by Robert C Bryant on April 28, 2012


Female Vocalists: Part I

As promised, I’d like to suggest a few superb recordings which feature female vocalists. In keeping with my earlier review of various recordings of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the recordings suggested here are not only notable with respect the artistic content, but also with respect to the recording quality and their potential for exploiting the capabilities of a good-sounding audio system.

Why female vocalists? The rich variety of performers certainly gives plenty to choose from, but there is something essential about the human voice, and especially the female voice I would argue, which challenges even the best audio system to adequately reproduce it. It has been suggested that this is due to the fact that the human voice is so fundamental to human communication, that we have a heightened sense of discrimination to any anomalies in the sound of it. If that is so, a good audio system must provide a high degree of realism and presence of a well-recorded voice in order to be pleasing.

You will notice that all of my reference recordings listed here are intentionally limited to artists who are recorded without the compressed, pitch-transposed, layered, and over-produced techniques so often used with so many of today’s pop singers.

So here are some of the best I’ve heard – a partial list that I will add to in my next review. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

1. Light My Fire - Eliane Elias

Brazilian pianist/singer/composer/arranger Eliane Elias has made quite a name for herself in recent years having been nominated for multiple Grammys as well as seeing her recordings make their way near the top of Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon charts. She has a musical style that is distinctive but never strays too far from her Brazilian roots for too long. Her sometimes-sultry, sometimes-playful voice, along with her impressive compositional and piano skills, are very listenable and anything but predictable.

Light My Fire is her latest album and was released in 2011 on the Concord Picante label. The album is a great mix of more traditional Bossa-like tunes intermingled with some innovative covers of some surprising tunes such as Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, the title track, Jim Morrison and the Doors’ Light My Fire, and yes, you heard that right, a scat-over-muted-trumpet version of the Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond classic, Take Five in its original 5/4 time signature.

The instrumentation throughout the recording is limited to upright bass, acoustic piano, drum kit, percussion (of course!), acoustic and electric guitars and trumpet. The recording is superb – clean, detailed, with good imaging, presence and dynamic range. The compositions are diverse enough to maintain interest and there are some surprises as well such as the title track that is hauntingly slow with edgy overtones of a distortion-laden electric guitar, or the male/female duet of Turn to Me.

2. The Well - Jennifer Warnes

Like many, the honest clarity of Jennifer Warnes’ voice is remarkable to me. She has made a number of fine recordings throughout her long career including her homage to poet Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, the nicely recorded if somewhat over-produced The Hunter, and the subject of this review The Well.

This 2001 recording released on the Sin-Drome label includes four tracks composed by Jennifer Warnes herself as well as several covers of others’ compositions including a beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes. The recording quality of this album is exemplary – validated by the fact that it was reissued in a pricey 3-LP box set in vinyl last year. This is one of our favorite system auditioning recordings in the YFS listening room – it displays wonderful vocal presence and evokes tremendous imaging and rendition of the acoustic instruments.

3. Hymns Of The 49th Parallel – K.D. Lang Nonesuch 2004

At one time I had the impression that k.d.lang was a talented performer but had never listened to too much of her material. One night I heard her duet with Roy Orbison of his timeless song Crying and I decided I needed to explore her talents further. I just happened to purchase this recording, a collection of covers of songs all composed by fellow Canadians (such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell) released on the Nonesuch label in 2004 - I was extremely pleased with what I heard.

Like the other recordings mentioned here, Hymns is largely an acoustic recording – it is a mellow yet emotional collection of songs that relies heavily upon well-recorded vocals and sparse arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments as opposed to heavily produced or catchy top-40 renditions of these familiar songs. Highly recommended for not only its artistic interpretation and performance but for its ability to challenge your audio system to recreate the nuance of a subtle and unadorned vocal performance.

More to come…