office is just pleasant. Listening at home is an event; I'm suddenly sailing, too, on this ocean of weird tears, somehow drunk, and completely wrapped up in cello — cello, of all things.

Al Marcy's picture

Cello is just a big fretless acoustic guitar. Some play it for the God's, many just wish they could get lucky.

Monty's picture

I've often thought that manufacturers should include how they voice their gear. This would be very useful information for potential purchasers. Just as an artist might describe what they were trying to convey through their work, a designer of audio gear knows what he is trying to accomplish in each design. I can remember saying to myself," ""So that's what this song is supposed to sound like!"" From there", I would wonder what instruments the designer used to voice the gear. I can just imagine the kinds of discussions that go in between artists and recording engineers. I bet they aren't pretty.