03/14/2003 4:30p MT
Grey Cavitt - Reviewer
Buddy Holly was not the only musician to die in that plane in 1959. Also on board was up and coming Ritchie Valens, not yet eighteen but already mounting an assault on the pop charts. Was he headed to the top? We will never know. He only left behind three albums and a few singles to testify to his promising talent.
Still, at least three songs live on in radio play lists, commercials, and films today, the A-sides "Come On, Let’s Go" and "Donna", and the B-side buried on the back of "Donna", a little ditty called "La Bamba". These three tunes hit you right off upon kick starting the new Audio Fidelity compilation of Valens’ greatest hits. Ignore the title. Valens never had eighteen hits, and while a compilation of such a short career is always problematic, those three hits demand a home in every serious 50s rock collector’s shelves, and this smartly chosen collection allows Valens to make a convincing argument for his musical legacy that might have been.
Make no mistake. Those three songs do indeed hit you. This hybrid will play fine on your regular CD player, and you will most likely be quite happy, but slip this into your SACD player, and buckle up. Steve Hoffman compiled and remastered the now legendary Buddy Holly collection, from the Original Master Tapes, so he obviously knows how to coax magic out of sources from this era. With the additional resolution of SACD, this music leaps from flat tones to three-dimensional, living, radiating glory. Almost constantly throughout the running time of this disc, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting inside the famous echo chambers where many of these cuts first leaped to life.
Occasionally, such as in "The Paddi-Wack Song", the odd crinkle or flaw might briefly flare up, but this is easily forgivable. To ‘fix’ this master tape would require converting the music into a lesser format first, digitally tweaking it, and then taking a third step pasting it to SACD. The process would have scrubbed the sonics clean, but the decreased resolution, the mutigenerational copies, and the processing would have killed it. As it is, the music beats, thumps, throbs, and breathes with a life few would have expected from sources of this vintage. Original producer Bob Keane even supervised this project to ensure its faithfulness to the recordings. I doubt Valens has ever sounded this good. This certainly trumps any digital version yet released.
Almost as surprising as the superior sound on this album are the other tracks that follow the three famous ones. "Fast Freight" rumbles like a barreling train, nearly dies for a solo with sparkling clarity that draws you into the recording studio, and then explodes, knocking you to your feet. Even better are the rave-ups "Hurry Up", the alternate take of "That’s My Little Suzie", and "Ooh! My Head". That last tune, with its galloping drums, deliciously distorted vocals, and gorgeously echoed guitar should have put Little Richard on notice; one of his biggest fans was breathing down his neck. "Framed" may start oddly, with its faux blues beginning, but stay with it and the reward will be worth it.
Valens not only could rock, but he also had a special feel for softer material. Occasionally, his ballads wandered into dull territory, and a few examples of this appear on the disc. At his best, however, he could cast a song into a reverential mood, bringing an almost church-like atmosphere to tunes that otherwise would veer into the melodramatic. That ability is what separates "Donna" from so many other slow songs of the era, and it also distinguishes the undiscovered classics, "In a Turkish Town" and "Bluebirds Over the Mountain". The crisp, lifelike tambourine at the beginning of the latter is a particular joy.
While the bonus tracks are excellent, managing to be quite different from the official versions and revealing, the sequencing of this disc is its largest drawback. By front-loading the three well-known songs at the beginning, the album feels a bit lopsided. It practically begs casual fans to turn off after the first few minutes, and that would be a shame. A chronological approach would have been more enlightening and balanced, with the nice bonuses tucked away at the end.
Most people really only need one Valens album, a collection that enables them to revisit the hits and dig into the best of the more rare material in one pleasing listen. Although many admirable attempts at this ideal album already exist, forget them. The excellent selection and stellar sound of this SACD render them obsolete. Audio Fidelity’s "Ritchie Valens Greatest Hits" is everything most music fans will need of Valens’ tragically short career.
Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.