|Jeff Trott - Dig Up The Astroturf|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Friday, 28 December 2001|
I first encountered Jeff Trott in collaboration with Karl Wallinger (World Party) many years ago. Perhaps it was even earlier, if this is the same Jeff Trott who was in a band called The Lifers in the early '80s. Since then, he has become rather well-known as a BMI award-winning songwriter and collaborator on several hits with a number of top artists, notably Tears for Fears and Sheryl Crow.
"Dig Up the Astroturf," however, is his first solo album, and his first foray into surround (this album was put together with surround deliberately in mind). While one can commend DTS Entertainment for giving their artist a good deal of freedom in the creation of this work, what it really lacks in my view is a good producer, just as even the best author needs a good editor. It’s one thing to produce other people, but producing your own work is sometimes too much to tackle, and I think this is the problem here. The result is that some aspects of this album are in my view ill-advised and even distracting, making the inventive and interesting writing and high-quality performances less easily accessible than they might have been if supervised by someone other than the artist.
That being said, there is some fascinating material here. There are echoes of some cool influences, from the Beatles to the aforementioned Karl Wallinger. The writing (which includes a lot of space references) and instrumentation (including backwards guitars, super-compressed piano and electronic sounds) combine to lend a post-psychedelic feel to the cuts, though they are rendered 21st century (or at least late 20th) by drums and other sounds that come across as sampled or looped, whether or not they actually are.
Interestingly, though, my favorites on this album are the quieter cuts, most of which come along later in the track listing. The up-front, up-tempo numbers start the album and these tend to go overboard in their use of surround panning and effects, including trying things that just don’t work in 5.1. For example, you can’t pan vocals smoothly round the room. Apart from across the front, they will tend to jump from one speaker to the next, which they duly do; there are technologies that allow this but they are not widely known. There are also questionable cuts and splices. I recently read a comment somewhere to the effect that modern digital audio workstations make it possible to edit anything to anything, and yes they indeed do, but that ability does not mean that the edits will work musically, and the opening track is a prime example of this. Presumably in an attempt to be impressive, there is a ghastly repeating juxtaposition of elements that just don’t work together very well, despite being obviously deliberate (there is a music video of the first cut, "Walk A Cloud," that cross-cuts vigorously at the same point), which distracts from the flow of the piece.
The up-tempo tracks are all fairly similar, especially sonically, and include an unusual and welcome depth to the lyrics – a feature of the album as a whole – but note that to get them right, you’ll have to listen to them, as there are a number of significant errors in the printed and on-screen versions.
Past the initial thrill-seekers, the album settles down to a much deeper and more satisfying groove, and leaves the – dare I say – pretentiousness of the early tracks behind, but this does mean persevering with the album until it gets there: which is something you should do. There is a definite overall style, sometimes verging on homogeneity, to the album, centered on very similar-sounding lead vocals throughout. You will either like this style or not. In my case, I eventually did like it, but the album took a while to get through to me, as I was put off by the overzealousness of the initial tracks during several early playback attempts.
Talking of pretentiousness, you may find the main menu choices a little annoying, as their pseudo-laid-back names do not generally indicate what they do – the closest to "Mystery Meat" navigation I have yet encountered on a DVD.
The surround mix here is an impressive effort by David Tickle, working in his no doubt idyllic Avalon studio on Kauai, and as a result, there is no problem with the sounds on this album. The trouble is simply what gets done with them at the production level. Despite the MLP stream being 24-bit, at 48 kHz sampling, rather than the more numerically impressive 96 kHz, everything sounds fine, demonstrating once again that surround is more important than high sample rates when it comes to delivering a more involving listener experience. There are also DTS 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 mixes on the disc for DVD-Video only owners, but I regret that the DTS is noticeably inferior to the MLP stream on this record, with the latter offering a much fuller, clearer sound. I am not entirely sure why this is: sometimes DTS tracks can quite closely approach MLP in their quality. The disc also contains a short interview with Trott, which is quite interesting, along with the aforementioned music video.
Overall, this is a good debut solo album. However, I do feel that in this instance Trott might have benefited from collaboration with a producer who was as good at production as the engineers, musicians and Trott himself are at their respective arts. Even at the best of times, it is difficult for someone to produce their own work, as it is hard to maintain the detachment and "intelligent record-buyer" mentality necessary for great production, let alone to be playing in the studio and "behind the glass" at the same time. There is nothing to be lost by working with a good producer in such circumstances, and a great deal to be gained.