Monday, September 30, 2013
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now available at the Perfect Sound Forever website. I take a look at the movement to equate good music with good health, spearheaded by such organizations as PAtH (Pure Audio to Health). You can read it at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl94.html.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
I've been lucky enough to have two up-close-and-personal encounters with the bassoon. The first involved a friend who played one, and he invited me to his house once to hear him play. The second involved Lewis Lipnick, the celebrated contrabassoon player who once served as "Musician-in-Residence" for Stereophile, as he offered a seminar at a trade show back in the mid '90s. There Mr. Lipnick treated us to that amazing B flat, one of the lowest notes achieved in the orchestra--a rare treat.
Most people know the bassoon by its avuncular tone, mellow and comforting, surrounded by more the more flashy denizens of the woodwind family. In the "near-field," a bassoon has so much more going on. It buzzes and rattles, as do many double-reed instruments, and its valves click audibly. It's one of those instruments that effectively documents the interaction between musician and instrument in a thoroughly delightful way.
That said, there aren't many recordings that reveal these acoustic cues in a believable manner--the bassoon, it seems, is often condemned to distant perspectives in order to shave off these edges. 2L Recordings' new CD/SACD release, The Lyrical Bassoon, is a godsend for those wanting to develop a more intimate relationship with this increasingly rare instrument. A collection of duos between bassoon (performed by Per Hannisdal) and piano (performed by Vebjorn Anvik), The Lyrical Bassoon is comprised primarily of pieces written in the first half of the 20th century by composers such as Camille Saint-Saens, Paul Hindemith, Edward Elgar and more. Quite a few of these pieces were commissioned for the Paris Conservatoire, where the bassoon and other woodwind instruments were held in exceptionally high regard.
Despite the fact that this album features relatively modern works, you won't find a lot of dissonance and sharp angles. (Morten Lindberg of 2L doesn't shy away from more adventurous repertoires, as we all know by now.) I suspect that a bassoon album featuring Webern, Schoenberg and Bartok might be tough to penetrate, and the programme here focuses on the melodic and the genteel. This is an ideal disc for a quiet weekend at home, and the sonics are more than convincing enough to make you believe that Hannisdal and Anvik have stopped by for a visit. While listening, I'm constantly reminded of those two live encounters I've had with bassoons, and how mesmerized I was.
Most importantly I made a profound emotional connection to one of the pieces, Charles Koechlin's Sonate. The piano in the middle section offers a counterpoint to the bassoon that is wan, slightly bleak and full of longing, and it creates incredibly sharp visual images in my mind. It reminds me of one of my favorite Scandinavian pieces of all time, Lars Erik Larsson's Concertino for double bass and string orchestra, op.45, which can be found on the amazing Concertos for Double Bass and Orchestra on the Opus 3 label. Larsson's piece amazes me with its ability to form icy, forbidding landscapes through absolute music, and the Koechlin piece has allowed me to revisit that same journey for the first time in 25 or 30 years. Every time that piece is played, I have to stop everything and close my eyes and focus on the inexplicable yet convincing emotions that start flowing through my body.
For this review I had the pleasure of a visit from the My Audio Design Baron loudspeakers that we showed at the New York Audio Show this spring. It's the first time I've had these speakers in my system. The photo above is a little misleading--these look like floorstanding speakers but they are actually designed to be placed on relatively short stands--approximately 12 to 15" high. Sitting on the floor, they look tiny, like little stout elves. In this configuration, however, they project an enormous soundstage and produce bass that is very rich and very deep for their size. I've commented before that the soundstage is a bit novel--it seems to drop beneath the floor, offering a perspective that's like listening from a balcony.
What the Barons did for The Lyrical Bassoon was nothing short of amazing. Not only were Hannisdal's bassoon and Anvik's piano presented in a completely lifelike way, with accurate size, but the lovely acoustics of the Jar Church in Norway were also preserved completely intact. Well-heeled audiophiles often have the luxury of owning several pairs of loudspeakers, and perhaps this is the reason why--some hi-fi systems are simply suited for some types of music. In this case, the Barons and The Lyrical Bassoon are a match made in heaven. I'll be sad in a couple of days when I have to send the Barons back to our dealer.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
When I think of 2010, I think of two albums--The Black Keys' Brothers and Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid. I stuck both of them in the CD player in my car and they didn't leave for the entire year. Since I spent a lot of 2010 driving, those two albums are engrained in my brain for the rest of my life. Even on my death bed I'll remember every note, every syllable. It was no secret to me that I'd enjoy Brothers--I heard "Tighten Up" on the local Austin radio station and instantly fell in love. Janelle Monae was more of an unknown quantity to me. I'm not the biggest contemporary R&B fan in the world. After seeing the amazing, catchy "Tightrope" video on YouTube, however, I decided to take a chance.
While it took a few listens for it to sink in, The ArchAndroid eventually snuck its way into my heart and became my favorite album of the year. (Brothers, of course, came in second.) An epic and incredibly ambitious concept album about an android named Cindy Mayweather who is sent back to the past (our present time) to free the citizens of Metropolis (yes, this is inspired by the 1927 film) and winds up in an Atlanta asylum named The Palace of the Dogs, The ArchAndroid is a wild, genre-leaping journey that soars from modern R&B to psychedelic '60s rock to James Brown to quirky indie rock to Mancini-esque tropical torch to Clair de Lune. By the time the album is over--and I felt compelled to listen to it from beginning to end on several dozen occasions--I always felt simultaneously exhausted and exhilirated, like I just finished a really wonderful book. There's no other album in my music collection that's remotely like this one.
Suffice it to say, I had very high expectations when the follow-up, The Electric Lady, was released last week. Lady picks up the story where The ArchAndroid left off--it contains Suites IV and V to The ArchAndroid's Suites II and III. You might be asking yourself, "Where's Suite I?" That's contained in the 2007 EP Metropolis, which wasn't really noticed until The ArchAndroid became a hit. That's too bad--the EP is every bit as good as its follow-up; in fact, "Sincerely, Jane" might be my favorite Janelle Monae song of all (yes, even more than "Tightrope"). Now whenever I have the hankering to listen to Janelle Monae, I have to play Suites I-III in one big uninterrupted hunk.
You might suspect by now that I'm not as gobsmacked by The Electric Lady since I keep finding a reason to talk about the first two albums. You might be right. On first listen, my impression was that Janelle's penchant for playing musical leapfrog was over, and that she was settling into her career as a contemporary R&B singer. Apparently as the Cindy Mayweather Saga continues, this lovely android starts to mature and realize it's better to stay safe, fall in love and be happy than to free the masses from the Great Divide. After the first two or three listens I tried to reserve final judgment on the album--even The ArchAndroid starts off with three or four fairly conventional R&B songs and doesn't really kick into gear until "Cold War" and "Tightrope" make their auspicious appearances. That's when the album gets airborne, and it never comes back down to Earth.
It took a few more listens, and now the songs are starting to differentiate and bloom. "We Were Rock and Roll," one of the album's first singles, is an impassioned, ultra-serious plea for a return to the innocence and excitement of our musioal past, all set to an amazingly addictive disco/funk backdrop that would be right at home on the Jackie Brown soundtrack album. In fact, it might be Janelle's tribute to Diana Ross, just as "Tightrope" was a tribute to James Brown. "Look Into My Eyes" is a gorgeous torch song that's sort of a hybrid between the lush, tropical "BebopbyeYa" and the sultry spy-movie motif of "Sincerely, Jane." Even her duet with Prince, "Givin Em What They Love" is as sexy and daring as, well, a really good Prince song. "Victory" is one of those songs that may seem conventional and ordinary on the surface--but listen closely and you'll be treated to one of Janelle's greatest vocal performances ever.
Another minor complaint is that The Electric Lady seems less tied to its futuristic themes than its predecessors, and doesn't follow the linear narrative of The ArchAndroid. Janelle did reveal in a recent review that The Electric Lady is actually a prequel to The ArchAndroid, which is probably why it doesn't seem to push Cindy Mayweather's adventure forward. Janae's also announced that there will be a Suite VI and VII, the finale, so perhaps the story will again take precedence. Then again, the sci-fi plot has always been merely the icing on the cake. The real story has been, and contionues to be, about this incredibly talented young woman, still in her mid-twenties, who has a beautiful voice for the ages, an imagination that won't quit and a vision that still stretches way beyond the horizon.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
First Impressions: Carot One Ernestolone DAC/Headphone Amp with the Cardas Audio EM5813 Ear Speakers
Tha Carot One Ernestolone arrived first thing this morning, so now I get to start experimenting with computer audio and DACs once again. Carot One is an Italian company that offers a full line of tiny tubed integrated amplifiers, digital-to-analog converters, headphone amplifiers and earbuds, all at extremely affordable prices. (It is manufactured in China, but it's designed and tested in Italy.) The Ernestolone, sort of the flagship of the line, is all of these products combined--DAC, headphone amplifier and even a 15wpc integrated amplifier--in a package small enough to fit in one hand. It weighs less than a pound, even though the chassis is made from fairly thick aluminum. Most importantly, it comes in a gorgeous anodized orange-copper color that is even more beautiful in person.
Why the Carot One? First of all, it was recommended to me by Aleks Bakman, the man who created the world-class ONEDOF turntable. Aleks tends to champion those who brands that meet his very high engineering standards, and these diminutive and fun little amplifiers fit the bill. Second, I needed a headphone amplifier to evaluate the Cardas earbuds, as well as a pair of the new Furutech headphones which are being sent my way as I write. I also need a DAC...badly. Unison Research is introducing a DAC and a headphone amplifier in the next few months, but I need something to help me play music at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest next month.
So for the next few weeks, I'll be playing with the Ernestolone in a number of different configurations. I'll hook it up to laptop and use the DAC to listen to the handful of high-rez FLAC and WAV files I've downloaded over the last couple of years. I'll hook it up to a pair of efficient speakers, like the 90dB My Audio Design 1920S, to see it how it performs as the center of a conventional home hi-fi system. For today, I hooked the Ernestolone directly to my Unison Research CDE CD player using Cardas Audio Clear Light interconnects and listened through the Cardas Audio ear speakers.
I started off listening to Janelle Monae's new CD, The Electric Lady, and was immediately impressed by the deep bass and the big soundstage inside my head. Both the Carot One and the Cardas earbuds need breaking in somewhat before I start commenting on the ultimate sound quality--a caveat I always make when I write on of these "First Impression" blogs. There was a little congestion through the midrange, something that will obviously open up after a few hours. But this is a relative warm, smooth combination, which is essential to good headphone listening. Who wants to stick something that sounds harsh and screechy deep into their ear canals? Smooth is gooood.
What's amazing about this combo is that it's very affordable and it's already achieving decent sound. The Cardas Audio EM5813s are $425, and the Carot One Ernestolone was 499 Euros, which I think wound up costing me about $650 delivered to my door. That's a shade over a grand for a well-engineered and very attractive duo.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
It seems like it's been forever since we had a new Neko Case album. It's been a long four years since Middle Cyclone, and even longer since what I feel is her masterpiece, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, arrived on the scene. It's a good thing I'm totally addicted to the song "Star Witness" from Fox--otherwise it would feel like Neko had fallen off the map. Hearing that incredible voice on the new album is like getting a phone call from an old friend. Welcome back, Neko.
On this new album, it's obvious that Neko has changed. She's adopted a more direct approach on these songs, relying less on that awesome voice and concentrating on what makes her so alluring--her singular talent as a songwriter. She's drifted away from her label as an alt-country chanteuse and is doing what artists such as Wilco and Fiona Apple are doing...existing in a genre of one. She's taking more risks, such as truly exploring her angrier side--songs such as "Man" are peppered with an almost astonishing stream of profanity--and she reveals a confident yet troubled view of the world that's defined by that introductory phrase "the worse things get."
Let's talk about that title for a minute. I love it. There's a trend in modern music to use descriptive and lengthy titles, something that might have been inspired by Neko's colleague, Ms. Apple. (I think that if I was a musician, I'd call my next album I'm the Meanest Man in the World and You're the Only One Who Loves Me, a nod to one of my favorite quotes from Million Dollar Baby.) Neko's always been cryptic and interesting in her album titles, and that filters wonderfully into her lyrics. She's one of the few singer-songwriters whose lyrics stand alone as true poetry, and I wish she had published the words in the somewhat lengthy booklet that accompanies this album. Then again, her voice is so clear and distinct that you'll have no problem understanding what she has to say.
If I had one complaint about The Worse Things Get, it would be the overall recording quality. I have one friend who has resisted her charms because "I hate what they're doing to her voice in the studio." This is a dense, busy recording, and as a result it sounds woefully compressed. Neko, your voice is amazing. Let it stand, naked, and watch the goosebumps multiply. Perhaps that's why I resisted spending $30 on the LP version--I didn't want to be disappointed. I did opt for the limited edition CD, which contains three extra tracks: "Madonna of the Wasps," "Magpie to the Morning" and "Yon Ferrets Return." I suggest you do the same, especially since Amazon had this version on sale when I bought it last week.
Another slight issue, and this is a personal one, is that I keep waiting for another Neko Case song that's as complete and hypnotic as "Star Witness." Two albums have passed, and she still hasn't topped that combination of lucid imagery, flowing melodies and dark mysticism. (Is it about lost love, difficult childhoods or werewolves?) Amazingly enough, Neko is now 43, no less beautiful or seductive than when she led Neko Case and her Boyfriends (how desirable is that membership?), and she has managed to replace that blackness with wisdom and the aforementioned confidence. But I'd welcome a return to that haunting, perplexing perspective.
Then again, perhaps it's a good idea that I settled for the CD. I want to put this in my car and play it over and over. I have to drive to Denver alone next month for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, probably at night, and I can't think of a better companion for the trip over the Rockies.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Why do I keep buying SACDs when I don't have an SACD player? It sounds kind of silly, but it started happened by accident. Every time I attend a trade show, I try to buy something to play in my room while I'm there. At the New York Audio Show in May, I purchased Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' on what I thought was CD. I already owned and adored it on LP, but I needed something for the Unison Research Unico CDE player we had on display in the room. Halfway back to the room, I looked down at the little disc--yeah, I had already opened it up--and I saw "SACD" written everywhere. "This isn't going to play on the CDE," I said, slapping my forehead. "Now I have to return it, and I hate returning things."
As a Hail Mary I placed it in the CDE anyway, pushed the start button...and it played fine. In fact, it sounded spectacular. That's because it was a CD/SACD hybrid disc, which means that it has different layers of data and will work on machines that play either SACDs or CDs. I repeated my mistake at the Newport Beach Show in June with Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie. It played as well.
For some reason, SACD as a digital format seems to be hanging in there, despite the emergence of competing (and possibly superior) formats such as Blu-ray Audio. One of the reasons it endures, I suspect, is because of the now ubiquitous CD/SACD hybrid disc. I'm proof of that--I don't care if I'm getting something I don't need, I'm grabbing the hybrid first. Although these hybrid discs received some criticism when they first appeared because the redbook CD layers often seemed to sound less than first-rate, those days seem to be gone. I've gotten into the habit of buying hybrid CDs because a) most of the "hot" audiophile remasters seem to be more easily obtained in this mixed format, and b) one day I might have an SACD player, and I'll already have some titles. It's sort of like my adventures with Blu-ray Audio, especially with the 2L label from Norway--sure, I have a cheap Blu-ray player to test out the new format, but I like listening to the hybrid disc on my CD player. It's convenient and it's easy.
So when I had the budget for a couple of new discs for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in mid-October, I started perusing the hybrid CD/SACD sections of Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct and Elusive Discs for ideas. I decided not to do vinyl--it's going to be a crowded little room and I want to keep it simple--so it's all about feeding the CDE with good recordings. And for me that means hybrid discs.
First I purchased Hugh Masakela's Hope per Colleen's request; she heard Bob Clarke play it at the Newport Beach show and fell in love with the song "Stimela (The Coal Train)." This has just been remastered by Chad Kassem and Acoustic Sounds, and it is undoubtedly one of the best live recordings I've ever heard. I've said this before but I'm not a huge fan of live recordings--the crowd usually sounds artificial and obtrusive, and the recording methods tend to be "on the fly" and not perfectly controlled. Hope defies my expectation with an energetic, explosive sound that really captures the excitement of the live venue while preserving all the natural timbres you hear in an isolated, first-class studio. I look forward to wowing the RMAF attendees with this one.
I bought the new ORG edition of Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On for the coolness factor alone. This just came out a few weeks ago, and the audiophile community was instantly buzzing about it. Sonically this is the opposite of Hope; it's a purely studio creation that relies heavily of special effects and doctored sounds to get its message across. That means it lacks some of the live excitement and realistic portrayals of instruments you hear in the Masakela disc. But the music is, well, sensational on this landmark 1971 album, and the level of interaction among the musicians is clearly inspired. This is one of those instances where an audiophile remastering means that that a troublesome original recording has been made palatable, as opposed to a sonic legend being taken to an even further level.
In any case, I'll be playing both hybrid discs at RMAF--perhaps Masakela a bit more than Sly. It's all about wowing the crowd, playing things that make them wander in, slightly hypnotized from the hallways. See you there.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
What a wonderful surprise--yet another in a series, I should say--from Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings. Trace of Impressions contains exquisite performances from two of my favorite composers of all time...Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It's not surprising that a CD would contain a programme made up entirely of these two French masters, since their histories and themes are so entwined, but I'm amazed at the freshness of the selections. Trace avoids the obvious "hits" and focuses on what we classic rock aficionados call "deep tracks"--hidden jewels in the repertoire. While I am familiar with such pieces as the moody, dreamy "Beau Soir" from Debussy and the Sonate Posthume from Ravel, there's so much here to discover.
Performed by Anders Kjellberg Nilsson on violin and Svienung Bjelland an piano, these duos are beautifully captured in the now-familiar Sofienberg Church in Norway. I say familiar since this venue has been perhaps the most common choice for Morten--the church is able to contribute all of the warmth and decay you'd expect from a Norwegian church, and yet it's able to convey loads of detail. For most of you involved in high-end audio, that's become the new standard of perfection. You want to be romanced and comforted (and sometimes challenged with careful helpings of dissonance) with Ravel and Debussy, but you want to hear everything that's going on in the recording as well. My love of Debussy, after all, is defined by the almost otherworldly tone and timbre to his compositions. Ravel, who acts as a bridge between Debussy's lyricism and the tonal shifts that would arrive after the turn of the century, also seeks to preserve that distinct French charm. Trace of Impressions excels at preserving those dreamlike qualities while providing a more modern focus and purity.
On a personal note, I had this recording at the ready as my parents came to visit my sound room in Colorado for the first time. Both of them are huge Debussy fans and have a profound love for "Clair de Lune"--so much so that they recently took me out for dinner at a steakhouse in Ouray and asked me to request this song from the pianist in the dining room. It made the celebration even more special for them. I had this disc playing when they walked into the door, and even though I doubt they were familiar with the piece that was playing, they both asked "Debussy"? They're not seasoned classical music fans, but they immediately made the emotional connection.
What this means is this: if you love Debussy and Ravel, this recording will make you melt.
According to the liner notes, the selections here are offered as proof of the influence of impressionist paintings on the music of both composers, mated with the "dynamic" Far East influences of the time. 2L recordings always seek to inform and educate the listener in complex and entertaining ways, and it's always a unique challenge to confirm these observations. So you get a gorgeous recording full of some of the most bewitching music ever composed--I will be playing this at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest next month--and you can fine-tune your classical music knowledge as well. This harkens back to the great classical recordings of the late '50s and early '60s, where copious liner notes in very small print completely dominated the back covers of LPs. 2L usually offers this information in a more succinct and attractive manner--the website is an especially helpful accessory in this regard--but you will listen and you will feel like a better person afterward.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Have I said before how much I love test pressings? They always sound so pristine that they're almost embryonic. I have a decent handful of LP test pressings in my record collection, mostly freebies from being in the industry (Chad Kassem hooked us up with some fun test pressings of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Shelby Lynne and Dusty Spreingfield at the Newport Beach Show in June). I even purchased a rare test pressing of Sonic Youth's Goo from Audiophile International about 15 years ago for $75--it sounds much better than my MFSL pressing. But I've never received a test pressing in advance before, one sent by the artist asking for my feedback.
I've been talking a lot about jazz composer/tenor saxophonist Daniel Louis White over the last year or so. I reviewed his 2011 CD True Communication here in my blog, and I recently interviewed him for my Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever. In that interview we discussed his upcoming project, a series of vinyl releases titled Natural Consequences. It's an ambitious project using 180g virgin vinyl, half-speed mastering, 7 track recording, all original compositions.
Daniel's been working on this all year. He works his day job, and then cashes the paychecks and heads down to the studio with the money to get a little more done. This level of commitment is rare, and I've been waiting eagerly for the results. Now I have a test pressing of the first volume in my hands, and it's fantastic. It's roughly twenty minutes of music, an EP of sorts, and it will be available at a very affordable price. Subsequent volumes will be released every few months.
How does it sound? Well, I think I'm going to wait for the release date to get closer before I write up a full review, but I will say that for a traditional jazz quartet (Daniel on tenor sax, Sean Giddings on piano, Daniel Parr on bass and Justin Heaverin on drums) there's a lot of bass energy on this recording. Daniel has really captured the decay, resonance and bloom of real live instruments. Everything is BIG, although still life-sized. This is a bold, ballsy recording--even in its quiet moments.
Daniel promised that the final copies will be cleaner than the test pressing, but I noticed almost no surface noise on this recording--despite the strange grey smudges on the vinyl, something I've never seen before. This looks like a real working test pressing, one that was actually used to evaluate the recording. I'm proud to have it in my possession.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
I just returned from a week's vacation and look what was waiting for me in the mail--the long-awaited EM5813 "ear speakers" from Cardas Audio. I listened to a prototype of these nearly three years ago and was amazed by the deep bass, warmth and comfort of these in-the-ear monitors--and I loved them. (You can see my original impressions here.) They've been out for a few weeks now, and everyone assumed I already had a pair. I didn't, but George Cardas remedied that immediately.
Unfortunately, we don't have a stellar headphone amp that's up to the challenge right now, although Colleen and I probably have two or three iPods between us if we dug around. Here are the options: Unison Research is working on a couple of headphone amplifiers, but those won't be ready for a while. I can also plug the 5813s into my laptop and listen to some of the FLAC files I've downloaded from HDTracks, which I've already done. The sound is warm and full and musical despite the absence of a quality DAC. Heck, I just listened to some videos on YouTube that didn't sound half bad.
The final option involves this cute little Italian headphone amp/DAC, the Ernestolo, from Carot One. It's affordable, high-quality and it looks great. We've been speaking with the manufacturers of Carot One for a few months now, and I'm trying to get a unit in for evaluation. Once I do, I'll report more thoroughly on the EM5813s.