So what's a DualDisc, and who needs it? The major labels have come up with another new format, on the heels of their two still-births, SACD and DVD-A. I'm a hands-on sort, so I picked up the first one to catch my attention, Bruce Springsteen's tribute to Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome/The Seeger Sessions, which is available at Starbucks (Starbucks?!).
DualDisc is a simple concept: Glue a DVD-V onto the back of a CD for the best of both worlds. In practice there are some problems.
DualDiscs are thicker than CDs or DVDs, which can cause problems with slot-loading drives in computers and car stereos. They're also heavier, thus harder to spin, so older devices and portables might have problems. While the sides are clearly marked, the inner ring of the CD has little room for print. And two sides of data are twice as likely to be scuffed or scratched. This isn't a big deal for the CD, but it doesn't take much to ruin a DVD.
So DualDisc is fragile, more like old-school vinyl than CD. The tradeoff is content. Lots and lots of content. Anything you can think of musically or visually, artists can deliver on a DualDisc. Progress!
This is a good place to note that I'm not a Springsteen fan. I'm not crazy about Pete Seeger either. I recognize both artists' talents, but my tastes run differently. So naturally I saw more ways for this record to go wrong than right. But the performances and music overcame my cynicism and conditioning. The key was the video — it provided a window into the sessions.
It's easy for video to mess up music. Performance videos can be toss-offs, but here they connect the listener to the roots of the record. Unfortunately the video was created by a video house, not a music designer, and movie conventions are out of place here. CDs let you move around freely from beginning to end; DVDs hold you captive, forcing you to watch credits and intros. The chapters are marked like movies, not a record. This hurts the experience and is simply bad design. Regardless, the video doesn't just show us the story of this record's making, it brings us into the sessions.
We Shall Overcome is a personal response to our collective experience at the end of the 20th century. It's a faint echo of our lost, hopeful identity, railing against the slick, the shiny and the fake. The DVD thoughtfully provides uncompressed PCM stereo versions of the CD cuts over evocative stills in the style of the cover. They sound gorgeous, but unfortunately only the videos have multi-channel/surround tracks.
Springsteen and an all-star band (including Frank Bruno, Jeremy Chatzky, Larry Eagle, E-Streeters Soozie Tyrell and Patty Scialfa and many others) reinterpret Seeger originals alongside traditional classics with respect, while replacing quaint Folk clichés with more worldly swagger. Over the bounce of pre-Bush/-Katrina New Orleans in "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," we're poignantly reminded that Pharoah's armies were finally drowned.
In many ways "We Shall Overcome" is the real highlight of the record. This song's become something of a cliché, so I didn't recognize the soft guitar/violin riffs that open it. Bruce's soft, unfaltering tone sucked me in. As the song closed I realized I'd never really heard it before and discovered its timeless message.
Packaging matters more than ever. We surrendered so much canvas in the shift from vinyl to CD that it's often hard to read the lyrics and credits, no matter how many pages are devoted. DVDs offer a little more space on the box, but most DualDiscs are packaged like CDs (as is this one). Mimicking larger "gatefold" covers (which doubled available space and evolved into rolling trays), We Shall Overcome's die-cut sleeve offers more style than conventional jewel boxes. While I'm a fan of cardboard packaging and We Shall Overcome's is beautifully printed, the pockets that sleeve the disc and booklet are not secured, making it easier to tear the jacket (and harder to roll on!). Still, the design and layout are gorgeous and readable, so it's hard to complain.
Packed as it is with value (as opposed to junk), the new DualDisc format doesn't manage to hold it all. Sadly, neither the disc nor its package point to a Web site where more songs and videos are available for fans. Web links keep albums fresh and anticipate a future where they might be even more relevant (as is the case with many great albums). While Springsteen has made such tracks available on his site, he misses an opportunity to connect with fans who buy the record.
It's also noteworthy (and ironic) that the disc was initially released through Starbucks. This makes sense when you consider the shifting demographics of CD sales, but Starbucks had just passed on Springsteen's fiery Devils and Dust LP (also a DualDisc). Yet these songs are a gut-punch to the Powers That Be by a man who's the antithesis of the ruling Bush/Cheney/Rove triumvirate.
We Shall Overcome is as apropos for the music industry as it is for our country. Springsteen and friends have delivered a great, entertaining record and left behind a road map for other artists and labels. Great music, attractively packaged and intelligently marketed, always finds an audience.
Next month: Dave's "Quarterly Podcast Roundup: The Latest, Greatest Music Pods." DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.