Monday, August 30, 2010

Tubes or Solid State?


Solid state amplification devices are more efficient, so you can get a lot more watts for less money. Many types of speakers are relatively inefficient, or present unusual impedance loads that challenge an amplifier, and these devices require plenty of muscle to perform their best. The super high power tube amps are just really too expensive. So solid state has an important place in our world.

But take a highly efficient speaker than never drops too low in electrical impedance, and a well-crafted tube amp, and music just blooms out of the system.

I've heard great stereos that use solid state amps. But there's a magic to good tube amplification with the right speakers that solid state just can't do.

Tubes. More.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Roy Orbison Black And White Night 1989

Recorded live for a splendid DVD, this CD is a champ. Miraculously, Roy Orbison had lost not a single tiny bit of his angelic voice in 1987. He's backed by former Presley employees the TCB band of James Burton, Jerry Sheff, Glen Hardin and Ron Tuft. And that show would be a killer all by itself, but...

Add Michael Utley on keys, Alex Acuna on percussion, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen on guitars, and whoa! Lookout!

But wait, not only do you get the still vital Orbison, the TCB band, the stellar guests, but for a limited time only you also receive the back-up singer crew of (get ready for this) Steve Soles, J. D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, k. d. lang, and Jennifer Warnes. Just read those last three again.

Everything is perfect. The guests play great, but never upstage the star, and Springteen is particularly reverential to Orbison. The band is, well, see above. If it sounds like a dream team, they will live up to your dreams.

With Orbison's All Time Greatest Hits, essential listening.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don Dixon Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers 2010

What an exciting title. Who are the Jeffords Brothers? Who is Don Dixon?

There are way too many people who might ask that second question, and for no good reason. Don Dixon has released a run of great solo records since 1985, and has produced many excellent records for others, not the least of which a string of overlooked gems by his wife Marti Jones, but also REM, Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw, and many others.

He's the American Nick Lowe. Songwriter, singer, bass player, producer, and consistently excellent at all of it. Blessed with a soulful rasp of a voice, he's up to the task of singing these fine, newly written R&B gems. Dixon played all the instruments except drums, which he wisely left in long-time musical partner Jim Brock's rock-steady hands.

So who are the Jeffords? Just two brothers from Carolina who write these particularly great songs, that Dixon turns into white soul the likes of which has been missing since the glory days of Dan Penn writing for the Box Tops. These songs are excellent, and Dixon does them as well as he does his own, with reverence and interesting arrangements.

I've Had Enough starts the CD off with a slinky soul put-down. All I Can Say is a funny-sad tale of cat-got-the-tongue shyness. Long Road Gone is a richly-orchestrated ballad that Dixon sings the crap out of. Me And My Radio is an under the covers romance with Top 40 broadcasts that swings with a strong chorus. I'm In Love With A Woman That I Can't Stand is another funny-sad gem, and the horn charts add a nice touch. The sweet soul of Love In Motion is irresistible, and Surprised By My Surprise is loaded with both lyrical and melodic hooks.

It's not soul or R&B like you're used to hearing, unless you've been following Dixon's work for a while, in which case this CD seems the natural extension of all he does so well, while letting him off the hook for the songwriting.

Killer smooth soul-pop from a talented artist and dynamic writing duo. Try something old, something new, in one package. Have some fun for a change. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cristian Cuff Chalkboard 2010

My wife and I took a lovely trip to the coast of Maine earlier this summer. Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, Portland, Bar Harbor, and especially Boothbay Harbor were delightful, and included really good seafood everywhere. Boothbay Harbour also had the Eastern Maine botanical garden, a not-to-be-missed stop.

While in Bar Harbor, we discovered a fine little Irish pub (stocking Paddy Irish whiskey, one of my faves) with an interesting bartender who told us his second CD had just been released. So we went back the next day to buy a copy from him. It turns out he is Christian Cuff.

While I don't generally buy much folk music (although Cheryl Wheeler and David Wilcox take up some space on the shelves), Cuff's material best fits into the category chamber folk, or as CD Baby calls it, anti-folk. It has taken me a while to get into the record, but as time and multiple listenings add up, I've come to enjoy much of what is on offer on this interestingly different CD.

Cuff is a folky singer-songwriter and a good guitarist. Joining Cuff on this CD are various musicians on keyboards, bass, guitar, drums, harmonica, vocals, woodwinds, trumpet, baritone horn, and string quartet.

There's not much happiness in the lyrics, but there is also not much cliche in them either. Cuff writes personal stuff quite well, and avoids the most common chord progressions in his music. This keeps things from sounding like "just another" anything, and gives the CD a uniqueness that is welcome.

The real thrill of the CD is the arrangements. Relatively simple songs augmented with string quartet and a variety of instrumental assistance keep the music interesting and varied in a way that simple guitar-based folk often misses. If there is a weakness, it is Cuff's voice, a husky-raspy whispered growl with limited range that nonetheless suits his songs well, and as tools go, it effectively communicates the tension in his lyrics.

South, Hobo Island, Red Rum, For Now, and Awful are standouts, and tend to move along at a slightly more sprightly clip than the others. But the entire CD benefits from the arrangements and that includes the more somber tunes. Cellist Jeremy Harman is consistently excellent, and all of the other musicians serve the music well.

Late night melancholy is soundtracked right here. If you like that sort of thing, this one will serve your listening pleasure.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dan Wilson Free Life 2007

Back in the mid-nineties, Dan Wilson made several great records with his band Semisonic. The Great Divide 1996 and Feeling Strangely Fine 1998 were exceptional, and All About Chemistry 2001 was almost as good. Wilson then went on to co-write several songs with the Dixie Chicks for their album Taking The Long Way, and has written with several other artists.

Wilson has a nice, clear, high voice. He is a very competent singer, guitar and piano player, and his lyrics are interesting and personal without being sappy. But it is his songwriting that shines above all else.

I bemoaned the loss of Semisonic, and hoped that this latest studio effort would rival that fine band. I'm happy to report that it almost sounds like a new Semisonic album, with a few more ballads than most of their records. If you liked that band, you'll like this. It is not quite the rock band records that they made, but it is close enough. If you never heard Semisonic, check out The Great Divide and Feeling Strangely Fine. If you want to hear some great songs by a modern master of the rock-pop form, this newest one will work fine.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse 1971

I mentioned this record previously. It's one of my all-time favorites, and it is not only the best Faces record, it is also the best Rod Stewart record. Some of his early solo records came close (the Faces played on those, too), but this one is just classic.

Glyn Johns was particularly hot, having just finished Who's Next with The Who, this was his next production. There are some similarities in the production. They both feature a wonderfully warm, organic sound. An engineer turned producer, Johns knew how to record.

The Faces brought their best, and that means a lot when you have three songwriters in the band. Miss Judy's Farm kicks things off, with Ronnie Wood's dirty guitar figure coupled with Ian McLagan's fine piano. A slow burner of a groove, and Rod's vocal is perfect. You're So Rude is a great Ronnie Lane tune, and the lyric is hilarious. Another mid-tempo rocker, it's shows off the rhythm section of drummer Kenny Jones and bassist Lane.

Love Lives Here is a sentimental ballad of longing for better times. Stewart sings it as soulfully as he has sung anything, and the lyric, and McLagan's piano, are exceptional. Last Orders Please is another Lane tune, and it's a rollicking barroom stomper with nice slide guitar from Wood. Side one ends with Stay With Me, just about the best thank you/kiss-off to groupies ever written, and with a Ronnie Wood riff that smokes the competition. This is the only song you need to hear to know why the Stones hired him. Great piano, and Stewart's vocal is perfect rock star attitude.

Side two opens with Debris, another sentimental Lane song, and another deep groove for a band thinking and acting as of one mind. Beautiful harmonies from Stewart, a breathtaking lead from Wood, and perfect piano and organ from McLagan. Of course as grooves go, there's none better than Memphis, the Chuck Berry classic that Rod and the boys play and sing like crazy.

This brings us to Too Bad, and the closer That's All You Need. Both are mostly overlooked gems, and Ron Wood absolutely shreds his guitar on both. Too Bad tells the sad story of being thrown out of a high class party because "we just don't have the right accent". And if there's a tour de force required, then the closer That's All You Need, will do just fine. Ron Wood plays slide over Rod's vocal for the first minute, then the band comes screaming in, and it rocks. The unaccompanied lead guitar break is wild stuff, and as Rod tells it, this is the rock 'n' roll cure.

It is the only classic record the band ever made, great from start to finish. There's a recent remastering, and a new vinyl pressing that sounds great.