5.1 Entertainment’s April 23rd launch of ‘Opaline’ was a landmark DVD-Audio event – the first American day/date release of an original album on both Compact Disc and DVD-Audio formats.
For such an important disc, 5.1 subsidiary label immergent chose Dishwalla’s third album, a much-anticipated production from a band that have enjoyed great success since the debut of their first disc, ‘Pet Your Friends’ which in turn spawned the hit single and 1996 Billboard Rock Song of the Year ‘Counting Blue Cars’. Members of the group, J.R. Richards (vocals), Rodney Browning Cravens (guitar), Scot Alexander (bass), replacement drummer Pete Maloney and Jim Wood (keyboards) set about recording ‘Opaline’ in a unique way; “…one of the first things we did was strip everything down to the rhythm tracks and the vocals. If a song sounded good like that, then we started adding things to the mix…” explains Wood in part of the accompanying press material.
Given the rather depressive themes of the album – addiction, tragedy and obsession – ‘Opaline’ is in no way a depressive or oppressive experience, quite the contrary in fact. If it’s possible to celebrate the hardships of life, then this is about as close as we’re ever going to get. The album is more emotional than previous Dishwalla releases and borders on the acoustic during some passages, which in itself is fairly unusual for a rock band.
The title track, which was created in the studio during the recording of the remainder of the album, rather than being pre-prepared, features processed vocals and an edgy, raw accompaniment, albeit with a few subtle elements that give the piece a greater sense of depth and space. From the antique drum-machine beginning to the subtle harmonies, the track has a unique feel, much in the same vein as the experimental ‘Truth Serum’ from the 1998 album ‘And You Think You Know What Life’s About’.
J.R.’s lead vocals on ‘Angels or Devils’ are far more natural and less processed, and it’s in this area that one only really appreciates the added fidelity afforded by DVD-Audio over and above the standard CD release. The Compact Disc sounds cold and detached in comparison, an impression that is enforced by the lower midrange depth added by the LFE channel in particular. The song is about the fight between good and evil, all wrapped up in a classic soft-rock package complete with acoustic strings making their first appearance on any Dishwalla album.
Louder and more passionate, ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ (the album’s first single) is next and re-introduces Dishwalla’s signature sound. The song is involving and the lyrics complex, it’s also the perfect foil for ‘Every Little Thing’, a track with a rhythm and blues feel that builds towards a powerful but ‘relaxed rock’ ending.
My own favourite cut is ‘When Morning Comes’, an angst-ridden mixture of rock, ballad and experimental mood piece; the track is an ideal showcase for the band’s diverse styles and the vocal abilities of J.R. Richards. Inspired by a series of tragic events, the song has all the emotion we’ve come to expect from Dishwalla. The vocal content is also particularly forward in the mix of ‘Today, Tonight’, a gentler, more soulful track that the group performed as a whole (rather than each element individually) about substance abuse and addiction that at barely three minutes in length is far too short and will leave you wanting more. Music that is, not contraband…
‘Mad Life’ is the disc’s worst track, not from an artistic point of view but because it highlights the all the shortcomings of the album’s fidelity. Cymbals and guitars retain little independence and melt together into what can only be described as ‘mush’, but more on that later… The same can be said for ‘Nashville Skyline’, where the guitars swamp the vocal and cymbals are far too fizzy. Conversely, ‘Candleburn’, the track separating ‘Mad Life’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ is the best presented song in terms of fidelity, perhaps because there isn’t a lot going on, aside from of course, another great vocal performance, piano, bass and some quiet percussion.
The disc closes with ‘Drawn Out’, another archetypal Dishwalla masterpiece of hopeless emotion that yet again boasts an acoustic string section (yes, more strings) as the icing on the cake. And a fitting conclusion it is, for an album that seems to end all too soon.
As you may have already guessed, the disc’s fidelity is only mediocre. Sure, both multi- (96kHz 24-bit MLP) and two-channel (96kHz 24-bit PCM) DVD-Audio tracks offer some advantages over the CD release (bass is tighter for example), but the difference is not earth-shattering and when judged against the likes of ‘Ziroq’ or ‘Swingin’ for the Fences’, ‘Opaline’ rates as one of 5.1 Entertainment’s most disappointing releases to date. Drums and cymbals tend to become muddled during the disc’s louder passages and subjectively, there appears to be a fair amount of dynamic range compression. The transition from what should be the loud ending of ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ to the quiet opening of ‘Every Little Thing’ isn’t as stark or obvious as one would expect. Likewise ‘Candleburn’ which begins with considered vocal and piano but is louder than ‘Mad Life’, a track upon which the whole band lets rip. The ‘liveness’ and immediacy of the performance just isn’t there and one struggles to differentiate one instrument from another, especially when the entire group is involved. Snare drums are often distant and cymbals lacking in bite. There’s a 3/2.1 448kb/s Dolby Digital alternative for DVD-Video players that fares extremely well against its loss-less counterpart, largely because the source material isn’t particularly high fidelity.
Throughout the disc, the surround and centre channels have been used sparingly, they create a slightly increased sense of space and enable instruments to be positioned more openly, but there are no obvious centre or rear events. The centre carries a subtle, almost imperceptible ‘fill’ between the front left and right channels (you’ll need to put your ear right next to the loudspeaker to hear anything at all), whereas the surrounds convey what appears to be little more than soft ‘DSP’ generated ambience. This is, essentially, a 2/2.1 title. As the disc contains a dedicated 96kHz 24-bit two-channel mix, I was tempted into introducing an additional A/D step and experimenting with Lexicon’s Logic 7 Music and Dolby’s Pro Logic II Music modes in an attempt to create a harder centre and additional surround involvement. Surprisingly, both matrix schemes were able to convey a greater sense of envelopment and presence than the actual, discrete multi-channel mix, so even though purists might frown on the practice, I’d give one or the other a try if your hardware is suitably equipped. I personally prefer the use of a hard centre, whereas Gary Lux, the engineer responsible for the mix does not, which is something worth bearing in mind. You pays your money…
As is often the case with discs from any of the 5.1 Entertainment labels, there are a number supplementary extras. In this instance, they include two image galleries, song lyrics and a video montage entitled ‘Studio Scrapbook’ that runs four minutes and forty seconds, but best of all is the running commentary by band members that spans the entire length of the album. There are insights into the creative processes of writing and recording, together with the band’s interaction with their fans. Just watch out for the occasional use of strong language.
Artistically, ‘Opaline’ is a fantastic album, full of emotion, great song-writing and musical performances, especially from J.R. Richards (although it seems unfair to single out just one person for special praise). As a DVD-Audio disc, ‘Opaline’ falls some way short of the mark, largely because of the lacklustre fidelity and ultra-conservative surround mix. The DVD-Audio disc is, however, superior to the Compact Disc alternative and with 5.1 Entertainment’s new pricing structure, should therefore be the version of choice.