Greatest hits albums are just the greatest thing! I mean, you hear an artist’s hit records on the radio and see their music videos on TV, but despite more than just a passing interest, stop short of buying their albums because – let’s face it – who wants to pay for ten tracks of padding in order to get a couple of hit songs. The same thing happens with their next album, and the one after that; tempting, but not quite worth it. Then, a few years later, your lack of support is actually rewarded when along comes a compilation of all those songs you liked and even one or two exclusive new ones (much to the annoyance of those who bought all the albums). Such was the case with Celine Dion’s ‘All the Way… A Decade of Song’.
Celine Dion was born on March 30, 1968, in Charlemagne, Canada, into a family of singers; in fact one of her sisters has recorded three solo albums and a brother plays in a moderately successful pop band. The youngest of fourteen children, whose parents and older siblings sang folk songs as The Dion Family, Celine became a French Canadian pop star, making the first of nine successful albums at only twelve years old. It was at this tender age that she met Rene Angelil, who shortly thereafter became her manager. Angelil first showed his dedication to Dion when he mortgaged his house to finance her debut album, which was a big hit. Dion went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest ‘88 singing for Switzerland and from there went to Berlitz to become the first in her family to speak English. Since then she has earned numerous awards, including three Grammies®, the World Music Award for Best-Selling Canadian Female Recording Artist and the Artist of the Year award by VH1.
Starting in 1990 with her first English-language album, ‘Unison’, Angelil helped Dion become one of the top selling female vocal acts of the decade. When she was twenty-years-old, the couple started dating, six years later they got married and six years after that, in January 2001, Dion and her husband announced the arrival of their first child, Rene Charles Angelil. The new baby was uplifting news to a couple that’d had a rough year. Dion had semi-retired from her music career and was spending time at home to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with skin cancer (the cancer has since been in remission).
In 1999 Dion released ‘All the Way… A Decade of Song’: a collection of some of her biggest hits from the last ten years as well as some new material to tide fans over during her self-imposed two-year hiatus. I picked up the CD as soon as it was released, thinking that in the process I would get all the Celine songs I wanted without having to buy another album. Instead, I was surprised at what wasn’t on the album. Missing were some major chart-toppers: her first hit in the US, ‘Where Does My Heart Beat Now’; Eric Carmen’s suicide-inducing ‘All By Myself’; the ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ theme song, ‘When I Fall in Love’; her shouting match with Barbara Striesand, ‘Tell Him’; as well as minor hits like ‘Call the Man’ and ‘Misled’. But that was OK because she was more than generous with the new songs on the album. Many Greatest Hits collections include an exclusive new song or two in order to rope in fans that already have all the albums. To her credit, Celine has included seven (count ‘em, seven) new songs to go with the nine hits that make up the first half of the album. Nice move, especially since at the time she wasn’t going to be releasing a new album until 2002.
Therefore, the SACD of ‘All the Way… A Decade of Song’ was an obvious disc for me to review as I already liked the contents and was curious about the higher fidelity as well as the discrete multi-channel mix. So on went my DVD and SACD players as I geared up for a listening session filled with comparisons of different versions, formats and even singers. First up was a two-channel comparison to check the sonic fidelity. While the two-channel mixes are identical on both the CD and the Super Audio CD, the clarity and smoothness is noticeably better on the SACD, though not by much. Still, you’ll hear the difference right away: on the signature-Celine power ballad that opens the album, ‘The Power Of Love’, listen carefully as she sings “I’m your laaadaaay…” and you’ll hear the improvement that Direct Stream Digital brings. Besides higher resolution, the other technically superior aspect of DSD – increased dynamic range – is never really taken advantage of; at least not to any noticeable degree. I switched back and forth between the CD and SACD looking for a difference in dynamic range that was anywhere near as audible as the difference in resolution, but I found none.
Rather than be disappointed, I psyched myself up for the multi-channel 3/2.1 mix. Big mistake. At first I thought I was still listening to the two-channel layer; so subtle are the contributions of the centre and surround channels. So I decided to have some fun with my monoblock amplifiers and by switching individual units off and on, hear what was in the various channels. The left and right channels of the multi-channel mix are identical to the stereo mix; the exact same content is then placed in the surrounds but with a delay and at a much lower volume. The centre contains no vocals whatsoever; occasional guitar plucks and percussion pop up, but even that is rare. I then compared the song ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from this SACD to the version of the song on the DTS music disc of the ‘Titanic’ movie soundtrack. While both are 3/2.1 mixes, their arrangements are different: the soundtrack version doesn’t have the chorus and electric guitar licks that the pop version does. The biggest difference though is the mix itself: not only are the surrounds full and enveloping in the DTS version, but the vocals are in the centre channel, and only in the centre channel. The result – in terms of the surround mix – the DTS version sounded significantly better than the SACD.
As for the song itself: the fact that it has been overplayed has lead to a bit of backlash; even though I liked it when I originally saw ‘Titanic’, after a while I found myself unable to stand another playing. It took a recent listen to Sarah Brightman singing it in Italian (an eye opening comparison) to remind me what a beautiful song James Horner and Will Jennings had created. The duo reunite with Dion on the snoozy ‘Then You Look At Me’, from the Chris Columbus movie ‘Bicentennial Man’. While nice, it is instantly forgettable and certainly nowhere near as powerful as their ‘Titanic’ hit. Three other, more memorable, movie songs appear on this album: ‘If You Asked Me To’, sung almost identically to the way Patti LaBelle performed the track over the end credits of the James Bond flick ‘LicenseTo Kill’; ‘Because You Loved Me’ from the movie ‘Up Close and Personal’; ‘Beauty and the Beast’, her duet with Peabo Bryson from the movie…well, you know! The first two of those three were written by Diane Warren; if not the most productive pop-song writer in the industry then at least one of the most successful. She contributes two more songs to this collection: the toe-tapping ‘Love Can Move Mountains’ and the power ballad ‘I Want you to Need Me’. On many of Warren’s songs Dion comes across as a female Michael Bolton; not surprising, considering the many hit songs Warren has written for Bolton.
And speaking of sounding like someone else, some famous producers and songwriters leave their signature sound on this album with mixed results. Amongst the new material, the album’s first hit single released was a hip, up-tempo pop number, ‘That’s the Way It Is’, written and produced by Max Martin and Kristian Lundin, the same team responsible for hits by teen dreams N’SYNC, The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. You can imagine any of those artists crooning this tune; in fact this version reminded me of The Backstreet Boys’ own ‘I Want It That Way’. The same is true of the Robert John “Mutt” Lange ballad, ‘If Walls Could Talk’, in that it wouldn’t be such a stretch to imagine Lange’s (then) wife/collaborator Shania Twain belting this one out. In fact, listen closely and you’ll hear Mutt and Shania singing the backing vocals. Dion’s collaboration with Meat Loaf svengali Jim Steinman on the offbeat opus ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ shows that she’s game for a challenge, though I wish Meat Loaf had sung the piece instead of her. I heard this song for the first time when I saw the video, which had been made by the same director that had just finished doing two videos for Meat’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell II’ album. The music and images reminded me so much of Meat Loaf that Dion looked completely out of place; something that still colours my impression of this song. Like both of the aforementioned, her duet with R. Kelly, ‘I’m Your Angel’, could have just as easily been sung by Kelly alone and it wouldn’t have made a difference. His particular sound is all over this track; while Celine could have easily been replaced by Mariah or Whitney or any number of other female singers who start out overpowering and reach for a climax too early in a song.
The third and last duet on this album is a historic moment as Ol’ Blue Eyes meets Young Iron Pipes for the very first time. Alright, so the song ‘All the Way’, pairing Dion with the late great Frank Sinatra, is only a “virtual” duet, but it’s cooked to perfection in a studio by uber producer David Foster. When I first heard Natalie Cole sing ‘Unforgettable’ with her late father, I almost wept. A few imitators later and the novelty was starting to wear off and, at this point, Dion’s latest duet comes across more as a tired gimmick than anything else. According to the liner notes, the song is in the album and dedicated to her husband because it is “Celine and Rene’s special song” (in fact the one played at their 1994 wedding). In any case, I hope this is the last time the Sinatra estate allows this sort of thing to happen; two complete albums full of invented Frank-and-random-celebrity duets are quite enough, thankyouverymuch!
Of the cover songs on this album, the best one has to be ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, easily one of my favourite songs of all time. Dion gives a dramatic, tremolo-drenched rendering of the Ewan MacColl hit made famous by Roberta Flack in 1972. Though Dion and Foster actually try to do their understated best, the song is marked by Dion’s typical mid-song climaxes. Comparisons with Flack are inevitable and while Dion does imbue the song with lots of powerful emotion, listening to the Flack version reminds one that singing is something more (much more) than sheer vocal power. Which brings us to the last song on the album: ‘Live For the One I Love’, co-written by Quebec native Luc Plamondon. Of the new material, this stands out as one of the better tracks, it’s almost as much of a Celine anthem as ‘Power Of Love’ and a perfect outro to her greatest hits collection.
In conclusion, I have not reservations about recommending the album itself, both for die-hard Celine Dion fans but even moreso for casual fans (like me). As for the SACD, don’t waste your money. You wont hear enough in the SACD two-channel or multi-channel tracks to separate them from what you’ll hear on the regular CD. If this was a hybrid disc, I’d recommend getting it as you’d have the Redbook CD content, but far be it from Sony to show off SACD for all its capabilities. For High Fidelity Review readers that like listening to music in surround sound, a far more satisfying experience can be had by getting the regular ‘All the Way… A Decade of Song’ CD, running it digitally through your pre-pro/receiver and using a good matrix decoder like Logic 7 or Dolby Pro Logic II to bring the experience to life. Then, like me, you’ll wonder why the discrete 3/2.1-channel SACD mix doesn’t sound that good!