Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Frank Lowe Quartet's Out Loud on LP

A few weeks ago I received an email from a publicist, Jazz Promo Services, concerning the LP release of Out Loud by the Frank Lowe Quartet. These days I've been quickly reading and deleting these emails for one particular reason: they're usually offering MP3 downloads instead of actual physical media. As I stated in this blog entry from late last month, I've decided not to respond to any publicists or record label employees who insist on sending me music to review without actually sending me any actual music, you know, in physical formats. As I've already said, when I do music reviews I tend to judge according to sound quality. MP3 files, to me, sound horrible.

This email blast from Triple Points Records caught my attention, however, because the actual product was very intriguing. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Frank Lowe was one of those free jazz stalwarts who emerged in the early '70s, a musician who didn't quite make the big name for himself yet still managed to influence an entire generation of jazz musicians who wanted to push the envelope. In 1974 he enlisted trombonist Joseph Bowie, bassist William Parker and drummer Steve Reid for two recording sessions in two separate New York City recording studios, Survival Studio and Studio Rivbea. Basically, every single track ever performed and recorded by these four gentleman is contained in these two LPs.

Also included in this 2-LP set is a 38-page booklet, previously unpublished photos and a link to a 40 minute video from Rivbea. The whole release is limited to just 550 copies, and it was transferred by the mastering team--Ben Young and Joe Lizzi--who were responsible for two of Triple Point's Grammy-nominated releases over the last few years. I said to myself wow, this would probably be a cool thing to have. With a pressing of just 550 copies, however, it seemed very unlikely that I would receive one for review, and I figured that my only chance to hear these rare recordings was through some marginally satisfactory MP3 download. So I passed on the opportunity to review Out Loud and I deleted the email.

A couple of weeks later I received a package in the mail. It was my favorite kind of package, about twelve inches square and very thin. I opened it and lo and behold, I had a copy of Out Loud in my hands. JPS sent it anyway, as if they had read my mind. It took me a while to figure it all out, but I'd received something called a promotional copy. I'm being sarcastic here, but quite honestly it was the first time I'd received one, even though I have a few "promotional copy/not for resale" CDs in my collection courtesy of a less-than-ethical used record store in Northern Virginia that I used to frequent 20 years ago. So my copy didn't include the rare photos and the helpful booklet or the link to the 40 minute video. All I had was these two beautifully pressed slabs of vinyl and the extraordinary music contained in the grooves, which was still a thousand times better than an MP3 download code.

I'm not sure how you feel about free jazz--Colleen generally forbids me to play it in her presence--but in college I had a thing for Ornette Coleman. My brain, for some reason or another, can make sense out of what sounds like measured chaos to the vast majority of jazz fans, and I can allow myself to drift in between the cracks and find the flow and turn it into something trance-like. Frank Lowe's music is slightly more challenging than that--it jumps and it screeches and it doesn't let up for a second. This quartet was on the edge of taking free jazz to the next level where it would sound more exotic, more saturated by percussion, more junkyard dog. Unfortunately this amazing album captures just a fleeting glimpse of that spark; the four members moved on after these recordings were made, and if you weren't hanging out in some of those famous NYC lofts in 1974 you missed it completely. All of these recordings were shelved indefinitely, and it forty years to dig them up, wipe them off and present them in this undoubtedly reverent manner.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this album is the genuinely fantastic sound quality. This pressing is extremely quiet, allowing the musicians to remain separate and distinct and deliberately place in a spotlight with the soundstage. That quality alone makes this dense, noisy celebration more palatable to the uninitiated--there's such a human feel to these performances, all the warts and flaws and spontaneity remind you that Out Loud represents a lost moment in time, a moment only accessible to a lucky 550 people--plus a few humble music reviewers such as myself. Highly recommended for adventurous jazz fans.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My First Article for Part-Time Audiophile/The Audio Traveler: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees

Wow! My first article for The Audio Traveler/Part-Time Audiophile is up! This is sort of a companion piece for Scot's article on our room that appeared yesterday I may piss off a few people with this article, but I think these things needed to be said. You can read it here.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Greatest Article Ever Written About Me/I Got a New Cartridge

I'm in a pretty good mood today. Minutes after waking up this morning I discovered that Scot Hull, the Part-Time Audiophile, had published an article on our all-analog PureAudio/Opera/Unison Research/Transfiguration/Furutech room at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. You can read it here. Don't let the whole The Audio Traveler thing confuse you--it's a new companion website Scot started just to cover all the US audio trade shows like CES and RMAF and AXPONA and T.H.E. Show and Dagogo and all the rest. The Part-Time Audiophile will just focus on equipment reviews, opinion pieces and whatever else comes along.

I say that last part because it's clear that Scot Hull is a rising star among audio journalists. He's expanding, hiring really good writers like Malachi Kenney and Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney (yes, they're married, but they each have very unique writing styles and perspectives). For me, that's what it comes down to--the quality of the writing on the part of Scot Hull and his staff and how they really seem to be the future of audio journalism. The first time I read one of Scot's articles, I said to myself, "Uh oh, this guy's doing what I'm doing, only a hundred times better." I almost deleted this blog that day. When I told that to Scot during the epic 2014 Denver Whiskey and Cigar Fest he describes in his current article, he told me "No dude, you're the one who inspired me to do the Part-Time Audiophile," or something like that. My eyes were spinning pinwheels by then, and cartoon hearts floated above my scalp. "No, my writing sucks compared to yours!" "You're crazy--you're so much better than me!" This went on all night, and then Colleen grounded me for a month for being out too late.

Anyway, Scot is far too kind in this article, and Colleen and I, as well as all the manufacturers involved, appreciate what he wrote. Like I said on Facebook this morning, I smell a Pulitzer. While looking at Scot's photos of the my analog rig, however, I realized I haven't announced that that wonderful, exquisite Transfiguration Axia cartridge is now mine, all mine. I couldn't bear to send it back to Dan Muzquiz--it's just such a wonderful match with the Unison Research Giro 'table and arm, as well as the stupendous PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier, and I told Colleen during the show, "I don't want to send this back." Bob Clarke, who distributes Transfiguration in the USA through his company Profundo (which also represents some of my personal faves such as Trenner & Friedl, Heed and VivA) got involved. We're all good friends and have a lot of respect for each others' brands, and we do a lot of business together--especially during trade shows like RMAF where we often share rooms. In other words, no shenanigans were involved--by now everyone should know I love a lot of brands I don't represent, and I'm more than happy to tell the world about it. Suffice it to say that I'm deliriously happy with this cartridge on my turntable, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Bob, Dan and Colleen.

One reason why I got a great deal was because this isn't the latest Axia--apparently some improvements were made to the design last year. This was Dan's low-mileage demo Axia for Blackbird Audio Gallery, one that I'd heard previously on a Funk Firm table/arm combo. I remember how fantastic this cartridge sounded then, and I've known ever since that I wanted one. I had the great pleasure of breaking in Transfiguration's middle model, the $4200 Phoenix, for RMAF two years ago. That was two months of heaven, and I really wanted to keep that one, too. I'm intrigued with the idea that the new Axia is somehow better than this one, but at the same time I'm totally in love with the way this cartridge allows the music to flow much more freely into my head. I used to pride myself on being a "Koetsu Man," but Transfigurations have all that lush beauty with more detail, presence and energy.

I guess I'm a "Transfiguration Man" now. And that sounds super cool.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bjorn Bolstad Skjelbred's Waves & Interruptions on Blu-ray Audio

It's tough to review atonal, dissonant music in general because I feel there's a fine line between appealing to those more adventurous classical fans and throwing up your arms and saying, "Look, this is a difficult listen and you might think I'm crazy for recommending it so highly." You start talking about other aspects of the music, such as the recording quality or even the bleak moods and images that are summoned from the deepest recesses of your soul while you're listening. That's why it's such a delight to come across a recording like Bjorn Bolstad Skjelbred's Wave & Interruptions.

Sure this is challenging music, cast in that Scandinavian bleakness that comes from a culture that is characterized by somber emotions and a routine attitude about the value of perseverance. But this new Blu-ray audio disc is a huge surprise because the music is performed by such unlikely combinations of instruments--marimba and viola on the opening "Movements," for instance, or vibraphones, crotales, flutes and guitar on "Lines in Motion, Entwined." That sounds superficial, judging a recording great because you appreciate the exposure to more exotic arrangements with equally exotic musical instruments, but Waves & Interruptions opens a window into unique musical experiences, such as hearing the lowest registers of the marimba and hearing how deep the notes can reach, and how these thunderous flourishes, such as on the closing title track, can shake the floor and bounce off the walls of the recording venue. This is a marimba, after all, not a tympani.

That makes this recording such a wonderful demo disc, to be sure. As usual, Morten Lindberg of 2L has successfully mated unusual and complex music with a recording quality that underlines how instruments such as the marimba and the vibraphone and the bass flute sound in a very real space. How often do you hear these instruments out in the real world? These instruments are often used as embellishments, otherwordly touches that distinguish a piece as unusual and far from the mainstream, and to hear them spotlighted is a rare treat.

The story behind Waves & Interruptions, as is the norm for 2L, is as interesting as the music itself. Composer Skjelbred produced all of these pieces for melodic percussion--a term I really like--from 2001 to 2013, and it's a considerable coup to have enlisted the services of noted Norwegian percussionist Eirik Raude to interpret these gems. The liner notes point out the introspective tone of this music and note how they capture the shy persona of the composer, and that's perhaps why it's easier to digest the more calming aspects of this poetic music than it is to go on an all-night bender of Berg, Bartok and Schoenberg. You can crawl between the quiet spaces of the music and curl up into a fetal position, knowing that you won't jumping at sudden crashes and crescendos. It's strange music, indeed, full of tension and a weird arcane magic that still manages to be soothing in a way you might not have felt before.

This quiet, of course, escorts you deep into the recording where you will easily hear the uncommon physical links between musicians and their instruments--breathing, positioning and the tandem resonances of wood, metal and flesh. I've listened to this disc a few times now on my new headphone rig (Unison Research SH headphone amplifier, ADL H128 headphones and a simple Blu-ray player, all linked with Cardas Clear cabling and power cords), and it's quite wonderful allowing these remarkable sounds into your head. At the same time, it's even more thrilling to play this disc on my reference system just to hear these musicians exist in such an intimate yet isolated spot on the stage.

So it's another amazing sonic experience courtesy of 2L. I will go further and say that Waves & Interruptions goes one step beyond this--of all the fascinating yet difficult recordings I've heard from this Norwegian label, this one is the most accessible and pleasing, all while maintaining its place in the vanguard.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rocket 3's Burn on CD

Back in 1993 an Australian band known as Clouds released an album, Thunderhead, and I honestly thought they would become huge in the US as a result. The band sounded so unique because it mated baby-doll vocal harmonies from a pair of frontwomen with a very hard, chunky and kick-ass early '90s grunge. While other groups of that time--Letters to Cleo, Elastica and Veruca Salt, for example--wiggled their way into the American rock scene twenty years ago, I still think Clouds had the best template for that sound, and I still bring out my old CD copy of Thunderhead out and play it every few years. Does anyone else do the same, or even have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about? Clouds were super cool, dammit.

I bring them up because it's rare when a new band reminds me of their almost paradoxical sound. Rocket 3, a winning trio from Portland, does. They may not rock quite as consistently hard as Clouds--their debut album Burn does contain some softer, slower songs that make the overall comparison sort of moot--but when they get rolling on songs such as "Good Enough" and "Jealous Girl," that chasm between a straightforward rock band and lovely, sexy vocals (courtesy of guitarist Ramune) is extremely evocative of the rock scene twenty-plus years ago. Backed up by drummer Drew and bassist Tony, Ramune was reportedly late to the music game and only recently learned how to play. That's not a problem--she knows the basics and her uncluttered rhythm lines are reminiscent of early Talking Heads where each member used to treat their instruments like alien and suspicious devices. With this type of band, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

On their Facebook page the band lists their interests as "playing music, being goofy and laughing so hard it hurts," but that doesn't mean that Rocket 3 is your normal party band from the City of Roses. Upon first listen, I thought the trio's sound was imbued with a bit of the shoegazer spirit, especially considering that Burn ends with a version of My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow" that's so reverent that it could only come from true fans, so good that even the most hardcore MBV fans will say, "Oh that's okay, we're not offended by this." This album is lots of fun, but not necessarily in a lighthearted way--it has an almost drone-like momentum hiding within its deepest recesses, and that darkness is worth searching out.

The sound quality of Burn is a little soft and blurry around the edges--it doesn't sound nearly as crispy and tight as Thunderhead--so it probably won't appeal to too many other grumpy middle-aged audiophiles such as me. But I think Rocket 3 is the perfect answer to the question "What kind of music were you listening to twenty years ago?" I, for example, was listening to music like this instead of getting all misty-eyed with my friends watching Clapton play "Tears in Heaven." What's irony for one generation is nostalgia for another. Highly recommended, especially if you listen to it right before you drag out your old Clouds CDs.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Headphone System and a New Rule

The 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was a couple of weeks ago, and Colleen and I wound up doing two rooms almost all by ourselves. I say almost because we did enlist the help of Cora, our friend and first CCI employee, as well as Brad Serhan, the designer of the Axis VoiceBox S speaker that we just started to distribute in the US. Unfortunately, we didn't have our usual RMAF partners--Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio and Bob Clarke of Profundo. Bob had a family emergency (all is well), and Dan's son Nathan decided to get married on the same weekend. You can tell Dan's audiophilia hasn't rubbed off on his sons--when Nate's fiancee first suggested October, he should have immediately said "No way, baby...my pop's got RMAF in October." (Just kidding. Congrats to Nate.)

Anyway, I'm bringing this up because a) I haven't had time to blog in the last few weeks and b) since the show I've had a lot of changes to the system--or, more accurately, systems. All the wonderful PureAudio gear is gone to the reviewers, and I'm currently breaking in part of the system we'll be using at CES in January which consists of the Unison Triode 25 integrated amplifier/DAC and the new Opera Callas monitors. My other system, which has magically started to form to the left of my desk in my office, is headphone-based. Now I've had some headphone systems in play over the last year or so, but this one is a bit different--more ambitious, more versatile and hopefully more permanent.

This new system consists of a working prototype of the upcoming Unison Research SH headphone amplifier with DAC (the same DAC as in the Triode 25 in my listening room), a pair of the new ADL H128 headphones (backed up by pairs of earbuds from Cardas Audio and ADL), my trusty $66 Samsung Blu-ray player and--get this--my laptop. I'm going to finally get serious about jumping into the 21st century and all this computer audio stuff. I've just hooked up my laptop to the Unison DAC via a Cardas Audio Clear USB cable (all interconnects and power cords are also Cardas Clear) and I can finally listen to all those hi-rez files I downloaded the last time I tried to get into computer audio. Which, by the way, was not the first time.

Why is this time going to be any different? Well, it's sort of my job now since one of my manufacturers decided to start putting a DAC in all their upcoming products--a serious DAC for 2014, with all the bells and whistles--and now I have to answer questions about sampling rates and DSD and even double DSD, whatever that is. Secondly, the sound kicks major butt. I like it a lot. This is a very impressive system, and it makes me want to re-explore the headphone landscape like I did a few years ago when I owned an amazing pair of Grado GS-1000s with the Stefan Audio Arts cable upgrade and a Woo Audio headphone amp.

That said, I have made myself a promise for this blog--that I really need to refocus on vinyl. Over the last few years I've been getting enthusiastic about other formats. Lately, however, I've been noticing a trend: when I blog about vinyl, more people read it. There's another underlying reason for this new commitment to my favorite music format, and it's a bit of a long story. I'll keep it as brief as possible.

A few months ago I was contacted by a relatively new record label that was reissuing a lot of remastered classics--as well as some new "audiophile-quality" albums from contemporary artists--and they asked me if I would like to review some of their titles. I looked at their catalog and said sure--these were relatively fun and exciting releases. I didn't exactly specify that I preferred vinyl or CDs, but they kept referring to the releases as "albums," which to me means something you can hold in your hand. Over the next few months the label contacted me periodically and asked me if I wanted this title or that title, and the answer was always yes.

Then I noticed something--after several months, none of these releases had been delivered to me even though I was still receiving almost weekly e-mails asking if I want to review this one or that one, this one or that one. I finally asked if there was an ETA on any of these titles, and my record label contact said, "Oh, it's just taking a little more time to get the physical formats together--most reviewers just need downloads." I replied that I preferred physical formats because I also review based on sound, and that my computer audio system was nowhere near my big system in terms of ultimate sound quality. A few weeks later, the contact told me that she couldn't secure the licenses to get me these releases on a physical format. I told her that she was in luck, since my new 21st century computer audio system would make it easier for me to review downloads. I gave her one caveat: only hi-rez, no MP3.

"We only have MP3 downloads to send you," she replied.

Ugh. Sorry, folks, but I blog for fun. I don't get paid. So if you're sending me something to review, I want something for it...like permission to keep the LP or CD I've just reviewed! Hopefully my review will be worth the $20 to you. I know, that makes me sound a little whorish, but I really look at it this way--getting a CD or an LP in my mailbox from a record label or a publicist or even the actual artist and then reviewing it, well, that's a lot of fun. It's fun enough, in fact, to do it for free. But if you set up an account for me on your website so I can listen to files and write reviews from that--well, that's not as fun to me. I might change my mind once I get this computer audio system rolling, but for right now I only review LPs, CDs and other physical formats. (No LaserDisc though. Or Betamax.)

Anyway, I will be blogging about yet another personal journey into the world of computer audio...maybe this time it will stick. I'm crossing my fingers.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Devin Sinha's The Seventh Season on CD

When I first saw the cover for this Devin Sinha CD, The Seventh Season, I started thinking of singer/songwriters such as Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, folkies who grew up in the middle of the country (in Banhart's case, the country was Venezuela) and later learned how to filter those sensibilities through a more sophisticated life as a musician in a big city. Sinha, who grew up in and around Kansas City, does sound like someone who just stepped out of the tall grasses with a guitar and a notebook. He then settled down in Seattle, and perhaps the heavy, dripping PNW interest in all things Americana starting creeping in around the edges. The two halves of this musical identity fit in seamlessly, so much so that you might not even notice.

When musicians ride that fence between two or three genres as Sinha does, it usually results in a lot of interesting choices. Take the guitar line during the first few minutes of the opener, "Ripcord," and you'll swear that Johnny Marr joined Lampbchop or the Pernice Brothers. The open, rambling tempo of "Whippoorwill Winter" is straight from Alejandro Escovedo's Big Book of Ballads, mixing a spacious and rangy Texan sensibility that might remind you of your last trip to The Continental Club during SXSW. The stand-out for me was the beautiful and melancholy "The Wolves" which reminded me of Neko Case's "Star Witness," one of my absolute favorite songs of all time, more than once.

Sinha's voice is also a wry pleasure, a plaintive yet unusually relaxed style that almost suggests he can sing in a more mainstream manner but won't, a la Lucinda Williams. The band backing him is up for anything, contracting and expanding throughout the tracks, sounding like a collection of Seattle's best session players who were rounded up to make this gifted singer/songwriter sound like an old pro. These songs are mellow and polished, but they're growing-up-in-LA-in-the-'70s-with-all-those-cool-FM stations mellow and polished.

Once again I've been hamstrung by this odd habit I've acquired--listening to CDs for the first time on my car player while driving around--and so I suggest you let this album sink in a bit. My first impression was that it was slick, professional and a little too familiar, but after repeated listening on my reference system the songs added another layer of emotional depth, as well as a dreaminess that allows me to drift along with these songs with incredible ease. The Seventh Season is soothing and gorgeous while still preserving the sort of artistic integrity that will make you tell your friends, "No, there's a lot more here. Trust me."