March 2003

Bob Marley and The Wailers - The Best of the Early Years
Silverline FIV288053DVA
Released: 2003

by Anthony Di Marco

Musical Performance ***1/2 *
Recording Quality **1/2 *
Overall Enjoyment ***

A cousin of R&B, reggae grew out of the life experiences and religious faith of the Jamaican people, who like the African slaves of North America’s cotton plantations, used song as a release from their painful lives. Today Jamaica still struggles against profound poverty and discrimination, and reggae is the voice of that struggle.

Bob Marley was one of the first artists to embrace reggae. A native Jamaican, Marley took several years to refine the reggae style, and several more years to find musicians who shared his passion and vision. By the late '60’s, Bob Marley and The Wailers were making music that connected with the Jamaican people, and by the early '70s the band was signed to Island records. The Best of the Early Years showcases the songs that started Bob Marley and The Wailers on the road to international success.

Although it isn’t spelled out on the packaging, I’m guessing that Silverline and Santuary Records redigitized Marley’s original analog masters at 24-bit/96kHz resolution. Many DVD-Audio releases simply use an upsampled version of a 16-bit/44.1kHz digital recording -- an inferior practice that adds noise to the recording. Even so, I wondered how Marley and Lee Perry’s original recordings would fare on a high-resolution format. Would the extra bits reveal even more subtlety in the very raw recordings -- or would they only serve to highlight the limits of 30-year-old recording technology?

It turns out that Marley’s dynamic voice suffers most. No amount of sweetening can compensate for microphone overload and a lack of vocal detail. As a result, I could hardly discern the lyrics on most of these songs (to be fair, I can’t say the older analog recordings are much better). For example, the vocals on "Trench Town Rock" were clipped so badly I stopped listening halfway through. Written lyrics would have helped, but, unfortunately, they are not included in the package. Given the price of DVD-A, I think it’s fair to expect a booklet with lyrics and some background information about the artist -- especially for consumers experiencing an artist for the first time.

By comparison, Marley’s music seemed to make the leap to DVD-Audio with fewer problems. Bass does sound a bit muddy and overblown at times, but the majority of percussion and stringed instruments have good weight and definition. This quality was especially true for "Soul Shakedown Party" and "I Know a Place," which helped hold together the all-important rhythm of each song.

I don’t know whether I would describe The Best of the Early Years as "stunning 5.1 surround sound," but the added depth and presence from the rear channels makes all the difference. In many cases the sound coming from the rear channels is simply a delayed version of the front-channel information and no different from what I would expect from a Dolby Pro Logic presentation. However, this added flourish provides greater depth and makes the presentation sound better than I expected.

It’s important to have perspective when judging this disc. Although its lack of refinement or "magic" may not satisfy an audiophile, it does do an admirable job resurrecting some fine music from a legendary artist. It also adds icing to the cake by delivering on multichannel audio’s promise to place the music-lover in the middle of the performance.