Monday, April 13, 2015

Little Richard Here's Little Richard 1957

The search for the holy grail of the Birth of Rock and Roll will take you to early sides by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Going further back pulls in The 5 Royals, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and a host of others. But no one should give you any grief for including Little Richard's Tutti Frutti in the mix. And many other tracks from this fine debut long player from Little Richard, including True Fine Mama, Ready Teddy, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, and She's Got It.

Little Richard Penniman recorded a few sides in 1952 and 1953, but the bulk of his rock and roll fame was produced for Specialty records from 1955-1957. And everything he recorded for Specialty was released as singles. This collection of A and B sides recorded in 55 and 56, and released while Richard was still recording for the company, is as good as early rock and roll gets, and Richard is completely on fire. Known for his wild performances, you get the idea loud and clear on these studio tracks. Specialty released two other LPs, both after Pennimen left the company, and the rest of his early hits are included on those LPs, Little Richard 1958 and The Fabulous Little Richard 1959.

There's many CD compilations for Little Richard, but the Specialty recordings are really the crux of the matter. So much so that he re-recorded much of this material at least twice later in his career (those recordings are bested by the originals, even if they offer improved- and stereo- sound). Little Richard had a long and strange career, bouncing back and forth between gospel and rock and roll, with one comeback after another, but it was always his seminal fifties sides that made him awe-inspiring. This one (or a compilation of his Specialty hits) and his outstanding 1970 comeback, The Rill Thing, are some of his finest moments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Sound of Music, The Sound of Sound

Audiophiles are regularly accused these days of being overly obsessed with the gear, and less interested in the music. I like to think I stay mostly focused on the music, but I do love cool looking boxes. I do worry sometimes that the idea of just sitting and listening to music, and not doing anything else, is foreign to most people these days. But then I'm never alone when I visit the orchestra and hear live music for almost two hours, and we mostly sit still.

There has long been an argument among those as interested in arguing as they are in music, about what a music playback system is supposed to do in your home. One raison d'etre of a home music system is to bring the experience of live music into the home (this may well be the unachievable goal). Another is to be faithful to the sound of the original recording (wherever that may have happened). Another is to duplicate the movie theater experience. And yes, for some, it's to provide pleasant background music.

Art Dudley, whose writing I like at least as much as Carl Hiaasen's or Kurt Vonnegut's, wrote another great Listening column in Stereophile in February, and while it gets pretty seriously technical, it also gets to the core of the tube/solid state debate in a clearly biased (it's not always a bad thing), yet still scientific way. Dudley discusses the various types of distortion present in music systems, and how the ones made by simple tube amplifiers are, to him, the least objectionable, and in some ways, may even enhance the listening experience. And Dudley answers the question of what a stereo should do, with elegance and élan. I don't care so much for all the technicalities, but the end result that tube electronics sound better than solid state certainly resonates with me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing anyone's solid state electronics. Taste is taste. I also believe that when you get to the very expensive stuff, the tubes vs. solid state debate becomes moot, and there are remarkable products that anyone could enjoy in both categories. But in the lower- and mid-level products, there are very real differences, and more watts is not always the answer.

Of course it all has a lot to do with what you want from you music delivery system, and all the other priorities in your life as well. My answer to what your stereo should do is whatever you want it to, and make you happy. It is, after all, a product. As Paul Butterfield once sang, "Take your pleasure where you find it."

OK I'm done.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961, 2014

Why (or why not) do you need (or want) this four-record vinyl set?

The four records here include everything that was recorded (and survives) on that fateful day in 1961 when Evans and company played four sets, and it all got recorded. These recordings went on to become two classic jazz albums that have never been out of print since their 1961 release (!), Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie. The recording represents for many the pinnacle of Evans' work, even though he enjoyed popularity and success until his death in 1980. Evans is most famous for developing and expanding the language of the piano trio, and this trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, is credited with redefining that language forever. Add to the facts that LaFaro died in a car crash shortly after this recording, and you get a slice of history that cannot be repeated.

Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie are both available in excellent reissued vinyl versions, so this set either needs to be better sounding than those records or offer something unique in the tracks that haven't appeared on vinyl previously. All of the tracks here were released in 1991 on the 12 CD set The Complete Riverside Recordings except for the incomplete first take of Gloria's Step, but that means buying 12 CDs of material that many Evans fans own much of already. You can also get all of this material on a 3 CD set with the same name from 2005. And you can also buy the CD reissues with bonus tracks of the two aforementioned releases, and get all but two of the tracks here. But this is the only way to get the whole enchilada on vinyl.

The original two-track tapes required some editing that could not be done without damaging the tapes. So when the 2005 CD version was produced, the music was transferred to digital for editing, and these vinyl pressings are made from those digital files. Surprisingly, in 2005 the tapes were digitized at 44 kHz (standard CD resolution) instead of a higher sampling rate, and it certainly begs the question of how much better this music could have sounded if digitized in a higher quality transfer. All that said, the vinyl here sounds very good. The pressing quality is exceptional, with less surface noise than I may have ever heard on any vinyl. Ever. If there is a small amount of digital hash/edge to the piano, you're going to have to turn it up very loud to hear it. And here's the kicker- digital transfer aside, this version is closer to those original two-track tapes than any of the reissued vinyl versions out there, which were sourced from mixed down masters that could only be second generation copies at best. And what this means is that Scott LaFaro's bass sounds better than it ever has on vinyl in the past. If you know these recordings, the bass has always been well presented, so the improvement isn't night and day, but it seems quite real to my ears. And the interplay between Evans and LaFaro is essentially what has made this one of the great moments in Evans' career, and in all of jazz history, for many an aficionado.

Add to that the alternate takes and never-released tracks available on vinyl for the first time, and you have something very special indeed. Do you need this if you already own Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie? I can't tell you. For me, having more from this trio in my collection is well worth it. The additional music is in many ways the equal of the tracks released on those two fine original releases, but I doubt I would have purchased it myself (I received the box as a birthday gift). Having now heard it though, I would certainly have purchased it for myself. Especially because of the particularly excellent pressing job and overall sound quality.

The box comes with a decent book, and a nice poster-type thing. The packaging and presentation is fine, although it's not the reason to buy. You have to want this music, and you have to want it on vinyl, because you can get it all on the CD version for less.

You probably don't have a friend as good as the friend that gave it to me. If after reading this, you wish you had a friend like mine, but you know you don't have that kind of friend, you'll just have to buy it for yourself.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Heather Myles

Maybe you're like me, and today's country music leaves you confused and unhappy.

Maybe you like country music, but it isn't what you hear when you hear Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, or Sugarland.

Maybe you'd like to hear one contemporary country artist that respected the legacy of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and the honky-tonk, Bakersfield sound.

Look no farther than Heather Myles, who would be a huge star if country music radio still played country music, without the pop and eighties-rock influences that have morphed country into the slick product it has become today.

Myles got started in the early nineties with Just Like Old Times 1992 and Untamed 1995 on High Tone Records. You can hear her talent, but both records are a little underproduced, and her songs are not quite as perfect as they will become. The two records' best material was reissued on Rum & Rodeo in 2005.

Starting in 1998, Myles has produced three fine country records. Highways And Honky Tonks 1998, Sweet Talk And Good Lies 2002, and In The Wind 2011 are all non-stop gold. Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, and Willie Nelson have all made guest appearances, in case she needed any additional credibility. She writes almost all the songs, and they are consistently great, with traditional country values (lovin', drinkin', cheatin') and solid, catchy country choruses. There are no strings and no synthesizers, just good old honky-tonkin' country music. And she has a fabulous, strong voice with just enough twang to feel the heartache, and just enough power to know she ain't fooling around.
Highways And Honky Tonks might be the best place to start. It might have the best collection of songs, but you can't go wrong with any of the three of them. Treat yourself to the real deal.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bette Midler It's The Girls! 2014

Bette Midler is a fine vocal talent that has been wasted on middling material and just plain wrong production for much of her career. That hasn't stopped her from winning Grammy's and having big hit singles, but it has made much of her material come off as product, and pretty standard product at that. Of course, things got started in fine style with her stellar 1972 debut, The Divine Miss M. But the soundtrack work, and much of Arif Marden's later productions left me wanting. I came to think of her as an actor (and a darn good one) as much as a singer. Then there was that last Carson show when she serenaded him with One For The Road. I mean, you almost have to love her even if her recordings seemed so, I don't know, schlocky.

What made The Divine Miss M so great were the songs, many of which would fit right in with this new recording. There were girl group sounds all over Miss M, with Chapel Of Love and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. And there wasn't any padding on the record.

Well, I'll save you any suspense and just tell you that Bette Midler has finally made The Divine Miss M Part 2. It is a delight to hear Midler tackle these fabulous, and mostly true to the original, girl group classics. The song selection is spot on, with plenty of obvious choices, but also some rarities. When the songs get new arrangements, they're really great choices, like the slow, heartfelt version of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Heartfelt is a good choice of words, really, because Midler sounds more invested in this material than she ever has sounded. Wow.

Be My Baby, One Fine Day, Tell Him, Baby It's You, He's Sure The Boy I Love, You Can't Hurry Love, all done just different enough from their sixties originals to sound fresh. The tracks from the forties "original" girl groups are particularly fine, with The DeCastro Sister's close harmony version of Teach Me Tonight just breathtakingly beautiful.

I didn't really care much if there was ever going to be another great Bette Midler recording, and I certainly didn't expect it. What a lovely surprise!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Grapes Of Wrath These Days 1991

A fairly successful eighties folk-rock band from Canada, The Grapes Of Wrath presented a somewhat harder rock sound on These Days than they had previously displayed. While critics and fans may have been less than thrilled with the direction change, the two singles still charted higher than any of their previous efforts.

And today, the CD comes off like some lost classic jangle-pop gem. The two singles, I Am Here and You May Be Right are both timeless mid-tempo rockers packed with melody, great hooks, fine vocals, and hot guitar.

And the whole thing holds up surprisingly well. The songs are strong, the lyrics worthy, and the band is talented. It turned out to be their swan song after an EP and three other CDs throughout the eighties. I think they went out on a high note.

Most of the band continued to play through the nineties as Ginger, and they reformed for new releases in 2000 (Field Trip) and again in 2013 (the solid High Road). But their strongest moment may have been These Days. It was a nice change of pace in 1991, and a delightful treat today.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The battle with loudness at live performances

There's some fairly recent science that supports what many of us have believed for a long time, that is, that Most Rock 'N' Roll Bands Play Too Loud.

Especially the bass and bass drum, which almost always seem too loud in the mix compared to everything else. And it seems to get worse as the night progresses.

This could be due to an already deaf sound guy.

It could also be quite purposeful, to make sure your chest rattles with the beat. That way you know it's really rock 'n' roll.

And the "get louder as the set progresses" deal could also be individual band members slowly creeping their volumes up until it's all just too much.

Or it could be alcohol. Follow that link to read an interesting article (and comments) supported by this research.