Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Kinks Lola versus Powerman and The Moneygoround, Part 1, 1970

The Kinks continued their string of top-notch work with Lola....

The riff-rock of The Contenders kicks things off in style, followed by Dave's sweet melancholia Strangers. Only the Kinks can make rock music as English as Denmark Street (tip of the hat to the publishers) and Get Back In Line, a lament of the stark choice between union card and dole. Then Lola rolls around, and although it's a tired old warhorse now, it still is a great guitar riff, and Dave's harmonies are spot on. And it's just the classic transvestite story, told with Ray Davies' perfect mix of bewilderment and sympathy. Top Of The Pops tells the tale of the first big hit, and does it with a perfectly derived You Really Got Me riff and more of recently-added keyboardist John Goslings' great organ fills. Side one ends with the music hall stylings of The Moneygoround, in which everyone gets their proverbial slice of the pie.

Side two falls off just a bit, but still has some juicy bits. This Time Tomorrow's great building rhythm and tale of the road are classic rock, and the sweet ballad A Long Way Home is a gentle reminder that we all have much to learn. Ape Man became the second hit, and it's a fun need-to-escape rocker with driving piano and guitar. Rats is a bit overstated by Dave, and Powerman and Got To Be Free are just not up to the quality of the rest of the record, but that's only three weak ones.

It's their I-hate-the-record-business record, and that's not usually the best news. The whining of rock stars gets old real fast. But Ray comes through with a bunch of great songs, and the recording gives them the fattest sound they've had on record yet. Mick Avory is a great drummer, and Gosling's organ and piano make sure you won't miss that other guy (Nicky Hopkins) too much.

At the time of its release, it was their best selling record (in the US) since their first, a big commercial comeback.  Retrospectively, coming between Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies makes it hard to be seen in a fair light. It is almost as good as those two. And that's a big deal.

The other Kinks album reviews:
Face To Face
Something Else By The Kinks
The Village Green Preservation Society

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Cleveland Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt conductor, Nielsen Symphony 3, Beethoven Symphony 7, February 16, 2013

Saturday night in Cleveland rocked! The theme of the evening was rhythm, and it was clearly and precisely enunciated. Herbert Blomstedt was all smiles as he lead Cleveland in these two classic pieces, written 100 years apart, and yet brimming with similar rhythmic excitement. And for an orchestra and conductor to pair such dynamic pieces together was sheer brilliance.

I wasn't familiar with Nielsen's work, but that is about to change. The hard-charging Symphony #3 "Sinfonia Espansiva" was expansive indeed, on several levels, and Blomstedt's joy in pushing the work forward at all times was very much contagious.

Beethoven's 7th is another fast-paced cooker, and again Blomstedt never let up. The slow passages were brief and added needed relief from the powerful force of the piece.

The crowd went wild. The 85-year-old Swede led the orchestra with verve and drive, and the normally refined orchestra responded with a performance of, at least for them, near abandon. It was a special night at Severance Hall indeed.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tubes vs. Solid State

I've been a tube amplification convert for at least a decade.

That's when I bought a nice tube amplifier and preamp, an Anthem Amp 1 and Pre 2L. Tubes sounded warm and rich, easy to listen to in a way I had never experienced with solid state. To be fair, I never really owned particularly high quality solid state equipment. I replaced the 35-watt EL34 Anthem Amp 1 a few years ago with an 8-watt single-end triode (SET) 300B amp from Granite Audio that I love even more than the Anthem.

 I'm like Mr. Tube Guy.

Bryston 4B 250 watt amplifier

A few weeks ago my friend brings over his early-vintage (late eighties?) Bryston 4B, a 250-watt per channel solid state amplifier, and we hook it up. This sucker grabs on to the bass from my speakers and won't let go. Tuneful, articulate bass that lets you really distinguish every note. This is a big deal in comparison to anything these speakers have ever been handled by.

And of course, the bass from the 8-watt SET amp is not so well defined. It's there, and it's not bad, but the actual notes are a little wishy-washy. On the flip side, the Bryston cannot open up the midrange and highs with the delicate detail and finesse of the SET amp, especially at lower volume levels. Up loud, the solid state amp rocks effortlessly, and has more dynamic headroom than the tube amp.

I had become a true convert of the sound of tubes done right. And now I am equally enthralled, albeit for different reasons, with a big solid state amp.

So now it's time to put the tube amp back in and see what things sound like after living with this high power solid state amp for a month...
 Granite Audio Aspen 800 8 watt amplifier

I wrote that a few days ago, and then reinstalled my tube amp. To make a long story, er, less long, the solid state amp is going back to its owner. The midrange and treble of the tube amp have a certain magical, expansive, expressive quality that the high-power amp just couldn't match. Call it bloom, a spatial "size" of the auditory image, openness. The bass control of a muscular solid state amp was impressive, and the overall sound of the Bryston was much better than I expected by quite a bit. I liked it, and I could live with it.

So I'm less of a tube nut than before. I can see both sides of the coin, and I can understand that most people don't want to be bothered with a stereo that requires some significant measure of regular maintenance, and maintenance costs, that naturally accompanies tubes.

And my friend whose 250-watt amp had been replaced in his system with even more watts several years ago? He's building a tube amp kit in his basement right now.

More on the equipment here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Buffalo Springfield 1966-1968

Two years. Three records. Remarkable stuff, especially within the context of its times. And it holds up quite well. Folk-rock-country-Americana-soul-psych.

So how to enjoy it? If you've got a turntable and can collect the three original LPs, who'd blame you? You could download them, too, if you want. There's also the 1969 Retrospective single LP that's a joy, and available in all the usual formats. The four-CD box is just overkill.

But the 1973 double-LP Buffalo Springfield, which takes the original three records down to two, is just about the right amount of editing. Never available in CD or any other digital format. I suppose you could look up the track listing and then build it yourself, but that's a drag.

This was a great band. Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messsina would go on to produce tons of great music after this. This was before all that, and just as good. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

M. Ward A Wasteland Companion 2012

I bought this record a while back and I've thought about writing it up for a while. I have a couple of other M. Ward records, and I enjoy them when I listen to them. But here's the thing: I never know what to think of them, and although I enjoy them, I can never really recall why. One or two songs stick out as memorable, but I'm never sure which ones those were. The entire experience is enjoyable and yet I'm left with almost no impression. I sat down to take notes and figure this one out.

Let's go straight to the overall impression. This is a fine record filled with well-crafted songs and skilled performances. For my taste, there's not enough rocking and too much mellow folk-styled songs. But... the slower songs are really very good. So as long as you know that it's going to be laid back (especially side two), no problem. In fact, you might find this record particularly good late night fare.

Clean Slate is a soft acoustic ballad featuring Ward's high register, and it's a fine start. Primitive Girl is a nice light piano-driven rocker with a funky, echo-y vocal effect. Zoey Descantel, Ward's partner in She and Him, joins in on Me And My Shadow, a folksy song that recalls some of Josh Ritter's recent work, and Sweetheart, a perfect folk-rock with a sweet melody and matching lyric. The shuffling rock of I Get Ideas and the gentle acoustic of The First Time I Ran Away end side one nicely.

Side two opens with the title track, and it is another quality acoustic ditty. The psychopath of Watch The Show is fun to meet, and the guitar-heavy rocker has a quick tempo that's welcome. There's A Key is simple, sweet and lovely, as is Crawl After You. Wild Goose is mostly instrumental, and excellent. And Pure Joy is just that- a beautiful love song. That's only one of the last five songs with a tempo.

M. Ward's strength as a producer makes a big difference. The arrangements are simple but very well chosen. Piano here, string section there, small rock combo, solo acoustic, whatever the song seems to need. His plaintive vocals make the quieter songs carry more weight. 

Sometimes you don't realize how good something is until you pay some attention.