The Fourth of July isn’t usually a holiday known for gifts. But your humble reviewer felt as if he got a gift, and what a gift!, on July 3 when Kritzerland’s limited edition deluxe 2-CD reissue of the original cast album of Promises, Promises (KR 20015-9) arrived in the mail. As a result, much of the weekend was spent listening to an album I’ve known for years, but hearing it as if for the first time. For background on this release, see The Second Disc’s post of June 14 and join us after reading. Up to speed? Great!
Disc 1 marks the CD debut of the Grammy-winning album mix of the 1968 United Artists release, produced by Henry Jerome and Phil Ramone, a close collaborator of Promises’ composer Burt Bacharach. The difference between the mix here and that used on both previous CD reissues from Rykodisc (RCD 10750) and Varese Sarabande (302 066 647 2) is quite audible to anyone familiar with the album. James Nelson’s mastering is crisp and clear, and if the album itself has harsh somewhat harsh stereo separation, it’s a marked improvement over previous CD releases of the LP. Producer Bruce Kimmel’s liner notes point out one of the reasons why this album has such a unique sound: Promises, Promises was actually recorded with a chamber-type reverb, rather than adding reverb during the mix. Promises was the first show to implement a recording studio-style setup in the theatre, complete with mixing board, to allow Bacharach’s patented sound to survive the translation to live performance. The LP beautifully captures the nuances in Bacharach and David’s bright score, Jonathan Tunick’s dynamic, pulsating orchestrations (best heard in the Overture, still one of the most thrilling ever penned) and of course, the performances by Jerry Orbach, Jill O’Hara, Edward Winter, Donna McKechnie and others.
But the real revelation is Disc 2 of Kritzerland’s set. I’m usually hesitant to use the word “revelation” as it’s a mite hyperbolic. But this completely remixed version of the album (from the edited eight-track session masters), produced by Kimmel, mixed by John Adams and mastered by Nelson, is worthy of any and all plaudits sent its way. The remix allows the score to be heard anew. The soundstage is much larger with instruments and voices spread in a more natural setting. Listening to it, I actually felt as if I was in the Shubert Theatre, circa 1968. Quirks in an orchestration I thought I knew well are audible for the first time and the omnipresent Bacharach background singers (lending the score a flavor unlike that of any other Broadway musical) can be heard with improved clarity. For the first time, individual vocalists shine through on the hymn-like chorale “Christmas Day.” Much is made at mastering engineer Steve Hoffman’s audiophile forum about a recording’s “breath of life.” Well, the breath of life is indeed present on this reissue of the seminal Bacharach and David score. Bacharach’s melodies are not only inventive, but they could practically tell the musical’s story alone: “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You” is a funny melody. How many composers could pull that off with no gimmicky tricks or effects? “Knowing When to Leave” veers from pensive to determined in one song while “She Likes Basketball” sounds like unbridled optimism and discovery. (And it does so in waltz time!) Of course, Hal David’s lyrics match the melodies song for song.
And then there’s Kimmel’s judicious use of pitch correction techniques on the vocal performances. Perhaps as a result of the time-honed practice of recording Broadway cast albums in one day (usually on the actors’ day off, a Monday, after the performers are already tired from an eight-show week), many of the performers on Promises, Promises were off-pitch throughout. Modern technology has corrected that, and wow, what a difference it makes! Jerry Orbach, who already imbued his performance with personality and character, actually sounds more youthful, more vibrant and more present on the disc. To anyone familiar with the LP, the pitch-correction of Orbach’s performance will be instantly noticeable. “She Likes Basketball” soars even more than before, “Half as Big as Life” is filled with even more yearning and drive. Edward Winter’s “Wanting Things” similarly is improved a hundredfold by these subtle tweaks. The integrity of these indelible original performances is intact, but they have been remarkably transformed all the same. As if all that isn’t enough, the LP’s tracks are finally restored to show order (it’s odd hearing the groovy instrumental “Grapes of Roth” in its correct spot!) and a bonus track is included of Jill O’Hara’s version of the title song. Kimmel also supplies liner notes filled with his personal recollections that clearly show just how much this album has meant to him over the years and what a labor of love this project is.
I know it’s only July, but if there were voting to be had for a Reissue of the Year award, I’d certainly have a leading contender right here. Kritzerland’s 2-disc set of Promises, Promises is a limited edition of 1000 copies, and as of this writing, that pressing has expectedly sold out. One can only hope that Kritzerland and MGM, the rights holder as successor to United Artists Records, can come to an agreement to make this recording available to all those who wish to purchase it. It’s sure to please longtime fans of the musical, but I can’t recommend this enough to the other fans and collectors of Bacharach and David’s pop work, and to adventurous audiophiles who’d like to do a fun A/B comparison. In fact, Kritzerland’s release should be the standard version available in stores, rather than the remix still in print on Varese. Any younger listeners hooked on the new Broadway revival starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth would be well-advised to seek out the original as “spruced up” by Kritzerland to hear just how current the Bacharach sound of 1968 still can be.