Saturday, August 30, 2014
Pawn or Kings are a folk rock band from the Ozarks, which is a rather genuine place to be from if you're going to make music like this. If you read all of the press about POK, however, you'll see endless comparisons to Mumford & Sons, which made me put off the writing of this review. I'm not the biggest fan of POK's more famous British brethren; it occurs to me they're a band that has become less genuine as the years and the record sales go on. A cursory listen to POK's new album, Pomme de Terre, certainly reveals the same affinity for Irish roots rock mixed with Americana, along with a banjo that's presented up front and personal just like a lead singer. I had a feeling, in other words, that I had heard this all before.
It's a good thing I gave Pomme de Terre a second chance in my main system, where I discovered a quartet of musicians much more willing to take chances and stray from that somewhat limiting musical genre. POK achieves this by manipulating the pace of their album, juxtaposing the knee-slapping Irish tunes with moody, atypical instrumentals ("The First Rain," subtitled an interlude) to a mid-tempo rambling epic ("Black Clouds") that brushes up against The Fleet Foxes once or twice with its forlorn 3-part harmonies and an attitude that flirts with the medieval.
Despite these adventurous mini-excursions, Pomme de Terre doesn't drop you off at the bus stop halfway through while the band members stretch out and improvise. The instrumental breaks are a welcome feature up until the end of this varied and confident album, the band's second after their 2011 debut Letters to Lucy, until this quartet lands into an introspective yet invigorating cover of an actual Fleet Foxes' tune, "He Doesn't Know Why." Any musician who can cover the Foxes and not make you run for the original deserves a nice slap on the back and a pint. By the way, the song is misspelled on the back cover as "He Doensn't Know Why"--I'm not sure if this is intentional or if it will be corrected later and my copy will be worth tons of money one day.
I actually loved the way this album loosened up as it went, finding different pathways to explore along the way. It's as if Pomme de Terre is an all-night party that starts off raucous until a few cocktails are consumed and a few hearts are broken. And the sound quality is quite nice once you get past the rather thinly-balanced opener "Names and Maps." I have a new, BIG pair of speakers in the system and the bass guitar in this album had a warm yet dynamic sound that drives each song.
For more information on Pawns or Kings, check out their Bandcamp website.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Ever since Craig Sypnier of Audio Renaissance in Rochester, New York became an Opera dealer a couple of years ago, it seems like he's been apologizing about his tiny, humble store--or "my little room" as he often calls it. It's taken a while for Colleen and I to visit him and see it for ourselves, and we finally had a chance during our current tour of our Northeastern dealers. Craig's been doing well with Opera--he prefers the entry level bookshelf Mezza since it fits his small space so well. (He's also a dealer for our Carot One line.) During our visit, however, I realized that I had never heard the Mezzas sound so great. Craig definitely attends to the details and really knows how to dial in the sound of our favorite bookshelf monitors.
Audio Renaissance is little off the beaten path. Located at the rear of an industrial park, you can barely spot the signs from the outside. You walk in through a common door on the outside of the building, and the store is located just on the left. You can't even see the inside of the store until you walk in through a single glass door, but once you do you'll be pleasantly surprised at the warmth and coziness of Craig's little room. To put it succinctly, Audio Renaissance resembles an audiophile's heavily stocked listening room, full of records and equipment and lots of album covers on the walls. It really doesn't feel like a store--it just feels like a great place to hang out. If I lived in the Rochester area, I'd be visiting Craig and listening to records with him whenever I could.
In other words, Audio Renaissance is far from a typical high-end retail store. You'll find plenty of turntables there from the likes of SOTA, J. A. Michell, Pro-Ject, Thorens and more, a wide selection of cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Dynavector, Lyra and Denon and cleaning accessories from Nitty Gritty, Audio Desk Systeme and more...and lots and lots of vinyl. You won't see countless racks of equipment, however; Craig is fairly loyal to the underrated yet spectacular amplification from Belles. There's a good reason for that--Belles has long been one of the best-kept secrets in audio. Over the years I've known plenty of audiophiles who have only had Belles amps in their systems because nothing else is quite as musical and satisfying.
After spending an afternoon listening to LPs on Craig's main system that included a Belles amp and preamp, our Opera Mezza speakers and both Michell Gyrodec SE and SOTA Sapphire turntables, I can safely say that I agree with Craig wholeheartedly about the quality of sound he achieves in his store.
One of the most remarkable things about the system is just how quiet and pristine his records are. He owes it all to the ultrasonic record cleaner from Audio Desk Systeme. "I can't believe you haven't tried ultrasonic record cleaning," he said to me. "Once you try it, you'll never go back." I have to admit that the results are astonishing, and if I had the money I would buy the Audio Desk Systeme in a heartbeat. If you're in the Rochester area, Craig will clean your records ultrasonically for just $5 a piece. It's a bargain.
I wish there were more audio stores like Audio Renaissance. It's the kind of a store that takes me back to my early days as an audiophile and vinyl lover, where I'd hang out at local record stores and listen to LPs all day. It's a tiny, humble little store, but it's a must-see for any analog enthusiast.
You can check out Audio Renaissance's website for more info, or you can just call Craig at 585-272-7898 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
For years I've been taking flak on some of the photos in this blog. We're referring to my crappy photos of course, taken proudly with my cell phone with absolutely no attention paid to composition, lighting or even focus. Things have improved in the last couple of years--especially since I started using a smart phone. I even received a nice little Canon digital camera for Christmas last year, and I still haven't gotten in the habit of using it for blog photos. It's on my big long list of things I need to do right now.
To summarize: I'm a writer, dammit, not a photographer.
That's why I was surprised when I received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from Andreas of the The East Bay Monthly. Apparently he was scanning Google Images for a photo of Amoeba Records in Berkeley for an article titled, "A Rebirth for Telegraph Avenue," which was written by Dave Weinstein. For some strange reason he settled on my photo from this blog entry from almost exactly three years ago.
Now I have been approached for photo permission a few times, but in each instance I had purloined the pic from Google Images myself--generally with credit given but no expressed permission. (I try to avoid that now, since it's viewed upon as kind of douchey. Andreas did it the right way.) This was the very first time that I could honestly say, "Yes, that is my photograph! Use it in good health, young man!"
After I gave my permission to Andreas, he asked me if I wanted him to send me a hard copy of the Monthly. I almost said no, that wasn't necessary, but then I changed my mind, perhaps because I thought it was all so whimsical. Yesterday I received a manila envelope in the mail, and enclosed was two copies of the August 2014 issue. My photo's in there, top of page 8, with credit given. They even spelled my first name with a "c" instead of the usual "k."
So thank you to Andreas and The East Bay Monthly for treating me like a pro, even though I'm the furthest thing from one. They seem to be a extremely classy organization.
Friday, August 1, 2014
The latest Vinyl Anachronist column--my 99th!--is currently online at Perfect Sound Forever. I finally put the idea that I don't like direct-drive turntables to rest, I hope. You can read it here: http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl99.html