Monday, June 30, 2014

The Black Keys' Turn Blue on LP (and CD)

Ah, this is the way I like to do album reviews. Play it for weeks. Get to know it well. Put the LP on your turntable and then don't take it off for a month. Stick the CD in your car's player and play it until people tell you if they have to listen to it one more time they're going to eject it and throw it out the window. Yeah, I know the Black Keys' new album, Turn Blue, pretty well by now. I've gotten to the point where I know which song is going to come up next. I even know what musical note is coming up next. It's like the summer of 2010, where I listened to nothing but Brothers and Janelle Monae's The Archandroid over and over and over again.

Is the picture clear yet?

Well, let's stop for a moment. Turn Blue isn't my favorite LP of all time. It's not even my favorite Black Keys album. I think they reached their creative peak with Brothers, and perhaps 2008's Attack and Release. Their monster breakthrough 2011 album, El Camino, might have been my favorite album for that year but in retrospect I'm starting to think that's when they lost their edge, sold out, became slick and overproduced and polished, or whatever. Turn Blue is a continuation of that trend, an album that no longer sounds all stripped down, an album from a band with two members playing everything. It sounds like a recording from an established band who now possesses the power to make any album they want to, and this one happens to be dense, ornate psychedelic rock with a little Motown thrown in. If you're saying to yourself, yeah, that sounds like the other albums, you'll need to push the time machine needle forward a few years, where Pink Floyd and the Delfonics intersect--if they intersect at all.

My opinions of this album have evolved with each listen. My first reaction was that it's a great new direction for Dan Auerback and Patrick Carney, a rich and complex soundscape that has far more layers of sound than you expect with a Black Keys album. The opener, "Weight of Love," is the closest thing the Keys have ever come to an epic song--at almost seven minutes it is by far the longest song the duo has ever recorded. It's also an amazing Track One, a calling card of sorts that reeks of ambition and weight and complete mastery of the recording studio. That's partially due to the extraordinary talents of Danger Mouse, who acts as producer and as an "equal songwriting partner" to Auerbach and Carney. He also produced El Camino, which was noteworthy to Keys' fans because of its lush production values--at least in comparison to Brothers, which was an exercise in lo-fi.

(I once visited the Avalon Acoustics factory in Boulder, Colorado and listened to an amazing system in their million dollar room. When asked if I wanted to play something, the only music I had on me was Brothers. Avalon's Neil Patel came in, sat down, and asked me if I broke his system.)

Those opinions, as I said, shifted through the evaluation process. I started thinking that the first two songs, the aforementioned "Weight of Love" and "In Time" were by far the strongest cuts, and that the album sort of blended together and the songs are started to sound the same as the album progressed. It's not as much of a criticism as you think; it reminds me of a review I once read of the Strokes' first album that said, and I paraphrase, "it's the same song over and over, but man, what a great song!" But that specific opinion of Turn Blue, as I said, changed over time. It's not so much that I started fleshing out each song and noticing all the little flourishes and touches that make the music so good and so varied. It's just that the Black Keys, more than any other contemporary band I like, get into your head and stay there and become as natural as taking your next breath.

I've played this album for a number of people and the common reaction has been, "What is this?" "The new Black Keys," I tell them. "It's great!" they reply. It's an immediately likeable album, in a big way, one made by people who know who they are and what their fans expect. But I would like them to get back to basics on the next one.

(One final note: the LP is $25, but it does come with the CD. Score! I compared the sound quality of the two and it sounded like they were sourced from the same digital masters. But as one of my Facebook friends recently posted, does it matter if an LP is sourced from a digital master when the digital master sounds so good? I think he may have a point, so I'm not going to sweat this anymore.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Ode to Surfer Rosa, Part 2

Look what I found while old CD copy of Pixies' Surfer Rosa and C'mon Pilgrim on one disc, the one I thought was missing and inspired me to write An Ode to Surfer Rosa on this blog a few days ago. It was, for some reason, alphabetized incorrectly in my CD collection, which just goes to show that Lagavulin and Pixies don't necessarily mix when it comes to late night listening sessions. Be careful out there.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An "Embarrassment of Riches" at Vinyl Nirvana

I just spoke with Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, and he told me that he has a wide variety of restored AR and Thorens turntables now available--an embarrassment of riches so to speak. After my recent interview with Dave in Perfect Sound Forever, it's clear that Vinyl Nirvana is taking off and has become one of the premier turntable restoration services in the entire world. As a result, Dave is able to offer more completely restored turntables than ever before...more proof that the 21st century vinyl surge is still peaking.

This particular turntable caught my fancy. I'm a sucker for a beautiful wood surface, and this solid zebrawood plinth on this Thorens TD-150 sent a chill down my back. Looking closely, however, you may notice that this TD-150 looks more like a Linn LP-12 than a traditional Thorens. Dave extended the base of the turntable, much like he's been doing for those unique long-base Thorens TD-125s with the 12" tonearms, so that this TD-150 can accommodate a Linn-sized tonearm. He then added a Music Hall Cruise Control to stabilize the platter speed--Dave feels that this $295 unit "makes the music jump right out of the groove." You also get the Bren record clamp that Dave includes on many of his beautiful creations.

Finally, Dave has installed the Moth RB-202 tonearm--an OEM Rega arm--which has been rewired with Cardas Audio tonearm cable. The result is a turntable that has been influenced by the Linn LP-12, and comes close to achieving the same level of performance according to Dave. The price for everything? Just $1495 complete plus shipping.

Dave's success with the long-base TD-125 (there's only one more available this year) has led him to tackle this more modest project. Hopefully, he'll keep creating more of these unique vintage turntables--I can't wait to see what he'll do with an AR ES-1. If you're interested in one of these TD-150s, contact Dave at Vinyl Nirvana immediately.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ode to Surfer Rosa

It all started with that TV commercial for the Apple iPhone 5s. "Wow," I told Colleen, "they're using a Pixies song!" We both dug the way "Gigantic" was played, with various bits and pieces of the song coming slowly together just like in the original with an adorable Elisha Cuthbert look-alike performing an admirable Kim Deal impersonation.

"Can you play the original for me?" Colleen asked after we'd seen the commercial a half dozen times, and I immediately headed to the listening room to pull out my CD version of Surfer Rosa. I didn't even think twice about it--I have all Pixies albums and even most of the numerous EPs and other rarities along the way. Of course I have their first album, Colleen. It's knockin' on my Top Ten of all time. But I couldn't find it. I then checked my LPs because I once reviewed the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs version of Surfer Rosa for TONEAudio, but I was pretty sure I had to give that back although it pissed me off to do so. Pixies are my favorite band--couldn't you just let me have it in lieu of pay? Maybe, via some sort of miracle, I still had it. But I didn't.

I couldn't find Surfer Rosa anywhere. I knew I had it on CD--in fact, I had two versions including that reissue that's shoehorned with the EP C'mon Pilgrim. So I found myself, for the first time in probably 20 years, with a hole in my Pixies collection. Not just any hole, but the debut album, the one I declared a true challenger for the title of My Favorite Pixies Album after I did the MFSL review. That's no small feat considering that Doolittle, which I own in three different versions (regular CD, regular LP and Mobile Fidelity LP), is still probably my favorite rock album of all time. (I say probably because it seems kinda strange to still say that after more than 25 years. But I can't think of a possible replacement.)

So I bought the LP directly off of the MFSL website, using the money I'd reserved for my FIM purchase of the month. (I bought a new FIM CD anyway, so there.) I didn't even think twice about it--there was no way that I could live another day knowing it was missing from my collection. It reinforced my recent commitment to spend more time on vinyl after spending the last year or so praising the latest hi-rez digital formats. I've been sticking to this commitment--I bought the new Beck album on vinyl (which I reviewed here), and last night I bought the new Black Keys album, Turn Blue, on LP. Now I need to buy the remaining two Pixies albums that have been remastered by MFSL, Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde.

You can probably look up my old TONEAudio review--it was in 2008 or so. I remember listening to the MFSL version of Surfer Rosa and marveling at the fact that it no longer sounded like a sloppy, enthusiastic, minimalist recording of a classic post-punk album. The guys at MFSL really brought out the depth and the texture of the recording and reduced just enough grunge to make it sound like it came from totally different recording sessions. That still holds true. I'm not as convinced that it approaches the sheer vision and attitude of Doolittle, so I'll retract my previous hyperbole. But it's easily the second greatest Pixies album ever, which is something.

Listening to this MFSL version, however, I was instantly reminded of a comment in my review--that Kim Deal had such a big role on this album, "Gigantic" notwithstanding. I really hope she, in particular, received a big check from Apple.

I'll be honest--not every MFSL remaster is a champ. Some seem like the output levels are way too low and you really have to crank up the volume to get it to sound right. Some MFSL remasters are simply ordinary, mostly because the originals sounded abysmal and the MFSL guys made the recording merely listenable (a comment I used to reserve for old DCC releases). These are still noble efforts, but I'd rather hear something more absolute. But these two Pixies remasters are so superb that I feel remiss by not having all four at this point in time. But oh, I will.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Solid Gold Balls on CD

"Sunshine...a pony...Rice-a-Roni...bok choy.
I heart...sunset...oh boy."

The members of Solid Gold Balls, yet another endless interesting band from Portland, call themselves "family core indie punk hard folk rock," a play on the fact that they've succumbed to the domestic life (five kids between the three members) while still giving into their rock and roll urges on nights and weekends. Comparing themselves reluctantly to a cocktail of the Three Ws (The Who, Wilco and Ween), frontman and guitarist Mitch Wiencken, bassist Matt Souther and drummer Dan Stieg play the sort of forward and aggressive hard rock that's immediately appealing and liberating, as if they can't wait to shrug off their suburban netting and forget about the fact that they had a really shitty week at work.

The subtle wink to the listener, however, is a Prius-sized box of wry lyrics that pay homage to everyday life. On this eponymous new album, you'll find song titles such as "Bacon," "AC/DC Fan" and the hilarious "Kenny G," where Wiencken bitches about how hard his life is ("Do you think it's easy? It's not!") while constantly dipping into Pat Benatar's '80s catalog for inspiration--most notably "Heartbreaker." The lackadaisical list I mention at the top is delivered, with audible exhaustion, in "I Hop," which might be the song that comes closest to Wilco--a Wilco that's been performing on the road way too long and really needs a case of PBR and a shower. Okay, maybe that's the Ween.

Like most of the bands in Portland, the members of SGB have played in a zillion different failed bands by this point. Wiencken says, "When you try that hard, the disappointment of not becoming world famous crushes your nuts and makes you bitter. Therefore, we don’t really give a shit about becoming world famous." That's sort of the point here--you find success/love/fame/fortune when you stop looking for it. Not every band is smart enough to know this, let along sing about it.

This seemingly apathetic yet ultra hip attitude is what gives The Balls their edge--maybe that's The Who finally sneaking in. Short of smashing their equipment at the end of every show--and who can afford that nonsense? the boys have bills to pay and diapers to change--the Solid Gold Balls might really gain some attention as long as they keep their senses of humor and always remember how to rock this well into middle age--even if they have to waste it on the pale microbrew swillers on the weekends.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ja, Vi Elsker on 2L Recordings' Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD

Ja, vi elsker dette landet, if you don't already know, is the name of the Norwegian national anthem. The phrase itself means "Yes, I love this country," which seems slightly odd in the context of most national anthem titles since it seems to be answering a question, or extrapolating on an observation like "I know the winters are long and harsh here, but..." It's an engaging phrase in the most literal sense because it's seemingly part of a conversation, one that ultimately addresses the most adamantine demonstrations of national pride.

That exuberant attitude can be found everywhere in this new release from 2L Recordings, which is performed with almost infinite gusto by the Schola Cantorum choir as well as the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces, which we've heard before on last year's La Voie Triomphale (which I reviewed here.) The purpose of this recording is to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution, so it's a gift to the Norwegian people, so to speak. (Norway, in particular, is a country that has chosen to tell much of its history through music.) In the passionate liner notes, Erik Fasnes Hansen describes how this music was a part of every Norwegian's childhood, big music played by big bands, and that this "is the true sound of Norway." But as I suggested in my review of La Voie, we're not talking about John Philip Sousa here. We're talking about expressive music that can shift through an amazing variety of moods and images.

Once again producer Morten Lindberg has chosen a huge Norwegian church with warm, expansive acoustics for this recording. Both the choir and the military band need that space to let this dynamic, complex music blossom, and it does. Recorded in DXD 24-bit/352.8 kHz, Ja, Vi Elsker is a stunning example of how a large musical ensemble can deliver an intimate performance through careful attention to all of the sonic details. This recording should be a convincing argument to everyone who questions the validity of the latest digital technologies and their ability to deliver a sound that's relaxed and natural and pleasing to your brain.

There's something I've neglected to discuss concerning all of these 2L Recordings. Sure, I've done comparisons between the CD/SACD hybrid discs and the Blu-ray audio discs, which are both usually included in 2L releases. But these last few recordings also use some of the latest surround sound technologies as well--this one features 5.1 DTS HD MA 24/192 and 2.0 LPCM 24/192 technologies--and I don't have a surround-sound system to truly explore Morten's efforts. It's not quite the same thing as buying a Blu-ray audio player...I'll need a whole new system. But I have noticed that a few trade show exhibitors have been demonstrating the 2L recordings in their full surround sound glory, and intend to spend some time listening to these formats in the upcoming months.

Monday, June 2, 2014

My Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column--my 98th!--is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. This time I talk about my somewhat mixed feelings about Record Store Day. You can read it here: