Monday, November 22, 2010

Ben Harper's Pleasure and Pain from Cardas Audio

My big announcement has to do with the newly-remastered version of Ben Harper's 1992 album Pleasure and Pain from Cardas Audio. I've been listening to an LP version of this release for the last few weeks, and the sound quality is simply incredible. Like the Hamza El Din LP I mentioned yesterday, this George Cardas-produced disc is one of the most lifelike recordings I've heard in a long time. The overall sound quality is direct, natural and intimate. I can't think of a single piece of music in my collection that reproduces the acoustic guitar more vividly and accurately.

Here's an excerpt from the press release:

"Ben Harper and Tom Freund's legendary album, "Pleasure and Pain", has been newly re-mastered by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood California. This is truly an Audiophile recording. The album was originally recorded on March 15, 1992 by George Cardas, of Cardas Audio, using a Studer A-80 tape deck. George used a pair of Omni differential microphones that he custom built and fed the sound directly to the Studer tape deck with nothing else in the signal path, not even a preamp. It is about the most direct and natural recording method there is. The first master for the album was made by Doug Sax at the Mastering Lab in Hollywood California. For this new release, George gave the original
master tapes of the recording session to Bernie Grundman."
In other words, Cardas Audio has proven again that the simplest way is the best way when it comes to recordings. Think of all those great jazz and classical recordings of the late '50s and early '60s and how they usually sound much better than the so-called "digital-ready" releases of subsequent decades. That's because they kept it simple buy using only a pair of microphones and steered away from compression, excessive mixing and overdubs. But George Cardas took it step further and even bypassed the preamp, something you won't even find in that spectacular Hamza El Din recording (the custom tubed Tim De Paravicini preamp used for those sessions, however, is practically the next best thing to no preamp at all).

Here's another excerpt from the press release, which talks about how this recording was originally made back in 1992:
"Music has always been a part of Ben Harper's life. Ben's grandparents owned the Folk Music Store in Claremont, California. As a child, Ben hung out there and became familiar with all types of musical instruments. He wound up selling, demonstrating and repairing instruments for the store's customers. His favorite was the guitar, in all its forms. He especially liked the lap steel guitar. Ben began singing and playing in the shop, first for his parents, then for customers who heard him in the back room of the store. He was especially fond of southern Blues and it is a major influence in his music today.

"Tom Freund is also a native of Claremont. A mutual friend of theirs, Alleghaney Meadows, introduced the two because she thought they would really sound good playing together. They connected immediately and began jamming the first night. Ben and Tom were so excited about the music they made, they called George so he could listen. George was in his recording studio, set up to record another artist, Johnny Kallas, when Ben called. Johnny was ill and couldn't make it to his session, so he said, "Sure, come on over." Ben and Tom began to play, while trying to see what songs they knew in common and how best to harmonize. George began recording the pair, in what turned out to be a "magical music moment". All songs were
recorded in one take, with the whole session lasting only forty-five minutes. George said, "It was the kind of recording session you dream of, but that rarely happens." He immediately made an album, which Ben was able to take to L.A., and as they say, "The rest is history!"

I think what I like best about this story is the connection between a very well-known singer-songwriter and someone who is well-known within high-end audio. I've seen Ben Harper live a couple of times, most recently at the Bridge School Benefit a few years ago, and I never would have guessed that he got his start with George Cardas. There's an old saying that musicians tend to have the worst stereos, mostly because they're used to the real thing and know that they won't ever be satisified with the sound from even the most expensive systems. I like it when the two worlds come together. Over the last few years, I've met a few famous musicians (Joey Santiago of the Pixies, for instance) who ARE audiophiles or really care about the sound quality on their recordings (the latest from John Mellencamp is a good example).

Well, I'm not sure what kind of stereo system Ben Harper has at home, but he must be very proud of the sound quality of Pleasure and Pain. First of all, the record surface is beyond quiet, which allows you to clearly visualize Ben and Tom's interaction with their guitars. While a recording of two guys and their acoustic guitars may not be the ideal way to test the dynamics of your system, it's a perfect way to address inner detail and harmonics. Recorded music sounds so much more compelling when you hear the physical act of a musician producing the sound, as opposed to music that just sort of materializes out of thin air. That's what makes most live performances so much more vibrant, that added dimension of seeing fingers pluck and move and drive the music forward. Pleasure and Pain provides that magnificent illusion as few recordings do.

Unlike Ben Harper's more mainstream releases over the last few years, Pleasure and Pain sticks closely to the blues, specifically the Mississippi Delta variety. Both musicians rely heavily on the slide, and you'll find covers from Robert Johnson, Chris Darrow and David Lindley. A couple of songs are written by Tom and are more firmly rooted in rock 'n' roll, but the vast majority of this album has an almost timeless feel as if these two musicians could be playing anywhere and any time over the last 50 years. This is not a slick, polished performance but an earthy, loose and inspired moment in time.

The release of this newly remastered version isn't set yet, but it will be soon. I'll let you know when. It will be available on beautiful, rich, pristine vinyl (pressed at RTI), and you'll also be able to get it in a 33rpm or 45 rpm (which will come later). I have the 45rpm version and I'll be able to compare it with the 33rpm version very soon.

This is a very cool album in so many ways, and chances are that it will be highly collectible as well. In the short time I've had it, it's turned into one of my reference recordings even though I had to keep mum about it until the release date was a little closer. If you like Ben Harper, Mississippi Delta Blues or the slide guitar, this will become an essential recording to own.


  1. Dude! SO psyched to read about this! Our wedding song is Ben Harper's "Forever" off Welcome to the Cruel World - and we LOVE Pleasure and Pain! Right on George!!!! PSYCHED to hear this

  2. Marc - do you have any more news on when this re-release will be ...released?

  3. Just picked this one up...and I'm glad I did. Lovely sound.
    I found side2 to be a challenge for my set up though.