Otis Taylor: Hey Joe Opus | Red Meat
Octave Records OCT-0003
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Review by Mark Werlin - December 9, 2020
A blues album recorded in original DSD and released on SACD is a rare event, and an album as good as Hey Joe Opus | Red Meat is cause for celebration.
The musical career of Otis Taylor didn’t follow the usual course. The Chicago-born singer-songwriter, guitarist and banjoist took 20 years off from performing to establish a fine arts business and start up an African-American bicycle racing team. His return to professional music began with local performances and soon drew the attention of Telarc Records.
Taylor’s commitment to create music that blends traditional folk and blues ingredients with non-Western drone flavors, and to write concept albums that unflinchingly confront the troubled history of Black people in America, sets him outside the commercial mainstream. He called a banjo summit of blues players Keb’Mo’, Corey Harris and Alvin “Youngblood” Hart in a collaboration documented on the album “Recapturing the Banjo” on Telarc. He instituted an annual blues music festival in Boulder, and following his years with Telarc, started his own record label, Trance Music Festival.
A couple of years ago, the Boulder, Colorado audio manufacturer PS Audio, which designs and builds DSD DACs, preamplifiers and power amplifiers of very high quality and critical repute, launched Octave Records, an in-house SACD label, using the Sonoma multitrack DSD recording facility and mastering services of DSD pioneer Gus Skinas.
Hey Joe Opus was originally recorded at Immersive Sound, engineered and mixed by Mike Yach and mastered by David Glasser at Airshow Mastering. It was issued on CD in the US by Otis Taylor’s Trance Blues Festival label, and in Germany in an audiophile LP edition by the in-akustic label. The new SACD was remastered from the original DSD master mixes by Gus Skinas in pure DSD using the Octave Records’ DSDDirect Mastering process.
Reissuing the Otis Taylor album as an SACD and hi-res download brings an original-DSD recording to SACD collectors at a time when few non-classical albums are being recorded, much less released, in SACD format. What makes this SACD even more unusual is the inclusion of a second version of the album: a DSD “needle-drop” of the 45 RPM metal masters of the in-akustic LP version. That allows listeners to hear, as closely as possible in the digital domain, a replica of the now out-of-print LP version alongside the newly remastered DSD version.
The two masterings, as might be expected, sound very similar. There is a slightly fuller low bass emphasis in the DSD version, and the snare drum hits and picked guitar strings have a bit more snap on the LP version. The album runs about 45 minutes in length, and the songs are intended to be heard as a continuous suite, so it’s advisable to listen to each presentation in full.
The suite of pieces that comprise the album deconstructs the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe”, by presenting it three times: first, in a rock-oriented version with a searing solo by Government Mule guitarist Warren Haynes; second, in an instrumental version that frames the cornet of Ron Miles over the chord progression of the song, retitled “They Wore Blue”; and finally, in an acoustic folk-style arrangement with vocalist Langhorne Slim joining Taylor. An original song by Taylor, “Sunday Morning”, is presented in three sections interspersed with the three versions of “Hey Joe” and the other original songs. The effect created is a kind of sound tapestry, with recurring motifs and patterns that take on different shades of meaning and emotional impact in relation to the other parts of the album. The melancholy sound of violinist Anne Harris evokes the string bands that travelled rural Black communities in the era before the migration North.
Taylor’s gruff voice, with its tone of weary acceptance, neither celebrates nor condemns the violence towards women that made “Hey Joe” so controversial at the time of Jimi Hendrix’s recording. Likewise, in Taylor's original song “Peggy Lee”, the narrator dispassionately observes that a young man’s decision to transition to female is final and irreversible; both characters commit actions that cannot be undone.
This limited edition SACD, a must-have for blues lovers and DSD fans, is available on the PS Audio website.
Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net
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Comment by Herbert Frei-Schindler - February 14, 2021 (1 of 6)
Thank you for your review. It's a pity PS Audio does not sell their Octave Records SACDs through jpc or Amazon. Freight costs make ordering in the USA prohibitive. There seem to be some other Octave recordings, among them 'Out of Thin Air' by Don Grusin and 'Temporary Circumstances' by Jessica Carson. I'd love the other Octave productions being reviewed here, too.
Comment by Mark Werlin - February 14, 2021 (2 of 6)
Herbert Frei-Schindler: Thanks for commenting on my review. I agree it's a shame that this album is too expensive to ship outside the U.S.
The only cost-effective option for non-USA customers is to purchase the download package rather than the SACD. The download includes the album in DSD64 and PCM formats.
I requested a copy of Don Grusin's album "Out of Thin Air" as a DSD64 download, and hope to review it in the future.
Comment by Athenaeus - November 30, 2022 (3 of 6)
Thank you indeed, Mark Werlin, for this review. It would be nice though if the site administrators could add Octave Records' other SACD releases. There is currently only one on HR Audio; but Octave Records have issued quite a few other discs.
I do realize that there have been a lot of new SACD releases in the last few months and I'm sure that's keeping the site administrators quite busy at the moment. The reports of SACD's death have been greatly exaggerated, it seems.
Comment by Mark Werlin - November 30, 2022 (4 of 6)
Athenaeus: It's not a lack of time, or unwillingness by the site admins. Octave only sells SACDs directly from their website, so they don't assign a UPC/EAN number to their discs. That makes it impossible to list their SACDs on HRAudio. (The Otis Taylor album had an existing UPC/EAN from its earlier CD issue, otherwise it couldn't have been added.)
Craft Recordings have registered their new SACDs with UPC/EAN barcodes, even though the discs are sold directly from Craft's web shop. Perhaps Octave will eventually adopt that practice.
Comment by breydon_music - February 25, 2023 (5 of 6)
Fans of Otis Taylor will be delighted to learn that Octave Records / PS Audio have released a newly recorded SACD of Otis. Entitled "Banjo" it's available on their site now.
Comment by Athenaeus - March 19, 2023 (6 of 6)
Since it isn't possible to list most of Octave Records' releases on this site because they don't have a UPC, I guess we can use this page for the purpose of discussing them.
Paul McGowan, the owner of PS Audio and Octave Records, has an interesting You Tube channel through which he answers audio-related questions from customers and viewers. He posted a video about DXD a few days ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCyLg_grl1A&t=185s. He explains how their earlier discs were recorded in DSD, then entirely mixed in the analogue domain, and finally converted back to DSD. That way, they really were pure DSD, i.e. they hadn't gone through a PCM step or through DXD, which is a form of PCM.
He then goes on to explain that Octave Records still record in DSD, but now edit on Pyramix, which uses DXD (once again, that's actually PCM). Paul McGowan, who's always been an advocate of DSD and SACDs, thinks the final product sounds better when done on Pyramix rather than through Sonoma and analogue mixing.
And apparently, we'll be able to hear it for ourselves. He says he has remixed Gabriel Mervine's album Say Somethin' on Pyramix. This is an early Octave Records album that was mixed in analogue; it can be considered pure DSD. According to Paul McGowan, the remixed version sounds much better than the original. Although he didn't say how and when this will be released, I suppose it will be on SACD.