When I heard this album’s title song on my car radio, the first thing that came to mind was the reality-based TV game show of the same name: ‘Survivor’. Then, when I saw Destiny’s Child strut their stuff on the music video, I immediately thought of another reality-based TV game show: ‘Temptation Island’. These girls are hot, I mean really hot!
Destiny’s Child was the brainchild of Music World Management’s Matthew Knowles, who in 1990 took his daughter Beyonce and three other girls (two of whom were only seven and eight years old at the time), and formed them into an En Vogue/Expose style R&B group. A constantly changing line-up (something that would earn them a law suit a decade later) brought Beyonce’s cousin, Kelly Rowland, into the group in 1992. Shortly thereafter, the Houston-based pre-pubescent quartet appeared on the TV talent show ‘Star Search’, where they actually rapped instead of singing. They finally got a breakthrough hit in 1996 with ‘No No No’, from their 1997 self titled album, which boasted production by big names such as Wyclef Jean, Pras, Jermaine Dupri and Sylvia Bennet Smith.
Their sophomore effort, ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’, was released on Columbia in 1999 and resulted in two singles, including the monster hit ‘Say My Name’, but Saying Their Names during this period was a bit difficult as The Child was, yet again, going through the teething pains of changes in their line-up. Out went two longtime members, and of their two incoming replacements only one remains in the current trio, which now stands at: Beyonce, Kelly and diva-in-training Michelle Williams. Oh yeah, ‘Writing’s’ went platinum nine times over! The pressure was on for a follow up. So how do you follow up an album that sold almost 10 million copies?
There are a few things you’ll notice right away when comparing ‘Survivor’ to the group’s previous efforts. This album seems aimed more towards teenagers than a young adult audience. Also, they’ve traded in the dissing of men on the last album for the chastising of women on this release. A welcome change; thank you ladies! But at over an hour and sixteen tracks long, the album does overstay its welcome. They’ve taken their original sound from ‘Say My Name’ and incorporated that staccato vibe into all of their songs, making the repetition boring at times; in fact, many of the songs could have benefited from having thirty seconds shaved off. Despite that and despite some inane lyrics, there’s enough variation of music styles on the album to stop me just short of labeling it predictable. All in all, the girls have put in quite the effort; especially Beyonce, who wrote or co-wrote, sang on, and produced every single track. Where did she find the time to do an Austin Powers movie?
The ‘Survivor’ SACD includes 2-channel and 5.1-channel mixes; both are DSD only. Sorry, but there’s no Red-book layer because, as a rule, Sony doesn’t do hybrid discs. I hope they’re re-thinking that strategy, for the sake of their own format. As expected, the sonics of the 2-channel version are smooth, dynamic and crystal clear, although it’s hard to make comparisons to anything in real life because pop music, by its nature, is an artificial construct of the studio. And this album has “studio” written all over it; the sound is slick, over-produced and confident. But where this Super Audio CD really shines is on the discrete multi-channel mix. I’ve always been a firm believer that multi-channel mixes should enhance the content, not distract the listener. The front channels should contain the bulk of the sound, with the surrounds being used only for subtle room fill and a sense of natural ambience. Yet this SACD breaks every rule I have for multi-channel mixes, and it does so spectacularly – con mucho gusto! Sounds swirl all about you, rhythms thump at your chest, and vocals go from being on stage in the front of the room to whispering in your ear from the seat right next to you. You’re no longer listening to the music; you’re in the song! Would this work for classical music? Get real! In fact, I should be doing the audiophile thing by complaining and calling this mix ‘gimicky’ but first I’d have to wipe this big stupid grin off my face.
One more thing: of all the SACDs I’ve heard so far, this one benefited the most from sensible bass management. Be warned, the .1 LFE track in no way compensates for any bass lost from other channels. Whether performed in the analog or digital domain, some form of bass re-routing is a must if you want to properly enjoy the pulsing beat that is so integral to the content on this disc. To a lesser extent, proper time alignment makes a difference too; especially on the tracks with the most aggressive surround use. One quick comparison between carefully controlled signals and a true bypass will be enough to convince any listener.
The album starts off strongly with three top-ten songs in a row, each of which help establish the girls’ trademark “we’re sexy and empowered” vibe. (Unfortunately that sentiment is flogged, to various degrees, through the entire album.) First up is the eleven-week chart topper ‘Independent Women Part 1’, originally penned for the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ movie soundtrack. Directional effects and vocals are kept mostly up front with chorals spreading into the surrounds. The danceable beat and you-go-girl lyrics continue with the somewhat autobiographical ‘Survivor’; but this time with slightly tamer surrounds. I can’t quite tell if the girls are kissing off ex-boyfriends or (meow) ex-band mates, but I’m pretty sure this is the first break-up song to promise, “I’m not gonna dis you on the Internet.” Boy I feel old. My favorite track without a doubt is ‘Bootylicious’, with its very arousing ‘come and get it’ lyrics. This one had me dancing around the coffee table; not a pretty sight I’ll admit, but I defy anyone to sit still (let alone remain in the sweet spot) when this song is playing. The bass guitar riff, lifted from Stevie Nicks’ ‘Edge of Seventeen’ rotates about the room while the girls sexily tease “Can you handle this? ” from various speakers. This track’s bold use of directional vocal effects and instrument placement convinced me to keep an open mind about how multi-channel music (especially studio pop) can be mixed.
‘Nasty Girl’ unfathomably scolds the group’s young female audience to “put some clothes on!” and admonishes them for “looking trashy” and “shaking your thing”. Considering that Destiny’s Child themselves are marketed almost like porn stars, these words sound more than a little strange coming out of their mouths. A few discrete surround effects are used here, but a less so on the next track, ‘Fancy’; which continues to chastise imitators for being more popular than they are. How dare “you steal my shine” they demand. We go from two tracks dissing girlfriends to two tracks blowing kisses at boyfriends. ‘Apple Pie a la Mode’ actually has some nice melodies but includes some clicking sounds in the surrounds that, at first, sounded like distortion or static. A second listen reassures that it’s part of the music. The Afro-Latin flavored ‘Sexy Daddy’ makes for a nice club/dance floor song.
‘Independent Women Part 2’ musically deconstructs the first track, but it keeps the attitude and vibe. This is definitely not a track to dance to, unless you’re doing the Tin Man or Robot. Exactly as with Part 1, the surrounds are mostly used for chorus vocals. ‘Happy Face’ is a mindless bit of disposable ear candy that’ll make you wonder what a B*witched song is doing on a Destiny’s Child album. With its happy, bubbly, “everything’s gonna be alright” lyrics, it is cute; but doesn’t fit here. The song uses a slightly softer center channel as does the disco-era ballad ‘Emotion [with strings] ’, written by Robin and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and made famous by Samantha Sang in 1978. Not only is the song covered with an investment of passion and care, but the production is also superb. The string section lends an enveloping warmth, while surprises like acoustic guitar and hand-claps add just the right sizzle. Just as tasteful is the surround mix: vocals solid in the center, chorus and music nicely spread across the front soundstage, subtle ambience in the surrounds.
A little past halfway into the album and it starts running out of steam. ‘Dangerously in Love’ and ‘Brown Eyes’ are your standard J.Lo style snore-pop tunes. ‘The Story of Beauty’ isn’t much better, though it deals with a serious subject: child abuse. None of these are worth a second listen; not because they are particularly bad but because they’re incredibly boring. Pure padding. The only good track left is ‘Gospel Medley’ which takes a nod to the girls’ roots and gives a taste of four gospel songs: ‘You’ve Been So Good’, ‘Now Behold the Lamb’, ‘Jesus Loves Me’, and ‘Total Praise’. What Destiny’s Child album be complete without the trio belting out some gospel tunes, this time in a cappella no less! Another tastefully done multi-channel mix; while there is exclusive content and vocals for each of the front channels, it is all tied together by the chorus which is spreads amongst all channels, bathing the listener in warmth and ambience. The surrounds help give a real sense of large space; the rare vocal bursts from the surrounds are distant enough to maintain consistency with the created space.
We exit with ‘Outro (DC-3) Thank You’, where the girls thank, praise and generally glad-hand each other ‘till we’re all nauseated. Each one takes turns grabbing the center channel to thank God for bringing their “DC-3 sistahz” into their lives, telling us that this “proves God is awesome”. Gag! What happened to old-fashioned proof like parting the Red Sea? Too old school? Finally, there is a bonus track on this SACD: ‘Emotion [The Neptune ReMix]’, which is a funkier and hip-hoppier (is that a word?) version of track ten that brings nothing very interesting to the song, except maybe a little dance-ability. Maybe.
If the last two tracks had been excised, along with the three tracks of padding, ‘Survivor’ would have been a much tighter album. Even on the better songs, the choruses are repeated a few too many times. There’s no reason this album should have been over an hour long. Still, there are three standouts: ‘Bootylicious’, ‘Emotion’ and ‘Gospel Medley’. These songs are very different from each other, both in musical style/content as well as in the apparent philosophies of their multi-channel mixes. It is interesting to hear surround mixes that are, respectively: gimmicky, subtle and realistic, each one a perfectly valid choice for its particular song. Nice work ladies.