Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Colleen Cardas Imports article in Soundstage!

Garrett Hongo, audio reviewer and distinguished professor at the University of Oregon, visited Colleen and me a few months ago at our home here in Texas, and the resulting article is now online here. Garrett is quite the Renaissance Man, and we listened to a variety of great music while indulging in my other favorite pasttime--smoking cigars. (If I remember correctly, I had a wonderful Padron No. 35 while he tried--based on my recommendation--an Ashton VSG Enchantment.)

Garrett is a fan of Opera and Unison Research, and he's even visited the factory in Italy...something I have yet to do. It was a genuine pleasure to visit with him and hear his comments on the latest gear.

Thanks, Garrett! Feel free to stop by the CCI headquarters any time!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Age/Sex/Occupation's This Side of the Fence on CD

Age/Sex/Occupation, a trio from Portland, sounds old-fashioned without being retro. That's not an easy thing to do. It's one thing to channel a sound from the past, something akin to what Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings do in their sleep. It's all a matter of making everything sound like a lost classic. That requires songwriting skills most of all, but a pure, unbridled love of your genre also helps. But what if you could do that without having a specific genre, or even basic sound, to emulate? That's where A/S/O throws a curve ball, making their new album This Side of the Fence both thoroughly enjoyable and almost impossible to discuss.

Even the promo material seems undecided about the band's sound, as it draws comparisons to such diverse performers as Hall and Oates, David Bowie and the J. Geils Band. Frankly, it sounds like none of those--in fact, the band's formula shifts so dramatically from song to song that you can play this game all day and still not have a clue until you actually do some listening. The only real constant is singer Daniel Weiskopf's voice--he's a crooner in a traditional sense with strong, distinctive vocals and yet he occasionally loosens up and sounds no less casual than John McCrea of Cake. Very much a front man, he also plays guitars and keyboards and writes all the lyrics, with bassist Justin Keith and drummer Joey McAllister offering solid and consistent support.

It's clear, however, that Weiskopf is the creative gadfly here, drawing from multiple inspirations. The album's opener, "Dirt Isn't Dirty," offers a bluesy, horn-based Chicago sounds that's equal parts Was (Not Was) and the Saturday Night Live house band back when G. E. Smith ran things. You say to yourself, oh, this is going to be one of those soul-blues-rock hybrids, and then Weiskopf turns the wheel straight into early '80s pop/rock. I'm not sure why, but the Greg Kihn Band kept coming to mind during songs such as "Volcano" and "Glass Slipper". Greg Kihn, for Pete's sake. Seriously, when was the last time you thought about Greg Kihn? By the time the uniquely modern-sounding "Lullaby" closes the album, Weiskopf's been all over the road, knocking over fruit stands and narrowly missing baby buggies. (That's an apt metaphor, since Weiskopf original studied film scoring, and that's probably why he seems so comfortable with musical variety.) I can't tell you who this band sounds like, honestly, and maybe that's the mark of something special.

One other comment, though: the sound quality is superb. Age/Sex/Occupation sounds like a band that's awesome live, and the album captures that energy and spontaneity. I've been paying a lot of attention to drummers lately, and McAllister knows how to beat his kit with vicious authority. He also knows how to mix it up and follow Weiskopf's muse, whatever that may be from moment to moment. Mastering engineer Justin Phelps, who has also worked on the splendid Jodie Holland CDs, deserves a little love for another great sounding record.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Projection's While You Were Out on CD

"Punk never died," my younger brother always says, and although he's committed to hardcore he does have a begrudging respect to what he calls Punk Lite, i.e. bands like Green Day, the Offspring and Blink 182. While there are plenty of bands that can still remain true to the original ideals of punk by sticking to the harsh, chaotic and confrontational nature of the genre, I personally feel that you alienate too much of your audience with an unfettered attack via an astounding wall of noise. The Projection, a punk trio from Chicago, gets this. Their new album While You Were Out succeeds at injecting just enough pop into their songs to appeal to a broader, CD-buying public.

The Projection isn't blazing any new trails here, but they have their loyalties in check and provide a sound that's plenty tight and energetic while maintaining the most important facet of punk--speed. They play fast, sing fast and keep it simple. They also know how to mix it up by inserting the occasional synthesizer (such as in the radio-friendly "Trying to Forget) or even some acoustic guitars in the intros (such as "Rock Stars"). They even embrace the very roots of rock by closing the album with an enthusiastic cover of Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy!" that ties the whole package with a haphazardly tied bow.

Led by vocalist/guitarist Jacques LaMore, bassist Travis White and drummer Collin Benoit, the band even preserves the punk aesthetic by keeping the production quality simple, small and utterly unpretentious. This minimalist approach, which seems to encourage the cranking of the volume knob, is where the band stays the truest to punk sensibilities; they got it right in the studio, in other words. Bands like The Projection won't change the world, but they will keep younger generations interested in punk rock, and make aging punks like my younger brother relatively happy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

New speaker jumpers from Audience

These jumpers just came in from the good folks at Audience AV. We partnered with them at the 2012 CES, and after we had hooked up our brand new Opera Quintas to the Unison Research amplifier, Richard Colburn and John McDonald of Audience checked out the rear connections and wondered why we used the stock brass bars instead of jumpers. My response, after hemming and hawing, was basically, "'Cuz that's what the speakers came with." Richard and John quickly fetched a pair of jumpers from their magic cable box and used them on the Quintas. While we didn't do any practical A/B comparisons with and without the jumpers, I must say that our CES set-up sounded terrific, and Audience had a lot to do with that.

A few days ago, Richard emailed us and said, "I just made Marc some jumpers and mailed them off. See what you think." Today I received these jumpers, fashioned from their top-of-the-line Au24 speaker cable and terminated with banana plugs, and I hooked them right up. The first thing I noticed was how the spade lugs from my Cardas Clear speaker cable fit the bi-wireable binding posts so much better; those old brass bars could definitely get in the way of a firm connection when dealing with thicker cables. I've never been nuts about the bars--I remember the first time I had to deal with them was on my old Spendor S20s, and they were nothing more than brass rods that were slightly larger than toothpicks. I lost them almost immediately and had to terminate my own jumpers from spare pieces of Kimber 4ATC wire. The bars that come with the Operas are far more substantial, but you usually have to wrestle with them a bit to get everything connected cleanly.

I didn't expect to hear a huge difference once I installed the jumpers; I figured the Au24s needed time to break in. Then I remembered that Richard is a bit of a wizard when it comes to system break-in--his XLO frequency disc saved our butts when it came to burning in our system in time for CES--and I wouldn't be surprised if he cooked the jumpers a little bit before he sent them on. Within a few minutes I heard the difference between the bars and the jumpers: my first observation was that the bass response on the Opera Quintas was more fleshed out, and there was more top-to-bottom coherence throughout the frequencies. (That, of course, is what quality jumpers should do.)

I'll let them burn in a little more before I make any final judgments, but for now I'm very happy with the Audience Au24 jumpers, and I'll see if I can keep them around for a while.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Vacant Fever's Kill Kill Kill on 45rpm 7" EP

I wasn't sure what to expect when I received a mystery email a few weeks ago that asked me for my shipping address. "Do you have a physical address for promo material?" someone named DMM asked. "If so, we'd love to send you our new 7" EP for possible review." Before every loony on the Internet starts asking me for my home address so they can start sending my lovely little packages laced with anthrax, I have to say that I normally ignore such requests. But something intrigued about this particular email--probably the words "7" EP" and a subject line that read "Super Secret Press Shit."

A few days ago I received a package, and after it was cleared by my AMD (Anthrax Monitoring Device) I discovered it was indeed a 45 RPM single loaded with 12 minutes of superbly grungified rock and roll. Even more amazing, the sound quality of the five songs was well-recorded in a potent, swaggering and very "live" way. I've never heard of Vacant Fever before, but this little chunk of vinyl has been one of the biggest surprises I've had so far in 2012.

Kill Kill Kill, for the collectors out there, is a limited edition piece of wax (mine is marked 66 out of 500 on the actual record label) from an Oregon trio consisting of musicians DMM, Leon and Ian Dugas. All the songs were written by Daniel Michael Miller (obviously the aforementioned DMM) and recorded and mixed at Jackpot! in Portland. As Daniel--uh, DMM--wrote me, "Everything was recorded straight to 2" tape, no computers, & the vinyl lacquers were printed directly off the tape. So it was done as old school as possible...recorded with vinyl in mind as the main medium." That makes sense, since everything sounds so nice. The drums, once again, are the big star here--fluid, powerful and athletic. And if you're a fan of guitar feedback, you'll be able to hear every pedal effect, every dollop of reverb, as if you were the one turning the knobs.

A warning for the faint of heart--this is not light, frothy pop with jubilant choruses and a sunny overall disposition. The music is on the dark side--even the jacket cover is a slap across the chops, with its topless lovely sporting a bloody nose. (I edited the image above slightly to avoid one of those parental advisory tags on my blog.) Each of the five songs is brief, stripped down yet strangely unique; I gave up pigeonholing this music even though the band touts itself as "the twilight of grunge" with "the great DIY roots of influential indie rock." From this music I would guess these guys own a lot of black clothes and don't wash their hair every night before they go to bed.

Despite that image, the songs are full of great hooks, and blunt yet effective lyrics. (With song titles such as "Restless & Young," "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "Like It or Not," you shouldn't expect anything else.) Best of all, you can order Kill Kill Kill from the band's website for a measly $7, starting March 6. You even get an MP3 download of the EP for free with purchase. You can also check out their other album, 2011's Heparin and Saline, for free. I know I will.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Anthony Smith Quartet Plays "The Lady & the Queen" on CD

Another absolute gem from recording engineer Jim Merod and the BluePort jazz label, this CD and its accompanying DVD is an ambitious piece of music, accompanied by a "theatrical master text" that pays tribute to two of jazz's greatest songstresses--Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday. Based upon two 2009 performances that were originally played at the Lyceum Theatre in San Diego, Smith and his cohorts engage in a dynamic, seat-of-the-pants performance that capture both the similarities and differences between these two women.

These legends were both known for their enormous strength and conviction during their careers. While Lady Blue was known for enduring and ultimately succumbing to the tragedies that marked her career, Dinah was an authoritative, passionate singer who took charge and ruled her roost, which is how she earned her regal moniker. These contrasts are employed to create a performance which is full of opposites; tenderness is juxtaposed with pure and almost ecstatic energy that adds an emotional subtext that is uncommon in modern jazz.

Like the Fekete-Kovacs Quintet title I reviewed a few days ago, this CD also arrived courtesy of Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio. Dan is friends with Jim Merod and he wanted me to have another taste of the excellent sound quality that is quickly becoming a trademark of the BluePort releases. While the sound quality of this disc is nothing short of extraordinary, special mention must be made of the way the Richard Seller's percussion is recorded. His cymbals, in particular, have so much immediacy and presence that it's difficult to close your eyes and NOT pretend he isn't in the room. The sound of Doug Walker's bass is also smooth and warm and full and sounds almost like it was transported from another era. Smith's piano and Peter August's sax are up-front and cohesive; these lead instruments create a unified whole to the performance, even during the many solos.

This recording may be the first time I've seen cables so prominently credited in a production. Silversmith Audio Group, which is famous for its high-end cables, sponsored and produced this title, and the goal was to "capture the complete musical experience" by utilizing "the least amount of the finest equipment available" which also included T.H.E. Omni mics for the piano and bass and AKG 3000 cardioids for the drum and sax. No mixing boards or signal processors were used, and everything was fed into an Edirol R4 at 24/96. That's why this recording sounds so effortless and natural.

After hearing these two recordings from BluePort, all I can think about is how well they'll play at future trade shows. Since we're showing off CD players at these shows, I've found myself challenged to come up with little silver discs in my collection that can compete with the latest recordings that employ the latest digital advances. (I have plenty of LPs that can wow a crowd, in other words.) Now I can bring the latest CDs from BluePort and prompt listeners to ask, "What is that? Where can I buy it?" Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trattoria Lisina--A Small Miracle in Driftwood, Texas

"I bet you didn't think you'd find a place like this in the middle of nowhere."

That was Tony, one of the chefs at Trattoria Lisina, when he caught me eyeing the place with an awestruck look on my face. I'd just finished one of the most elegant meals I'd had in a long time--and this is a year where I've traveled a lot and eaten well--in a tiny little town called Driftwood. Texas. How tiny is Driftwood, you ask? I bet more people work at Trattoria Lisina than live in the actual town.

Best of all, it wasn't Mexican food or barbecue (that's a Central Texas in-joke). Trattoria Lisina offers some of the richest, most opulent Italian food I've ever had, dishes such as Pancia di Maiale (pork belly confit with a sweet sherry and onion sauce), homemade gnocchi with a wild boar ragu, Texas rabbit with raisins and pine nuts, and much more. I went with the monkfish (huge filets spread over a bed of spinach and risotto with a beurre blanc) because earlier in the day I was telling my brother Mat how much I loved monkfish, but it had been years since I'd indulged. Minutes later, he and his girlfriend Hege invited us to the Trattoria, where the special of the day just happened to be monkfish.

The desserts were as extraordinary as you might imagine from a place this beautiful: I had Sfinci, which is a Sicilian drop donut with cinnamon and vanilla cream. Colleen discovered that peanut butter gelato and Texas honey is a match made in heaven. All the while, Hege kept telling the chefs (we were sitting at the counter facing the kitchen, the best seats in the house) that she was moving in. To her, the Trattoria is "heaven."

Needless to say, the servers and management were top-notch, making us feel like family rather than customers. Matt Vegas, the manager, attended to our every need, as did our waiter Scott and John, the executive chef. The prices are just a bit higher than going out to Black's BBQ, but after spending the last few months watching endless episodes of Chopped with Colleen, I wanted some serious cuisine. I told her later that we need to sell some more Italiian hi-fi so we could afford to come to our new favorite Italian Restaurant more frequently.

The very existence of Trattoria Lisina in such a tiny Texas town underlines the charm of Texas Hill Country--you never know what you're going to find around the bend. If you think you know Texas, one dinner here will change your mind. Surrounded by rolling hills, oaks and olive trees--you even have to drive through a vineyard to reach the front door--you might as well be somewhere in Italy.

Trattoria Lisina is located at 13308 FM 150 West, Driftwood, TX 78619. The phone number is 512-894-3111. You can check out their menu here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Fekete-Kovacs Quintet & The Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Laszlo Kovacs--Integro/Grandeur on CD

I spent a good part of the '80s exploring 20th Century Music, that nebulous genre of classical music that starts with Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and winds its way through Bartok, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev until it settles into the minimalist trends of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Sometimes I wonder where it left off, and when people stopped expecting the arrival of new composers. Someone more educated than me could probably offer a more explicit survey of "21st Century music," if it indeed exists in this context, but more than once I've lamented that movie soundtracks, for better or worse, pretty much make up contemporary classical music. I do realize that this is a distinctly American concern, especially when classical music still thrives in certain parts of the world...such as Hungary, for instance. But is the lack of interest in contemporary classical music contagious?

That's why this 2010 album, a challenging hybrid of jazz and classical genre, is so refreshing and unexpected. It's ambitious as all get out, with a 14-minute beginning section that melds the two disparate musical flows with a sly and extremely dynamic sense of mid-20th century sensibilities--think Leonard Bernstein, perhaps. Through its 66-minute run time Integro/Grandeur is full of unexpected turns, yet these segues are never abrupt or illogical. If that sounds like a stroke of genius, it is.

Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery sent this CD to me, and I suspect he's either throwing out the gauntlet to see how I'll respond, or he's completely knocked out by the fact that someone is still making music like this and he's hoping someone else will be just as enthusiastic. While I have to admit that it took me a couple of weeks to truly wrap my head around this music, I'll subscribe to the latter position. It's an exceptional and exciting recording, and I now believe that classical music has a clear and promising future.

In a nutshell, Integro/Grandeur is a collaboration between a jazz ensemble named the Fekete-Kovacs Quintet and a full orchestra conducted by Laszlo Kovacs. At first I thought, man, I know this Laszlo Kovacs guy...he's the legendary Hungarian cinematographer who did Easy Rider, Paper Moon, Five Easy Pieces and many others. So he's a composer, too? Nope, same name, different Hungarian. This Laszlo Kovacs has built an extraordinary reputation in the classical world for interpreting such composers as Lizst and Bartok. (For the record, there's a Laszlo Kovacs in Hungarian politics, one in professional soccer, and the main character in the classic French film Breathless uses it as an alias.)

But the man behind this fascinating music is composer Kornel Fekete-Kovacs, a trumpet and flugelhorn player who is known for bringing symphonic jazz back into the mainstream almost single-handedly. Where Mr. Fekete-Kovacs pushes the envelope, and creates something unique than can be called 21st Century Music, is in the way he arranges the classical and jazz components so they share equal billing. Throughout this album, it's simply astonishing to feel the music gently move from one side to the other; there are times when the music is so firmly entrenched in one genre that you think it's impossible to shift--and then it happens swiftly and seamlessly. Sometimes it just takes a few notes of a soprano sax, or a lovely piano interlude...and sometimes it requires the full and unbridled force of the entire Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra.

By the way, the sound quality of this CD, released in the US by the BluePort Jazz label, is superb. It's actually far more than that; this is truly a reference CD. Dan spoke briefly with Jim Merod, one of the most talented recording engineers in the world and founder of BluePort Records, about the recording. (In addition, Jim is also a well-known music critic, audio "guru" and a professor of English and American literature who has taught at Cornell, Brown, Brandeis, UCLA and Stanford. He knows his stuff, in other words.) Jim offered plenty of suggestions for the mastering process and even worked on a few last-minute adjustments that didn't quite make it--mostly because "the Hungarian mail system conspired against them."

Nevertheless, this is a truly amazing recording that answers my initial question about so-called 21st Century Music. It's not going to be something new we haven't heard before, it's a seamless blending of what we already know; it's the contexts that are novel. I see these same patterns in other musical genres with mixed results, such as pop music that draws heavily on retro themes and motifs, but here it's an unqualified success. Fekete-Kovacs is quite celebrated in his native Hungary, and rightly so. For those of you who complain about the dearth of "new" classical music, it's time to look eastward and see the future.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Ready Stance's Damndest on CD...and LP!

I've mentioned several times now how excited I am that so many new releases on LP also come enclosed with the full CD. Imagine my surprise, however, when I get a CD sent to me...and it comes with an LP! Well, it didn't exactly happen that way, so let me back up.

Wesley Pence, a musician who is also a friend of mine on Facebook, contacted me nearly a year ago to ask me about releasing his band's latest album on vinyl. While I don't have any contacts in the world's pressing plants, I did offer Wesley encouragement and made a few vague recommendations. He was able to locate a few facilities that were willing to press in minimum quantities of 300-500, and off he went. In parting, I told him half-jokingly to send me a test pressing--I'm a sucker for them--and he told me he'd send me the first one.

Nearly a year had passed, and I had forgotten about Wesley's project. Then, right after the new year, Wesley contacted me once more to ask for my address. The test pressing of Damndest was on its way! Now I have both it and the CD in my hot little hands, and it's really friggin' good.

The Ready Stance, Wesley's band, sounds at first like any talented band you might see at the Continental Club on a Friday night. For those not hip to the CC, it's one of the legendary clubs here in Austin and has a Cool Factor that's off the charts. It's relatively tiny yet attracts some of the best musicians in the Austin area, possibly because the sound system is so good and perhaps because the interplay between the audience and the stage is so intimate. I've seen great band after great band play here, musicians so good that you're surprised when you walk up to them after the show and ask to buy a CD and you find out they have no CD, no website, no mailing list--hell, they've only been rehearsing for two weeks. That's pretty much the Austin scene in a nutshell. Great music comes so easy when you're backed up with a shitload of talent--it's just a matter of finding three other people who aren't busy Friday night.

The Ready Stance has that same loose, casual yet slightly awesome talent that would be an ideal fit for the Continental Club. In fact, I was shocked that Wesley and his bandmates are actually from Kentucky, not Austin. Damn, I guess Texas doesn't have a monopoly on bands that can shift so seamlessly between genres such as country, rock and even a shade of psychedelia (heard on songs such as the opener, "Rancho Cristo"). For me that's sort of a trademark of Austin bands, that their music sounds so varied from different angles, all at the same time. But enough about Austin--these guys are Kentuckians, so represent!

While Wesley is credited with guitars and backing vocals (he's joined by Chase Johnston on vocals and guitars, Paul Conti on bass and backing vocals and Eric Morton on drums), he's written nearly every song. His lyrics are one of the elements that elevate these tunes. Take "Rancho Cristo" again, with its religious references that culminate the subtlely cynical verse "Land across the highway/Start construction day and night/Less a church, more a city/Touchdown Jesus/Neon light." One of the most disctinctive songs on the album, "Little Carmel," is unexpectedly adorned with Conti's banjo playing while it deals with someone exploring his own roots: "Little English, little Dutch/Little colored, just a touch/Little Gibson, little Goins/Little Carmel in the loins." There's certainly not singing about these things in mainstream country; they're too busy tiptoeing through the corridors of the record company headquarters. This is Lucinda Williams territory.

As far as the comparisons between the LP and CD go, I'll have to give the nod to the vinyl, which is a relief after the Kate Bush debacle. This is a supremely quiet pressing, despite the fact that Wesley apologized to me because, as he says, "Although I think recording quality is good, it's still basically a DIY, so we didn't go whole hog with audiophile-weight vinyl, etc." Wesley also said the band lucked into some vintage tube and analog gear and decided to remix the whole thing after hearing how good this equipment sounded. The test pressing was done in France, and whoever did it should be commended for a pristine, dynamic sound. Maybe they should take a crack at the next run of 50 Words for Snow.

Even the CD sounds pretty darned good. It says on the liner notes that Damndest was "recorded at home in 2011," and this reminds me how the simplest way is usually the best way (check out Jack White's recording prowess for more examples of this philosophy). What Wesley and the Ready Stance have captured is the excitement of a band playing great songs live for a smart, appreciative and slightly wild crowd, in a really cool club...I dont know, maybe one located somewhere in Kentucky.