Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Patricia Barber's Modern Cool on Blu-Ray

Patricia Barber's Modern Cool on Blu-Ray? What am I supposed to do with this? I was perplexed when Michael Friedman of Premonition Records sent me this disc to review, since I'm vaguely unaware of the marketplace when it comes to Blu-Ray audio-only releases. As a dyed-in-the-wool anachronist, I get a little confused when I'm randomly sent downloads or unfamiliar formats. My first instinct is to send a little cyber-note asking if I can have it on vinyl instead, or even a CD. But Blu-Ray? I don't even own a Blu-Ray player.

Oh, wait...I do have a Blu-Ray player--on my laptop. Using the DAC from my SoundBlaster soundcard, I can play this and evaluate it. But there's another obstacle. How do I really feel about Patricia Barber? When I worked at TONEAudio, publisher Jeff Dorgay was fond of saying how he owned NO Patricia Barber records and had no intention of doing so. Ms. Barber has earned a reputation as one of those performers who appeal to audiophiles due to the spectacular sound quality of her recordings, but for those who pride themselves on being music lovers she travels in those same circles as Diana Krall (you know how I feel about her), Jennifer Warnes and Madeleine Peyroux (a singer I do like a lot).

As a reviewer, I do need to remain objective. And as Michael Friedman wrote, "Audio-only Blu-Ray is an emerging format. It's a bit of a long shot but I would love to see it gain a foothold." I'll do my best, Michael.

First of all, let's talk about the music. Modern Cool is a bit more jagged and adventurous than I expected, and not at all bland or aloof like those well-recorded efforts from Krall or Warnes. Made up mostly of originals, this album features spare arrangements that leap out and confront the listener. This is not the traditionally smooth and sultry torch music your parents adored, but confrontational and full of melancholy. Her covers are also surprising, such as her versions of the Doors' "Light My Fire," Paul Anka's "She's a Lady" and the old Dietz-Schwartz tune "You & The Night & The Music." After listening to Cool, I'm not sure about the backlash Barber has been receiving. She's clearly taking risks, big ones.

As far as the hi-rez format goes, I feel the sound quality is every bit as compelling and life-like as most WAV and FLAC downloads, with plenty of extension in the treble. That's where these modern formats excel, in my opinion, with amazingly sweet highs that drift off into the ether. I found that navigating the Blu-Ray format on my laptop was a little on the clunky side, with access to individual tracks a bit confusing. But knowing how confused I can get with these new-fangled technologies, I'm sure I'm doing something wrong.

It's rewarding to know, on the other hand, that there's one more way to listen to hi-rez music. In addition, I'm still one of those troglodytes who prefer physical media to downloads because I simply enjoy handling a disc and inserting it into a player. That's one of the reasons I felt a little disappointed when I first delved into CDs 30 years ago--I like to do more than push a few buttons when I interact with a piece of music. But for those of you who have Blu-ray capabilities and are looking for one more way to build your collection, Blu-ray audio is more than capable of satisfying.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My Audio Design (MAD) 1920 Loudspeakers in the House

For the next couple of weeks I get to play with these small British floorstanders, the 1920s, from My Audio Design (MAD). Designed as a tribute to the classic LS3/5a, the 1920s are roughly the same dimensions--except in depth, where the 1920s are much deeper. The 1920s are ported, however, unlike the sealed LS3/5as. They are also much more efficient--90 dB vs. 82/83 dB. That means they should mate well with my 27 wpc Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier.

After just a few hours of listening, I've noticed that the 1920s possess a very classic British sound, which means they are extremely smooth and refined. It's been a while since I've heard an LS3/5a, but I'm going to say the 1920 is more extended in the bass while matching the older speaker's natural midrange. The 1920s are also much more attractive, with thick-walled cabinets finished in a rich walnut veneer. You won't find the LS3/5a's sloppy Velcro fasteners on these baffles.

Thanks goes to the 1920's designer, Timothy Jung, who is friends with Colleen and asked us to give them a listen before they head to another reviewer in the US (they came to us directly from their first American review). There's currently no distributor in the US for MAD, but the entire line is becoming popular in the UK and the rest of the world. After seeing the export prices on the 1920s, I would think that they'd retail for between $2500 to $3000 per pair in the US, which indicates they are a strong value.

I'll follow up after I've let them warm up and play for the next two weeks. Until then, you can check out the entire speaker line from MAD on their website.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Great Father's Day Gift from Vinyl Nirvana

Billed as a great Father's Day gift on the Vinyl Nirvana site, this beautiful Thorens TD-166 Mk. II turntable, complete with arm and a Grado Blue cartridge, is also the perfect starter 'table for anyone trying to get back into vinyl. Over the years I've said that $500 is the magic price for getting a vinyl rig that puts most mass-market CD players to shame. Well, this Thorens is going for just $525, and it's a plug and play solution that's perfect for vinyl newbies.

David Archimbault of Vinyl Nirvana describes the 'table this way: "Cosmetically, this table is an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. (I’m a hard rater.) The brushed aluminum sides are in very good shape, with some light scuffing. The top plate is in very nice condition overall, lettering crisp and clear. There is a dustcover in overall fair condition, with many light to medium scratches and some light scuffing. Hinges are there and work. What makes this an extra special starter package is the inclusion of a NEW Grado Blue cartridge, all mounted and aligned for your easy set up. The Blue is my personal favorite of the under $200 Grados."

Now this Thorens won't have the same magic as a completely restored TD-124 with a massive, custom plinth--those 'tables will cost you at least a couple of grand. But if you're trying to decide between one of the cheaper new 'tables out there, this is a worthwhile alternative. Thorens are built to last forever, and some of those other 'tables aren't.

By the way, the AR turntable I blogged about last week is listed, too. I predicted it would cost more than a grand--the official price is $1695. Believe me, that's a fair price.

Once again, I'm not shlepping 'tables for David--he didn't even discover my blog until a few months ago. It's just that I dig what he's doing, and he's probably one of the best turntable restorers in the United States, if not the world. Just check out his site, click on the section for "Vintage Turntables for Sale" and start drooling.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Battle of Cincinnati Record Stores, Part 2

You have to feel sorry for the beleagured record stores of Cincinnati, Ohio. First we had our friend Shinedaddy, a record collector who buys and sells classic rock LPs on Internet forums, bashing the local record stores by saying all they have are "piles of junk." Now we have a corporate entity, Walgreen's, trying to take out a city block by building a new store. The problem is that this new drug store will force out a couple of businesses that have been there for many years, including the beloved music store Everybody's Records.

Fortunately, the vinyl-loving people of Cincinnati have banded together to prevent this from happening. A new Facebook page has been created, titled "Save the Gas Light Cafe and Everybody's Records," and you can show your support by "liking" it here. The creators of the page have been organizing their effort through press releases and by asking local residents to write the Cincinnati city council members.

Along with Everybody's, The Gas Light Cafe is also set for demolition if Walgreen's buys the property. Several zoning changes would have to be made for this to occur, but we all know what deep pockets and an army of real estate attorneys can do when they're properly motivated. Now I'm reluctant to demonize Walgreen's in the sammer manner as Walmart, for example, especially since a new Walgreen's is going up just down the street from me and I'm an Ambassador of the Chamber of Commerce and welcome this particular addition to our community. But the new Walgreen's in Kyle is being built on an empty street corner, and they've even paid for the new traffic light at the aforementioned intersection. If they were knocking down the only record store in Kyle to do it, however, I'd be against it.

Perhaps Walgreen's just has to realize that taking over city blocks and forcing out mom-and-pop stores is not the way we should do business in this day and age. As a small business owner and a lover of all things vinyl, I'm doing my part to raise awareness of Everybody's Records as well as the Gas Light Cafe. So please "like" the Facebook page and show your support any way you can!

AR The Turntable Baby Grand Version

Check this out from David Archimbault of Vinyl AR turntable in a piano black finish! As David says, "Thought I would share pics of this gorgeous table I just completed...something about that piano gloss finish that gets me so excited."

He hasn't set a price for this one yet, but it should be well over a grand considering its rarity and the rather nice Rega arm that's been mounted. If you want to find out more about Vinyl Nirvana, check out their website.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Hague's Black Rabbit on CD

Back when I was in college thirty years ago, much of what we called punk or New Wave took a sudden left turn and became more ambitious, earnest and civilized. It might have started with the enormous support REM started receiving on college radio stations across the country, as well as the dozens of bands subsequently inspired by the boys from Athens. Or it might have been prompted like bands such as The Jam and The Psychedelic Furs who started smoothing out the edges and putting out more pop-oriented fare. Frankly, it could have happened all at once, in a thousand different places. But while this softening eventually bottomed out with the likes of Culture Club, Haircut 100 and lot of other faux-easy-listening backsliders, there was a brief moment when all of these genres sounded so new and old and different, and anything was possible. (This shift would be replicated a decade later when grunge started blending genres together once more.)

I'm bringing this up because The Hague, a Portland-based quintet, reminds me of the period from 1980 to 1982 in the way they insert an undercurrent of decency in their music. I'm not talking about the overstated and anthemic heraldry we used to hear in bands such as Big Country or even pre-Breakfast Club Simple Minds, but a modern interpretation that eschews rough edges for a certain lanky beauty. Or, as the band likes to say about their new album Black Rabbit, it's "quiet music played loud."

Opening with an instrumental ironically titled "An Open Book Conversationalist," Black Rabbit immediately draws you in with genuinely pretty string arrangements that run slightly counter to the rest of the band's sonic attack. Indeed, this is a fairly conventional band which includes band founders and Coeur D'Alene ID residents Shawn Steven (guitars) and Jesse Tranfo (drums) on guitar, Charlie Fisher on bass, James Logan (rhythm guitar), but adds a novelty in "lead violinist" Travis Chapman. This adds a slightly Celtic undertone to the music--perhaps that's why you'll start thinking of Simple Minds, or maybe The Waterboys. Only Steven's weary and modest vocals, less theatrical than the ones of his musical influences, will remind you it's 2012. By the time you get to the second instrumental track, "Passing Cars," you'll be absorbed by the beauty and you'll forget about time travel.

One caveat about this CD, however: the overall sound quality is smooth and round and lopped off at the ends. I don't want to pick on Toadhouse Studios or Vita Mastering, but this recording could use a little more sparkle. When the band really starts rocking, playing that quiet music loudly, this sound quality robs the music of any sort of visceral impact unless you really crank the volume. I suppose that's better than the bright, artificially shiny surfaces that now curse most pop music recordings of the '80s, but I wouldn't have minded if this time machine had been polished a bit more and maybe given a new set of tires.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Halie Loren's Heart First on iTunes

This one slipped through the cracks for nearly two months, mostly because I received it from Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery via an iTunes download, and my iTunes account was in a state of disrepair due to neglect and a failure to download any of the updates. I'm a Zune guy, after all, but I shouldn't let that prevent me from enjoying the latest from Halie Loren, Heart First. So apologies go to Dan, Halie and Halie's producer and pianist Matthew Treder.

I first wrote about Halie last September, when I reviewed her CDs After Dark, They Oughta Write a Song and the live album Stages. At the time I was spearheading a major backlash against all the recordings of female vocals that get overplayed at audio trade shows, and Halie's direct, emotional voice was the perfect antidote. As I wrote in that review:

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

Coupled with her superb taste in covers, this commitment to the feeling expressed in each song is why Halie stands apart from her contemporaries, and Heart First is no different. In this album she takes on such challenges as Bob Marley ("Waiting in Vain"), Van Morrison ("Crazy Love") and even Charlie Chaplin's immortal classic, "Smile," which features a heart-felt button accordion performance from Sergei Teleshev that will take you back to the singular soulfulness of The Tramp like nothing else.

Halie also writes and performs her own songs, such as the delicate, cello-laced "In Time," which is dedicated to the people of Japan, where she has a huge following. This international flavor is also carried over into "C'est Si Bon," which Halie delivers convincingly in French; I've been on a big Serge Gainsbourg kick lately and her sultry voice is an intriguingly sexy counterpoint to Serge's guttural mumblings. And if you ever want to hear a Neil Young song sound light and whimsical, listen to her version of "Lotta Love." I'm not sure if I'm buying her overly-optimistic turn, but she is making me smile a lot while considering it.

I won't discuss the sound quality since this is iTunes, and I need to buy the CD. (I also won't discuss the multitude of workaround solutions I'll subsequently receive from the computer audio crowd; seriously, I'd rather buy the little silver disc than listen to all of the downloading possibilities.) But the three CDs I already have are superb and I suspect this one is too. Back when I reviewed Halie's other albums, I exchanged a few emails with Matt Treder and suggested that he put her music on vinyl. He was intrigued with the idea. Halie is the kind of singer who deserves to be heard on an LP, late at night, in a darkened room with a glass of Lagavulin. I'll be the first to order these albums all over again when that day comes.

Heart First is available in either CD or downloadable formats on Highly recommended, and still a great antidote to the glossy, too-cool-for-school female vocalists who dot the jazz landscape.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Gene Bertoncini 1+1 = 2 BluePort Jazz CD Review Now Live on Positive Feedback Online

My review of Gene Bertoncini's splendid 1+1=2 CD for BluePort Jazz, first published right here, is now available on the Positive Feedback Online website at Jim Merod of BluePort was very pleased with the review and requested that it be reprinted there. Thanks, Jim, and keep making those fantastic recordings!