Monday, February 24, 2014

A Day at the Audio Store

I had a special experience last Saturday when I wandered into Paragon Sight and Sound in Ann Arbor. It was early afternoon, and there were no other customers, and the very nice sales staff allowed me to sit and listen to these Wilson Audio Sasha 2, $29,000 speakers. I walked into this lovely listening room, and the young lady asked me if I'd like her to turn it up. They were readying these speakers for their north American debut at a special event later this week. I asked if I could listen to my own music (I just happened to have a CD with some favorites), and she said sure.

But there's so much more. The source was a four-chassis box from dCS that included a CD transport, a DAC, a master clock, and
an upsampler, the four carrying a retail price of right around $108,000. Yeah, I know. Add to that the magnificent and beautiful Dan D'Agostino Momentum preamplifier ($32,000) and twin monoblock power amplifiers ($52,000/pair), and you've got $220,000 worth of stereo. I'm sure there were some crazy expensive cables being used.

What did that sound like?

Maybe right now we have to talk about value, even before the actual sound. I can't buy this stuff, and if I could, heck, I might. But I'd do so with the full understanding that I blew by the point of diminishing returns hundreds of thousands of dollars ago. Did it sound 27 times better than my own system? No way. But it did sound a lot better. I'm pretty sure you could get 98% of this sound for a tenth of the price. But maybe not all of it.

If I had a ridiculous ton of money I still wouldn't buy a Lamborghini or a yacht. Everyone has different priorities. But I might build a special room to listen to some crazy good music system.

And that is exactly what this sounded like. Deep bass, but never overemphasized, and never creeping into that low midrange area that makes Guy Clark sound chesty. Beautiful, searing guitar from Carlos Santana on The Song of the Wind from Caravanseri, but never edgy or too bright. Jane Monheit's Besame Mucho was pure tone perfection. Harry James Big Band's classic Corner Pocket was brassy and in your face, with dynamic range to spare. And The Emerson Quartet's 1st Movement of Hayden's Quartet in G Major was drop-dead stunning. The organ trills near the end of Elvin Bishop's Rock My Soul never sounded more intense, yet somehow relaxed at the same time.
The speakers were unflappable. The difference when you get to the top of the breed is the dynamic range capabilities, and the retrieval of sound you never even knew existed on your recordings. I'd heard Wilson Audio products years ago at an audio show, but this set-up and room were vastly superior, and I wondered how anyone could ask for more from a playback system. I've heard other great systems, and I'd say some of them were this good. But not better in any perceivable way.
No doubt the entire system was working together. The sound from the dCS digital source was so pure, so clean, so specific in its detail retrieval as to be shocking. The D'Agostino gear produced whatever push the music needed to be fully realized by the magnificent speakers, and is some of the most gorgeous stuff known to man. Swiss watch legendary. Clean, unlimited power, effortlessly provided in a nanosecond at whatever level is needed.

Or it just sounded like a blast, and if you heard it, you'd love it. Many thanks to the kind folks at Paragon for letting me experience it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tift Merritt Traveling Alone 2013 Kim Richey Thorn In My Heart 2013

Yep Rock Records has quietly entered the audiophile vinyl market 
with these two releases. Honestly I don't know if they've done it before, but both of these records are double LPs pressed at 45 rpm. For those not up to speed in the vinyl department, 45 rpm sounds considerably better than 33 1/3 rpm. Not just a little better. The 45 rpm 12-inch format has previously been reserved for the overpriced audiophile reissue market.

And so it is curious that Yep Rock put these two out with no fanfare. They just call them LPs on their web site, with no mention of their being pressed at 45 rpm. And vinyl isn't coming back. Yeah, right. Yep Rock lists 320 different CD releases on their site, and almost half that many on vinyl. Their artist roster is quite varied, with interesting acts from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today.

Still I'm boggled by the stealth 45 rpm release. Why not tell the
world. They both sound great. Clean, black backgrounds, and
gloriously rich, organic tones. Both records stand firmly in the adult-contemporary-country-singer-songwriter-alt-Americana camp, whose audience is just the kind of geezer that wants to buy a record that sounds that much better than any old record. But then maybe it would seem too elitist to sell to a younger crowd that might just also like these artists.

Whatever the reasoning, it's an interesting development. I haven't spent enough time with either record to really review them, but I like what I've heard so far. And I can tell you that they both sound fabulous. I know that doesn't mean much if the performance isn't there, and I agree, but these are both interesting artists you should maybe already know about. And if you have a turntable, you might just consider finding out what even better sounds like. Or maybe you should buy a turntable, and one of these records (or an old Quadrophenia album in the used bin).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Brian Auger's Oblivion Express Closer To It! 1973

Smack dab on top of it is more like it. Driving rhythms powered by drums and congas almost a la Santana, solid bass and rhythm guitar, Auger's smoking hot organ, multitracked vocals; it all adds up to some fine jazz-soul-rock fusion.

Whenever You're Ready kicks things off with hippy vibe lyrics, multiple hot organ solos, and a spooky percussion and moog break. Happiness Is Just Around The Bend follows with spritely pop-jazz featuring Auger on electric piano. Light On The Path is a driving jazz-rock instrumental that cooks.

On Gene McDaniels' Compared To What the funk serves this band well and they jam it out for eight minutes. Auger's vocals work especially well. Marvin Gaye's Inner City Voices is soulful and funky again, and Voices Of Other Times, featuring a spacey vocal and at long last, a lead guitar break, closes out the record.

As jazz-rock fusion goes, it is both smoother and better than most. Auger was always closer to jazz than most rock organ players, and forty years later he's still touring, playing this material live with his most recent incarnation of the Oblivion Express.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait 2013

In June 1970, Bob Dylan released Self-Portrait, his tenth studio record, and far and away, his worst record ever (at the time). There have been some contenders to the title since then, including 1973's Dylan, a hobbled together mess released by Columbia after Dylan left the label, and several of Dylan's mid-eighties records that suffered from lousy material and crappy updated eighties glossy sound.

Now, for some unknown reason, the tenth record in Dylan's Bootleg series of lost treasures and live outings is this reevaluation of Self-Portrait. Greil Marcus' review of the original two-record set of mostly covers of old folk, country and pop tunes began with the line "What is this shit?" In a remarkable fit of revisionist history, Marcus himself writes the liner notes to this grab bag of outtakes and alternate versions as though they are manna from heaven, and not the early demos of the worst crap Dylan ever pooped onto the music scene.

Half of this new release is made up of the early, pre-overdubed rough tracks and outtakes from Self Portrait recorded by Dylan, David Bromberg, and Al Kooper. These rough tracks were then sent to Nashville to be overloaded with additional music in an attempt to turn them into something worthy of Dylan's name. It didn't work. The rough tracks here may be marginally interesting, and perhaps "better" than the overdubbed original release, but they are still rough tracks from a terrible record.

The other half is a mix of rough and alternative tracks for New Morning (the quality follow-up to Self Portrait recorded during the same period), a few needless live tracks from the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, and some demos from around the same time.

I've never been a big fan of the extra bonus tracks that show up on CD reissues of older vinyl records. The outtakes, demos, and rough cuts that are meant to reveal the process, or illuminate the intention of the original rarely do much for me. As I've said before, the producer's job is to keep the weak stuff off the release.

And so now we have Another Self Portrait. It is the scraps left over from a completely forgettable record. The trash of trash. Even the most Dylan-obsessed fanatic will regret parting with hard-earned dollars for this one. You've been warned.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Maceo Parker Soul Classics 2011

Maceo Parker does it again. A while back I raved about Maceo's Roots & Grooves, a live recording from 2008 with Germany's WDR Big Band. This time out, Maceo returns to Germany and another live recording with the famed WDR Big Band, this time bringing Christian McBride on bass and Cora Coleman-Dunham on drums along for the ride.

Soul Classics is just that. James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Issac Hates, Aretha Franklin, Larry Graham, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes all get the Maceo Parker treatment. He's become a compelling singer, and always gets into it, soulful and funky as you wanna be.

His sax playing is melodic and strong, with that soulful tone he's had since his mid-sixties debut with James Brown. The WDR Big Band plays flawlessly, and delivers a big brash sound that suits Maceo. They clearly inspire him to fine work. The arrangements are super-hot, and everyone plays like their souls are at stake if they aren't fully invested in every note. Every single note. Cora Coleman-Dunham's drumming deserves special mention.

A consummate pro that just gets better with age, the sixty-eight-year-old Parker is indefatigable. The recording is clean, the band is tight, the song selection is hot, and Maceo puts his funky stamp on everything.