Writing an online review about a book or recording has become a rather tricky business these days as even the reviews are susceptable to being reviewed if not at least rated. This is especially true of critiqueing a Judy Garland CD, DVD, or book. For those of you who might be too naive to know of such things, there are Garland camps; fans (derived from the word fanatics) who are extreme loyalists to the performer and, significantly, the "keepers of the flame." These keepers are extremely important to the rest of us though, as it is through the perserverence of these few that so many rare and previously unreleased Garland performances have seen the light of day. A world without a John Fricke, a Hugh Fordin, a Coyne Steven Sanders, an Andy Wissell, a George Feltenstein, a Max Preeo, a Ron O'Brien or, for that matter, the late Jack Kapp and Scott Schechter would, in essence, be less bright. Garland was a true star.
When I read about the projected release of this particular set of Garland recordings a few months ago on the Judy Room website, I noticed that two alternate recordings by Garland (which were featured on a Bing Crosby compilation CD issued by a Crosby fan club) were not going to be included in this set I thought I write to producer Lawrence Schulman about their ommitance. However, a small voive inside asked, "Who am I to write to this Garland expert?" Also, I must confess, with all of the Garland producers/camps who were most likely following the progress of the "Smilin' Through" project, I thought that surely some Garland expert would have stepped forward to let Schulman know of these other two recordings. But then, perhaps I too am too idealistic when it comes to the business of Judy Garland as a business. Therefore, before another word is written, let me state that while I have written letters or emails of praise to a few Garland producers (I even accidently wrote a congratulatory note of praise to John Fricke on a project by Scott Schechtor for which I received a gracious note from Fricke pointing out my error) I do not socialize or communicate with any of the above.
"Smilin' Through" has been an eagerly anticipated collection for me. You see, the Decca CD, "Complete Masters (plus)," issued about 15 years ago, was a lavishly illustrated and sonically superior collection of Judy Garland's Decca material than had ever been produced before. (Compare the songs from 1943's "Girl Crazy" on that set to the Mickey Rooney recording of "Treat Me Rough" from the same recording sessions and you will see what I mean. The restoration of his recording is not nearly as clean and bright as the the song he shares with Judy, "Could You Use Me?") Was it possible to do any better than the "Complete Masters" sound quality?
The answer is a resounding yes! I received the set in the mail yesterday and began playing the CDs a few hours after dinner. I don't know how or what they do to clean up these recordings even more than already accomplished in the past but I do recognize the results. For many of the recordings, Judy's voice comes through the speaker as if she is center at the microphone with the orchestra, pianists, etc. behind her but at close proximity. Her voice comes across just a lovely and individual as ever, but with a fuller, richer sound; not in the least tin-like or with too much reverb but instead a more immediate and life-like sound.
After listening to the CD set as a whole, I compared several recordings from this set with the previous collection, resulting in a great satisfaction for the justification of what was being attempted by JSP records in general and Mr. Schulman in particular.
This Garland collection is broken into 4 CDs with recordings dating from 1936 until 1947. There are several alternate takes included and each of these sounds as good as the "chosen" takes. While it is fun to hear the early teenaged Garland on the first disc, the set really comes alive on those songs recorded in the early forties through 1947, or, discs B through D. It is such a joy to hear "This Heart of Mine," "You'll Never Walk Alone,"The Trolley Song," and several versions of "Embraceable You" in their significantly sonically improved versions. Add to these the lesser known Garland renditions of "Nothing But You" by Rodgers and Hart, "Smilin' Through," "Don't Tell Me That Story" (one of my favorites), or "If I Had You" with that exquisite Lynn Murray accompaniment that includes the Merry Macs; each so perfect in illustrating what made Judy Garland the quintessential singing actress or acting singer.
While the "Smilin' Through" set presentation is not nearly as handsomely produced as the "Complete Masters," it is of superior sound quality and much cheaper. In conclusion, an apology to Mr. Schulman for not writing to remind him of the two alternate Garland/Crosby recordings. Part of a camp or not, I recognise that it is immperative to help out when another is attempting to reissue part of our musical legacy. Not only does it demonstrate integrity, it also serves the community.
And next month another Garland CD set, Judy Garland - The London Studio Recordings, 1957-1964 - will be available. Good news for all Garland fans, or fanatics.