In 1997, British musician Nikki Sudden traveled to Chicago to work with The Chamber Strings. While there, the two parties realized that they were creatively simpatico, and soon work began on an album, a baker’s dozen of thoughtful, occasionally introspective, and superbly written songs, which would appear in 1999 as Red Brocade. It was well-received at the time—another fine record from an underrated talent—but it wasn’t until this deluxe reissue appeared that a dark secret about the album was revealed.
The final version of Red Brocade sounds like total shit.
Harsh words, yes. The album’s original mix (The Angel City Mix) is offered on the second disc, and it quickly illustrates how a poor mix can radically impact an otherwise great song. According to the liner notes, what happened is this: Sudden returned to England with the Red Brocade masters. He played them for his longtime production partner, who felt like the Americans didn’t properly mix it, and so they went about “fixing” what they believed to be a terrible mix, not realizing that what they were doing would undermine Red Brocade and its cache of otherwise excellent songs.
But what of the music? It’s mellow singer-songwriter fare, some might call it “alt.country” (whatever that means), and that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy pops up here should give you a sense of what you’re getting, as sonically,all of the songs here could have been Wilco tracks. Some of these numbers are wonderful, wistful tunes, such as “Scent” and “Miss You So.” The biggest problem of the final mix is that Sudden’s vocals are mixed extremely high, to the point where one might think they were listening to recordings from the vocal booth. The disconnect between singing and accompaniment is so glaring, truth be told, I couldn’t sit through a full listen of the original version until I listened to the Angel City Mix.
Sudden’s vocal style occasionally lead him into a nasally Bob Dylan style that can be slightly off-putting. With his vocals mixed higher on the final mix, that tendency is exacerbated. Case in point: “Broken Door.” The final version of it? Unlistenable, as the vocals are high, the instruments muddy-sounding, and the string section left fighting to get heard. The Angel City mix? A sublime ballad, with tasteful strings that accentuate the emotion. Listening side by side, one wonders just why they believed they could improve on what they had accomplished in Chicago. It’s truly puzzling, that decision. The only explanation I can fathom is that someone’s feelings were hurt.
This deluxe edition also includes a few wonderful bonus tracks. “Aeroplane Blues” is a loose, off-the-cuff blues-rock jam session; safe money has it that some libations were had before it was recorded, and it’s hilarious fun. “West Side Girl,” which was written and performed with producer Ellis Clark, and is a mellow country rocker complete with slide guitars that George Harrison would die for, and a lyric that Ryan Adams would envy. Then there are four live recordings, taken from the tour with The Chamber Strings, and while the sound quality’s okay, it’s clear that Sudden would turn into a beast of a performer when he got onstage.
This deluxe edition of Red Brocade not only serves as a cautionary tale of what happens if you mix something poorly, but it also highlights one of the better singer-songwriter albums from the late 1990s. Once you hear the Angel City mix, you’ll understand and appreciate the harsh sentiments offered here, and it’s a shame, really, as Red Brocade—and Nikki Sudden—deserved better.