Fred Astaire

Shall We Dance

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As Fred Astaire's recordings of the 1930s came into the public domain internationally in the 1980s, many record labels began issuing unlicensed compilations mastered from old 78 RPM albums, necessarily with iffy sound quality. The unusual wrinkle introduced by Australian sound engineer Robert Parker, who worked on this album, was to process the recordings in such a way as to simulate a stereo sound picture. (ABC Records in this case refers to the label of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC Records that existed in the U.S. in the 1960s and '70s.) Parker applied his process to the 16 tracks here, eight each taken from Astaire studio recordings and actual excerpts from the soundtracks to his films, and the result is somewhat odd. The sound quality of the tracks is still iffy; surface noise is often evident and the vocals and instruments suffer muffled passages consistent with the secondary source materials. But Parker's manipulations, sonically similar to the fake-stereo process applied to mono recordings in the 1960s by pushing sounds at different frequencies to one or the other speaker, occasionally emphasize different aspects of the tracks in a way that makes them sound different from usual, if not actually better. The effect is a sort of aural equivalent to the "colorizing" sometimes applied to black-and-white films -- it makes certain things pop out and creates an effect noticeably distinct from the originals. Otherwise, the mixture of studio and soundtrack recordings is also odd. The soundtracks, never intended to be heard without the accompanying films, often seem strangely arranged, as Astaire, sometimes singing with Ginger Rogers, is heard early on, followed by long instrumental passages meant to support the unseen dancing. Of course, these are wonderful songs, written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershiwn, and others, and Astaire is an ideal interpreter of them with his light voice and rhythmic phrasing. But this material is better heard on legitimate recordings not burdened with studio trickery.

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