If someone asked me who Mobile Fidelity are, I would probably say something like this: They used to make high quality vinyl LPs and Redbook CDs (even turning them into gold discs, literally), and perform some analog mastering tricks that I never really cared to learn, just so long as I subjectively thought the disc sounded better than a true comparator – the non-MoFi disc, as it were. The company went out of business for a while, so the discs we’re getting now are from the new incarnation of Mobile Fidelity.
Pre-high resolution, I always had faith in the Mobile Fidelity titles, although I never went the vinyl route. When given the choice between a MoFi version or “regular” CD, I had heard too many pleasant efforts by Mobile Fidelity to choose the mere ordinary, not when gold was in reach. I guess that’s to say that I had Mobile Fidelity ahead a good notch on all other CD producers.
Main question for my review: Would that Mobile Fidelity advantage be demonstrated in the SACD format, albeit in two-channel form? The answer I found was, well, no, not in this case.
But first, I suppose there’s a need to mention who Blood Sweat and Tears were. As I look at their discography, it’s hard for me to argue with anyone who says that this group was a streaking comet; something that lit the sky quickly and brightly, and then was gone just as quickly. There’s an excellent biography written by Bruce Eder of AMG, which will prove far more comprehensive reading than the space here allows (it can be found here), it deals primarily with how the band was in constant state of transformation.
As an example of the SACD format, when compared universally to all other SACD discs I’ve heard (two-channel or multi-channel) ‘od Sweat and Tears 3’ is of good quality, just nothing special. But make no mistake, saying this is a “good” SACD is an endorsement…
The obstacles for this disc might have been too formidable. There is another Blood, Sweat and Tears SACD, produced by Columbia in the very early stages of the format, but it is the second album from the group – titled, simply, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’. While BS&T was still “capable” of getting to the top of their game for ‘Blood Sweat and Tears 3’, the album suffers musically in comparison to its predecessor. That’s the first hurdle.
‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ was the first BS&T production (there was only one previous album) that featured Brit-turned-Canadian David Clayton-Thomas. BS&T’s first album, ‘Child is Father to the Man’ was produced when its lead singer (and, I suppose, its leader) Al Kooper was, for lack of a better description, the man. After an outstanding and successful debut, the replacement singer appeared and did things differently, but just as brilliantly. Three of the cuts from this album made the American Top Forty, with the classic ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy’ just missing the top spot at number two.
The formation, transformation, and sudden obscurity of Blood, Sweat and Tears is well documented in the Eder article, which I highly recommend. It suggests a tremendous irony to me, because, even by the classic second album ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, a literally-welcome strain of commercialism had infested BS&T’s music – ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy’, as the prime example – but they were so good, so loved for their distinction in other areas, that it really wasn’t a point of criticism. The same people bought tickets to see them as those who attended Led Zeppelin concerts at that time. I was in my early teens, but I saw it.
An interesting point in the Eder article is that the late Laura Nyro auditioned for BS&T at the same time that Kooper was on the way out and the group landed Clayton-Thomas. There were apparently no hard feelings, as the soulful ‘He’s A Runner’ appears on the disc, and this is a Laura Nyro song.
Also somewhat ironic is that BS&T were commercially successful as well in those times, but the best reasoned position has the group disappearing in 1971, with ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears 4’ rolling out what remained of the gems that this group gave us – two cuts in particular, ‘Go Down Gamblin’ and ‘Lisa Listen To Me’ still ringing the bell on the excellence meter. They had a following, they had success, they produced sterling music, and the personalities (or perhaps their combination) just crashed them. Everything released since that time has either been a sporadic reunion, or something not really resembling either of the “real” BS&Ts – the ones with Al Kooper, or with David Clayton-Thomas.
‘Blood Sweat and Tears 3’ might offer similar fidelity to ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’ – but it’s really a negligible point, and, if your primary interest in the patience-teaching world of high-resolution audio is multi-channel mixing, you’re starting out with two horrible facts if you endeavor to compare it to the predecessor: most of the music is not in the same class, and it’s two-channel. In fact, I can’t think of listening to a two-channel recording that made me lament the lack of a surround mix more.
Not because it’s bad, mind you – I give high marks to imaging, tonality and a certain “analog warmth” (I could not define the term if asked; I would simply understand it when used by the record-playing crowd, and use it in that amorphous sense). This is certainly the best version of ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears 3’ that’s been released – yet – and there are some jewels present. When you have Blood, Sweat and Tears doing their jazz/rock/classical/pop friendly celebration of sounds on cuts like ‘Hi-De-Ho’, ‘Lucretia MacEvil’ (& ‘Reprise’), you are listening to vintage BS&T. The lovely and lesser-known ballad ‘Lonesome Suzie’ shows the gift of David Clatyon Thomas as we’d seen in the previous album: the voice of someone in love with his song.
The Mobile Fidelity version purports to be from the original master, and the company has applied its “Ultradisc UHR Gain2” process to the SACD. There’s some explanation of that on the Mobile Fidelity website, but, interpreted, it is in essence a secret process that makes their discs sound better. Perhaps there’s an objective way to justify that, but it really can’t be said from a comparison to the Columbia SACD of BS&T’s second album, ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’. One advantage that the Mobile Fidelity Disc can claim over the Columbia is that it is a hybrid, playable on either a CD or an SACD machine. Played as a regular CD it sounded all right, although the SACD version seemed capable of greater depth than the CD, but not really by much, because there’s just not that much low bass in the original source.
You can hear some of the possibilities of high resolution in unique ways, primarily owing to the type of music on the disc. The second cut is entitled ‘The Battle’ (sung by one of the “other” BS&T members), and the pungent harpsichord gives a good example of how competently re-mastered SACD can sound from a perspective of clarity and tonality. That’s the type of thing that, in the opinion of this writer, requires a creative approach to the use of surrounds, as the “right” instrumentation is in enough of the great BS&T that real new life requires.
Just so its clear on my posture, I’m happier that Mobile Fidelity made this effort than if they had not. We’ve all had those moments where we determine that music may indeed not be Amadeus’ “voice of God,” but it’s the closest we’re going to get. If it’s not already apparent from some of what I’ve written, Blood, Sweat and Tears were a personal icon, and one I want to see treated regally – like the attention lavished upon Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. And, sadly, that is where the lack of a multi-channel mix throws the weightiest millstone about the neck of this disc.
If my bias is not yet obvious: This disc would benefit from a multi-channel mix. Even if it were a split-down-the-middle mix like you’ll hear on the DVD-Audio release of Natalie Merchant’s ‘Tigerlily’, the voice of David Clayton-Thomas deserves more than the stereo imaging this disc gives. The instrumentation of Blood Sweat and Tears is somewhat classical in its orientation, but its horns, woodwinds, and even its percussion could be spread out about the room in a manner that would give it a new dimension. These are not the words of a sound engineer; these are the utterances of a listener who has simply heard it done successfully too many times before. And these are also the words of someone who fed the analog signal from this SACD to a Lexicon MC-12B processor and listened in the digitally processed Logic 7 mode (or even Dolby Pro Logic II Music). The heightened fidelity alone, nice as it is, just doesn’t do it.
Should you buy the disc? How much money do you have? If you’re a high-resolution aficionado (a term which, I feel compelled to remind, came to fame as the description of the avid fan of bullfighting in Hemingway’s first novel, ‘The Sun Also Rises’), order it now. You want them all, anyway, because good music in high-resolution is still scarce, and the industry has us at its mercy. But if you’re looking for a good example of the SACD format, look elsewhere, and if a multi-channel mix is important to you, then go buy one of those titles, not this one.
Certainly, it is an encouragement to see that Mobile Fidelity continues to promote and embrace at least one high-resolution format, but, c’mon, even Sony is releasing most of its new releases with a multi-channel layer…