• SoundStage! Shorts - How Hegel's SoundEngine Works (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight  - Estelon History and YB and Extreme Loudspeakers (September 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - What Makes Hegel Different? (August 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Estelon Extreme Legacy Edition Loudspeaker (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion Overview and Technologies (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! Insight - Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker (June 2017)
  • SoundStage! Encore - The Cowboy Junkies'
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Anthem's STR Integrated Amplifier (May 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- What's a Tonmeister? (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - AxiomAir N3 Wireless Speaker System (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Gryphon Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Dynaudio History and Driver Technology (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - The Story How Gryphon Began (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Devialet History, ADH Technology, and Expert 1000 Pro (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Devialet's Phantom Loudspeakers (August 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh Home Theater and Streaming Audio (July 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh MC275 Stereo Amplifier (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh History and Autoformer Technology (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - NAD Viso HP50 Headphones (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - GoldenEar Technology's Anechoic Chamber (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - PSB's M4U 4 Earphones (April 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two+ and Three+ Loudspeakers (March 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- KEF's LS50 (February 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio's Platinum II Series (January 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Pryma 0|1 Headphones (December 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF's Blade Two Loudspeaker (November 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF and the Uni-Q (October 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio Acoustics & Aesthetics (August 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- PSB's Imagine T3 Loudspeaker (June 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Hegel's H160 Integrated Amplifier-DAC (April 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- MartinLogan's Neolith Loudspeaker (February 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Prestige Series (December 2014)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Vivid Audio's Giya Series (October 2014)

Zoho ZM 201009
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201010_auctionprojectDavid Bixler teaches jazz studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and has made several excellent albums that have already been released. This one, however, is different. Working with piano player Arturo O’Farrill and his wife, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, he’s combined Latin American roots with Celtic folk music to create a sound that’s fresh and original. Variety abounds on this disc, even within a style. “Spanish Misfortune” starts off as an Irish romp, only to veer off into more conventional jazz territory before Heather Martin Bixler brings it back into Celtic line. “She Moves Through the Fair” starts with the solitary fiddle keening the melancholic tune, but as other instruments enter and dissonances pile up, the piece takes on an even more tragic nature. “Green Target,” “Worth Dying For,” and “Heptagonesque” are the tunes without Celtic overtones, and they feature Bixler’s poignant alto sax. The overall recorded sound is clean and clear, but the drums of Vince Cherico could have better definition. In sum, the album is a fresh, creative effort that’s well worth hearing.

Analogue Productions CAP8456 SA
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

201010_milesdavisTaped over three days in 1961, Someday My Prince Will Come is one of Miles Davis’ most mellow sets. It still features the solid-as-a-rock rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The sax players fluctuate. John Coltrane was no longer playing regularly but came back to the studio to guest on the title track and “I Thought About You.” The rest of the tenor tracks are handled by Hank Mobley, who had only been with the group for a short time. It shows a little in his playing, which is more reserved than that of Coltrane but has a lighter, neat, and simple beauty of its own. There are some miraculous moments throughout this set, and not always in the big sections. Listen to that great rhythm section in “Prancing” when Chambers has a bass solo, yet Kelly and Cobb continue to accompany him with awesome subtlety. There’s never a throwaway note with those three guys. Davis is at 100 percent and plays with great beauty and depth on every track.

The recording deserves mention. Most people think of surround when they think of SACD and multichannel, but many analog masters were produced with only three tracks: left, right, and center. Someday My Prince Will Come is one of these, and the SACD format allows us to hear it exactly as it was mastered. The piano is in the left channel, drums in the right, and Miles and the bass in the middle. Though it’s still a bit exaggerated in the separation of channels, the impression of three-track mono is lessened by bleeding a tiny bit of the drums and piano into the left and right channels without bleeding any of Miles’s center-channel solos back. The overall results define the old “clean as a whistle” saying, and the disc’s sound clearly reveals every nuance from each player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-332
Format: LP

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

201010_sinatraSinatra at the Sands was the singer’s third recording with the Count Basie Orchestra, and as on the previous two, Quincy Jones arranged and conducted that great band. Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of the two-LP live set from 1966 captures the ambiance of the Copa Room at the Sands and the timbral qualities of the instruments. The drums on my Reprise pressing, probably from the early ‘70s, are more forward and snappy, but here they’re integrated into the sound of the band and back a bit further on the stage. The mastering, by Rob LoVerde, keeps Sinatra’s voice razor sharp and center stage, but removes the small bit of graininess that exists on the Reprise pressing. Freddie Green’s guitar is clearer on “I've Got a Crush on You,” the sections of the band are more distinct on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and the audience applause and other reactions have a depth that puts you in the room with them. You can hear more clearly that the laughter at one point in “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was spliced in, but it was already audible in the original. I have an early-generation CD that actually sounds less compressed than the LP, but the prize for detail, sense of space, and dimensionality goes to this pressing. It’s essential for any Sinatra fan with a turntable. 

201009_mellencampRounder Records 116613284-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

 

John Mellencamp’s new disc takes such an honest stand against the mechanization and digitizing of modern music that it makes recent discs by most other pop musicians sound contrived. The funk and fire of American music history flows through it, but I’ve long felt that was true of Mellencamp’s records. No Better Than This sounds like an old Gibson acoustic or National steel guitar that has gotten richer and more complex with age.

If your father is an acclaimed and skilled musician like, say, Bob Dylan or even Steve Earle, it’s a given that your life will be a bit extraordinary, and you might discover some innate musical talents of your own. That’s true, at least, for Jakob Dylan and Justin Townes Earle.

Alternately, let’s imagine that you have a more average upbringing, but at a ripe young age you discover that you’re a whiz at the mandolin. You form a band with some other kids who can really play, and in short order you find yourselves with a platinum and gold album, a Grammy, and the respect of the most honored musicians in the biz. Might your Midas touch not extend to adulthood as you put the past on pause in pursuit of solo ventures? Well, this much is true for former Nickel Creek band member, Chris Thile, who has just released another knock-out album with his group, Punch Brothers.

Whether attributed to prodigy or progeny, fueled by inborn desire or eternal fire, these sons and "brothers" are each, in their own way, at the top of their game and releasing new material that’s making its own indelible mark.

201009_jakobdylanFirst off, let it be said that neither Dylan nor Earle were silver-spoon fed, and neither has received unearned praise for his efforts. The music clearly speaks for itself. Most will remember Jakob Dylan more for his fronting the ’90s rock band the Wallflowers than for his association with his father. In recent years, however, he’s carved an independent path, and in April he released his second solo album, Women and Country (256kbps MP3, Columbia/Amazon.com), which is stylistically and lyrically his best work to date. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album features guitarist Marc Ribot, fiddler/mandolin player David Mansfield, and Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, who sing backup vocals on most tracks. For the album opener, "Nothing But the Whole Wide World," Dylan delivers his vocals without flair, near-spoken like a cowboy poet (even Case and Hogan, who can both wail, hold back and harmonize delicately), and despite the sparse vocals and accompaniment, the tune stands out as one of the best on the album. In fact, throughout the disc this minimalist style is righteously suited for the album’s recession/depression-era themes of hard work, hard times, and perseverance in spite of it all. Other standout tracks include "Lend a Hand" (very Tom Waits-ish) and the ghostly, echoing "We Don’t Live Here Anymore."

201009_justintownesYoung in years but aged in experience, Justin Townes Earle is quickly becoming an old pro, with his third album, Harlem River Blues (CD, BS 178) set to release September 14 on the Bloodshot Records label. The album is a much-anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2009 release, Midnight at the Movies. Earle’s nuanced lyrics can be delivered with a drifter’s southern drawl or flecked with breathless emotion; his gift for songwriting is clearly a skill inherited from his father, though it more closely emulates the likes of Hank Williams or his namesake, Townes Van Zandt. The hand-clapping, foot-tapping title track and opener kicks things off with a gospel choir chorus (which makes quite an entrance), and though the feeling rings of rebirth, the fine print reads of resignation. This is the Harlem River Blues, not baptism, after all. "Workin’ for the MTA" reworks the classic train song for modern times ("Daddy was a railroad man, but this ain’t my daddy’s train -- it’s cold in them tunnels today, mamma, workin’ for the MTA"). Co-produced by Earle and Skylar Wilson, the album features a supporting cast that includes Brian Owings on drums, Paul Niehaus (Calexico) on pedal steel guitar, Bryn Davies on upright bass, and Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) on harmonica. This one’s got the current top spot on my Best of 2010 list.

201009_punchbrothersFinally, Punch Brothers’ latest, Antifogmatic (256kbps MP3, Nonesuch/Amazon.com), is a conundrum of genre gene-splicing. These guys aren’t gonna be pinned down any more than you can catch lightening in a bottle. Their quirky, catchy music will have you scratching your head at first, but you’ll soon be nodding along in absolute awe. Chris Thile, on mandolin and vocals, is joined by Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Paul Kowert on upright bass. Based on instrumentation alone, you’d expect bluegrass, but what you hear is that and much more: theatrical, classical, orchestral, barbershop, roots, and detours everywhere from there. Imagination is an instrument in and of itself for this band, whose epic lyrics and weaving, wandering suites take the willing listener to fantasy realms beyond any place you can get to with your feet firmly planted on the ground. So start dancing! Begin with "Rye Whiskey," "Missy," and "This Is the Song (Good Luck)" to get a feel for the kind of tricks Punch Brothers bring to the their performance ring. Don’t try too hard to figure out their secret or catch their sleight of hand. Just enjoy the Antifog-magic. By the way, the "Deluxe" MP3 download of this album contains an additional five-song instrumental EP called All of This Is True.

I’m a lover of these sons and brothers!

201008_otistaylorTelarc International TEL-31849
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Otis Taylor’s blues incorporates many influences from different styles of music. He’s a formidable player of the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica, and his mission to introduce people to the African-American heritage of the banjo led him to record Recapturing the Banjo with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Don Vappie, and Guy Davis. Clovis People, Vol 3 is his 11th release, and it’s an example of how a singer can remain true to the roots of the blues while revitalizing his music with a unique personal vision.

Stax Records STX-325025-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

201008_midnightflyerBetween them, Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere have many years’ experience playing soul music, but Nudge It Up a Notch, their 2008 contribution to the resurrected Stax Records, was their first collaboration. Though the songs were strong, they were marred by too much compression in the mastering. Tom Hambridge helped produce Midnight Flyer, and the sound is a vast improvement, if perhaps a touch bland.

The songs aren’t quite as consistent as those on the duo’s debut, but there’s still plenty to like. Cavaliere is in great voice, and his performances on "I Can’t Stand It" (a duet with his daughter Aria) and "I Can’t Stand the Rain" are seminars in how to sing a soul tune. Steve Cropper’s solos are models of elegant understatement and feeling, and his rhythm guitar playing is the pulse that keeps things moving. The old-style backing vocals help ground the music in tradition, but on many tunes I found myself wishing Cavaliere had used traditional keyboards. "Early Morning Riser" and "I Can’t Stand It" derive a lot of their energy from his Hammond organ playing. The songs on Midnight Flyer take a few listens to grab you, but they’re well constructed by two old-time craftsmen, with assistance from Hambridge. How about a horn section next time?

NLQ/Whitehouse Records
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_quarterThe Japanese have had a passion for American jazz since the 1950s, culminating in the erection of the New Latin Quarter club in Tokyo. Boasting 100 "hostesses," 40 employees, and 80 tables (300 patrons), the establishment became a crown jewel in the East, both for hearing jazz and, according to the program notes, for espionage and spying. One envisions a scene where a mobster is contracted to deliver illicit cargo while listening to Julie London. The artists who’ve played there constitute a who’s who of jazz, and their performances have been preserved. In 2007, 47 reel-to-reel tapes were discovered, and they’ll now be available on CD.

Rather than duplicating any particular evening, the CDs present excerpts from various sets. Volume 1 gets off to a relaxed, swinging start as Nat "King" Cole (1963) sings an impeccable, suave, and swinging version of "The Way You Look Tonight," followed by Nancy Wilson (1970) definitively vamping "The Man Who Got Away." Performances by Keely Smith, Chubby Checker, Louis Armstrong, Patti Page, Julie London, Bobby Troup, Sammy Davis Jr., The Mills Brothers, and the Harry James Orchestra fill out the disc. Page’s "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1962) is a revelation. I’d never thought of the "singing rage" as a jazz performer, but here’s proof that she could be just that. The disc finishes with Louis Armstrong doing a rousing version of "When the Saints Go Marchin’ In" (1961).

All of the cuts present previously unavailable recordings by music legends in their prime, and the recorded sound is mono and better than you might expect. We can look forward to additional volumes in a series that delivers real treasures for the jazz lover.

Rainbow Quartz Records TT 167
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_gripweedsThe Grip Weeds have finally released their fifth disc, and it’s cause for celebration. Strange Change Machine roars to life on "Speed of Life" with an explosion of drum rolls by Kurt Reil, solidifying his standing as one of rock’s great timekeepers. The song’s Mellotron, throbbing guitar delays, ringing major seventh chords, and soaring harmonies are proof once again that the Grip Weeds belong in rock’s pantheon. Kristin Pinell and Rick Reil are a formidable two-guitar lineup, and the disc demonstrates that old-school guitar effects, real keyboards, and analog recording are the keys to great rock'n'roll.

Strange Change Machine contains more than 80 minutes of music over two discs, and there isn’t a dead moment on it, although I might have enjoyed a less obvious Todd Rundgren cover than "Hello, It’s Me." The amazing thing about the Grip Weeds is that the band can play such tough, no-holds-barred rock'n'roll, and still be subtle, elegant, and melodic. Strange Change Machine is also available as a two-LP set. I need to catch this band live.

On the Air 9654
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201008_leboLawrence Lebo is a disarming singer from California who defies categorization. Essentially a jazz vocalist, she incorporates elements of blues, western swing, and folk for a result that’s better identified with her own name than any particular genre. Much of the time Lebo partners with just one instrument, the double bass of Denny Croy, who some readers might know as a bassist for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The two play and sing hand in glove, with impeccable pitch and undeniable nuance. I liked every song on this CD, but the blues tracks, including "Lawrence’s Working Girl Blues," "It’s Not the First Time," and a superb version of "Walking the Back Streets," got to me the most. In the jazz vein, I’d pick the anguished "I Should Care," again a duet with Croy, and to represent western swing, there’s "A Promise I Can Keep," a Lebo original that uses the largest group of instruments, including vibes and violin.

The recorded sound is honest and clean with good frequency and dynamic response. The bass is especially well recorded, and the balance between bass and voice in the duets couldn’t be better. So "Don’t Call Her Larry." Instead, call Lebo brilliant and refreshing.