Thursday, September 29, 2016

TrondheimSolistene's Reflections on CD/Blu-ray Audio

It's been a while since I've received a new release from 2L Recordings in Norway. Then it hit me--when I moved to Syracuse last spring, I'd forgotten to send Morten Lindberg my new address. I sent him a quick message on Facebook about the latest move; I was worried that my old mailbox in Colorado was filled with all the latest and greatest titles. "For the first time in a while I have no 2L Recordings in my review pile. I hope I didn't miss anything!"

Morten replied swiftly: "No worries, Marc! We've been busy making new recordings. Four new titles are ready for release over the next weeks." And sure enough, those four titles reached me safely in New York. I've been listening to all four through the summer, and this one was from TrondheimSolistene the most immediately engaging and familiar--after all, the first 2L Recording I've heard was Souvenir, which I reviewed back in 2012. When I saw their latest, Reflections, I was thrilled that it included one of my absolute favorite pieces for string orchestra--Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In fact, the first thing I did after unpacking the padded envelope from Norway was to listen to this piece. And it was absolutely beautiful.

That's saying a lot, considering my longtime reference is an old, somewhat beat up copy of Sir John Barbirolli's English String Music with the Sinfonia of London. This 1963 performance is stunning and of course legendary, but I've been vexed by the surface noise. (I bought it used on eBay, and I paid a significant amount of money for it.) I'd splurge on a better copy, but I'm sure examples are both expensive and rare. So the idea of having a brand new take on this piece, pristine and beautifully recorded, made my day. TrondheimSolistene is known for taking liberties through unique arrangements, but their version is restrained and yet animated, and incredibly fluid and emotional. Is it the equivalent of Barbirolli's? I'm not going to go there--I'm thankful I have both.

The other two pieces on Reflections have been chosen, along with the Williams piece, for "passion, perfection and raw intensity." These include Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Igor Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete, and they do create a unified and stirring hour-plus of music. Even the Stravinsky piece is perfectly lovely and lyrical--I'm not familiar with it and would never have guessed that it was composed by the same person responsible for The Rite of Spring and Petrushka. At first I thought it might have come from Stravinsky's earlier periods before, as Taruskin wrote, "Stravinsky became Stravinsky." This version was actually revised in 1947, and has flourishes that reach back to the Romantic Era and even, for a few fleeting moments here and there, the Baroque Era.

I did mention that TrondheimSolistene uses atypical arrangements and seating positions--these three pieces are performed with the musicians in a circle and with the microphones on the inside of the circle pointing outward. The placement of the musicians are unique within that circle for each separate piece, so there is a slightly different sonic presentation in each section. Most of the positioning would probably be more obvious in the surround formats--which I do not have yet (I'm working on that as I write).

But I finally have access to a decent universal disc player--the Cambridge Audio CXU--so I can finally do more informed A/B comparisons between CD and Blu-ray digital formats. My initial impressions while switching between these formats aren't yet formed--I hear difference but very small ones, and I suspect those margins increase when you switch to multi-channel. (These four new CDs also utilized Dolby Atmos for the first time, so I'll see if I can find away to explore that new technology as well.) For the moment I continue to give the nod to Blu-ray Audio; it's simple quieter and smoother and more extended in the treble. But it's still amazing to me that two-channel redbook CD sound continues to be as realistic and as lifelike as it is. And no one's doing a better job of pushing the CD format into the 21st century than 2L.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Inclusive Or's Cocktails in Purgatory on LP

I'm coming up on six months in New York. The leaves are starting to turn color and I soon I will experience my first Syracuse winter. Syracuse gets more snowfall than any other major US city, by the way, so I'm about to have an adventure. Texas summers and Colorado winters have toughened me up over the last few years, so I'm not that worried, but I have planned a bit of traveling over the next three or four months--Toronto next month, CES in Vegas after the New Year as usual. So I'll be dealing with huge piles of snow on a fairly regular basis. Outside of that, I plan to burrow here in Salt City. Fortunately I have a ton of new music to review.

While that last paragraph meanders a bit, it's to make a point--I still have a bunch of vinyl to review from local Syracuse record labels L.R.S, bettyElm and Aux. I've been here six months, and I still haven't finished. I've been listening to most of these records, and I dig the overwhelming majority of them and have played most of them repeatedly. This album here, Inclusive Or's Cocktails in Purgatory, is a fine example of an LP that was likable at first and has since grown into something more rewarding and substantial.

I was reminded of this clever little album with lots of hidden depth when I was shopping at The Sound Garden, the local LP store here in Armory Square. They had Cocktails in Purgatory in the LP New Release section and I thought to myself, "New release? I don't feel so bad for not having reviewed it yet. It's still new!" But no, this album came out in 2014. Should I even bother?

In a word, yes. I should bother. What makes this indie band so intriguing is the slow and deliberate way this album unfolds. The first two or three songs are straightforward indie rock songs, a little rough and ragged and delivered with earnest energy from a band with electric guitars and bass guitars and drums and even a little keyboard action for low-level textures. I don't want to use words like ordinary or typical, but this is the type of music that makes you nod your head once or twice and acknowledge "Yeah, this is pretty good."

Then the band starts to stretch. While Trevor Grant's hoarse and jagged yet somehow whimsical voice remains a constant throughout the album--anchoring Inclusive Or's garage band aesthetic, the arrangements simultaneously focus and vary. "Inclusive Or" is a bouncy '80s track that almost sounds like The Knack, while "Scherzo" has the same fluid power of Green Day in their least self-obsessed incarnation. That song and its rock ballad follow-up, "Eudaimonia," feature a huge, endearing chunk of Hammond organ that's almost poignant. "Cured!" is a thrift-store hymnal, with Grant backed up by guitar and a strange grinding sound in the background--it's melancholy and desperate and ultimately hilarious in its honesty. ("Getting drunk off the blood of Christ/Isn't it nice?")

Sure the album is a couple of years old, but the Syracuse music scene is tight and close and these guys are still playing around town, and they're playing some of these songs. Something tells me they're great live, so I might try to check them out soon--if I don't go into hibernation for the winter, that is.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Luis Filipe Fortunato's Live and Pure Now Live on Positive Feedback Online

My review of Luis Filipe Fortunato's Live and Pure, from Dogma Musicae in Portugal, is now live at Positive Feedback Online. As you can see, this review was not of the usual LP or CD or even Blu-ray audio disc, but of a beautifully packaged thumb drive in a gorgeous wooden case. Plus, Freddy Rodrigues of Dogma Musicae has turned me onto a beautiful musical genre--Fado!

You can read the review here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Latest Installment of The Smoking Jacket Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

It's been a while since one of my columns for The Smoking Jacket has appeared--things over at Part-Time Audiophile have been busy during a particularly hectic trade show season! This one, titled "The New York Smoker," was actually written right after we got to Syracuse in April, so in my eyes it seems dated in one particular respect--the local cigar store, Tismart, is now the place where I hang out several times per week. I've become Norm from Cheers.

You can read the new column here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate on LP--Positive Feedback Online Review

My review of Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate also just appeared on Positive Feedback Online. Again, this has been a strong year in music and this is the perfect example of yet another album that took me by complete surprise.

Wilco Schmilco on LP

Ask me about my Top 5 favorite bands of all time, and Wilco will always slide in there somewhere. I've felt that way pretty much since the first time I heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot back in 2002 when it was first released. I still remember the first time I heard that remarkable album--I was sitting in my living room in my townhouse in Tujunga, north of LA. I still remember the system--Spendor SP100 speakers, Naim NAP 140 power amp, Naim NAIT 2 acting as preamp and phono pre, Naim CD3 CD player, Rega P25 turntable with a Rega Exact cartridge. About halfway through the album I said to the others in the room, "This is a really great album, isn't it?" The others agreed.

Instant Wilco fan for life.

Wilco also gets extra points for staying true to vinyl. The last Wilco CD I bought was YHF--it's been vinyl ever since. But here's why Wilco is so cool about the vinyl--they were the first band I knew of that included the CD and the download codes when you bought the LP. The first time they did this, I thought it was a mistake. The CD's not included on their new album, but you still get the download code. Maybe that's just a sign that CD is dead. It's disappointing not to have the CD for my car, but that's the only disappointing thing about Schmilco.

(You did see my post about that Wilco Schmilco Project turntable, right?)

Schmilco was culled from the same studio sessions as last year's Star Wars. It's easy to see why the band separated the results into two separate releases. Star Wars was a whimsical, slightly out-of-control carnival ride of an album, both experimental and daffy. Someone has probably already said something like "The band had more fun in the studio making this album than any of the others." Schmilco, however, is quieter and gentler. It's mostly acoustic. In fact, it sounds sort of alt-country. No Depression. The type of music that made them famous. There's an Uncle Tupelo-esque quality to it.

That's not to say it's downbeat, or even that serious. While most of that unbridled Star Wars whimsy is confined to Schmilco's macabre yet hilarious comic-strip cover, the songs here are all whole and beautifully executed. I've heard some early criticism of the album that Wilco the band doesn't get to show off very much due to the minimalist arrangements--Nels Cline fans seem particularly anguished--but I disagree. Perhaps it's because I'm an audiophile and I've been trained to respect the space between the notes and all that crap, but when you come right down to it there's plenty of harder moments to satisfy such as the rollicking, psychedelic "Locator" and the angular, noisy "Common Sense."

But in many ways this is the most beautiful, complete and consistent Wilco album in a decade--and that's as much to the band's credit as to Jeff Tweedy's, even though he really is front and center. Sometimes the band gets obsessed with covering multiple bases with albums such as A Ghost Is Born and The Whole Love--not a criticism as much as a personal preference. Wilco just really connects with me when they write a great song and play it well and then follow it with ten or twelve more songs just like it. Schmilco has a healthy dose of catchy, memorable songs that will rank among their best--the folky "If I Ever Was a Child," the bluesy "Nope," and the cheerful "Someone to Lose." The band even pulls off a hat trick by closing the album with three strong songs--"Shrug and Destroy," "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" and "Just Say Goodbye"--which for me add up to the most solid outro since the last three songs on OK Computer. Basically, there's no filler at all.

I'm impressed that these guys are still putting out albums this good. It's been 14 years since YHF, and I still get a rush from opening up a new Wilco LP, cueing it up and having no idea what to expect. I feel like I'm on a roll right now--I keep hearing great album after great album in 2016. If a Wilco album gets released in a certain year, it usually makes my top ten list almost by default. This time, it's got some serious competition from Ingvild Koksvik, Angel Olsen, Michael Kiwanuka and The Avalanches, but I still think it will be near the top. And I still have a giant stack of music to get through. I can't wait to see what's next.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Angel Olsen's My Woman on LP

Angel Olsen is a girl from your past. You didn't really appreciate her in the moment, but now you're a little older and a little wiser and you realize your life would have turned out a little differently if you had just cocked your head and looked at her the other way. Sure, she was edgy. Her bangs were cut a little too short. And she had much better taste in music than you. You didn't take a chance because you thought she was a little risky at the time. She would have broken your heart or, even worse, you would have broken her heart and she would have made life miserable afterward before finding someone much better than you. Then she would have written a bunch of songs about you, and they'd all be hits, and you'd go back to your job at the rental car agency.

After listening to Angel's new album over and over for the last couple of days, I feel that buzz, the one you get after you've just met someone and a few hours later you realize you can't stop thinking about them and you start devising a plan to run into them again. Her new album, My Woman, is either timeless or old-fashioned--I can't decide which one. It's the kind of album we used to love hearing when we were young. All the songs are engaging in that much-smarter-than-average pop sort of way--Angel's singing about love and loss and memories and dating and all the things that matter to young people, and people who used to be young and still remember how much it sucked. Her lyrics are straightforward, but Hemingway-esque in their hidden complexity.

This is one of those albums I discovered accidentally on Tidal--I almost didn't get past the first song, "Intern," because it's basically just Angel's voice backed by synthesizers. What follows, however, is both bad-ass and adorably original. "Never Be Mine" sounds like an old Roy Orbison song that was re-written for a female; it's also beautifully recorded and drenched in reverb. "Shut Up Kiss Me," however, was the point where I realized I was developing a serious crush--the hurried and desperately truncated way she says "Shut up! Kiss me! Hold Me Tight!" will make you want to instantly reply to her that maybe it is a good idea if you two get back together.

Going back to the old-fashioned, timeless statement I made earlier--that feeling hits you in many subtle ways. For instance, this is the classic rock album where you have six shorter and more energetic songs on Side A, the "singles" so to speak, and four slower, more expansive and ambitious songs on Side B, the "deep tracks." The album's epic stand-out, "Woman," starts out as a dreamy ballad, like Julee Cruise minus the kitsch and the melodrama, and then builds into a full-out rock jam before slowly drifting into an ambient coda that's more 2016 than anything else here.

But other than that, this album could have been made in 1979, or 1986...or right now.

Angel started out playing alongside Bonnie "Prince" Billy and her earlier two solo albums have been characterized as folky. Nothing about My Woman feels folky at all. This is smart, confident and exciting pop/rock sung by a woman who seems mysterious and assertive and relentlessly cool and still might curl up into a ball and cry when no one is around. She's Debbie Harry in Parallel Lines, or Liz Phair in Exile in Guyville. But she's also ol' Roy Orbison, big of heart, full of sorrow and incredibly impressive in every conceivable way.