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review added: 11/5/02

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The Police: Every Breath You Take - The Classics
1995 (2002) - A&M/BMG (DTS Entertainment)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

DTS

The Police: Every Breath You Take - The Classics (DTS 5.1 Music) Album Rating: B+

Audio Ratings (DTS 5.1): B

Extras Rating: N/A

Specs and Features

50 mins, single-sided, single-layered, available in "super jewel box" and standard CD jewel case packaging, 8-page booklet, track access (12 tracks - see track listing below), audio formats: DTS 5.1

Produced by The Police (with Nigel Gray, Chris Gray and Hugh Padgham)
5.1 Mix by David Tickle at Avalon Kauai

Sting (lead vocals/bass), Andy Summers (vocals/guitars), Stewart Copeland (vocals/drums)



I'm a SERIOUS fan of The Police. And when I say serious, I don't mean that I came aboard with the rest of the world, when Every Breath You Take was flying up the Billboard Top 100. I first discovered The Police way back when they were still posing as a Punk act, playing dives like CBGBs, The Orpheum and Jay's Longhorn. What? You've never heard of Jay's Longhorn? Exactly my point. I have in my vinyl collection a mint copy of The Police's first-ever single, Fallout, which was hand-sleeved by Sting and Stewart Copeland and which was recorded before guitarist Andy Summers even joined the band. What? You've never heard of Corsican, three-chord guitar ace Henri Padovani? Exactly my point. Bottom line, I love The Police and I know their music up and down, inside and out.

But... I'm going to have to be honest here. When I first heard this DTS 5.1 version of the band's Every Breath You Take - The Classics, I came awfully damn close to taking it outside, laying it down on the pavement... and backing over it with my car.

A word of advice: when you make your first foray into the world of 5.1 music, it's best not to do it with a 5.1 version of one of your favorite albums. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it's true nonetheless. The reason is that you're going to have very high expectations, and any new 5.1 mix of music you've loved for years is bound to have lots of little differences that your ears will unavoidably be drawn to. When you find your head turning at some new little nuance of the mix you're not familiar with, it has a tendency to pull you completely out of the enjoyment of the music as a whole. And as those differences start to build up, it's likely to be very aggravating indeed.

You might think that listening to music in surround sound would be completely natural. After all, we live in a three-dimensional world. But when you've spent a lifetime listening to music in stereo, listening to that same music in 5.1 seems very unnatural in fact. With a brand new recording, 5.1 is easier to accept - the artist is often intimately involved in the new surround mix for one thing. And the fact that it's new means that you haven't got years of built-up perceptions and opinions about the music. Also, my experience is that certain styles of music seem to lend themselves to 5.1 presentation - electronica, for example, or a concert recording tends to sound more natural in 5.1 than would, say, an old recording of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones originally issued in mono or analog stereo. Then there's the matter of what kind of 5.1 mix you have. Are you in the audience with the band arrayed in front of you, as in a live setting? Or are you right in the midst of the musicians, with different threads of the music coming at you from all around? These are questions that recording engineers, mixing and re-mixing music today in 5.1, are having to ask themselves. And more importantly, these are some of the choices they're having to make... choices that can have a profound effect on the tonal and emotional qualities of the music itself, in some cases altering the spirit of the original experience entirely.

Fast forward a few months to me revisiting Every Breath You Take - The Classics. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and I didn't, in fact, destroy this CD. And I'm glad I didn't, because after spending the last few weeks really immersing myself in the world of high-resolution and 5.1 music, listening to literally dozens of new releases on DVD-Audio, SACD and DTS 5.1 CD, this disc has grown on me considerably.

The first thing to note about the DTS version of Every Breath You Take - The Classics is that it's not an entirely faithful port of the original 1995 A&M CD release. Two tracks have been omitted entirely from the DTS release - Don't Stand So Close to Me '86 and the new "classic rock mix" of Message in a Bottle (tracks 13 & 14 respectively on the original CD). But there's one other important difference that may come as a surprise to fans. During The Police's aborted 1986 attempt to reform for a sixth studio album, the original plan was to record entirely new material. But, egos and tensions within the band being what they were, Sting was less than enthusiastic about the project and had written no new songs. What's more, Stewart Copeland arrived at the recording studio with a broken collar bone, the result of a polo accident. So the idea of a new album was abandoned and a decision was made to simply revisit a pair of tracks for a greatest hits release. The resulting tracks were disastrous by any measure (despite being a fascinating record of the final self-destruction of the band). The first of these (featuring Copeland on electronic drum machine) was the aforementioned Don't Stand So Close to Me '86. But the other track, which ultimately went unreleased, was De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da '86. Unreleased until now that is, because that's the version of the song that you'll find on this DTS release.

Let's run down the songs in order. Roxanne, Can't Stand Losing You and Message in a Bottle are raw, thread-bare jams that are meant to sound rough around the edges. But here they've got a polish that just doesn't quite fit their original spirit. In terms of surround activity, most of what you get in the rear channels are backing vocals and drum hits. There's also a degree of directional play with Andy's guitar lines that works quite well. But the odd sense of spaciousness to the mix just doesn't feel right. Of the three, Roxanne and Message in a Bottle fare the best. But in Can't Stand Losing You, the 5.1 mix has a strange, added echo to some of Stewart's drum beats, starting right from his opening riff. It sustains far too long and it's definitely not in the original mix (believe me, I went back and checked for it). I found my head turning every time I heard this and each time it made me cringe.

For Walking on the Moon and Don't Stand So Close to Me, there's a somewhat greater sense of "size" to the virtual space created by the mix. This is fully appropriate to Walking on the Moon in particular, and adds to the character of the song favorably, despite the fact that the tonal quality of the vocals has been somewhat altered to achieve this effect. But again, Andy's guitar jigs playfully from the surrounds. It works.

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da '86 is just plain awful. It's a glossy and candy-coated mix that feels completely out of character for the band and is dreadfully out of place among their other recordings. As a remix itself, the 5.1 presentation of this song is much more aggressive, with much more activity in the surrounds involving vocals and electronic patterns. Which is all fine and good. But the remix was terrible in 1986 and hearing it 5.1 doesn't make it any better in 2002.

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic is again a little too aggressive in terms of surround activity. Too much echo has been added to the mix, with a great deal of play involving drums, symbols and backing vocals in the rear channels. Because of the remix, you also hear much more of the fiddly little electronic patterns that were in the original recording but were buried in the background. This is, to be fair, a lively, playful song. But the subtle changes here are just too distracting.

Thankfully, however, this CD's last five tracks (Invisible Sun, Spirits in the Material World, Every Breath You Take, King of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger), all sound fantastic. By this point in their career, the sound of The Police had evolved tremendously, with the tracks from Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity exhibiting a much greater degree of sophistication. Strangely, the surround activity with these newer songs is not as aggressively playful as on the early tracks, with the sole exception of Spirits in the Material World (during which saxophone and keyboards drabble mirthfully from the surrounds). What you get instead is more a creation of space - an expansiveness which really works well, especially with the Synchronicity tracks. King of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger are absolute sonic stand-outs on this CD - enough so that I would love to hear the entire Synchronicity album remixed in 5.1.

On the whole with this CD, the added, high-resolution clarity of the music is a welcome improvement. Sting's lead vocal tracks in particular are crisp and tight, sounding better than I've ever heard them before. And the tracks from the later albums are generally excellent. But my experience here is that the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in the musical character of the band's early songs, induced in the 5.1 remix, are just too distracting for me. As a fan, it's really hard for me to get past the differences.

If you're starting to sense that a person's reaction to listening to 5.1 music is very subjective, then you're absolutely right. As each of you move into this new world of surround sound music, it's going to take most of you a while to adjust. And each of you is going to discover what you like and what you don't... what kind of surround presentation you're comfortable with and what destroys the original experience of the recording for you.

In the end, while I was eventually able to warm up to the surround sound remix of the Police hits on Every Breath You Take - The Classics, I found myself constantly wishing for a 96/24 stereo option instead (as you would find on a true DTS DVD-Audio disc). I personally find that I'm much less excited about 5.1 music than I am about the opportunity to simply hear my favorite albums in their original stereo format, but with the greatly enhanced clarity of high-resolution presentation. But in the effort to separate myself from my lifelong stereo bias, I can appreciate that the 5.1 mix on this disc is generally quite good. It's not the best 5.1 music remix I've heard yet, but it's also very far from the worst.

I've been told by those in the know that Universal Music is gearing up to release material by The Police on high-resolution SACD format in the near future, and possibly on DVD-Audio as well. I just hope they're looking at the WHOLE Police catalog, rather than just a greatest hits offering. Forget Every Breath You Take - the chance to hear songs like Bring on the Night, Too Much Information, Synchronicity II and Murder by Numbers in 96/24 or better stereo? Now that gets the Police fan in me REALLY excited.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Track Listing:

Roxanne
Can't Stand Losing You
Message in a Bottle
Walking on the Moon
Don't Stand So Close to Me
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da '86
Every Little Thing She Does is Magic
Invisible Sun
Spirits in the Material World
Every Breath You Take
King of Pain
Wrapped Around Your Finger




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