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Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism SACD Review

by December 07, 2006

Barsuk Records

Price: $15.98 | Get the Best Price

Let's just say I was having a bad month…or two. I had ordered a few DVD-A's for review and was told it would be 7-10 days because one was backordered. I was OK with that as I wasn't really in a rush and a backordered CD is usually a good sign. When I got my order, two of the discs were wrong and the other played... oddly. Sent those back and... nothing. M onths went by as I waited, too busy and distracted by other reviews and life to follow up. Finally, I gave them a call and said, "I don't care what you send me, just send me something recent and either SACD or DVD-A. Just SO M ETHING!" Enter Death Cab for Cutie.


Review Methodology

Discs are listened to a minimum of twice with at least a 24 hour separation between the listening sessions. During session one, notes are taken on the subjective experience of the implementation of the DTS 5.1 (in this case) along with notes on other features. During session two, the original notes are compared and expanded upon during the listening experience. Additional listening sessions are added as needed. Before each session, speaker calibration is checked using an SPL meter and the test-tones on the receiver, in this case the Denon AVR-3805.


The Songs

1) The New Year - (faster) M ostly muddy and harsh with a few moments of interesting effects. Ends very well.

2) Lightness - (ballad) Nice effects, strange feedback/child's whistle sound bouncing between the speakers underscore a nice melody and guitar/drum line.

3) Title and Registration - (faster) Staticy snare compressed (maybe sampled?) Nice vocals and guitar line. Xylophone very lifelike.

4) Expo '86 - (faster) Background tambourine sounds muffled. Refrain harsh.

5) The Sound of Settling - (Faster) - M aintains its audio quality for the most part.

6) Tiny Vessels - (ballad) Piano and guitar very lifelike though the drums sound a little subdued during slower section, refrain faster, distorted, harsh.

7) Transatlanticism - (ballad) Nice piano/effects at beginning. Slow, interesting, arresting, builds gradually. Unlike the others, the vocals seem a bit recessed/muted (as in a trumpet), drum at end seems to hover over the room, very nice effect.

8) Passenger Seat - (ballad) Clear piano, vocals a lot less recessed compared to the previous track. Nice fade away at the end. No unnecessary effects, the song is allowed to shine on its own. Probably the best track on the disc from a technical standpoint.

9) Death of an Interior Decorator - (faster) Good clear guitar. Top hat cymbal very convincing. Overall, very good if slightly repetitive.

10) We Looked Like Giants - (faster) Good energy, instrumentation a bit harsh during the refrain, vocals compressed during the refrain. Some nice effects.


11) A Lack of Color - (ballad) Tambourine's come in very nicely, using the two channel format well. Vocals well placed and prominent. Guitar lifelike and convincing.



Death Cab for Cutie is either poorly or brilliantly named depending on your view of irony. M y best descriptor would be to compare them to the Beatles if they hadn't gotten on drugs and were still around. While there are a good variety of tempos on the album, most of the music is very accessible and shouldn't push away the average consumer. The lead vocalist, Ben Gibbard, has a melodic and airy voice, perhaps a bit too saccharine for some of the songs. The ballads, in particular, are instantly likable and should encourage owners to explore the rest of the album.


Audio Quality

I wasn't impressed as the album started. At first, I thought I was having a problem with my DVD player. It starts with a kind of humming sound reminiscent of background noise associated with a re-re-re-recording of a tape a friend borrowed from a friend. Sort of scratchy and…ick. Once the first track really started I thought, "Ahh…I got hosed by that online company." The first track, while catchy, seemed muddy and generally undefined. Everything sounded like I was listening to it through a sheet of saran wrap. Let's just say that my initial notes on this album were none too positive.

As I was trying to come up with yet another metaphor for "sloppy," I noticed two things, 1) that it seemed like more than two speakers in my system were playing at time, and 2) I heard a very nicely executed pan from one speaker to the other (for more on this second point, see the next section). Being the conscientious reviewer I am, I stood up and put my ear next to, and hand on, every speaker in the system. Nope, only two channels. Hmmm…I sat back down and stopped writing. Sure enough, the sound coming out of my Axiom m22's was much more involving than I had experienced in quite some time. I still thought the song sounded bad, but the sound stage was fantastic.

Luckily, the first track was not indicative of the rest of the album. As the second track started, I realized that I had been duped. That's OK. I'm a man, I can take it. The second track was more of a ballad with very clean, prominent vocals and a nice guitar. Vocals on the whole for this album were handled very well. While the music would sometimes sound a bit forward, usually the vocals were not overshadowed. The lead (and all backup vocals) was securely anchored in the center usually with the main instrument. Supporting instruments and percussion were divided between the two speakers, mostly to great effect. The vocals were almost always convincing and lifelike - probably the highlight of the album.

Whichever instrument was supplying the melody (mostly the guitar but sometimes a piano) usually had a much more realistic and believable presence when compared to some of the supporting instruments. M ore than once, I found myself thinking that I really liked [fill in the blank], but everything else sounds a bit compressed and, for lack of a better word, plastic. Often, the problem was the quality of the vocals relegating the lower quality music into the realm of the 2-dimensional. Faster songs tended to have harsh refrains (which isn't necessarily a knock against the album, it is just a choice they made) and the vocals would sometimes become a bit compressed.


Two-Channel Implementation

As stated above, I heard an interesting pan in the first track which attracted my interest. The more I listened, the more I heard. Let's be honest, with two speakers there is not a lot you can do without crossing the line from augmenting the music to overshadowing it. Transatlanticism does a very good job of using the two channels without abusing them. Nearly every song had something different to hear or discover under the main melody and vocals. Almost every effect was subtle and well executed, causing my eyes to widen in a, "Did I just hear what I thought I heard," kind of way. Nothing slapped me in the face or distracted from the overall composition of the songs. M ultiple critical listens will uncover more of these little touches which is, in my mind, what makes a great album. If there is a playbook for using two channels, whoever mixed this album should be allowed to write a chapter or two.

The soundstage for this album was better than I expected. M ore than once, I sniffed my coke to see if someone slipped some rum in it, I was that impressed. I had long since sworn off reviewing two channel music as my experience with multichannel has pretty much jaded me. The last few two channel albums I reviewed were OK for what they were but I found them much less involving than multi-channel. I guess I have to rethink my position. M any times during both of my listening sessions I checked my speakers to see if anything but the mains and sub were on. I hate it when reviewers say that the "vocalist materialized in the room" or that they could "almost see the trumpet floating in front of them" but I sure did think that snare drum on the title track was coming from the ceiling directly in front of me.




Let me be honest…I so much wanted to hear a difference between the SACD and the CD versions…but I didn't. I spent a few frustrating hours flipping back and forth between the two versions but the only thing I noticed was the there was a flutter at one point in a song on the CD version (whoopee). Hey, it is a Hybrid album so you are getting both versions. This way, you've got one for the car.



Lyrics on the jacket.



What transforms this album for me from ho-hum to a-ha is the two-channel mix. M any interesting effects (pans, instrument placement, etc) underscore an accessible album. The soundstage is much larger and more convincing than many I had experienced. The ballads are sung and mixed beautifully while the faster songs tend to fall into harshness and compression. The lifelike vocals sound too good for much of the rest of the music relegating it to sounding fake and two dimensional. Overall, not a bad album overall but it definitely needs a bit of polishing before it shines.



About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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