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M83’s Saturdays =Youth: Turn it Up and Drive

October 30, 2012

Originality is a difficult thing to achieve in any art form.  The ones who break through the noise stand out: They sound familiar, but at the same time offer up something that feels new.  M83 achieves a wonderful balance of sounds that could easily be plucked from the eighties and his own synth-layered signatures.  This record gives me a warm feeling inside when I listen to it.  Yeah, I’m getting mushy, fuck it.  That’s what this album does for me!  That’s a large part of the listening experience for me.  Music can literally break me down emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually and pull me back together again.  Fortunately, this record sounds like the care-free Summers of my youth (sorry to steal a word from the album title), like Jones Beach on Long Island at dawn, or sunrise for that matter, sitting next to my crew of close friends.  It’s the kind of breezy record that, as silly as it may sound, would’ve lived happily on the Miami Vice soundtrack but manages to sound relevant and new.  Classic images of Don Jonson, mullets and formica aside, I’m really glad I picked this album up on wax.

There are so many bands trying desperately to replicate the sounds of the eighties.  This is a sore subject in our home; especially for my wife.  We’re both children of the Ferris Bueller generation so we remember it well.  Some are magical memories, other not so much (think spandex and Wham).  It’s puzzling to us; why so many bands are obsessed with trying to regurgitate the hair-sprayed sonics of that specific time period.  We understand that being fashionable sells, but some of these acts need to give it a rest already!  Now I’m not saying an artist isn’t going to absorb and express their influences.  This is an inescapable aspect of self-expression.  You soak up your surroundings like a sponge and that gets reflected in artists projects.  Unless they’ve managed to remove their life experience entirely from their work, and by the way please show me that artist – some facet of their life is going shine through.  As an artist I have to say it happens to all of us.  The bottom line is: If something sounds forced, if a band sounds like they’re trying too hard to be hip and the music seems superficial, then their aim is not what good art stands for (money, fifteen minutes of fame, etc.).  Unfortunately I think that’s happening too often in popular music today.  This is where M83 comes in…

Image from LA Times

His work doesn’t sound forced or superficial.  While his often uplifting, cascading synth melodies and emotive Lynn drum-sounding beats are sonically reminiscent of the anthemic bands of the eighties, his work still feels modern and fresh.  Saturdays=Youth is aptly titled as well.  I’m not sure about his age, but this album is definitely the type of music I love hearing while I drive.  The album is sequenced brilliantly, aiding in its storytelling.  From the minimal, ascending piano riffs and mantra-like chorus of “You, Appearing” to soaring synthesizers framed by the lonely words of a fifteen year-old goth in “Graveyard Girl” the energy of the record ebbs and flows, making it an engaging listening experience.

Things start to pick up in “Couleurs”.  This song began to sound a little too Paul Van Dyk-ish for my taste at times (I can’t stand commercial euro-trance) but it’s not over the top.  It’s still great music to drive to.  It makes you wanna gun it and go.  “We Own the Sky” belongs in a movie: A scene where the protagonist experiences some sort of revelation.  The song conjures images of walking the streets of our hometown with my closest friends when I was a kid.  We were untouchable, or at least we thought we were.  M83 mellows things out again with “Highway of Endless Dreams” and ends the album with an early Moby-style song with nothing more than a few floating synths.  The pitch shifts slightly throughout the track.  It feels like music for meditation.  The noise just washes over you.  This all sounds like complete bullshit I know, but it’s how I feel about this track.  Put it this way: I had to hunker down and do some research for this project I was working on and I couldn’t find any music that would act as a sort of accompaniment without distracting me.  I ended up putting this track on repeat numerous times.  It helped clear my mind, so it’s become a part of my “Chill Out” playlist in iTunes/Amarra too.

All the tracks have a similar vibe but it’s not a repetitious album by any means.  It’s moving and catchy.  There’s an audible thread that binds all the music together here that’s difficult to describe.   They also did a decent job with the pressing .  I think some of the midrange levels could’ve used a little boost, but overall the sound is dynamic and textural.  Check out Saturdays=Youth if this sounds like something you’re interested in.  His music makes me feel good and reflect on positive times in my life.  We could all use a little bit of that!

By: Michael Mercer

Records You Never Heard: Starz’ “Violation”

October 23, 2012

The idea of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is spectacular. A place of honor nestled on the picturesque banks of Lake Erie seems perfect for musicians who have formed the foundation this great genre of music. All under the roof of a spectacularly designed building. Unfortunately, the good people who choose such inductees don’t seem to know jack shit about the history of rock.

Over-hyped idiots such as Axl Rose get in their first year of eligibility when actual contributors to the art like Alice Cooper and Rush need to wait years…if not decades! When artists like Big Star, Link Wray, Television, and Yes are not in the Hall, and have NEVER been nominated! One-time nominees such as the MC5, Deep Purple (eligible 19 years before first nomination), and Rush (14 years before first nomination) are not in the Hall either…but they got Axl, even though he didn’t show up for the ceremony. Thank God for small miracles.

While the late Donna Summer (nominated five times) and Stevie Ray Vaughn will be inducted one day, there are some important groups that will never get in. Again, many of them never had a gold record, number one single, or sold out tour. Neither did Jelly Roll Morton or Alan Freed, but their contributions are obvious.

This is my nomination for one such band.

Everyone knows the song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by New Jersey band Looking Glass. After their second album failed to chart, the band reorganized as Fallen Angels. A year later, the band changed their name again to become Starz.

With the help of Kiss’ manager Bill Aucoin, Starz was signed to Capitol records in 1976 and their self-titled debut hit the stores before the end of the year. At the time, “Starz” was considered to be “arena rock” with its powerful guitars and strong vocals. Singable tunes like “Detroit Girls” and “Boys in Action” are obvious live songs, especially when you tailor the former to wherever the band is playing (the version on “Live in Action” changes the name to “Cleveland Girls”).

Sales of the first album were good, but didn’t reach Kiss or Aerosmith levels. As was the case with many bands of the era, a sophomore record would almost inevitably follow even the most lukewarm initial reception in order to build an artist’s audience, almost unheard of in today’s make-it-huge-or-lose-it industry. “Violation” followed in 1977.

Nine more arena rock songs filled the second record. Richie Ranno’s fuzzy guitar leads into the title track along and Michael Lee Smith’s vocals scream out “Subway Terror” as perfect examples of tunes designed to echo across a large venue. But it’s the first track that broke the band.

The radio friendly “Cherry Baby” hit the American charts and peaked just inside the top 40. Success of the single, available on yellow vinyl, pushed sales of “Violation” to just shy of gold record status. But the lack of top-10 singles or albums started the friction between the band and the label.

Two more albums, the polished “Attention Shoppers” (with its brown paper bag inner sleeve) and harder “Coliseum Rock” failed to top the relative success of “Violation.” After the ubiquitous live album, Starz parted ways with their label. A lack of interest in the growing “new wave” market for a hard rock band caused the call it quits in 1979.

In hind sight, Starz was the prototype for hair metal of the 1980s. Their “glam rock” style matched to their hard rock sound opened the door for such legendary bands at Bon Jovi and Poison among dozens of other acts. While fewer than a million copies of their four studio records were sold, many of them must have fallen into the right aspiring musician’s hands.

Decades later, Starz has reunited for tribute concerts. Ranno has, over the years, released records of outtakes and live material, and the idea of a collection of new music still hovers around the remaining members of the band.

If the band never releases another new album, they will forever remain one of the biggest influences on 1980s rock music. When and if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever learns about Starz, the tribute concert will be filled with some of the most exciting performers of the hair metal age. And these beneficiaries of genre’s foundation layers should flex their industry muscles in order to put Starz in the Hall, where they belong. Until then, any hard rock act of the 1980s inducted should thank Heaven for Starz.

– Sam Fiorani

All Things Will Unwind

October 18, 2012

All Things Will Unwind” by My Brightest Diamond (Asthmatic Kitty Records)

This review is somewhat difficult to write. On the one hand, I want to share with you some of the most interesting, satisfying, creative, touching, deep, and unique records I’ve heard in quite a long time. And yet, in my own failing, I keep grasping to find familiar comparisons to refer to and that isn’t fair – at all – to Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond (MBD), and this really astonishingly well-crafted record. So let me get my self-indulgent shit out of the way up front because it is going to bug me the whole time if i don’t unload it here, where you can dismiss it more easily and move on, with me, to fairer and less-unbalanced matters:

<fnord>Imagine the love child of  Joni Mitchell, Django Rhinehardt, Peter Gabriel, Van Dyke Parks, Tom Waits, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, Frente (only barely, and really just on one cut), Cesaria Evora -and- Edith Piaf. Imagine an orgy of perfect restraint, imagine every brushstroke intended and purposeful, imagine every hair perfectly in place. I know I’m being very self-indulgent here, and it sounds like a lot of nonsense – I know – and yet as I listened through this record to find something familiar to hold on to, I kept having momentary flashes of these artists and those abstractions.<fnord>

The instrumentation on this record is ambitious, like Sun-Ra ambitious:

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Clarinet & Bass Clarinet
  • Trumpet
  • Horn
  • Pump Organ
  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Piano
  • Moog
  • Marimba
  • Pianet
  • “Prepared Piano”
  • Banjo
  • Guitar
  • Roland RS-09
  • Roland Jupiter-8
  • Mellotron
  • Vibes
  • Celesta
  • Wurlitzer
  • Orchestron
  • Bells
  • Percussion (various)
  • Synth Bass
  • Fireball (?)
  • Rhodes
  • Ukelele
  • Autoharp
  • Mbira (thumb piano)
  • Flute
  • Piccolo

You’d be right if you guessed that this is a fairly chaotic collection of instruments and, of course, they’re all not being played together on every track. But this chaotic collection of instruments is brought together with an effortless and organic beauty such that you’d never think of picking anything out in particular and saying to yourself, “Hey! Did I just hear an Mbira?” – every element has its place in a perfectly constructed musical world created by the supreme artistry and deep soul of Shara Worden and her unreasonably talented troupe. As with My Brightest Diamond’s first record, “A Thousand Sharks Teeth,” this record is recorded impeccably. In fact, perhaps even better than ATST, as it seems to present the group in a far more natural setting and less restrained (or so it seems) by dynamic compression.

The music really does run the gamut, stylistically-speaking. This is no ZZ-Top record (not that I think of them as the poster boys for sameness from track to track, but maybe just a little bit – and not pejoratively). The record opens with a single, Hot-Club-like guitar vamp on “We Added It Up” and then suddenly blossoms into the lovely, quirky, almost Kurt Weill-inspired colors as piccolo, clarinet, bass, violin, trumpet, vibes, wurlitzer organ, and who knows what else begin to play back and forth across the stage – Shara’s voice delicately anchoring the whole carnival, heliocentrically. “Fusion makes the world go round, Confusion with the making of all that sound, Oh I hear a quieter voice, It says ‘Love binds the world, Love binds the world forever and ever.” – the music paints the colors that the lyric outlines and makes the sentiment palpable and present.

And then we move on to a considerably less jocular “Reaching Through to the Other Side” – droning bass line, echoing drum line, instrumentation once again varied and artfully restrained. Here MBD indulge in a short, deep examination of the perfection of the imperfection of life. “Oh how gorgeous to struggle now, to struggle now in time” – a small narrative on the beauty of the spirit passing into flesh for struggle and growth and truth-seeking.

The record moves from the deep and introspective to the frolicking, to socio-political commentary, to the heartfelt personal. The music and the lyrics and the sheer, unimpeachable and MONSTROUSLY intimidating artistry, and perfectly composed sound-as-cinema recording immerses the listener into an interior world of quite delicate and (perhaps not entirely) fragile beauty. There’s no way for me to categorize, compartmentalize, symbolize, emblem, or otherwise cause anything familiar to be brought to bear in any meaningful way that would encapsulate this almost infinitely-faceted work of art. I’ve listened to it near 20+ times already, each time getting something more out of it or working myself more deeply into it … and as I reflect on those opening indulgences, I can still imagine a growing list of contributing genomes … and that is pointless. Once I got past the first handful of many handfuls, I realized that the task was impossible. Shara Worden and MBD belong, simply, to a kingdom of their own.

I leave you with the attached video of Shara performing  “She Does Not Brave the War (But She Saves the Day)” – one of the more deeply personal cuts on the record.

– Chris Sommovigo

My Brightest Diamond – She Does Not Brave The War – Live at St Giles from Wilderthorn on Vimeo.

Burial’s Kindred EP Comes from Outer Space…

October 9, 2012

It’s near impossible to try and encapsulate the genius of Burial.  A mysterious electronic music architect who leans into the darkness and invites us in.  His cavernous, sometimes building, sometimes diluting style blends the blackest bits of drum-n-bass with the sway of down-n-dirty dubstep.  When I first heard Burial’s Untrue LP on vinyl, thanks to my editor at Positive Feedback and dear friend Dave Clark, I was in a sonically induced trance.   That sounds like hippy-dippy bullshit, but I’m attempting to describe a moment of inspiration sparked by new music.  That’s not the easiest thing to explain .

Burial’s music is mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and any other “ing” you can think of as long as it expresses a sound that is primal and modern.  Sometimes it feels like the artist just started experimenting with all sorts of synth sounds; oscillators, drum-machines, who knows.  With these tools he creates sharp pads and stabs that sound completely unique.  I’m not sure if anything can be “completely unique” or not.  What I’m trying to illustrate is that when I listen to Burial I don’t think of any other bands.  That’s downright refreshing .  He  moves these edges across pulsating drums and clicks, vocal samples and other distant tones and snippets that creates this feeling of vastness.  Burial makes some of my favorite music to listen to while driving at night.

The Kindred EP is another masterpiece.   That’s not something I get to say often as a music writer, at least not in my experience.  I’m referring to consistency in an artists body of work, not just a hit single or a YouTube sensation.  If you’re a fan of Untrue or his self-titled album you should love this EP.  The title track kicks the record off with these floating, cosmic synths (think of a night sky, described through recorded sound).  Then, and only Burial could pull this off with such finesse, “Kindred” sounds instantly old.  It’s almost as if you plucked this record from your parent’s basement and dropped it on a dusty turntable.  Only the sound doesn’t bother you, instead, it’s so engaging you sit there, eagerly waiting for what’s next.  The hiss; the old school crackle & pops are then framed by this intense, clicky, drum-n-bass loop with samples that sound like a young street performer pounding away on their white plastic bucket with drum sticks so worn they have their own distinct snap.  All of this feels like it’s playing under a starlit sky.

“Loner” (first track, side B) does have an element I haven’t noticed in Burial’s work before: An almost trance-like, cascading melodic sample.  It kicks in after the drums and it’s wide-open.  It’s an echoing sound that’s endless.  The first thing that came to mind when I heard it was this scene in a film that features a car’s path through Manhattan (all the twists and turns, the lights), only sped up so fast everything, including standing buildings, had trails.  It’s energy builds, slowly and steadily.  It’s another perfect track for a fast night drive!  “Ashtray Wasp” (what a name) exemplifies Burial’s amazing ability to create a tangible feeling of depth in a track with minimal elements.  Now I’m not saying this music in minimal in composition, quite the contrary if you listen closely to all the nuances.  I mean each sound, each sample, is so quick, but the way he blends it all together makes a brilliant concoction of dark, streamy synths, drums and clicks.  There’s also this great sweeping sound, akin to maybe a passing airplane.  Then he breaks it down, and you are thrown into this well of reverbed darkness, a sound that only Burial can produce.

In all, Burial’s Kindred EP has been a fantastic sonic joyride for me.  I recommend it to any fan of dubstep, experimental electronic music, or even some of the great minimalists like Steve Reich or Philip Glass.  I can’t get enough of it.  This artist digs deep, and I just love the sounds he creates.  Check it out if you’re feeling adventurous.

By: Michael Mercer

Records You Never Heard: Planet P

October 7, 2012

Music was between eras as the “Me Decade” came to an end and 1980s opened up. The epitaph for Disco was being written. Punk was morphing into New Wave. Hair Metal bands had yet to take to the spandex and Aqua Net. And record companies were scrambling to find the “next big thing.” Everything was in play.

In the liner notes to “By Request,” the hit album for Billy Vera and the Beaters, the author discussed how The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona” opened up the flood gates for new music in the industry. It took Billy Vera’s “At this Moment” almost a decade to find an audience, but there were others that made their mark sooner.

Among the artists to find success during this period was Tony Carey. After playing keyboards with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow in the mid-to-late 1970s, Carey went solo and released a modestly popular album in 1982.

His solo career coincided with the emergence of a new venue for popular music: MTV. In the early days of Music Television, the network had very few videos to play. Those that were aired in the first couple of years found even “light rotation” to be a godsend. It was because of the medium that bands like Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls found an audience across America and almost instantaneously.

Carey’s career also got a boost from this new art form called “music videos.” He launched a side project with a few German session musicians. The new band took the name Planet P.

Planet P greeted the world through a spacey video entitled “Why Me?” For four minutes, the video scanned through seemingly disjointed scenes featuring a ‘50s-style blonde woman driving a vintage car and a space-suited character with no sign of a musician, let alone Carey himself. As a music video, “Why Me?” showcases all of the hallmarks of early videos with its quick cuts and simple video effects.

Released by Geffen records in 1983, the self-titled album, however, opens with the band’s second video and single, “Static.” Planet P’s themes of deep space travel and the loneliness associated with it start off the disk. Carey pines for personal contact wondering “where did all the people go” as the cinematic accompaniment intersperses a solitary elderly man in a spacecraft and a lone boy roller skating through a vacant building. It was if they were producing time capsules of music video.

Musically, Planet P is less of a period piece and more of a classic progressive rock treasure. This pseudo concept album takes different themes that could have been plots for Star Trek or the Twilight Zone.

“King for a Day” puts this space traveler on a foreign world where he’s nearly a god among the local inhabitants. “Build me a castle and throw a parade/put my name in stone so the words won’t fade/start a religion and name it for me/build me a city and give me the key/I’m king for a day.” The main character knows that he’s a temporary visitor in this strange world, but wants to be remembered before he’s “light years away.”

Further through side one are “I Won’t Wake Up,” “Top of the World,” “Armageddon,” and “Tranquility Base” (the last being a CD/cassette bonus), keeping with the space theme and thoughts of longing for home. Carey’s keyboards wash through the songs like a next generation Gary Wright with its ambience and fullness that a guitar-led album lacks. Overdubs of vocals just enhance this aura.

Flip the record over and Planet P’s most famous track, “Why Me?,” starts off side two and continues the theme. Stories continue on the loneliness of space travel and evolve into other issues that might occur in deep space such as escaping the troubles of life on earth (“Only You and Me”) and starting a new world (“Adam and Eve”). As even and well-crafted as these songs are, it’s terribly upsetting that in an age of “Flashdance” and Huey Lewis & the News, the “Planet P” album never broke into the top-40 and “Why Me?” peaked at number 64 on the pop chart (although it did reach #4 on Billboard’s “Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart”).

A year later, Planet P returned with a new record, new record company, and new name. Switching to MCA Records, the second album was titled “Pink World” and was released under the name “Planet P Project.” Again, “Pink World” was a futuristic concept album. This time, however, the album stretched over two records which were initially pressed in what was described in the press at the time as “Pepto Bismol pink vinyl.”

Instead of a space theme, “Pink World” took on the “cold war” and the Second Coming. In this tale, the Savior was a little boy named Artemis.

“Pink World” owes more than part of its name to Pink Floyd. Quite a few Floyd-esce moments, especially musical references to “The Wall,” pepper the 26 tracks but Planet P stands on its own. Songs flow beautifully from one to another with brief interludes which harken back to the thread of “The Boy Who Can’t Talk” and “What Artie Knows.”

Among record collectors, the Planet P fans are rare thirty years on. These two albums are the best-kept secrets hidden away in the stacks of vinyl across the country. Even worse than the handful of “Planet P” owners is the fact that “Pink World” sold far fewer copies.

Creep across the web and you’ll find pockets of Planet P fans. One site revels in “Pink World,” calling it the “Greatest Concept Album Ever.” Reviewers opine on how then needed to replace their copies multiple times over the years, which was made even more difficult by the sad fact that so few were minted. “It would make a good SciFi movie” and “make no mistake, ‘Pink World’ is a phenomenal album” are types of comments on the ‘Net by fans of this set.

After a 20 year break, Tony Carey has released three more Planet P Project records. It is the first two, however, that stand out. Initially released on vinyl, “Planet P” and “Pink World” were re-released on CD a decade later with the extra tracks and lacking lyrics or pink vinyl. No matter how they’re heard, these albums are 38 tracks of 1980s nostalgia. Not Max Headroom and “Miami Vice” kitsch but those rare good parts that weren’t played-out by corporate radio or sell-out marketing. Give yourself a treat and find your own copies of “Planet P” and “Pink World” for a glimpse of a time long gone by and great music that may never return.

– Sam Fiorani

fLako’s “Carving Away the Clay” Carves Digs Deeply into the Groove

October 5, 2012

I knew little of fLako before I bought Carving Away the Clay on 10″ (45rpm pressing) aside of what friends told me.  Some of them love everything the artist has released.  Others think he’s hit or miss.  To be honest, when I dropped the needle on the first cut of this four-track EP I thought perhaps I made a big mistake!  But the guys at Poo-Bah, my favorite local record store, have never steered me wrong before.  Luckily I ventured further and tried the other three tracks before drawing any conclusions.  I’m so thankful that I took the time to do so!  To be brutally honest; because I’m constantly consuming music, when I end up with an album, and I don’t dig the first couple of songs, sometimes I rush to judgement.  I’m not proud of this, but I cannot deny it.  I wholeheartedly wish I gave every cut on every album a chance before drawing any conclusions.  But who has time for that?

The first track of side A: “Broken Toy” sounds precisely as the title indicates.  It was, upon first listen, an audible assault of shrieking horn samples, broken drum beats, and a combination of pads that almost sounds like people sitting on bleachers, stomping their feet at a high school football game (American football that is).  This dreamy synth line swoops in and breaks up the madness.  Then fLako drops a funky and squishy horn-sample, plus a bouncy rhythm that just gets in your head.  He ends it with a wobbly bass line that just comes to a surprising halt after some swift key changes.  Sound like something you’d enjoy?  Not me typically.  After falling in love with side B, I’ve grown to actually enjoy this track, but it’s only for sonic adventurists.  If electronic silliness isn’t something you eat up occasionally  I suggest skipping this cut.  “Inner Trouble” is also a little crazy.  There is, fortunately, a tastier sway and pulse to this track.  It sounds like a combination of multiple styles, an electronic salad of a little South American and seemingly African flavors (maybe even a little calypso mixed in there).  I enjoyed this one from the start.  Be warned: This is for fans of experimental electronic music or perhaps what I sometimes call ” nu skool electronic r&b”, such as James Blake’s first album (vinyl review to follow soon).

To dispense with the bullshit: I think this EP is worth owning on vinyl because of side B. “Lonely Town” featuring Dirg Gerner, the EP’s closing track, is wicked.  It’s symphonic soul at it’s very best.  The song is stripped down, with a laid-back groove that causes head-nods with silky vocals that just ripple into your listening space.  Perfect for a date night that’s working in your favor.  This song is hooky, but not in a bubble gum pop sort of way.  It’s the kind of track you play when you’re driving in your car at sunset with the windows down and you’re feeling great.  I think Carving Away the Clay is a worthy buy for this one track when I break it down, and that sounds insane, but it’s how much I love “Lonely Town.”  “The Answer”, also featuring Dirg Gerner has the potential to be as suave as “Lonely Town.”  It’s got a great vibe and velvety chorus.  Unfortunately that’s really all it has!  It sounds like it’s supposed to just wash over you.  The lyrics: “Something that you know, something that you feel” is hypnotically delivered and there’s power there, but it’s also subdued.  I had a moment when I got lost in the sound of the lyrical flow, but I always wanted more. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.

After taking the time to experience this record, I’m glad I own it on vinyl.  Some people are going to think it’s nuts because this 10″ is about twenty bucks ($17.99) but I think of it as a single with a cooler B side.  I’ve played the song tons of times since I bought it two weeks ago, and I’m taking it with me to Rocky Mountain Audio Fest next week.  I’m gonna put some of those crazy analog front-ends to work with this disc!

By: Michael Mercer

Quality Record Pressings Unleash the Analog Soul in Dusty in Memphis

September 28, 2012

I owe it to you to be as transparent as possible with this record review: This album means a great deal to me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  I used to work for the late, great Arif Mardin at Atlantic Records (co-producer here, as well as horn and string arranger) and I know how much he enjoyed working on this record because we talked about it.  I also know, and won’t get into detail, about his feelings regarding Rhino’s CD re-master of this album years ago.  Let’s just say, in my opinion, they should have consulted with at least one then-living original producer (and Mr. Tommy Dowd, Mr. Jerry Wexler, and Arif were all alive when it was released).  So when I heard QRP’s pressing for the first time in the Dartzeel/Playback Designs/Wave Kinetics room at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last year (on the Wave Kinetcis table – wow) I literally ended up in tears.  Tears of joy: My wife too!  I was so grateful that she was there to experience it with me.  It was her first RMAF, and she knew Arif as well.  So, needless to say I had to get a copy for review!

Next thing I know I’m on a headphone panel at T.H.E Show Newport this year.  As we were getting deeper into the discussion of headphone listening Jonathan Tinn walked into the room (of Playback Designs, Wave Kinetics and Dartzeel – who’s also a dear friend of mine) and plunked down a brand-new, still-sealed copy for me right there on the table!  I was speechless, and if you know me well, you know that’s a rarity.  All of the sudden I could care less about the panel, I just wanted to get home and drop this record onto my Luxman turntable!  We had just bought the Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage, so I was psyched to bask in this new listening experience.  The Luxman/Unison Research combo sounded so damn good I was like a junkie waiting for a fix.  I literally ran through the house to drop the needle on this one.  Later, I ended up using the VPI Traveler turntable w/ the Simply Phono.  I was in analog heaven.

So, of course the tears flowed again, especially when “Son of a Preacher Man” came on.  That song touched my heart in such a deeply rooted way, even though it was thrusted into the forefront of pop culture via Pulp Fiction back in 1994 (when you couldn’t escape it) because I knew how proud Arif was of that particular song.  He wrote the horn arrangment!  I just melted into my listening chair.  Now: If this pressing had been substandard I would have been pretty pissed off, but, to be honest I probably wouldn’t have said anything publicly out of respect for Mr. Dowd, Mr. Wexler and Arif.  I just have to admit that, right or wrong.  Thankfully, that wasn’t a concern as this pressings sounds fantastic!  It’s got a terrific sense of depth, of air in and around Dusty Springfield and the instruments.  Harry Pearson calls this “dimensionality”, and there couldn’t be a more perfect word for it.  You feel like you’re there, experiencing the Memphis soul sound right in front of you!

The vocals drip with soul, and are as lifelike as any I’ve heard on vinyl.  It’s a dual 12″ 45 rpm set, mastered from the original master tape.  Hats off to Kevin Gray at CoHEARent Audio.  I’d put this level of work up there w/ something Bob Ludwig or Ted Jensen would do.  It’s engaging, yet smooth as silk.  I think sometimes mastering engineers get so caught up in making everything loud that they can lose the heart of the music.  Sometimes the most magical elements, even in popular music, are in the quiet moments, where you get a a true sense of realism.  This is what “presence” means to me.  I know the word is tossed around far too much in audio reviewing these days.  This pressing has that in spades.  The sound may be a little laid back, but they managed to accomplish that while making the horns pop, the strings soar, and Springfield’s voice is simply captivating; seductive and gorgeous.  I think all three original producers would be proud of Quality Record Pressings and their effort here.  I know I’ll be taking my copy to this years Rocky Mountain Audio Fest as one of my system test discs!  However, I love it so much I’m going to buy another set so I have one at home that doesn’t wear too fast.  I think that says more about my love for this piece of vinyl than any poetic musings I could offer.  If you’re a Dusty Springfield fan and you enjoy the audible bliss that great analog provides, do yourself a favor and grab this up while you can.  You won’t regret it.

By: Michael Mercer

Blake’s “Limit to Your Love on 10” Will Push Your System to its Low End Limit

September 25, 2012 1 Comment

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a long time.  I covered James Blake’s self-titled album for Positive Feedback last year (link HERE) and it was a sincere pleasure hearing something that fresh.  It’s sparse, darkly tinted soundscapes are wide-open and airy.  Blake’s vocals are so unique, the timbre of his voice is unike any I’ve heard.  What a precious thing, finding an artist that sounds new!  It was also difficult to quantify his album.  That was part of its mystique.  Many called it dubstep, some drum-n-bass, some refused to try and encapsulate it.  I sometimes think of the full album as our generations electronic Donny Hathaway.  Now, before you get all Hathaway-devotee on my ass, know that I’m not trying to compare Blake’s songwriting and performing abilities to the pure genuis that was Donny Hathaway.  I just found great similarity in their use of space to convey emotion, and minimalism in composition, which lends itself to contemplative listening.  I can picture them performing together in an experimental album if Hathaway were still around and able to perform.  What a pairing that would be.

The coolest thing about the vinyl here: The 10″ one-sided single of Blake’s “Limit to Your Love” on Atlas, is the fact that all those liquid-like acid basslines and spacial qualities that made the album so haunting and engaging just pop with greater velocity and fluidity.  The oscillating Roland TB-303 bassline (at least I’ve read that’s the analog synth that was used to create it) just oozes through the speakers like a rippling sonic waveform.  The piano also comes to the front, and while there are only a few notes here, the roundness and weight of their sound packs a deeper emotional punch than on the CD.  Blake’s vocals are also a bit more nasally, as I try to invent words to describe the twisted timbre of his delivery.  It’s a voice you won’t soon forget.

This 10″ is an eargasm, pure and simple.  I wish I could afford to buy 50 of them and give them out for the holidays to my fellow analog-loving friends.  This is going to stay on my audio acid test list for a long time.  I get just as excited when I hear this track on vinyl as I did when I first heard the album on CD.  It’s chilling and warm at times; spacious and cold.  Be warned however: The bass on this disc will test the very foundation of your system’s low-end capabilities.  If your system is tuned-up properly you’re in for a warbling, bending, ocean of low-end information.  Blake’s carved out a little sonic niche for himself.  I hope to continue to hear alot more from him over the years.  If he sticks to this path I can’t wait to hear the wild tunes he’ll be composing in twenty years.

By: Michael Mercer

**I have to state for the record (not that you give a shit) that I do not discriminate when it comes to formats, as stated in my previous article on Classic Records re-master of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back**  However, we are all analog beings so, ultimately, how could I not admit to preferring vinyl when it comes right done to it?

Ben Sollee: Learning To Bend

September 16, 2012

A little back-story: A couple of years ago I was involved in the margins with a small label that wanted to be able to offer their digital download versions of LPs they released – digitized FROM the LP itself. Through CIMS (Coalition of Independent Music Stores) came an independent download competitor for iTunes that was a better overall fiscal deal for the musicians. Called “Think Indie” – it specialized in indie labels and their musicians (now they’re involved more on the distribution and store-promotion side of the business). This was a gig that was brought together by my brother-from-another-mother, Mr. Eric Levin of AIMS (Alliance of Independent Media Stores) and Criminal Records and Record Store Day infamy. I’ve got a good analog setup and the ability to digitize at high resolution, and can edit down to any other resolution – including MP3. In Think Indie’s parlance, since this was a digitized vinyl rip, these were called MP 33.3 (har har har!).

The label, Karate Body, is a small-but-intense joint in Louisville, KY with a couple of handfuls of artists of the type that really define the authenticity of indie music, and indie culture. The first LP they sent was a seriously cool record of duets between Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billie) and Cheyenne Mize called “Among The Gold” – a collection of popular tunes from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Logging a reasonable success with this one, we went on to create more MP 33.3’s from Rachel Grimes, Ume, and Phantom Family Halo. My memory gets a little foggy after that, but I do recall the Think Indie downloading site all-of-a-sudden not being there anymore, and I had gotten sidetracked with other projects and distractions that I sort of drifted away and lost track of what the guys at Karate Body were doing. Shame on me!

Flash forward to earlier this year. A friend of mine invited me over his house to hang, eat, drink, and listen to records. He related to me about how he and his wife had been to a small show where they saw this artist, a cellist, who was playing a bar or pub or somesuch manner of groghaus. While at the gig he picked up an LP that the artist was selling there, which he showed to me, and then he cued up the record. Wow … this was pretty nice stuff! Enough to stop us from talking and just sit back and listen to both sides with rapt attention.

Flash forward to last night, when I was once again invited over for food, festivities, and several hours of vinyliciousness coursing through his stereo system. Unexpectedly … he hands me a record – as a gift, and it is the very Ben Sollee record that he played for me the last time. This time I look at the cover more closely and notice – Ben Sollee is one of Karate Body’s artists! All those good memories flashing back to the time when I was making MP 33.3 vinyl rips and listening to some truly wonderful indie musicians on a label that is doing things I wish I were doing, better than I probably could do them, and with far more class than I think I could muster – even if I were forced through finishing school.

BEN SOLLEE

Apparently Ben Sollee was (and perhaps still is) known for being unknown, having been named by NPR as one of the “Top Ten Great Unkown Artists” of the year, 2008. Later, “All Things Considered” (another NPR program) called this record, Learning To Bend, “an inspired collection of acoustic, folk and jazz-flavored songs, filled with hope and the earnest belief that the world is good.” I think that’s a pretty good jumping-off point as far as describing his music on this record: acoustic, jazz, folk – throw in old-time and R&B to round it out. Singer-songwriter, story-teller, political, emotional, and supremely gifted.

Without doing a track-rundown (not really my style) I’d rather give you a snapshot, some samples, and have you make up your own mind as to whether or not Sollee will blow your skirt up. Style aside, this record portrays a young man with multiple gifts: a talented and creative musician and songwriter with an oddly wise and humble awareness of the world, with an unexpected abundance of generosity that pours out of the grooves like wine. Good, easy-drinking wine that leaves you better-than-happy.

The album was recorded really well, sounds like you’re at a live performance and Ben is in the room with you. I can’t stress enough how so many of these little labels are producing GREAT sounding records – evidence that these folks really care about their music, and about the people who are buying and listening to it.

Learning To Bend is a GOTTAGETT vinyl LP. Get two … you may find out that you’ll be wearing the grooves out of the first one.

Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back – Classic Records Remaster – A Dark and Gorgeous Journey

September 15, 2012

As I was watching Press Pause Play again tonight, a recent digital addiction I must get a handle on, I found a much-needed escape from the noise of the week through Classic Records remaster/re-issue of Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back.  I often refer to this disk in my analog gear reviews because it’s such an outstanding musical and sonic achievement.  Firstly: The disc is so quiet sometimes I think I’m listening to high rez digital (analog devotees – I count myself among you – please don’t take this as a backwards compliment) until it becomes so visceral the hairs on the back of my forearms rise up.  Now, digital has grown leaps and bounds, and I love each format.  That’s not a bullshit cop-out of the digital vs. analog argument either.  I think old habits die hard and, as a confessed music addict I don’t give a shit how I consume my music as long as it hits me and stays with me.  But, there is something inherently magical about the rituals involved in listening to a big black disk…

For Gabriel fans who don’t own Scratch My Back, it’s an album of covers.  More than that, it’s a cover album where Gabriel flexes his own talents by putting his own insightful signature on each of these creations by other songsmiths.  My admitted favorite is his cover of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”.  I’ve heard this song countless times in my home, at parties, at Simon in the Park live (without Garfunkel – 90’s, sorry, I wasn’t alive back then) and Gabriel’s interpretation of this little piece of pure brilliance is so surprising in its sparse darkness.  The song is blackened in a sense, as I always remember it having such an upbeat rhythm and melody.  I can’t believe I’m going to admit it, but I prefer Gabriel’s version now!  Well, not all the time: When I’m actually sitting down and honestly listening to music: Not hearing it fill the background of an already hectic life (for us all I know).

A magnificent surprise is his rendition of Elbow’s “Mirrorball”. It’s fitting however, given the musical similarities between the band and one of the grandmasters.  I hear Gabriel is a huge influence on Guy Garvey; leader singer/songwriter for Elbow.  I was psyched to hear the influences the other way around for the first time here.  I can’t help but think of Peter Gabriel when I listen to Elbow: Especially Build a Rocket Boys.  His take on “Philadelphia” just cements his keen awareness of the mystery of music.  Sounds like dirty hippie rambling I know, but it’s moving me at the moment.  I can’t help it.

Classic Records is, as many of you are aware, no more.  Chad Kassem and the crew at QRP (Quality Record Pressings) grabbed all they could I hope.  But you can find copies online, and I’m sure some are available through Hobson’s website: Themusic.com .  You gotta give credit where it’s due: That’s a killer URL.  If you can find a copy in good condition I can’t offer a higher recommendation.  Well, perhaps that will be left to the 10″ UK import of James Blake’s “Limit to You Love”!  And: I wrote about that album for Positive Feedback before the hype in audiophile-land – so no bandwagons hitched over here, no worries.

Also: Check out QRP’s remaster/re-issue of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis (scribing about that soon)

Don’t stop listening.  Music can save you life.

By: Michael Mercer

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