Saturday 1 October 2016

Jenna Mammina - Close Your Eyes

All too often, as audiophiles, we are torn between listening to the music that we like to listen to because of its musical qualities, and music that we appreciate for its sonic qualities.  Some of our favourite albums are - lets face it - just not that well recorded.  This is brought into even sharper focus when we listen to older recordings - I have examples going back to the 1950’s - that have been remastered recently under circumstances where sound quality is secondary to absolutely nothing.  The recordings I am talking about are all - virtually without exception - major commercially successful recordings.  In some cases (a good example here might be The Doors’ self-titled 1967 debut) they are even colossal musical landmarks.  But today, if anything, contemporary recordings seem to be getting worse, even as recording technology supposedly improves.

When it comes to new releases, the gulf between commercial and specialist recordings in terms of sound quality is widening by leaps and bounds.  The best specialist recordings are getting progressively better, while mainstream commercial recordings are getting progressively worse.  [The one ray of hope is in Classical music, where the sound quality of commercial recordings is getting to be staggeringly good pretty much across the board.]  The trouble with the specialist recording industry is that there is a bit of a disconnect between the artists and music that they offer, and the tastes and desires of the wider buying public.  Most of this is down to simple economics.  There is no money in the music industry, which seems an odd thing to say with Kanye West and Taylor Swift flying overhead in their private jets.  But it’s true.  Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no money in music.

So as audiophiles we can cue up our audiophile prizes - here’s a stunning recording of Joe Blow with his guitar whispering his honestly-crafted and heart-felt folk songs; there’s a Jani Doe with her heart-on-her-sleeve piano arrangements of out-of-copyright classics (listen - you can hear the tears rolling down her cheeks); I have a copy of Burt Qwonk’s incredible virtuoso performance on the [insert name of a bizarre instrument that looks like a guitar with four necks]; then there’s all these other REALLY INTERESTING albums.  No, wait, honestly…  Once you put your cynicism to one side, some of them are REALLY GOOD.

Sorry, I was getting kind of excited there.  No, they’re not.  None of them can be mentioned in the same breath as Kind Of Blue, Ziggy Stardust, The Doors, OK Computer, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Random Access Memories, etc, … the stuff you really want to play when the booze has run out and your audiophile buddies have all gone home.

Wait a minute.  “Random Access Memories”??  I did NOT write that!

No.  What I’d want - what we ALL want - is an an album of really good music, showcasing first rate material, serious-shit musicians, and a producer who won’t settle for sound that falls short of demonstration quality.  I’d want an album that I’d enjoy listening to even if it was only on my car stereo.  I’d want an album I’d find myself humming all the time.  I’d want an album I can play to friends without having their eyes roll.  In fact, they would like it so much they would ask me what it was.  And I’d tell them - it’s Jenna Mammina’s “Close Your Eyes”.

I downloaded Close Your Eyes from Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records store, “Downloads Now!” (exclamation mark included).  If you don’t know who Cookie Marenco is, you’re either no audiophile, or you’re living under a rock.  She’s been in the music business since … a long time ago.  I imagine she must have recorded “Nobody Does It Better”, because nobody does, although she would have been about 3 at the time.  Now she has her fair share of “honestly-crafted and heart-felt folk singers”, and all kidding aside, some of them are seriously, seriously good, and her catalog, while limited, is as good as any in the no-compromises audiophile market.  But I don’t think she has any four-necked guitar virtuosos (actually, if there are any, Todd Garfinkel is probably recording them).

Occasionally, when the budget is there, Cookie will show you what the extra dollars can bring, whether that is the cost of talented session musicians, or the cost of the extra studio time required to assemble a multi-tracked recording.  And you should know that the caliber of session musicians Cookie can assemble includes folks who won’t even return your phone call ... in fact their agents won't even return your phone call.  Jenna Mammina is a talented singer who inhabits the middle-of-the-road pop scene most readily identified with Norah Jones.  Jones is a superstar whereas Mammina is not.  Such are the vagaries of the music business.  Listening to Close Your Eyes, you
might wonder why.

Close Your Eyes is a sort of “Best Of” album, comprising tracks taken from different recordings Cookie has made for Jenna going back about ten years.  Mostly these are recorded to 2” analog tape, although a couple were recorded directly to DSD.  For “Close Your Eyes” the original tapes were remastered to DSD256 using the very latest Pyramix equipment.  The results are quite astonishing.  Most tracks comprise Jenna on vocals, backed by Bass, Drums, Keyboards, and assorted other instruments including Guitar, Soprano Sax, and Accordion.  Most of the instruments are recorded and mixed with a light touch, the whole album having a seriously laid-back feel, but the bass - OOH, THE BASS - is just spectacular.  I don’t mean Jaco Pastorius spectacular.  I mean absolutely flawless technique, a musical approach that doesn’t intrude, an instrument of the highest caliber, and a recording technique that captures it all perfectly.  You might argue that it is mixed about 6dB too high, but then maybe you just don’t appreciate tasty bass.

From the very first track you are enveloped by the music.  A laid-back take on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work”, it immediately sets the tone for the album.  The arrangement is slick, highlighted by a soprano sax solo, and suits Jenna’s breathy vocal to a tee.  Immediately, you are aware that you are in the presence of serious musicians.  Next comes “Lotus Blossom” an old track from the 40’s, brilliantly evoking a Parisian Boulevard with a dash of accordion.  It all comes together so well.  “You Can Close Your Eyes” is a James Taylor song, with Jenna accompanying herself on piano.  As she invites you to close your eyes, there is little else that you want to do in that moment.

Next up, and quite possibly the best cover I have heard of it, is Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”.  I’m sure Costello himself would approve.  The vocal delivery manages to evoke a hint of hip-hop drawl which gives it a contemporary vibe.  Chris Izaak’s “Wicked Game” is the only track on the album that at first seems out of place.  Just Jenna with a simply plucked guitar accompaniment, but somehow I find myself thoroughly drawn into it.  I think it is all down to how artfully the vocal is delivered, and the empty sound of the guitar just catches the emotion perfectly.  “Running To Stand Still” from U2’s Joshua Tree album is probably the most ambitious track on the album.  But arena rock does not translate so well to the intimate cafe-lounge setting, and you find yourself waiting for a slow-building climax that simply isn’t delivered.

Dr. John’s “Pictures and Paintings” is offered as a straightforward jazz standard with piano trio, but segues into my favourite song on the album, Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”.  Just Jenna accompanied by piano, a great song, sung with great feeling.  It’s odd that, on an album notable for its instrumental mixes, I should pick out the simplest one, but such is life.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is another James Taylor offering presented as a soulful jazz number.  Once again we have that delicious bass playing, the laid-back drum licks, and the keyboards doing their classic Hammond thing.  What’s not to love.  The album closes with “When I’m Called Home”, an Abbey Lincoln song, taken from an album Jenna did of Abbey Lincoln covers.  Abbey Lincoln? You might well ask.

So this is one seriously good album.  The songs are of a uniformly high standard, and quite frankly, is easily as good as anything from the Norah Joneses of this world.  I have played it hard and often.  Even my wife nodded appreciatively, which doesn’t happen all that often.  In fact she asked me to turn it up, which NEVER happens.  And despite having all those strikes against it, it stands as an absolute reference when it comes to recording quality.  I love it.