Po-NO THANKS…

Pono playersOooh, look at those cute things!  Reminds me of those old Trivial Pursuit pieces you used to fill in when you ran a category.

Those are supposed to be the future of high-fidelity music listening enjoyment according to Neil Young. Yes, THAT Neil Young. Long an audiophile, ol’ Shakey has spent enough years railing on about how horrible the state of today’s music mastering and download-quality is that he’s finally doing something about it – and it’s heading for crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter for help (and maybe to gauge public appetite).

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you PonoMusic and the PonoPlayer.

Now, I’m all for better remastering, available at CD quality (16 bit/44.1kHz) or better, at a reasonable price.  So if this project leads to more competition, more availability of such product, and more awareness of the need and want for lossless music downloads (in lieu of physical product – which is still my personal #1 choice), then I’m all for it.

But, once again, industry prophet and resident curmudgeon Bob Lefsetz got it right:

And now I’ve got a single device that lets me play music, surf the web, talk, text, stream music and files…and Neil says I’ve got it all wrong, I’ve got to go back ten years and get a single player, that looks chunky in the pics, so I can get higher quality audio. Why don’t you just lobby for a faster Internet connection, so I can get hi-res streams? Isn’t Google Fiber gonna wipe you out? Do you really want me to go back in time fifteen years when MP3s were cool? What next, a return to BlackBerry, because it had a keyboard and it was such a good e-mail device?

And – BOOM goes the dynamite!

First off, the thing is TRIANGULAR!  If you stand it up, you have wires popping out the top. If you lie it down – on one of the TWO SIDES that lack controls – it still just looks…weird.  Second, Young wants to sell us an audiophile experience to be listened to THROUGH HEADPHONES.  Yes, I realize there are some tremendous-sounding cans/IEMs out there from Sennheiser, Grado, Ultrasone, Etymotic, etc., but my idea of an audiophile experience involves a couch or comfy chair planted in the sweet-spot between two speakers.  (Notice I said “two speakers” – don’t even get me started on 5.1 remixes!)

In my humble opinion, you could get virtually the same audiophile experience Young and his partners suggest by adding a high-quality headphone amp and good headphones to the computer or portable player you likely already own, and load it up with high-definition FLAC files already available for purchase at sites like HDTracks or Qobuz.

And you won’t need a $399 one-trick-Pono/future doorstop or paperweight to accomplish that.

UPDATE 3/12/14:  Apparently, Pono reached its Kickstarter goal of $800,000 on Day 1.  Hmmm…do you think this would’ve happened if, say, JOE Young had conceptualized this?

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The Beatles – The U.S. Albums…history re-written!

usbox2They’re gonna sound pristine!  And that’s precisely what’s wrong about ’em.

The U.S. discography of The Beatles is notoriously messy – different track listings, altogether different albums or takes, folded-down mono and/or fake stereo (“Duo-phonic”!) mixes with mountains of compression and EQ applied – all under the auspices of Capitol Records engineer Dave Dexter, Jr.

For many, however, those bastardizations are how those songs and albums are best remembered.  If you grew up in America in the age of Beatlemania, or if you’re a generation removed but raided your parents’ record collection, chances are good that these are the albums, configurations, mixes and masterings you heard.  Some of you learned about the original UK releases (or the German Magical Mystery Tour, or Japanese Abbey Road…) and hunted them down, or came up in the CD era where the U.S. versions and mixes were struck from existence and the UK releases became the worldwide standard.  But a decent-sized segment of Beatlemaniacs coveted these “Dexterized” treasures.

Apple Corp. finally recognized those under-served masses in 2004 and 2006 with the release of The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 – which returned the first eight U.S. albums (Meet The Beatles through a reconfigured Rubber Soul) to the marketplace.  These were all mastered from the original “Dexterized” master tapes, as they existed in the Capitol vaults.  A third volume should’ve followed in 2008, but Apple Corp. was busy working on another project.

That would be the 2009 remastering campaign, which included the Stereo and Mono Box Sets, and kept the UK releases and masters as the worldwide standard.

Now, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles invading America, we get the the U.S. Albums packaged again – this time adding what would’ve been included in Vol. 3, the horrible The Beatles Story audio documentary, plus the official release of the infamous “Butcher cover” of Yesterday…and Today.

Should’ve been reason to celebrate…but Apple Corp. decided to “correct” history and recreate the U.S. mixes, edits and running orders using the pristine 2009 remasters as their source – eliminating all traces of Dave Dexter, Jr.’s engineering handiwork.  And, of course, they’ve gotten much of it wrong.

They could’ve simply re-remastered the 2004 and 2006 sets, added on the Vol. 3 stuff, extras and deluxe packaging – all using the masters that currently exist in the Capitol vaults – and there’d be much rejoicing. Instead, they are rewriting history by eliminating all of the unique mixes and simply substituting and re-EQing the 2009 masters (but without the compression and reverb that made those Capitol masters unique in the first place).

For this, I’ll never give them my money.

Further reading:

The Beatles Rarity: Comparison of the new box against the original Capitol releases

The Second Disc: Feature on the box set, with dozens of angry comments

The only holiday album I can stomach hearing…

Well, not really.  I don’t hate Christmas.  (Though, I’m actually more of a Festivus guy.)  I do, however, hate a good deal of holiday music.  And I really despise the increasing commercialism of the holidays, which is now set to videos of stampedes on “Brown/Grey Thursday”, or “Black Friday”, or whatever other color the marketplace tries to foist upon a formerly wholesome holiday which once celebrated being thankful, and now celebrates credit card debt.

But that’s another topic for another blog.  This one’s about music, right?  And my above rant smacks of Charlie Brown’s frustration with the commercialization of Christmas, which conveniently leads me to the one holiday album I can bear to listen to not only during the holiday season, but all year long.

Charlie Brown Xmas CoverVince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is undoubtedly my favorite holiday album, and quite possibly my favorite jazz album, period.  It’s tasteful, excellently-played, and perfectly captures a certain ennui I always seem to feel around the holiday season – that feeling an adult gets when they look back on holidays past, and think of all the family and friends who’ve passed on.

It’s also the only holiday album I’ll occasionally reach for throughout the year.  It’s not overly adorned with sleigh bells, or any other sonic crutches that alert you to the fact you’re listening to a HOLIDAY ALBUM!  Only the vocal version of “Christmas Time Is Here” meets that criteria, and can easily be excised from any post-December playlist.

And, what a song “Christmas Time Is Here” is!  The longer, instrumental version is simply one of the most beautiful compositions ever written.  An easy, breezy melody played with that slowly swinging, slightly maudlin vibe Guaraldi mastered so well.  This is the perfect soundtrack to a hot beverage, fireside…as nourishing to your mind and soul as that beverage and warm fire might be to your body.

Along the same line, there’s also one holiday song above all others that I don’t mind hearing over and over.

3a26157c1741c717acf6318cc3106999Karen Carpenter’s voice is just so warm, and there’s more of that ennui I spoke of earlier.  I’ve co-opted the lyrics for my own needs – the person or people she’s singing of yearning to be with, for me, are those deceased family and friends I miss every year at this time.

There are others by the Barenaked Ladies (including a real, non-novelty song for Chanukah, imagine that!), Harry Connick, Jr., Donny Hathaway and more that hit the mark for me as well, and I’ve compiled them, plus Guaraldi and the Carpenters into a Spotify playlist for you all:

 

For me, these songs wash away all of the Mariah Careys, the Elmo & Patsys, the Band Aids and Singing Dogs each and every year.

Merry Christmas, Darlings.

Dirty Loops go non-cover, and it’s a “Hit”…

This excellent tune is currently gaining some viral traction – it popped up in my Facebook news feed twice this morning, and I’ve listened to it a bunch already.  You should too.

A friend compared it to “UK, Return to Forever, and Level 42”.  I’d add “…as fronted by Usher”.

Dirty Loops are a Swedish band known for covering hits by Adele, Lady GaGa, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and others since 2009; recasting them as a sort of a hybrid of ’70s jazz-fusion, ’80s UK jazz, funk, and today’s pop – all played on real drums and bass with tasteful synth keyboards.  And now they’ve dropped an original track, “Hit Me”.

This makes me look forward to their forthcoming full-length album, due next year.

Here’s a link to their info page on Facebook, which has links to their presence on SoundCloud, MySpace, YouTube and other places where you can sample their music in the meantime, as well as learn a little more about them.

Billy Gibbons, Allen Toussaint and (legendary bassist) Will Lee find a groove

Thank you, Bob Lefsetz!

Found this track through Bob’s (mostly) excellent e-mail newsletter.  Will Lee, longtime bassist for David Letterman’s house band Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra (aka The World’s Most Dangerous Band), got ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and New Orleans funkmaster Allen Toussaint together for a take on Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman” that Lefsetz correctly asserts is better than anything on ZZ Top’s last album.

It’s certainly one of the best rock tracks I’ve heard all year.

Links (iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon) to get Will’s new album Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions are on his website.

Michael Franks at B.B. Kings Times Square, 10/12/13

Franks Marquee

I got the e-mail back in April: Michael Franks was doing a rare NYC appearance at B.B. Kings in Times Square on October 12th.  On the on-sale date, I happened to be in Manhattan so I swung by the box office and grabbed two tickets.  October 14th would be my 13th Anniversary, so a perfect night of music was in the bag.  If the General Admission tickets were to be believed, I purchased the 3rd and 4th tickets for the 10pm show.

Night of the show, we had a lovely dinner and headed down to 42nd Street a little before the 9:30 door opening.  Now, B.B. Kings is closer to 8th Avenue.  We came down from 7th, and maybe a quarter of the way down the block (near “Spiderman: Turn of the Dark”) we saw the end of a long line.  No way this could be for Michael Franks?  Well, it was.  A pleasant surprise that he could still pull them in.  The stunned couple behind us on line said just that.

For those who need schooling, Michael Franks is one of the great Jazz/Bossa Nova singers still active today.  His voice is so sweet, his vocal delivery so laid back – he’s relaxation elixir.  Match that with lyrics that are equal parts snark, quirk and romance, and you can see why the long line.  Franks signed with Warner Bros. Records in the mid-’70s, and was immediately teamed up with three-fifths of The Crusaders as his band.  That set the template for his “sound” on The Art of Tea, and carried through Sleeping Gypsy which added Brazilian textures.  Burchfield Nines saw Franks move back East, trading the cream of L.A. studio cats for NY’s heavy hitters including Steve Gadd, Ralph MacDonald and Will Lee.

And so it continued throughout the ’80s, where Franks battled those dreaded synthesizers and largely won, and into the ’90s where he went back-to-basics with the help of Jeff Lorber and Chuck Loeb, on through 2011’s surprise (dropped in our laps, really) Time Together.

So, how was the show?

Franks on Stage

Amazing.  Backed by Charles Blenzig on keyboards (really tasty and tasteful Fender Rhodes, Piano and Clavinet emulators), Sean Conly on upright acoustic bass, Karel Ruzicka on tenor sax, alto sax and flute (and generally on FIRE on all three), Willard Dyson on drums (sounding a LOT like the aforementioned Mr. Gadd),  and Veronica Nunn on co-vocals (and excellent scat solos bringing Anita Baker to mind), Franks strolls out with his hot tea and breezes right into “Nightmoves”, the first track on The Art of Tea, like it’s 1975 again in voice and energy. (Incidentally, if Bananarama released “Cruel Summer” today, they’d instantly have to cop to stealing the verse melody from “Nightmoves” and hand over some royalties.)

Franks then slid on through “The Lady Wants To Know”, “Under The Sun”, “Baseball”, and 2011’s “Now That The Summer’s Here” (fitting in seamlessly alongside the classics). “When The Cookie Jar Is Empty” was prefaced with a nice story about how Frankie Crocker made that a heavy rotator on WBLS – bringing to light what a truly visionary programmer Crocker was.  Just imagine that happening in today’s tightly-programmed radio environment.

Other highlights included “Rainy Night in Tokyo”, his ’80s radio hit “When Sly Calls” (inspired, we learned, by a record executive who always liked to call Franks to alert him how far DOWN the charts his records were heading…), “In the Eye of the Storm”, possibly his strongest vocal of the night on “Eggplant”, and an absolutely buoyant “Monk’s New Tune”.  And how else to encore, but with the song that started it all, “Popsicle Toes”.

Cliche as it might sound, Franks sounds exactly as he did back when, betraying the fact he’ll be turning 70 next year.  No discernible vocal grit to sour the sweet.  And how sweet it was.

Here’s a Spotify set to help you discover Michael Franks, if you haven’t already, or just to relive his greatest hits:

The “Remix Album”…Please make it STOP!

love-to-love-you-donna

The “Remix Album”.

Or as I like to call it: the “Deceased Artist Cash-in Album”, or the “Vastly Inferior, Needless Re-do Album”.

There have been some godawful examples of what I’ve described for legendary artists like Bob Marley, Elton John, Johnny Cash, and now coming in October we’ll get one for Donna Summer.  Yes, I haven’t heard the full album yet, but I’ll let the samples that follow foreshadow the story on this one…

Now, I’m all for it if these modern remixes cause masses of people to go back and discover the original versions, but my feeling is that these sets do not further the artist’s legacy, but rather waters it down.  In my opinion, adding new layers of modern instrumentation to existing masterpieces doesn’t take much creative thought or effort, and doesn’t necessarily improve anything or add anything essential to the canon.

It takes a lot more effort and creativity to create a new version of a song from the existing multi-tracks using only what’s already there on the tape.  Remixers like the legendary Tom Moulton and John Morales, and new-jacks like Jimmy Michaels and Mike Maurro…they find hidden gems in those session master tapes – an unused vocal line here, an alternate keyboard solo there – and make new masterpieces that are true to the artist’s original vision.  No overdubs needed.

Want to hear what I think are remixes done right?  Here’s a Spotify playlist I put together containing samples from some good remix albums.  Below that are links to some remix albums not available on Spotify, but nonetheless essential!  Then some YouTube embeds of more essential remixes that you’ll need to, um, track down on your own… 😉

spotify:user:robbadobba:playlist:4pF3R0xmJQC8hD5JJCfKxG

John Morales Presents: The M+M Mixes Volume 3

Dimitri From Paris: Get Down With The Philly Sound

Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes

Philly Re-Grooved 3: The Tom Moulton Remixes – More From The Master