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John Lennon – Imagine (HFPA Blu-Ray Review)

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John Lennon – Imagine (HFPA Blu-Ray Review)

Imagine is one of those must-own albums whereby a collection cannot be complete without it. It is, in my opinion, a representation of Lennon’s greatest work. While I acknowledge this isn’t a greatest hits release, and therefore only presents an era of his work, I’ve yet to come across another album by Lennon that offers such polish and perfect song placement. I honestly wish I could say the same about Double Fantasy, but the switching between Lennon and Ono is maddening. I personally never feel connected to that album and I believe it would have been more appropriate to have Lennon on side A, with Ono on side B. That said, I can understand the concept and artistry of the album, I just choose to listen to it differently and therefore I don’t foresee ever owning Double Fantasy on vinyl.

Imagine, however, is an album that I’m sure many people own on multiple formats and while I currently only have the High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray (HFPA) release, I would love to own the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) edition from 2000. The MFSL edition is quite rare and those who own it would certainly not be looking to get rid of it; unless I was prepared to pay a small fortune. For the moment, I will have to be content with my HFPA Blu-ray release that scores an average dynamic range of 12, compared to the MFSL edition which is a 13 out of 20. Dynamic range scores, especially this close, are nothing to be too concerned over, but I have consistently found MFSL releases to be superior when compared to the original record industry release.

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Thankfully, despite the less than stellar success and support for the HFPA format, the HFPA edition is still available. While I highly recommend it, if you prefer buying digital music, the exact same mastering (Abbey Road Studios, 2010) is available on HDtracks. The HFPA release does come with an MP3 download code for the album and while I appreciate this added extra, it is somewhat pointless. Record labels need to remember who they are targeting their products to and while an MP3 is essential, the option for additional audiophile formats would have garnered more interest amongst buyers. That said, in a modern society where TIDAL Hi-Fi’s CD-quality stream surpasses the quality of an included MP3, this inclusion and subsequent exclusion of higher resolution downloads is somewhat moot. Yes, I acknowledge TIDAL Hi-Fi is not currently offering better than CD-quality, but I have to be completely honest and say that it is good enough. It is important to mention that the edition of Imagine, on TIDAL et al, is also from the same 2010 mastering sessions. Therefore, perceivable differences in audio quality can be attributed to the unique artefacts of the varied compression formats.

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The HFPA Blu-ray release presents the album, with no video content, in LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation), DTS HD Master Audio, and Dolby TrueHD formats. Subjectively, I like the additional low-end that is present with the DTS HD Master Audio format, so that is my go to option, with Linear PCM (LPCM) being the default. While there is no video content on the disc, listeners are able to enjoy the iconic photograph with Lennon at the piano. I generally choose to listen to my HFPA collection in headless mode, whereby the video aspect is completely disabled. That said, it is nice to occasionally sit back and watch the tracks highlight as the album progresses.

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The disc design sees Lennon looking up at the clouds. While many would say that digital formats are not as collectable as the vinyl equivalent, it is good to see the music industry not skimping on disc design. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the film industry with their generic blue, grey, or black Blu-ray coloured discs. Let’s just hope that the music industry maintains certain qualities and expectations. That said, I am concerned given Paul McCartney’s Flowers In The Dirt Deluxe Edition will feature a digital download, upon release in March 2017, instead of a physical disc for a considerable portion of the b-side tracks. Digital music is wonderful for convenience, but I’d even have to question if high-res digital downloads can truly replace a physical collection. Perhaps it would have been a different story if technologies, such as iTunes LP, had become more mainstream. The music industry and Apple clearly lost interest in the format and while it isn’t touted as a reason for the vinyl resurgence, it can’t be denied either.

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While I acknowledge my digression, it is for good reason as I feel too many releases are rushed to market in order to generate sales, without offering appropriate value. Thankfully, Imagine is one of the better designed HFPA’s releases.

It is encouraging to see production credits for the 2010 remastering project, but they have not included any technical information relating to the original sources used. While the majority of fans won’t care about this information, those purchasing audiophile formats certainly do.

Overall, the HFPA album is superbly crafted and I absolutely love the white bar, on the left hand side, of this re-issue series. This similar design element has been used on many of The Beatles and Paul McCartney re-issues as well. It is simple, yet classy, while not being detrimental to the original artwork. The included booklet does include photographs from the era, lyrics, and a short background story related to the album. It also still contains the much talked about parody photograph in which Lennon is holding a pig by the ears, mimicking McCartney’s RAM cover. Of course, this wasn’t the only stab Lennon had towards McCartney on Imagine, as How Do You Sleep? was inspired by the bitterness between, arguably, the world’s greatest songwriting duo. Of course, there is no need to feel sorry for McCartney as he gave as good as he got with the song Too Many People. While some may disapprove of artists airing their differences in this manner, I’m glad both musicians took this path as I feel these songs have added significantly to their catalogues.

Perhaps the only aspect that will leave fans question the validity of this release is the absence of Lennon’s quad mix, along with a 5.1 remix of the album. To my knowledge, the last time Imagine was released with the quadraphonic mix was in 1974. Other than the obscurity of the quadraphonic format, I see no reason as to why the quad mix was not included as modern technologies can handle the 4.0 surround sound protocol. Even DVD-Audio and SACD can easily reproduce quadraphonic masterings. While I don’t have any answers for you, regarding these omissions, I would much prefer to have an exceptional 2.0 mix, rather than a plethora of different mixes. That said, I’d love to hear the quadraphonic edition of the album.

Imagine is iconic and is easily one of the most recognisable songs in the world. Despite the popularity of the song, I don’t feel it has ever reached a state of dislike by listeners. Some of you may disagree, but I truly feel Imagine is timeless.

Crippled Inside is pure twang and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it works extremely well with Lennon’s style. While it isn’t amongst my favourite songs, I don’t dislike it either. I find that it is perfectly suited in the album format, but I personally wouldn’t seek it out on its own.

Jealous Guy offers a switch of pace that is closer in musicality to Imagine than Crippled Inside. I personally enjoy this song as it continues to build musically as the song progresses. There is reverb throughout that I would generally dislike, but I thoroughly enjoy it on this track.

It’s So Hard offers blues/jazz/country/pop and rock influences in a single song. I love it!

I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die is a song I find to be somewhat repetitive and is the only song on their entire album that doesn’t resonate with me. It just doesn’t develop beyond the introduction in both musicality and lyrical expression. I enjoy the groove, but I find it to be about 3 minutes too long. Truth be told, it could have been an excellent radio-length song.

Gimme Some Truth is an intriguing song that is raw, yet highly evolved. The almost spoken word lyrical delivery, with a harmonising background instrumental is exceptional. While my brain doesn’t want to match the beat of the music, I find that my mind connects with Lennon’s vocal delivery. The truth is, I really don’t know why I enjoy this song, but I do.

I absolutely adore Oh My Love.

How Do You Sleep? is Lennon’s opus to McCartney. Despite the controversy, the song is one of the best in Lennon’s catalogue, with one of the greatest guitar recordings available on any record of the era. Perhaps my only dislike is the drum beat. It sounds too perfect, as if it were played on a drum machine, or to a click track. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I feel the drum track is somewhat lifeless as a result. While it does amplify the performance of Lennon’s vocal and associated musical elements, I would have liked to see a livelier drum beat. That said, I couldn’t imagine listening to the song with another drumming style.

How? is simply gorgeous from the first note.

Oh Yoko! is an excellent song to finish the album on. It is fun, upbeat, and the ultimate homage to Lennon’s muse. I love Phil Spector’s harmony backing vocal as it gives the song a unique dimension. Oh Yoko! is so well suited to close Imagine that I always feel compelled to play the album again, or stay within Lennon’s catalogue.

Imagine is arguably Lennon’s greatest work. While you could point to a number of exceptional songs, such as Woman, Happy Xmas (War Is Over), and Working Class Hero, that were not part of the Imagine era, as a body of work Imagine is perfect. While I own a copy of Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon, I don’t recommend it as I have always been disappointed by the mastering of the compilation. That said, it is a wonderful collection of his best works, but I would still personally recommend starting with Imagine and then expanding to his other works if you have yet to be drawn in by the legend that is John Lennon.

From a sonic perspective, the HFPA release is my idea of perfection. However, as I mentioned earlier, the mastering of Imagine is uniform across all post-2010 releases and therefore I can attest that TIDAL Hi-Fi is equally enjoyable, as is Spotify Premium, when compared to the HFPA release. The true difference is now down to how resolving your audio playback equipment is and the compression formats used. While this consistency may not appear to be significant to the non-audiophile, it is encouraging to see the music industry, at times, adopting consistency with regards to mastering. Despite this, I have no doubt that fans of the album will compare the 2010 mastering session to various past masters, including the often touted superior quad release. While I can’t directly compare the HFPA release, to an earlier mastering of the album, I can say that I am extremely happy to have this edition in my collection.

The HFPA Blu-ray edition is still available and Imagine can also be purchased on Vinyl, CD, iTunes, in lossless 16/44 FLAC at the TIDAL Store, and in audiophile 24/96 from HDtracks.

You can also stream the album on TIDAL Hi-Fi, Spotify, and Apple Music.

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George Michael – Symphonica (HFPA Blu-Ray Review)

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George Michael – Symphonica (HFPA Blu-Ray Review)

There is little doubt regarding George Michael’s musical talent, but I have not always had such a high opinion of him. It wasn’t until I heard his 2014 live release Symphonica, that my opinion began to change.

Yes, I am one of those individuals that would roll their eyes every time their significant other wanted to listen to Wham!, but since purchasing Symphonica, I have also picked up The Best Of Wham!. I would be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed it. To be completely honest, I love it! While I still believe the ‘boy-band’ is a money grab for record labels who exploit musicians and their often young fan base, a lot of them do have excellent songs, including Wham! However, we’re not hear to talk about the origins of George Michael, but a relatively rare release of new material by an exceptional artist.

Perhaps it would be better to refer to this release as newish material given the live Symphonica performances, recorded between 2011-12, are a collection of well known covers with a half dozen original songs thrown into the mix. Quite amazingly, these covers mix perfectly with Michael’s own works and, Symphonica is fluid masterpiece without bad track to be found. So good, in-fact, that I would say this album is my favorite release of 2014. If there is a negative to be found, it would be the sibilance in Michael’s vocals. That said, Michael’s vocal talents have always had a fair amount  of sibilance, so I look upon it as artistic license.

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The version of Symphonica I own is the High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray (HFPA) release. It is important to note that this Blu-ray release is audio only, with no video. It does however show the cover artwork, song list, and audio format selection on the display when the disc is spinning. An example of this is shown below:

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Personally, I don’t mind that there is no video content as the audiophile in me cares more about the mastering and audio quality than any live video of the performance. In-fact, despite being a fan of music videos and live performances through the 90s, I find that in the past decade and a half, I have become less interested in these aspects of the music industry. Perhaps it is that the single is no longer being sold with an accompanying music video. I guess I prefer to listen, rather than watch. That said, each option offers a unique experience that is subjective to the individual.

As usual, I digress, the sonic performance is incredible and playing the album in DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/96kHz is as close to having a private audience with George Michael as I’m ever going to get. I prefer playing all my HFPA albums in DTS, but you will need to ensure your Blu-ray player can either decode, or bitstream the data along to an amplifier that can then decode the DTS audio stream. Thankfully, my Oppo BDP-103 and Bose Lifestyle 235 Series II systems are up to the task. PCM is also available and is adequate, but I much prefer the low end boost that is a trademark of the DTS sound. Dolby True HD is there too, but I’ve yet to be impressed by that encoding format, so I just don’t use it. If you’re a Dolby TrueHD fan, let me know what you think the benefits are against DTS and PCM along with what I should be listening for.

The packaging adequately presents the album, but I find the print quality of the cover is substandard, especially when compared to the included booklet. It is just dull and lifeless by comparison and most probably produced at the end of a print run, or on a setup that was calibrated differently.

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The booklet showcases a number of photographs from the live performances, but other than album credits, lyrical liner notes are not included. Given the majority of songs on the album are covers, this is understandable as gaining permissions for reproduction would have been a chore in itself. Not to mention, I don’t recall any live albums including lyrics. Do you know of any?

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The disc itself is presented in black on black, reminiscent of AC/DC’s Back In Black album and Metallica’s self-titled ‘black album’ Metallica. I like the subtleness of this styling, but I’m not sure it suits this album. Included in the HFPA release is a download code for the MP3. Yes, I don’t know why they bother adding this either. Okay, it is a value added offer, but where is my FLAC version of the album? Some HFPA releases give this option, but it is certainly not included on the majority of releases. This is one reason why I still love the SACD Hybrid format. It is a standard Redbook CD, when played on any CD player, and a high resolution disc when played on a compatible SACD player. Honestly, I'm amazed that the SACD format never replaced CD as it offers the best of both worlds.

That all said, let's take a look at the songs shall we?

Through is a George Michael original (from Patience) and it is a beautifully peaceful song to start the album with. The guitar strumming introduction, intermingled with vocals, sets the scene as Michael progresses in vocal range towards the the chorus. In this song, as in all, the orchestral backing is subtile and adds to the song. It reminds me of how much I adore Metallica’s S&M album as again, the orchestra takes their music in a different direction whereby one could easily say that that is how their music should have sounded all along. In a similar way, I don’t know as I want to listen to a new George Michael album without a backing orchestra. It is a perfect fit.

My Baby Just Cares For Me is upbeat and jazzy. It is a song that would do any jazz club in New Orleans proud. The horn section in this song is perfectly balanced and I appreciate this as sometimes the brashness of that instrument can overpower a song.

A Different Corner slows things down with gorgeous vocals and acoustic guitar and bass strumming. It is a simple and uncomplicated rhythm, but one that highlights Michael’s vocal capabilities. This is another George Michael original datIng back to the mid-80s and the final Wham! release, Music From The Edge Of Heaven.

Praying For Time was originally the lead single on Michael’s second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. It is an incredibly moving song and one that I would say rivals any socially motivated song in music history.

Let Her Down Easy is a song I absolutely love. It was originally written and recorded by Terence Trent D’Arby on his album Symphony Or Damn. The song is just so soothing, especially as it is presented in a lullaby style. George Michael performs it beautifully.

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is an absolute classic and one of the best renditions of the song I have ever heard.

Feeling Good has to be one of the best songs to ever include wind instruments. It is epic! George Michael performs this tune beautifully and certainly has the vocal range to pull it off. That said, I still love Nina Simone’s version on I Put A Spell On You.

John And Elvis Are Dead is a homage to fallen artists that have changed and influenced so many creative individuals. It is a good song that was first featured on Michael’s album Patience, but I’m not sure how I feel about the song in general. As part of an album experience, it works, but as a song on its own, I’m not so sure.

Any fan of Sting and The Police will love Michael’s version of Roxanne. Michael plays it with a jazz styling and given that I have mixed opinions of The Police, I find that this version is exceptional and changes the relationship I have with the song.

One More Try was originally released on Michael’s highly successful debut solo album Faith. Needless to say, it is a George Michael classic and one that any fan will thoroughly enjoy.

Going To A Town is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Prior to hearing it on this release, I had never heard the song before. To say that I was completely blown away is an understatement. The original was written and recorded by Rufus Wainwright for his album Release The Stars.

Cowboys And Angels is another George Michael original from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. It is a nice jazz inspired tune, but it is the worst song on the album for Michael’s vocal sibilance.

Idol is an Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaboration from John’s 1976 album Blue Moves. It is a beautiful song that sadly hasn’t received the acknowledgement I believe it deserves. It is always wonderful to see artists cover a lesser known song and make it their own. I feel George Michael has achieved just that.

Brother Can You Spare A Dime is an American Classic and one that George Michael has recorded and previously released on Songs From The Last Century. Despite being written during the Great Depression, the song is timeless and certainly has not aged.

You Have Been Loved was originally featured on Michael’s album Older. It features some magical jazz drumming and is just a lovely ballad.

Wild Is The Wind has been recorded by some of the great performers of the world, including Johnny Mathis, Nina Sìmone, and David Bowie. It really doesn’t matter which version you listen to as the song is simply gorgeous. That said, Michael’s rendition is beyond reproach.

You’ve Changed is the final track and closes the album on a perfect jazz feel that will make you want to listen to the entire album again.

Honestly, George Michael is an amazing jazz vocalist. That certainly isn’t an opinion I ever thought I would have made, especially knowing his dance/pop recording history. It just proves that if one is truly talented, they can adapt and evolve.

Symphonica is about as good as it gets. It is recorded and mastered with superb precision and the selection of songs is perfect for any mood, or time of day. It is an album that you simply must own, or at the very least listen to.

Symphonica is available on Vinyl, HFPA (Blu-Ray), CD, and TIDAL Hi-Fi.

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Daily Spin: The Albums I Listened To Today

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Daily Spin: The Albums I Listened To Today

I listen to a wide range of music everyday and what better way to share that with you than a quick daily post highlighting the albums I have listened to, along with a standout track.

Please feel free to add a list of what you have been listening to today in the comments section.  

Alice Cooper – The Last Temptation (CD)

One of Cooper’s greatest albums in my opinion. Lost In America is superb, but sometimes I wish it was Lost In Australia. Bottom line: it is a fun song and an album that must be heard.

Available on TIDAL Hi-Fi.

Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto (HFPA Blu-Ray)

I have a sweet spot for Jazz. This somewhat self-titled Getz/Gilberto album is amongst my most treasured and a favourite track is the smooth O Grande Amor.

Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life (HFPA Blu-Ray)

What can be said about Stevie Wonder and Songs In The Key Of Life that hasn’t already been said. Nothing! It is a must listen for all music fans, especially the song Saturn.

Available on TIDAL Hi-Fi.

Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators – World On Fire (Vinyl)

This third semi-solo release by Slash is exceptional. The band, both touring and studio, have a great chemistry that culminates in The Unholy.

Available on TIDAL Hi-Fi.

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