Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rough Mix

The ability of music to instantly and powerfully remind us of a very specific time in our life is one of its most magical qualities. For me “Rough Mix” will always be inextricably linked to a drive between Indianapolis and Lexington Kentucky with my friend and former boss Duke. There’s nothing like a road trip with good tunes to get to know someone. He brought the album along as an evaluation tool when we were visiting the manufacturing facility of Thiel Audio. When we got back into town he lent it to me. I enjoyed it, returned it then promptly forgot all about it. Until a saw it again 8 years later, I just had to buy it.

The story began when Ronnie Lane of “The Faces” approached his friend Pete Townshend of “The Who” for a loan. Townshend declined but offers to work with Ronnie on an album instead. Initially Ronnie thought that he would produce a solo album for him but Pete had little interest in sitting behind the console. Mr. Townshend offered to do a joint album (stop your snickering DAMN IT!) and recommends Glyn Johns to produce.

Rough Mix is anything but! There are lots of layers, a virtual tapestry with everything perfectly in it’s place. For the most part it’s an intimate album with hushed, almost confessional vocals. It’s an album of quieter moments. Choosing to whisper the truth instead of scream nonsense. This is all the more surprising when one considers the number of guest musicians. None of whom try to call attention to themselves, instead they chose to contribute tastefully. Special guests include Charlie Watts of “The Rolling Stones”, Eric Clapton, John Entwistle of “The Who”, Ian Stewart sort of from “The Rolling Stones (see foot note*)”, and future Who member John “Rabbit” Bundrick.

The Pete Townshend contributions are universally strong. “My Baby Gives It Away” is mid-tempo rocker. “Misunderstood” can be said without a trace of irony to have the perfect amount of cowbell. It also contains other nice percussion touches. The harmonica also adds a nice counter point to his vocals, and what’s not to love about the chorus (“coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking.”) “Street in the City” is a nice little song about the goings on during the day on an average street with a nice little string arrangement. “Heart to Hang on to” has some nice moments of vocal interplay between the pair and a nice brass interlude. “Till The Rivers All Run Dry” is just beautiful and is a great example of a cover so perfectly chosen and performed that the artist really makes it their own.

I find the Ronnie Lane contributions less moving. The sole songwriting collaboration between Lane and Townshend is an instrumental called “Rough Mix” where Eric Clapton singularly fails to do anything interesting and John “Rabbit” Bundrick upstages everyone with his performance on the organ. “Annie” has a nice sad Irish drinking ballad feel to it, which is added to by the accordion and violin. For whatever reason his song “Catmelody” sounds like an outtake from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” intended for Meat Loaf, the sax solo really seals it too. I would add “in a bad way” to the previous sentence but I feel that it goes without saying since we‘re talking about Meat Loaf. “April Fool” really benefits from Clapton’s Dobro playing, which is a nice touch. The bonus tracks, while not essential are nice to have too. All three of the outtakes have a loose audio-vérité feel that adds to their charm.

The sound of acoustic guitars are not just strings, but the body behinds the strings and the pick against those strings. The album also has quick accurate bass, and extended shimmering cymbals. While the dynamics are not overly compressed, if they were a little more open this album would go from great for a Rock recording to exceptional for a Rock recording. The newest version of the disc is a Dual Disc that in addition to it‘s DVD-Audio layer (The DVD-A is 24/48 for surround and 24/96 for stereo. In addition it has Dolby Digital stereo and surround for backwards compatibility.) also features a short documentary. The default on the DVD-A side is multi-channel, unforgivable from the two-channel audiophile without a monitor perspective.

*He was kicked out for not being cool enough though he continued to record with them and play with them live. Maybe Mick didn’t want to split the money six ways. Sorry but I simply never pass up a chance to take a shot at Mick Jagger, even a cheap unfounded one.

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