Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ray Dolby 1933-2013

Ray Dolby passed away in September and somehow the fact escaped me until recently. Dolby was a brilliant engineer and businessman who parlayed a few solid and original designs into a billion-dollar fortune.

Most people know of Dolby through that loud noise at the beginning of movies announcing the use of Dolby Surround Sound, or more recently, Dolby Digital. Dolby's surround processing became the standard for movie soundtrack realism and certainly was his cash cow. His Dolby branded systems earned him significant respect for both his business acumen and his engineering.

He began his company's successes with Dolby Noise Reduction, a simple and elegant solution to the nasty tape hiss associated with the compact cassette. Dolby's lovely trick took the cassette tape medium from voice-only Dictaphone use to become the first convenient format for portable quality stereo reproduction. Because of Dolby, the original personal portable music player, the Sony Walkman, became a reality some 34 years ago.

And so, without Dolby, we might still be waiting for the iPod.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East 1971

Sometimes it can be challenging to keep up blogging at least once a week. I often tell myself I'm just going to pull out some old favorite and rattle off a quick one. At times like this, the record I most often think I'll review is this one, At Fillmore East.

There are many reasons that I think of the record as a classic, and deserving of its status as such. But the real reason I think I love this record so much is that I was 16 when it came out. And we all listened to it all the time. And I never got sick of it. It has avoided being played to death on classic rock stations because of song length, and we're all the better for it.

Side one blasts off with Statesboro Blues, all swinging blues swagger. "If you can't make it, baby, Your sister Lucille certainly want to go", and Duane Allman's crazy good slide guitar. Done Somebody Wrong follows, with guest harmonica by Thom Doucet, and guitar solos from both Allman and Dicky Betts. The cover lists both as playing Lead Guitar, and that's exactly correct. Stormy Monday completes the first side. It is the definitive version of this oft-recorded chestnut, building so very slowly until they just rip it open. And the entire side also benefits from Greg Allman being one heck of a fine blues singer, and an organist deeply in touch with his inner Booker T. Jones.

You Don't Love Me starts with a driving blues riff, but then suffers from a too long slow section, and just not enough good ideas to fill nineteen minutes, all of side two.

Side three's Hot Lanta was written by all band members, and it sounds like a great idea taken from a jam and turned into a killer, organ-led swinging rocker. The twin guitar attack is in full force, Betts and Allman operating at a telepathic level. Smoking fast screaming guitars abound. Bett's In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed starts as a beautiful blues ballad, and then breaks into a shuffle that cooks like crazy with more twin lead guitars.

And then there's Whipping Post, aka side four. The song is a classic blues rock guitar exposé. And Greg sings it brilliantly. But the slow middle section is... well, it's dull is what it is, and the ending is more bombast than crescendo. It's a great song, but so is the five minute version on their debut.

I have to say going back to the whole record again was not quite as special as I had imagined it would be. The long jams, Whipping Post at 22 minutes, and You Don't Love Me at 19 minutes, don't hold up as well as they did in my, apparently more patient, youth. The slower passages of both meander around more than a little too long.

But the other half is incendiary. Side one's brilliant versions of old blues songs, and side three's blazing originals.

And there's something else. The sound of the vinyl is amazing, warm and relaxed, yet stunningly detailed. The two drummers provide a propulsive forward force, and the rhythm and timing of the presentation are special. The bass is big, but it is also wonderfully tuneful and articulate. It is a recording that can help you dissect the sound of system components, or audition new products. It sounds good on almost anything, but it can impress on a good stereo.

I'll just pull out an old favorite and rattle off a quick one.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tim Easton Not Cool 2013

Tim Easton has made quite a few fine records before this. While this is his rock-a-billy record, it is also more. The sweet ballad of the title track, the rocking stomp of Tired and Hungry, and the pure country instrumental Knock Out Roses (for Levon) that closes the record all add interesting touches and variety.

The majority though is rock-a-billy, and it's all fun, and sounds much like Nick Lowe's forays into the same genre. Respectful of the past, while updating the sound for modern times. The band is casual and talented and the recording has a nice organic sound, including quite a bit of acoustic bass. The songs are consistently crafted at the highest level of Easton's already notable songwriting talent.

Only slightly different from the rootsy singer-songwriter pop-rock we usually get from Easton, but just different enough to work. Superb.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sam Phillips Push Any Button 2013

Sam Phillips has had an interesting career and made some very good, quirky pop in the nineties with then husband/producer T-Bone Burnett. The four she made with Burnett between 1988 and 1996, The Indescribable Wow, Cruel Inventions, the acclaimed Martinis & Bikinis, and Omnipop were all good, and featured exceptional songwriting from Phillips, and wonderfully rich and inventive arrangements.

She's been busy since then, with several releases, writing for TV, and a number of download releases that she distributed herself. And now she has a new one. And it is a dandy.

The record breaks out of the gate with Pretty Time Bomb (the rocking opener with the serious backbeat), All Over Me, and When I'm Alone, and those three are almost worth the price of admission on their own. When I'm Alone has Indigo Girl harmonies hung on a hook-filled, acoustic guitar-driven pop gem. But there's more. The beautiful string arrangement on Going, the pounding pop-rock of Things I Shouldn't Have Told You, the chamber pop of Speaking Of Pictures, the jangly sixties vibe of You Know I Won't, and the cabaret stylings of Can't See Straight.

Her voice is lovely. Her lyrics are brilliant. The arrangements are great, with every song featuring a different mix of sounds, but nothing too jarring. Sometimes it sounds like Fiona Apple with less anger, or Swan Dive, but less precious, or Shawn Colvin with less angst, or Aimee Mann. But mostly it sounds like Sam Phillips, and certainly not an imitation of anything. Some of the eccentricities of the early work are smoothed out, and that lets you concentrate on the quality of the songs.

Anyway you cut it, it's a great new pop-folk-rock gem from a very talented pen and voice, backed by a crack ace band.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kim Richey The Collection 2004

You can't go wrong. Kim Richey is both a songwriter to the stars, and a rare talent in her own right. This collection compiles the best from her first four releases, Kim Richey 1995, Bitter Sweet 1997, Glimmer 1999, and Rise 2002.

There is much to recommend all four of them, but this collection is pretty much perfect. Richey operates at a higher level than almost any singer-songwriter out there, and while most of her songwriting for others has been country songs, her writing is often as pop/folk as Shawn Colvin or Cheryl Wheeler.

Her singing of her own songs is a good thing. Trisha Yearwood did a fine job with Those Words We Said, but not really any better than the version here. The song selection is great, and it sounds like what would be a greatest hits record for someone, instead of Richey's relative chart obscurity.

The first two records have a more country feel than Glimmer or Rise (and they were her best-selling), and the collection is chronological, so it's interesting to hear her develop into the writer we hear today.

If you're looking for a very talented voice and pen that you might have missed, check it out. It's very easy to like.