Wednesday 31 October 2012

It's ... (the grudgingly positive review)

Perhaps prompted by their brief appearance on the London Olympics Closing Show, we present Elbow's 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid.  And I've chosen to introduce it with a link to a grudgingly positive review by someone who just doesn't doesn't like the band in the first place! (Even if you don't care to read about the album, his review is a fun read.)

The Seldom Seen Kid is a terrific listen, somewhat nostalgic in its soundscape, and very much in the lyrical rather than the rocking camp.  To calibrate your thinking, it reminds me very much of Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles.  One thing you've got to hand to Sting was that he released some damn fine-sounding recordings.  Elbow shares those values.  In fact, when releasing The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow made a lot of noise about the Loudness War and how they were having nothing to do with it.  As a result, Kid is unusually dynamic for a modern commercial recording, and rewards playback on a high-performance audio system.


Monday 29 October 2012

Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven 5th

Carlos Kleiber was by popular reckoning - and in particular in the opinion of his fellow conductors - the greatest conductor of the 20th Century.  All this despite a recorded oevre which remains quite stunningly limited.  Additionally, Kleiber's orchestral appointments were not those you would associate with a conductor of such repute, although he did turn down an offer to succeed Karajan as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, considered by many the most prestigious appointment in the world.  This is often attributed to his reclusive, erratic, and uncompromising personality.  Perhaps also to an element of fear of failure, which some ascribe to his domineering father, Erich Kleiber, also a conductor of international repute.  Carlos apparently felt throughout his life that he was always striving to live up to his father's accomplishments.  However, few critics would not agree that he did in the end comfortably surpass his father's status and repute.

Kleiber's recorded magnum opus is undoubtedly his 1975 recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.   Kleiber absolutely kills the piece.  Nails it.  Dead.  There is absolutely no need for anybody to bother recording it again, although many, many will continue to do so.  Kleiber is the Reference Standard.

There is a 24/96 release on HD tracks, but it is not all that superior to the CD, nor to the original LP.  I have all three.  Part of this is DG's congested multi-miked recording practice of that era which produces a tonally accurate representation at the expense of a chaotic and confusing sound stage in which most of the instruments seem to be located more or less where they should be, but you just can't seem to focus cleanly on them.

All this is totally secondary to Kleiber's astonishing performance.  This is THE Beethoven's fifth, and it is going to totally, completely, blow you away.  Surely even Beethoven himself would agree.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Defying Categorization

Here's a record that defies categorization. Take Yo-Yo Ma, world-renown classical cellist, plus three accomplished eclectic musicians steeped in Bluegrass, and what do you get? Answer - the Goat Rodeo Sessions!

I thought the best way to describe this to you would be to post a good quality YouTube link, featuring the band playing three tunes from the album courtesy of NPR (National Public Radio).  Goat Rodeo Sessions is a breath of fresh air in a musical world in which albums are sadly becoming more and more compartmentalized according to a bewildering variety of genres which most people I know are at a loss to identify.  Anything which can't be neatly slotted into a convenient consumer category (one that some marketing suit can locate on his spreadsheet) is always going to be a tough sell.  Props to these guys for putting this project together - although when one of them has Yo-Yo Ma's name recognition, that is always going to help!

Goat Rodeo Sessions takes a few listens to really get into it, but isn't that always how it is with all of your absolute favorite albums?  Give it a shot - you won't be disappointed.

Monday 22 October 2012

Jason Wilson - Resident of the Home for the Criminally Underappreciated.

Every major city has its huge musical talents that seem to be criminally under-appreciated, and in Toronto, that status most assuredly applies to Jason Wilson.

Jason Wilson's music is, surprisingl
y for a white guy of European descent, firmly rooted in Jamaican Reggae, thanks to his having grown up in the Jamaican community in Toronto.  But he imbues his reggae core with jazz, folk, rock, blues, and various other genres that seem to blend seamlessly in.  I first encountered Jason Wilson playing in an open-air set at the Mont-Tremblant resort, in front of a casual audience of perhaps a hundred or two.  "Anybody out there love Reggae?!" he shouted to kick off his set.  You could have heard a pin drop.  But once the band started playing, nobody left, and the whole set was greeted with real enthusiasm.  I've paid three figures for tickets to hear lesser musicians.  Jason is a live performer par excellence, with a strong, well-toned, and confident voice. His band plays with the tightness that only comes from years and years of determined work together.

I bought a couple of his CDs at the concert, and when I got them home I was surprised - not to mention pleased - to find that he is as accomplished in the studio as he is on the stage.  My personal favorite is a double CD called "The Peacemaker's Chauffeur".  It is a great place for the curious listener to start.  The recording is of a quality that most major label artists fail to reach (for which there is, of course, absolutely no excuse).

Please give Jason Wilson a listen.  A fantastic songwriter, fronting a first-rate band, and a real, real treat for the uninitiated!

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky!

At last - a Hi-Res version of Deep Purple's 1972 classic Machine Head, that really cooks.  Waaaay superior to the older DVD-A release.  HDtracks can be a bit of a lottery - I don't know how much say David Chesky (who runs HDtracks) has in how the product he sells is created from the original analog Master Tapes.  I suspect a lot less than he would like.  Chesky's own label proves beyond doubt that he knows a thing or two about good sound.  But this is one release that can be safely purchased.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Cry me a river

One of my favorite classic Jazz albums is Ray Brown's Soular Energy, featuring Gene Harris on Piano (as well as others).

Unfortunately, although it has been released in various hi-
res formats, including SACD and DVD-A, it is frustratingly hard to come by. The DVD features one side with a 24/96 'HDCD' recording (whatever that is), and one side with a 24/192 DVD-A version. I prefer the 24/192, ripped to HD, but I haven't heard the SACD yet.

Brown was one of the all-time great acoustic bass players in the Jazz world, and Soular Energy encapsulates the very essence of his talent. It also features another jazz great, pianist Gene Harris, who once labored in relative obscurity until Brown convinced him to join him on tour. And don't forget, it was Ray Brown who, arguably, introduced Montreal's Oscar Peterson to the jazz world.

When a casual listener drops by and asks to hear some "Jazz", I will invariably cue up "Cry Me A River" from this recording, and usually the listener is pretty much spellbound by the end of the tune. High-end sales people take note!!!

The recording is one of those that has the capacity to draw you totally into the performance, and if you are lucky enough to be able to hear it through Light Harmonic's incredible Da Vinci DAC, it does so in a way that - in my experience - only Vinyl has ever managed before. And all that without the aid of "recreational assistance", if I may put it that way....

Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros - Streetcore

Joe Strummer, like many polarizing musicians, was a difficult character to package into a neat box. He came out of the British punk movement, but - to these ears at least - the Clash's take on the punk movement was much more deeply nuanced, thoughtful, and constructively provocative. Compare with the Sex Pistols, or the Stranglers.  Strummer's post-Clash career was far more rock than punk, with elements of Folk in the Dylan/Baez/Mitchell vein.

Strummer's last album - Streetcore - is to my ears his finest since London Calling, and possibly even surpasses it.  Joe died suddenly before it was completed, and it was sadly released posthumously in 2003.  Supposedly, Joe was working on more material for the album at the time of his death, and it is likely that two songs "Redemption Song" and "Silver and Gold" were not intended to be part of it. When you get to know the album, though, they become inseparable from it, lending key elements to its layered character.

Another consequence of Strummer's sudden death is that the final takes for most of the vocals had not been laid down, and so the album uses material from intermediate takes.  This lends them a freshness and authenticity that jumps from the soundstage, and makes you wonder how a "final take" could possibly have improved upon it.  Technically, maybe.  But emotionally, no way.

Joe Strummer was a character of endless contradictions.  Always politically a vocal proponent of strong left-leaning views, he espoused both environmental and social causes.  He claimed to be an anarchist, yet worked single-mindedly - the cause of much friction with his band-mates - to achieve both critical and commercial success.  And having achieved it he then dismantled whatever he had built and moved on - an act of self-loathing, it would appear.

Please make a point of tracking down one of the most important albums of the last decade.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

An interesting question....

What happens to your digital music library when you die?....

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions

What are the hallmarks of a truly great album?  For me, it would have to have a sense of timelessness.  That an album is of a time and place does not have to mean that it loses its relevance, its message, or its communicative power as the years role by.  Although almost all of them do.

One album that - to these tired ears - still seems to get better every time I hear it is Stevie Wonder's Innervisions.

Stevie Wonder wrote, sang, and played most of the instruments on Innervisions, already his 16th album.  As the title implies, it is an introspective opus that addresses the world that the blind Stevie lives in.  It should not surprise anybody that it is pretty much the same world that we all perceive.  Being blind does not prevent him from seeing, and Stevie's world view is one of the same hopes, fears, ambitions, and frustrations that characterize our own lives.  Avoiding bumping into the piano is not what keeps Stevie up at nights!  So much of what Stevie sings of in 1973 seems as fresh and relevant 40 years later.

Surprisingly, for an album that seems so quintessentially of its time,  Innervisions does not sound at all dated.  Now available as a 24/96 download from HDTracks, taken directly from the original master tapes, we finally get to hear the full glory of the album that won the Grammy Awards for Best Album and for Best Engineered Non-Classical Album.  What we hear is Stevie at the absolute height of his vocal powers, and arguably, at the height of his creative powers.  "Living For The City" (every instrument you hear was played by Stevie) was a track we played regularly at SSI - it never failed to amaze listeners with its power and presence, and with the stark soul of its message.

Shortly after releasing Innervisions, Stevie was in a very serious car accident, and remained in a coma for four days.  The accident had a profound affect on him, and his music became more sentimental and lost much of its biting edge.  Compare Innervisions to Songs In The Key Of Life (another highly successful album) and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Alban Berg's Lulu

This recommended recording is not going to win me many friends - but here goes anyway. Alban Berg's opera Lulu is - far more than any other piece of 20th Century music - widely, loudly, and almost universally reviled.  And for the most part by people who have never actually heard it.  Yet whenever a serious production is put on, it plays to packed opera houses around the world.   Lulu is an atonal composition, a 12-tone work, with more apparently to do with mathematics than musicianship.  In principle, the whole idea is quite preposterous...

Lulu is widely held to be a piece which is impossible to conduct, impossible to play, impossible to sing, and - according to the probably apocryphal observation of Alban Berg himself - impossible to whistle on your way out of the opera house ("Vy don't zey vissle my tunes???").  So what's the big deal here?

Well, for one thing, Lulu has without peer the most ambitious, complex, nuanced, and far-reaching plot of any opera yet undertaken.  And compositionally, it is a mathematical tour-de-force - unlike Monty Python's "Bolton/Ipswich", it essentially Palindromic - something that plays the same backwards as forwards.  Listen to the "film music" in the middle of Act II, where you can easily spot the center point (played on the piano) around which the music reverses itself and unfolds backwards to the end of the opera.  The plot is convolutedly palindromic - characters appear in Act I and disappear at the corresponding points in Act III, and so on throughout the opera. The palindromic aspects further tie into the characters, acts, and motivations of the dramatis personae, and the general development of the plot and sub-plots.

OK, so it's a great piece to study.  But how about to listen to?  Well, frankly, it is not as totally and completely cacophonous as you might imagine.   Sure, it can be a bit of an assault, but once you give the piece some time, you can become surely drawn into it. I am actually getting to the point where I can recognize occasional snippets - although I won't be able to whistle any of them!

Here I am recommending a version in English (the original is sung in German), offered for download by Chandos.  It is a very assured performance, and probably the best way to make a first-time introduction to what is arguably the most formidable piece of music ever written.  The sound is cleanly captured, and the vocals delivered clearly and with conviction.  Paul Daniel conducts the English National Opera.

The only version available for download is in 16/44.  Although the original recoding is supposedly done in DSD, I cannot get a straight answer from Chandos as to why they won't make a high-resolution version available.  Perhaps you can pester them too!

In any case, I seriously recommend this recording to anybody with the desire and ambition to broaden their personal horizons.

Thursday 4 October 2012


One of the seminal albums of Jazz history is also one of the best recorded.  Released in 1964, while the Beatles were busy invading America, it pretty much invented a whole new genre of Latin Jazz based on Bossa Nova rhythms.   It included the colossal international hit "The Girl from Ipanema" which just about anybody could hum to you today, some 50 years later.

The 24/96 version on HDTracks is well worth the download.   On the right system it exhibits an amazing presence.  Being essentially an acoustic Jazz album, there is almost no compression, and the result rivals the best bleeding-edge audiophile recordings made today.

Getz/Gilberto won several Grammys in 1965 including Best Album, and The Girl from Ipanema won the Award for Best Record. The female vocal on Ipanema is - if your system is up to it - a beautiful thing to behold.  Astrud Gilberto, who at the time was the wife of João Gilberto, had never received any vocal training, and in fact had never even sung in public.  She was only asked to sing because they wanted to record an English version, and she was the only one present in the studio who knew any English.  Her voice conveys an incredible natural innocence, yet also nuance and emotion, with none of the techniques or vocal mannerisms of a trained - or even experienced - singer. She would go on to become an international star, but would never again quite capture that innocent quality.

"The Girl From Ipanema" was inspired by a stunning 17-year old local girl Heloísa Pinto, and although she had nothing whatsoever to do with the song (which was written in 1962), its international success brought her fame and popularity after Gilberto publicly acknowledged her as its inspiration.  Amazing to think that today she is a pensioner!

Tuesday 2 October 2012

2L - The Nordic Sound

Morten Lindberg of The Nordic Sound (2L) makes some of the highest quality recordings currently available, and releases them in an incredible variety of high resolution formats to suit your needs. One of my personal favorites is Ole Bull Violin Concertos.  This album is an Aladdin's cave of little-known but captivating Nordic works, finely performed, and expertly captured in luscious, pristine detail.  It also has, interestingly enough, some of the deeeeepest yet tightest bass content I have yet heard.  Highly recommended.

Another unusual feature of the 2L catalog is that the cover art is made available for (free!) download, in extraordinarily high resolution. Personally, I really appreciate that!...

Also on 2L's web site, they feature an extraordinary selection of free tracks that you can download in all sorts of ultra-high resolution formats for you to compare.  These are a serious resource for those of us with a keen interest in ultra-high resolution audio playback.  It should be noted that the 'DXD' format (24-bit 325.8kHz) is the native recorded format for these files, and all of the others are derived from it by conversion.

Finally, a big Thank You to Morton for providing BitPerfect with a 24-bit 352.8kHz studio master of his Souvenir I album for us to demonstrate BitPerfect's capability to seamlessly handle ultra-high sample rate files at the Montreal Salon de Son et Image.

Monday 1 October 2012

Quadrophenia - The Director's Cut

Quadrophenia is in my opinion the finest album of many fine albums by the classic rock band The Who.  In 1969 they released "Tommy", hailed as the first and finest Rock Opera.  Tommy achieved huge commercial and critical success, both as an album and in movie and stage formats.  But in 1973 The Who released another rock opera project Quadrophenia, which is arguably the musically superior work.  As an opera fan, Quadrophenia strikes me as the more accomplished, more truly operatic work of the two, yet it is fundamentally a hard rock album.  Far more so than Tommy.

Tommy always makes me think I'm listening to a soundtrack album.  Quadrophenia is a WHO album. But you decide.

Late last year, a completely new remastered version was released under the title "The Director's Cut". Primarily an LP project - and, despite BitPerfect being a digital audio company I am a vinyl freak - this is a completely new remastering.  However, there is a Japanese CD release that is also available under import.  Comparing the Director's Cut to the original vinyl, the new version has a more visceral impact, more immediate presence, more obvious detail and clarity.  But it also has a hint of an edginess that is not evident on the original LP, which is still a reference rock recording.  However, if you love Quadrophenia as I do, it is a must-have recording.  And unlike many re-release projects, the additional material makes for fascinating listening.