Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ingvild Koksvik's Nattapent on LP

"Not surprised that you like it, even though she sings in Norwegian."

That's my Facebook friend Trond Torgnesskar, who connected me with Norwegian singer/songwriter Ingvild Koksvik so that I could hear her latest LP, Nattapent, on Norway's Fyrlyd Records. Trond, a fellow music scribe and audio reviewer from Oslo, had noticed my now numerous reviews of albums from Norway's 2L Recordings and thought I should hear this tremendously well-recorded album immediately. "I have come across one that might just be one of the finest recordings I have ever heard," Trond said, "not to mention that it is stunningly beautiful music. Might be right up your street!"

Within a few days of saying yes, I was exchanging emails with a certain Ms. Koksvik. She explained that she was a Norwegian singer and songwriter, and Nattapent was her debut release for Fyrlyd. I also learned that nattapent was Norwegian for "night open" and fyrlyd is Norwegian for "lighthouse sound." These are evocative phrases that wind up imbued in every single note of the album, a spaciousness that is both mysterious and invigorating like a moonlit walk on the beach.

Upon first listen, I was reminded of the Grammy nominated Quiet Winter Night from 2L, which I reviewed here. Perhaps that's because Ingvild's voice is superficially similar to Helene Boksle's. (I hope that's not just me thinking that all female Norwegian singers sound the same.) This recording features a much smaller ensemble than the 2L recording, however, and there's more of a consistency with the tunes; the 2L recording is more of an exploration of several genres while Ingvild is a traditional songwriter who stays true to her muse.

This more intimate sound, however, allows the listener to focus effortlessly on the distinct musical threads within the songs. You can certainly zero in on Ingvild's beautiful voice, the way she lets a little nervous energy to creep in at just the right moments so that you know she's singing about something that truly matters to her, something that touches her and makes her revisit real emotions. You can also focus on the way Nils Okland's violin and Sigrun Eng's cello intertwine and create a stunning, complex sound that can fool you into thinking that you're listening to a larger string ensemble. Or, you can concentrate on the sound of Lars Rudjord's deep, resonant piano notes that sometimes take forever to completely vanish.

The timing of this review coincided with the arrival of the Axis Voice Box S monitors from Australia. Designed by John Reilly and my good buddy Brad Serhan, these diminutive speakers are named for their ability to reproduce the human voice accurately. These speakers are used for mastering at the Benchmark Studios in Australia, and indeed they are extremely revealing and they let you hear every single detail in the recording. But unlike most studio monitors, which can be relentlessly revealing of mistakes during the recording process, the Voice Box S produces a fun and enjoyable sound.

As you can imagine, hearing Ingvild's voice through these little gems was a real treat--I felt like she was standing there in the room, looking around, wondering when I was going to unpack the last few boxes after my move last month. One of the strengths of the Voice Boxes are that while they are very small, they throw up and amazingly wide and deep soundstage. One of the loveliest things about the sound of this album is how there's plenty of space between Ingvild, the piano, the cello and the Hardanger fiddle, and that allows each voice to bloom and develop in space on its own. You get that wondrous feeling like you can get up and walk around in that soundstage, between all the musicians, and feel all that immediate energy bouncing off your body. In other words, this amazing sonic experience was brought to me through a Norwegian and Australian partnership.

So Trond, the answer is yes, I love this album even though it is sung in Norwegian. I've listened to so much Norwegian music in the last couple of years that the language no longer sounds alien to my ears--even though I only know what nattapent and fyrlyd means at this point in time. I don't know what Ingvild is singing about in these truly beautiful songs, but I can detect the feeling and emotion in every word and I can selfishly come up with my own narrative, and that's really all I need.

You can learn more about this album at Ingvild's website. If I've made you curious, you can check her out on YouTube as well.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

New Review of the SOTA RCM Record Cleaning Machine on Positive Feedback

It's been a while since I've done an equipment review, but Positive Feedback just published my thoughts on the awesome SOTA RCM record cleaning machine. You can read it here.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alejandra O'Leary and the Champions of the West's Heartspace Timepiece on CD

I've had to learn this lesson more than once--you can't form an opinion about a certain piece of music if you're driving in your car the first time you listen to it. I remember doing this more than a decade ago when I first listened to Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. My synopsis? Quiet, and not enough going on--or as Janet Dudley once wrote in her Listener review, "there's not enough there there." Then of course I listened to it on my home rig and immediately fell in love with it. The same exact thing happened with Scott Walker's Drift ("what a pretentious, odious, artsy-fartsy mess"), Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over the Sea ("what's with the musical saw, guys?") and, most recently, Swans' The Seer ("am I in hell?"). Let them get under your skin, however, and they'll eventually own you.

I'm not going to lump Detroit singer Alejandra O'Leary's latest album with those somewhat difficult yet fascinating works because this, in comparison, is just a upbeat collection of '80s pop songs. But when I first listened to it last month on a road trip to Denver, I got a little grumpy because it sounded like another cute but quirky girl channeling songs from the likes of 'Til Tuesday, The Motels and perhaps even such '90s passing fancies as Lisa Loeb and Natalie Imbruglia. I didn't even play it for very long--I was in a carload full of people who are less adventurous than I am when it comes to new music, and I thought I'd be torturing them if I didn't press EJECT. I wound up replacing it with the Solid Gold Balls CD I just reviewed, which was a relative success.

I gave it another listen when I got home, on my main rig. Strangely enough, it sounded completely different as if someone switched CDs on me. I even invited one of my fellow erstwhile travelers into the room and asked, "Do you remember that CD I played in the car that no one seemed to like? This is it!" The response, of course, was "Really? It didn't sound anything like this. This is good." So it's the strangest thing, and I don't know why this happened unless it's another case of an artist who's a bit too thoughtful and a bit too poetic for a casual listen on a crappy car CD player.

So what was quirky and stringent in an almost foreign way--Alejandra's voice--became smooth and sexy and exuberant. Her band, which seemed merely competent on the road, became a collective of uncanny impressionists who could play just like all your favorite bands from the '80s and even the '90s without a shred of disrespect. Even the rare touches of country-rock, found buried in songs like "Beat Ohio," suggest that the Champions of the West may be the first band to successfully pay homage to the sound of the '90s by fleshing it out and pointing towards what will define that time in the coming years. I've been waiting for someone to do that for a while.

So the morale is not to judge a book by its cover, or something vague like that. The very reason why we audiophiles own such nice audio equipment is so that we can hear deep into the recordings. We scoff at those who listen to music as just "something in the background." So if you happen upon Heartspace Timepiece in the near future, give it a close listen and you'll be rewarded.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Black Keys' Turn Blue on LP (and CD)

Ah, this is the way I like to do album reviews. Play it for weeks. Get to know it well. Put the LP on your turntable and then don't take it off for a month. Stick the CD in your car's player and play it until people tell you if they have to listen to it one more time they're going to eject it and throw it out the window. Yeah, I know the Black Keys' new album, Turn Blue, pretty well by now. I've gotten to the point where I know which song is going to come up next. I even know what musical note is coming up next. It's like the summer of 2010, where I listened to nothing but Brothers and Janelle Monae's The Archandroid over and over and over again.

Is the picture clear yet?

Well, let's stop for a moment. Turn Blue isn't my favorite LP of all time. It's not even my favorite Black Keys album. I think they reached their creative peak with Brothers, and perhaps 2008's Attack and Release. Their monster breakthrough 2011 album, El Camino, might have been my favorite album for that year but in retrospect I'm starting to think that's when they lost their edge, sold out, became slick and overproduced and polished, or whatever. Turn Blue is a continuation of that trend, an album that no longer sounds all stripped down, an album from a band with two members playing everything. It sounds like a recording from an established band who now possesses the power to make any album they want to, and this one happens to be dense, ornate psychedelic rock with a little Motown thrown in. If you're saying to yourself, yeah, that sounds like the other albums, you'll need to push the time machine needle forward a few years, where Pink Floyd and the Delfonics intersect--if they intersect at all.

My opinions of this album have evolved with each listen. My first reaction was that it's a great new direction for Dan Auerback and Patrick Carney, a rich and complex soundscape that has far more layers of sound than you expect with a Black Keys album. The opener, "Weight of Love," is the closest thing the Keys have ever come to an epic song--at almost seven minutes it is by far the longest song the duo has ever recorded. It's also an amazing Track One, a calling card of sorts that reeks of ambition and weight and complete mastery of the recording studio. That's partially due to the extraordinary talents of Danger Mouse, who acts as producer and as an "equal songwriting partner" to Auerbach and Carney. He also produced El Camino, which was noteworthy to Keys' fans because of its lush production values--at least in comparison to Brothers, which was an exercise in lo-fi.

(I once visited the Avalon Acoustics factory in Boulder, Colorado and listened to an amazing system in their million dollar room. When asked if I wanted to play something, the only music I had on me was Brothers. Avalon's Neil Patel came in, sat down, and asked me if I broke his system.)

Those opinions, as I said, shifted through the evaluation process. I started thinking that the first two songs, the aforementioned "Weight of Love" and "In Time" were by far the strongest cuts, and that the album sort of blended together and the songs are started to sound the same as the album progressed. It's not as much of a criticism as you think; it reminds me of a review I once read of the Strokes' first album that said, and I paraphrase, "it's the same song over and over, but man, what a great song!" But that specific opinion of Turn Blue, as I said, changed over time. It's not so much that I started fleshing out each song and noticing all the little flourishes and touches that make the music so good and so varied. It's just that the Black Keys, more than any other contemporary band I like, get into your head and stay there and become as natural as taking your next breath.

I've played this album for a number of people and the common reaction has been, "What is this?" "The new Black Keys," I tell them. "It's great!" they reply. It's an immediately likeable album, in a big way, one made by people who know who they are and what their fans expect. But I would like them to get back to basics on the next one.

(One final note: the LP is $25, but it does come with the CD. Score! I compared the sound quality of the two and it sounded like they were sourced from the same digital masters. But as one of my Facebook friends recently posted, does it matter if an LP is sourced from a digital master when the digital master sounds so good? I think he may have a point, so I'm not going to sweat this anymore.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Ode to Surfer Rosa, Part 2

Look what I found while old CD copy of Pixies' Surfer Rosa and C'mon Pilgrim on one disc, the one I thought was missing and inspired me to write An Ode to Surfer Rosa on this blog a few days ago. It was, for some reason, alphabetized incorrectly in my CD collection, which just goes to show that Lagavulin and Pixies don't necessarily mix when it comes to late night listening sessions. Be careful out there.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An "Embarrassment of Riches" at Vinyl Nirvana

I just spoke with Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, and he told me that he has a wide variety of restored AR and Thorens turntables now available--an embarrassment of riches so to speak. After my recent interview with Dave in Perfect Sound Forever, it's clear that Vinyl Nirvana is taking off and has become one of the premier turntable restoration services in the entire world. As a result, Dave is able to offer more completely restored turntables than ever before...more proof that the 21st century vinyl surge is still peaking.

This particular turntable caught my fancy. I'm a sucker for a beautiful wood surface, and this solid zebrawood plinth on this Thorens TD-150 sent a chill down my back. Looking closely, however, you may notice that this TD-150 looks more like a Linn LP-12 than a traditional Thorens. Dave extended the base of the turntable, much like he's been doing for those unique long-base Thorens TD-125s with the 12" tonearms, so that this TD-150 can accommodate a Linn-sized tonearm. He then added a Music Hall Cruise Control to stabilize the platter speed--Dave feels that this $295 unit "makes the music jump right out of the groove." You also get the Bren record clamp that Dave includes on many of his beautiful creations.

Finally, Dave has installed the Moth RB-202 tonearm--an OEM Rega arm--which has been rewired with Cardas Audio tonearm cable. The result is a turntable that has been influenced by the Linn LP-12, and comes close to achieving the same level of performance according to Dave. The price for everything? Just $1495 complete plus shipping.

Dave's success with the long-base TD-125 (there's only one more available this year) has led him to tackle this more modest project. Hopefully, he'll keep creating more of these unique vintage turntables--I can't wait to see what he'll do with an AR ES-1. If you're interested in one of these TD-150s, contact Dave at Vinyl Nirvana immediately.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ode to Surfer Rosa

It all started with that TV commercial for the Apple iPhone 5s. "Wow," I told Colleen, "they're using a Pixies song!" We both dug the way "Gigantic" was played, with various bits and pieces of the song coming slowly together just like in the original with an adorable Elisha Cuthbert look-alike performing an admirable Kim Deal impersonation.

"Can you play the original for me?" Colleen asked after we'd seen the commercial a half dozen times, and I immediately headed to the listening room to pull out my CD version of Surfer Rosa. I didn't even think twice about it--I have all Pixies albums and even most of the numerous EPs and other rarities along the way. Of course I have their first album, Colleen. It's knockin' on my Top Ten of all time. But I couldn't find it. I then checked my LPs because I once reviewed the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs version of Surfer Rosa for TONEAudio, but I was pretty sure I had to give that back although it pissed me off to do so. Pixies are my favorite band--couldn't you just let me have it in lieu of pay? Maybe, via some sort of miracle, I still had it. But I didn't.

I couldn't find Surfer Rosa anywhere. I knew I had it on CD--in fact, I had two versions including that reissue that's shoehorned with the EP C'mon Pilgrim. So I found myself, for the first time in probably 20 years, with a hole in my Pixies collection. Not just any hole, but the debut album, the one I declared a true challenger for the title of My Favorite Pixies Album after I did the MFSL review. That's no small feat considering that Doolittle, which I own in three different versions (regular CD, regular LP and Mobile Fidelity LP), is still probably my favorite rock album of all time. (I say probably because it seems kinda strange to still say that after more than 25 years. But I can't think of a possible replacement.)

So I bought the LP directly off of the MFSL website, using the money I'd reserved for my FIM purchase of the month. (I bought a new FIM CD anyway, so there.) I didn't even think twice about it--there was no way that I could live another day knowing it was missing from my collection. It reinforced my recent commitment to spend more time on vinyl after spending the last year or so praising the latest hi-rez digital formats. I've been sticking to this commitment--I bought the new Beck album on vinyl (which I reviewed here), and last night I bought the new Black Keys album, Turn Blue, on LP. Now I need to buy the remaining two Pixies albums that have been remastered by MFSL, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde.

You can probably look up my old TONEAudio review--it was in 2008 or so. I remember listening to the MFSL version of Surfer Rosa and marveling at the fact that it no longer sounded like a sloppy, enthusiastic, minimalist recording of a classic post-punk album. The guys at MFSL really brought out the depth and the texture of the recording and reduced just enough grunge to make it sound like it came from totally different recording sessions. That still holds true. I'm not as convinced that it approaches the sheer vision and attitude of Doolittle, so I'll retract my previous hyperbole. But it's easily the second greatest Pixies album ever, which is something.

Listening to this MFSL version, however, I was instantly reminded of a comment in my review--that Kim Deal had such a big role on this album, "Gigantic" notwithstanding. I really hope she, in particular, received a big check from Apple.

I'll be honest--not every MFSL remaster is a champ. Some seem like the output levels are way too low and you really have to crank up the volume to get it to sound right. Some MFSL remasters are simply ordinary, mostly because the originals sounded abysmal and the MFSL guys made the recording merely listenable (a comment I used to reserve for old DCC releases). These are still noble efforts, but I'd rather hear something more absolute. But these two Pixies remasters are so superb that I feel remiss by not having all four at this point in time. But oh, I will.