March 1999

Steve Miller - The Joker
JVC JVCXR-0043-2
Originally released: 1973
Remaster released: 1998

by Greg Smith

Original Quality **1/2
Remaster Quality ***

[Reviewed on CD]I don't think you can find anyone in this country who owns a radio and doesn't recognize "The Joker." I find the continued airplay and commercial success of this song kind of funny. I watch people half my age (mind you, I'm not very old myself) singing along with the title track from Miller's classic album, and I know perfectly well they are missing out on all of allusions buried in it. I mean, how many people have every actually heard Brave New World's "Space Cowboy?" And forget about your typical younger listener actually knowing about "Gangster of Love" from Sailor. That's as likely as being able to find "pompetous" in the dictionary (no luck with my spell checker, either). There's a line in the sand of Steve Miller's career drawn right through 1973. The Joker was a breakthrough album, and JVC has released a version of it remastered with their XRCD process that lets you hear further into that transitional period than ever before.

I have no idea when my other CD copy of The Joker [Capitol CDP 594445] was released. I think it's a fairly recent disc, as it sports the logo "digitally remastered by Larry Walsh at Capitol Recording Studios" on it, which typically denotes newer releases. I never really listened to it very much because it sounded like your typical crummy 1973 recording.

"Sugar Babe"

  • Capitol: This opening track is awful. It's muddy and indistinct at all frequencies. Particularly appalling are the grating treble and hollow vocals.
  • XRCD: This version is in a whole new league. The bass is firm and the high frequencies extended in comparison with the Capitol version. There's still a hint of problems with the vocals, however.

"Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash"

  • Capitol: The opening is noisy, and that noise hangs around to stick out in the quiet parts later in the album as well. Otherwise, this song sounds fairly nice, with good dynamics.
  • XRCD: There's more tape noise on this version, but that comes with a much-restored presence and realism to Miller's vocals. There's a big improvement in how the siren pans from left to right during the opening. The bass-guitar line is rescued from obscurity, and the brushed cymbals sound quite nice.

"The Joker"

  • Capitol: The bass is reasonably deep and powerful, which is good. The transients on the cymbals are just not right, which is bad. There's a little bit of noise in the background, which is no big deal.
  • XRCD: There's even tighter bass on this version. The high-frequency transients still aren't perfect, but they are a big step up. The remastering really breaks apart the harmony vocals into distinct vocal tracks -- they were a big blob before. The distribution of the recording noise is a bit different; it's a bit more spread out and not quite as objectionable in my opinion as a result. Note that some of the louder vocals, such as the verse around 2:00 into the song, still break up as if clipping.

Overall, I'm quite fond of the XRCD version of The Joker. There are notable improvements throughout the disc, with no real down side. It is a little tough justifying the price tag for 36:20 worth of music -- unless your cash really is trash. JVC gives you the same minimal liner notes as the regular disc, so there's no big win there. While I'm still down on the XRCD cardboard packaging, it does have one notable feature: When drop it on the floor, it doesn't have any plastic tabs that break off. There's something to be said for that. While it's not likely to become your favorite audiophile reference disc anytime soon, JVC's The Joker is fun for fans of all ages -- whether you catch all the references or not.