With all too few 5.1 DVD-Audio discs on the schedule nowadays thanks to the format wars (unlike Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, in which a winner gradually triumphed, both sides lost in the SACD vs. DVD-Audio war... or more specifically, the consumer lost), the addition of any new DVD-Audio release to the schedule is cause for celebration. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that a new Ringo Starr disc, Ringo 5.1, was in the works from Koch Records.
You'd have to be a true Ringo Starr aficionado to recognize most of the songs on this "sort-of best-of" album; while it does include some selected bests, they're the best cuts from his past few albums (prior to Liverpool 8, his newest), rather than the songs for which he's best known. Odds are, if you know any of these songs, it'll be "Never Without You," the song he did shortly after George Harrison's death; it's the only song that got any significant play, thanks in part to the subject matter and to the presence of Eric Clapton on the cut. The album also includes a second song with a brief guitar Clapton solo, "Imagine Me There"; "Don't Hang Up," in which Ringo shares lead vocals with Chrissie Hynde; "Oh My Lord," a gospel-ish piece that features a striking keyboard solo by Billy Preston; "Elizabeth Reigns," a catchy piece from Ringo Rama that incudes an accordion contribution by Van Dyke Parks; and "Memphis In Your Mind," with vocal addition by Eagle Timothy B. Schmidt and a sample lifted (with credit) from Roy Orbison. (The most surprising omission is Ringo Rama's "Write One For Me," with its Willie Nelson guest vocals; it deserves a place here.)
All in all, the album includes six songs from 2003's Ringo Rama (the even-numbered songs) and six from 2005's Choose Love (the odd-numbered songs). The DVD-Audio disc includes a thirteenth cut that's a real treat: a short tune called "I Really Love Her" that is a true Ringo solo performance: Starr plays drums, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, and bass, as well as supplying all vocals. While Ringo isn't going to find great success as a guitarist, there's no doubt he's every bit as skilled on the frets as Mick Jagger, who has insisted on including a cut or two on each of his solo albums that features his guitar-playing.
Are these Ringo's best songs? Not really, although "Never Without You" ranks right up there. When one speaks of Ringo's best, there are only two albums that really qualify: Ringo and Goodnight Vienna. Everything else has featured a musician struggling to become a musical act, without sufficiently strong material to make it work. In that regard, he's like Art Garfunkel, whose amazing, sometimes ethereal vocals have been bogged down by second-rate song choices ever since his first two post-Paul Simon albums. Ringo's pals Mark Hudson (the ex-Hudson Brothers member who co-wrote the songs) & Gary Burr never really seem to understand the persona that is Ringo; they homogenize his music rather than bringing out his best.
What makes this album remarkable, though, is the DVD-Audio mix. Since the album is entitled 5.1, I presumed that the first disc would be the DVD-Audio surround sound mix and the second would be the standard CD release of the same material. So I loaded up disc one in the Acura MDX's ELS 5.1 surround system (I salute you, Elliot Scheiner, for creating the perfect listening environment!) and was instantly disappointed. Weak sound field, lackluster separation, mediocre sound quality... then I noticed that the display said CD and not DVD-A. I checked again and discovered that Disc 2 is actually the DVD-Audio; I switched the two discs, and...
Suddenly, I'm in the room with the musicians, and Ringo is just a couple of feet away from me, every subtle vocal nuance as clear as if we were actually in the car and he was singing along. You'll have to decide how good that is musically (let's just say that Ringo isn't the strongest vocalist and doesn't always hit every note)--but the visceral impact is amazing. The instruments are clearer than they would be in any live performance; the surround sound field is rich and measured and well-placed; the listening experience is so vivid and vital that it makes even the lesser songs on this album enjoyable.
We can only hope that, at some time, Ringo's early albums--as well as every piece of music he recorded with the Beatles--is made available on DVD-Audio. Right now, we have only this disc and the brilliant Beatles album Love to give us a taste of Beatles (and Beatles related) material in high-resolution surround sound. But judging this album for what it is still leads me to recommend the disc for anyone with a DVD-Audio system: Bruce Sugar & Chis Bellman (the mixing and mastering duo) and Steve Clarke & Dan Bird (who handle the surround encoding) have brought Ringo's music to life, giving it a depth and timbre never heard on any Ringo recording before this.