Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jim Sullivan's UFO on LP

I'm a little late to the party on this one, more than a year. It's been at least that long since my vinyl-loving friend Brian Weaver first told me the eerie story of singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan, his 1975 disappearance and his long-forgotten masterpiece, UFO, which had been released to little fanfare six years before that. While the circumstances surrounding Sullivan's disappearance into the New Mexico desert has now become rock folklore, I was equally intrigued by record label Light in the Attic's effort to find the master tapes so this unusual album could get a second chance at finding an audience. It sounds like a cliche, but Sullivan's story and the search for the master tapes became so intertwined that the two tales have become one.

Sullivan, even in his Malibu heyday in the late '60s and early '70s, had never quite made it despite the fact that celebrities such as Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett, Lee Marvin, Vic Morrow, Judy Carne and Harry Dean Stanton were among his loyal fans. But his talent was obvious, and more than 40 years later he's finally getting some recognition. His mysterious fate certainly adds to the attraction, I suppose, but the closer you look the more there is.

Listening to UFO, you might not be convinced right away. The sound quality isn't anything special--Light in the Attic never did find the original masters and had to rely upon early pressings that possessed "a huge honky midrange boost, wild dynamics and distortion in the sibilance baked into the original cut." It took many attempts to sweeten the mix to achieve "the Jim Sullivan experience." In addition, the production is a bit overwrought (albeit very typical of the time) with lots of thin-sounding string arrangements and even an appearance from the dreaded jazz flute...Ron Burgundy be damned. Sullivan's voice won't quite knock you over at first, either. It's gruff, unfettered and unrefined. But what will impress you after repeated listenings is his sheer songwriting craft. Sullivan was passionate and poetic, and his lyrics reveal a soulful human being who was still amazed at the beautiful world around him.

That's where the thundering black silence after his disappearance comes in, as this was a man who stared at the heavens and wondered who was staring back. There are two theories about his disappearance. The first had to do with the two New Mexico state troopers who were the last to see him. Sullivan, to put it bluntly, didn't take shit from anyone, and this six-foot-three-inch ponytailed figure may have pissed off the wrong law enforcement officers. (The officers were cleared early on in the investigation, but Sullivan's friends had their doubts.) The other theory has to do with the title of this album, and that's where the story gets all X-Files on your ass. Both stories have their gaping holes, but Sullivan did have a small role in Easy Rider and epitomized that scene. He also wrote lyrics such as "Johnny tell us tell us will you/What secret have you found?/Do you really know the answer/How to sail above the ground?"

I know what you're thinking. Drugs. But he also sings "Looking at the sun/Dancing through the sky/Did he come by UFO?" Or how about "It's my time to go/I just want the wind to blow my ashes until they're completely out of sight"? It's hard to hear these songs without thinking that ol' Jim knew what was in store for him in the desert outside of Santa Rosa, where they found his car, his wallet, his guitar, his belongings...everything but him.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dean Peer and Bret Mann at RMAF

I did get to see my friend Dean Peer perform at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. It's the first time I've seen him perform with drummer Bret Mann, the same guy who plays with Dean on his latest album Airborne, so it was a real treat. The only downside was that the lobby sign introducing the show said "Dean Pear, Harpist" instead of "Dean Peer, Bassist."

The duo played in the huge atrium at the Denver Tech Center Marriott, where RMAF is held every year, and we joked that this monstrous five-story space was probably the biggest "room" Dean has played. (Dean once told me he prefers smaller, more intimate venues). It was amusing to hear his trademark bass runs bounce off the roof of the Marriott some fifty feet over our heads.

Dean and Bret plan to perform in Dallas and Austin next month, and I'm trying to get them to play here in Kyle as well. I'll blog more about this in the near future.

New Trenner & Friedl Pharoahs at Blackbird Audio Gallery

Dan Muzquiz just received the new Trenner & Friedl Pharoahs, and he has them all set up at Blackbird Audio Gallery near San Diego. I may have a chance to hear these soon since Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor of T&F, recently moved to Austin. Bob told me he has received the first few pairs for the US market, and he already has a pair set up in his home for evaluation.

As you can see, these are very similar to the $25K RA Box I heard at Sound Mind Audio in Dallas last year--for about half the price. Both Dan and Bob have raved about the sound to me. Since I haven't heard a Trenner & Friedl design yet that I haven't loved, I'll take their word for it.

Avalon Acoustics' Amazing Sound Room

Being an industry insider certainly has its perks, and while I was attending RMAF as an exhibitor I was lucky to receive an invitation to visit the Avalon Acoustics factory in nearby Boulder, Colorado for an open house party. Avalon has been around for decades, making some of the most gorgeous (and gorgeous-sounding) loudspeakers available. Colleen Cardas, my business partner, owned a pair of Avalon Avatars for years, and it was her long-standing relationship with the company that got me invited to event.

The real reason for the open house was to show off the company's new sound room, which was clearly a state-of-the-art assault on room design. Using the company's new-ish Time loudspeaker, which retails for $50,000, I was treated to some of the most spectacular sound I've ever heard. The room itself was almost the size of a small movie theater, and the dimensions were based on a trapezoidal design that followed the Golden Ratio. No two walls were parallel, which eliminated unwanted reflections and resonances. Numerous DAAD room tuning devices, some of which resembled giant bongs, were placed strategically around the room along with plenty of absorption and reflection panels on the walls and ceilings.

The Times were placed about one-third into the room, which meant there was an enormous space behind the speakers. That sound was immediately filled with music, creating the largest, deepest and most clearly delineated soundstage I've ever experienced. At one point I even walked almost between the speakers in a near-field position and the music still seemed to exist in the rear third of the room. I've never heard a pair of speakers disappear so completely into room, utterly detached from the music.

After a variety of demo tracks that showed off the abilities of this amazing system (which included Rowland Research amplification, Transparent cables and a Spectral digital source), I asked to put on some of my own music. Unfortunately, all I had with me was a CD of the Black Keys' Brothers. If you're not familiar with this recording, it is grungy, grungy, grungy. It almost sounded like I broke the system. While Brothers sounds absolutely killer in my car, it kinda falls apart in a system of this magnitude. At one point Avalon owner/founder Neil Patel turned to Colleen and asked, "Does he always listen to music this weird?" (Colleen, of course, answered yes.) But I did get Neil to admit that despite the sonic shortcomings, the music was super cool.

Back at RMAF, I visited the Avalon room where they had the new Idea speakers playing. The Ideas are much smaller than the Times and cost just $8000 per pair. Even with the smaller speakers, fewer DAADs and the much smaller room, I felt that I was hearing the same sonic signature on a smaller scale. Soundstaging was absolutely incredible--again. I could easily live with Ideas and only occasionally think about the majesty of the Times.

I want to thank Neil Patel, Lucien Pichette and Dmitri Panfilov of Avalon for being extraordinarily gracious hosts, and for allowing me to hear one of the most amazing sound systems I've ever witnessed.

Cactus Needles? The Hyperion Phono Cartridge from Soundsmith

The buzz at RMAF this year seemed focused on a rather novel--some might say crazy--new innovation from Peter Ledermann from Soundsmith. Over the last couple of years, Soundsmith has exploded on the high end audio scene with a huge line of cartridges and other products. Just a few years ago Peter Ledermann had a small business that focused on re-tipping premium cartridges, and soon he started marketing his line of pickups that started with his famous strain gauge cartridge (which included a dedicated preamplfier...all for a dear $14,000 when first introduced). Now Peter has evolved into a serious mover and shaker in the industry, and his designs have really garnered a significant following.

This year, however, he made a bold move by introducing a new cartridge, the Hyperion, that uses a cactus needle for a cantilever. "Cactus needle?" everyone seemed to cry in disbelief, but once you listen to Peter explaining the reasons for such a design, his ideas make perfect sense. Cactus needles, as most of you know, were once used by old phonographs back in the days of 78s. But needles were extremely simple back then, and they are the sole reason why a majority of 78s suffer from an unbelievable amount of surface noise. Or, as my friend Terry Combs says, "these records were played with a nail for over 50 years," which is why most of them are in bad shape.

But Peter is not using cactus needles as the stylus, but as the cantilever. It turns out that it's an almost ideal solution since strong fibers run through the length of needle, adding to its rigidity. These fibers are also create spaces within the needle that are filled, over time, with a unique natural resin that excels at damping and controlling energy and resonances. Finally, these needles are naturally tapered, the ideal shape for a cantilever, something that is costly to do when it comes to traditional cantilever materials such as aluminum, ruby, boron and whatever else you have. As Peter told me, "We've been making phonograph needles for 80 years, but God has been making them for millions of years!"

Peter was inspired by Frank Schroder, maker of the superb Schroder tonarms, who first suggested that cactus needles would be an ideal material for a cantilever. Frank has been using the strongest and most rigid woods for his tonearms for the last few years, woods such as black palm and horizontal (which comes from a New Zealand tree noted for having branches that stick out at perfect right angles from the trunk, which is unique in nature and demonstrated the sheer strength of the structure). Peter told us to thank Mr. Schroder for the inspiration, saying "Tell him I said thanks for 'needling' me!"

I was able to listen to the Hyperion cartridge in Peter's room at RMAF, where it was used with a VPI TNT turntable that was equipped with both a VPI and a Schroder arm. The sound was simply superb, with a smooth, full and warm lower range augmented with highs that were almost limitless. There wasn't a trace of hardness or brightness anywhere, but I could hear every little detail in the recording. This cartridge sounded unlike any other I've heard. Peter extrapolates on this by saying, "All other cantilevers are synthesized--we GROW these!"

The Hyperion is not cheap at $7000. But before you start complaining that cactus needles are cheap because they're simply collected in the desert, you should know that it takes an inordinate amount of time, effort and skill to attach a stylus tip to the end. Peter uses a thorough and painstaking procedure to determine if each needle is the perfect shape and structure for these cantilevers, and then precision forms them using a patent pending method. At any rate, the Hyperion is an extraordinary product, and I congratulate Peter on such a remarkable innovation.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Our System at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Here's our system at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. We shared Room 1102 with AudioEvo.org, Positive Feedback Online, SonicWeld, Locus Design, MIT and Blackbird Audio Gallery and although this was supposed to be a hospitality suite, it definitely turned into a genuine demo room.

The system consists of the new Funk Firm Saffire turntable, Funk Firm FXR-II tonearm and Transfiguration Axia cartridge (all from Blackbird Audio Gallery), the Unison Research CDE CD player and Unison Research Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier (from Colleen Cardas Imports), cabling from MIT and Locus Design and the magnificent Sonicweld system that includes the Pulserod speakers, Subpulse subwoofers, DEQX PDC digital controller and more.

After a full day of RMAF, comments were extremely positive and the room was full at all times. You can watch a live feed of the room here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

For Those of You Who Miss Your Dad's Hi-Fi Console...

...it's back!

Built here in the Austin area by master carpenter Mark Macek, this is being featured by Brian DiFrank at Whetstone Audio. I had a chance to see the "unveiling" after I visited Brian, but I had a previous engagement. I can't wait to see this in person.

As you can see, this one houses a mostly Rega system. Brian discussed slipping a pair of Rega R1s in the speaker compartments, but I'm not sure if they're in the system in the pics.

While these types of consoles traditionally didn't place the speakers far apart enough to create an expansive stereo image, I bet this console would deliver the goods in small rooms or otherwise crowded spaces. The cool factor, at any rate, is through the roof. Even the cloth for the grilles are made from Marshall amp stock!

For more info, check out the Whetstone Audio website.

Beneath Wind and Waves' Non-etre on CD

"I just try to write from my heart and stay out of my head," says Portland-based singer-songwriter Shawn Lawson Freeman, who is about to release his new album Non-etre in December under the band name Beneath Wind and Waves. Freeman provides most of the album's content including at least half of the instrumentation, and every second of this album is spent with his heart on his sleeve.

At first listen, these songs are almost too direct in their sentiments. Freeman is short on poetry and long on feeling, and his lyrics often reflect this and sound more like excerpts from a note that was slipped under your windshield wipers last night from the person you just dumped. Lyrics such as "You're the sugar in my tea/You're the one I want to see when you have to go away" won't alert the folks at the PEN Center, but after a while you merge with his specific wavelength and succumb to the all-heart, no brain approach.

The music side of the equation is much more immediate in its appeal. Within a few seconds you realize this is a carefully crafted and delicate album, more than capable of switching gears from soft ballad to rocking outro with a modicum of grace and logic. Freeman the musician is a tinkerer, and even in the quietest moments there's a lot going on in the mix. Even the lo-fi tracks such as "Loop Me in" have a clarity that demands your attention, and when he's just singing in his Will Oldham-meets-Sufjan Stevens demeanor, a simple acoustic guitar on his knee, there's still plenty of originality on the stage.

Stephanie Scheiderman, whose distinctive and playful Rubber Teardrop I reviewed just a couple of months ago, helps out on three songs and makes such a strong impression through the entire album that I thought she was a permanent member of the band, not just a "very special guest." She provides the female counterpoint to Freeman's longing and they create a tangible chemistry. Co-producer Jim Walker also provides half of the instrumentation as well as vocals.

This is Freeman's second album (his 2009 debut is called Nice to Meet You, which was released under his own name), and if there's a third I hope employs a little more mystery and lyricism to keep his more jaded fans engaged. At the same time, I suspect there are plenty of music lovers who just want to be talked to, questioned, comforted and embraced. Those fans will appreciate the love and wide-eyed directness of Non-etre.

Kuzma at Whetstone Audio

This weekend I stopped by to visit Brian DiFrank at Whetstone Audio, and in the months since I've last seen him he has added several new product lines. Of these, the most interesting is Kuzma, a Slovenian turntable/tonearm company that makes some of the best-sounding and attractive designs in the world. We had a chance to sit down with the Stogi S/Stabi 'table and arm combination, which used the Zu DL-103 cartridge (another new addition to Whetstone, and the cartridge I use on my Rega P3-24). As you can see from the pics, the Kuzma was mated to Leben tubed amplification, and the speakers were the DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 9s, I speaker I once reviewed and had in my system for several months.

While we talked, Brian kept the volume on the low side, but that didn't keep the sound of the Kuzma from shining through. That's one of the things I love about good tubed amplification--it sounds great, even at low volumes. The Stabi/Stogi sounded solid, warm and relaxed as it coursed through some of Brian's favorite funk tracks. Even with its minimalist, plinth-less design, the Kuzma looks as beautiful as it sounds and is almost jewel-like up close.

You may be wondering about the wooden table the turntable is sitting on; it's certainly gorgeous as well. These are custom-made by a friend of Brian's, and I have to admit that I want one. They're not cheap, but the craftsmanship is extraordinary, and while they are not specifically designed for audio gear they do work well, a serendipitous discovery made by Brian.

If you would like more information about Kuzma or these wooden tables, contact Brian directly at 512-784-8282.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wilco's The Whole Love on LP

Listening to Wilco's new album, The Whole Love, for the first time is like listening to their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for the first time. It's unexpected, considering what has come before it, and it's unbelievably great. That's not to say that the two albums are similar, because they're not. But after spending some time with The Whole Love, you probably will feel the same sense of elation (as long as you're a Wilco fan), and you'll know that this is a group that will continue to confound and surpass our expectations with each new release.

By now it's clearly evident that Wilco makes two types of albums: on one side you have the simple, back-to-their roots releases (Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (the Album)) that stress their strengths as musicians and their ability to play somewhat straight yet unique songs in the now faded "No Depression" mold, and then you have the fully experimental mode (the two albums I mentioned in the first paragraph, along with 2004's A Ghost Is Born) that bend and shuffle this band's talents into something strange and almost confrontational. From the first song, "Art of Almost," you'll wonder what happened to the old Wilco; with its distinct electronica structure and climactic wild freak-out, you'll think you're hearing the latest Radiohead album with Jeff Tweedy as lead vocalist. My first reaction was "Is this Wilco's Kid A?" It is and it isn't.

What follows, fortunately, is all Wilco, but skewed in a way that comforts you in the way their last two albums didn't, especially in the confident way it shows that Tweedy and Co. are still willing to push the envelope. In "I Might," the album's first single and the song that immediately follows "Art of Almost", you'll hear a tight beat that will remind you of songs like "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Camera" while adding a farfisa organ that steps backward into '60s psychedelia. From there the album shifts to and fro from gentle, acoustic ballads to full-fledged rock-outs (such as the slightly abrasive yet assertive "Standing O"). "Capital City" will amuse you with its old-fashioned feel which isn't too far removed in spirit from those clever little ditties Freddie Mercury used to insert into old Queen albums, but its unique instrumentation--a Wilco trademark--takes it a step further and exhilirates more than it amuses.

The Whole Love ends as auspiciously as it begins, but in another totally susprising way. Wilco isn't afraid of including long, epic songs (as A Ghost Is Born clearly demonstrated), and here you get the 12-minute plus "One Sunday Morning." But this isn't epic in the prog-rock sense, it's a gentle, acoustic epic that floats out of a rather quiet and relaxed riff (reflecting the title) and becomes diffused and expansive between the many, many verses. It's calming in the same way as Yo La Tengo's "Night Falls on Hoboken" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, but instead of a long, calculated degeneration into noise it keeps snapping back into focus.

So what version of The Whole Love should you buy? I obviously opted for the LP version, which adds a pleasant cover of "Sometimes It Happens" as a coda. (The regular CD version stops at "One Sunday Morning".) A deluxe version of the CD adds a bonus disc that contains four more songs, including Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label." Then again, when you buy the LP the regular CD is included in the price, just like Wilco did with Wilco (the Album). That way you can compare the sound of the CD and the LP directly. For the record (no pun intended), I felt that the CD had better bass, but the LP had more presence. The LP pressing, unfortunately, was a bit noisy and was cursed with surface noise, which is unforgiveable considering it cost me nearly thirty bucks. So I say buy 'em all if you're completist.

This has definitely been a great year for my favorite bands--Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio and now Wilco have made 2011 more than a bit special. If you love Wilco but were slightly put off by the rather ordinary feel of their last couple of releases, The Whole Love will take you back to the astonishment you felt with YHF. Then again, it's all preference, as I did note one music critic compare this unfavorably to their "landmark" album Wilco (the Album)--different strokes, y'all. But for me it's the album of the year, along with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, one I'll keep coming back to whenever I feel bored with the fancy, indistinct direction alternative music's taken over the last couple of years.

Monday, October 3, 2011

2011 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

Right now I'm getting ready to attend the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, which will be held October 14-16 at the Denver Marriott Tech Center in Denver, Colorado. I've only been to RMAF once before, in 2008, but it was one of my favorite audio shows of all time. The vibe is friendly there since it's mostly consumers attending, and this show has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Nearly everyone I know in the audio industry will be there.

Since I will be an exhibitor (representing Colleen Cardas Imports) and not a member of the press, I probably won't be able to offer the usual show reports. I will, however, keep my eyes open for anything cool. If you want to stop by and say hello, I'll be in Room 1102 along with AudioEvo.org, Sonicweld loudspeakers, Positive Feedback Online, Locus Designs, Blackbird Audio/Gallery and MIT Cables.

For more information on RMAF, click here.