Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Vinyl Anachronist column up at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever. The 83rd entry is my annual wrap-up, which includes the 13th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bradley Wik and the Charlatans' Burn What You Can, Bury the Rest...on CD

Do you remember rock and roll?

No, I'm not paraphrasing "American Pie." I'm asking fellow boomers if the music they used to call "rock and roll" is still alive and burrowing between all the fragmented genres that exist in the music scene today. The overexposed musical quagmire that's flippantly referred to as Americana certainly brushes against rock and roll's shirttails every so often, but the straightforward stuff is gone. Do we miss it? Did we need something more? Or do we still secretly listen to our rock and roll albums when no one else is around?

Bradley Wik and the Charlatans' debut album, Burn What You Can, Bury the Rest gives me the same feeling of comfort as when I see a teenager, in 2011, wearing an old Zep or DSOTM t-shirt. It's no secret that the latest generation of musicians is finding solace in Springsteen and Petty and Mellencamp--Ryan Adams certainly backed up his asphalt mixer to that particular stretch of the road a decade ago--and Wik and his band have been staying up late at night, studying these songs, digging around, and finding the emotional core. They're intent on bringing rock back...not the wild, raucous and jubilant type but the introspective, weary and gently redeeming rock that we'd listen to back in the '70s just before it was time to stop partying and go home.

As someone who is bringing up the rear of the Boomer generation, I'm certainly responding to this music differently than someone more typical of Wik's audience: it's not nostalgia I'm feeling as much as comfort, familiarity and a long-neglected urge to light one up. There's an old-fashioned feeling to these songs that permeates every guitar riff, every drum fill, every bit of over-saturated reverb coming from the amps. This filters down to the lyrics, where that always tumultuous marriage of old-time religion and rock makes an appearance or two--when Wik announces on the album's opener, "The Dark Lovely," that the "heavenly choir is singing dirges," you might think of an album such as Slow Train Coming. It certainly takes you back to a place that was, in retrospect, pretty nice.

Wik's songs, propelled by the rough melancholia in his voice, all express a certain level of tired relief. It's not a feeling of giving up or giving in, but rather the break someone takes before they pack up and move on to the next adventure. Bradley Wik and the Charlatans may continue to mine this pure rock and roll for a few more albums, attracting his generation as well as their parents. Then again he could step outside of his very comfortable comfort zone and fall in with his brethren and do something else, something weird or different. But he'd be leaving a very empty room behind, the room where we used to slap on our headphones, light up a joint, sit in our denim beanbag chairs and think about the life ahead.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bill Roberts, Raw Panda and the Pensacola Music Scene

A few days ago I mentioned that I spoke for quite some time with well-known mastering engineer Bill Roberts. During the course of our phone conversation, Bill mentioned a local record label in Pensacola, Raw Panda, that was really putting out some great-sounding recordings. Bill's pretty excited about Raw Panda and has been spreading the news throughout the music industry.

What's so special about Raw Panda? First of all, Bill sent me some music files of recordings from such artists as Damien Louviere and Paloma, and yes, it's really good stuff. I'm not just talking about sound quality; Paloma, for instance, is a moody straightforward sounding band that is elevated by stunning musicianship and the rare ability (for new bands, anyway) to make every song different. Damien Louviere is more dreamy and relaxed than Paloma, but there's still plenty of details between the notes. The outstanding recording quality adds loads of depth to the overall sound as well, making these two bands stand out considerably from the majority of new music out there. As an audiophile, I listen to a lot of classical and jazz. As a music lover, however, I'm more drawn to alternative and indie rock, and I get excited when the worlds of great music and great sound collide within the more contemporary genres.

Second, Raw Panda is deeply connected to the historic Pensacola music scene. This article from The Voyager discusses how Sean Peterson, the owner and primary sound engineer of Raw Panda, opens his studios to all types of bands so they can get recorded both well and affordably. His new project, a self-described "artist collective," sounds like it could turn his little Florida town into a mecca for honest, hard-working musicians.

Bill's trying to hook me up with Sean so I can listen to more of the Raw Panda catalog. He's been sending me files and photos of Paloma and Damien Louviere, as well as a third band named Imaginary Airshow (which I haven't listened to yet). I'll share everything as soon as I get more info. The mere fact that someone of Bill Roberts' stature is thrilled and excited about a small studio in Pensacola speaks volumes about the quality work being done there. I'm excited to hear more from Raw Panda.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Little Taste of Cuba

I've been fielding a lot of questions lately about genuine Cuban cigars, and just how easy it is to smoke one in the US these days. Usually I have to invoke the DADT rule: if you're lucky enough to have a reliable source for Cuban cigars, keep it to yourself. If you're smoking one, don't show it to everyone around you. Don't visit reputable cigar stores and ask if they have any in the back or hiding under the counter. Usually if you're a good boy or girl and you eat all your vegetables, eventually one of these babies will find its way into your hands and you'll be able to smoke it without being interrogated by a U.S. Customs Officer.

That said, these Camacho Pre-Embargo (PE) are a nice, legal way to get more of the taste of real Cuban cigars without breaking the law. The wrapper is a rare Jamastran Corojo (Cuban seed) tobacco, the filler actually contains genuine Cuban leaves from the pre-embargo days. That's right--this tobacco is older than I am. As of 2011, four bales of pre-1962 Cuban tobacco are still stored somewhere in a warehouse, and Camacho is rolling cigars with it.

I've been wanting to try one of these for a while, but I was unsure if the whole "pre-embargo" status was just a sales gimmick. We've been hearing about Cuban seeds and even Cuban cigar rollers being imported from Cuba into factories in other places such as Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and even Miami. While that usually makes for a decent smoke, it's not quite the same as smoking a real Cuban cigar. So I waited on the Camacho Pre-Embargo...until last week, when it was included in a very tasty sampler from

The Camacho Pre-Embargo usually costs $25 per 6 x 48 stick. For a limited time, however, you can get one of these included with six other Corojo cigars (including the excellent Joya de Nicaragua Antano Dark Corojo) for just $29.95. I jumped at the chance to try the cigar that the main guy at calls "without a doubt one of the finest cigars I have ever had the privilege of smoking."

After letting it sit in my humidor for a couple of weeks (it should have been longer, but it's already been waiting around to be smoked for fifty friggin' years!), I lit it up this morning. After a few initial puffs, I looked at it and said, "This tastes just like a Cuban cigar." It was exceedingly smooth, rich and well-constructed. The slightest of draws generated huge clouds of smoke. It was lighter in weight than I thought it would be, and the wrapper wasn't that oily or distinctive-looking. It looked like a fairly normal Corojo from the outside. But for all intents and purposes, it smoked exactly like the last three or four Cubans I've tried (in foreign countries, of course, where it's legal to smoke Cuban cigars). I'm not sure if that comparison would hold up if I was simultaneously smoking the Pre-Embargo and a nice Cohiba Behike BHK 52, but it was a truly memorable smoke overall, and a great bargain.

If you're curious about Cuban cigars and don't want to get into trouble, this may be a nice compromise. Order now before they sell out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our Hootenanny gets written up by Stereophile!

Our upcoming Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio on December 2 just got a little press coverage on the Stereophile website. As someone who has subscribed to the magazine since 1985, I find this very exciting--even more so than when they started publishing my letters to the editor back in 1990 or so!

As I write this, we're gearing up for the event. It looks like we'll have two separate systems on display at Whetstone. Bob Clarke will have a system showing off the new Trenner & Friedl Pharoahs (pictured above) backed up by a full system of Heed Audio components. For those of you who follow my blog, you'll know how much I love Heed and how well they match up with Trenner & Friedl loudspeakers.

Colleen and I are still planning out our system. Although we intended on featuring the brand new Unico 50 integrated amplifier, the truth is that we're selling almost every unit we can import. We also have one of the first Unico 50s in the US making the rounds with several reviewers. In other words, we may not have one available, but we will have the extraordinary S6 all-tubed integrated instead. This is one of my absolute favorites in the Unico line (I haven't heard the 50 yet), and I think it's really going to be a huge hit at the event.

We're also going to try to bring my Unison Research Giro turntable to the event. It's the only one currently in the US, and right now it's being reviewed by TONEAudio, so I'm hoping to get it back in time.

The Hootenany will be held at Whetstone Audio here in Austin from 6 to 9pm on December 2. Whetstone is located at 2401 East 6th Street #1001, Austin, TX. The phone number is (512)477-8503. Please come out and meet with me, Colleen Cardas, Bob Clarke and Brian Di Frank. If this event is a success, we'll plan on future events at Whetstone on a regular basis.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Heart of the '70s

Earlier today I had a fascinating phone conversation with Bill Roberts, the well-known mastering engineer and loudspeaker designer, and we started talking about great rock recordings in the '70s. Our jumping-off point was obvious--Dark Side of the Moon--and Bill's point was that is today's rock and pop was recorded with the same care, we'd be able to to foster in a whole new generation of audiophiles...or at least people who genuinely cared about sound quality.

I agreed with him wholeheatedly, of course. But Bill mentioned two other classic rock albums that he felt offered incredible sound quality: the first album by Boston, and Heart's Dreamboat Annie. The Boston album is a no-brainer; thanks to Tom Scholz's perfectionist tendencies in the studio this is truly a monster of a recording. I still remember the day my older brother came home on leave from the Air Force in his bitchin' new black Camaro and played that album full blast as we went for a ride around Garden Grove. But Dreamboat Annie? Sure, "Magic Man" always sounded big and awesome when it popped up on the radio, but I'd forgotten about this one. Besides, Little Queen was always my go-to album when it came to Heart.

After our phone call ended, my curiosity got the better of me and I went into the listening room and pulled out my Dreamboat Annie LP. It wasn't just any LP, mind you, but a Nautilus half-speed pressing that I'd probably only played once or twice over the last decade. Once I sat down and started listening, I knew what Bill was talking about. This is a warm, well-recorded LP that sounded much better than I remembered. When that thundering synthesizer comes in during the bridge, I heard deep bass harmonics that I'd never noticed before. The kick drum from "Soul of the Sea" was so deep, smooth and fleshed out that it practically reached out and hugged me.

For comparison, I brought out my copy of Little Queen, which I have played a bit more often over the years. Again, it was no slouch when it came to pressings; it was the CBS Mastersounds half-speed version. And while it certainly sounded punchy and fun, it was no match for Annie. Ann Wilson is definitely a vocalist who can peg the meters when she belts out notes, and when she really lets loose on songs such as "Dream of the Archer," her voice was edgy and peaky and way too aggressive. When she hit the same notes on Dreamboat Annie, the recording engineers were wise to move her powerful voice back into the mix so that it never became overwhelming.

So what's the point? Well, Bill said the reason why these particular albums were so well-recording was because the engineers didn't do what everyone else did at the time. (Remember those disclaimers that said "this album was meant to be played LOUD"?) They knew the equipment, they knew acoustics and they knew they were serving the music first and foremost. Or, as Bill paraphrased from someone else, "Airplanes didn't reach supersonic speeds with propellors." True innovation always comes from radical new thinking in spite of what others claim is "possible" at the time. I know, that's called "thinking outside the box" and it's an overused term to say the least. But I know that it applies to high-end audio as well as music in general, and the most interesting products in audio tend to forge new pathways instead of paving over old ones.

Or, as one engineer once told me after I railed against audio people who claim measurements tell the whole story, "Good engineers never say 'that won't work" when they encounter a new idea. They say, 'Why does it work?'" Dreamboat Annie may not be the most salient cornerstone of this philosophy, but it was certainly nice to redicover it, hiding deep in my LP collection, waiting to be heard one more time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Music Night at Whetstone Audio

Along with Colleen Cardas of CCI, Bob Clarke of Profundo and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone Audio, I'm putting on my first music event on December 2. Here is my press release to Stereophile:

"On December 2, 2011, Whetstone Audio in Austin, Texas will host a Music Night featuring product lines from US distributors Profundo (Heed, Transfiguration, VivA and Trenner & Friedl) and Colleen Cardas Imports (Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers). This event will feature the US premiere of both the new Trenner & Friedl Pharoah loudspeakers and the Unison Research Unico 50 hybrid integrated amplifier.

The event will run from 6pm to 9pm, and food and drink will be served. Whetstone Audio is located at 2401 East 6th St. #1001, Austin, TX 78702. For more information, contact Brian Di Frank of Whetstone Audio at 512-477-8503 or 512-784-8282."

We are all working on making Austin, Texas a true mecca for high-end audio. I've been in Austin for over two years, Colleen has been here since February and Bob Clarke and his wife Stacy just moved here a couple of months ago. Brian, of course, is a Texas native and has run Whetstone for many years. Austin is so well-known for its music scene, and we have some great hi-fi stores here as well. It's about time we pooled our resources together and introduced Texans to some outstanding gear!

I'm hoping we'll have a great turn-out for the event. If it's a success, we'll have more events just like this one. So please show your support by coming on out, indulging in some pizza and beer, and meeting all of us!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson on LP

If I'm a year late in reviewing the awesome LP reissue of Jim Sullivan's UFO from Light in the Attic Records, I'm two years late in getting Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson from the same folks. I almost grabbed the CD at Waterloo Records here in Austin a few months ago, but a little voice told me to hold out for the vinyl. As a result, the idea of owning this legendary album slipped away, and I didn't think about it again until the other day when I found an new, sealed LP at End of an Ear Records, just down the street from Waterloo. It was between this and She & Him's new Xmas LP, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I hate Christmas songs more than I love Zooey Deschanel. Melody Nelson it was, and I know now that I made the right choice.

If you're not familiar with this 1971 concept album, it's considered Gainsbourg's masterpiece--even though it flopped when first released (an all-too familiar theme in the arts when you think about it). In less than 28 minutes, Serge tells the story of a bored 40-year-old man who hits a teenage girl riding a bike while cruising around in his Rolls. Tu t'appelles comment? he asks. Melody. Melody comment? Melody Nelson. Before you know it, Serge has taken her to a sleazy hotel and has deflowered her. Then she jumps on a flight to Sunderland but her 707 crashes in the jungle of New Guinea. That's a lot of melodrama in less than half an hour, but it's told in a way that's very poetic, very sexual and very melancholic.

When Light in the Attic reissued this two years ago, however, it was the first time it had been released to the US--with the lyrics in both French and English. Until then, you had to know French very well, and Gainsbourge's half-whispered and half-muttered French even better, to know the whole story. Once translated, the extraordinary lyrics begin to rise above the slightly sordid plot:

Adrift on the currents have you already touched?
Those bright corals of the Guinean Coast
Where indiginous magicians act in vain
Who still hope for smashed up planes

The music, of course, has to be equally special when you think about the fact that hipsters have loved this album for almost forty years without knowing all or even most of the words. It takes a few listens to really dig in; the tracks sound like typical 1971 Euro-grooves with funky bass lines, distant and scattered drumming and a guitar that sounds relaxed but ever vigilant. It's dated on the surface, but at the same time it's played with the skill and the textures that only come from the best session musicians available.

And then the orchestra kicks in. Much has been said about the influence of Melody Nelson on Beck's Sea Change, and once you listen to the older album you'll be amazed at how close "Paper Tiger" comes to Gainsbourg's original vision, and what a wonderful homage it is. The soul of this album resides in the string arrangements and the way the disparate pieces come together and float beneath Gainsbourg's voice.

That brings me to the only disappointment I have with this album: Serge's voice is very front and center in the mix, and the band is too far in the background. You're tempted to turn up the volume to hear all the subtleties in the music, only to be overwhelmed with Gainsbourg's immense, God-like French booming over your speakers. I wouldn't mind a little equalizing for once.

That said, this is a hell of an LP, and a hell of a pressing. I was a tiny bit disappointed in the sound quality of the Jim Sullivan LP; they didn't find the original masters and had to deal with a subpar copy. The sound quality here, however, is fantastic, and the 180-gram pressing is very, very quiet. Once again, Light in the Attic comes through by charging $20--not $30 or $50--for a great remaster with great packaging. I need to start ordering their entire catalog now, instead of waiting a year or two to discover what everyone else already knows.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

White Is the New Black...

When it comes to colors in high-end audio, white is definitely the new black. Here is a picture of the latest Opera loudspeakers in white, and they are gorgeous. Over the last year I've attended many audio trade shows, and white components have appeared everywhere.

Traditionally I have resisted white when it comes to decor; I really don't care for white laminate furniture in particular because it always appears cheap, or it looks like belongs in your kids' bedrooms. Plus, this stuff always attracts dirty fingerprints and looks awful in no time. But these latest white veneers are different and look downright opulent when viewed up close.

Some speaker manufacturers have been offering white veneers for many years--think Avantgarde or Wilson for example. I recently wandered onto an audiophile forum where everyone took potshots at some speakers that sported blue, red or even bright green cabinets. While these speakers may not work in your average studio apartment, with the right decor they are nothing short of spectacular. Kudos to hi-fi manufacturers who think outside the speakerbox and come up with something truly different.

New York Times article on Gotta Groove Records

Here's a great article from the NY Times on Gotta Groove Records, a record pressing plant in Cleveland. Among other tidbits, the article states that:

"This calendar year, Gotta Groove will turn its first profit, in no small part because the LP is the fastest-growing segment of the beleaguered music industry. Last year, 2.8 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, according to the Nielsen Company, which tracks music sales through its SoundScan system. This year’s numbers are about 40 percent higher, and the real figures are higher still."

Great news for us vinylphiles indeed!