The Golden Zone

Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Raincoat

1996, Classic Compact Discs/Private Music. Original Cypress Records, 1986.

There's a curious subset of music available that usually gets referred to as "audiophile music". These are recordings that seem to constantly get referenced when reading the reviews in magazines aimed at audiophiles. You'll find them played all over the place when you go to high-end audio shows. I normally don't buy into this whole scene; I have well-made recordings I like to use for equipment evaluation, and I am less than impressed with the music behind much of the material that is on the "approved" list for audiophile audition.

One of the most famous examples of this form is a record by the name of Famous Blue Raincoat. This well-executed rock recording from Jennifer Warnes features her singing songs by songwriter Leonard Cohen. There are some other talented people involved that I know from their other work. I've long been a fan of producer, bass, and guitar player Roscoe Beck based on his work with Eric Johnson and many other artists. There's much to like here, and it deserves much of its reputation as an excellent sounding recording. Accordingly, I was quite interested to see how this new release sounds. I got the CD; there's also an LP version available. The Bernie Grundman remastering seems to have used all the appropriate equipment to get the best possible results, from Cardas cable to Apogee A/D converters and redithering products; there's even an Audio Alchemy reclocking unit mentioned. Packaging differences are minor; you get an extra section discussion the remastering process, a pointer to the Jennifer Warnes Home Page, and a color picture of Jenny and Lenny replacing the old black and white one. For some unknown reason, Came so far for Beauty is now the last track instead of the fifth; perhaps the original was rearranged to facilitate production of the cassette version of the album.

The opening track, First we take Manhattan, is by far my favorite on the disc. The haunting guitar line from Stevie Ray Vaughn propels the song forward with momentum none of the rest of the songs can match. As soon as I heard the muttered German opening to it, I picked up one difference--there was more high frequency noise, hiss and the like. Now, it's been my experience that more noise on a remaster generally means that the upper octave has survived the mastering process better than it did on the original, and that proved to be the case throughout the disc. The bass guitar notes have more authority at the bottom end as well. Transients were all rendered better, from the decay on the trailing edge of the drums to the echo after the "Berlin" in the chorus.

Moving on to Bird on a Wire, we find much of the same improvement. The drums sound better, with more authority on the bottom going along with better snap on the edges. Actually, the increased prominence of the drums made some of the other background instruments sound more muted than the original release, even though they too seemed rendered better as well.

The title track has a more alive saxophone part, with more noise audible in the empty spaces between notes. Warnes' voice has a more full body to the lower registers in parts. Her voice sounds more realistic on all the tracks, but it's tough pick up on during the more complicated ones. During the less busy Joan of Arc, the improvements in vocals are more noticeable than on the first three songs. We also get to learn why Leonard Cohen is better known for his songwriting than his vocals. The tinkling bells at the beginning are resolved more clearly, along with the extra noise that goes along with the more extended top-end. As always, we also find the bass guitar and drums to have more punch to them here.

Since some of the minor improvements were better studied on the simpler material (in terms of number of instruments involved), Came so far for Beauty proved to be better for isolating that difference. This is quiet enough in parts that you can clearly hear the background hiss modulate. It's much more obvious that the lead vocal sounds is ehnanced here; it's more spacious. Following that logic, I skipped forward to A Singer Must Die, with it's large chorus and instrumental dearth. This proved to be, in my opinion, the most improved track. All the voices sound much more alive and real. The drum whacks at the end have more heft to them, too.

I could go into the rest of the tracks, but the pattern is pretty well set at this point. The more complicated arrangements offer the least improvement, but you do get more kick to the bottom end and resolution at the top. The songs biased toward vocals parts show off more substantial enhancement in midrange reproduction that are often obscured by the instruments. My own likes on this recording favor the big production numbers, which show only marginal improvements overall. Still, the enhancements make it easier to fall into the recording instead of just listening to it go by you, and how much is that worth? I think I'd buy this one again, knowing the magnitude of the change, but I certainly wouldn't feel that left out if I had the older version and never upgraded.

As a parting note, I had trouble finding this one at more traditional record stores. You may have to shop from those catering more to the audiophile crowd to track a copy of this one down; I ended up getting it from Music Direct.

(Check out Greg's Rock Remaster Reviews page for more reviews like these)