Thursday, December 24, 2009

What makes this music sound so good?

I guess there might be someone out there who wants to know on what kind of equipment I listen to all this music? Well, it's a wonderful system that reveals fine details while keeping music moving. I've heard great systems that can't deliver rhythm and pacing, but this one does this difficult job just fine. Most of the music systems that I don't like sound too sterile, or dry, or they can't involve you at the rhythmic level. Either of these problems makes listening to music very tiring. There is no fatigue while listening to my gear. Here's what I've got:
Reference 3A MM deCapo i speakers
Anthem PRE-2L tube preamp
Granite Audio Aspen 800 tube amp
Cambridge Audio Azur 840C
Wadia 170 iTransport
iPod Classic 160 GB
Music Hall MMF-5 Turntable
Benz Micro Ace cartridge
Pro-Ject Tube Box phono pre-amp

The Reference 3A speakers are just killer. They are very efficient (92dB) so they can be driven by the mighty 8 watts of the Granite Audio 300B SET amp. The Anthem preamp is relatively clean and not terribly "tubey", but it's warm and sweet. I've been very pleased with the sound of the Cambridge Audio CD player, and it's upsampling DAC can be used for other digital signals. I take the digital (Apple Lossless) out of the iPod directly into the Cambridge Audio's DAC, avoiding the iPod's DAC and amplifier. CD quality sound from the iPod. It's a good thing.

Obviously I'm still into vinyl, and there are tubes in all of my pre-amps and amps. Long live analog. I've heard plenty of solid state equipment that sounds good, but I do love the warmth and bloom that tubes and analog recordings provide.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Sons of Champlin

The Sons of Champlin started in 1969 with Loosen Up Naturally, a double-LP set of horn-heavy rock with Bill Champlin's soulful singing preaching peace, love and pot. Despite the hippie vibe of the lyrics, which have aged with mixed results, the record is a huge gas. It's like a Chicago album except better (way better). Champlin sounds a lot like Lou Rawls, the horn charts are great, and Terry Haggerty is a lightning hot rock guitarist with a jazz heart. Geoff Palmer's vibes add a nice element, one that remains with the group throughout it's career. 1982-A, The Thing To Do, Misery Isn't Free, Get High, and Freedom are all standouts on this first LP. Also in 1969, The Sons was released. A dour looking photo on the cover and the name change foretell trouble for the group, but the record is pretty good. Love of a Woman is a great arraignment, and It's Time and Boomp Boomp Chop are strong. While it's not the first record, it has it's moments.

In 1971, Champlin brought in a new rhythm section, laid off the horns, and recorded Follow Your Heart as a five-piece. It confused the fans of their horn-based sound, but it remains a high point in their work. The title track has my personal favorite guitar solo of all time, with Terry Haggerty ripping one of the best jazz-rock guitar breaks ever recorded. Before You Right Now, Hey Children, Headway and A Sound Love are all strong tracks, and the band cooks soulful even without horns. It's hard to think of another record that sounds quite like Follow Your Heart.

In 1993, Capitol Records put out a Best Of The Sons Of Champlin CD that covers these first three records, and it's pretty good except for the omission of Follow Your Heart, probably because of the "smoke lots of weed" message of the song.

In 1973 they showed up on Columbia with Welcome To The Dance, a record which has become, in retrospect, a career peak. It's a great record, funky rock and soul, intricate, hook-filled arrangements, super tight playing, and the horns are back. Think of a cross between Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire, and Sly and the Family Stone. One weak track- hey, everybody gets to have one- otherwise a stone classic.

Columbia said goodbye after Welcome To The Dance didn't sell, and the band released The Sons Of Champlin on their own Gold Mine label in 1975. This one is a mixed-up bag in terms of style, but another strong record. Lookout, Like To Get To Know You, All And Everything, Without Love, Queen Of The Rain, and Gold Mine are all strong songs. Mark Isham joins the band on trumpet and keyboards. There are a few songs that don't work, but the good ones lead the way. The only way I know to buy this on CD is in the 2 CD The Ariola Years set, which also includes the next two. Ariola picked up this one after they signed the band to record A Circle Filled With Love in 1976. Circle Filled With Love was produced by Keith Olsen, who has turned many a hit in his day, and the record seems stunted by too much production. There's some excellent cuts, but the sound seems just too slick for the band. Funky this one is not.

The next Ariola LP was 1977's Loving Is Why. A surprisingly good record when heard today, alas there was no hit single or significant airplay. Saved By The Grace Of Your Love is Bill Champlin at his soulful best. Loving Is Why and Love Can Take Me Now show the big balladry that Champlin will continue when he joins Chicago in the eighties. A fine Big Boss Man, that shouldn't really work for this band, gets a bluesy workout and cooks.

After that Bill Champlin went solo for a while before he was invited to join Chicago in the 1982. He recorded and toured with Chicago and released four solo records in the nineties.

The band reunited in 1997 and released Live in 1998. It's a hot set that mostly comes from the first three records. Another live set, Secrets came in 2002, and a new studio album, Hip Lil' Dreams, sadly without Terry Haggerty, was released in 2005.

Seek out the early records, especially Loosen Up Naturally, Follow Your Heart, and Welcome To The Dance, or the Capital Best Of.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Zappadan 2009 again... The 1988 Tour CDs

Well it's still Zappadan. I hope you're having a nice celebration.
I have the distinct dishonor of missing Zappa's 1988 tour, but the CDs produced are excellent. The first one released was Broadway The Hard Way in 1988. It's a fine record, heavy on political rants, but with some great songs. Sting (yes, Sting) guests on Murder By Numbers, and there's a good Outside Now, Elvis Has Left The Building, and Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk. It happens to include the definitive version of Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel. Otherwise it's not really the best, especially compared to the other two from the same tour.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991 is a real crowd-pleaser, with Zappa doing many covers, often with hilarious results. Purple Haze, Ring Of Fire, Sunshine Of Your Love, and a totally amazing Stairway To Heaven are all great. The Torture Never Stops medley is killer, and Inca Roads is a standout. A great introduction to Zappa, and an indispensable release. Consistently excellent.

Equally good, but a little more work to listen to, is Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991. A smokin' Stinkfoot leads things off, followed by When Yuppies Go To Hell, 14 minutes of virtuoso playing that is awe inspiring. But the entire CD is like that. Black Napkins, King Kong, City Of Tiny Lights, Cruising For Burgers, and Dupree's Paradise are classics. The CD is comprised of Zappa's most difficult to play charts, and this band has no problems meeting the challenge. An amazing experience, but not the rollicking fun of Best Band. Also for fusion lovers that never knew how complex Zappa's work could be.
Check them out- they're all good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Zappadan 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year... it's Zappadan. Zappadan is a festival celebrating all things Zappa, running from Dec 4 to Dec 21 each year. It's barely enough time to remember the spirit of Frank Zappa, American Composer. You can celebrate Zappadan in your own way- in fact, why would you possibly celebrate Zappa by doing anything that anyone else might be doing. That's why it's so perfect. I was trying to think of what to post, top five or ten records, great live performances, wonderfully skewed quotes, favorite moments. I'm still struggling.

I have a friend who has tried to let me get him into Zappa for several years. He's a pretty regular guy and likes music and wants to have an open mind, but every time we sit down and I play him some Frank, the music eventually gets too weird for him and he can't take it. Don't ask me to explain this behavior. I think it may be that there's so much going on in Zappa's music that he can't process it all.
A few years ago I made my friend a CD of Zappa tunes that I felt was a swell mix of humor, guitar playing, jazz, and well, all things Zappa in a single CD. Of course, it included many of my favorites. The track list was:
1. Peaches En Regalia Hot Rats 1969
2. Cosmik Debris Apostrophe(‘) 1974
3. Stairway To Heaven The Greatest Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991
4. Watermelon In Easter Hay Joe’s Garage 1979
5. Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel Broadway The Hard Way 1988
6. Re-gyptian Strut Sleep Dirt 1978
7. I’m The Slime Over-nite Sensation 1973
8. Black Napkins Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991
9. Inca Roads One Size Fits All 1975
10. For The Young Sophisticate Tinsel Town Rebellion 1981
11. Uncle Meat Uncle Meat 1968
12. Oh No Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
13. The Orange County Lumber Truck Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
14. RDNZL Studio Tan 1978
15. Duke Of Orchestral Prunes Orchestral Favorites 1979
16. Let’s Make The Water Turn Black We’re Only In It For The Money 1968

I'm listening to it now. All songs from my own CDs or LPs. I still think it's one of my best ever compilations, if I may say so myself.

The CD did not apparently turn my friend into a Zappa fan, but your results may vary.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nick Lowe At My Age 2007

Who doesn't like Nick Lowe? I'm sure they're out there, and I hope they can find their way. Through 40 years in the music business, Lowe has made more than his share of great music. From the early quality of Brinsley Schwartz's strange country/pub-rock output in the seventies, to producing the first four Elvis Costello records, to snarky pop-rock and rockabilly with Rockpile in the eighties, to the more organic, crooner-styled recent work in the ninties and oughts. The overall quality of his work has been as remarkable as it has been diverse, as a producer, songwriter, singer, bass and guitar player, and bandleader.

This most recent Lowe CD (there's a newer "best of" 2 CD set) is no exception. It's a laid-back affair, with Lowe singing his heart out on a great list of new originals. I Trained Her To Love Me, Hope For Us All, People Change, Love's Got A Lot To Answer For, Rome Wasn't Built In A Day, The Other Side Of The Coin are all classics. If some of those titles sound cliche, know that Lowe is better at turning a familiar phrase with a new twist than almost anyone. This record continues the subtle, supple arraignments that made Dig My Mood 1998 and The Convincer 2001 so excellent. A band of crack ace musicians make the whole thing sound effortless.

Some things get better with age, but not many things, it turns out. Nick Lowe is like a fine wine. Thinking back to to his 1978 solo debut, Jesus Of Cool, it seems remarkable that he's still doing it so well. A great tunesmith, a singer that improves with age, and a highly skilled producer in one package. Buy this, and almost anything else he's ever done while you're at it.