Monday, April 30, 2012

The Shins' Port of Morrow on CD

The Shins' new album Port of Morrow, their first in five years, is a really nice album. It's the kind of an album you can play for your friends and most of them will really like it, and some of them may even buy it. Play it out in public, and many people will come up and ask you what it is, and tell you that it's really good. They may buy it as well, based on the advice of a total stranger like you.

So what's wrong with that?

Well, it's just that The Shin's debut album, 2001's Oh, Inverted World, is one of my favorite albums of the 21st century. It's so unique and quirky and yet confident in its sound--it's really one of those one-of-a-kind contemporary indie rock albums like Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over the Sea or The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where no one will ever come up with anything even remotely similar to it ever again. Port of Morrow sounds like it was recorded by a group of accomplished musicians who know what they are doing, and they know what their fans expect from them. It's a perfectly entertaining record, well-made even, but it just lacks that element of discovery, that feeling like you've stumbled onto something special that no one else knows about yet--exactly how I felt when I listened to Oh, Inverted World for the first time.

At the same time, Port of Morrow is the strongest Shins' album since OIW. While many people champion 2003's Chutes Too Narrow as the band's best, I always felt it was way too polished. (Someone I know once called it too "Ren Fair," which made me laugh at the time.) And 2007's Wincing the Night Away was so slight that right now I can't remember a single song from it--with the exception of the dreadfully boring un-Shins-like "Sealegs," which unfortunately received a lot of airplay in my neck of the woods and drove me crazy.

I actually like nearly every song on Port of Morrow. There isn't a clunker in the bunch. This has always been a band of chameleons, sounding different with each and every song, trying out new musical genres while stamping everything with a big SHINS stamp. The band sounds so relaxed and melodic this go-around, however, that what comes out are the gorgeous melodies, the sense that every song is designed to put a smile on your face. The first single, "Simple Song" is cheery and anthemic and uplifting, and the gentle "It's Only Life" is one of those sweet, melodic mid-tempo ballads that Crowded House did so well 15 or 20 years ago. Each song is framed with whimsical electronic touches that remind you the Shins are not commercials pop stars trying to cash in on a broader demographic. They're just capable of building some truly gorgeous and pleasing songs.

So where does this all fall short? I think it begins and ends with James Mercer's ever-distinctive singing voice. It's gotten to the point to when he's singing, you instantly know it's The Shins. When he isn't, you don't. On Oh, Inverted World, the entire band had an instantly recognizable sound. Now they remind me of someone like Elbow, a perfectly fascinating band with a remarkable singer, a compelling musical vision and not much else. In other words, you won't be thrilled with the amazing drumming or the fantastic guitar work. It's all a smooth, congealed whole. In 2012, The Shins are dangerously close to becoming the James Mercer Band.

That's not a terrible thing, of course. While Mercer does occasionally recycle himself from past albums (the chorus of "Simple Song" sounds almost identical to one of those songs I can't remember on Wincing the Night Away), his voice has evolved into something mature, comforting and singularly interesting. He's now what you would call a genuinely accomplished singer, much less yelpy and high-pitched than he was a decade ago. And that observation pretty much covers it--the Shins are mellowing and aging with their fans, like so many bands before them. They're never going to challenge everyone with their Kid A, they're never going to put out a reggae album, they're never going to do anything but write and perform Shins songs and make their fans happy. I can live with that.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gene Bertoncini's 2+2=1 on BluePort Jazz CD

Gene Bertoncini is one of the rare jazz guitarists who favor emotion over technique; his style perfectly illustrates how the body of a performer can physically connect to the body of his instrument and produce a unique sound. In my personal life I'm literally surrounded by guitarists, both amateur and professional, and so many of them favor speed and precision over a truly distinctive sound. I've always been one to champion a signature, a certain timbre that defines an artist, and Bertoncini excels at this. On his new BluePort Jazz CD, 2+2=1, he performs a variety of standards from such composers as Ennio Morricone, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Duke Ellington and more, and the combination of flesh, wood and nylon sounds like no one else on this planet.

Bertoncini is a generous enough musician, however, to share the stage with a couple of worthy colleagues--hence the album's subtitle of "a solo and two duos." While the first four tracks are Gene alone, the next five are augmented by fellow guitarist Mandell Lowe. Lowe provides an amplified counterpoint to Bertoncini's pure acoustic sound, and these middle tracks are revelatory in the way they show the different ways in which an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar occupy space--especially when played side by side. On the final three tracks, bassist Bob Magnusson joins in and is placed almost directly behind Bertoncini in a way that reinforces the former's guitar playing in a seamless manner.

This is the third CD I've reviewed from Jim Merod and his wonderful BluePort Jazz label, and again it qualifies wholeheartedly as a reference disc and exemplifies how the CD format is far from dead. Partnered with Len Miller of Soundstring Cable Technology, graphic designer Sharon Thompson and audio vanguard Steve McCormack (yes, that Steve McCormack), Jim has made a jazz guitar recording for the ages, one that is full of life and motion. Unlike many intimate audiophile recordings, this one is full of living, breathing artifacts from the recording that indicate the fact that actual human beings made it. Musicians breathe and move as they play, and those who are observing are far from motionless statues. (The final sections of this album were recorded live at a concert at Soka University.)

Merod also knows better than to hide the fact that these recordings were made in a variety of different venues and times. Collected throughout the latter part of 2008, Merod experimented with microphone placement to reflect each song and performer. As a result, 2+2=1 never sounds like one of those storied late night sessions that were captured in one take with all of the mistakes and diversions preserved. Rather, this is a meticulous chronicle of a performer who is known as a perfectionist--albeit one filled with emotion and humane sense of interpretation. This is highly recommended for all enthusiasts of intimate jazz recordings and audiophiles who are looking for the ultimate reference for acoustic jazz guitar.

You can purchase all of the BluePort Jazz titles here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

2012 Lone Star Audio Fest

Here's the official press release I just wrote:

"CCI is proud to announce that we will be partnering with Polk Audio at the upcoming Lone Star Audio Fest in Dallas, Texas. Polk will be showing off their new LSiM705 speakers (we heard the flagship LSiM707 speakers last year at LSAF, and we were mightily impressed), and we will be hooking them up to a Unison Research Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier and Unico CDE CD player. The Lone Star Audio Fest will be held from May 4-6, 2012, at the Embassy Suites Dallas-Park Central. You can find out more info at"

Colleen and I went to the Lone Star Audio Fest last year, which I wrote about in this blog. I have to admit, we had a great time. It's the polar opposite of a trade show like CES, where it's business, business, business. LSAF is relaxed, casual and small--but fun. You'll see a lot of DIY rooms--which means you'll see a lot of speakers made out of unfinished plywood. That doesn't mean, of course, that they don't sound excellent--they often do! These primarily Texan DIYers, hobbyists in most cases, are selling schematics, kits and may not even have a finished product to show. It doesn't matter; these types of rooms are more often about the sharing of ideas than the making of money.

That said, there were quite a few "professional" rooms last year. Scott Warren of Advanced Home Theater in Plano, Texas really impressed me with a system that included a Luxman integrated amplifier and CD player, MIT cabling and the fantastic YG Acoustics Carmel speakers. I also heard great sound from rooms that featured such products as Vapor Audio speakers and Melody tube amplifiers. My other favorite room was run by our friend Russ Gates from Polk Audio. He was debuting the flagship LSiM707 speakers, and I had to admit that you get a LOT of speaker for just $4K a pair.

Russ asked us to partner with him this year because he really wanted to check out the Unison Research gear we carry. This year, he's showing off the LSiM705 speakers, the 707's little brother. These speakers, which retail for just $3000 per pair, look almost identical to the 707s--same amount of drivers in a slightly smaller enclosure. I'll look forward to hearing them.

Check out the LSAF website for more info, and we'll look forward to seeing y'all in May!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Illness' A Monument to Our Gilded Age on CD

I'm as surprised as anyone that I'm digging this much metal at this point in my life, but I have to acknowledge a temporal component. Take the '70s, when I was listening to Zep and Sabbath and their brethren--the foundation is being laid, and everything is fresh and different. Then the '80s hair bands come along and feminize everything with insipid power ballads and endlessly unvaried guitar solos, and I turn my heels and embrace the New Wave for its simplicity and honesty. Then the '90s come along and I notice the new athleticism and awesome machinery afoot--the METAL is back in heavy metal--and I reluctantly check out bands such as Tool and System of a Down and decide there's something there. With the turn of the century comes a new type of shoegazing, all hopelessly angry and sullen with its anthemic we're-all-ugly-losers aesthetic and I retreat once again.

When the 2010s arrive, I sniff around and notice something new and different and yet strangely familiar. That's because we've taken what we've learned from our metallic evolution and thrown it into one big pot and mixed it all up with a dirty wooden spoon. Something old, something borrowed, something at breakneck speed. The Illness, a metal/prog/jazz band from San Francisco, is a great example of this kitchen sink ethic. You want doubled guitar solos a la Brian May? You got it. You want a spoken word piece that rails against our consumer-based society? There you go. You want speed? You want musicianship? You want a healthy dose of testosterone from your lead singer that shouts "party, party, party"? On their new CD, A Monument to Our Gilded Age, the Illness has your back.

If this sounds like a mish-mash (or as we say in the age of technology, a mashup), it's not quite that fragmented. Every song here is indeed different but in a thrillingly organized way, a winding mountain road that keeps starting and ending over and over. The winning opening cut, "Lengua de la Muerte," features the same mechanized guitar arpeggios and difficult time signatures you'd find in a Tool album, although drummer Chris Thalmann has a much lighter touch with his sticks than that monster Danny Carey. The next song, "Eyes in the Walls," eschews that introductory seriousness for a loose party vibe that mixes old Aerosmith with the rap-metal hybrid band of your choice. The third song, the title track, actually starts with a drum sample that's the cosmic equivalent of a needle scratching noisily across an entire record side. If this is Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, a certain amphibian keeps handing over the wheel to whatever beast was foolish enough to call shotgun. While the throttle is occasionally eased in softer songs such as "Slowpoke" and "Downside Outright," you'll be exhausted--or maybe elated--when Monument rolls to a close.

I know what you're saying--welcome to prog metal, where anything is possible. You'd be right. While ultimately I think the whole album is just a little bit over the top for my ever aging tastes, however, I do recognize a certain level of talent and skill that emerges from mix and asserts these gentlemen as someone who can catch the ball and run all the way down the field with it. The way the Illness can root around every metal cliche that's ever been passed out and whip up something novel and interesting with the resulting pile--well, that's just not that easy to do these days. But then again, even Van Halen (!) can produce a decent album in 2012--with Diamond Dave, no doubt--and these might just be the Golden Years for all genres of metal. And by that rationale, the 2020s are gonna suck it hard, so enjoy this inspired ride while you can.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Robert Sarazin Blake's Put It All Down in a Letter on CD

"The truth of the matter is, I sleep on a lot of dirty couches. And when I wake up, I don't always feel good. I don't always feel like making a phone call. So I didn't call you."

Robert Sarazin Blake may be the closest thing we have to a beat poet in the 21st century. Whether you care for his style of folk music will probably depend on how you feel about his extraordinarily dry delivery and his forced vibrato. Like Dylan and Phil Ochs and many others, Blake isn't interested in fulfilling your expectations when it comes to singers. He's producing a vibe, an attitude that's all his own. Judging from the musical company he keeps, this Pacific Northwestern performer garners a lot of respect, and if you haven't heard of him yet you probably should.

I first heard Robert Sarazin Blake when I reviewed his album The Air Your Lungs Forced Out a couple of years ago--which I loved and considered one of the year's best. His tenth album, Put It All Down in a Letter, is a bit of a departure for Blake: "After ten albums and 2000+ gigs in nine countries, I've decided it's time to graduate from selling my albums out of my suitcase to sending my album to national radio and into the ears of the great American night." Recorded in a single all-night session at Minor Street Studios in Philadelphia, Srazin recorded the new album with a local band named the Powderkegs and was joined later in the evening by guitarist Jefferson Hamer (Great American Taxi). Once laid down on wax--or whatever they make CDs from these days--he started touring local radio stations and playing PIADIAL for the lonely, late-night radio hounds.

In the true spirit of the Beat Generation, the album features two extended "rambles" that feature Blake's stream-of-consciousness tales about the City of Brotherly Love. In the first sojourn, "I Didn't Call You From Philadelphia," Blake spends nearly seventeen minutes explaining to a loved one why he didn't call. Supported by a simple three-note riff, he offers a variety of excuses that range from his hatred of cell phones to the fact that George W. Bush was elected twice, and even though Obama is now President "we still have a long way to go." As good as Obama is, Blake surmises, he can't make us good. Finally, Blake comes clean with the quote above; a lot of people are evidently concerned with him sleeping on dirty couches.

From there, Blake's songs remain topical in the best folk traditions. In "Tiger Woods Boom Boom" he draws a connection to the golfer's infidelities to the housing crisis and concludes, "We were so titillated by his fall/He was very, very, very, very good at hitting a little ball." In "Planned Parenthood Waiting Room" he describes his ordeal is he is treated for some unknown malady, only to be scolded by the nurse that if he just wore a condom, he wouldn't have to keep coming back. I'm sure Blake had no idea just how topical the subject of contraception would become in 2012 when he recorded this album back in 2010.

The second extended jam, which is far more turbulent and troubling than the first, speaks more directly to me. "Magic Hour on Baltimore Ave" spends almost 13 minutes following a record hound through Philadelphia as he writes a love letter and then wonders if he should mail it or not--the words "put the letter in the mail maybe not" echo as Blake strums ever more furiously on his 1977 Martin D-35.

What permeates the entire album, however, is Blake's wry sense of humor, his slightly apologetic phrasing which for some reason reminds me of Louis C.K.'s stand-up comedy with far less raunch--even when he discusses objects inserted into his urethra during his visit to the clinic. This CD was a happy surprise in my mailbox--I wasn't expecting it and I think the record label found my old review and put me on the same list as the radio DJs--and I hope more people discover this guy and support him on his neverending tours through Philadelphia and whatever city you call your hometown. If you choose not to investigate this singular talent, don't say I didn't call you and tell you about it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Vacant Fever's Heparin & Saline on LP and CD

"Leon Spinkx here. Thanks for the kind words. I, of course, AM the star attraction of Vacant Fever, as you so cromulently noted in your review. DMM is my vessel, in a platonic sense, although he is kinda scarringly handsome."

Just a few weeks ago I reviewed Vacant Fever's new 7" single, Kill Kill Kill, and this dark, twisted slice of garage rock immediately became one of my favorites for 2012. Afterward I received quite a few comments concerning their first album, 2011's Heparin & Saline, and how I really needed to check it out to gain new insight into this Portland band. Well, DMM saw it fit to send both the LP and the CD to my home--probably with cooperation with drummer Leon Spinkx, who evidently is the mastermind behind the band--and it's a very different but equally compelling sound.

I don't want to be presumptuous here, but when I listen Heparin & Saline, I think about drugs. I'm not talking about ends of ropes, Shannon Hoon and Layne Staley's last two weeks on earth or anything so destructive and desperate, but perhaps the volatile brand of fuel that delivered White Light/White Heat to the unsuspecting masses, or anything the Spacemen 3 did in the early '90s. Even the album's name suggests chemistry, although the titular drug in question is an anticoagulant used for blood clots. It's also noteworthy for having the highest negative charge density of any biological molecule. Saline implies a hospital stay, so maybe the album is intended to be more sanguine than wayward.

But I digress. As I said, this is very different animal from this year's EP, perhaps the entropic party after Kill Kill Kill's gakked-up mischief-making. Where Heparin & Saline truly excels, however, is in its ability to replicate the feel of drugged-out garage rock circa 1967, replete with boatloads of sweaty, dripping reverb. You can almost hear the cobwebs in the guitar amps. After talking with DMM about the old-fashioned recording processes used for Kill Kill Kill, I suspect the same approach was taken here. This sounds like a lost classic, one of those edgy '60s excursions that was deemed too subversive and revolutionary for its time only to be picked up and cherished by the kids of its intended audience.

Again, the LP pressing is impressive, surprisingly so for a group rising up in the ranks. As you can see, the colored vinyl is psychedelic and takes on a spacey countenance while spinning on your turntable. The CD sounds close to the LP in sound quality, however, and only lacks that last iota of antiquity, those artifacts that enable the band to pull off its time capsule trick. (To put it succinctly, digital formats still lag behind analog when it comes to decay and presence.)

Despite the fact that they scare me a little bit, I really like this band a lot. If you are into Velvet Underground, Moby Grape or even Joy Division, you should recognize Vacant Fever's kindred spirit. I just hope I haven't offended them with all this drug talk; if you guys are actually straight-edged or even guys wearing suits who ride around on bikes in pairs when you're not in the studio, I apologize. If not, party on and keep making cool records. And a post-script to Leon: your fine, innovative drumming is more than cromulent. You are all that's right with the world.

You can order both Heparin & Saline and Kill Kill Kill on the band's website.

Monday, April 2, 2012

New reference amp for my system--the Unison Research Sinfonia!

We have a new amp in the house--the Unison Research Sinfonia! This is going to be my personal amplifier for a while, and after just a few hours with it I'm very, very happy.

It's a single-ended parallel design that uses Tung-Sol 6550s (KT88s can also be used) to get 27 beautiful watts per channel. In comparison to the newer S6 amplifier, this is a more "classic" tube design that offers a smoother, warmer and more seductive sound. The S6, which has been my favorite Unison amp so far, sounds a little "faster" and more linear, but the Sinfonia has this romantic, addictive sound that's better suited to classical music. I'm currently listening to the TrondheimSoliste LP I reviewed just a few days ago, and the forward presentation I found "bracing" now sounds more balanced and musical.

And since it's Italian, it has to be gorgeous! I love the stainless steel plate on top, and the wooden chassis that's finished in cherry (with a matching cherry remote).

I have a big pile of CDs and LPs to review, and now I can catch up. In addition, the FedEx man is currently driving around Central Texas with my Giro turntable, which was just returned by Dave Clark of Positive Feedback Online--review will appear shortly. Once I get my Unison Research Simply Phono phono preamp back from reviewer Michael Mercer, my reference system will be once again intact--for the first time in 2012!