Natalie Merchant – ‘Tigerlily’ A DVD-Audio review by Nicholas D. Satullo

Tigerlily’ was one of the first DVD-Audio discs that flipped the format switch for me. I recall being pleased and impressed by it, to the extent that it became a disc played repetitively, for days, even weeks. I was unfamiliar with the album, though it had been released on CD in 1995, so my affinity for it was doubtlessly the sparkle of new music. The technical virtues of the DVD-Audio format—discrete surround channels, high resolution sound, and a dedicated low frequency bass channel—were evident to me then as well, but were bound in the silky ribbons of a new music.

Time passes. After listening to a wide variety of high-resolution surround music over the past year, and after abandoning two channel CD listening almost entirely in favor of digitally processed surround music, I’ve developed what I tell myself is a frame of reference for surround music, though others might call it bias. I am still impressed by ‘Tigerlily’ from a technical and musical standpoint, but this review is written after the luster of new music has worn off, and after certain preferences and expectations have been created. In short, some of the things I’ve come to admire in surround mixes—such as lead vocals placed discretely in center channels, and pronounced low bass in the subwoofer channel—are largely missing in ‘Tigerlily’. The lesson for me has not been to relegate ‘Tigerlily’ to another tier in my personal hierarchy. Rather, it’s been to remind myself that cats lose their skin in any manner it will peel.

When ‘Tigerlily’ was recorded in 1995 for a CD release, it was Natalie Merchant’s first effort after leaving 10,000 Maniacs, with whom she had previously exclusively recorded. The disc was engineered and mixed by John Holbrook, one of the musicians recruited by Merchant for the ‘Tigerlily’ recording, and then mastered by Bob Ludwig, at Gateway Mastering Studios. In 1999, the surround sound mix was created by Jim Scott, at Cello Studios. In the process of reviewing this disc for High Fidelity Review, I had the benefit of Jim Scott’s comments, as contained in a 2001 interview in ‘Surround Professional’ Magazine, whose Surround Music Awards we co-sponsor this year. Those comments, I think, provide a useful context for what can fairly be observed about ‘Tigerlily’.

DVD-Audio offers two easily identifiable advantages over Red-book CD. Those benefits are a high-resolution format, and the presence of a discrete, multi-channel surround mix, which includes a separate subwoofer channel. In the process of making notes for this review, I had the opportunity to compare the DVD-Audio disc with its earlier CD counterpart. Incidentally, the CD is of excellent quality for that format.

In fact, that is where some of my reservations began, because in some respects I preferred the CD, but only with respect to the surround “mix” I was hearing. I typically listen to CD playback through a Lexicon MC-12 digital processor, and its proprietary sound format, Logic 7, which distributes the two-channel signal of stereo through a surround speaker array. In some of the comparisons I did, I actually preferred what the digital processor did to the stereo signal, than what I heard from the DVD-Audio disc. So my “preference” in this respect was really for a type of surround processing that I’ve admittedly become accustomed to, as opposed to one that, as I’ve mentioned, did things a bit differently.

In contrasting the sound quality between the two discs, however, the superiority of the DVD-Audio format is easily recognized. There is a clarity and brilliance to the sonic quality of the DVD-Audio disc, which gives it a dimension beyond CD. This is true across the board, for any instrument, any voice… any sound. Organs and various strings, instruments that easily get lost or shaded in electronically reproduced music, are two examples of instruments in ‘Tigerlily’ that evidence this clarity. Natalie Merchant’s music is a “soft” rock, and reminds me in a few respects of Carole King—from the female songwriter/pianist to the actual sound of their voices. Merchant’s voice is a bit softer, more mellow, and the nuances of that human instrument are demonstrated more completely in DVD-Audio than CD.

There is a fairly simple ensemble for her music. She sings on every cut on the album, and she plays piano as well. There is frequent acoustic guitar, and a 12-string electric guitar, bass, drums, and some assorted strings. All of these instruments show off well in the DVD-Audio format, particularly given the general simplicity of each arrangement. Merchant’s music is her melodies and singing, not great individual performances on instruments. Her voice, the real star of her music, is the beginning, middle, and end of ‘Tigerlily’ but in no respect is this stated as a limitation.

In fact, her omnipresent voice was what first caused me concern with the surround mix. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in other multi-channel music is the separation of vocals from instruments, the unique placement of an accent sound in, for example, the surround speakers. What I first noticed was that Merchant’s voice was not just coming from the center channel, nor was it coming only from the front spread—it was coming from every channel but the subwoofer. While it sometimes had a stronger anchor to the center channel, this is true of the entire disc.

Jim Scott, who mixed and engineered the DVD-A disc, has apparently mixed several 5.1 offerings from Merchant. Although referring to a live performance of her that he mixed, it was interesting to read his comments, in response to a question from Bob Ludwig as to whether he’d intended her voice to be all over in that particular mix. He stated:

The first one [5.1 surround mix] I did was a live Natalie Merchant project and Bob Ludwig called me up and said, “ . . . I just wanted to ask you, is her voice in every speaker?” And I went “yes,” because that’s how it sounded best. All anybody wants from her is her sound and silkiness, so that mix was like a big pyramid starting at the top of my head and going out . . .you wouldn’t want to do that with the Chili Peppers because you need the energy more than Anthony’s [the lead singer] voice.

Scott apparently made the same judgment for ‘Tigerlily’, and the above quote illustrates the considerations prompting that decision.

In many surround mixes, you will hear a distinction between what goes on in the front spread of speakers—the front mains and the center channel—as opposed to what is delivered from the surrounds. However, rather than a front vs. surround dichotomy, ‘Tigerlily’ is far more often a left vs. right dichotomy. What is coming out of the left main speaker is also coming out of the left surround, and likewise for the right side. The center channel is typically a mixture of the information being delivered to the front mains. While the center channel does “anchor” the lead vocals, in the sense that it will be most pronounced from that channel, it is nevertheless accompanied by every other speaker in the surround array.

The low bass is also somewhat unusual (I will always refer to this as “low bass” rather than LFE, since the latter pertains more to a sense of explosions and earthquakes in DVD-Video discs… again, my bias). I am “used” to a subwoofer channel that is both clean and powerful in high-resolution discs. What I didn’t realize until listening to ‘Tigerlily’ a few more times is that I am also used to one that dominates the bass presence in music.

There is low bass in ‘Tigerlily’ that is delivered to both the subwoofer and the full range speakers (in my case, only the front mains), but the difference between the two is more noticeable than normal. The subwoofer’s low bass in ‘Tigerlily’ reinforces the low bass from the main speakers, but it does not dominate it. In fact, you have to get close to the subwoofer to realize that anything is even coming out of it. Since there is no issue of the DVD-Audio signal being processed in any respect, this is obviously as intended from the engineer. Again, more of Scott’s comments from ‘Surround Professional’ are illuminating:

I put the bass and kind of a drum mix in the LFE [He obviously doesn’t know about my personal LFE nomenclature] Not just the kick drum, but a low rhythm mix and that’s it. Sometimes, I’ll put in a little piano if it’s appropriate. I just put enough in there that when I turn it off, the mix gets thinner yet doesn’t collapse. The mix still has to be balanced and theatrical without it.

Some good examples of this not-so-low bass phenomenon can be found in tracks like ‘San Andreas Fault’, a song named after, of all things, a cause of earthquakes; ‘Seven Years’ which contains about as much “metal” as you’ll hear from Natalie Merchant (some fuzz tone in the electric guitar); and ‘Wonder’, one of the catchiest tunes on the album.

Merchant’s music is popular because it is, in the first instance, very good. Retrieving the comparison to Carole King, she is essentially a solo artist, whose music shines on the strength of its melodies and her singing. However, the lyrical quality of her songs is significant as well. She turns phrases well, and there is an admirable sparseness to her lyrics. ‘San Andreas Fault’ begins:

Go west
paradise is there
you’ll have all that you can eat
of milk & honey over there

you’ll be the brightest star
the world has ever seen
sun-baked slender heroine
of film and magazine

Note the skilled internal rhyme contained in one of the verses to ‘Carnival’. Walking about the city, she sings:

I’ve walked these streets
in a spectacle of wealth and poverty
in the diamond markets
the scarlet welcome carpet
that they just rolled out for me

Some of the lyrics seem too personal, too internalized, and those are the ones that, in contrast to the rest, suffer a bit. One of the most popular songs on the album, ‘Wonder’, fits this category. A great tune, but it is a bit too self-celebratory to strike my personal artistic funnybone (although I suppose that the same could be said of Walt Whitman, and he seemed to survive my tastes). I’ll grant her the premise that I just don’t get those lyrics, but so many of her others I do, and consider them high quality.

So, after dissecting the surround mix to find that its body parts are not the ones I’ve included in my ideal anatomy… I’m willing to revisit the issue of my ideal. Even without the comments of Jim Scott, one realizes that there will be music that a reasonable sound engineer could conclude would benefit by that type of mix. This disc—months ago, and now—remains an outstanding example of the virtues of DVD-Audio as a format. I suspect that statement will remain true for a long time to come.