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Reba McEntire - If You See Him Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 September 1998
ImageDTS Entertainment
performance 8
sound 8
released 1998

In these days of DVD-Video, DVD-Audio and SACD, does the DTS CD still have a place? The answer is a definite "yes." The format has been around for a good few years now, but all it needs for replay is a CD player with a digital output (most CD players have these) and a receiver or preamp with a DTS decoder (also common equipment these days). Nothing very special is required for excellent results. I only wish that DTS CDs were packaged in conventional CD jewel cases, so that buyers don’t think they are DVD-Audio discs and then feel shortchanged later.
Reba McEntire is not only one of new country’s veteran singers, she is also one of the most popular mainstream artists of the last 20 years. Proving that it takes a great deal of time and effort to pay your dues in Nashville, it was well over the regulation five years before her career took off in the early 1980s, but once that happened, she just kept on going … up. Today, her successful Starstruck Entertainment company owns a stunning facility (locally referred to as "Rebaworld") on Music Row, full of state-of-the-art recording gear and windows that go from dark to clear at the touch of a button.

Reba’s 1998 CD If You See Him is not generally regarded as her best work. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that, if you’ve been on top of the field for such a long while, with so many people only too pleased for you to give them another dose of what they love and expect, it’s difficult to know where to go – there aren’t many places that will both stretch you and satisfy your traditionalists.

That being said, there are some star songwriters on this album (David Malloy – who co-produced this album with Reba – and Gary Burr, to name but two), and some excellent writing, recording, production and arrangements. Bear in mind that Nashville still largely works the old way, with artists seldom performing their own songs (people like Mary Chapin Carpenter being exceptions) and relying instead on some of the best songwriters around for their material. The real hurdle for songwriters is the "committee" method of choosing the songs for an artist’s album, a process within the Nashville record business that comes in for a lot of criticism.

I was never into country music until I moved to the Nashville area in 1994 (I came from England: what do you expect?), and it was the songwriters who changed my mind. You can spend any evening at the Bluebird Café, for example, and listen to a group of the most talented songsmiths you will ever hear, playing their songs simply in the round. The answer to the question, "Why don’t they write songs like they used to?" is, "They do, and they do it in Nashville."

Even so, the Nashville sound has recently been through one of its periodic flirtations with pop and rock production techniques, when it became the most popular radio format in the nation. If You See Him was produced at the height of that trend. Now things are drifting, equally cyclically, back towards more traditional approaches (look how well the brilliant Alison Krauss is doing), and, with today's hindsight, some might suggest that sometimes the songwriters tried just a bit too hard with clever wordplay and twists in the tale, just as is more than occasionally the case with Hollywood screenwriting. It may be that the production is also just a bit too slick and clever for some people. But even if you think that, you still have to admire the artistry.

The title recording (actually "If you see him, If you see her") in fact appears on two albums, this one and on collaborators Brooks and Dunn’s album If You See Her (clever, huh?). This Tony Brown/Tim Dubois production is one of the high points of the record. I would certainly have made it the first track if I were ordering the cuts on this release.

I have some other favorites. "Face to Face" features a duet between Reba and the incomparably gorgeous Linda Davis (half-right and half-left in the soundstage) in a clever Malloy/Burr number in which two women (former and current lovers of some two-timing guy) meet and find they understand each other (it’s a country song, remember), while "Lonely Alone" includes a wonderful short guitar solo and a neat modulation near the end, both of which send a tingle up the spine. There’s a cool modulation, too, into the instrumental break in the up-tempo "Wrong Night." Name two current pop composers who know about modulations and lifting a set of final repeating choruses with a shift up a step or half-step: this otherwise forgotten part of the art of songwriting is still alive and well in Middle Tennessee.

So, here you have an extremely popular artist, perhaps not with her best work, but still bringing out an album that a lot of people unacquainted with the extraordinary level of talent in the genre would count as a masterwork. What has this to do with surround? In fact, is there a place for surround in the world of country music?

Well of course there is, as long as you don’t do something stupid. There is hardly a foot wrong on this album, technically speaking (I would question the validity of the multiple repeat echo on the final "Invisible" in the song of the same name, a slow ballad thang in which the chorus is placed in a different lyrical context in each verse – see how top songwriters turned my head? – but that’s about it). The original engineer, Kevin Beamish, mixed it for 5.1 – always a good idea, in my view – and he has done an excellent job here, in which the surround works effectively and unostentatiously. There’s a smooth, extensive soundstage, which is enveloping when it needs to be and precise when that is more appropriate.

I do not, I’m afraid, know the original stereo mixes well enough to be able to compare them, but the overall album worked well for me in surround. If you are a fan of Reba’s work, I am confident that you will find this to be a good album to add to your surround collection.

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