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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

JUNE IN THE FIELDS

Fidelio Music FALP044 (2013, Sept.)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 9.0/ B

Category: contemporary folk
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
 
Jean-Michel Renaud – vocals and guitar
Mélissa Brouillette – vocals
Sébastien Saliceti – double bass

Additional credits:

René Laflamme – recording, 'mixing' and mastering engineer
Recorded at Planet Studios in Montréal, Québec, Canada 

Bernie Grundman – lacquer cutting engineer in Hollywood, California
Pressed at Philips' former pressing plant in Holland

Michel Bérard – photography


Let's face it: opposites attract. What else would be more extreme, than combining a pipe organ and brass quintet for a colossal classical work in a big church, in contrast with capturing a simple folk duo strutting in the fields. Fidelio begs to answer that question by taking up the challenge. From Holst's majestic Planets performed admirably by Mélanie Barney and the Buzz Brass quintet two years ago, we are now jettisoned to June in the Fields' debut album.

When label founder and recording engineer René Laflamme asked if I would be interested in reviewing his latest project, I enthusiastically but relunctantly said yes. Why the latter you may wonder? Loyal readers will remember that I wholeheartedly recommended the aforementioned Barney-Buzz LP, giving it one of my all time highest ratings. That was not always the case with previous Fidelio recordings. Not that they didn't meet many of the traditional 'audiophile standards' in resolution and such but I found they had not yet hit the 'big leagues' prior to that recording. In addition the sound aesthetics did not tickle my fancy, in the same way that low-efficient narrow baffles neither cut it with me. Just like in loudspeaker design where there are many schools of thought, such is the case with sound recording; consider me more a 'disciple' of the Roy DuNann-Contemporary school with its strong emphasis on close intimacy as oppose to loads of distant and reverberant decay that a certain audiophile segment crave. With that reference organ LP, Laflamme had struck the perfect ratio between proximity and venue grandeur in the great Mercury 'Living Presence' tradition and by that same token set the bar quite high–possibly even 'trapping himself'–regarding future projects. The question remains could he uphold this superior level of excellence on this latest 'labor of love' exploring another end of the musical spectrum?


Attending the 2014 Salon Son & Image in Montréal Québec, I had the pleasure of meeting briefly the young duo consisting of Jean-Michel Renaud on vocals and guitar and Mélissa Brouillette on vocals only. Mélissa exuberated an innocent smile and simplicity while Jean Michel without any pretension or fanfare began tickling the ivories. They were sharing the same room as Laflamme and others presenting high end componants. Unfortunately I missed one of their live acoustic sets which I was told by a trusted colleague had impressed him greatly, in effect convincing him to buy their record on the spot. They met about a year and a half ago and are a team since; hence June in the Fields was born.


He has travelled extensively, guitar strapped to his back, making stops and friends along the way in Europe, India and Pakistan; taking inspiration from the deep musical riches of these cultures, always happy to return to Québec where he shares his passion in many settings and venues. Music has always played an important part of her world also; discovering her love for singing at a very young age and persuing her studies first in the classical domain in college and more recently towards jazz at university in Montréal, where you can catch her performing on a regular basis. Sébastien Saliceti on double bass lent a hand on some of the songs.

 
On their self-titled debut, the pair chose to express their feelings in the contemporary folk tradition. This second folk revival appeared towards the late 1950s and rose to prominence throughout the following decade coinciding with the war protests and civil rights movement. Headed by such luminaries as Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; Simon & Garfunkel and CSNY; cross-pollination eventually would produce folk rock, country folk and soft rock offspring. The coming of age of the singer-songwriter in the early to mid-1970s exemplified by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carol King and Cat Stevens showed the shift from war and world issues to a more introspective approach. Naturally these Canadian, American and British influences did not stop at the border and were in fact well received in the duo's home province and native French language. Québec's own progressive folk group Harmonium–led by Serge Fiori–dominated the close-knit music scene back in the day. Closer to us in time, Jack Johnson brought a breath of fresh air at the turn of the Millennium combining fresh melodies and arrangements and along with the latter group, exemplary sonics.

 
In prior projects, Laflamme was mainly working in hi-res digital from the initial sound take to the final mastering to be offered either on CD, USB key or high quality downloads. The 'Planets production though recorded at 24/96 and later upsampled to DSD under Fidelio's X2HD proprietary process introduced three new elements to the story: 1/4 inch analog tape via a tubed Ampex reel to reel deck–as source for the cutting lathe–a master lacquer and obviously vinyl LPs. One could view this as a hybrid or transitionary phase. For this project he went even further by taking the purist pursuit to the ultimate conclusion: no digital, purely analog from beginning to end. It is a return to how things were done before Soundstream Incorporated introduced digital via Telarc way back in 1978. Ironically they were ahead of the game–at least in digital–both in sound and technical matters boasting a 50 kHz sampling frequency instead of Philips and Sony's red book 44.1 kHz limit adopted for the Compact Disc two years later. Digital proponents will argue that we have moved way beyond that point in this age of HDtracks and near-infinite conversion numbers while die-hard analog fans swear that 'cutting it up' anyway you want it remains once too many.

In total, seven microphones were used to capture the live–non overdubbed–studio performance. Starting with the guitar: a pair of Schoeps M 222 condensers in quasi-ORTF configuration placed some 14 inches from it. These 'pencil' type tube mics have a detachable capsule and their power supply can be run on either normal AC mains or 12V DC; here they were fitted with the cardio capsule and run on a 12V battery for superior performance, isolated from any electrical interference. For the non-amplified double bass: the elegant reissue of the Telefunken ELA M 251 E, originally built from 1960 to 1965.


This large diaphram multi-pattern sought-after mic based on the classic U47 was made by AKG in response to Neumann GmbH not renewing their distribution deal, following cessation of the Telefunken VF14 steel pentode tube. The 6072a tubed condenser sports omni, figure-8 and cardio patterns; this last one chosen here. For Jean-Michel's vocals: another 1960s classic, the tubed Neumann U67–a successor to the U47 with less emphasis in the presence region; considered by many to be the all time favorite 'pop' vocal mic. Mélissa's vocals were handled by a Neumann M149; more modern than the aforementioned mics, it provides no less than nine different patterns and being transformeless is claimed to be more transparent to the source, thus no vintage sweetening or EQ tonal shaping to compensate. Both singer's capsules were switched to cardio and naturally close-mic'ed. Finally, Contemporary engineer Roy DuNann's favorite mic, a pair of tubed AKG C12's–set to omni about two feet apart and parallel to each other–were added for room ambiance approximately 15 feet away.


Mic preamps were a Millennia M2-B and the highly revered Pendulum MDP-1; both pure class A tube transformerless designs. Vocals were treated to a tiny amount of EMT 240 reverb plate–the smaller version of the original 140–plus the classic LA2A tube leveling limiter/compressor of the early 1960s. Not surprisingly these vintage 'toys' have been renewed since then in plug-in form but Laflamme stuck to the 'real thing'. Everything was mixed or rather balanced through the Neve A6610–a custom 8078; its output 'printed' on 2 track 1/4 inch analog RGMi SM 468–a reissue of the BASF/EMTEC 468, a high bias tape popular with Nagra machines which Laflamme used a lot in the beginning–at 15 ips on his vintage Ampex 354 tube recorder with no noise reduction. Recorded at Planet Studios in Montreal; with adjacent brick and wood walls; hardwood floors adorned with beautiful persian carpets; comfortable seating furniture and warm lighting; it provided a cozy and creative atmosphere for the artists and engineers.

 
The master tape was sent to Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood, California, who had cut their previous Holst organ LP. Having done a superb job, it was only logical to stick with them. For this project the lacquers were cut 'flat' with no tweaking at 33 1/3 rpm, then shipped to Holland to create the stampers for the pressings. These were done at Philips' former pressing plant, recognized for its silent pressings throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

 
The stock carton is plain regular and not to tight for the inner sleeve but far from anything deluxe. Photographer Michel Bérard went with an understated graphic design of quasi-monochrome tone. Both front and back covers capture the duo from behind strolling in the fields and up a country road at close and far distance respectively, reflecting the subdued mood of the album. A matching monochrome semigloss insert sheet presents the artists and their respective bios with credits in French and English plus two small photos of them as well as the Ampex 354 recorder on one side and the song lyrics on the flip side. The record is well protected in a non-flimsy white paper sleeve with fixed poly-film inside to warn off any scratches during insertion/removal while loose enough not to increase static; basically the ideal choice in my opinion. Both labels duplicate a portion of the back cover with the Fidelio logo at the bottom. All things considered, the presentation is ok but a tad underwhelming when compared to their gatefold Planets double-LP or some competing labels.

The credits list Bernie Grundman as the cutting engineer when after closer inspection, Chris Bellman is more likely to be the reality based on the 'CB' dead wax inscription; no doubt a slip-up due to the fact the latter is part of Grundman's mastering team along with engineers Brian Gardner and Patricia Sullivan. Bellman chose a groove lateral spacing of just over 2 3/4 inches of linear cutting displacement for both side A and B; leaving sufficient 'wax' not to entice inner groove distortion. At about 21 min. for side A and 18 min. for side B, this translates to approx. 7.5 min./inch and 6.5 min./inch respectively. Given the music style and sound spectra, the single 33 1/3 rpm format seems adequate. The 180 gram LP was rigid, straight and shiny with sharp edges typical of euro pressings vs the curvier-edge RTI pressings and minutely off-centered which may increase wow depending on arm geometry, cartridge compliance and one's own sensitivity to pitch variations. Both sides were flawlessly black with no scratches, blemishes, scuffing or press residues as one would always wish for but rarely gets. The varying groove patterns were beautiful to contemplate under the light and inspired visual confidence.

 
"Andaman Sea" opens the album in an uptempo country-flavoured track with blue-grass seasonings. Shades of Harmonium's "Dixie" from their second album Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison [Célébration CEL 1900] permeate along the way and make it the 'catchiest' song of the album. Jean-Michel's playing style is attractively light, agile and fast with a high degree of fluidity and finesse. Alas, his singing does not reach that same level of sophistication, in range nor in richness and there is no mistaking his 'French Québécois' accented English that left me a bit ambivalent; then again some may find it charming. Saliceti's double bass rhythmically accompanies him and perhaps because of the latter role, sounds slightly soft. While not 'stealing the spotlight', a bit more precision and articulation on his string fingering would be welcomed. On the other hand the guitar and vocal parts are very natural in tone with striking dynamics and strong presence respectively. The U67 and its placement relative to the singer brings uncanny honesty and truth of timbre. The close miking provides great clarity and proximity; bewildering to the extent you can hear throat inflexions with minimal sibilance placing this recording high up the ladder in raw vocal realism.

The guitar is almost on an equal footing with plenty of wood body resonances, soundboard percussive effects and fretboard-finger glissandi, all of which are too often missing from recordings usually leaving behind an emasculated guitar impression. To nitpick, I would have prefered to hear a bit more of the string's upper harmonic content relative to the 'boxier sounds' which were somewhat unbalanced in decay and level. The absence of any compression on the instrument allows wonderful dynamic shifts with startling speed, spontaneity and realism.


 
"Maryann" changes the mood and is more reflective of the rest of the album in tempo and feel. The string riff reminds me of "Pour un Instant", another classic from Harmonium's 1974 self-titled debut [Célébration CEL 1893]; itself borrowing heavily from The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun". On this track his singing is much more convincing, captured with outstanding sound intimacy as if he was singing just for me, only a few away. Mélissa makes her entrance; the pair sing in unison with wonderful bloom expanding in the soundstage. Her sweet and soft timbre is very delicate without any obvious accent and captured with great purity by the 'non-editorialising' nature of the M149. I found this song to be my favorite for its tender and lovely angelic ambiance as well as the most sonically impressive of the album; demo material for sure when promoting sound intimacy at its maximum.
 
"Summer Road" sees him singing solo again. I found the chorus and vocal delivery to be weaker on this track.
 
 
"Back in the Country" sees the return of Mélissa. The title is appropriate given the country-blues-folk influence recurring in some parts of the song; you can almost imagine the old steam engine on the tracks among the cotton fields belonging to a long gone era. An interesting musical bridge changes the atmosphere. She also gets to explore more of her vocal range by climbing the scale and here again the vocals are rendered oh so natural. This is another solid track that stands out. Nit-picking once more, I would have ever so slightly changed the level ratio of the three tracks, mixing the guitar and her voice a bit higher and his a smidgen lower.

"With You That I Wanna Grow" closes side A. There is no inner groove distortion apparent but I noticed a small degree of pitch variation in some of the string strumming in relation to the off-centering that I speculate is more pronounced as the groove radius decreases towards the center. This could be viewed by a slight swaying in and out of the tonearm. Again, arm geometry may play a role in the perceived effect and it did not offend to the extent of detracting from my listening enjoyment.


Flipping sides has "Your Grandmother's Wedding Ring" followed by "Big Plans"; "Dragonfly (Beautiful Day for Writing Songs)" and lastly "Computer by the Window (I Won't Surrender)". The level of composition, performance and sound quality are sufficiently constant and close to par with the previous songs that it would be redundant to dissect each one separately. If you liked side A, chances are you will like side B as much.

Both sides were dead silent regarding vinyl noise floor while tape hiss was barely audible to non-existant during and between tracks; this despite no form of noise reduction being used while probably 'hitting' the high bias tape harder compared to other formulations. This implies also that the near-all tube equipment had extremely good signal to noise ratio from beginning to end; putting an end to the false theory that analog and tubes are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis digital and solid state silence. The change of pressing plant is a major improvement in terms of ticks and pops over the previous LP projects but the slight off-centering–due to the 'punching' of the stamper I speculate–would mandate in the future stricter approval based on the test pressing before giving the 'green light' for the pressings.

The general sound of the LP is very close to a direct-to-disc recording with barely a hint of tape insertion or sweetening; which to my ears is still the closest you will get to the real thing. More so than DSD where I do find more resolution and openness than red book CD but still lacking in palpability, presence and solidity vs vinyl. That said, do not expect the typical warm overdubbed 16 track of a 1970 A&M first pressing of Cat Stevens or Grateful Dead's American Beauty on an 'olive green' Warner Bros. Even Jack Johnson's 2005 In Between Dreams [Brushfire B0004149-01]–mastered by Bernie no less–while very well balanced and nuanced shows more compression and studio 'sweetening' which some audiophiles may prefer than the 'rawer' though never harsh presentation found here.


So the steaks were quite high. Does Fidelio's June in the Fields' debut release live up to its prior LP project? The music and circumstances are so vastly different that a simple answer is nearly impossible. On the one hand engineer René Laflamme has up the ante by eliminating any digital conversion or infiltration in the full tube analog chain–save for the Neve board–and utilising 'la creme de la creme' of vintage and modern gear with good taste I might add. On the other hand, this seems like a promising debut for the young duo but future releases should focus on refining the lyrical and musical diversity as well as the composer's vocal delivery. It would be interesting also to leave a larger space for Mélissa Brouillette to shine while Jean-Michel Renaud explores more the guitar facet.


Thus, with some minor caveats, another reference in sound is born but on a smaller scale.
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