Oliva Newton-John brings back memories of my childhood; not only was she one of the first female vocalists that I can honestly say touched my heart, but she also helped draw my attention to members of the opposite sex. At that young age, seeing and hearing Olivia in movies like ‘Xanadu’ and ‘Grease’ gave me a newfound respect for how wonderful the combination of music and beauty can really be. My instantaneous response to the release of ‘One Woman’s Live Journey’ on DVD-Audio was “I must have a copy”, so without a second thought, a review sample was swiftly obtained.
It wasn’t until the disc arrived that I realized that it was a rare (for Olivia) concert recording from a performance in Atlantic City during the summer of 1999, which just happens to be only a few miles from where I spend a large part of my own summers. The news that the disc is of a live event may initially not sound all that important, until I mention that I do not normally like concert recordings, I often find they have a poor musical presence that is further compromised by the background noise created by the venue’s acoustics and the crowds therein. However, being something of an Olivia fan, I wasn’t going to let this information ruin my appreciation of the album, so I started with an open mind and worked from there.
As DVD-Audio discs go, this one has quite a few different audio playback formats to choose from. There are two stereo versions of the performance and two multi-channel versions, and I was intent on listening to them all.
During the audition period, I affectionately named each option after a different season, for reasons that will soon become clear… The stereo PCM track became winter, the MLP multi-channel version – the one that usually sets loss-less DVD-Audio apart by being the most revealing and highest quality format – became spring, the 2/0.0 Dolby Digital mix summer and the DTS multi-channel mix was fall. While you do need a DVD-Audio player with six analogue outputs to enjoy the MLP track, both the Dolby Digital 2/0.0 mix and the DTS 3/2.1 mix can, of course, be enjoyed via any DVD-Video player.
There is no doubt that winter best describes the PCM two-channel track, as it seems almost barren of any real sense of emotion. Listening to this version was like peering into the water of an ice-covered pond, you know there is life present and can see fleeting glimpses of fish swimming around, but there is no sense of clarity or immediacy. During ‘Xanadu’, the disc’s first tack, the soundstage was compressed and the fidelity somewhat muffled and unresolved, yet it still showed signs of what might possibly exist if the seasons changed and that covering of ice melted.
Spring, the season where the world around us comes to life best describes the MLP multi-channel DVD-Audio layer because here the beauty of Oliva Newton-John and her band were readily apparent. It is possible to hear the true tonal qualities in her voice, and the instruments also sound as though they are blossoming into life, much the way flowers bloom in the spring. The track ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is a wonderful example of this; you can actually hear Olivia’s voice gently waver, just as if you were part of the concert itself. Unfortunately however, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is also an apt description of the multi-channel mix as if I were at the actual performance, that is where I would appear to have been seated. There were times when I felt like venturing up to the Emerald City and asking the wizard to send me home.
The reason for this is pretty straightforward; while the resolution of the MLP track may be exceptional, the multi-channel pallet has allowed the producers and editors to create something of a mess when it comes to the placement of performers within the soundstage. Instead of crafting a mix that opens and expands the performance and makes you feel a part of the crowd, the surrounds are used to place you in a world detached from reality, not unlike Oz itself. The crowd, the instruments and the backing singers emanate from all directions, not just from the stage. On some tracks, where counterpoint singers are used, they are positioned behind the listener, somewhere, not on stage with Oliva where they belong. So just like spring, the MLP surround version allows one to see everything flourishing around you, but does not represent its final beauty.
In our seasonal journey through this disc, we’re skipping summer for a moment, so our next encounter is with fall, the DTS 1,509.75kb/s multi-channel mix. It shares most of the qualities of the DVD-Audio version, for example it has the same sense of being in a whirlwind of sounds and feelings, but somehow it lacks the brightness and beauty afforded by the MLP layer. Don’t misunderstand, the DTS mix sounds good, in fact if more care and attention had been paid to the mix I believe it would have been almost as good as the MLP version. It’s just not as lively so, like fall, it has a certain beauty, but instead of being a season of sun and brilliance it is barren and uninteresting, losing some of its life along the way.
Which brings us to the final season, summer, a time where life is at its fullest, the sun is brightest and the senses are overloaded with brilliance. Strange as it may seem, that is how I felt about the Dolby Digital 192kb/s stereo mix. It contains all the positive attributes of the MLP version, but without the annoying surround distractions, allows one to enjoy a far more compelling experience. If I closed my eyes I could almost imagine being inside the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City where the concert took place. I could hear each individual element of the performance combining to create a synergy of sound and emotion. Even the audience noise, those usually annoying claps and shouts, were not out of place, they simply made the recording feel even more alive. While I’m not sure I really liked Jon Creighton’s vocals (the male vocalist who takes John Travolta’s part in the Grease ‘Summer Nights’ duet) at least I was given that chance to make up my own mind about the performance, rather than having to suffer through an unnatural and forced surround mix.
‘One Woman’s Live Journey’ is an apt title for this disc, perhaps even more so than expected. Not only does the disc allow you to hear and experience the full bloom, almost magical effects of ‘summer’, but it also, perhaps unintentionally, allows one to experience three additional sonic seasons. Although I wouldn’t recommend this album for either multi-channel mix, I would however, whole-heartedly endorse the performances of both Oliva Newton-John and her band. As I mentioned earlier in the review, I don’t usually like live recordings, but this one is an exception to that rule. The performance is all the more real, and all the more exciting because it was recorded live in the summertime by the shore.