Friday, September 30, 2011

Black Pussy's On Blonde...on CD

Strike #1: You name your band Black Pussy. Now I'm no puritan and can cuss a blue streak when properly motivated, but I'm starting to feel numb from the recent trend of naming your band something outrageous and offensive just to get noticed. It's like all those bands with F-bombs as part of their names. It seems as puerile and sophomoric as an afternoon of Bubba the Love Sponge on Sirius--it's just relentless after a while, and it's made even worse by journeymen music critics who line up to review the album because they get a cheap thrill from dropping said F-bombs on the printed page. I'm not even going to tell you what happened when I Googled "Black Pussy on Blonde," either--I just wanted to get the scoop on this band for y'all, and I didn't need to see all that, well, stuff.

Strike #2: You start your album with the sound of a massive bong hit. Great, let's just throw On Blonde on the stack with my unopened Kottonmouth Kings CDs and every other band who manages to put the word "weed" in every song title. I wanna smoke weed every day of my life, every day of my life, every day of my life. Got it. Next. Even the cover of the CD has a little icon in the corner majestic stating that the whole affair was recorded in STONERSOUND.

Strike #3: Well, that's the thing...strike #3 never comes. Black Pussy's On Blonde is actually pretty cool. It's a retro sound that's a little hard to define, '70s hard rock on the cusp of punk, and I can probably best describe it like this: When I was a teenager in the late '70s, we were secretly enthralled with the coming of so-called punk rock, but it was a different type of punk than we think of now. True hardcore was still underground, and the stuff we thought was so different--the "new" wave--was simply tighter and faster rock without the 12-minute guitar solos. Black Pussy's sound, in other words, fits in with an afternoon orgy of Ramones, the Runaways, the Stooges and maybe even a little Kiss. It's simple, it's tight and it doesn't give an F-bomb.

Heck, even that bong hit in the beginning eventually justifies itself. That's because the first song, "Marijuana," isn't a celebratory ode to pot. When the chorus kicks in--she wants your, she wants your, she wants your...MARIJUANA!--it's downright funny, especially if you knew that particular girl back in the day. (Hi, Carmen!) When Black Pussy gently shifts their musical palette from song to song, a move so subtle and pure you'll probably miss it, it's only to add a cowbell (or a wood block; this is pretty lo-fi stuff) or maybe switch vocalists. The purpose here is to loudly declare that self-important lyrics and pretty melodies have no place in true rock and roll, and that's it.

So today's lesson is not to judge a CD by its cover, or a band by its name. Or maybe the lesson is not to cuss or you'll get your mouth washed out with soap. Either way, On Blonde reminds me of a friend I had back when I was in college. When a band met his approval, he said they "rocked amply." You've heard it here from the Vinyl Ananchronist: Black Pussy rocks amply. Now look that up in Google.

Wilco's "The Whole Love" on LP...What a Deal!

When Wilco's The Wilco Album came out on LP a couple of years ago, I was duly impressed when I discovered that they included the CD version as well. Well, I just picked up The Whole Love on LP at Waterloo Records a couple of hours ago, I was thrilled that they did it again!

But you also get a handy dandy nylon bag from Epitaph Records and a Wilco poster as well. Plus, the new album is a 2-LP set. I'm not sure if it's a 180 gram pressing or not, but it feels pretty close. I'll have a full review up in a few days--hopefully before I head to Denver for RMAF. I also have CD reviews for Black Pussy (yep, that's their name, and they're pretty good) and Beneath Wind and Waves from Non-etre.

New Vinyl Anachronist column up at Perfect Sound Forever

The latest issue of Perfect Sound Forever is now online, which includes my 82nd installment of the Vinyl Anachronist. This column is about high-end audio dealers, and how their marketplace has changed in the last few years. It also asks audiophiles to take a hard look in the mirror and decide if we're really still "enjoying the music" like we used to.

You can read it here.

And don't forget to read the rest of PSF as well!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do You Have Any Female Vocals?: Halie Loren on CD

"Just say no to Diana Krall at audio shows."

I said this as a joke on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, and I took a little flak for it. Hey, what do you have against Mrs. Costello? She's awesome! I love her stuff!

Well, I'm always a sucker for a good old-fashioned backlash, and I have to admit that I've tired of hearing DK in every single friggin' room when I attend the audio trade shows. As an exhibitor at the recent AXPONA Show in New York City, I watched as two middle-aged gentlemen got up and left my room after they were told we didn't have any Diana Krall to play. What, no Diana? Youse guys suck! Finally, someone in our room fetched some Krall, and all was well in Audiophile Land. But I had to leave the room after a while. I just didn't get it.

I don't really dislike Diana Krall that much, and I may be overstating my case here. A couple of years ago I reviewed two of her ORG reissues on LP and I had to admit that the sound quality was utterly stupendous. She's a skilled pianist, she has good taste in music and she's downright beautiful. I hate to bring up the latter, but I suspect it's part of the reason why so many middle-aged men are smitten with her "musical" charms. I guess my main objection is her aloof, too-cool-for-school vibe which sometimes comes off as emotionally detached from the material. It's almost as if she's watching her Rolex as she's playing. She rushes through some of the songs as if she can't wait to get to the part where everyone applauds wildly. (This also reminds me of why I don't like Sarah MacLachlan's singing; if Krall sounds hurried, then Sarah sounds as if she's going to take a big giant nap as soon as she finishes the last note of the song.)

On a broader scale, female vocals are a necessity in the world of audiophiles. If they aren't asking for Krall, then they're asking for female vocals in general. They don't want to hear the rare Three Blind Mice LPs I have. They don't want to hear Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington play "Duke's Place." They want to hear Patricia Barber. Or Eva Cassidy. Or Jacintha. Or even (my God) Celine Dion. I mean, why not someone interesting like Holly Cole? Or how about Zooey Deschanel doing an amazing country-and-western cover of "I Should Have Known Better"? Or how about Halie Loren?

Halie who, you ask? That's my point. Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio sent me three of her CDs my way in the hopes that I would spread the word about her. Dan thinks she deserves to be better known, and when talks about music, I listen. As an unapologetic music snob, I find it hard to be impressed with other people's taste in music, but Dan seems to know what I'm going to like before I even like it. When I visited him in August, he played a rare and pristine pressing of the extended version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone' by the Temptations. It wouldn't have been my first choice for the evening, but by the time it was over I was hooked and I had to have it. I'm still looking for it. Damn, that was good.

All in all, Dan sent me three of her CDs: the 2001 live album Stages and the two studio albums They Oughta Write a Song (2008) and After Dark (2010). Dan also told me she has another album on the way. She also has a 2006 debut album titled Full Circle and a series of digital downloads called Summer Fruit. She hails from Eugene, Oregon, and she's been performing since she was ten. She's big in Japan, as they say, but she's still trying to make an equally strong impression here in the states. Dan is certainly doing his part to make that happen.

So what makes Halie Loren special? First of all, we have to get the standard female vocalist prerequisites out of the way. Yes, she's gorgeous. It shouldn't matter, but it's exceptionally nice to look at her CD covers while you're listening to her music. Second, her albums feature spectacular sound quality. My only caveat is the sound of the audience on the Stages CD: it sounds distant, detached and two-dimensional, which detracts from the overall immediacy of the performance. But I'm nitpicking here; deep down I don't really care if the applause sounds muted, even if it's so contained that it sounds like the laugh track on an old episode of M*A*S*H. As long as Halie and her band sounds great--and they do--that's what's important.

Most importantly, Halie stands out in the way she commits to the song. I read her press bio, which said something about her reputation of "knowing her way around a song," and I have to concur. She connects emotionally to each line in the same way Sinatra often did. You hear the feelings behind the words and you almost see her facial expressions as she breathes in and out between the verses. In other words, she's the anti-Krall, the polar opposite of aloof. There's something amazingly alive about that, and it's slightly intoxicating.

She also has superb tastes in not only the individual songs, but the entire album sequence. Who else would mix a slow, bluesy "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with a sultry standard such as "Cry Me a River"? How about a double feature of "La Vie en Rose" and "Ode to Billie Joe"? Or "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Summertime" (not to mention a lovely "Autumn Leaves")? As diverse as the songs are, she manages to make them fit together like puzzle pieces through the singular power of her emotional convictions. It's breathtaking and also breathtakingly sexy.

She also surrounds herself with stellar musicians. Matt Treder, who co-produces many of her albums with her, plays the piano with grace while matching his singer's penchant for directness and honesty. You'll also hear strong contributions from such musicians as Jim Ferguson and Mark Schneider (bass), Brian West (drums), Dale Bradley (cello), Chris Ward and Jack Jezzro (guitar) and many others.

I'm going to take these CDs with me to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a couple of weeks, and whenever someone asks "do you have any female vocals?" I'll have a definite answer. It won't be Mrs. Costello, either. Inwardly I'll yell "Death before Diana!" Outwardly I'll say, "How about some Halie Loren instead?"

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Pressing of Wilco's The Whole Love LP

Brian Weaver sent me this link to a YouTube video chronicling the pressing of the new Wilco album, The Whole Love, on LP. This is the first video I've seen of the Furnace MFG plant, and it looks like an exceptionally clean facility. It's seems quiet, too; I've been to RTI a number of times and it seems busy, noisy and hectic in comparison.

At any rate, Wilco is one of my very favorite groups and I'll be grabbing this on vinyl as soon as I can. The last Wilco LP, The Wilco Album, came with a free CD version of the album. I hope they do this again, 'cuz Wilco's a great companion on those long road trips and I rarely drive without at least one of their albums in my glove box.

More Pics of the Giro...

Got the Giro all set up and playing. All in all it wasn't that difficult to set up properly; if I had to do it again I'd breeze right through in a few minutes. The Unison UN1 cartridge was especially easy to mount, and the Unison-supplied protractor was effective and fairly accurate.

The only downside is that you need to set tracking force with an external gauge, so if you don't have one you'll need to get one. There are no little markings on the counterweight a la Rega.

Anti-skating is also dealt with in a novel way; the large bolt in the bracket just to the right of the tonearm pivot sits opposite of a trio of magnets on the tonearm, near the pivot. By screwing the bolt in or out, you counter the anti-skating forces. Simple and elegant.

Finally, I had to reset the loading on my Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE for the UN1 cartridge, which is an MM. I also used the phono section on my Unison Unico Nuove amp for a brief spell. Now it's time to let everything break in.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Cool Is Your Hi-Fi?

"Now, I'm a writer and editor of an audio and music magazine. My kids are teenagers and know better than to go anywhere near my stereo equipment (they're too busy listening to their iPods to be concerned with my antiquities). The wife has become an ex-wife, and I'm currently seeing a very cute blonde woman who also happens to have a master's in American Literature and loves the Beatles and actually knows Big Star's story... and after nearly nine years in the aesthetically-challenged San Fernando Valley, I live in the Pacific Northwest, where it's rainy and wet and green, just as I like it. Needless to say, it's a great time to listen to records."

I took a lot of flak in the online audio discussion forums a couple of years ago for this admission--apparently some audiophiles didn't want to hear me boasting about my wild single years, and a few even posited that I made the whole thing up and that I was really living the life of the modern audiophile. That, of course, implied that I was sequestered in my Pacific Northwest hovel, listening to my LP collection alone, utterly and geekily alone. The truth was, I wasn't boasting but merely reflecting how much things had changed in the first decade of the Vinyl Anachronist column.

I also wanted to throw a rather risky and possibly far-fetched idea that having an awesome hi-fi was still cool. In those wild years, which have faded considerably in my rear-view mirror, I experienced a wide range of responses to my chosen hobby and profession--everything from actually playing a few records and getting lucky to having one woman tell me, "So, you just sit here and listen to music? You don't do anything else?" (My response to that was "I don't think this is going to work out" and showing her the door.)

Audiophiles have come a long way from the Golden Age of the '70s and '80s, when Playboy magazine asked the question "What kind of man reads Playboy?" and the answer was some cool bachelor with a futuristic Bang & Ofulsen hi-fi in his pad. Audiophiles lament the passing of those days, and the slow transition from coolness to geekiness that is marked by hi-fi nuts rhapsodizing about the best way to perform needledrops, and whether FLAC files are really superior over WAVs and WMAs.

I'm prompted to bring this up after Jason Gross, editor of Perfect Sound Forever, sent me a link to a story about the size of the music industry (which you can read here). reports that IFPI has compiled 2010 statistics on the music industry, and $25 billion was spent on something called "home audio systems." This was the third largest segment of the music industry, after radio advertising ($32.5 billion) and recorded music retail sales ($27.6 billion), but it's still a much larger number than I thought.

So the real question is: what comprises a "home audio system" in 2011? We audiophiles kids ourselves into thinking that a substantial portion of that should be two-channel audio systems, but the reality is that most of it is probably iPods and wireless music servers and USB interfaces. In other words, we're probably not going to see any full-page spreads in Playboy showing that the type of man who reads their mag is spending his Saturday nights downloading FLAC files and perusing the audio forums in search of the best DAC for $200.

I'll be talking about this a little more when my next Vinyl Ananchronist column appears in Perfect Sound Forever in a few days. Two-channel audio still makes up a very small percentage of "home audio systems," and both hi-fi dealers and audiophiles are hurting because of it. If I could snap my fingers and make hi-fi cool again, I would. Here in my little Texas town, I have plenty of people dropping by to see what I do for a living, which is currently importing tube amplifiers, turntables and single pairs of speakers for US audiophiles. And every single one of these people, who are generally unaware of the presence of high end audio on this planet, are simply amazed at the sound quality that is possible from two-channel audio. (One person, in fact, seemed skeptical that the full soundstage that was reproduced in my listening room was coming from a single pair of speakers; they were convinced that subwoofers and center channels were hiding somewhere in the room.)

Two-channel audio IS cool. It sounds like real musicians right there in the room. Audiophiles need to stop wringing their hands about the current state of affairs, and they need to start inviting their neighbors over for a "music night."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tone Arm. Get it?

Hee hee. Thanks to Russ Gates for this one. Don't ask me how it sounds.

And no one got my joke about the cartridge being named the Apple.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Giro has landed.

I know, I know...I said I wasn't going to mention Unison Research or Opera Loudspeakers in this blog since Colleen Cardas and I are the US distributors. But it's news when the Vinyl Anachronist gets a new turntable, isn't it? I'm a company man through and through, and I wanted to get familiar with it before we start selling it in the US.

This is the Unison Research Giro turntable that I just bought. It's mine. I just unboxed it and got it partially set up, but I'm still waiting on the matching UN1 cartridge to show up. [Note: It was hiding in the box the whole time.] Both the Giro and the UN1 are made for Unison by Clearaudio, so you'll notice a distinct resemblance. But these products aren't badge-engineered a la General Motors but made to Unison's specifications. Plus there's all that gorgeous wood on top of the typical Clearaudio acrylic, a Unison trademark.

It's also not plug and have to put it together piece by piece. I've been so spoiled by Rega over the last few years that I'll have to drag out my TT tools and brush up on Turntable Set-Up and Cartridge Alignment 101. It's not anywhere as difficult as the Michell Orbe SE I owned from 2003 to 2009, which came apart in about 100 pieces. But it takes a little time to get everything set up right. But at least Unison supplies a pair of white gloves so you can keep the beautiful, glossy surfaces clean while you're assembling the Giro.

So that's all I will say on the subject.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thorens TD-160 Super w/Incognito-wired Rega RB-250 from Vinyl Nirvana

Here's another gorgeous 'table for sale at Vinyl Nirvana. This one is an absolutely beautiful Thorens TD-160 Super with a Rega RB-250 arm that's been rewired by Incognito. Here's what David Archimbault of VN has to say about this gem:

"Okay, you can tell from my website and my descriptions that I get pretty excited about turntables and the peripheries…even after all these years. Well, multiply that excitement tenfold and you will know how I feel about this specific turntable. It has been a long time since I even offered a Thorens TD–160 Super on this for sale page because I usually have a waiting list for them. Some years I come across a couple if I am lucky, and other years I don’t see any. That’s what makes this particular TD 160 Super even more thrilling: it is in amazing condition…easily the nicest to cross my bench. Cosmetically, this table is a solid 9.0 on a scale of 1-10. (Those who follow my sales know I rarely use a 9.0 rating.) The red mahogany veneer is in outstanding shape with not a single blemish to report. The metal portion of the plinth is in excellent condition, with absolutely no scuffs or scratches, and only very very slight signs of wear. The dust cover is in very good to excellent condition: there are minor blemishes, light scratches, and some circular scuffing."

Here's what he has to say about the arm:

"If you have never compared a stock Rega RB – 250 to one that has been rewired with the phenomenal Incognito upgrade wiring, it is a night and day difference… a cliche I rarely use., but in this case it’s true. The Incognito upgrade features one-piece pure copper wiring with Faraday Cage shielding. The grounding scheme removes the arm ground from the signal path. the RCA plugs and cartridge pin clips are of high quality. You can search out reviews and see this upgrade is universally praised. The re-wired arm and custom Sound Supports armboard are a $500+ value.

Overall, this is a stunning table with a serious arm capable of handling cartridges in the $500 to $2000 range with ease. I would be happy to mount any cartridge for the new owner for $40. If I install the cartridge, it makes set-up incredibly easy for set-up."

David is selling this one for just $1195 plus shipping. This is another Thorens that will probably sell quickly due to its excellent shape, and David isn't kidding when he says this TT will compete with modern turntables in the $2000 range. For more information, check out the Vinyl Nirvana website.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Poor Boy's Soul's Burn Down on CD

The first time you hear Poor Boy's Soul's new 7-song EP, Burn Down, you're immediately tempted to draw parallels to both The Black Keys and The White Stripes. All three acts mate a blistering, bluesy guitar to a stripped down drum kit, although PBS is certainly ground much deeper into the Mississippi Delta mud than those more famous duos. Then it slowly dawns on you. Is this just one guy, pickin' on his slide guitar while manuevering both a kick drum and a tambourine and singin' with an intense growl that combines pain, anger and hobo-esque sense of loss? It is one guy, Trever Jones, who's set on "stompin' and shoutin' till the heavens cry."

Once you come to this realization, Poor Boy's Soul adds about a dozen layers of depth, and what initially sounds simple, pure and focused now becomes feverish and darned near breathtaking. Jones isn't reinventing blues rock here, but it does pour unimpeded from his poor boy's soul onto the stage into and into every nook and cranny in the joint. From listening to this one CD, you'll immediately know that this is the type of performer who forges his reputation on remarkable live performances. Does he really recreate the sound of this CD on stage? you'll wonder. Can I see it? And when?

Vocally, Jones follows blues tradition by favoring growl over range and you'll swear he's delivering every syllable in the same goddamned note, which is just fine. The lone exception is the seemingly gentle ballad "Annalisa" that closes the album, but what sounds like tenderness is betrayed by haunting lyrics such as "Annalisa, you're stronger than those demons in your head." Those are heady lyrics to sing about a mother of three, and he delivers these words with the unmistakeable tone of someone who has lived through the ten plagues of Egypt and can't wait to see what shit's coming down the road next. He may not have a lot of tricks up his sleeve or gears in his tranny, but he's unbelievably commited to his art and that's more than enough. When he comes to town, I want to see him--is there any higher recommendation than that?