Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Welcome Holiday Respite Courtesy of 2L Recordings

Last week was a rough, troubling week. Monday started off with a health scare that put me into a foul yet unstable frame of mind. The ongoing debate over the political correctness of the term "Wife Acceptance factor" became quite heated and I found myself being criticized on both sides of the argument. All of this happened in the middle of our seasonal rush, with international shipping avenues completely clogged up for the holidays, resulting in delayed shipments and angry customers. And people ask me why I don't celebrate Christmas. Maybe two decades of retail management has something to do with that.

I did receive another welcome package from Norway. Morten Lindberg sent me several 2L recordings to review, and those should appear shortly. In that care package, however, I found two discs that I've already reviewed--TrondheimSolistene's Souvenir and Flint Juventino Beppe's Remote Galaxy. I did notice that the packaging was slightly different--traditional jewel cases had replaced the older clamshell case. When I opened them I discovered that these were merely Blu-Ray audio discs--not the usual two disc set with both Blu-ray and a CD/SACD hybrid. I wasn't quite sure why Morten wanted to send these to me--I already have both of these titles in LP, CD and Blu-ray. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize a more affordable way to own these groundbreaking recordings. I put them aside for a couple of weeks and almost forgot about them.

When I noticed them once again, sitting in my stack or review materials, I suddenly remembered the strengths of each recording and how that would translate to listening on my new high-quality headphone rig. First up was Souvenir, the Grammy-nominated recording that really put 2L on the map in the US. If you remember my original reviews of this recording, you'll know that these are small orchestra performances of pieces from Nielson and Tchaikovsky that are arranged in a way so that no musician sits next to another musician with the same instrument. The result is a blended sound that will challenge what you think you know about classical recording.

With my headphone rig, which consists of a prototype of the upcoming Unison Research SH headphone amplifier, Furutech H128 headphones, a cheap Samsung Blu-ray player and Cardas Audio Clear Light cabling, it was far easier to discern these unique orchestral arrangements and pinpoint the differences in sound. With Remote Galaxy, a wildly dynamic and exciting recording, that different perspective, residing entirely within my noggin, was startling and made my heart race with anticipation more than once. (You can read my original review of Remote Galaxy here.)

Yesterday, I had an idea. I've just received the new high-efficiency (94 dB, 8 ohms) Unison Research Max loudspeakers, which were designed for low-powered tube amps such as Unison's own Simply Italy (12wpc) and Triode 25 (22 wpc triode/45wpc pentode). Needless to say, the Max goes very loud with very little power. These 2L recordings were downright ideal for such a set-up, with plenty of delicacy during the quieter moments and plenty of gusto during crescendos.

Before you know it, my troubles vanished and I starting thinking about how much I've come to love the music coming out of Norway these days. I just submitted my ten top albums for 2014 to Perfect Sound Forever, and three out of the ten are Norwegian recordings. Something tells me that if I visited Norway, even for a week, I'd come back refreshed and ready to write about controversial issues in audio once again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The "Women in Audio" Debate Continues

The debate has been heating up over the last few days.

The day after my article on women in audio was published on the Part-Time Audiophile website, Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney's piece appeared on the same website. Her article, "No Girls Allowed: Why I Hate 'Wife Acceptance Factor," made a much bigger splash than mine did--probably because she's a woman and that's the point, we want to hear from women on this issue and second, her piece is just brilliant. I went to bed that night and had a weird dream, a dream like none other I've ever had, where I had written and directed a Broadway play (I'm not not a big fan of the theater), and when I stepped out on the stage to thank the audience the lights had already come on, the microphone had been turned off and most of the audience had already left.

I don't know, there might have been a connection. (Oh, and for some strange reason the dream morphed and revealed a new aspect of my play--that I had quietly been on stage the whole time playing a homeless man swaddled in blankets and sleeping on the sidewalk. W. T. F.)

Anyway, a couple of days later Scot Hull, chief bottle washer at Part-Time Audiophile, also published a piece by Cookie Marenco, owner and founder of the awesome label Blue Coast Records. Her piece, "Of WAF and Wimps," is yet another brilliant piece on women in audio, written by a woman. While I'm suddenly feeling a little self-conscious about my article--I'm just another guy writing about what women supposedly think about something--I do feel proud to be a part of something that's gaining momentum.

I've seen a few other men chime in with their thoughts on the subject, even re-hashing old articles they've written on WAF in the past. But let's face it...who cares what the men think? It doesn't matter. The "wimmens," as Kirsten likes to say with her tongue in her cheek, know the answers to all these questions from male audiophiles, and the men simply aren't interested in shutting up and listening. On the original forum discussion that prompted Kirsten and me to write our articles, one man keeps asking for other women to chime in on the subject...women other than Kirsten, of course. It's as if he's saying that he needs a consensus of women to tell him he's part of the problem--one single intelligent and thoughtful woman won't do. In other words, we still have a long way to go.

And to the man who keeps asking me what Colleen thinks about all this, well, Colleen and I wrote an article some time ago for Positive Feedback Online called "He Said, She Said: Pink Turntables on Parade." We often think about writing a follow-up or turning it into a series, but we haven't been able to think of more subjects. Now, thanks to all this renewed interest in women in audio, maybe we will.

But for now I'll take my own advice and stay out of the discussion. Like the old saying goes, we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Article on Part-Time Audiophile: How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

Another one of my articles has just appeared on Part-Time Audiophile, and it addresses a hot topic in audio right now--why women don't seem to be interested in all things hi-fi...at least to the average audiophile. I have a unique perspective on this because my significant other is one of the leading women in the audio industry, so I like to think I have a little more insight than the average audiophile on this particular subject. But who knows--I'm just another guy spouting off.

You can read the story here. Hopefully we'll see a companion piece by Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney in a few days--either she'll agree with me, or she'll completely destroy my arguments. Either way, I'll let you know when it appears.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column Is Live on Perfect Sound Forever

Seems like just a few days ago I was celebrating my 100th column for Perfect Sound Forever, and now column #101 is already up! This one is my 16th annual year-end wrap-up, where I choose the best vinyl releases, turntables, cartridges and accessories of the year. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Lars Jakob Rudjord Ensemble's Clockwork on CD

I really, really like this album a lot. Period. End of review.

I think a few other reviewers have made this joke at least once or twice, and it usually comes after they've heard an album that they like so much that they simply don't want to write about it. It's just too difficult, too personal, to put all those feelings and emotions into mere words and sometimes it takes some time and distance to make sense of what you've just experienced. It's easy to write about something you dislike, especially if you're being paid to critique it. The good stuff, however, is a real challenge because you're not responding to objective elements of the music, you're just making the right synaptic connections in the pleasure center of your brain and now you gotta meet some deadline. But I'll still attempt to tell you why Lark Jakob Ensemble's Clockwork is so up my alley.

When I think about the music I truly, truly love, it's not made up of ornate flourishes and virtuoso performances. It's made up of precise yet beautiful melodies, carefully measured yet constantly in a state of flux. (Think Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but less repetitive.) While this music can be gorgeous and lush in a mainstream way, there still has to be something there to challenge me, to remind me that I'm not listening to elevator music or another mindless Top 40 hit. It can be dissonant as long as it evokes some sort of fluid imagery for me--if you're going to make noise, it has to take me somewhere. But ultimately it has to create an emotional bond in my brain. I know most people could probably care less about my idea of perfect music, especially since there's really no such thing, but at least I'm on the record.

Little did I know this modest perfection could be contained within a unique trio that consists of a piano, a cello and a double bass. I almost said jazz trio, which wouldn't be necessarily incorrect because pianist Lars Jakob Rudford, cellist Katrine Schiott and bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr bill themselves as such. Perhaps they're focusing on the improvisational aspect of jazz, but my take is that these ten fascinating song-length pieces are closer to classical impromptus, and to go one step further I'd mention that the aforementioned precision of the songs are not really improvisations or impromptu at all. Perhaps the final word is the album's single-word title, which is far more aligned with the moods presented here.

Rudjord does weigh in on his website, expressing that while his roots are in jazz, his music is also part of "The Nordic Sound," something exemplified by recordings such as The Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night on 2L Recordings. He states that "I grew up on the windswept Lista peninsula on the southwest coast of Norway, and in many of the songs you can probably feel a whisper of wind, a strip of light or a glimpse of the landscape here." Lars even sent me a postcard from Lista to emphasize the point.

Here's another synaptic connection I've made while listening to Clockwork; I've often that that if I'd been a musician, I would have been the kind who would always insert disparate and surprising elements, such as exotic instrumentation, in order for each song to rise above the ordinary. In many ways this album follows that template--just when things get a little too pretty and familiar, something appears to break it all down and assemble a new whole, a new perspective. That new element can be something as simple as a bow, nervous and heavy against string, making those surreal and cinematic swirling noises that prompted a guest to ask me, "Why are we listening to horror film music?" Or it can be something relatively complex, such as a couple of autoharps being strummed in unison, along with the piano, into an earthy harmonic structure not unlike Meryl Streep's simulated "dial tone" in the film Adaptation. You're not going to necessarily recognize the sounds coming from these three gifted musicians, but they are achieved with honesty.

The story of how I stumbled onto this wonderful, wonderful recording is also interesting. My Norwegian friend Trond Torgnesskar, who sent me the beautiful Ingvild Koksvik LP I reviewed last July, told me he'd be sending me more great-sounding contemporary Norwegian music since I enjoyed Nattapent so much. "It is by Lars Jakob Rudjord, Ingvild's boyfriend, and the guy playing piano on her record," Trond told me. Clockwork, like Nattapent before it, was released by Fyrlyd Records, a label with a reputation for great sound. Indeed, this album was recorded "at IsitArt Studios in the deep Swedish forests." Don't you want to hear Clockwork for that reason alone?

I'll tell you what--I'm probably going to bring this CD with me to every trade show I attend. It's just that great of a demo disc, with amazing sonics and intriguing music. I'll be at CES in Vegas next month, so just ask me to play it for you. It's already late November, so I'm sure I'll be asked for my top ten favorites of 2014 for the Perfect Sound Forever year-end round-up. Unless something even more amazing appears in my mailbox in the next couple of weeks, this is my pick for the best thing I've heard this year.

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.