Tracking Surround: Rickie Lee Jones SACD Page 2

The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard

For the most part, though, the music stays rather abstract. Lots of strumming, lots of mellow droning - occasionally approaching Tom Waits ("Tried to Be a Man") but mostly burbling along in a Van Morrison/Velvet Underground current. True, this tends to fit Jones's stream-of-Biblicalness, but when you add her still-childish, still-an-acquired-taste voice, the album can sometimes sound like a tedious ... sermon.

Does the six-channel mix by Cantelon and Jim Crichton make it sound better? To a degree, yes. The guitars of "Donkey Ride" and "Road to Emmaus," placed all around, render the songs up-close-and-highly-personal. The harmony vocals at the end of "Seventh Day" - "We can make a sweeter night . . . / We can have a softer day . . . / We can make it outta here" - blossom nicely from the rear. And the full rhythm section of "Circle in the Sand" getting a boost in the center channel helps emphasize the beat of this poetry.

But overall, that center is unnecessarily schizo. It's completely empty for Track 1. Then it accommodates Jones's lead vocals and some rhythm instruments for Tracks 2 and 3. But after that - poof! - Jones is gone, and by the time of Track 6, nearly everything else is gone, too, except for some faint percussion taps. Jones doesn't return to the center channel until Track 9.

Meanwhile, the surround channels don't always bring up the rear with brio. We may get those bold guitars for "Ride" and "Road," but on other tracks the surrounds retreat into subtlety. And for "Elvis Cadillac," they don't even stay consistent within the same song: Whereas the harmony vocals are based in the rear for the verses, they switch to the front for the choruses. In the end, the multichannel mix does give depth and dimension to the music - and the high-rez SACD format itself certainly reveals greater textures in the acoustic guitars. But you get the feeling that even more could have been achieved, especially considering that the surround channels, instead of highlighting discrete instruments, most often merely double the fronts.

The bonus DVD is a bigger disappointment. Although it includes 11 film clips from the album sessions, totaling 38 minutes, most of the scenes are way too "behind" for their own good - random, muffled, and handheld-to-the-max. True, we see the actual recording of "Tried to Be a Man" and the one-take, 8-minute "I Was There." Even better, we get Jones doing a late-night, solo-drum run-through of "Gethsemane," which might be the most visceral performance in the whole set. Mostly, though, the DVD footage just confirms the fact that album sessions are hours of boredom broken up by minutes of creativity.

Oh, and for those who care - which probably doesn't include most fans of surround sound - the DVD also includes downloadable stereo MP3s of Sermon's tracks. At least they boast the higher-quality rate of 256 kilobits per second. Lastly, the Limited Edition packaging is attractive, with exclusive photos in a 24-page booklet, but it does not boast the complete lyrics.

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