Alanis Morissette – ‘under rug swept’ A DVD-Audio review by Nicholas D. Satullo

under rug swept’, the 2002 release from Alanis Morissette, is the first of her albums to be remixed and released on the DVD-Audio format, although recording engineer Chris Fogel is now at work on her prior albums. It was reportedly planned to be a day and date release with the CD version, but it took an additional eight months from the CD’s February 2002 release to become available.

In many respects, ‘under rug swept’ is more pageantry for the DVD-Audio format. Its sonic advantages should be evident to the skeptic, and repeated listening only reveals more examples. The sound is cleanly layered, so that vocals and instruments maintain discrete articulation, even from a single channel. The sound is palpable, whether it is the pluck of an acoustic guitar, or vocals that breathe as much as sing. There is a sense of touch that is certainly present in other formats, but not to the degree it is present here.

Many different issues come into play when attempting to assess a multi-channel recording, and it’s a challenge to accurately attribute what is heard to those varying elements – the format, the playback equipment, the resolution, the surround mix – and the music itself. ‘under rug swept’ in DVD-Audio presents a good example of the knots that require unraveling if useful discussion is to be achieved.

While the sounds march in time to render the musical presentation, there is, in DVD-Audio, the simultaneous but different presentation of the surround mix. This presentation is presumably a reflection of the judgment rendered by those involved in the mastering and surround mix, and is hopefully in confluence with what is occurring musically. ‘under rug swept’ is often dynamic, particularly in the bridges from verse to chorus, and the real “credit” for those dynamics is always a question I ask. Most is attributable to the music, but the surround mix and the heightened resolution play their part.

The fidelity of this disc is of very high standard, both the 96kHz 24-bit multi-channel and the 88.2kHz 24-bit stereo track, and that is in comparison to other DVD-Audio discs, not its counterpart CD (which I did not have on hand). My favorite cut (and I suspect the favorite of others), is ‘hands clean’, which happens to sport the phrase “under rug swept” in its second chorus, thereby providing a Morissette a title for the album, although she continues to ignore upper and lower case distinctions when naming songs. There is a great deal of the ‘right thing’ going on in the DVD-Audio presentation of this song, from the incredible detail of the acoustic guitar passages, to the low frequency channel that is at once succinct and powerful. I should add, however, that even without consideration of the discrete surround sound provided by the multi-channel format, this is a fine demonstration of multiple layers of sound from a single channel, each maintaining clarity, and each maintaining a separate identity in its dynamic relationship to the other sounds simultaneously proceeding from that channel.

Although the sound quality in all aspects is generally outstanding, its capture of vocals is especially noteworthy. If a wine critic were writing this review, the phrase “full bodied” would likely be employed. ‘flinch’, a song dominated by Morissette singing to an acoustic guitar, is an illustration of the palpable presence that often characterizes the recording of vocals in this album. Stand next to a warm oven baking bread, and you not only experience the pleasant aroma, but the heat as well. I get that type of added dimension to the impression when I listen to this disc. It creates the pleasant illusion that the sound is there not merely to be heard, but something that might also be touched.
I also liked – a lot – the song ‘surrendering’. There are a number of different guitars on this cut, both acoustic and electric, and its layers of strings are always finely detailed. The song itself is a very attractive piece of simple rock and roll, whose simplicity is also devilishly deceptive, because there is something shrewdly gifted and sophisticated in the total package being delivered. The offbeat refrain of the rhythm guitar that ends each chorus reminisces, to me, of work from the likes of Sheryl Crow or John Lennon. Musically, it holds its own with some fine rock and roll, but sonically it offers a level of quality that shows off the format well. That quality is uniform across all the offerings of this disc.

The surround mix on ‘under rug swept’ is usually appealing, usually interesting, and sometimes a little daring. While I confess to an avowed preference for surround music over two channel music, my frame of reference is comprised, at least in part, of having recoiled from the “gimmicky” early efforts (like lead vocals from the rear left speaker) that I’ve had the opportunity to observe. While I believe such excesses are really just a handful of early efforts (mostly DTS music discs, taken from older quadraphonic recordings), I am also aware that these same examples get trotted out each time that a “purist” wants to straighten the matter out by insisting on the inherent “inferiority” of surround music.

So the first mention I’ll make of a striking surround mix is from the song ‘narcissus’, which begins with a rhythm guitar cranking from only the rear left speaker. That same guitar then shifts about the surround array of speakers, but there is no notion of a gimmick in this surround mix. This is bold and obvious use of the dimensionality available in a surround array of speakers – an option simply lacking in a stereo presentation. Of course, the recording is new, so there is little tendency to judge it against an ingrained notion of what the music “should” sound like. Rather than sounding contrived, this particular example is just a fresh break in the music.

Surround formats are relatively new, and even with the failed attempts of the past included, there is still a real paucity of available material from which observations may be drawn. As I listen to a surround mix, I am intrigued by the choices made by the sound engineer, if only for where things are placed. I have admired greatly some mixes where the lead vocals are anchored only to the center channel, and not a bit of them gets heard from the front main speakers; but I’ve also heard just the opposite work very well (vocals coming from all channels except the low bass). I’ve reacted to “hokey” placement of sounds placed behind me, and I’ve likewise admired it; it all depends on the individual track. With this in mind, I found the surround mix of ‘under rug swept’ an interesting matter.

Lead vocals almost never come from the center channel exclusively. Rather, they are usually presented across the front three speakers, with emphasis on the center channel. That emphasis might merely be boosted volume to the center vocals, but it also includes the elimination of a guitar or a piano that is being carried by the front main speakers. The first cut on the album, ‘21 things I want in a lover’, begins by blasting out an electric guitar with strong vocals from the front. The room suddenly fills with more sound as the surrounds and the low bass light up at the cue of the chorus. During that chorus, there is clever counterpoint of differing rhythm guitars between the front speakers and the surrounds. In ‘precious illusions’, the center channel is occupied exclusively by Morissette’s voice during the verse; during the chorus, however, the background vocals burst from all channels except the center channel, which is suddenly the only voice-less channel, now just bass and drums.

If it’s not been apparent from my comments thus far, this disc gets all applicable stars in the category of sonic excellence. While I had an initial burst of enthusiasm upon first hearing it (which has abated somewhat), it still holds up as a showpiece disc in terms of sonic resolution, and, in many cases, the surround mix. Although it has its moments of excellent low bass, this is one of the areas in which I’ve come to notice that it falls a little short, although it is still very good.

My reaction to the music was, however, a little strange. I recall a scene from the movie ‘Broadcast News’, in which the character played by Albert Brooks is getting drunk, listening to some delightful music that, fortunately or unfortunately, was being sung in French. High school notwithstanding, I didn’t understand a word of it, but the music was compelling. The lyrics could have been a cake recipe, but it really didn’t matter because I wouldn’t have known the difference.

Therein lies my profound problem with Morissette’s music, because I understand the words. The music, which is almost always fresh, energetic, at times even sophisticated, is weighted down by lyrics that are in stark contrast.

I do not believe I am merely reacting to someone recently arrived from adolescence. Nor is it any aversion to frivolity in lyrics, since a great deal of wonderful music is preoccupied with lightweight sentiment. The difference is that Morrisette’s tone is fairly clear as an attempt to make serious statements on the world around her. What comes out is, at times, nothing short of inane and often even embarrassing.

It starts with the first cut. You know you’re in for something when you hear the checklist on ‘21 things i want in a lover’:

do you have a big intellectual capacity
but know that it alone does not equate wisdom?
do you see everything as an illusion
but enjoy it even though you are not in it?
are you both masculine and feminine?
politically aware? and don’t believe in capital punishment?

are you uninhibited in bed? more than three times a week?
up for being experimental? are you athletic?
are you thriving in a job that helps your brother?
are you not addicted?

So what’s the problem? Nothing, I suppose, if one considers it worthwhile to put an Internet quiz from ‘People’ or ‘Cosmopolitan’ to music. But that, as I said, is only the first song. In ‘narcissus’ – the second song – we begin to get a sense for the poetic firepower in these lyrics:

dear momma’s boy
I know you’ve had your butt licked by your mother
I know you’ve enjoyed all that attention from her
and every woman graced with your presence after

Following that vein, the verse concludes with “I know you’ve never really taken responsibility… I know you’ve never really listened to a woman.” She goes on, however, to deliver the great theme of her lyrics – that selfish boys are a problem in society:

dear popular boy
I know you’re used to getting everything so early
a stranger to the concept of reciprocity
people honor boys like you in this society

In ‘so unsexy’, she begins by noting that it is the “little rejections” which cause her to feel “ungood” – which, I suppose, alerts us that the title play-on-words of “under rug swept” is only another variation on some private theme of pig-latin. And, in ‘a man’, which is apparently a statement of some sort on the male condition, we find lyrics that really belong in, say, ‘This is Spinal Tap’:

I am a man as a man I’ve been told
bacon is brought to the house in this mold
born of your bellies I yearn for the cord
years I have groveled repentance ignored

While I don’t want to belabor the point any further, I will only say that the examples are legion, and I wish the lyrics were in some language I did not understand. They come a little too close to completely ruining what is otherwise good music, and an outstanding DVD-Audio disc.

There is significant extra material on this disc, primarily in the form of a documentary, ‘The Making Of Under Rug Swept’. There is a wealth of material in that documentary, including interviews with Morrissette, live shots of concerts in which she performs some of the cuts from the disc, as well as shots of the rehearsals There is extensive video of the actual studio work on the album. In all, the documentary offers an interesting glimpse into Morrissette, as well as the camaraderie that existed among those involved in the recording. Along with a photo album, and lyrics, it is one of the better bits of extra material I’ve seen on a DVD-Audio disc. For DVD-Video players the available sound options are 3/2.1 Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital 2/0.0 (stereo).

Despite my reaction to the lyrics in her music, there are too many fine things about this disc not to recommend it. From both a surround mix and resolution standpoint it is a benchmark title, and the music is generally very good as well. If someone asks for a great example of what DVD-Audio is about, this is a disc to recommend. Just tell them you never listen to the lyrics.