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) are 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, 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 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."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Acoustic Sounds' Belafonte at Carnegie Hall on LP

I believe a vast majority of audiophiles are aware of Harry Belafonte's 1959 recording Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. As far as live recordings go, it sits at the head of its class in terms of sound quality. In fact, I can't think of a better recording from this era that captures the sound of a live audience so well and firmly positions you, the listener, among the crowd. Most live recordings position the microphones near the performers on stage so that the audience sounds distant and even canned. I'm not sure what the recording engineers did to make this particular crowd sound so immediate and lifelike, but they should have written a book about it and handed it out to all of their contemporaries.

I've been a huge fan of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall for many years--I chose it at "Best LP Reissue" in my 1999 year-end Vinyl Anachronist column when Classic Records released it in an 45rpm 8-LP set. I never even bought that version--I was po' back then and it cost close to $100--so I had to borrow it from a fellow audiophile. Years later I found an original copy at a thrift store, and as you might imagine it was thrashed and sounded like crap. Just a couple of years ago Colleen surprised me during a road trip by playing a ripped CD of the 45rpm version. "Matilda" has been one of "our" songs ever since.

Flash forward to last week, when I was browsing through the Acoustic Sounds website to see what was new. Colleen and I are exhibiting at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a little over a week and I always like to have something exciting and new to play for show attendees. This year we're doing two rooms--one room includes the Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and a pair of our new Axis VoiceBox S speakers, and in the other I'm doing an all-analog room with probably the most ambitious system I've ever set up. The pic below shows it in all its glory, right there in the VA listening room--PureAudio amplification, Opera Grand Callas 2014 speakers and my Unison Research Giro turntable with one of my favorite cartridges, the Transfiguration Axia. (I don't think any other cartridge comes close to it at its relatively modest price point.)

Anyway, I noticed that Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds had just released another version of Carnegie Hall, this one sourced from the original 3-track master tapes and pressed on 200 gram vinyl. Here's the thing about Chad lately: it seems like he's coming out with HIS version of all the audiophile standards such as Tea for the Tlllerman, Fragile and even the first Ted Nugent LP. (I'll pass on that one.) So while part of me says "Do we really need another version of this record?" the other part of me says "If it's from Chad we do." After buying Sam Cooke's Night Beat from Chad a while ago, I'm starting to think that he can do no wrong.

So how is this version compared to the 45rpm version released more than 15 years ago? I wish I still had a copy for comparison. I had a much more modest system back then, so it's not fair to rely upon my memory. But here are some of the distinct advantages to Chad's new version:

1. It's on two LPs instead of eight. (The Classic Records version did have a double LP version, but it didn't sound nearly as good.)
2. It's $50, not $100. In fact, you might not even find a decent copy of the older version for a reasonable amount of money anymore. It's very collectible.
3. The brass section of the orchestra is more edgy and dynamic without peeling your ears back.
4. The crowd noise is even more impressive and natural than before.
5. Everything sounds bigger--the stage, the hall and Harry's voice. At the same time, everything sounds more laid-back and slightly less immersive (not a bad thing, just different as if you're sitting a few more rows away from the stage and the performers.)

This new version of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, in other words, is a big yes. If you're curious about it and you're not sure if you want to drop $50 on it--especially if you already own one version or another, just drop by my room at RMAF and listen for yourself. I'll probably be playing it constantly.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The 100th Vinyl Anachronist Column for Perfect Sound Forever Is Now Online!

This morning I woke up to a pleasant surprise--my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column was live at Perfect Sound Forever! I knew it was coming out today, as I was responsible for creating much of the content. What was surprising, however, was the way in which PSF editor Jason Gross packaged the whole thing, from his very complimentary introduction to the fact that he posted my photo on the home page in the space that's usually reserved for the musicians and performers who are featured in the articles.

Colleen was happy to see it as well, especially since one of our favorite photos of the two of us graces the top of the article instead of the usual Technics SL1200 image that you see above. I feel kind of special today, like it's my birthday or something, and I thank Jason for making this something to truly celebrate!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Kool Stuff Katie on CD

Is there anything more ridiculous than the current feud between Dan Auerbach and Jack White? On the surface there are a lot of similarities between the Black Keys and the White Stripes--their names, the fact that each band consists of just a guitarist/singer and a drummer, and that they're both evocative of the hard rock and blues of the early '70s. But beyond that, the Stripes and the Keys have such a different vibe; the former band is minimalist and the latter relies on heavy production in the studio. I can come up with many more examples, but suffice it to say that the first time I heard the Stripes ("Fell in Love With a Girl" on KROQ in LA in 2001) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" The first time I heard the Keys ("Tighten Up" on KGSR in Austin in 2010) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" I took me a long time to make the connection between the two bands, and it had nothing to do with music.

I'm bringing this up because yes, Kool Stuff Katie consists of just a guy guitarist and a girl drummer. Knowing that, you might roll your eyes a little. But once again, there's little to suggest imitation once you listen to the music. KSK, made up of the slightly nerdy Shane Blem and the quirky but very lovely Saren Oliver, have also gone back to the '70s for inspiration--but they're more content with Cheap Trick and the Ramones than the blues. Listening to their eponymous debut album's opener, "Hard Girl to Know," a simple and catchy mini-anthem, I'm reminded of the main reason I look those two earlier bands so much. It has something to do with momentum, about finding a catchy pop hook, roughing it up around the edges and stomping on the gas pedal until something start clanging under the hood.

Another important distinction is that unlike the other two bands, much of the vocal magic in Kool Stuff Katie is that Shane and Saren both sing, often blending innocent and exuberant harmonies into the majority of songs. This balances out the fact that both are rather workmanlike with their instruments--they're creating a fun, noisy whole rather than showing off their musical talent. Saren does occasionally jump over to the keyboards and adds a few extra layers of texture to mix it all up, but they're rockin' out--not making specific and lofty statements about our shared musical past.

That's why you shouldn't judge a band by the number of its members, I suppose. I think one of the reasons why these guitar/drum rock duos are so varied from each other is because each member has to throw more of himself or herself into the whole sonic picture to cover all the bases, so to speak. That means Meg White's drumming sounds nothing like Saren Oliver's, just like Dan Auerbach's singing voice, not to mention his guitar playing, sounds nothing like Jack White's. So kiss and make up, everybody, and maybe work on something together.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Led Zeppelin III on LP, Remastered by Jimmy Page

I recently finished my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. PSF editor and publisher Jason Gross came up with the idea to choose my ten favorite columns over the last 17 years, and number 10 was my famously misplaced 2001 column where I raved about the Classic Records reissue of the Led Zeppelin catalog on 180 gram vinyl. As it turned out my column came exactly one issue before Will Shade's excellent article, "Dazed and Confused: The Incredibly Strange Saga of Jake Holmes," which carefully lays out how Jimmy Page stole Holmes' songs over the years. After that my column vanished in the ether, excluded from the archives, and can only be found via a Google search. It took me a while to figure it all out, but after all these years I totally get why Jason did it. It was just bad timing. (Years later Jason told me that he didn't hate Zep--but what they did was pretty sleazy.)

The day after I finished the column, I headed out to the local Hastings to check out their newly remodeled vinyl section, which was still small but growing steadily. I found the latest Zeppelin box sets, remastered by Jimmy Page and released just a few weeks ago, all sitting on a shelf and priced at $134.99 each. (At this point they've released the first three albums, with the rest to follow soon.) I've been really curious about these because I've always lamented the horrible sound quality of the Zep catalog, even the Classic reissues which were expensive and still not quite there sound-wise. I've always used the CD box set, the one released in the '90s, as my reference, but these are merely the lesser of all evils.

But $134.98? I'll pass. I'm not a box set kind of person. I don't need all the outtakes and unreleased materials--that's for fanboys who want an entire disc of their rock idols coughing and scratching their balls in the studio while the engineers finish their coffee breaks. I just want to hear the original releases remastered so the sound quality is as realistic and/or goosebump-inducing as possible.

Fortunately, these new LPs have been released in a basic version which just contains the original album. I first saw these at Fidelis, our dealer in New Hampshire, a couple of weeks ago. I would have grabbed them all right there but I hate bringing LPs on a plane. So there I was in Hastings, a week or so later, and they had a copy of the newly remastered III right there, below the big box sets, for just $24.98. I grabbed it without thinking and headed to the register.

Along with the first three sides of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin III has always been my favorite Zep album because it stands apart from the others in so many ways. It's softer, more acoustic and more psychedelic than any of the others and showed that the band wanted to grow and evolve into something more than a killer blues-rock band. It's also downright weird in places--"The Immigrant Song," for example, belongs in a genre of one. Yet III also contains some of Led Zeppelin's most beautiful music, the country-tinged "Tangerine," the reflective "That's the Way" and the very unusual yet very traditional "Gallow's Pole."

So how does Jimmy Page's reissue measure up to the others? Well, to start off, this pressing is incredibly good. The surface of the LP is almost perfectly silent. Starting off with "The Immigrant's Song," which always sounded like it was recorded in a dungeon with two paper cups and a string, this remaster is decidedly modern-sounding with an expansive soundstage and plenty of air around the instruments. Moving on through the album, you'll notice that Page paid particular attention to bringing out the sound of his acoustic guitars so you can hear the individual strings resonate against the wood. Never has the band sound more live, more there in the room with you.

On the other hand, I wanted more of a visceral impact--starting with fuller and deeper low frequencies. Zep is a band that should knock your proverbial socks off with dynamics and power and sheer rock and roll head-rushes but I always thought they were hamstrung by crappy, muddy production values. So this new version excels at bringing out more details from the grooves, but it still lacks that headbanging magic I find routinely from other hard rock bands from the era.

Still, this is good enough to supplant all other versions of the catalog. To make these better, more of what I truly want, someone would have to cheat and add things that weren't originally there in the studio. As any purist will tell you, that's a big no-no. The real question is whether I'm going to collect each album as they're released, and that's a tougher decision. I don't feel particularly compelled to go out and get the first two albums--I already have the Classic Records versions of those and they cost me too much money to just cast them aside because something shinier came along.

But Physical Graffiti? Houses of the Holy? You bet I'll lay down the cash for those.