Thursday, April 13, 2017
Yesterday I talked about Down Under Audio 2 at the AXPONA hi-fi show which is happening next week. Colleen Cardas Imports is also supporting a second room from J&B Distribution, our Unison Research dealer in New Jersey. J&B will be exhibiting in room 424. (Down Under Audio will be one floor us, in room 532.)
J&B will be showing off the brand new Unison Research Unico CD Uno, which retails for $2800. This is the middle of Unison Research's CD player, sitting right between the classic CD Primo ($2250) and the flagship Unico CD Due ($4500). This sophisticated DAC/transport has plenty of connectivity options, and can upsample all hi-rez files and stream DSD64 and DSD128 (with an upcoming module for DSD256). I have been breaking in this Unico CD Uno, the first one in the US, and I can say it offers a huge chunk of the CD Due performance for a significantly lower price.
J&B will also use the Unison Research SH headphone amplifier in their room as well. This is what I use at home.
Please stop by either room and say hello. I will probably be bouncing between both rooms and occasionally sneaking outside to smoke cigars and conduct business like a boss. But if you see me, feel free to introduce yourself.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
I feel like I haven't done a trade show in a long time. Perhaps that's because we skipped CES this January, the first time I haven't been in many years. So that makes the last trade show where I exhibited was TAVES in Toronto last October, and since I was helping out the Canadian distributor of Unison Research and Opera, it wasn't the usual ordeal. Of course the last show I really did was the first Down Under Audio at the Newport Show last June, almost a year ago.
And now, in a few days, I'm leaving for Down Under Audio 2 at AXPONA in Chicago!
This time Colleen Cardas Imports is just doing one room for Down Under Audio--room 532. Here we will be featuring both Axisvoicebox and REDGUM Audio from Australia. We are bringing the brand new Axisvoicebox EBS, which stands for Extended Bass System. The EBS system features a pair of large enclosures that contain active woofers. These are designed to be used with the Axisvoicebox S monitors as a full-range system. The massive and powerful EBS costs $4500/pair. With the $2500 Voicebox S, this is an accurate yet authoritative loudspeaker system.
We will also be debuting the new Axisvoicebox FLS ($4000/pair) loudspeakers, which are basically the award-winning Axisvoicebox S in a floor-standing enclosure and mated to an active subwoofer.
REDGUM Audio is bringing products as well--particularly their new Black DAC 8, which has a few very innovative features at a reasonable price, and the entire Black Series of integrated amplifiers. Even the cabling is all REDGUM Audio.
We'll also have Unison Research in a different room--we'll be debuting a brand new Unison Research product there. I'll update you here tomorrow.
In the meantime, AXPONA 2017 will be at the Westin O'Hare outside of Chicago from April 2- to April 23. Please stop by and say hello!
Sunday, April 9, 2017
My review of Michael Rabinowitz' Uncharted Waters is now up at Positive Feedback Online. If you've never heard a jazz quartet led by a bassoon, it's quite good. You can read it here.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
This one slipped through the cracks a couple of weeks ago, but here's the latest from The Smoking Jacket cigar column for Part-Time Audiophile...this one is all about BIG stogies! You can read it here.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
Do you like Adele? A lot of people do, obviously. I think she's just okay. The first time I heard "Rolling in the Deep" on the radio, I thought hey, that's interesting. Then I listened to the rest of the album and said no, not my thing. I even remembered that I had seen her on SNL back when her first album came out and she was barely out of her teens and I thought hey, that wasn't bad. But it wasn't quite enough for me. When it comes right down to it, I'll never be a Top 40 kind of guy. I don't hate modern pop as much as I did when I was an angry youngster, campaigning for the death of disco, but bouncy beats and catchy songs tend to float away in the ether as far as I'm concerned. They might as well be pink noise.
I thought about Adele when I listened to this new five song EP from Stereo RV, Human. Just a few seconds into the first song, the title track, I thought hey, this is a lot like Adele. Singer and keyboardist Myra Gleason has that same assertive manner as Miss Adkins--her mere voice seems to imply that she's been knocked down, but she'll get up again. Her husband Gabe supplies the rest of the musical side, and together their melodies are memorable without being cloying. On the surface, this is the type of music that you might hear on the radio any day of the week. You might say hey, and you might not.
But here's another layer of the onion--Myra and Gabe are from Portland, Oregon, my old stomping grounds. And like Adele, who is very British and lets those sensibilities seep into her music, the Gleasons aren't afraid to add a layer of Rose City gloom that makes you realize that these five songs aren't about the usual song things. In the aforementioned title track, for instance, Myra sings that she's just trying to be a human, and all the responsibility that entails. In fact, that's one of the main themes of the entire album--most of us just blend into the crowd, and it takes everything we have just to get noticed for something. In "The One," Myra delivers a multitude of life analogies--forests, mountains, oceans, hurricanes--to bring across the point that "we made it out okay."
In the end, that's what separates Human from the vast majority of Top 40 pop out there--it's about something other than love, sex and making it big. It's about survival, and we're not talking about the last romantic relationship that went sour. More than anything, Stereo RV is singing about what it takes to come out on the other side okay, and what that feel likes.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
"I noticed you were playing some piano music before. It was...very different."
"Uh, er, yeah...that was something I have in for review..."
"No, no. I liked it. Could you play it again?"
Have you ever watched a horror film or a thriller where the shocks and surprises are few and far between, which increases their impact? Now imagine that concept applied to music, where you listen to a substantial chunk of music, ten minutes or twenty minutes or more, and then the entire piece gets knocked over on its side and takes your breath away. That's what happens in the latest release from 2L Recordings, Vers la Lumiere. This album takes solo piano works from Antonio Bilbalo, Franz Liszt and Olivier Messaien--all performed by Jens Harald Bratlie--and juxtaposes them with brief interludes of electroacoustic tones and sounds from his son David Bratlie.
Okay, maybe I should have said "spoiler alert." If you go into this album blind as I did, it's quite a rush to hit that first wave of electronic tones. It sounds, and feels, like the floor disappears beneath you. Once you regain your footing, you wait for the next wave. It comes later than you think, adding to the suspense.
Lest you think this is some parlor trick, it's not. The idea of the juxtaposition of the piano and the "electroacoustic transitions" supports the theme suggested by the title--"darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that." (That's a quote, of course, from Martin Luther King, Jr.) Bratlie & Son use that idea as a springboard into the nature of artistic expression, and how a musician needs to plunge into contemporary sound in order to re-evaluate history.
What makes this such an effective exercise (which inspired the conversation above, with a friend) is the focus and depth of the piano pieces and how those qualities demand such rigid and consuming dedication from the pianist. The program choices are varied to add yet another layer. Bilbalo's "La Notte" chronicles a night of loneliness and despair and therefore prompts you into darkness. Lizst's "Vallee d'Olbermann" comes straight from the heart of the Romantic Era and sweeps you back into the light, where you can experience the healing power of sheer beauty. The two Messiaen pieces, both from "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus," are more manic and tinged with madness; in a way they encapsulate the flood of opposing emotions that come before while clawing at the walls of the frontier.
Punctuating each piece, of course, are those astonishing electronic sounds that act as the hand that shakes your shoulder and wakes you up. Allow yourself to absorb them, to be surprised by their appearance, and perhaps you'll experience those same epiphanies about dream states you might have felt the first time your watched the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive. There's a sublime, private cluster of feelings that gets disturbed when you ponder the nature of sleep, which of course is another realm where the differences between light and darkness get resolved.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
I've really wanted to go to Montreal for several years now, mostly because it seems both exotic and relatively accessible. Now that I live close to the Canadian border and can drive to The City of the Hundred Steeples in about five hours, the call is plaintive and clear. The Montreal Audio Fest, formerly known as Salon Son et Image, was just a week or so ago and I was utterly unprepared to go--one of the good things about moving to Central New York was living close enough to make the Montreal hi-fi show a regular thing. It came and went. I felt like there was no good reason for that to happen.
Baron Tymas' new album, Montreal, pours salt on that wound by making me feel that I'm really missing out on a spectacular place. Tymas, who hails from North Carolina, is a jazz guitarist who possesses an easy demeanor and a clear tone. (He's also an associate professor of music at North Carolina Central University.) He spent 2015 as a Fullbright Fellow at Concordia University in Montreal, and this album is inspired by his time there, working with a variety of Montreal jazz musicians such as pianist Joshua Rager, bassist Sage Reynolds and drummer Jim Doxas. These eight original compositions are designed to evoke images of Tymas' travels on the metro and the bus lines, of the diverse cuisine, of the warm fall weather and of the relationships he built. The result is solid, and it's easy to translate these vivacious sounds into a soundtrack for a vibrant city.
Each of these tunes go down easy without feeling like easy listening, and you can hear Tymas' inspirations with a certain amount of deliberation. I do have to make one small confession--I do not dig Jeri Brown's vocal improvisations on "And Oui" in the least. I don't want to pick on her because she has a lovely, rich voice that's filled with an element of sorrow and deep reflection. But it's almost alarming the way she slides into the song like a river of molasses, slowing everything down. I've heard this type of scatting a few times in recent months and I don't know if it's the new things or a reclamation of some old style, but it's making me hit the NEXT button on the CD player.
Fortunately that act brings on one of the most liveliest and distinctive jazz tunes I've heard in a long time, "Wishbone." Driven by Tymas' mean and lean guitar work, this tune has a steady drive that pushes it to the brink of jazz-rock--imagine Bill Frisell making an appearance on an old Steely Dan record. It's dry and it moves like one of Tymas' buses. It's also fitting that the final tune is titled "Take the 24," which was the actual number of the bus that he used to go sightseeing.
Once again, Montreal is a contemporary jazz album from a small label and it sounds absolutely fantastic, as realistic as any hi-rez audiophile standard. After saying this over and over, I'm wondering if there's some sort of renaissance going on in contemporary jazz. I probably wouldn't be so astounded by this is it was one particular label or studio, like 2L Recordings of Norway putting out such consistently excellent work. All I can say is whoever is sending me all these jazz CDs has extraordinarily high standards when it comes to recordings.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Again it's time to address the growing pile of CDs I need to review, I know, life is hard. But here's the thing--most of these CDs coming in are contemporary jazz, so I have to be diligent when it comes to mixing things up. I have eclectic tastes in music, obviously, and much of my mental health depends upon listening to a constant variety of sounds instead of digging too deeply into one specific genre or another.
That's why Date Night with Brian seems so refreshing to me right now. It's a five-song EP from a self-described punk rock group from Seattle. I must digress first and admit that punk meant something very different in 1981. I learned in my younger days that not everything called "punk" is punk, and those within the scene have very narrow definitions. I've heard two old-school punks argue that a certain piece of music wasn't punk because of the drummer's time signatures and the style of his fills. Green Day is "punk lite." Pixies are "post punk." Sonic Youth is "art rock." You're either hardcore or you're not. There's no wiggle room.
I bring this up because Date Night with Brian is not quite punk. It's sort of Daydream Nation with the band members being in much better moods. It does have one strong and persistent tie to the early punk years, and it's the de-emphasis of the bass guitar. I can remember when someone first described punk rock to me back in high school, and he said "Imagine three guitars, no bass, and a crazy fast drummer." He was talking about the Ramones, so that doesn't quite fit his description, but Dee Dee wasn't that prominent in the early mixes, either.
Date Night with Brian eschews the bass guitar completely with just two guitars and drums. (Band members Ean, Rena and Brian come from such Seattle mainstays as the Cripples, Sicko and Voodoo Hot Dog.) This isn't the two-guitar approach of The Presidents of the United States of America where one guy goes low and the other guy goes high. But neither is it The White Stripes featuring a special guest appearance from Frank Black on rhythm Telly. What DNWB lacks in lower registers, they make up in the guitar textures and the way the two guitars weave in and out, which explains why my brain keeps tugging on my sleeve and saying "that part right there, that was Daydream Nation-ish."
I don't need to drone on and on about a straightforward sort of punk-ish 5-song EP--if this sounds like it could be your cup of tea, it probably is. And I do get excited when a new band emerges out of the ooze to bring a fresh new approach to punk whether it was Rancid or the White Stripes or yes, Green Day. Any band that can effortlessly evoke Daydream Nation has a lot going for it as well.
It should also be noted that when the album is released on April 17, it will be available on special edition 10" green vinyl. That's the way I'd go.