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Salem Hill: Puppet Show

Salem Hill live? What a treat! But this will be their first live album so will it work? Or will it be a fans-only special, like an official bootleg?

Puppet Show is a 2-CD set that includes tracks played live at a variety of venues, plus one new studio recording. The lineup ranges from an occasional 3 piece, to the usual quartet, and a few songs feature guest artist David Ragsdale, violinist from Kansas.

Salem Hill's studio albums are song-oriented, and some of the tracks seem naively simple at first blush. But more careful listening reveals an elegantly subdued complexity and subtle melodies, and the lyrics are generally thoughtful and emotional. So this live album was eagerly anticipated.

Not surprisingly, since this collection was made over 5 years, there is a wide range in the quality of execution and of sound. This is most obvious in the vocals, which are nothing like the polished delivery we are used to from Salem Hill. The singing seemed tentative in many of these live performances, and Salem Hill's signature 2-singer verse / chorus trade-offs did not help.

So that prompted a re-visit to the studio albums, and playing the live and the studio-recorded songs back-to-back yielded some interesting comparisons: Some studio tracks include sounds and effects which lend an ambience and completeness that was missing from Puppet Show's live recordings. The vocals on the studio albums are rather good, whereas on the live album, they come across as sub-par. The guitar and occasional keyboard solos are similar, but more extended and "in your face" on the live album and consequently, probably more enjoyable. And it was interesting to note how tight the live execution was there is no evidence of filler or jamming in the live recordings.

A standout track is the 10-minute "The Judgement" a wonderfully progressive, symphonic, multi-tiered, piece which is varied and beautifully composed. It will capture your interest throughout its many sections, and you can't help admiring how well they pulled this track off live.

So does the live experience translate to CD? Well sorta kinda. Dyed-in-the-wool fans will love the little imperfections that bring you closer to the artists, making Puppet Show a more human experience than the studio albums. But Salem Hill are probably a better listen live that on live-CD. So first timers are advised to first explore Salem Hill's excellent studio albums.

At the risk of sounding like the Emperor in Equus telling Mozart that his music has "too many notes", it would appear that Puppet Show would have far more impact if it included just the best recordings, on a single CD.

Added: September 1st 2003
Reviewer: Duncan Glenday
Related Link: Salem Hill's Website
Hits: 3929
Language: english

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