Monday, May 30, 2016

Todd Hunter Trio's Eat, Drink, Play Review at Positive Feedback Onilne

Positive Feedback Online has just published my latest music review on the Todd Hunter Trio's Eat, Drink, Play. Great timing, because I just packed the CD into my suitcase to play at the Newport Show next week!

You can read the review here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bill Berry's Awkward Stage

I went to the same high school as Steve Martin, graduating a mere 18 years after he did. My years at Garden Grove High School coincided with the height of his stand-up career, so almost everyone on campus was absolutely thrilled with his sudden and overwhelming success. As the editor-in-chief of the high school paper, the Argolog, I was charged with the task of writing ol' Steve a letter asking him to come visit his old stomping grounds. A few weeks later we received a handwritten response from Steve which graciously stated that he would love to visit his fellow Argonauts but he was just too busy and too important. (I was relieved of being in charge of the note, by the way, by a vice-principal who placed it in a trophy case in the school office. Bastard.)

Since I had failed at getting Steve Martin to show up, I schemed with the Argolog staff to come up with Plan B, which required faking an after-school visit from Steve using a life-sized cardboard display of him borrowed from the local Licorice Pizza. This, of course, was for the April 1 edition of the Argolog, but that didn't stop the students from going absolutely batshit at the idea of idea that Steve came to GGHS and no one was told about it until weeks later.

I'm reminded of this story while listening to songwriter Bill Berry and his new CD, Awkward Stage. Bill has somehow channeled 1979 Steve Martin into the modern world with broadly funny songs that sparkle with old-fashioned showmanship as well as a healthy dose of intelligence and songwriting skill. While listening to songs like "The Piano Tuner with the Lazy Eye," "3 Girls in a 2nd Story Window" and "Crabs" (which features the immortal lines "Two days later they were back/Having a picnic on my sac/That's a fact"), it occurred to me more than once that Martin himself might be singing songs like these if he had never branched out they way he did.

That brings us to a song called "The Day We Stole Steve Martin (featuring Steve Martin)," which is about Bill's plan, with a buddy, to steal that very same cardboard cut-out of Steve Martin. (Mr. Martin says a couple of lines, plays his banjo for a few bars and then presumably collects a giant paycheck from Bill.*) I started wondering if I knew this Bill Berry character, and if he ever wrote for his high school newspaper. Looking through his bio it's obvious he's a Southern California kind of guy just like me, but he's had a lot more success in show biz as a comedian, songwriter and even host of a show called Transit TV. There's even a point where he refers to himself as "just a guy from Burbank." I feel like we've crossed paths once or twice.

Whether you enjoy this CD as much as I did may depend on a few things. Did you grow up in LA during the '70s, when Steve Martin was HUGE? Do you prefer a risque, more vaudevillian type of humor to the more common, blue variety? Can you stop laughing at Bill's goofy, self-deprecating humor long enough to notice he's surrounded by some very top-notch musicians? I don't know if the kids are going to get this one, but for aging boomers like me it's a blast from the past, a happy and almost poignant anachronism.

*(That was all a filthy lie...please see Bill Berry's admonishment in the comments section!)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Down Under Audio Is All Set for the Newport Show!

We are all set and ready to go for Down Under Audio and the Newport Show! As I've mentioned repeatedly, we will be in Room 1011 and 1012 at the Hotel Irvine from June 3-5. In Room 1011 we will be featuring Axis and REDGUM Audio, and in Room 1012 we will have PureAudio, Brigadiers Audio, Furutech, The Wand and Les Davis Audio.

First up, we will feature PureAudio amplification from New Zealand. Gary Morrison will be there to introduce the the new version of the Duo stereo power amplifier. Gary has changed the design slightly so that this huge pure Class A amplifier runs cooler, and as a result of these mods he feels that the overall sound of the amp is sweeter than ever before. We will also have the Control preamplifier and the Vinyl phono preamplifier in the system.

The system will be fully wired with Furutech, including the Lineflux interconnects, Speakerflux speaker cables, Alpha power cords and the Furutech power conditioner.

Speakers, which I've mentioned, are the finalized versions of the Brigadiers Audio BA2 monitors. I had the honor of sitting with Brad Serhan, David Allen and Morris Swift of Brigadiers to finalize the design in Sydney, so I'm very proud of the result. Both Brad and Morris will be at the show to answer your questions.

Ian Robinson and Lindy Gerber of REDGUM Audio will be manning Room 1011 with the entire Black Series Line of integrated amplifiers including the RGi35ENR (65wpc), RGi60ENR (125wpc) and the RGi120ENR (175wpc). REDGUM manufacturers wonderful high-current amplifiers for hard-to-drive loudspeakers, but they will also be bringing one of their highly regarded CD players, the RGCD5ENR. Best of all, they will be giving away an RGi35ENR to a lucky attendee!

John Reilly of Axis VoiceBox won't be able to make the show, but his incredible little monitors will. They are the perfect sonic match for REDGUM and this will be the first time US audiophiles can hear the combination in all its glory--although Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery has had both REDGUM and Axis available for demo for a few weeks.

Les Davis Audio's 3D² constrained layer dampers are now in production! We will be performing demonstration so that everyone can hear the sonic differences these affordable devices can make in almost any system! Les Davis himself will be there to show you how they work.

Simon Brown and his The Wand tonearm will make the trip from New Zealand as well. I can't wait to hear this tonearm--despite its modest price it features some truly amazing engineering and can be used with even the most impressive analog rigs!

Speaking of impressive analog rigs, we will be featuring the Audio Union Helix Turntable Designed By Mark Doehmann. I first auditioned this Aussie-designed 'table back in October at RMAF and I'm still haunted by the realistic sound and the incredible design. The Audio Union people demonstrated it for me--they shook the plinth while the record was playing and it didn't skip a beat!

Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery will also be jumping back and forth between his room with Bob Clarke (Profundo) and these two rooms, and he'll answer any questions you have about auditioning these wonderful components here in the US.

So please stop by! We'll all be available to chat with you, and to listen to great tunes with some of the finest gear in the world.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Brigadiers Audio Debut at the Newport Show!

"All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

If you've been following this blog you'll know I went to Sydney last summer and worked with my mates Brad Serhan and David Allen to perfect an already freakishly good two-way monitor called, at the time, the Compact. I had them playing at my house for the first six months of 2015, and then I packed them up and spent 20 hours at 35,000 feet in order to return them and offer my opinions. I spent the next three weeks with Brad, David and their partner Morris Swift and sat in a big comfy chair while they played around with resistor values, speaker positioning and other strange design rituals. By the time I returned to the US, the newly-christened Brigadiers BA2 monitors were performing at an incredibly high level of fidelity.

I started off this Down Under Audio project of mine right here in this blog with the somewhat lofty and delusional title "In Search of the Perfect Two-Way." I'm not going to be all sappy and say this speaker is it--as Judy Spotheim of SpJ Turntables told me, there is no such animal as a perfect two-way--but I did give the brigadiers my blessing with the declaration that I could buy the BA2s and be happy for the rest of my life with them.

Since I left Australia last September, Brad and David and Morris have continued to work hard to make the BA2 and its bigger brother, the BA1 floorstanding loudspeaker, a commercial product. They've tweaked it even further to get as close to sonic perfection as they could, and then started demonstrating these two models to dealers all over Australia. Within weeks they nabbed several dealers, who in turn found homes for all the existing stock. I didn't hear from Brad and David for many weeks--they were too busy building speakers and filling orders.

Now that the Newport Show is quickly approaching, the BA2 is ready for its debut in the US. Colleen and I will be pairing the BA2 with our favorite amplifiers from PureAudio of New Zealand. We'll be using a high-quality analog rig (TBA) as well as cables and power management from Furutech, as part of our Down Under Audio presentation. You'll be able to hear the Brigadiers Audio/PureAudio/Furutech combo in Room 1012 at the show, right next door to the Axis VoiceBox S and REDGUM Audio room we'll also be hosting.

Again, the whole idea of Down Under Audio is this: Australia and New Zealand have always had a lively and active audio industry that has offered some great brands over the years. We're talking Plinius, Duntech, Whatmough, Orpheus, Perraux, Continuum, Halcro and more. But aside from one or two of those brands, Down Under Audio has kept a very low profile over the last decade or so. While in Sydney I heard great system after great system in dealers such as Len Wallis Audio and Knox Audio. In the last couple of years, I've heard plenty of stellar products from Australia and New Zealand such as the Axis VoiceBox S loudspeaker, the REDGUM Audio RGi35ENR integrated amplifier, the Audio Union Helix turntable, The Wand tonearm, the Antipodes music server and, of course, the amazing amplifier line from Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens of PureAudio.

If I accomplish anything in the audio industry, I want it to be this. All of this gear is phenomenal. I know I represent much of it and it's my job to promote it and market it and sell it. But here's the thing. I've got a birthday coming up, number 54, and as David Allen said to me back in Sydney, "Let's face it, we're not getting any younger." The context of this comment was that most of us have been in the audio industry for a very long time, and it's time to do something special. We're not talking about making a bunch of money and retiring to our own tropical paradises, because we should have picked a different market segment to do that in. No, we just want to do something of value, something truly good and worthwhile. Quite frankly, I'm all in.

So come to room 1012 at the Newport Show and listen to these wonderful speakers. A lot of good people are putting their hearts and souls into these products. Sure, that can be said for most of the rooms at any hi-fi show. We all believe in the magic of putting beautiful music into people's lives. But I've been into audio since 1975, when I used money from a paper route to buy a Kenwood receiver, AR loudspeakers, a Dual turntable and a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge and I was deliriously happy. And turning people on to sound production of this caliber also makes me deliriously happy as well.

See you at the show!

Monday, May 9, 2016

The 3.5.& Ensemble's Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples LP at Positive Feedback Online

My latest music review for Positive Feedback Online is now up on their website. This one is from The 3.5.7 Ensemble's new double LP release, Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples, an amazing and comprehensive contemporary jazz work that's quite fascinating.

You can read it here. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hello, Dollface's Warrior of Light on CD

Over the last few days I've been getting totally sucked into Tidal. Yes, this hardcore vinyl guy has finally found a digital streaming service that combines an easy enough user interface with a truly expansive catalog. I've been playing DJ for an audience of one, myself of course, and whatever pops into my head immediately gets searched. One unexpected detour involved Tanita Tikaram, a husky-voiced chanteuse who caught my attention for a day or two in 1988 with her mid-tempo hit "Twist in My Sobriety." I really dug the oboe in that song, and it was enough for me to buy the entire album Ancient Hearts.

Tanita Tikaram isn't an artist who would usually reside in my wheelhouse, but there was something I liked about her back then. Listening to this song nearly thirty years later, I thought the sound was somewhat dated, something I might not respond to if I heard it for the first time now, but nevertheless it brought back a flood of memories. I thought about Tanita again, just a couple of days later, when I listened to Warrior of Light from the Colorado-based Hello, Dollface. Not something I'd normally listen to, but...there is something there.

Hello, Dollface is, in its heart of hearts, a throwback to '80s R&B with its breezy melodies, electric pianos and exuberant rhythms. But there's something else going on as well. This is 2016, after all, and is it simply enough to deliver this type of music in a straightforward way?

The answer is no, not quite, which is why the band layers their sound with just a bare trace of 21st century sensibilities, a hint of trip-hop spaciness here, a lively indie band energy there. The latter seasoning is perhaps the most intriguing--it almost sounds like a highly talented rock band was enlisted to play behind soulful, gutsy singer Ashley Edwards (who also plays many of the instruments herself), and since they all honed their craft playing for whatever gig came up they were certainly up for this sparkling, fun album.

Then, just when you think you have a handle on their sound over the first few tunes, they mix it up and throw you for a loop. "Pieces," for example, starts off driven by an acoustic guitar that will shake loose memories of Edie Brickell and then carefully adds a violin and cello for a more reflective tone. "In Your Light," on the other hand, finishes the album on a more modern note, a girl with her piano reaching deeper into her past and pulling out something somber and reflective. For me, this final track was the stand-out.

Best of all, the sound quality on Warrior of Light is superb, with a dynamic expansive and very live feel--something that brings out the jazzy undertones and reminds you of just how skilled these performers are. Now for the next album, how about some oboe?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Made of Boxes on CD

Occupying that same intelligent, melodic indie rock space as Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire, this Seattle quartet is definitely rainy day stuff in a more than geographical way. This eponymous album, their first full-length release after an EP named Alotau, focuses on feelings of loneliness and isolation in a way that neither panders nor seems especially maudlin. Perhaps that's because these four men aren't satisfied with staring out windows and sighing--their music is full of energy and liveliness that might suggest there's a solution to their ennui just around the corner.

Much of this propulsive foundation can be laid at the bass drum pedal of David Testa, who founded the band with guitarist David Chapaitis back in 2013. The focus on percussion is obvious throughout the album--starting off with that visceral kick drum during the album's opener ("Mountains"), Testa's drum kit is recorded with uncommon care, at least for an indie rock band's debut album. If these songs had been performed by a guy with an acoustic guitar and little more, the words "laying it on a bit thick" might come to mind. But the lively tempos and the sheer synergy between the members (which also includes John Hage on keyboards and bass and Luke Brown on guitar, with all four members sharing vocal credits) add another layer to the music that implies a wider range of emotions such as barely suppressed anger and an eagerness to break out of their rut.

I'm not saying the lyrics are overly sentimental on their own, not by a long shot. Take this stanza from "Raconteur":

I'm a color between the lines
Taken back to reality where seasons end and all has been arranged
Where there are love affairs with warfare and the beggars--
The beggars they howl
Oh I don't see things changing, no not on their own
Cause we're all just fucking broke

I think you might find this sentiment quite common at a Bernie Sanders rally--I think it captures the feeling of being young and part of a world that excludes the opinions and the concerns of the young. So if this band winds up going somewhere, you'll understand. They've really tapped into something here, and this is some of the best new music I've heard in a while.