We heard some amazing sound coming from the grooves of 52nd Street, but let’s give credit where credit is due — the recording and mastering engineers involved with this album. Jim Boyer and Ted Jensen can both take great pride in the SUPERB work they have done here.
The first two tracks on side one really tell you everything you need to know about the sound of the side. It’s all about balance.
Big Shot is a big, balls-out rock song that packs a lot of punch. Typically the problem you run into is compression. When you get too much compression, the top end becomes pinched and shrill. You can hear this on Billy Joel’s vocals in the verses and in the guitar solo during the outro. Most copies make those squealing guitar notes rip your head off. The best copies give you a full-bodied Billy Joel; if he doesn’t sound right, what’s the point? Next!
Also, listen to the cymbal crashes throughout the song. They should really sound like cymbals and not like someone making explosion noises through a walkie-talkie. (Believe me, this analogy hurts me too, but they can really sound god-awful on some pressings.)
This is such a great album cut! The intro is an ideal test for dynamic contrasts and transparency. On the best copies the piano can really crescendo and throw its weight around. On the best copies I swear you can hear the foot pedals on the piano in action.
During the chorus, when he sings “…is such a lonely word…” it should not be spitty and grainy as is so often the case. On the more dynamic copies that line is loud, powerful and heartfelt, exactly the way he delivered it.
The horn intro is an immediate test; the sax should be breathy and rich or you in trouble, dawg. Also, listen to the finger snaps when the drums start. They should have a HUGE room around them. The more of the room you hear, the more resolution and transparency your copy has. (Sergio’s Mais Que Nada off the debut album has that same wonderful sound, and it’s key to the best copies of that album as well.) Fresh off the stamper sound? Hey, whatever gets you through the night.
This intro is a great test for sound with its combination of somewhat quirky instruments. The Rhodes should be delicate and moody with lots of room around it. The bass needs body as well as sweetness higher up to make it sing while interplaying with the keys.
Finally, listen to the marimba and vibes – what a cool sound! They should be harmonically extended up top to give the intro the life it needs to get the track going. Later on in the song you shouldn’t have to strain to hear the vibes; on the best copies they are perfectly placed a bit back in the soundfield, complementing the ensemble feel of the track.
Half a Mile Away
Until the Night
Once The Stranger became a hit, Billy Joel quickly re-entered the studio with producer Phil Ramone to record the follow-up, 52nd Street. Instead of breaking from the sound of The Stranger, Joel chose to expand it, making it more sophisticated and somewhat jazzy. Often, his moves sounded as if they were responses to Steely Dan — indeed, his phrasing and melody for “Zanzibar” is a direct homage to Donald Fagen circa The Royal Scam, and it also boasts a solo from jazz great Freddie Hubbard à la Steely Dan — but since Joel is a working-class populist, not an elitist college boy, he never shies away from big gestures and melodies.
Consequently, 52nd Street unintentionally embellishes the Broadway overtones of its predecessor, not only on a centerpiece like “Stiletto,” but when he’s rocking out on “Big Shot.” That isn’t necessarily bad, since Joel’s strong suit turns out to be showmanship — he dazzles with his melodic skills and his enthusiastic performances.
He also knows how to make a record. Song for song, 52nd Street might not be as strong as The Stranger, but there are no weak songs — indeed, “Honesty,” “My Life,” “Until the Night,” and the three mentioned above are among his best — and they all flow together smoothly, thanks to Ramone’s seamless production and Joel’s melodic craftsmanship.
It’s remarkable to think that in a matter of three records, Joel had hit upon a workable, marketable formula — one that not only made him one of the biggest-selling artists of his era, but one of the most enjoyable mainstream hitmakers. 52nd Street is a testament to that achievement.
Heavy Vinyl Etc.
There is a new 180 gram pressing of the album, cut by Kevin Gray under the direction of Robert Pincus at the now defunct AcousTech Mastering. Side one is a joke (zero ambience, resolution, energy, etc.) but side two is actually quite good. Side two fixes the biggest problem with the album: hard, honky vocals.
But at a cost. It still sounds like a modern record, with not much in the way of space, transparency, richness, resolution and the like. You know, all that ANALOG stuff that old dinosaurs like us think our records should have.
For those of you who have thirty three dollars to spend, you could do a lot worse on side two. Side one is pretty bad and you would have a hard time doing worse.
One Last Thing
CBS Half Speed Mastered Mastersound Pressings just plain SUCK. They are way too bright. Don’t make the mistake of buying them if you are interested in better sound. If you own them get rid of them.
The Greater Fool Theory should work in your favor in this regard. No matter how foolish you may have been to buy them in the first place, there is always a fool greater than you to take them off your hands! Many of these fools can be found on Ebay. Audiogon is another good place to look. The fact that some audiophiles in this day and age are still buying such trash is astonishing to us, but that doesn’t make it any less true.