Thursday, April 30, 2015

Lila Rose's We Animals on CD

I'm starting to feel that same malaise about modern music as other people my age--it seems like it's been forever since I've heard something that was both original and different and still for, you know, the kids. Just a few years ago I was such a staunch defender of new music and constantly offered up such 21st century classics such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Archandroid and so many others as irrefutable proof. In 2015, everything's starting to sound the same, which of course means it's all merely starting to sound like the good stuff that was released forty years ago.

That's why I sat up and took immediate notice of Lila Rose's new CD, We Animals. I don't want to say it defies description, because her percussion-centered anthems often remind me of such artists as Florence + the Machine, Muse and perhaps even a little Adam and the Ants and Siouxsie Sue thrown in for good measure. But this Canadian-born singer has done something extremely interesting here. She's made a real '70s-style concept album about one of today's most troubling issues--protecting all of the species of animals from the damage we're administering to the planet. This might not play in Tallahassee.

Rose's approach to this type of rhythmic Goth pop is unique. She suffers from hyperacusis, a disorder that makes many so-called natural sounds unbearable to hear. That's why every aspect of these songs sound so strange and different--they've been massaged and guided through an uncommon filter. Even when hear somewhat familiar themes in more accessible songs such as "Confessions" or the opening "Stars," there's always an element that's slightly askew whether it's the somewhat alien drone of the backing vocals or a full string and horn section used to heighten the drama.

Another pleasant surprise is found in the excellent sound quality--it's one of those rare pop recordings that can be cranked up loudly without sounding unduly compressed or distorted. Rose and producer Daniel Garcia chose to record much of this album "in a small studio in the woods outside Santa Cruz." It was a clear effort to provide a different sound than Rose's 2012 debut Heart Machine, something more primitive and natural to better reflect the environmental issues she's presenting. There's a stunning beauty to the percussive strikes that punctuate every song, something that's notable for an artist who has, up until know, specialized in a more electronic sound.

We're already four months into 2015, and this is the first pop/rock/whatever album that actually made think about my next year-end list and what would ultimately be on it. We Animals has the early lead.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Engegard Quartet on 2L Recordings--CD/SACD Hybrid

It's been two months since Colleen and I went to Phoenix to present the Axis VoiceBox S loudspeakers to the Arizona Audio Video Club. Just a day or so before we left, I received the latest release from 2L Recordings in Norway, a CD/SACD two-disc set of the latest from the Engegard Quartet. I reviewed the last collection that Engegard released, which you can read here. I enjoyed that particular album--which was comprised of selections from Haydn, Nordheim and Bartok--so immensely that I felt confident that the AAVC would also enjoy this follow-up just as well as long as the music wasn't too adventurous.

At the meeting, I announced that I was going to play the first selection, Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, also known as the "Rosamunde" quartet, and I was surprised how many of the audiophiles in attendance were huge fans of 2L Recordings. One even told me that he had discovered the label through my reviews right here! (Aw, shucks!) Many of the attendees were truly excited that they were going to hear the latest--I think my copy arrived well before the official release date. Mating this incredibly life-like recording of a string quartet with a mini-monitor that excels at reproducing the human voice and more intimate ensembles, well, let's just say that the evening went very well and way too many attendees, tiny notebooks in hand, lined up afterward to write down the name of this particular album.

Yep, that means I've been sitting on this CD for almost two months. It's been incredibly busy for me since CES in January, and I suddenly have a huge pile of CDs to review. I even came to the point where I considered, once again, the abandonment of this blog. The Google hits have been slowly declining over the last year or two, but that's only because I'm blogging far less--about four times a month as opposed to nearly once every three days in years past. The one salient point that helped me to decide to press on was this thought:

"If I quit blogging and reviewing, how would I deal with the fact that I wouldn't get these spectacular CDs from 2L?" It was a sobering thought, to say the least.

This CD, like the last one from Engegard, is thoroughly engaging in the way it switches gears throughout the program. Starting with that Schubert piece, which delicately hints at the romantic tendencies to come in the world of classical music, the quartet suddenly leaps forward into a 2011 piece from Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, titled "Tale of Lead and Light," that is bracing and dissonant without being quite as far out as some of 2L's more exotic projects. From there it's Britten's String Quartet No. 2 in C Major which combines the warmth of Schubert with the occasional lapses into an agitated yet resolute state. The album ends even further back in time with Haydn's famous "Emperor" string quarter which is lively and innocent and heartily direct.

Morten Lindberg has succeeded in creating a string quartet sound that fills the room without making the individual instruments seem larger than life. The secret to this feat, as usual, is Morten's tendencies to choose old Norwegian churches as the recording venue. This time he has chosen one of his favorites, the Jar Church in Norway, where such incredible recordings as La Voie Triomphale, Nodebog and The Lyrical Bassoon were captured. I can't think of another string quartet recording in the last ten years that sounds this rich and sonorous. You'd have to dig through your old Shaded Dogs, I'd imagine.

To evaluate this CD, and a few others I have waiting, I've assembled a system that excels at making those intimate recordings sound more lifelike. I used the same system I used at the AAVC--Axis VoiceBox S speakers, Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier, Unison Research Unico CDE CD player all with Furutech cabling--just to recreate the unexpected success we had back in that huge conference room in Phoenix. My room, of course, is a bit smaller and warmer and more optimized for such an audio system, and the result was nothing less than four performers in the room with me, playing with passion and certainty. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Second Installment of The Smoking Jacket Now Available at Part-Time Audiophile

The second installment of my cigar-themed column, The Smoking Jacket, is now available at Part-Time Audiophile. In this article I discuss the changing attitudes toward cigar smokers in 2015, especially in places such as Colorado where pot smoking has actually become more mainstream. Plus, I offer recommendations on stellar cigars from Illusione, Nat Sherman and Headley Grange.


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online at This one is an interview with Jim Pendleton, maker of the Audio Intelligent LP cleaning systems. Enjoy!

The Get Ahead's Volcano on CD

Retro-soul, neo-soul and soul revival are the latest tags for new musical groups that sound like they're auditioning to replace the latest incarnation of the SNL house band--big, brassy horns, heart and iron, and a big debt owed to the '70s blues-rock scene in American cities such as Chicago and Detroit. With most retro movements, the trick is to fully saturate your sound with said genre and throw in what I like to call "winks" to the audience by offering subtle clues that this is a knowing homage and not another mere cover band. Some performers--Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings immediately comes to mind--take the higher, purer road and commit to the "lost classic" motif and sound like they teleported themselves to the present from a Motown studio circa 1966.

The Get Ahead, a five-piece outfit from Portland, is a no-nonsense example of the latter--this is music meant to be experienced live and sweaty and doused with stale PBR. There is no filter, no hidden layer, that acknowledges the years since Delanie and Bonnie player at Fairfield Halls. This is blues rock that is full speed ahead and unapologetic about it.

The true virtue of The Get Ahead, and the reason why they shouldn't be easily dismissed as a party band, lies in the vocal talents of Juliet Howard and Nathan Earle. Their voices, constantly trading off with each other, have the gruff tenderness this type of hallowed music needs, and the confidence to deliver it like they've been singing together since SNL's first season. The remaining members--drummer Danny Johnson, bassist Sean Farrell and saxophonist Steve Johnson--all have that raw yet professional delivery that marks the signatures of the best session musicians from 30 or 40 years ago. They're students, and they've been studying all night. They're not zeroing in on the secrets of the universe, unless that secret is dancing and having fun with a big, happy crowd of like-minded people.

Then again, what's wrong with a party band? You need something to play at the next party, something cool and assured and genuine yet unique enough to make your guests approach you and ask, "Who is this?" Recently we had some friends over and of course I was asked to fire up the magical CCI music machine. It's something I'm hesitant to do since someone always has a lame objection to my musical choices or, even worse, they make a completely ludicrous request based on today's Top 40. Put on something universally cool such as Volcano, as I did that night, and everyone eventually trussts you and stays out of your way.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Kirk Bodinet of SOTA Turntables, RIP

I just received an email from Donna Bodinet of SOTA Turntables--her husband and business partner Kirk Bodinet passed away this last Monday, March 23. I've been working with the Bodinets over the last few years--we did a room share at AXPONA a couple of years ago, I interviewed them for Perfect Sound Forever, and I reviewed their LP RCM record cleaning machine for Positive Feedback Online. Both Kirk and Donna are wonderful, kind and down-to-earth people who took a respected yet defunct brand, resurrected it and returned the SOTA name to the iconic status it deserved. Kirk was responsible for designing both the entry level Moonbeam and Comet turntables--my current choice for the best affordable turntables on the market.

Donna says that the future of SOTA Turntables is safe, but Kirk's passing leaves a big void in the world of analog music reproduction. I wish the best for Donna and her wonderful company in the years ahead.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My First Cigar Column at Part-Time Audiophile

I've just written my first cigar-related article, albeit for an audio publication: I introduce The Smoking Jacket, my new ongoing column for Part-Time Audiophile. You can read it right here.

This came about last month, when Part-Time Audiophile debuted a new column, The Reluctant Sommelier. It's written by Nina Sventitsky, who is both the Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association and a partner in WyWires, a high-end audio manufacturer specializing in cables. I joked with Scot Hull of PTA by asking what was next, "The Recalcitrant Cigar Smoker"? His response was something akin to, "Well, are you up for it?" So I gave it a shot.

I certainly don't have Nina's credentials. I owned a cigar lounge for a few months and I've been smoking them for nearly twenty years. I'm just someone who's standing at the intersection of two hobbies. I have so many cigar buddies in the high-end audio industry, including the aforementioned Mr. Hull, so I know there's an interest. I have a lot of things to talk about, and as a layman I welcome any professional insight from my many friends in the premium cigar industry.