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Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (DVD-Audio)
Reviewed By: Felix E. Martinez
Reviewed On: 01/03/03
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0, Stereo 48/24, 5.1 channel 48/24
DVD Format: DVD-5
Length: 39 minutes
Release Date: 12/17/02
Packaging: Super Jewel Box
Region Code: 1
Studio: Warner
Catalog Number: 78138DVA

Grades & Ratings:

Audio
Extras
Menus
Movie

Expectations & Reactions:

Nostalgia can be a dangerous drug. At times necessary, the act of revisiting the past serves to place into perspective the value and accomplishments of one's life, and provides fuel for overcoming current obstacles. However, the habitual use of the drug can also introduce a vise-like grip on the soul: no matter what happens in the present or future, the past can be (and usually is) distorted to satiate one's own self image – for better or worse. This effect can introduce a loss of momentum and a danger of paralysis (psychological and/or creative) as one basks in what once was and what could have been.

After Steely Dan's release of Gaucho in 1980, the band's founding fathers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, split up and called it quits. In their minds they had reached their "peak," and feeling reatively and personally spent, the dynamic duo decided to go their separate ways. Becker retreated to Hawaii, while Fagen had the idea of mining the past for his next recording project. The result? The Nightfly, a critically acclaimed and commercially successful debut solo album comprised of autobiographical songs released in October 1982.

Fagen ironically reminisces about the nostalgic Nightfly in the liner notes for WB's sparkling new DVD-Audio re-issue of the classic album. "During the final mixdown...I started to feel kind of funny, and that feeling turned into an even weirder feeling that had to do with work and love and the past and mortality and so forth." He would not release another album until 1993.

Could Fagen's act of revisiting the past, of rediscovering his youthful naiveté and trying to reconcile that with adult cynicism been a bit too much to handle? No doubt that The Nightfly is a deeply personal album. No doubt that delving into the past for artistic gold nuggets requires prolonged and incessant exposure to Nostalgia. It couldn't have helped.

Audio & Mix:

The Nightfly is justly recognized as a masterpiece of both composition and engineering. Fagen's lyrics – comprised of sly irony, tempered by nostalgic innocence – runs wonderfully counterpoint to accessible melodies, wrapped in complex arrangements and crystal clear production. The project has a history of being among the first digital recordings in the early 1980s, and the CD still serves as a reference disc for many producers, engineers, and audiophiles alike.

Some erroneous technical information regarding the DVD-Audio version of The Nightfly has been floating around the Internet of late; namely, that the sampling rate was kept at 24-bit/48khz to avoid sample rate conversion from the original digital master tapes. While the DVD- Audio's sampling rate is indeed close to the native sampling rate of the original recording, there was a slight conversion. According to the album's engineer, Roger Nichols, The Nightfly was recorded on a 32 track 3M machine at 16-bit/50khz. Nichols did the tape transfers for the DVD-Audio disc from the original 3M machine (which he still has) to 24-bit/48khz Pro Tools using Apogee converters. The 5.1 mix was then done by Elliot Scheiner on a Neve analog console at Presence Studio in Connecticut. The result is a prime example of the glossy, "Steely Dan sound" – a pristine mix with airy highs, a nice dynamic range, and a dry, uncluttered ambience.

However, The Nightfly on DVD-Audio sounds a bit "thin" compared to Steely Dan's more recent DVD-Audio offering of Two Against Nature. The older recording exhibits a somewhat reserved low end and a thin mid-range – particularly evident in the horns and lead vocals. The fact that The Nightfly's pioneering use of early 1980s digital audio technology can even compare with the state-of-the-art digital recording of Two Against Nature is an accomplishment in and of itself, but sadly, The Nightfly just doesn't work as a reference disc for me anymore. Ah, the sad tinge of nostalgia is seeping in...

That's certainly not to say that the album has ever sounded better – it hasn't. The vintage stereo mix by Scheiner (located in Group 1, second audio track with your remote) is included on the DVD-Audio disc, and the sonics are an improvement over the good 'ol CD from the 1980s. The thin low end has always been there, but the dynamics and transients sound a bit better. It's not a huge improvement by any stretch of the imagination, but it's nice to have the original mix for historical context.

Since Scheiner is responsible for the original stereo mix, I'm not surprised that the 5.1 uncompressed MLP surround remix (Group 1, first audio track) sounds faithful to the original recording. The one slightly distracting mix choice is Scheiner's fairly liberal use of the lead vocal in the rear speakers. I prefer hearing lead vocals firmly planted in a wide, front soundstage, while the rest of the instruments surround me. An interesting mix choice in "I.G.Y." is Scheiner's use of a dry lead vocal track in the center channel, with the same track in the other speakers with processing (reverb, etc.). The result is a lead vocal with resolute intelligibility and enveloping ambiance. The famous horns in "I.G.Y." are nicely placed in the rear speakers, but, as previously mentioned, sound a bit thin compared to Scheiner's similar horn mixing arrangement in Two Against Nature.

Interestingly, "Green Flower Street" is the only song without Fagen's lead vocals included in the center speaker. However, unless you're sitting off axis in the listening space, the phantom imaging from the front left and right speakers places Fagen's vocal right where it needs to be. Perhaps the instrumentation of the track inspired Scheiner to change the lead vocal layout. The overall balance of instruments in the listening space is excellent, and this is what really counts.

The 5.1 mix also sports excellent sidewall imaging, dynamics, and transients, with instruments tastefully placed around the listener. Guitar licks, synth lines and percussion embellishments sound more playful than ever, and the recording truly sparkles. The title song boasts a punchier low-end, but is the harshest sounding of the tracks due to equally prominent highs.

Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround choices are also included on the disc (located in Group 3 and Group 4, respectively), along with the original stereo mix in uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital 2.0 (Group 5). Compared to the uncompressed MLP surround track, the Dolby Digital 5.1 option has a healthier low end, but suffers from less distinct transients and more discrete imaging. The DTS surround track holds its own against the MLP option, and frankly, they're virtually indistinguishable. The Nightfly is one of a handful of DVD-Audio titles with excellent audio choices across the board. If I had to pick nits, the DD 2.0 choice is the only option that's substantially inferior to the others, exhibiting an overall lackluster sound and harsh mids.

Extras & Highlights:

MTV aficionados glued to the cable music channel during its early years (circa 1982-1983) surely caught a glimpse of the music video for "New Frontier." It was a treat to revisit this relic, which is included on the disc as a Bonus Video (also located in Group 2). Alas, the video quality is pretty mediocre: the full-screen image is noisy and blurry, and also exhibits smeared colors. Depending on the audio set-up selected for the disc, the video will play in either DD 5.1 surround or DD 2.0 stereo. Audio quality is on par, if not identical to the DD 5.1 and 2.0 mixes of the song accessible via the album's track listing.

Lyrics are included, and they're accessible while listening to the song in question. Credits for the album proper and the DVD-Audio are also provided.

The eight-page Super Jewel Case booklet contains most of the liner notes from the original CD release, and also includes two pages of additional notes by Fagen (written in September 2002), who breaks down and provides the context for each song. Unlike the CD, lyrics are not included in the booklet (but are included on the disc).

Menus & Interface:

The album's first track, "I.G.Y.," immediately begins playing when the disc is popped into the player. The Main Menu is comprised of the following choices: Surround Tracks, Stereo Tracks, New Frontier Video, and Credits.

Simple and elegant menu transitions complement the mood of the album. Smoke fills the screen during menu changes, and the Main Menu settles into the classic cover artwork for The Nightfly: Fagen sits in front of a turntable and microphone, his head slightly cocked, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. When the smoky transition clears, a thin trail of animated smoke continues to trail upward from the cigarette. Nicely done!

Song & Tracklisting:
  1. I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)
  2. Green Flower Street
  3. Ruby Baby
  4. Maxine
  5. New Frontier
  6. The Nightfly
  7. The Goodbye Look
  8. Walk Between The Raindrops
Artists & Technicians:

The Nightfly contains wonderful performances from ace musicians and session players, including: Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards); Greg Phillinganes and Michael Omartian (keyboards); Michael and Randy Brecker (horns); Marcus Miller and Anthony Jackson (basses); Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, and Rick Derringer (guitars); Jeff Porcaro and Ed Green (drums); Hugh McCracken (harmonica).

The original album was produced by Gary Katz, with Roger Nichols as Chief Engineer. Elliot Scheiner did the original stereo and new 5.1 mix.

Conclusions & Afterthoughts:

Rediscovering The Nightfly in wonderful 5.1 surround on DVD-Audio brings back quite a few memories. I recall catching the video for "New Frontier" on the fresh, new, music-only (remember that concept?) cable channel called MTV. I also remember purchasing my very first CD player (a mid-line model from JVC that still works almost 20 years later), along with the original CD of The Nightfly. And I remember finding an odd, nostalgic connection between my own adolescence and Fagen's childhood memories (despite our age difference).

If, as Fagen reveals in the new liner notes, he's glad that he did The Nightfly when he did, "before a lot of the kid-ness was beat the hell out of me, as happens to us all," then revisiting the album provides us with an opportunity to heal. We can then face the world once again and get the shit kicked out of us ad nauseum. On the other hand, this B.S. I'm spewing might just be the initial high of the lethal mix of Nostalgia and Cynicism kicking in.

I'm hooked.

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