Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column for Perfect Sound Forever... now available at

In this installment, I revisit my "Ten Reasons Why You Need a Turntable" articles I did in 1998 and 2000, and come up with my first new list of must-have LPs in twelve years. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Love Dimension's Forget the Remember on CD

I gotta admit that on most days, the idea of a psychedelic blues garage band from San Francisco sounds like a great idea. The Love Dimension, with its heavy helpings of reverb-saturated vocals and farfisa organs and a plethora of other fifty-year-old artifacts, easily meets this challenge on their new CD, Forget the Remember. Not only does Celeste Obamsawim effectively channel Grace Slick without the arrogant attitude (she relies heavily upon her Native American heritage to add another layer of mysticism), but the entire band commits to the idea that you can still sound like you're playing rock and roll in a small club in the Mission District circa 1966 without winking gratuitously to contemporary kids.

When's the last time you heard a recorder solo in a rock song, as you do here in "Uma Coisa Linda"? When's the last time you heard a lead singer such as frontman Jimmy Dias ask where do we go? and sound so ruthlessly sincere and eager for an answer, ostensibly from someone older and wiser? When's the last time you heard the admonishment, "You gotta live your life" (from "Live Divine") and you thought yeah, you do have to live your life! In these respects, the Love Dimension has done its homework. They get all of these lyrical details down, the wide-eyed-wonder t-boned by a growing sense of cynicism in troubled times. The superficial gee-whiz moments are thrillingly undercut by a sense of liberated sensibilities, which goes some way in explaining the band's fondness for such influences as Johnny Cash and the Velvet Underground--two acts that had to stand outside the mainstream to capture a loyal and more appreciative audience.

I may be overstating The Love Dimension's intent; first and foremost Forget the Remember is, superficially, a fun listen. I hear a lot of modern musicians who can capture that magic '60s garage band sound without too much effort--although I do have to admit that the grungy sound quality of Forget the Remember takes this commitment to quite another level--but if The Love Dimension's success here seems cautiously calculated, it's only because they're crafting something very specific here. It's one thing to sound like a '60s garage band, and another thing to pay homage to '60s garage bands (a la B-52s) while being slightly sardonic about it. What we have here is a group that sounds like a '60s garage band who just cut its sixth or seventh studio album and suddenly wants to grow and evolve into something more complex. That's not an easy trick to pull off, which is why The Love Dimension deserves some attention.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Complete Piano Works of Thomas D. A. Tellefsen on 2L Recordings Blu-Ray Audio

Remember when CDs were in their infancy, and one of the great selling points of this new format was the amount of music you could cram onto one disc? A story circulated back then that you could put 69 or 70 minutes' worth of music on a single compact disc, and that particular number was chosen so that Beethoven's Symphony No.9 wouldn't require a 2-CD set. To this day I still hear music lovers claim they don't like LPs because they don't want to get up every twenty minutes to flip the record. Lazy-ass mofo jokes aside, there is an incredible appeal to music formats that play and play and play. That's why some of us still listen to local FM radio stations while working on the Times crossword puzzle on quiet, rainy Sunday afternoons. That explains why we are so intrigued with expansive iTunes playlists and giant music servers with terrabyte hard drives. It explains the whole silly encore ritual at the end of every live musical performance--if we just stand here and clap long enough, maybe they'll come back out and play five or six more songs! We just don't want the music to stop. It's a bummer when it does.

Well, I have some news for you. I was listening to yet another Blu-ray Audio disc from 2L Recordings of Norway, Thomas D. A. Tellefsen--Complete Piano Works, and after a while I noticed something strange. The music just kept playing, hour after hour. At first I thought I had hit the repeat button, even though each solo piano piece sounded new and fresh. I picked up the Blu-ray case and there it was, printed right on the back: "3 hours and 18 minutes of music on 1 disc." That's a lot of music. And, in essence, it's another important reason why Blu-ray audio should be a competitive music format in 2012.

It certainly makes sense to use a digital format originally designed for movies as a convenient, compact way to store huge chunks of music. Let's face it--box sets are for wacky, obsessive collectors. For most of us, space is at a premium. We don't want our music collections taking over an entire room, much less our entire house. That's why so many of us are ripping our entire CD collections to our computers and selling all of our discs on eBay. We want our listening rooms to look like the ads in high-end audio magazines...a pair of speakers, an amp, a MacBook and a chair from IKEA. That's it. Blu-ray audio is a magnificent compromise for people who still love physical formats--like me--yet are starting to wonder how they're going to contain their ever-expanding music collections.

None of this would matter, however, if the content and the sound quality weren't up to par. This is 2L, after all, and Morten Lindberg is certainly on the cutting edge when it comes to exploring the sonic potential of the hi-rez formats--including vinyl (heh heh). Lindberg recorded Norwegian pianist Jorgen Larsen at the Ringve Museum in Trondheim, Norway, and as usual he captures the essence of the space with unusual precision. So far, most of the 2L recordings I have heard were recorded in Norwegian churches, and I immediately noticed that the Tellefsen recordings sounded closer, more intimate and within in a slightly smaller space. The cavernous qualities of the churches were replaced with something tighter and more streamlined, although the space still provides a wealth of air and transient decay.

I've yet to address either the pianist or the composer; I'm reluctant to admit that I'm a stranger to both. Tellefsen was a mid-19th century composer who was a friend and contemporary of Chopin, and you can hear some of Chopin's rolling flourishes throughout the music, albeit with a much firmer hand. I also find Tellefsen to be more upbeat than many Scandinavian composers I admire, although Colleen did pop in once or twice to comment on the "sad music" coming from the listening room. Jorgen Larsen, who has deep connections to the Trondheim music scene in Norway, is famous for premiering important new works from Norwegian composers. He is a confident, relaxed pianist whose interpretations are imbued with composure and knowledge.

The sound quality, of course, is superb. Even with the new modest Samsung Blu-ray player in the role of the Weak Link in the Chain, I am once again astonished by the sweetness of the treble and the depth of the decay. I'm also starting to get a strong feel for the lower bass capabilities of Blu-ray audio, even with a solo piano recording such as this. Blu-ray seems to capture the low frequency information that accompanies the sheer movement of air within a space almost as well as analog recordings, and much better than redbook CD. How much of this is due to the format, and how much is due to Morton Lindberg's recording prowess? I'll be able to answer that with more certainty now that I have two of 2L's titles--Souvenir and Quiet Winter Night--on both LP and Blu-ray Audio. I can't wait to sit down and perform some real comparisons, although a couple of people have informed me that the two formats sound surprisingly similar. We shall see.

Monday, September 17, 2012

More (and Better) Pics of the San Antonio Meet and Greet

As a photographer, I'm known for sucking. Fortunately, Luther Ward just granted me permission to post some of his pics from Saturday's Meet and Greet in San Antonio. Thanks, Luther!

"Audio Is a Circle..."

See this CD player? It's a Shanling CD-T1500, a CD player that I used for a good six months back when I was reviewing for TONEAudio. When I left TONE and headed for Texas back in 2009, I had a chance to buy this from publisher Jeff Dorgay, but I declined since I already had a Naim CDX2. I didn't see much sense in having two big-dollar CD players on hand, especially since I was considering ripping my entire CD collection to my computer and going completely CD-free (something I decided against later). Although my review never appeared in TONE, I did publish it here.

Well, fast forward to this last weekend, and I'm attending a "meet and greet" event in San Antonio which is hosted by Luther Ward. Luther is known as "Wardsweb" on many audio forums, particularly the Steve Hoffman Forum, and he's also a cigar smoker who has visited Copper House Liquor & Cigars here in Kyle. We met through our mutual friend, Russ Gates, of Polk Audio. Luther is known for making his own speakers and fixing all types of audio gear--especially vintage pieces and reel-to-reels. Colleen and I had a great time at his home this weekend, and he has lots of gear placed in several systems throughout his house.

Luther specializes in big horn-loaded speakers with beautiful cabinetry using vintage drivers. His systems feature a big, powerful sound that's both impressive and delicate at the same time. It's been a pleasure getting to know Luther and his family, as well as all the Steve Hoffman Forum members who attend his get-togethers. He also visits a group regularly in Round Rock, north of Austin, and Colleen and I are hoping to meet with those audiophiles in the near future.

Anyway, I noticed that Luther was using a Shanling CD-T1500 in his main system in his living room. I hadn't seen one for a while, and I mentioned that I used one extensively in my system for my last few months at TONE. I really liked this player; it was the first player I had used that did 24/192. Despite my reservations about its Chinese pedigree, I could have easily used it as a reference because its sound--as well as its spece-age looks--was so pleasing. I also loved the way its blue lights made my listening room glow.

I told Luther about my adventures with the Shanling. He said, "That's funny...I bought this one from Jeff at TONE." In other words, it was the same exact player! While I was thinking in terms of "It's a small world," Luther articulated it better by saying "Audio is a circle."

At any rate, we had a wonderful afternoon down in San Antonio at Luther's, eating his wife's amazing venison chili and smoking cigars on his back porch while his home was filled with eager audiophiles listening to great gear. Thanks again, Luther, and see you soon in Round Rock!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Further Adventures in Blu-Ray Audio: Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations from 2L Recordings

Morton Lindberg of 2L Recordings in Norway has been sending me quite a few of his new releases on the Blu-ray Audio format, and that has presented me with a dilemma. When I received my first Blu-ray audio disc for review, Patricia Barber's Modern Cool (which you can read here), I had to figure out how I was going to play a Blu-ray disc. I didn't have a player per se, but I realized that I did have a Blu-ray transport built into my laptop. All I needed was an outboard DAC--which I no longer had. The Wavelength DAC I used last year for my Blue Computer Solutions music server project was on loan, and I had already returned it. All I had left was a Sound Blaster external sound card, which offered decent sound quality (roughly the equivalent of a mid-fi Denon CD/DVD player I had on hand), but nothing approaching the musical beauty of the tubed Wavelength.

I was all set to wait for the new Unison Research outboard DAC that's scheduled to appear soon, but a delay in manufacturing has put that product on the back burner for a few more months. So the last handful of Blu-ray Audio discs I've reviewed have been performed on the laptop/sound card combination, hardly an optimal solution sound-wise. Since my brother Mat, my partner in Blue Computer Solutions, has been borrowing the Sound Blaster to continue work on his music server, I've been struggling to find a way to listen to all of these new Blu-ray discs. I've been looking at solutions such as the Oppo BDP-95 univeral player, which plays just about every optical disc known to mankind, but I balked at spending a grand just to hear a format I may or may not embrace.

Finally, Mat offered an intriguing compromise: "Why don't you just go down to Wal-Mart and buy a cheap Blu-ray player? You can get one for like $59." I had no idea Blu-ray player prices had sunk so low, so I started shopping around a found a cheap Panasonic player at the local Target for $75. It was the last one they had in stock. I took it home, plugged it in...and nothing happened. No power. I returned it for a full refund and pondered my next step. While grocery shopping at my local H-E-B, I checked out their electronics section and found a modest little Samsung on sale for $68.

Again, I took it home and struggled with getting it to work. The LED display kept saying "SETUP," and evidently I needed to hook the player up to a monitor so that I could view the various menus and get everything set up for simple audio playback. I longed for the days when you bought a CD player, inserted a disc and started listening to music. And unlike the Panasonic player, the Samsung didn't even include batteries for the remote, which was needed to program the player. I was getting frustrated with my Blu-ray adventure.

In my eight years in the telecommunications industry, we had something we called PFM. The P stood for "pure," the M stood for "magic" and I'll let you figure out what the F stands for. We used this term whenever we were troubleshooting and everything just started working right out of the clear blue for no particular reason. Well, after three tries of turning the player off and on, pressing play and letting the disc initialize (which takes a lot longer on a Blu-Ray player than on a garden-variety CD player), music starting flowing into the room.

The disc I had inserted was Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations, something Morton Lindberg had sent to me at least a couple of months ago. I didn't have an immediate point of reference for the overall sound quality, so I couldn't tell you whether or not the Samsung player was better, worse or equal to my old Wavelength/laptop set-up. But I did notice that Ola Gjeilo's piano sounded quiet, smooth and very relaxed, all the usual earmarks of high-quality, hi-rez digital audio. This soothing, easy-going sound didn't obscure detail, either; all of the wonderful decay of Gjeilo's singular notes were preserved, and while the placement of the piano was set far back into the soundstage, I could still hear all of the spatial cues from the recording venue (the Sofienberg Church in Oslo, Norway.)

Mr. Gjeilo, a young Norwegian pianist who began his composition studies at Julliard in 2001, calls Piano Improvistaions a sequel to his 2007 2L recording Stone Rose and notes that "improvisation is where my heart is." While many such improvisations can have the impression of riding along the edge of creativity, susceptible to trains of thought that can derail musical coherence, Gjeilo keeps these selections unusually tight and organized. It's hard to believe that these pieces weren't carefully orchestrated in advance. He judiciously avoids dissonance and concentrates on studied musical beauty that prizes melody, imagery and solace. I first listened to this generous 2-disc set on a rare rainy Sunday afternoon in Central Texas, and it was the perfect companion.

The sound quality is nothing short of superb, as I expect of Morton Lindberg and 2L, and is enhanced by the majestic Steinway Model D that Gjeilo used for this recording. "It's the best grand piano I have ever experienced," he says in the liner notes. "Just incredible." All of these serendipitous factors--the piano, the extraordinary acoustics of the church, and Morton's visionary skills as a recording engineer and producer--add to one of the most worthwhile solo piano recordings I own.

As far as my technical compromises go in terms of this new and somewhat exciting digital format, I look forward to making improvements to my playback equipment so that I can do justice to these recordings. Morton has enabled me to make more cautious and informative comparisons in the future by supplying me with both the LP and Blu-ray versions of at least a couple of his new titles. Since my analog playback capabilities have increased exponentially with the addition of the Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge and the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier, two of the finest pieces in their respective categories that I've ever used, I can hopefully add more insight into the sheer genius of the 2L recordings. Until then, this $68 Samsung Blu-ray player ain't half-bad.