Barber Classic Remixed at Capitol

Patricia Barber's café blue remains a musically and sonically stunning set seventeen years after its initial release on CD and later on a truncated vinyl edition. It's set in a dark, atmospheric musical space that recording engineer Jim Anderson captured perfectly, bathing Barber's sultry voice in a mysterious shroud of reverb created not by artificial means as was common at the time, but by establishing an improvised chamber under some stairs at CRC (Chicago Recording Company) where the record was produced.

In fact, it's an even more impressive musical feat all these years later, particularly the backing trio that dazzles with audacious improvisations and lock-step communication even as it clears space for Barber's vocals and meshes effortlessly with her expressive piano. It's jazz of course but John McLean's guitar work brings it into a rock space, while the A&R work that covers everything from "Ode to Billy Joe" to "The Thrill is Gone" and Miles' "Nardis" defies genre-fication.

Shortly after the CD issue, Premonition decided to try its hand at vinyl and enlisted engineer Jim Anderson to help produce a truncated single LP edition since the album was too long for a single LP. Greg Calbi, mastered at Masterdisk, where he'd moved at the time from Sterling Sound, to where he later returned.

The original vinyl was at best OK, but given how great was the recording, it sounded pretty good and became a vinyl audiophile favorite at a time when few new records were being pressed.

More recently, Mobile Fidelity issued the full track listing in a multi-record 45prm box set edition. You can read the review here:

So now, Premonition has decided to reissue the complete album on double 33 1/3 vinyl but allow engineer Anderson to re-mix it from the original multitrack tape at Capitol in Hollywood, using the facility's Neve 8068 console, EMT plate reverb and especially its legendary live acoustic chambers that can be heard on everything from The Kingston Trio, to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. 

The much venerated café blue was originally recorded on an Otari 32 track digital tape recorder, which is a late '80s, 16 bit  (44.1k or 48k) recorder (gasps go up from the crowd!). 

This time, Anderson transferred the multitrack tape to Pro-Tools 96/24 (the extra resolution can only help) and then mixed it down to 192k/24 bit two channel. From that he also produced a 15IPS Dolby SR analog tape, both of which Bob Ludwig received for mastering.

Jim says he believes Bob used the 192k/24 bit file, which he mastered and sent (at what resolution remains unclear) to Doug Sax for lacquer cutting.

So, this record, like every record of café blue is sourced from digital, since the recording was digital. That will shock some "digiphobes" but it proves that with the right microphones and an engineer who knows what he's doing, you can get a sonically stunning harmonically fulfilling recording that doesn't "sound digital."

So I went back to the original Premonition single LP and in retrospect, it's sonically mediocre compared to either multi-disc set—the Mo-Fi 45s or the new double 33, not to mention that it's missing some key tunes, the song order had been changed and the jacket quality was poor.

Taken on its own, the new mix features a far superior and better integrated reverberant field, which is not surprising. The original's backdrop now sounds a bit hokey and too intense. It calls attention to itself and gives Barber's voice a harsh and sometimes brittle quality, while pushing her further into the backdrop than it should be. Sometimes the reverberant field overwhelms her voice. The new reissue's vocals are far smoother and much better integrated within the context of the atmospherics. You'll hear it immediately on the opening track "What A Shame" when Barber raises her voice to sing the line "fast on that track to decay." I noted that the bongos on that track "popped" better too.

 However, if you already have the Mo-Fi 45rpm edition, you needn't buy this one, though the gatefold packaging is obviously superior to Mo-Fi's black box. Overall, these two multi-disc editions sound different from one another in a few key ways.

While the new mix using a superior reverb chamber is better integrated and "cleaner" overall in a modern way, I prefered listening to the Mo-Fi box at 45rpms. For whatever reason or reasons, the Mo-Fi exhibits greater stage depth (could be the amount of  reverb). The new mix is flatter-sounding. But what really surprised me—and I noted it immediately—was the loss of transient definition when bassist Michael Arnopol plucks the bass strings with his fingers. What's a clear "pluck" on the Mo-Fi 45 becomes on the new mix, a somewhat muted, less than well-defined transient. It almost loses altogether the sensation of a finger being involved. The instrument itself also sounds somewhat fuller and richer on the Mo-Fi set—more "woody." The remixed cymbals are also either further forward in the mix, or just sound as if they are and they exhibit a harder edge that makes you want to lower the volume. 

When I compared the instrumental closing track "Yellow Car III" it was obvious that the remix is more "in your face," particularly the cymbals. The overreverant original masked somewhat the "relentless" quality of digital recording that puts off some people. Overall then the new mix is, for better or worse, more "modern" sounding.

It's a sound some will like and others will not. I got a few email complaints from buyers. So yes, if you have the Mo-Fi 45 set that's out of print, you don't need this newly remixed reissue, but if you don't have that, you won't know what you're missing and you will be getting a version with a much more coherent, more satisfying backdrop and far more upfront detail. Oh, and you'll also be getting some enduringly superb music that's been unavailable on high quality vinyl for some time.

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detroitvinylrob's picture

Have not heard this pressing but, have the Mofi 45's and concur with your assessment.

Happy Listener! ;^)>

Steve Edwards's picture

If you were to own just one Patricia Barber recording, would it be Cafe Blue or Nightclub?