This is one of several spectacular vaults of York Minster, the huge Gothic cathedral that took centuries to build in the walled city of York, England.
J.I. Agnew, Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Ray Chelstowski, Cliff Chenfeld, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Robert Heiblim, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, Larry Schenbeck, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Russ Welton, Bob Wood, WL Woodward, Adrian Wu
“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico
James Whitworth, Peter Xeni
James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana, Rich Isaacs (and others)
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Serenade (Fr. sérénade; Ger. Serenade, Ständchen; It. serenada, serenata). A musical form, closely related to the DIVERTIMENTO. The term originally signified a musical greeting, usually performed out of doors in the evening, to a beloved or a person of rank. Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) described it as “ein Abend-Ständgen, eine Abend-Music . . .” (“because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights”). The word, derived from the Latin serenus, was used in its Italian form, SERENATA, in the late 16th century as a title for vocal works . . . and [by the end of the 17th for] purely instrumental pieces. (Hubert Unverricht, 1980 New Grove Dictionary)
Herr Professor Doktor Unverricht goes on to tell us “it was the practice to perform [serenades] at about 9 p.m. (the Notturno, a similar kind of work, was usually given about 11 p.m.)” before citing “relics” of the genre in the form of pizzicato (i.e., guitar- or lute-like) accompaniments in Classic string quartets and serenade arias in certain operas, e.g., Don Giovanni, Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Yet none of this prepares us for the actual sound of Mozart’s Gran Partita K361/370a, a wind serenade by turns witty and voluptuous, lighthearted and heartbreaking. One may gain a better sense of what matters by reading Salieri’s lines in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus when he describes hearing this music for the first time. Or you could listen to a few salient excerpts. First, the Adagio that Salieri waxed poetic over:
Then some of the first movement:
For more, check out this live performance of the work by the very people whose new recording (BIS-2463) I’m recommending this week:
0:00 Introduction by clarinetist Olivier Patey (worth watching!)
7:46 (I) Largo – Molto allegro
17:11 (II) Menuetto – Trio
26:23 (III) Adagio
31:43 (IV) Menuetto (Allegretto)
37:17 (V) Romanze (Adagio)
44:12 (VI) Tema con variazioni
53:27 (VII) Finale (Molto allegro)
Isn’t that smashing? These are wind players from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, directed by principal oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk. Their exceptionally fine album is rounded off with a Beethoven rarity, Eight Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” WoO 28, scored for two oboes and an English horn.
I’m doubly glad that Ogrintchouk and the Concertgebouw winds brought out this album, because it gives me an opportunity to recommend another of his BIS recordings, this one featuring Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto and two other works. When this disc came out in 2017, I was put off by the concerto—still am, for some reason. But I bear no such ill will toward the other works, both wind serenades. One is Strauss’s youthful Serenade in E Flat for 13 winds, Op. 7. In less than ten minutes, the composer exuberantly cycles through a potpourri of moods and tempi, with more than a few Mozartian flourishes along the way.
The other work, a Sonatina No. 2 in E-flat Major (“Happy Workshop”), dates from the period right after the composer’s 80th birthday in 1944. Like Op. 7, it freely evokes Mozart, but with somewhat greater emotional depth. From the very beginning, Strauss also makes considerable demands on the virtuosity of the players:
The Sonatina’s two inner movements are brief, divertimento-like sketches, but the 16-minute final movement nods to the gravity of Metamorphosen, Strauss’s other major compositional preoccupation in those years. You’ll hear a wistful undertone throughout, a fond remembrance of all the times this composer wrestled “contrapuntal proliferation, melodic effusiveness and enriched tonal harmony” to a draw, as Arnold Whittall’s superb liner notes put it. It’s easy to understand why this movement, the first to be composed, led its publisher to promote it as a “wind symphony.”
Finally, let’s pay suitable homage to a work influenced even more directly by Mozart, the Serenade for Winds, op. 44 by Antonin Dvořák. It’s said to have been written in a scant fourteen days after the young Czech composer returned from an 1878 trip to Vienna, during which he heard members of the Wiener Philharmoniker play the Gran Partita. Like that work, Dvořák’s is scored for pair of winds with additional horns and a contrabass. After its first performance, Dvořák added that contrabass (a traditional component of wind-serenade scoring), plus a cello line and an optional contrabassoon. The resulting sound enhances not only the music’s mix of elegance and grandeur but also the attractive Czech folk elements that increasingly came to distinguish the Dvořák “sound.” As in this excerpt from the second movement:
The seductive allure of the Gran Partita is most apparent in Dvořák’s third movement, its langorous melodic lines winding themselves over Salieri’s “rusty squeezebox” accompaniment:
A number of good recordings are available; the Serenade for Winds is often paired with the equally charming Serenade for Strings, op. 22, as in albums from the ASMF, Orpheus CO, and Wiener Philharmoniker. I found an especially dynamic performance of the wind serenade coupled with Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 13, op. 106, captured live—and heard in the two clips above—at the 2008 Spannung Festival (Avi Music AVI8553164). It features, among others, clarinetist Sharon Kam, hornist Marie Luise Neunecker, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. (Tetzlaff’s brother Christian joins her for op. 106.) I had never heard of the Spannung Festival (Lars Vogt directs it) until I came across this recording on Qobuz, but their Dvořák album’s a keeper.
We’re going to save the category of string serenades for another day, but I can’t resist recommending just one recording right here. Dr. Unverricht’s mention of the notturno brought to mind Boccherini’s String Quintet in C, op. 30 no. 6, subtitled “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid,” which I hope needs no translation. Nighttime, as they say, is the right time:
From Cuarteto Casals’ marvelously evocative recording for Harmonia Mundi. The YouTube clip above is set to open at track 3, “Los manolos.” As Christian Speck tells us in his program notes, “‘Manolo’ was the name given in Madrid to a dandyish, uneducated type of young man who made himself conspicuous by singing and dancing in the streets. . . . The indispensable accessory for his evening stroll was the guitar.” You can sample the whole album if you like, although it helps to have Boccherini’s programmatic remarks at hand.
Once again, we’re at that time of year where there isn’t a great deal out there in terms of notable new releases, so I’m focusing on some recent finds I’ve made while scrounging through the racks of local thrifts and indie record stores around Atlanta. And occasionally I’ve bought from online sources such as Discogs. I’m at that point in collecting where my library only has a few holes in it in my mainstream collection, so I’m generally much more willing to drop a few bucks for something that either looks interesting or that I’m maybe totally unfamiliar with. At typically a buck or two per disc, even if there’s only one great song, it’s definitely worth the investment. Some of this stuff may not be that new to anyone reading this, but they were definitely new to me, and particularly noteworthy, even for older catalog titles.
A couple of recent trips has yielded a goldmine of available CDs; on one excursion, I stumbled across what appeared to be someone’s entire collection of New Order discs from Technique and on — all of them absolutely mint, including the cases! I also stumbled across someone’s Dead Can Dance collection of early CDs — everything prior to Into The Labyrinth — all of which I was completely unfamiliar with, and once again, all were absolutely mint, and only a buck each. While COVID-19 has made getting out sometimes a bit hectic and hairy, to say the least, I always get strapped up with a mask and take plenty of sanitizer, all for the sake of discovering hidden treasures. God only knows who’s been handling all those CDs and LPs!
Henry Mancini — The Music From Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini — born Enrico Nicola Mancini in 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio — had been a studio composer for Universal Pictures for six years. In 1958, apparently the studio felt that his contributions hadn’t been particularly noteworthy, and decided to send him packing with a pink slip. On his way off the property, he decided to stop in at the studio barber shop for a last haircut before he started trying to figure out what his next career move would be. While waiting in the barber shop, he struck up a conversation with another similarly aged actor-turned-screenplay writer named Blake Edwards. He had just been given his first directing assignment for a new television show, Peter Gunn, which would be a noir-ish series about a hotshot private dick. Edwards envisioned a jazzy big band soundtrack to accompany the onscreen action, and the conversation with Mancini convinced him that he’d found the right guy for the job. Mancini’s chance encounter with Blake Edwards turned into the most fortuitous meeting of his life, and he went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the next several decades for both the small and big screens.
While Mancini’s compositions for the big screen are varied and extensive — think of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Charade, Hatari!, The Pink Panther (the entire franchise), Days of Wine and Roses, and just about every Blake Edwards film ever made — his work on the Peter Gunn soundtrack was (and is, at least in my book!) the pinnacle of his career. The scoring for the series was new and fresh, and totally conveyed the feel that Blake Edwards was so keen to achieve. The big band Mancini assembled for the sessions ended up being a literal who’s who of West Coast jazz royalty, featuring greats like Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, Dick and Ted Nash, Plas Johnson, Victor Feldman, Paul Horn, Alvin Stoller, and Shelly Manne. And playing piano on all the sessions was a (at the time) relative unknown named John Williams — yes, the John Williams — who would go on to succeed Mancini as the most prolific and perhaps greatest Hollywood composer of all times!
As the iconic Peter Gunn theme tears across the soundstage of my listening room, I’m pretty sure I don’t think Blake Edwards could have done better if he’d hired Count Basie or even Duke Ellington to conduct the music for the series. This is timeless, classic big band jazz that set a new standard for television scoring for the late fifties; I can’t think of anything that comes to mind that has surpassed it in the more than 60 years since it’s debut. The tunes are all classic, even if they aren’t really part of the mainstream of jazz standards: “Peter Gunn,” “Sorta Blue,” “The Brothers Go To Mothers,” “Dreamsville,” “Session At Pete’s Pad,” “Soft Sounds” — and the interplay between conductor and musicians is absolutely superb throughout the proceedings. It really doesn’t get any better than this. When the soundtrack album was released in 1959, the record buying public snapped it up — it was one of the best-selling albums of the year, and won the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year. Not too shabby for a man who eighteen months earlier had been given his walking papers by the studio!
The 1999 CD reissue wasn’t remastered by anyone really noteworthy, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference — the sound quality of the original tapes is just about beyond reproach, and this is maybe one of the very best big band jazz albums of that vintage I’ve ever heard. There’s an occasional trace of tape hiss in a few places on some of the quieter numbers, but it’s nothing that will interfere with your listening enjoyment. As much as I’ve enjoyed this CD, I’ll probably start digging around to find a vinyl copy. Very highly recommended!
Buddha/RCA Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Roger Waters — Amused To Death
If you’ve read much of my stuff in Copper, you probably realize that I’m a little conflicted by the music of Roger Waters, especially in the aftermath beyond his split from Pink Floyd. I don’t really care for his politics, I hate that he fired Rick Wright during The Wall recording sessions, and I especially haven’t cared for how he bashed David Gilmour and the “new Pink Floyd” in the years since Waters’ departure. All that said, I find Amused To Death to be a particularly enjoyable and entertaining disc — with only a minimum of the “Watersisms” that he inflicted on every Pink Floyd album he participated in from The Wall and on.
The version I’m reviewing here is a CD from the original 1992 release of the album. I’d never heard anything from this record until about a week ago; apparently, it has become available on all the online streaming services, and an audiophile friend had posted a lengthy tirade on Facebook about how the version available for streaming is vastly inferior to the original. Which apparently isn’t available for streaming — Roger Waters revisited the album in 2015, and apparently made significant revisions to the work that altered the album’s scope and musical flow, and rubber-stamped his new version as the official one for streaming release. He focused on the 2015 release as a surround sound SACD disc — which won the Grammy in 2016 for Best Surround Sound Album. Waters was highly vocal in the press about the fact that Amused To Death was an extremely underrated album, and which easily stands alongside such classic Pink Floyd works as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The critics were less than enthusiastic about his assessment, essentially damning the album with faint praise. Despite all that, Waters insisted that his revisions to the album — which includes the voice of the HAL 9000 computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey — represented his true vision for the work. Apparently, Waters had wanted to include some of the dialogue from the movie in his original version of the album, but was rebuffed by Kubrick, who declined to give his blessing to the project.
But Stanley Kubrick is now gone, along with his objections, and the HAL 9000 inclusion wasn’t the only thing my friend was complaining about. Apparently, there are numerous new overdubs and edits, with certain segments from the original being either masked over or entirely removed. He felt that the new revision — while still good — essentially emasculated the power of the original while changing the narrative significantly. Also, the 1992 original was encoded by the new (at the time) QSound technology, which combined out-of-phase elements into isolated tracks with the rest of the recording to create 1) a pretty spectacular sense of surround sound from a stereo recording, and 2) to use those same effects to create a much greater stereo spread than you’d get from a typical stereo recording. Whether that encoding is still present on the 2015 remaster, I’m not sure; I’d imagine with it now available as a surround sound SACD, they’d go full-tilt remaster to achieve all the surround effects on discrete channels. Anyway, at the very least, I was greatly intrigued, and found a minty copy on Discogs that was delivered from Arizona to Atlanta in less than a week, and for $7 total!
Right out of the gate, I was blown away by the QSound presentation; the opening track, “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” exhibits a massive soundstage that spreads surprisingly far in both depth and width — you really get the impression that your listening room has about doubled in every dimension. There’s this kind of synthesized, atmospheric background that sets the stage; suddenly, a dog starts barking from off in the distance — seemingly about fifty feet behind you! A trademark and tasteful Jeff Beck solo then sears across the soundstage; suddenly. a voice begins to speak that’s directly to your left — again, seemingly much further away than the boundaries of your listening room. At another point in the album, a telephone startlingly rings behind you; my initial impulse was to jump out of my chair and answer it, even though I haven’t had a conventional telephone at my home in over thirty years!
That’s not to say that the album is strictly about surround sound gimmickry; Amused To Death is probably the most musically involving album Roger Waters has released since leaving Pink Floyd. While continuing to focus on his usual litany of complaints with the problems of modern life that include rampant greed, organized religion, overbearing bureaucracy, uncontrolled egotism, and continual global conflicts such as seemingly never-ending wars — he still managed to deliver what is perhaps his most lyrical album ever. The core group of players includes Randy Jackson, Patrick Leonard, Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro, and Jeff Beck solos on no less than seven of the album’s fourteen tracks. Michael Kamen conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra, who make multiple appearances throughout, and the cast of supporting players and vocalists who make appearances is simply staggering, to say the least.
Waters has said that he “abandoned his ego” during the almost five-year period it took to record Amused to Death, and that doing so allowed him to more closely embrace the subject material of the songs. I can’t comment on whether that rings true, but I find the album very musically engaging, and a true audio spectacle with its QSound encoding. I actually did quite the internet search on QSound, only to discover that it was essentially a failed technology for audio purposes; the company still exists, but the number of albums that successfully incorporated the encoding is apparently few and far between. Amused To Death is quite possibly the crowning achievement of QSound’s legacy.
I’d strongly suggest you dig around and procure a copy of this excellent album for your collection — the classic version is the 1992 release with the ape staring at the TV screen on the cover. I’ve seen countless copies over recent years in thrift stores, and there’s a gazillion available online for less than ten bucks. Very highly recommended — well worth it for the music, and the audio spectacle.
Columbia, CD (download/streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Republic
Republic was the first New Order album for the Warner Brothers label following the collapse and demise of Factory Records, the band’s longtime imprint all the way back to their Joy Division days. Republic came four years after 1989’s Technique, and duplicated that album’s runaway success by also rising to the top of the UK Billboard charts. It reached No. 11 on the US charts, making it the highest-charting New Order album in the US. In addition to the album’s commercial success, it was also critically very well-received, eventually being nominated for a prestigious Mercury Prize. Despite a successful UK and European tour, the band decided to forego touring in the US and North America in support of the album, resulting in what was effectively a lengthy hiatus. Rumors abounded that vocalist and guitarist Bernard Sumner hated flying — especially trans-Atlantic travel — and that killed any possibility of a US tour in support of the record.
I have to admit that my exposure to New Order was previously limited to everything prior to 1987’s double-disc Substance, which was kind of a “greatest hits” package, only in full-blown remix mode. It’s probably the best album that exists for anyone who doesn’t have New Order on their radar and who is interested in learning more about the band. It’s also probably one of my favorite albums of all time. As I mentioned above, I stumbled across a trove of New Order discs at a thrift recently, and I immediately grabbed Technique, but almost balked at Republic when I picked it up, based solely on its cover. That cover — a Peter Saville design, as are all New Order albums — featured artwork that has a house engulfed in flames on the left, and to the right, a guy and girl playing at the beach. Apparently Saville had relocated to Southern California, and wanted to use images that portrayed the whole California experience — including destruction from forest fires. I’d seen this CD in racks countless times, but didn’t get far enough beyond the cover to fully realize that it was a legit New Order release. I recently saw an interview in The Guardian with Peter Saville, where he was asked about his iconic cover designs for Joy Division and New Order. He said there was really nothing to it, and the band never gave him any pushback on the designs; Joy Division was completely focused on trying to learn how to play their instruments, and New Order were too busy arguing with each other in the studio to pay any attention to his album covers.
Upon exiting the thrift and inserting Republic into my car’s CD player, I was immediately grabbed by Bernard Sumner’s guitar intro to the opening track “Regret,” which is quickly followed by a crash of cymbals and a propulsive drumbeat courtesy of Stephen Morris. It’s a really catchy tune that doesn’t completely abandon the acid/house/dance/rock of Technique and earlier offerings, but was definitely a new direction for New Order. The songs on the album portray a surprising variety of moods, but almost all are awash in Gillian Gilbert’s and Sumner’s layered synths. And Sumner’s guitar playing, while not always the focus, is much more skillful and omnipresent than on New Order’s previous records. Peter Hook’s bass playing perfectly underpins the proceedings, and Morris’ drumming — whether programmed or acoustic — is constantly energetic and dynamic.
Republic has been in constant rotation in my listening room for a couple of months now; it’s an intelligent and entertaining display of New Order at the absolute peak of their creative powers. I’ve always had this really kind of microcosmic manner of focusing on certain periods of bands as their “creative peaks,” often finding out years later that I’ve missed a lot of really great music found at other points along the band’s timeline. That has definitely proved to be true with Republic, which is now one of my favorite releases by the band, but it’s at least opened my eyes to checking out works I might otherwise have passed on. New Order’s Republic is very highly recommended!
Qwest/Warner Brothers Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
New Order — Get Ready
New Order went eight years between releases from 1993’s Republic to 2001’s Get Ready, which would end up being the final album that featured the original incarnation of the band’s lineup. Gillian Gilbert had family health issues she had to deal with; one of her daughters had a serious illness, and Gilbert’s husband, Stephen Morris (the band’s drummer), volunteered to become the child’s caregiver. Gilbert decided that would be too drastic a move for New Order; the loss of Morris’ trademark drumming might spell the end for the band, so she made the decision to drop out instead, just prior to Get Ready’s appearance in the record stores. She was replaced by guitarist Phil Cunningham, a move that was considered by critics and fans alike to be pretty much a disaster as the band went through a poorly-considered guitar-driven phase. Gilbert eventually went through a health crisis of her own when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007; she fortunately was a survivor, and eventually rejoined the band in 2016 for the album Music Complete (though by that point, bassist Peter Hook had departed, to significant fan outcries).
Get Ready received quite favorable reviews from UK music critics in general, but US reviews were considerably less kind. In his review in The Village Voice, Michelangelo Matos complained: “…the album Get Ready feels as if they’re psyching themselves up for the task at hand — like they’re raring to go but aren’t exactly certain where they’re going, or even necessarily why they’re doing it. The songs carry this out — it’s them, not the sonics, that make this the second disappointing New Order album in a row.” And not all the UK publications were kind — Mojo was even less enthusiastic than the Voice, referring to the album as “less a call to arms than the sound of an old man wheezing out of a creaky armchair.” Talk about harsh! As a kid, I’d hear a song, thinking it was pretty great, and rush out and buy the album and seriously enjoy listening with rarely a negative thought about the band or the music. As I got older and started reading magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone regularly — where the critics would often trash the band I was so enamored with — I became highly conflicted. Like, I really love this new album, but the critics say it’s absolute rubbish — holy crap! It only took a short while for me to get beyond what the naysayers were spewing, and learn to enjoy and appreciate music that spoke to me and not give two cents for those it didn’t speak to. Despite the mixed critical reception, Get Ready was a commercial success, reaching No. 6 on the UK charts and No. 41 in the US.
And so with Get Ready, from the first bars of the opening song, “Crystal”; Gillian Gilbert’s beautiful keyboard vamp is accompanied by a soaring female vocalist — the sort who appear in a lot of New Order remixes. Suddenly, you’re hammered by Stephen Morris’ pounding drums and Bernard Sumner’s searing guitar chords — the moment he sings “We’re like crystal,” I knew this was going to be one of my favorite New Order songs of all time. It’s a driving, propulsive song that barely lets up for its almost seven-minute duration, only slowing for a bit midway, then Sumner’s guitar chord motif and Morris’ drums hammer back at full speed — it’s seemingly unstoppable. There are at least five great songs on this record, and several really good ones; the second half of the album starts with the track “Slow Jam,” which isn’t really quite that slow, and has a really solid guitar-driven vibe throughout that’s complemented by Gilbert’s textured keyboard work. That’s followed by “Rock The Shack,” which features more amazing, crunching guitar work by Sumner. Don’t get me wrong, Bernard Sumner is no Clapton, but his excellent fretwork adds a significant level of diversity and interest to what is otherwise a synth-driven tune. If there’s a downer moment on the album, it’s probably the closing song, “Run Wild”; it’s maybe the closest thing to a ballad I think I’ve ever heard on any New Order record. It’s not a bad song — and possibly the most personal and humanized that Bernard Sumner has ever seemed in his songwriting — but it seems disjointed with the rest of the record.
Get Ready may not be a perfect record, but I don’t think that disqualifies it from being a great one. Don’t listen to the naysayers — twenty years after its release, it still resonates with stirring authority. Very highly recommended!
Reprise Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Header image of New Order courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/RL GNZLZ.
If Andy Warhol were alive today, he’d be rolling out his celebrity silkscreens of Taylor Swift, in Life Saver candy colors like those of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elvis Presley.
The difference is that while celebrity stalks Swift, she stalks right back. She is, at her best, a songwriter first, the most celebrated yet elusive singer-songwriter of her era. The gossip press lavishes attention on past relationships with musicians Joe Jonas and John Mayer; the business pages cover her battles with former manager Scooter Braun over ownership of master tapes and music publishing. And Kanye West grabbing the mic from her, rudely interrupting her acceptance of a prize at the 2009 Video Music Awards? In Constance Grady’s wonderful 2019 Vox story noting the 10th anniversary of the monumental moment, it may have been the event that superpowered the arrival of a relatively new platform called Twitter.
All these years later, their rivalry is still being parsed for references in each other’s music, while the event is part of American folklore. Which is the name of one of two albums Swift released in 2020, the making of which is the subject of Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, a Disney+ full-length documentary.
The video film, directed and produced by Swift, offers a straightforward breakdown of each track on the album in sequence, followed by spare but effective performances by the principals: Swift, her longtime producer Jack Antonoff, and musician Aaron Dessner from the rock band The National. (Engineer Laura Sisk peeks out briefly from another room.) It lacks the tasteful overdubs and mild orchestrations of the already sparsely arranged studio album. But these versions are all the better for it. The ease and comfort with which the three of them hang out and chat is especially appealing. While the talk is almost entirely about the making of the songs and music, it allows Swift to speak of personal things that you might not get otherwise.
Swift wrote most of the songs with either Antonoff or Dessner during COVID-19 quarantine, although the film reveals the emergence of a Swift collaborator originally listed with the pseudonym “William Bowery.” On those three songs – “Betty,” “August,” and “Cardigan” – co-author Bowery is actually Joe Alwyn, a British actor and Swift’s boyfriend. It’s a relationship that appears to be steady, more long-lasting and with less drama than those previously revealed in the gossip media. These three songs were described in a LiveChat by Swift as a “teenage love triangle” trilogy. Perhaps the stability of her relationship with Alwyn has allowed her to look back with the perspective she lacked as a show biz kid.
Stars of Swift’s magnitude don’t often play well with others. But the ability to collaborate in songwriting has been part of the consistent quality and unpredictable variety of her music from the beginning.
Swift was an immediate star at 16 in 2006 with her debut album, Taylor Swift, an almost perfect country album with many of the songs co-written with Nashville songwriter Liz Rose. Swift was too smart and ambitious for country to contain her, but she was still a fine collaborator. To be clear, Swift remained in charge of her own shapeshifting. The break with country music was consummated with a three-album run with Swedish pop-dance hitmaker Max Martin on Red (2012), 1989 (2014), and Reputation (2017), on which Martin leaves only faint fingerprints. They are Swift’s albums.
She moved towards alternative rock with “Cruel Summer” from her rhythmic 2019 album Lover, written with Antonoff and Annie Clark, who records as St. Vincent, and Reputation even flirted with electronic dance music, a move that won some fans and left others behind. On folklore, recorded in quarantine, there is a long distance collaboration between Swift and Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), the bard of Eau Claire, WI, intense and uncompromising.
The boldest attempt to reframe Swift’s fluid styles, and to recognize her power as a songwriter, was her album 1989. Named after the year she was born, the 2014 Grammy Album of the Year was covered in its entirety by indie rock star Ryan Adams. It wasn’t a joke, or a diss: it was a standalone success, an indication of how adaptable Swift’s music could be. Swift’s co-writers on the album included Antonoff, Martin, and Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. In an interview with USA Today in 2015, Adams told reporter Brian Mansfield that Swift had called him a few years earlier to collaborate on a song while she was finishing Red. The tune was never released, but Swift had told him that he had influenced her songwriting. The kinship, Adams joked, was “we’re the F to A minor club.” In other words, it’s not about fame or personality; it’s about sharing similar approaches to the work.
He heard in Swift’s songs what she expresses so well in the film, in the small talk she shares with Antonoff and Dessner as they explore tweaks in melody, the accidental chord changes, the intuitive sense that well, this little touch might be a little better than that. (The New York Times did a fine 10-minute interview video on the making of the song “Lover” that is an outstanding peek into Swift’s seriousness of purpose and artisanal dedication to craft.)
“There’s that special, very interesting ingredient where you hear a skeleton of the song, just the bones, and her voice, and you go, ‘Well, of course, this person plays to 60,000 people.’,” Adams said. Later, on Twitter, he said of Swift: “every tune of hers is like the one you wait a whole lifetime to write.”
Almost every song on folklore has a lyric line or rhyme that makes you stop and pay attention, because it advances the story with the unexpected effect of its flavor. At the end of the first verse of the first song, “the 1,” Swift is remembering an old relationship, and sings, “I hit the Sunday matinée/You know the greatest films of all time were never made.” Where does that come from? A Sunday matinée is a notion from the era before multiplex theaters and big screen TVs, perhaps even before affordable air conditioning, when loners or couples or families would go to an afternoon movie no matter what was playing to get out of the summer heat, the one community shelter where it was cold: the downtown movie theater.
In “cardigan,” already one of her signature tunes (she displays a wardrobe full of the namesake sweaters in a Capital One TV ad), she follows a romance from teen days to more adult times in New York…mentions of downtown bars, the fine alliteration of “your heartbeat on the High Line.” But later in the song, there’s a line that looks back again: “Chasin’ shadows in the grocery line.” The image just appears, enlivening the song, evoking a past lover, or perhaps the sense that she feels she’s known her current lover forever.
There are songs about madness here, both in terms of anger and insanity. The angry song, “Mad Woman,” seems to be a poison arrow to former manager Scooter Braun. “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy, what about that?” she sings, with the pride and defiance that Tom Petty brought to “I Won’t Back Down,” also likely about a confrontation with what he considered a greedy record label.
Perhaps my favorite song is “The Last American Dynasty,” which tells the story of the heiress Rebekah Harkness, a brilliant, artistic, troubled woman. The song is about the scandals Harkness caused in old money Rhode Island after her wealthy husband died seven years into the marriage, at their manse in ultra-posh Watch Hill, an estate named Holiday House. She scandalized the neighbors, building a dome for the Joffrey Ballet Company, (and later the Harkness Ballet Company) on which Rebekah spent much of her fortune.
Ostensibly about this madwoman obsessed with the desire to be an artist herself, there are elements of both autobiography and invention. In the song, the locals sneered at the widow of Bill Harkness, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune: Swift imagines the condescending neighbors thinking she partied him to death. “And the town said, ‘how did a middle class divorcée do it’?”
This is not exactly true: Rebekah was not middle class in any way. She was also ruling class rich, from one of the wealthiest families in St. Louis. Her father was co-founder of the investment bank G.H. Walker & Co., the company name belonging to George Herbert Walker, the grandfather and great-grandfather of the two Presidents Bush. According to the New England Historical Society, Rebekah’s St. Louis family also had a summer house in Watch Hill, among blue blood royalty, and some Hollywood interlopers like Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks.
But the song resonates powerfully, because Taylor Swift bought Holiday House, this immense mansion and beachfront land, for $17 million in cash in 2013 when she was 23 years old. And she has had her own noisy parties there. The most vivid line in the song is in the chorus: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
In the movie, Swift says the song is not about herself. And Harkness’ life and that of her family was filled with tragedy, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness. It’s not a life to envy. And yet there’s a part of Taylor Swift, a driver of her songwriting genius, that kind of loves the idea that “she had a marvelous time ruining everything” would make a fascinating epitaph, or at least a mission statement for this phase of her bounteous career.
Born in 1940 to working-class parents in Chicago, piano prodigy Herbie Hancock performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. His classical ear was turned toward jazz by the recordings of pianists like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. But an even bigger influence was the popular vocal quartet The Hi-Lo’s, who sang standards in tight, jazzy chords with inventive voicings and plenty of syncopation against slick big-band orchestrations.
Self-taught until he was 20, Hancock eventually convinced Chicago-area pianist Chris Anderson to teach him jazz harmony and style. Soon he was jamming with Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd and making a name for himself as a session player both in Chicago and New York. Blue Note Records signed him, and his first solo album, Takin’ Off, impressed Miles Davis so much that he hired the young pianist to join his new quintet.
Although he stayed with Davis’ band until 1968, Hancock spent his free time absorbing the language of rock and pop music and using them to grow his career as a composer. He wrote film scores and advertising themes and, most famously, the music for Bill Cosby’s TV cartoon special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. In the early 1970s he began a lifelong experiment with electronic music, which would lead to his greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, starting with his single “Rockit” from the album Future Shock.
This 14-time Grammy Award winner and recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award is still an active musician at age 81. His recent collaborations include the ambitious Imagine Project, which aimed to pull together top artists from all over the world to demonstrate “the central themes of peace and global responsibility” through music. A devoted educator, he holds faculty positions at Harvard, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his own Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Herbie Hancock.
- Track: “Three Bags Full”
Album: Takin’ Off
Label: Blue Note
Like Miles Davis, Hancock was interested in hard bop, which often features trumpet and saxophone along with a rhythm section. For this debut record, the pianist used Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), along with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.
“Three Bags Full,” composed by Hancock along with all the other tracks on the album, has the angular melody lines and nonchalant use of dissonance typical of hard bop. The “Three” in the title is reflected in the waltz time signature. Hancock’s solo, starting at 3:06, moves like a stream, constant and unhurried.
- Track: “Dolphin Dance”
Album: Maiden Voyage
Label: Blue Note
Like all Hancock’s albums up to this point, Maiden Voyage was produced by Blue Note founder Albert Lion and engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. The Lion/Van Gelder team helped to define the sound of hard bop, leaning toward the brighter frequencies in the drums and horns. This album is no exception. It’s interesting to listen specifically for the piano in the context of this approach; the instrument has a notably rounded, smooth sound.
“Dolphin Dance” is a Hancock-penned tune inspired by Count Basie’s “Silk Stockings.” Joining the pianist on this laid-back, lyrical standard are Hubbard (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass), and Tony Williams (drums).
- Track: “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)”
Label: Warner Bros.
In 1969, Hancock left Blue Note and signed with Warner Bros., making three records for them. The album’s title, Mwandishi, is Swahili for “composer,” and Hancock seems to yearn for recognition in that profession beyond what the jazz world could provide. The tracks here are closer to jazz fusion, bringing in pop influences, most obviously with Hancock’s use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano rather than an acoustic instrument.
That said, this is hardly a record aimed at the average pop consumer. “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)” is written in a time signature of 15/8, giving it a free jazz or atmospheric feel.
- Track: “Butterfly”
Thrust is one of over a dozen albums Hancock made during his long relationship with Columbia Records/CBS. His choice of David Rubinson as producer indicates his strong leaning toward commercial pop; Rubinson would go on to produce chart-toppers by the Pointer Sisters, Santana, and others. Hancock plays Fender Rhodes and synthesizers, and the group uses electric bass (Paul Jackson) rather than acoustic.
The sultry “Butterfly” was co-written by Hancock saxophonist and flutist Bernie Maupin, who plays on this album and had worked with Hancock on and off since his days with Miles Davis. This is the first of four Hancock recordings of this tune. Mike Clark’s drums blend seamlessly with Bill Summers’ percussion to punctuate the musical fabric.
- Track: “Whatcha Waiting For”
Album: Herbie Hancock Trio
Hancock had not abandoned more traditional jazz sounds and styles. The Herbie Hancock Trio that this album is named after included his old Davis Quintet colleagues, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. It’s a top-notch be-bop record. Oddly, there’s also a 1982 album with the same name and personnel. Both were produced by Rubinson. The 1977 album was also released as a Carter album with the title Third Plane.
“Whatcha Waiting For” was written by Hancock and features his adventurous virtuosity – on an acoustic piano, this time.
- Track: “Tonight’s”
Album: Magic Windows
Magic Windows is one of several collaborations with R&B/soul/funk songwriter Jeffery E. Cohen. Although Rubinson is listed as producer, Cohen gets an associate producer credit; he also composed several of the songs, a clear indication that this won’t be a straight-up jazz album.
Cohen co-wrote the tune “Tonight’s the Night” with Hancock and Ray Parker, Jr. This funky soul number features the vocals of Vicki Randle. Hancock gave himself the challenge of playing bass, and his rhythmic foundation captures the genre perfectly.
- Track: “Junku”
Hancock became a household name in America thanks to a series of three albums in the electro-funk genre that he made with his Rockit Band. The first was the platinum-selling Future Shock, which includes his mega-hit “Rockit.” Sound-System is the second. Both of them won Grammy awards.
The song “Junku” was commissioned by the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Hancock first lays down layers of synthesizer, and then things take an interesting turn. Around the 1:00 mark you’ll hear some wonderful kalimba work by West African musician Foday Musa Suso, who also co-wrote the tune.
- Track: “Dis Is Da Drum”
Album: Dis Is Da Drum
In the early 1990s, Hancock left Columbia and signed with Mercury. With Dis Is Da Drum, he further explores the combination of jazz with blues-based popular genres, an intermixing that is sometimes referred to as acid jazz. There’s also a socio-political element to this album, particularly on the title track.
“Dis Is Da Drum” begins with a (clearly white) narrator, perhaps from a 1950s film clip, attempting to explain the meaning of African drumming in an overly simplistic and condescending tone. That sample is then pitted against complex West African percussive sounds and an electrofunk background.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ice Boy Tell.
The experimental music scene in New York City in the late 1970s was transfixed by British punk innovators like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Among the American bands trying to capture that sound was the Young Aborigines. If that group had stuck with its imitative approach, the members would have been forgotten by now. Instead, they changed course and became the Beastie Boys.
The Young Aborigines were John Barry on guitar, Kate Schellenbach on percussion, Michael “Mike D” Diamond on vocals and drums, and Jeremy Shatan on bass. When Shatan left New York in 1981, the other players transformed into the Beastie Boys and aimed for a much more original voice. Adam “MCA” Yauch took over on bass, and soon Barry was replaced by Adam “Ad-Roc” Horovitz. Schellenbach left after the single “Cooky Puss” became a hit in 1983, inspiring the band to lean more heavily toward rap than rock.
Their debut record happened relatively late in their career; they had already toured with Madonna by the time Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records released Licensed to Ill in 1986. But the timing was right, according to the music-buying public: This remains one of Columbia’s best-selling albums, and it was the first rap album ever to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
The monster hit from Licensed to Ill was the band-defining “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” which established both their unique punk-rap sound and their party-in-life’s-face attitude. Rick Rubin produced the album, but his Def Jam Recordings co-owner Russell Simmons had some sway over it, talking the band out of the unfortunate original title, Don’t Be a F**got, and bringing in Darryl McDaniels (DMC of Run/DMC) to co-write a couple of songs. One of those was “Slow and Low.” The hard-driving bass on the bottom and chimes on the top, with rhythmic shouting and truck-engine samples in the middle layer creates a distinctive vehicle for humorous, real-life lyrics (“White Castle fries just come in one size”).
The Beastie Boys were not especially prolific. It took three years for Paul’s Boutique to follow the debut album. This time they were on Capitol Records, and the producer was the Dust Brothers duo, specialists in the use of borrowed samples who also made some of Beck’s albums. As often happens with groups who had one huge single off their first album, the band felt pigeonholed by “Fight for Your Right” and wanted to show they had more to offer. Paul’s Boutique did just that, surprising the public and pushing the envelope.
The Dust Brothers were true pioneers of sampling. Over 100 songs are sampled in the tracks of Paul’s Boutique, establishing a new norm for hip-hop production. According to engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., they got the rights at bargain prices because there did not yet exist good copyright laws covering licenses for sampling. You can hear several songs by the Beatles sampled in “The Sounds of Science.” Unlike the first album, the lyrics are more witty than frat-boyish.
Caldato took on the role of producer for the next album, Check Your Head (1992). The band seemed to redefine itself again, with more focus on instruments – both their own and others’. The sessions included instrumental versions of several songs, some of which have been added as bonus tracks on subsequent releases of this album.
Another way this instrumental theme showed itself is in the song “Jimmy James,” a tribute to one of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history – Jimi Hendrix. For this song, six Hendrix tracks are mined for samples. It was released as a single but made no impression in the US market.
The collaboration with Caldato continued with Ill Communication (1994), on the Beastie Boys’ own Grand Royal subdivision of Capitol Records. The biggest single was the Moog-sampling “Get It Together,” and critics loved Yauch’s bass playing and Ad-Rock’s furious lyrics on “Sabotage,” inspired by the behavior of paparazzi at River Phoenix’s funeral.
Another interesting piece on the album is the instrumental “Shambala,” featuring guest percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa and a recording of throat-singing Tibetan monks. The seamless connection between that ancient, traditional sound and the funky new tune brings to mind the use of Indian ragas by the Beatles.
It took four years for the next album to see the light of day, during which time turntable man Mix Master Mike joined the band. He brought with him a heavy, edgy beat and a love of experimental sounds from non-musical sources. The delay was far from a problem for the album’s release. Not only did Hello Nasty (1998) bolt to the No. 1 spot on the charts, but it also won Grammy awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rap Duo Performance (for the single “Intergalactic”).
One song that might have puzzled casual listeners if it had been released as a single is the instrumental “Song for Junior,” a Latin jazz number featuring some fine flute work by Steve Slagle (better known as a saxophonist who toured with Machito and Ray Barretto). In a nod to the traditions of jazz performance, producer Caldato mixed in samples of audience applause after each solo, a gesture in keeping with hip hop’s self-referential tendencies.
After another six-year dry spell, fans rushed to make To the 5 Boroughs the No. 1 album upon its release in 2004. Among the singles was “An Open Letter to NYC,” responding to the 9/11 terror attacks: “Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/ 2 towers down but you’re still in the game.”
In stark contrast to that bittersweet song, “Oh Word” has the salty, sarcastic humor and crisp electronic beat of rappers who refuse to be left behind by the passing years.
The band enjoyed more accolades for The Mix-Up (2007), winning the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Since then, they have created only one other record, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011). It was supposed to come out in 2009, but the release was delayed for a couple of years while Yauch battled cancer, a fight he sadly lost in 2012.
On the Hot Sauce album, the band attempted some sublimated political-speak with the song “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.” Its surface is a slow, funky instrumental with some interesting electronic textures. But deep in the mix, distorted and subtle, is a vocal pep-talk: “We can make it happen.” Make what happen? Well, multilateral nuclear disarmament, of course!
Mike D has made it clear that he will not be using the Beastie Boys name for any new music. The band leaves behind a remarkable legacy, having stayed at the cutting edge of its field for decades. That’s worth a tip of the hat in any walk of life, but especially one where fickle fans and changing technology can wipe out success in an instant.
In previous issues I have gone into some detail about disk recording, tape recording, the technical challenges of accurate reproduction, audio electronics, vacuum tubes and even professional recording facilities. But, while all of these topics are important when sound recording is given any serious consideration, no degree of proficiency in the above can make up for the lack of a good source.
I am not only referring to talented musicians, who are of course essential, but also their instruments. The combination of musician, instrument and the acoustics of the space in which the performance takes place pretty much define the limits of what can be captured in a recording. It is already a challenge to record all of what is there as faithfully as possible.
One of the most difficult instruments to record in a realistic manner is the piano. There are two basic reasons for this, the first one of which is related to the nature of the piano itself. It has one of the widest musical ranges of any instrument, with an 88-key piano extending from a low A at 27.5 Hz to a high C at around 4,186 Hz. These frequencies only represent the fundamental, but the piano is naturally rich in harmonics, extending to very high frequencies. Most domestic listening systems cannot reproduce 27.5 Hz, nor can they reproduce very high frequencies accurately, even if these were captured in the recording, which is questionable in itself. Moreover, a skilled pianist can get a very wide dynamic range out of a good piano, challenging the capabilities of both recording and playback equipment.
The second reason has to do with the fact that many music lovers have often experienced a real piano being played in a room. It is a very common instrument, playing a fundamental role in western musical education. As such, most of us have a solid reference for comparison and the weaknesses in piano recordings really stand out as not sounding like the real thing. Most musicians tend to experience the same effect when it comes to listening to recordings of their own particular instrument, but even non-musicians are usually very familiar with what a real piano sounds like. For example, I can reliably detect even very small amounts of wow and flutter on guitar recordings, because being a guitar player myself, I know what guitar vibrato can sound like and will not confuse wow and flutter for vibrato. But with instruments I am not as familiar with, it would take a greater amount of it for me to detect.
It is a bit like the sound of the human voice. We have evolved as a species to be particularly sensitive to the vocal sounds of other humans and especially the ones who we are the most familiar with. We are able to recognize the voice of our mother even if it’s presented in very low quality, via the telephone or in a voice message, yet it is obvious that their voice is only coming through a loudspeaker. Our hearing mechanism can pick up on even the most subtle hints that our mother’s voice does not sound like it should, from our reference to real-life experiences, and it is difficult to fool someone into thinking that a recording of their mother’s voice is actually her speaking directly.
But, this is exactly what we are trying to achieve in high-fidelity sound recordings: to present a recorded sound of an instrument to an audience familiar with the actual sound of that instrument, hoping that the clues which would inform their hearing mechanisms that this is not how the instrument is supposed to sound will be absent or well-concealed.
I have a particularly soft spot for the sound of the piano and have heard many good pianos in real life. However, I have heard very few convincing piano recordings. My own experiments to date in this regard have never yielded anything I would consider worthy of commercial release, but I have learned a lot about what not to do in the process.
A few years ago, upon completing some modifications to my personal studio, I decided to record my grandmother telling stories from World War II, for historical documentation and preservation for our next family generation. I did the same with all of our close family members, who were all present at the session. Each one would enter the soundproof recording space alone, while I was monitoring the recording from the soundproof control room, alone. The rest of the family waited in the lounge.
When all the stories were told, the family was invited to the control room to hear the recordings. My grandmother’s recording started with her just asking if I can hear her, to which my father reacted by turning towards her to reply, only to be shocked when he realized she had not actually spoken in real life, but only on the recording. My dad has spent most of his life listening to high-fidelity recordings on a decent system and has excellent hearing, so at that point, seeing that my father had been fooled into thinking a recording was a real-life voice, I realized I really was ready to approach piano recording (and recording in general) from a fresh perspective. The electronics in the recording chain, and the recording devices, monitoring conditions and microphones were now on a very good level, and with further improvements in mind for the near future, it was time to give some serious thought to the first link in the chain: The musical instrument itself.
During the course of several years of consideration, experimentation and discussion, I had experienced a wide range of excellent pianos by Steinway, Bösendorfer, Blüthner and several other well-known manufacturers. One thing I realized was that a great concert piano is not necessarily as great for recording purposes, which introduces further challenges in the pursuit of the holy grail of instruments to be used for recording.
The most realistic piano recording I have ever heard involved a vintage Mason and Hamlin grand piano. However, many pianists who I’d had discussions with tended to prefer recently-manufactured pianos, primarily due to the fact that a new piano does not yet have wear on its action and as such, tends to be easier to play. Vintage pianos can of course be kept well-maintained, but if something wrong with a piano is not noticed in time, the pianist would have to deal with a defect which could prove detrimental to the accuracy of their performance.
A piano action is an elaborate mechanical assembly, consisting of thousands of tiny parts, which tend to wear out. When they do, this causes inconsistencies between keys, produces unwanted sounds and makes it difficult for a pianist to control the nuances of their playing. All parts can be renewed when worn, but this is quite a task and requires an experienced piano technician, which often proves uneconomical. Vintage pianos are commonly replaced by newer pianos, ensuring the comfort of the performers with little risk of technical glitches.
But just as with classic cars, vintage audio equipment and carefully-aged wine, vintage pianos can have something really special about them, perhaps worth the extra effort in restoring them and keeping them in good shape.
Also, while some parts in a piano do wear out over time with use, other parts tend to improve and stabilize, such as the cast iron frame.
My early investigation of the option of acquiring a high-quality vintage piano was not particularly fruitful. Many pianos were simply in a terrible state of disrepair and others didn’t sound like anything special.
Until one day, I fell in love! It was a beautiful John Broadwood & Sons grand piano, dating from 1904. It had been privately owned and had seen very little use, as evidenced by the original parts still only showing minimal wear. It was a beautifully made instrument, complete with rosewood finish and ornamental lathe-turned legs.
John Broadwood started out as an apprentice of Burkat Shudi. After marrying Shudi’s daughter Barbara in 1769, he joined Shudi’s venture as a partner, and the company evolved from being a small harpsichord manufacturer, to eventually becoming the foremost piano manufacturer in England. Ludwig van Beethoven owned a Broadwood, and so did several other world-renowned composers of the time. Broadwood pianos were very highly regarded and for some time, the company was considered to be producing some of the finest-sounding pianos in the world.
This particular piano had to be transported halfway around the world, under time pressure, in very challenging circumstances, and required the finely coordinated services of six different specialist companies. It was a daunting logistics nightmare, especially considering the sensitive nature of the piano. Fortunately, through my work, I have become quite accustomed to logistics nightmares involving shipping very heavy and extremely fragile disk mastering systems all over the world on a regular basis, so I had the experience, the contacts and the nerves for it. But it was still daunting. The worst part was when the piano actually arrived: in a gargantuan 1,200 lb. crate that was too large to fit into the building, and was delivered on a cloudy day, with rain being just minutes away!
One of my favorite motorcycling buddies, Ralph, invited me over yesterday to listen to his stereo system. Although he’s retired, he refuses to grow up and is still obsessed with motorcycles and music, just like me. The occasion of my visit was to audition the “new” Cerwin-Vega (CV) speakers he’d found at a thrift shop.
You might ask, “Wow, Ralph couldn’t afford better stuff at his age?”
Yes, he could buy a full Burmester system if he was so inclined. He owns five rental properties in San Diego and a ranch in Idaho. He spends his summers at the ranch, and his winters at the smallest, most dilapidated of his properties in San Diego. He laughingly advises newcomers that his neighborhood is located below the hovering police helicopters with the bright lights. His house has been broken into twice – each time he had to make insurance claims.
The irony is that one of the houses he owns is located in an exclusive beach community in North San Diego County, but he has never lived there. He feels more comfortable in the neighborhood he occupied as a starving student. Only now he doesn’t pay rent, he collects it.
In any case, he expressed delight at his thrift shop find, a pair of almost square, 3-way speakers, each with a 12-inch woofer featuring a red “racing stripe” surround like those found on redline tires. He’d placed them at the same spot we’d situated the Dynaco A25s I sold him a decade earlier, on coffee tables facing the listener about seven feet away.
Although the Dynacos sounded good at that location, I found the CVs to be unlistenable. Ralph seemed to enjoy the improved dynamics, but the shrill highs, exaggerated mids, and flabby bass made me wince like fingernails across a blackboard. The sound wasn’t helped by the poor recording quality of the pop album he was playing. I wondered about Ralph’s hearing acuity.
I remembered hearing CV speakers at audio shows in the 1970s. As they were considered “rock” speakers, I expect tight, deep bass. I knew Gene Czerwinski, founder of the Cerwin-Vega company, was certainly capable of producing it. At the 1972 Toronto hi-fi show, which was located in a hotel next to the international airport, he snuck unto the airfield at night and recorded jets taking off. On the last day of the show, it seemed jets were taking off every two minutes. Attendees complained about the difficulty of auditioning audio systems, and about the noisy location of the hotel. But when they got to the CV demo room, they found the real problem. Czerwinski was playing his jet-sounds tape on four pro audio sub-woofers loud enough to be heard across six floors.
“For god’s sake Ralph, turn it down, before you cause permanent hearing damage!” I demanded.
“What’s the matter?” he innocently asked.
“Remember when we set-up your Dynacos, I talked about the importance of the speaker/room interface?”
“Yah, but I didn’t understand what the hell you were talking about.”
“OK, trust me when I tell you that the perfect spot for the Dynacos is the worst spot for these CVs. Let’s try relocating them to make them sound better?”
“That’s what I was hoping for,” he responded.
“All right, give me a hand.”
In the interests of full disclosure, I secretly harbored a selfish reason for doing all this. Despite his quirks, I really enjoy Ralph’s company, but I’d have to stop visiting him if I was expected to tolerate those Cerwin-Vegas head-on any longer.
They were situated on a coffee table about six feet from the sidewall and three feet from the back wall. I asked him to move the left speaker into the corner and unto the floor – face-up.
“Won’t that plug the back hole?” (He meant the rear-facing bass port.)
“Oh yah, we don’t want to plug the “back hole.” Got some 2×4 lumber?”
He led me into the garage. He was obviously excited. It was difficult to avoid tripping over motorcycle parts, old appliances, and sports equipment. No 2×4 pieces anywhere.
“Let’s look around back,” he suggested.
We found a warped 2×4 which had spent its life as a flying buttress for the Leaning Garage of East San Diego. It was vintage grey, highlighted with brown water streaks from the rusted bed frame stored on the roof.
“Nice patina,” he commented as we cut it into four pieces. I guess it’s all in how you look at it.
We placed two pieces under the left speaker already in the corner. Similarly, we placed the right speaker on the floor face-up and jammed into the right corner, also with two chunks of 2×4 underneath it to avoid plugging the “back hole.”
The results were exactly what I’d hoped for. The tweeters and mids sounded much smoother pointed away from the listener. The bass tightened up dramatically given the acoustic reinforcement from the corner. And as I’d anticipated, with relatively louder bass, Ralph was satisfied to listen at lower volumes. Those horrible speakers became listenable, even enjoyable.
“I’m hearing a wall of sound, Montana, just like at a concert,” Ralph hollered over the sound of Steppenwolf. “It’s exactly what I was looking for!”
This is the first time I’d ever set up a system in this manner, and it certainly wouldn’t suit most audiophiles. But hey, different strokes for different folks. We’re not all looking for the same thing in music, audio systems, or life.
Ralph pulled out his best bottle of cheap Scotch and we spent the rest of the afternoon on a musical exploration of the Age of Aquarius. I’m looking forward to my next visit.
When I was working at Goldmine magazine we tried again and again to get a record label to sponsor a flexi disc in the magazine. We first became interested in pitching the idea to labels when Jack White’s Third Man Records had pressed about 1,000 flexi discs to promote his 2012 solo debut record Blunderbuss. That promotional stunt got our creative juices flowing and also brought back a whole bunch of great memories. When I was a kid, flexi discs, 45 RPM records that were produced on incredibly thin vinyl, were freebies found everywhere. They were often bound into magazines. They were usually squared off at the edges and there would be a perforated line where you could tear them out of the magazine, although my first flexi might have been cut off the back of a cereal box. I can’t quite remember but I think it was a song by the Jackson 5.
At one point I had acquired a small informal collection of flexis. I’m not sure that they ever received more than one or two plays, but the novelty of format was so powerful that whenever I’d come across one in a magazine it was like I had hit the motherlode. The ones I favored offered pre-recorded music. The sound quality was always horrible (but free was free). Because of their poor fidelity, the format was much more conducive to spoken word than music. And because the discs were literally so thin, when you would play them on your turntable the weight of the stylus could bring the record to a screeching halt. That’s why so many so them included markings for where to place a coin to hold them down.
Flexis were never going to become an audiophile’s obsession. But they were great gimmicks. In fact, the Beatles used them every holiday season to promote special Christmas recordings for their fan clubs.
The predecessor to the flexis were intended to be “talking postcards.” In the early 1900s, Europeans came up with the idea that you could record a message onto a resin-covered postcard. That message could then be mailed to a friend who could play it back on a turntable. From there they quickly became a promotional tool largely used by big brands like General Electric. The formats varied, some being distributed in self-playing packaging. These would come with a pre-packaged needle and a cardboard pop-up speaker. The design was akin to a Victrola, only made out of cardboard. You would hold the unit in your lap and spin the flexi with your hand.
The first flexi discs as we know them were introduced by the Eva-Tone company in 1962. In the Soviet Union, in addition to commercially available flexi discs that were produced by the Soviet government from 1964 to 1991, people used the flexi format to secretly share music from the West. They created records that, rather than being pressed on postcards or other kinds of flexi discs, were often put on old X-rays. The resulting records were called “roentgenizdat,” or “bone music.” This pairing of body parts and songs developed a cult-like following and these discs were shared through underground channels.
In the 1980s the idea of promoting music via flexis peaked with the arrival of the British publication Flexipop!. In a 2007 interview with Stylus, one of the magazine’s writers, Huw Collingbourne, said, “Other music mags may have dabbled in flexis, but Flexipop! made a career of it. We had singles by the top bands of the day – everyone from the Jam to Depeche Mode.” The magazine would shutter within two years as major labels began to put their focus on CDs and vinyl record sales began to slide.
To get an expert’s point of view on the history of the flexi, we spoke with flexi disc enthusiast Michael Cumella. The Brooklyn resident’s collection numbers in the thousands, and some of the flexis he owns are truly rare finds. For years he has been trying to get a book deal done on the subject of flexi discs, because, as he says, “this is a totally hidden history of our recorded sounds.” As he shared some rarities from his collection (and even played a few, including some of the self-playing variety) we learned how rich a history the flexi has really had.
Ray Chelstowski: So how did you first get into collecting flexis?
Michael Cumella: I’m old enough that I actually cut a record off of the back of a cereal box when I was a child. I remember being completely fascinated by that idea. I’m the youngest of four children so I grew up with records my whole life.
I remember that moment of [seeing] The Archies on the back of a cereal box and saying to myself, “What?!” I’ve always had a wide interest in records and as I’d buy the them I’d find these weird things. Like, why is there a record [from 1958] that is advertising Christmas wrapping paper…and here’s Bob Hope talking about it? It only got weirder, and these records were almost free.
Over time I just became fascinated by what I call the history of ephemeral records, records that were not meant to last, that were meant to be of the moment. We will listen to a Neil Young record forever. But a campaign record from 1932 of a candidate running for Senate, that was of the moment. It was meant to be thrown away. And there are so many areas that are touched on by this [phenomenon] where the records were not meant to be remembered. So it’s a fascinating area of using recorded technology to disseminate messages, often other than music. Sometimes it is just music; sure, there’s some of that. I can trace flexis back 100 years and at this point they just find me.
RC: Which flexi in your collection is the oddest/coolest?
MC: Here’s one: An Important Message for TV Service Dealers. It’s basically about where to buy the best radio and television tubes, and Dave Garroway, [who] was the host of the first Today show, [was] the spokesman for this company. Or how about this? Music to Install Gas Vents By! Another cool one is a promo for Alfred Hitchcock’s [TV] show [Alfred Hitchcock Presents], which was coming out in 1955. I’ve never seen another one of these. It contains a short message from him saying, “My new show is coming out. And I hope you do tune in.”
RC: Is there any flexi with a great back story?
MC: Nixon’s The One. Millions of these were sent out. They say that this flexi disc may have been responsible for him being elected. He flooded peoples’ mailboxes with these and I have some that still have the addresses on them. The thinking is that it could have actually swayed the election because it was a direct message to people.
RC: Were any of these known for their fidelity?
MC: There was always a low expectation in terms of fidelity. The message would always transcend the fidelity. It was about getting you to do something. That’s what I like most.
RC: Which flexi in your collection is the rarest?
MC: It’s hard to say. Because a lot of these things I can’t even find a reference on. I have only a few people that I can discuss rarity with [who are knowledgeable about the subject]. There’s a super rare set from the 1920s called “”. One side is a picture of a silent movie star and the back side [has] a few words from them. It was a really short-lived series. If you found the Greta Garbo one it would sell for about $500. Silent film fans would love to hear the voices of these stars. In most cases their voices had never been heard [before]. These flexis are the only known recordings of their voices. [They’re] also really good documents of the promotion of early movies. And again, they were disposable. When a new one came out you weren’t expected to keep [the old one]. You threw it away because it had served its purpose.
These days, the flexis seem to find Michael. The website he developed over 20 years ago to showcase his collection is one of the few reference points for anyone who wants to understand what they own. In some cases people just send the flexi discs they have to him, understanding that the discs will be in good hands.
I’m not sure whether we will ever see the flexi disc format make the kind of comeback that has happened with vinyl records. But there are companies like Pirates Press in California that are using the format to help independent bands get their music into the hands of would-be fans. They are pressing millions of flexis each year. Some labels are bundling flexi discs with new LPs. I don’t know if flexis will ever make their way back to cereal boxes, but if you like to buy new vinyl, keep your eyes out and you might find a special surprise in the record sleeve. It just might turn you on to your next favorite band and a new collecting hobby.
All the flexi discs pictured are courtesy of Michael Cumella.
Since 1969, the name Abbey Road has become synonymous in the world of popular culture with The Beatles’ swan song album of the same title. To Londoners, it is a thoroughfare in St. John’s Wood. To musicians, music producers, engineers and industry personnel, it is an historic, iconic recording studio with a long pedigree that extends far beyond The Beatles.
This year’s AES Fall Show 2020 was virtual due to New York COVID-19 restrictions that prevented the usual in-person gathering at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Among the show’s attractions that all migrated online, the marquee event was “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” a series of virtual tours of some of the world’s top recording studios that have been responsible for the creation of countless music, film scores, movies and TV programs that we have all come to know and love. Copper previously covered virtual AES tours of Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, CA, Galaxy Studios in Belgium, The Village in Los Angeles, and Blackbird Studio in Nashville. Number five on the virtual tour is Abbey Road Studios of London.
Mirek Stiles, Abbey Road Studios’ Head of Audio Products, led the tour, which started at St. John’s Wood outside the three-story townhouse that has housed the studios since the 1930s. The relatively nondescript front of the building belies the enormous recording studio facilities built in the secluded rear garden.
Upon entry inside the building proper is the first room: Studio One It’s a huge space; in fact the largest purpose-built recording studio in the world. It can accommodate an entire orchestra. The studio’s original Art Deco design was created in the 1930s with the intent of adding some reverberation to recordings, to simulate the music hall experience. Ironically, the amount of natural room reverb, dating from nearly a century ago, was considered to be inadequate by some classical artists who required a larger sound, so over the years many attempts were made to increase the reverb time. The current acoustic diffusers and panels have been in place since the 1970s with the original art deco design long since buried.
Studio One’s glamorous history includes its inauguration with a 1931 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. In its original heyday, Abbey Road Studios was the site for seminal recordings by everyone from Sergei Prokofiev, Pablo Casals, and Yehudi Menuhin to Glenn Miller and Fats Waller.
Studio One is presently used primarily for film scoring, with blockbuster films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Black Panther, Skyfall, 1917, Avengers: Endgame, Aliens, and Raiders of the Lost Ark among the studio’s more notable credits.
Abbey Road Studios’ reputation as a film score recording mecca happened as the result of fortuitous timing. By the mid-1970s classical music recording was beginning to dry up. Most of the repertoire had been recorded and there wasn’t a huge amount of new classical music coming through the door. It wasn’t until the release of CD that all the classics were re-recorded and booking seriously took off again.
In nearby Denham Studios, film sound post-production specialist group Anvil had established itself as the premier UK expert in the field, thanks to its work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman, Star Wars and other hit movies. However, when the Denham Studios site was converted into office spaces and Anvil’s lease expired, a joint venture between Anvil and Abbey Road was signed, thus creating Anvil Abbey Road Screen Sound Ltd., a relationship that continues to this day (although the Anvil name hasn’t been mentioned for years). The 1981 thriller Eye of the Needle marked the start of the joint venture.
Studio One’s control room is centered around a 72-channel AMS/Neve 88RS console and Pro Tools HDX, complemented by Classé Audio power amps. In addition, Studio One offers 48 channels of remote Neve mic preamps, vintage and modern equalizers, delays and reverbs, and other equipment racks that float between studios as needed. Since its renaissance, Studio One has been the choice of artists including U2, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Harry Styles and Kanye West when it’s not in use for film scoring.
Entering the fabled Studio Two, legendary for being the birthplace of 90 percent of the Beatles’ recordings, one is struck by the workmanlike layout, efficiency and lack of frills and pretension. Designed in 1931 for swing jazz-era big band ensembles, Studio Two was built with inherently more reverb in its acoustical design, so the studio now has large hanging drapes to help deaden sound. Additional swing out screens can be used for dividing the large space into a more manageable area if needed.
The current first floor isolation booth was originally a control room until the late 50s, back when consoles were much smaller. Given its high ceiling, Studio Two’s control room was comfortably moved vertically to overlook the live room and is accessed by a flight of stairs along a side wall.
The newer, larger upstairs control room houses a 60-channel AMS/Neve 88RS desk, Bowers and Wilkins 801 floorstanding monitors and uses Pro Tools HDX for recording. Reflecting its vintage heritage, the studio has ultra-rare EMI TG12412 EQ, TG12413 limiter and TG12414 filter modules as well as vintage Fairchild, Pultec, Teletronix and UREI gear, heard on countless classic rock records from the Beatles, Pink Floyd and many others. Other outboard equipment includes AMS delays, Chiswick Reach, Manley, dbx and Neve compressors, GML and Prism Sound EQs, and much more.
Studio Two’s Beatles’ mystique and vibe is still omnipresent and it’s no wonder that artists such as Adele, Oasis, Ed Sheeran, The 1975 and Joe Bonamassa have all recorded there. Danny Boyle’s Beatles tribute comedy film, Yesterday, specifically chose Studio Two for recording its Beatles tunes.
The famous honky-tonk-sounding “Mrs. Mills” 1905 Steinway upright piano, named for British stride pianist/singer Gladys Mills, and the two Challen upright pianos – heard throughout many Beatles’ records, such as “Lady Madonna” and “Fool On the Hill” – are still in use and available to any Abbey Road client. Other vintage keyboards like Hammond B3 and RT3 organs, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos and a celeste are also still available, as well as an original Ludwig four-piece drum kit similar to Ringo Starr’s and a collection of vintage guitars, basses, and amps.
Studio Two also has an echo chamber, located towards the rear near a fire escape. It is a concrete-walled, hard-tiled room designed before plate reverbs were invented. The presence of heating pipes adds to the reflections. According to Stiles, a favorite trick of Paul McCartney’s was to set up the drums in the fire escape alcove to record the drums adjacent to the echo chamber room, which caused complaints from St. John’s Wood neighbors!
The comparatively smaller and intimate Studio Three paradoxically sports the largest control room in Abbey Road. Best known as the studio where Pink Floyd’s landmark The Dark Side of the Moon was mixed and Wish You Were Here was recorded and mixed, it’s also the site of Amy Winehouse’s final recordings with Tony Bennett. More recently, it’s been used by Paul McCartney, Nile Rodgers, Brockhampton, Florence + the Machine, Frank Ocean and others.
Studio Three’s live room was designed for chamber music recording in 1931 but underwent significant changes during the 1980s. A few of the innovations introduced during that period include retractable acoustic panels that can be configured for either soft or hard reflections, additional isolation booths, and wiring to accommodate MIDI and other newer technical recording requirements.
Stiles recalled that during the making of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Syd Barrett, the burned out co-founder of the group and the subject of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” wandered into Studio Three unannounced, creating an incredibly emotional session for Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright.
Studio Three sports a huge Solid State Logic (SSL) 96-channel J Series console. In addition to much of the same vintage gear found in Studios One and Two, Studio Three has an assortment of AMS/Neve Montserrat mic preamps, AMS/Neve 1081 preamps, Chandler germanium transistor-based preamp/DIs, as well as an assortment of Pultec, Fairchild, UREI, Klark Teknik, Avalon, and other gear.
The Mix Stage is a fully Dolby Atmos Premier-accredited studio that recreates the movie experience with a large screen and theater reclining seats. It is fully digital and equipped for film dubbing, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) and music and effects mixing, having been utilized for Bohemian Rhapsody, Dumbo, and Downton Abbey, among other productions.
The all-digital Penthouse mixing suite is also set up for Dolby Atmos mixing. It has been used mostly for film mixes on projects like Ocean’s 8 and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Music artists such as Brockhampton and Nile Rodgers also enjoy music mixing in the Penthouse.
Ironically, during the tour the Penthouse contained a piece of analog history. The sole analog machine in the Penthouse is a vintage workhorse ¼-inch Studer A80 for tape delay that is still in use. Machines like this are used to create tape delays and ADT (automatic double tracking), ADT was a signature Beatles’ vocal and guitar solo sound. As it is located on the top floor of the building, the Penthouse is the only Abbey Road studio with a skylight.
Abbey Road is also one of the most experienced and respected mastering houses in the industry. Its four mastering rooms are based around vintage EMI TG Series transfer consoles with EQ, compression and spreader filters. For additional processing, more modern Prism EQs and Manley compressors are available. The mastering studios’ vintage Neumann cutting lathes have been in long-term use; they continued to cut vinyl throughout the CD and download-dominant 1990s and 2000s when vinyl was on the wane, and currently are in operation nearly 24/7 thanks to the resurgence of vinyl over the last decade.
Within the corridors of Abbey Road, you can find the original Studer J37 4-track machine famously used on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and other Beatles records. Stiles refers to the Studer as a “beast”; it’s powered by over 100 (!) valves (tubes in US English) and is still fully functional. Next to the Studer J37 is the groundbreaking Abbey Road-designed RS56 Universal Tone Control Unit, better known as the “Curve Bender.” Massively heavy and mounted in a sturdy wood frame, it is arguably the first-ever studio-grade parametric EQ unit ever made.
Abbey Road’s Gatehouse is situated in the townhouse’s original stables, which were converted first into classical music editing rooms, then repurposed with a higher ceiling into a smaller studio for bands that require only a small space for live recording as opposed to overdubbing and mixing. The Gatehouse offers the full microphone and outboard hardware resources of Abbey Road in a control room-based production suite, built around an AMS/Neve 16-fader BCM10/2 Mk2 desk with Neve 1073 and 1084 preamps. A Chandler EMI TG12345 console, Curve Bender and Tube Tech equalizers, LA-2A and 1176 compressors, API Lunchbox modules and other gear are all within arm’s reach.
The smaller live room has a Yamaha upright piano and can accommodate a 4 or 5 piece band, a string quartet, or other small ensemble. Artists such as Noel Gallagher, Ben Howard and JD Reid have cut records in The Gatehouse.
The last studio on the virtual AES tour was The Front Room. Designed for artists without a need for a live tracking room, it has an SSL Duality 24-fader desk and the identical speakers and digital audio workstation capabilities as the Gatehouse. Nile Rodgers and Chic, Kelela, and Jorja Smith are a few artists who have used The Front Room for producing records.
As Abbey Road’s Head of Audio Products, Mirek Stiles has helped explore Abbey Road’s presence into new technology areas, with research and development efforts being devoted to artificial intelligence, game engines and other innovations in audio technology.
With its landmark status and venerable history, Abbey Road Studios ranks among the most important recording studios of all time, a peer to other famous studio contemporaries such as New York’s legendary RCA Studios and the Record Plant. Sadly, the latter two are just a memory (although the Record Plant currently operates out of Los Angeles), but Abbey Road Studios appears to be well-situated to continue its reputation for excellence through its centennial anniversary and beyond.
All images courtesy of Abbey Road Studios.
Welcome to the second edition of Be Here Now, a new column/playlist where we compile inspired new music for busy folks who would like to discover outstanding contemporary artists.
Here is a link to the Be Here Now Spotify playlist, which includes songs from all the artists mentioned in this column and many more.
Women are still underrepresented in vast swaths of society, but when it comes to producing smart, lingering, introspective new music, they are leading the way.
It is challenging to keep track of the many great female artists producing quality work today, stretching and pushing their songs to places that reflect modern life and embody new sounds, while still remaining somewhat rooted in templates created by past icons.
The breakthrough female artists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s like Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde created their music during a time when society was beginning to wrestle with women’s autonomy and independence, and many of their songs reflected the challenges presented to women during those changing times. Many of today’s artists operate from a more confident perspective – self-empowered and self-realized and more often on comparable footing with their male counterparts.
No one has received more critical love in the last year than Fiona Apple, whose last album Fetch The Bolt Cutters (reviewed by Wayne Robins in Copper 112) is raw, intense and musically ambitious. While much new output from artists is meant to be consumed track by track, Fetch should be listened to all the way through. The songs build on each other; the listener is drawn further into Apple’s personal challenges and experimental palette and the cumulative impact is staggering. We included “Shameika” from the album on Be Here Now but strongly encourage you to find an uninterrupted hour to listen to the entire album.
Angel Olsen’s hypnotic songs, often orchestrated with strings, are represented here by “All Mirrors.” Sharon Van Etten has been making dramatic, personal music for almost a decade and on the amazing “Seventeen,” she addresses her teenage self from the vantage point of her 30s.
Canadian Kathleen Edwards’ influences are rooted more in singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin and alt-country groups like the Jayhawks. Her song “Hard On Everyone” with its pristine production, perfect hook and heartfelt lyrics is five minutes of impeccable craft. Margo Price, who often works with Jack White (the White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), finds that hard to locate but so-satisfying intersection of country and rock that Lucinda Williams gets to on her more aggressive songs.
A number of 20-something artists have broken through in the last few years, including Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy, who on her single “Your Dog” subversively sings “I don’t want to be your f*cking dog” – over a very hummable melody. 21 year old Holly Humberstone’s “Falling Asleep at the Wheel” starts with her alone on the piano deconstructing a relationship and morphs into a soothing, electronic dance track which only intensifies the frustration she expresses in her lyrics.
There are many other artists on the playlist worth checking out. Girl in Red records in her bedroom and produces sexy songs about her girlfriends, Caroline Rose’s bouncy “Feel The Way I Want” celebrates her freedom, and Arlo Parks taps into a soulful Portishead vibe on “Eugene.”
The featured artists are all artists. In this track-driven era, fans often only listen to one song per artist and many great songs are lost. The performers here have plenty of other outstanding tracks and I encourage you to dig in to the catalogs of the artists you like the most. The breadth and quality of their work is well worth your time.
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Header image of Phoebe Bridgers courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David Lee.
Malcolm was fat. This was a rarity in the undernourished Glasgow of the mid-fifties. Virtually all of us kids in elementary school were rail-thin. But Malcolm was short and rotund, almost spherical.
In those permissive days of prejudice, kids were allowed to express theirs without interference from adults so Malcolm was constantly tormented. He was the class dunce, failing in every subject so consistently that teachers would publicly berate him, making the students laugh every time the test results were read out in class.
I liked him and we would sometimes hang out, but his real attraction for me was that no matter how badly I performed in school, Malcolm was always worse. Once when I received a mark of 8 out of 100 (a new low for me) Malcolm got 4. When my parents saw the results and yelled at me, I would admit that I was bad, but Malcolm was much worse.
Years later a friend of mine, a therapist, said I must have had ADD as a child. Perhaps this was true but honestly, I just found school boring. With the exception of English and math, I couldn’t care a toss about the rest. Scottish history, which is really complicated, put me to sleep. Geography, which I now love, was tedious. Some subjects I did like. Woodworking was one and singing was another.
“Step we gaily on we go
heel for heel and toe for toe
arm and arm and on we go
all for Mairi’s wedding.”
While the girls sang sweetly, us Neanderthal boys belted out the song with abrasive gusto.
Both Malcolm and I left school at the tender age of 15, he to work in a warehouse, me to a knitwear factory. We lost touch with each other but over the years I heard that he often changed from one menial job to another. I then was told by a mutual friend that he had returned to school. I scoffed at this.
Years later while I was managing a furniture store in New Jersey, I once more bumped into that mutual friend.
“Did you hear about Malcolm?” he asked.
“No,” I said with curiosity.
“He’s become a dentist!”
“Can you do this, Sir?” asked the boy in whiter-than-white shorts and a freshly ironed undershirt. In his hand was a newspaper article showing a gymnast horizontally attached to the wall, grabbing the wooden bars on the wall. He was ramrod-stiff as his body, defying gravity, was parallel to the ground.
Mr. Tomney was our gym teacher. Three times a week we had to suffer an hour of activity; running, attempting pushups, throwing a medicine ball at each other, climbing ropes and additional things I couldn’t do. As a fat, out-of-condition 12-year-old, I hated gym with a passion. So much so, I forgot to bring a change of clothes and ran around in my dirty underwear. At 12, I had not yet discovered personal body hygiene and according to my sister, I stank all the time. I hated that boy who was talking to Mr. Tomney. He was always clean and neat and performed all the tasks perfectly and was, I imagined, teacher’s pet. I can still see him now, with his combed hair, white gym shoes and shiny face. Sixty years later I still despise him.
Mr. Tomney was around 50, short, muscular and well turned out in a suit and vest. If he had to demonstrate something, he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. I neither liked or disliked him until one day, through a newspaper article, we found out that he had been set upon by five or six young men one night and he beat them all up before the police arrived. After that, my respect, or perhaps fear, of him grew.
He frequently berated me for my slovenly appearance. This had the effect of putting me into a trance. The more he yelled, the more I used my mantra. “This will soon pass. This will soon pass…” In those days I used it a lot as I was constantly in trouble with my teachers, my Rabbi and my parents. Instead of listening to their suggestions, I just tuned out the noise and effectively ignored them.
Mr. Tomney looked at the newspaper article showing the gymnast and smiled. He said that exercise was for younger people, not for him. We egged him on. “Do it!” said one boy. Then another joined in, “Do it!” then another and another until the whole class was chanting, “Do it, do it, do it!”
Mr. Tomney grabbed the bars, leaped up and there he was, in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, with a red face and ramrod-stiff, sticking out of the wall, horizontal to the floor.
His crying caught my attention. I was just leaving school when I saw a boy weeping and walking in a strange way. He was about 10 years old and oozing out of his short trousers was a steady stream of brownish green sh*t, seeping slowly down his legs and over his socks and shoes. Spontaneously, one boy fell in behind him, pretending to cry and mimicking his walk. Then, like a flash mob, another joined, and another until about fifty boys, myself included, formed a long snake slithering down the street. He wailed louder as passersby gawked at this slowly, staggering conga line.
One boy started to sing; subsequently a second joined in until all 50 of us were singing in unison to the tune of “Land of Hope and Glory”:
“Land of soapy water,
Persil, Daz and Tide,
All the folks in the Gorbals,
Wash their clothes in the Clyde…”
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/George James, cropped to fit format.
How often do you get the chance to listen to stratospherically priced audio equipment in your own home for an extended period without shelling out a penny or inconveniencing a dealer? I recently had that experience when a friend who was temporarily downsizing offered to let me have his speakers for a few months rather than put them in storage. Call me crazy, but I actually had to think about it – I’d spent the past year scrupulously avoiding exposure to better systems than mine in the hope that I could be satisfied with what I had, and it was working. Another consideration was the fact that I already had four sets of speakers, and I really need to sell a couple of them. That won’t be happening anytime soon due to the COVID-19 lockdowns – I don’t want to risk exposure to strangers in my house. It took another friend of mine to convince me that I would be nuts to turn down this opportunity.
The speakers in question are the top-of-the-line Silverline Audio Technology Ode to Love floorstanders. They are 56 inches tall, 13-1/2 inches wide, and 24 inches deep (in other words, big). They weigh around 200 pounds each (the website says 450, but the two of us couldn’t have moved them into place if that were the case). The five drivers in each one are arranged in a vertically symmetrical array, and include a 1-1/2-inch dome tweeter, two 7-inch midranges and two 12-inch woofers. They are housed in a beautiful ported cabinet with a red tigerwood veneer and piano gloss finish. The speakers come with a grill cloth that attaches magnetically, along with an outrigger base. The list price is $90,000/pair.
Silverline Audio Technology is a company out of Walnut Creek, California, that has seemingly flown under the radar for decades. Reviews of their speakers are few and far between in the high-end press, although their smallest and least-expensive model received a glowing review in The Absolute Sound in 2011. They offer an extensive line of both monitor (stand-mount) and floorstanding models. Designer Alan Yun founded Silverline in 1996 with the goal of making top-notch, affordable (well, maybe not this model), and aesthetically pleasing speakers. Their least-expensive model is the SR7 at $600/pair.
This is not a review. I am not a reviewer. About a year ago, the editor of another online audio magazine asked if I was interested in doing equipment reviews. He touted the obvious lure of getting to play with very expensive toys at no cost. I thought about it for a while and decided it wasn’t for me. Two reasons: 1) I simply do not enjoy swapping out pieces of gear on a regular basis, not to mention unpacking and re-packing for return shipping, and 2) I can’t write the way the established reviewers for high-end audio magazines do. I have the utmost respect for those writers, and enjoy reading their work. I know when components or systems sound good or not (to me), but describing that sound using the accepted vocabulary of subjective audio reviews is not within my capability. The best way I can characterize my current system* is to say that it gives me a pretty painting, when what I think I really want is a sharp photograph. Does that make sense?
I have a few compilation discs that I’ve assembled with selections that I particularly enjoy and think are well recorded. When I want to assess a system, I use these discs. A lot of the tracks are from my LP collection – I’ve been using Audacity to archive my favorite albums so I can burn a CD for the car or put the AIFF files (no MP3s for me) on my phone or iPod. Some of my friends ask why I don’t just buy the CDs of the original LPs. My answer is that: 1) I already spent the money on the vinyl, and 2) yes, it is a bit of work, but I enjoy the process of recording – it takes little more than an hour to record, remove any significant pops or clicks, enter the track data, download the album art, and transfer it to the player.
It is relatively easy for me to recognize when a system sounds worse than mine. Sometimes it seems muddier or edgier, or there might be a portion of the frequency spectrum that is out of proportion. I find that it is not always so easy to assess sonic superiority. Systems that impress me have a certain quality that makes the presentation seem unaffected by the acoustics of the room. I was anticipating that characteristic as we set up the speakers in my living room. (Editor Frank Doris wrote about a similar sense of expectation in his Issue 127 piece about systems that are “too good.”)
The moment of truth arrived as I cued up a track on one of the aforementioned compilations. I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. “Is this really that much better than my MartinLogans?” I thought. The bass was clearly improved, but where was that “holographic imaging” of which reviewers speak? As I went from track to track, it all sounded good, but unspectacular to my ears. However, over the course of the next few days, I became more accustomed to, and appreciative of, the speakers’ sonic characteristics.
I realized that I was hearing much more of what was in the original recording. Instruments were more distinct and independent of each other, presented with a sense of detail that did not conflict with the feeling that, at the same time, there was a more relaxed overall sound. This viewpoint was reinforced with nearly everything I played over the next two weeks. I say nearly, because there were still some recordings that were obviously poorly engineered. No system can compensate for that.
Although I just finished saying that there was a change in my perception of the sound of the speakers, I must admit to being a bit skeptical of the high-end notion that every component needs a period of break-in. I can buy it for electromechanical transducers such as phono cartridges and speakers (which do loosen up over time), as well as things like vacuum tubes (which need to warm up), but I am less of a believer when it comes to solid-state electronics and especially cables. I think the break-in is more a function of the listener’s brain in those latter cases.
I remember reading a letter in one of the leading high-end magazines wherein the writer told of his experience reacting to an orange filter that he had put on his camera lens. At first, he wrote, everything looked orange through the viewfinder, but as time went by, his brain compensated for that anomaly and he noticed it less and less – things started to look chromatically normal to the point where he didn’t see the orange at all. Any guy who has lived with a moustache for a length of time and then shaved it off has had an analogous experience. At first, you feel every nasal exhalation as a cool breeze on your now-hairless upper lip, but it doesn’t take long before you no longer notice it at all. The only thing that has changed is your perception.
I would love to see the following experiment performed by a panel of reviewers: take two brand-new examples of the same piece of equipment (electronics or cables) and listen to each for an hour or so, making the determination that they sound identical. Put one back in the box and listen to the other for a week or two, then switch to the one that had been set aside. I’m guessing there would be little or no difference – certainly not of the magnitude that is routinely professed in many reviews. I could be wrong.
But I digress. Since they arrived a few weeks ago, I’ve spent several hours each night parked in front of these behemoths, reveling in the sound as I pull out albums and discs that have never sounded so good. One of the greatest areas of improvement is in the bass, which is both tighter and more tonal. I can follow the bass player with greater ease and I’m not even using my subwoofer. One album that I particularly enjoy is March, by Michael Penn (actor Sean’s brother). It is certainly not an audiophile classic, but it has great songs and some interesting engineering/production elements. The song “No Myth” got a fair amount of airplay when it was released in 1989. Through these speakers, the guitars, organ, piano, and percussion were notably more distinct and present than ever before.
I have yet to go down the rabbit hole of swapping out amps, but I’m beginning to realize that I need to consider a speaker upgrade. I certainly couldn’t afford these Silverlines, but something in the low five figures would be doable. I’m going to need a new car one of these days (my 2005 Scion tC that I bought brand-new has 286,000 miles on it, but is still running great), and I’d love to have something like a Lexus IS, but I could live with a Mazda 3 and have big bucks left over for speakers. I like to use that concept when people express shock at the idea of $25,000 speakers – no one thinks the Lexus is out of line, but the Mazda and speakers represent the same amount of money.
Some of the contenders that I’d like to audition in my home are the Linkwitz MagicLX521, an active open-baffle, dedicated-amplification system; the new Eikon Image1 (also a dedicated-amplification system); or one of the Silverline models in that price range (leaving some money for an amp upgrade).
It’s been fun, and I have to thank my friend for this experience, but, dammit, now I’m spoiled!
*My current system:
- Linn LP12/Lingo/Ittok/Lyra Delos (LP)
- Rega Apollo (CD)
- Audio Research SP14 (preamp)
- Hafler DH-200 (amplifier – built from a kit in 1980)
- MartinLogan Aeon-i (electrostatic loudspeakers)
- MartinLogan Dynamo 400 (subwoofer)
EveAnna Dauray Manley is the president of Manley Laboratories, Inc., makers of high-end consumer and professional vacuum tube audio equipment. The company’s audiophile products include the Steelhead RC and Chinook phono stages, Jumbo Shrimp preamplifier, Neoclassic 300B RC preamp (yes, a preamp with 300B tubes) and vacuum tube amplifiers from 18 to 500 watts. Manley’s pro audio line offers microphone preamps, equalizers, microphones, mastering electronics and monitoring gear.
EveAnna started working for Vacuum Tube Logic of America (VTL) in 1989, beginning on the production line and moving into quality control, then management. In 1993, Luke Manley formed VTL Amplifiers, Inc. while EveAnna and founder David Manley continued with Manley Laboratories, Inc. as a separate company. It wasn’t a smooth transition. In 1996, David left, leaving EveAnna in charge, a role she continues to this day.
Frank Doris: I always start out by asking: what is your first memory of hearing music? How did it grab you?
EveAnna Dauray Manley: The very, very first memory I think would be the song “The Sound of Silence” [by Simon and Garfunkel].
FD: How ironic.
EM: How ironic! My parents had a Fisher 500C receiver and a Garrard turntable and Acoustic Research 2ax speakers, and it was a good little hi-fi system. I was all over that when I was a very young kid. I was so into rock music on the radio, from the earliest time. I didn’t want to listen to children’s records, and my parents, man, they had this whole-house intercom system in the early ‘70s and my mother would pipe through elevator music; “beautiful music” is what they called it. I thought I was going to go brain dead. I really just wanted to listen to Led Zeppelin or Paul McCartney or anything except for the 101 Strings.
I was born in 1968. I listened to hard rock, yacht rock, disco later in the ’70s, all that stuff. I still really love all that music.
EM: In about 1980 I rediscovered a lot of stuff. My stepfather, Albert J. Dauray, Jr., had owned Ampeg [the musical instrument amplifier company – Ed.] back in the 1960s. He had put a whole bunch of stuff into storage in about 1972, and about eight or 10 years later, it was sent to us in Atlanta. It was like a time capsule from a decade prior – and included my step-siblings’ record collection, which ranged from 1965 to 1970, maybe ’71. I just delved into that. So during the ’80s, I wasn’t listening to synth pop or any kind of music from the ’80s. I was totally listening to all the ’60s stuff that I had missed out on.
I’ll tell you, I am the laziest audiophile these days…I always have music playing in the house when I’m working, and I have a whole bunch of Sonos systems all over the place. But seriously, there are days that go by where I don’t turn on tube amps. I’m just listening to the kitchen radio.
One radio station I really love that I can stream is called Psychedelicized and it plays real odd late ’60s psychedelic kind of stuff, but not what you’ve heard a thousand times that you’re sick of. Another favorite DJ is Larry Grogan who broadcasts a couple of different shows, but the one I like is called “Testify!” on Thursdays on WFMU out of New York. He gets into all kinds of weirdo 45s. There’s another show he does called Funky 16 Corners. Another favorite is “Honky Tonk Radio Girl With Becky,” also on WFMU.
FD: How’d you get started with Vacuum Tube Logic, going from just being around the stuff to actually working there?
EM: I grew up being a total band geek in high school in Atlanta. I bought my first mid-fi audiophile system then. I worked really hard and saved up my money and did all the research. I knew about Audio magazine, Stereo Review and the catalogs you could order from and stuff. I was one of those bad customers – I’d go into the local stores and check out the gear and then order online because it was cheaper. Then I went to college at Columbia and I was studying music, mostly music theory, and one day met Bill Graham, the concert promoter.
His son was in my class and Graham came to teach class that day and explain to us how the music industry worked. Wow, I was sitting in the front row. I knew exactly who he was, because he’s the voice on the beginning of that Big Brother and the Holding Company record [Cheap Thrills]. So after that class, I was just so inspired. I decided I would take the next semester off and drive to California and go find him and try to talk my way into some kind of job.
And I needed to take a break out of school for a couple of reasons. One was, I totally needed to go earn some money to finish my degree, because my stepfather was trying to pay for my sister and me in college at the same time and was not able to. Also, I had this big kind of wanderlust; I’d been in school my entire life and I just wanted out and wanted to figure out what my career would be.
So in early January 1989, I drove across the country in my red Beetle and stopped at Graceland on Elvis’ birthday, then went on to Southern California, where my old band director [from Atlanta] had moved back to. I did work for him for a couple of weeks. Then my dad had given me names of some of the ex-Ampeg employees who had worked for him about 20 years prior. The first guy didn’t pick up the phone, but the second guy did – Roger Cox at Fender. [At Ampeg, he was responsible for the design of the SVT, still considered by many to be the greatest bass amplifier ever created. He also designed other models for Ampeg and the original Fender Passport portable PA system, and had a hand in many other products. – Ed.] He’s the one who put me in touch with David and Luke Manley. He said, “I know these two crazy South Africans out in Chino and they’re building tube amplifiers. So you should call them.”
What was that about? Tube amplifiers? And then I look for Chino on the map, and I’m halfheartedly thinking, “Oh hell, all right.” But I went out there, and got hired onto the production line. I had to learn how to make a proper cup of tea for David, British tea. My co-workers taught me how to solder and how to screw stuff together and wire things up and build tube amps.
But pretty quickly I found that I had a good propensity for organization. I directed a lot of my focus to organizing things and then training other people. Then, just building primitive business systems at VTL, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just used some knowledge from a previous high school job. I certainly didn’t study anything, just made it up as I went along. And I was working with paper, even before Windows 3.1 came out.
At some point I decided I was going [to go] back to college. In the meantime, I hung out with David Manley a lot. By about July 1989, we realized that we really dug each other and fell in love. Who knew? He was really pressing me to quit Columbia and pick up studies at CalTech or something to be close by. And I’m like, “Oh hell no, man. My family and everybody I know have supported me and I’m not giving up a fricking Ivy League degree. I’ve got just three semesters left, I’m going to serve it out at Columbia.”
FD: During that time, you had come to visit The Absolute Sound in Sea Cliff, New York, which is when we met.
EM: I had driven my red Bug back to Atlanta to see my high school buddies. Then I drove to Sea Cliff in one long day. I got in really late and David had already flown there and met with you and Harry Pearson the day before. So I didn’t meet Harry but remember meeting you in the offices.
FD: Harry had a habit of hiding from people.
The first time I met David Manley was on that trip. I helped him assemble a pair of VTL mono amplifiers, the 300-watt ones I think, the two of us on Harry’s floor with screwdrivers and nuts and bolts, contorting ourselves to put the things together. I remember thinking the amplifiers were unrefined and industrial-looking – screwing together acorn nuts and bolts and steel frames – and then firing them up and being blown away by the sound. Smooth but with great detail and authority. David was not shy about telling me what he thought of solid-state amplifiers – they were something you’d need a pooper scooper for. He was wearing a ratty old white sweater and took a lot of cigarette breaks.
After listening to the amps for a few days, Harry told me to call David and tell him, “these amps are great. If only they had more power!” More power?!
EM: And then David made the VTL 500 amps, the double decker 500s [two chassis atop each other].
FD: What happened to cause Vacuum Tube Logic to split into VTL and Manley Labs, with Luke Manley taking over at VTL and you staying at Manley Labs and getting into pro audio as well as high-end equipment?
EM: I finished my degree within a year of visiting Sea Cliff, and then David and I got married the following year. Then I was back out in Chino full-time. David, Luke and I were building the hi-fi gear and we had just started to build Manley pro audio equipment. Around 1990 David started his record label, Vital Records, doing live-to-2-track recordings and designing and building all this recording equipment. And his thinking was, nobody else is making everything [in the recording chain] from the microphone to the loudspeaker. So he decided to do it, and that was a pretty special accomplishment. He did it as a marketing device as well as for his love of recording.
He built a studio behind our house and every weekend we’d have 30 or 50 people out there and it was just crazy. I mean, the amount of activity was just crazy, and what we didn’t know at the time was that he was bipolar. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder many years later.
So at the time he was in this manic mode, where he’d get phenomenal amounts of stuff done. But he was also alcoholic. He had not been drinking during a lot of the 1980s; then in the 1990s, he started drinking again. So the combination of the alcoholism with the bipolar disorder was…sometimes he could get a lot of stuff done, but it was chaotic. The stuff we were working on wasn’t documented right, and products weren’t developed all the way through.
I’d get products on my bench and would be testing them and finding something wrong, and he’s saying, “just ship it.” And I’m answering, “No, but this thing is really noisy and humming a lot.” He’d get angry and say, “just ship it. Nobody cares!” I knew that the customer would end up calling me.
So that’s where I developed my technical chops, basically as a design assistant. The problem was these designs were already in production because he would just do everything too quickly, order 50 circuit boards, and now we’re building that thing and there’s major problems.
Also, Luke wanted to work with dealers and David wanted to sell direct. That caused a conflict. Then David decided to open a factory in Spain, around 1992, but no money’s coming back from it. Originally there was Vacuum Tube Logic of England, and he asset-stripped that company to form Vacuum Tube Logic of America. So Luke thought, oh, I see what’s going on here, realizing it was happening again. So there was just all this chaos, all this stress. David was not a pleasant person when he was drunk; he’d get very angry, stay up all night and it was just complete chaos.
It led to David and Luke splitting into two separate companies in 1993. A guy from a San Francisco dealer and Luke teamed up to buy David out of Vacuum Tube Logic of America and they formed a new company, VTL Amplifiers, Inc., building amplifiers and preamps. David purchased a building down the street just a mile or so away from the VTL premises. We split up the inventory and the staff and David established Manley Labs in that new building. Things had gotten so traumatic and horrible for me at the time that I was actually in Florida at my mother’s house when that move was happening.
But again, with his manic behavior David could get a lot of stuff done. So all of a sudden, bam, here’s this new factory. Then I walked in and asked, “Okay guys, what orders are y’all working on?” And they’re like, “I don’t know; we sold a pair of speakers last week.” I asked, “Wait, right, who’s going to pay your checks on Friday?”
So that’s when I put the sales hat on. I took out every business card from every person I’d ever met at any trade show and just started sending faxes out. “Hi, we’re here. We’ve got equalizers, we’ve got power apps, we’ve got microphones. Can you buy any of these things from me?” That’s how Manley Labs got started.
FD: And Manley Labs and VTL have both continued on.
EM: Well, David was only at Manley Labs for three years and was in this funky depressed mode during this time. Then in 1996, blammo, he just moved to France. So he took himself out of the equation. It was really hard, man. The things that would come out of his mouth were just hurtful and hateful, especially to those closest to him. He moved away and didn’t want to live in America anymore, didn’t want to deal with the factory, didn’t want to deal with me or Luke or anybody. Then we divorced and I negotiated to buy him out. It took three years.
Emotionally, it was very difficult…and I realized, you know what? I don’t have to suffer through this abusive behavior. I don’t have to take this from anybody anymore. I used all that emotion and all that anger to extract my revenge through kicking ass and just being awesome. So that’s when I designed the Stingray integrated amplifier and also the VOXBOX [voice processor/channel strip].
My motivation was, “I’ll show you. Revenge through success. I’m going to make these new products that are way better than anything you’ve ever done before.”
To be continued, next issue.
I have close to 3,000 CDs and LPs – a modest amount according to some people, an extravagant amount according to others. I used to have a large number of open reel tapes too, recorded from LPs with the help of my trusty Tandberg open reel deck and not so trusty Revox recorder (it was almost always in the repair shop). I tossed the reels not too long ago after my recorder broke, tore the tape that was playing, and flung pieces of it in every direction.
Having all that wonderful music to choose from makes me feel good. But the truth is I only play a fraction of those discs and LPs on a regular basis. So to celebrate 2021 here’s an annotated list of 21 of those recordings…a few of my favorite things that might become some of your favorites, too.
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP reissued by Sony Classical) This early recording with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic is a fierce performance that, according to the album notes, “perfectly captures the raw power and rhythmic intensity of what many consider the finest recording of one of the most influential compositions of the twentieth century.” I agree. Bernstein brings out elements of the score you won’t hear from other conductors. The 1958 sound is spectacular – especially in comparison to later Columbia recordings that had too much treble and not enough bass.
Bernstein: Symphony No. 3/Leonard Bernstein, cond. (Columbia Masterworks LP) This is another sizzling performance led by Lenny. The symphony, dedicated “To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy,” is one of my favorite pieces. Felicia Montealegre (Mrs. Bernstein) is almost too dramatic as the speaker but the approach is in keeping with the rest of this first recording: raucous, emotional, gripping, eclectic, and often calming. Listen to the original 1963 score and avoid recordings that use revisions Bernstein made later on: The piece races to its conclusion without the pause found in the original version and isn’t as satisfying. And after hearing Montealegre, other speakers can sound too restrained and uninvolved.
Jobim and Bonfá: Black Orpheus/The Original Soundtrack (Verve CD) Black Orpheus was one of the first foreign films I saw as a kid and has been special to me ever since. The selection “Manhã de Carnaval” became a jazz standard but the entire 1959 score wasn’t promoted as much. The recording was made from diverse sources and varies in quality but if you’ve seen the film, or even if you haven’t, you won’t mind. This CD brings the entire carnival into your home, both the beautiful and creepy parts.
Fanshawe: African Sanctus/David Fanshawe, cond. (Philips LP) David Fanshawe’s composition includes a choir and shouter, African and rock drummers, percussion, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and Hammond organ. African Sanctus also incorporates music recorded in Africa that Fanshawe describes as fascinating, weird, wonderful, and rapidly vanishing…an attempt “to fuse different peoples and their music into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise.” This piece grabs me immediately, draws me into its layers of sound, and makes me want to dance – or at least move my feet without having to leave my chair.
Puccini: Madama Butterfly/Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. (Deutsche Grammophon CD) Panned by several critics for being too slow (Sinopoli was famous for conducting pieces at a slower pace than usual) there are sections here where I start to think, “let’s get on with it!” But this happens in only a couple of places. I listen to this album because of the third act performance: a genuine tear jerker that never fails to move me.
Baroque Reflections/Alessio Bax, piano (Warner CD) My guilty pleasure disc. Bax’s approach is more rhapsodic than authentic. At times he plays Baroque music without restraint but who doesn’t like to get passionate every now and then? I enjoy this disc even if I’m not supposed to. Just don’t tell the neighbors.
Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: Piano Trios/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD) When I first started listening to classical music I only played orchestral music: The larger the forces, the better. Many years later I started concentrating on chamber music and now listen mostly to music performed on a small scale. French chamber music can be elegant and graceful: these are very appealing examples that show off those qualities.
Poulenc: Chamber Music/Pentaèdre (ATMA CD) I bought this disc when I owned speakers from the French company Triangle and it was a perfect match. The disc, played through those sweet-sounding speakers, was captivating. It still sounds wonderful played through my current hyper-detailed Audio Physic speakers warmed up by a hybrid Pathos amplifier and Marantz CD/SACD player (in case you were wondering). My opinion of this wonderful music hasn’t changed a bit.
Suk: Piano Quartet and Quintet/Nash Ensemble (Hyperion CD) Josef Suk was Dvorak’s son in law. Better known for his orchestral works, Suk’s Romantic chamber music is a melodic and attractive discovery. Who knew?
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios 1 & 2/Florestan Trio (Hyperion CD) Like Suk, Saint-Saëns was better known for his orchestral works. He also wrote chamber music that’s lyrical and a pleasure to hear no matter how many times I listen to it.
Grieg, Hindemith, Poulenc, Martinu: The Beauty of Two/Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Dorian CD) These duos by Grieg (of Peer Gynt fame) and three 20th century neoclassic composers are consistently enjoyable. When I need to relax I play this disc along with two or three of the French chamber music CDs – et voilá!
Miren el nostre ma/Ferran Savall, voice, piano and guitar (AliaVox CD) Ferran Savall (performing with a small group of other musicians) is the son of Jordi Savall, a world-renowned early music performer, scholar and conductor whose primary instrument is the Baroque viola da gamba. Ferran’s entire family consists of talented musicians and their dozens of early music recordings on the AliaVox label are outstanding. This recording combines new compositions, South American pieces, traditional songs and old Catalan melodies that, according to Savall, have been “reawakened by infusing them with the musical and multicultural influences of our own time.” It’s tuneful with a folk music flavor, and a nice addition to the Savall family’s other recordings.
Shirley Horne With Strings: Here’s to Life/Shirley Horne, vocals and piano (Verve Gitanes CD) I generally don’t care for solo vocals with band or orchestra but this disc is an exception. There’s nothing melodramatic or jarring here…just quietly expressive music making. It puts me in a better mood whenever I play it.
Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests Volume 2 (Chesky CD) This is an equipment test disc that includes selections from various Chesky Jazz CDs. I’ve purchased several albums based on these samples and never been disappointed. As for the rest of the disc, the “General Image and Resolution Test” (band No. 47 to be exact) is amazing. The test creates the illusion of a line of musicians walking from the far right corner of the room toward the listener, continuing around the listener, and finally back along the left side of the room and exiting…if, of course, your equipment is set up properly. It’s the closest one can get to hearing a binaural recording without using headphones.
Nyman: The Piano Concerto/Michael Nyman, cond. (Argo CD) Nyman, a minimalist composer, wrote a piano concerto based on his soundtrack for Jane Campion’s 1992 film The Piano. It’s moody, catchy music that invites me to listen again and again. The runner up to The Piano piano concerto in my “adapted soundtrack category” is John Corigliano’s memorable Violin Concerto (BIS or Sony CD) based on his music for the film The Red Violin. Both composers have written “earworms” that take root and stay in my mind for several days after being possessed by them.
Gershwin: Piano Concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, Cuban Overture/Jeff Tyzik, cond. (Harmonia Mundi CD) There are many recordings of the Piano Concerto and Rhapsody but not as many of the Overture. It’s a musical impression of what Gershwin heard while on vacation in Havana – maracas, claves, bongos, gourds and all. I always imagine a line of Carmen Miranda impersonators (even though “The Brazilian Bombshell” wasn’t Cuban) dancing in front of me when I listen to this. In Gershwin’s own words he combined Cuban rhythms with his own thematic material: “The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance.” It’s a riotous treat recorded in excellent sound like the rest of the disc.
Milhaud: La Création du monde & Suite Provençale/Charles Munch, cond. (RCA Victor Living Stereo Soria Series LP) The Soria series consisted of beautifully slip-cased records accompanied by equally beautiful LP-sized booklets produced by the famous Swiss art book publisher Skira. This is one of my favorites in the series: the pieces are lively and jazzy, and listening to the music while looking through the artsy booklet is always fun.
Nina’s Choice /Nina Simone, voice and piano (Colpix LP) This is an LP I discovered in the cut out section of a record store, and my introduction to the great Nina Simone. From “Trouble in Mind” to “Memphis in June,” every selection is outstanding. I now own several Simone albums, but this is my “go to” choice.
Ella in Hollywood/Ella Fitzgerald, vocals (Verve LP) Another wonderful LP found in a cut out section. Everything about the production, recorded live in a Los Angeles club, is impressive. It has everything: Ella scatting and interacting with the audience, a great selection of standards, smooth sequencing of songs, and lively performances. It sounds like the audience and Ella are having a great time and whenever I listen I have one, too. Now that’s entertainment!
Tippett: A Child of Our Time/Colin Davis, cond. (Philips LP) The oratorio A Child of Our Time was inspired by the circumstances in Europe before World War II and is Tippett’s protest against persecution and tyranny. Absorbing and lyrical with spirituals interwoven throughout, A Child was written before Tippett started composing in a more atonal style. Most Philips LPs produced around the mid-1970s had terrific sound: opulent and warm, tonally a bit to the right of center (more tube-like) rather than left (more detailed/clinical).
Potions: From the 50s/Lyn Stanley, vocals (A.T. Music LLC CD) I enjoy vocal jazz performed in an intimate manner. Stanley released her first CD in 2013 and she’s the real thing, not an opera singer struggling to sound jazzy. I have several of her discs and it doesn’t matter which recording I pull off the shelf: they all fit the bill. I especially like her second album Potions because all of the songs are familiar, comfortable and satisfying to listen to. Stanley’s discs are audiophile recordings as well, making the listening even more pleasurable.
In 1984 Ian Lloyd of the band Stories calls me and says, “I have an offer to do a concert in San Juan. Do you want to handle it?” (I did a previous article on Stories in Issue 120. The band had a smash hit with “Brother Louie” in 1973.) “They called me directly,” Ian said. Oh, that can be a problem if this guy who called Ian has no experience. People who just turn up out of nowhere and want to be a concert promoter are frequently someone who just had a windfall; maybe they’re a trust fund recipient, a gambler or a drug dealer. There is no due diligence on their part; they think it would be fun, even easy, and they will parlay their money and rub elbows with rock stars. What could go wrong?
In my experience I have seen this more than a few times, with disastrous results. “These people have no relationship with booking agencies, no history or track record!” I said. “No,” Ian replied, “look, they’ll pay up front before we go. Everything – performance fee, airfare, hotel and local transportation. The concert will be at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum (legit venue) and Rush is the headliner and Blue Angel is the middle act.” I was familiar with Blue Angel. They were kind a cross between New Wave and rockabilly and had been the opening act on some of The Stranglers dates (see Issue 128 and Issue 111). Ian Lloyd and Stories would be the opening act. Ian made a good point, I thought to myself – no matter what happens we were covered and all expenses were prepaid, so even if things fell apart we should be fine.
Then Ian and I worked out my pay and he added a perk. They would buy my wife Jessica an airplane ticket. Even though I knew this gig had potential for trouble (we had no relationships with anyone involved and would be dealing with an unknown and inexperienced new promoter), and I thought most of the potential pitfalls were taken care of, so sure, why not spend a couple of days in San Juan with my wife. And besides, Rush would be headlining and Blue Angel would also be on the bill, so that took the pressure off us. We were part of the show, not the headliner. We had about four weeks before the date so there was time enough for all arrangements to be made.
Blue Angel, Stories and I met at JFK and flew out on Pan Am on a direct flight to San Juan. The promoter and his girlfriend met us in San Juan airport in the baggage claim area. He briefly said hello to me but began to cuddle up to Ian and Cyndi while pretty much ignoring both bands and everyone else. Cyndi being Cyndi Lauper – she was in Blue Angel before going on to a solo career. He definitely had the look and the mannerisms of someone who just recently came into money.
He had a couple of vans waiting and we were driven to the hotel. It was a really nice luxury hotel that was in a state of decline, but still nice enough not to be creepy. A casino and a couple of restaurants were in the lobby. It was Friday afternoon and we were free till Saturday, the day of the show. Jessica and I went down to the bar and met Ian there. We were not in the booth more than a minute when Cyndi waltzed over and sat down next to Ian. They were acting like old friends but in fact, today was the first time they had met. After a minute they stood up and said they were going to look at the pool. We did not see either of them till the next day. That night Jessica and I dined in one of the hotel’s Latin restaurants and then checked out the casino. It looked a bit sleazy, so we passed on that and decided to have a drink in the bar and take a walk. After a while we went up to our room.
Next morning a bunch of us went down to the pool. After lunch everyone took the vans to the Coliseum. The load in was not bad because of the help we received from the stagehands. The set up for all three of the acts was Rush in the back of the stage, Blue Angel in the middle and Ian Lloyd and Stories towards the front of the stage. Each group was going to set up, do a sound check and then the next band would set up. As we were going to be the last to do a setup and sound check, it became obvious we were going to be there all day and we would not leave till after the show.
It was an extremely uncomfortable hot and humid afternoon and even worse inside the Coliseum. Everyone was sweating their butts off. I asked some of the Coliseum staff if they could turn on the air conditioning and they said no. Some of them said there was no air conditioning and others answered me with, “no comprende!” After about five requests I took it to mean that there really was no air conditioning. How could that be? Then again, we were on the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico and maybe that was the way they rolled. After finally accepting our fate we soldiered on with the sound check and with getting prepared for the concert.
A little after 6:30 pm they opened the doors and the audience started filing in. The big Coliseum was filling up. Around 6:50 I noticed it was more comfortable. I assumed I was just adapting to the heat, but it kept on feeling less humid and cooler. Just after 7:00 I had an “aha” moment. There was no denying it – there was air conditioning and it was working and working well. Son of a B, they lied to me. Why did they not turn on the AC beforehand? Did the venue really save that much money by keeping the AC off? Could you imagine working there and wearing that wet blanket of humidity every day?
The show started on time at 8:00 and things went relatively smoothly for all involved. The Stories set was good, and the audience went wild when the band played “Brother Louie.” Blue Angel was tight, and Cyndi’s four-octave vocals were outstanding. Then Rush came on and like a true headliner they closed the show, doing their older hits for encores. The evening went better than I had anticipated and that was a good thing. Back at the hotel most of the musicians and crew met at the bar and had a nightcap. Everyone was in good spirits and a few of us, those in the know, were relieved.
Next morning, we all load into the vans and are off to the airport to catch the 10 am flight back to New York. It’s just a beautiful sunny Sunday morning in San Juan, before the heat and humidity get uncomfortable. We check in and walk to the gate. The flight is already boarding. We get in line and board the plane.
As I am walking down the aisle looking for Jessica, I spot “Capt.” Lou Albano, the famous wrestler, sitting with his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned in an aisle seat in coach. He has a bandage on his head. “Captain Lou Albano!” I exclaim, and he smiles and sticks out his hand. “What are you doing here in San Juan?” He says, “I had a wrestling match last night.” “You’re heading to New York?” I ask, and he replies, “yeah, I live in Westchester.” Then I mention that we did a show at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum the previous night. The aisles are empty, so I kneel in the aisle and continue talking to Lou. I asked him what had happened that necessitated the need of a bandage on his forehead. He smiled and told me that the wrestlers had little razor blades they kept on them and which they used to cut their own foreheads. The wrestling promoters paid bonus money for blood, and a cut on the forehead bleeds a lot but heals pretty quickly.
“So wrestling is fake!” I say, and he shakes his head and says “no, it is not fake. It is fixed.” I look at him and smile. He seems to be in his 40s. I ask Lou, “have you been doing this a long time?” He answers, “yes, over 25 years. I wanted to be a boxer, but I was told I was too short, so wrestling turned out to be a good alternative. I started in 1953 and later that decade I became part of a tag team called ‘The Sicilians,’ and the gimmick was that we were a tag team of mafia mobsters. This was good for years, until some real mobsters showed up one night and asked us to please change the name and our personas. You do not make those people ask twice. The wrestling scene has been good to me and I enjoy it.”
After a few minutes, the stewardess comes over and asks me to go to my seat. I walk back and everyone, Ian, Cindy and various band members want to know who the hell I was talking to. I tell them it was “Capt.” Lou Albano, and it doesn’t really register with them. I say he is a famous wrestler, and they all go “oohh!” and now they get it. Now everyone wants to meet the Captain.
Once we are airborne and the seat belt light is off, I take Ian and Cyndi over to Lou and introduce them. There is a good bit of socializing and picture-taking between Lou and all of us.
A few months later I am watching MTV and Cyndi has a new video, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” To my surprise, Lou Albano is in the video. This was the beginning of “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” for the WWF.
Cyndi’s then-boyfriend was a WWF fan since he was a young kid, so I am assuming that he had been lobbying Cyndi to get involved in that scene after he’d heard about our flight. She went on to appear on a number of wrestling shows with Lou. There was always drama (pro wrestling is all about drama). Sometimes she would play his manager or even the manager of other wrestlers, and Albano appeared in some more Cyndi Lauper music videos.
While this helped Lou and Cyndi’s careers, it probably helped the WWF the most. I am not aware of any other rockers that got involved in the wrestling scene but even so, this was a tremendous boost in popularity for professional wrestling and apparently Cyndi had fun with it. This association seemed to last a few years and then it looked like Cyndi moved on. Without fresh meat the “bit” could only go so far. Lou retired later in the 1980s, but still did promotional fights and played the the part of a wrestling manager on television and at venues for the WWF.
We all know Cyndi went on to have a terrific career in music. “Capt.” Lou Albano knew how to parlay his status. He began appearing in television series and movies such as Miami Vice, Hey Dude, Regis and Kathie Lee, Brian De Palma’s Wise Guys, and the wrestling movie Body Slam.. Albano even managed and performed with rockers NRBQ, who released an album in 1989 named Lou and the Q.
A few months later I heard that the promoter of the San Juan concert was shot dead in a drug deal gone wrong. That was proof enough for me. He was not a trust fund recipient.
Things change with time, as my very close friend likes to say. Here’s my New Year’s wish: that things change for the better in 2021. A new year brings new possibilities.
We’re saddened by the loss of Gerry Marsden (78) of British Invasion legends Gerry and the Pacemakers. Their first single, “How Do You Do It,” hit number one on the British charts in 1963 – before the Beatles ever accomplished that feat – and they went on to have other smash records like “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “I Like It” and “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” These songs are woven not just into the fabric of the 1960s, but our lives.
In this issue: Anne E. Johnson covers the career of John Legend and rediscovers 17th century composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Larry Schenbeck gets soul and takes on “what if?” Ken Sander goes Stateside with The Stranglers. J.I. Agnew locks in his lockdown music system. Tom Gibbs looks at new releases from Kraftwerk, Julia Stone and Max Richter. Adrian Wu continues his series on testing in audio. John Seetoo mines a mind-boggling mic collection.
Jay Jay French remembers Mountain’s Leslie West. Dan Schwartz contemplates his streaming royalties. Steven Bryan Bieler ponders the new year. Ray Chelstowski notes that January’s a slow month for concerts – with a few monumental exceptions. Stuart Marvin examines how musicians and their audiences are adapting to the pandemic. I reminisce about hanging out with Les Paul. We round out the issue with single-minded listening, the world’s coolest multi-room audio system, mixed media, and a girl on a mission.
Dear readers: as I write this, Christmas is over, the New Year soon to arrive. Happy 2021, everyone!
To welcome in the New Year properly, let’s not talk about a new recording or an emerging classical artist for once. Instead, let’s talk about Soul, the new Pixar feature now streaming on Disney+. It’s full of extraordinary music, not to mention the dazzling feats of animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar. It also exemplifies a singular pop-culture trope that keeps popping up in movies I watch (and I’ve watched a lot of movies in the last few months).
Call it the “what if” trope; it’s actually a staple of storytelling in all times and across many genres, including musical narrative. (We’ll get back to Soul as quickly as we can. I promise.)
As for the trope, Joshua Rothman, newyorker.com’s ideas editor (sounds like a sweet gig, doesn’t it?), recently laid out its dirty details in “What If You Could Do It All Over?”, his quasi-review of a new book, On Not Being Someone Else, by Andrew H. Miller. For Miller and Rothman, the crux of the matter was articulated long ago by one of my own heroes, Clifford Geertz, who wrote:
One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life, but end by having lived only one.
Sooner or later, perhaps at New Year’s, nearly everyone ponders Geertz’s “significant fact.” What if I’d taken that job at Goldman Sachs instead of joining a commune? Rothman deepens the discussion with anecdotes from his own life: as an undergrad in the late ‘90s, he was briefly a tech entrepreneur. Then the dotcom bubble burst, he met “a girl on the elevator,” and now he’s married, a journalist, a father. I’m glad he offered some personal history before wading into David Byrne (“Once in a Lifetime”), Henry James, and Robert Frost. He also tells more stories from Miller, like this one:
When the musician Melissa Etheridge and her partner decided to have children, they faced a decision: for their sperm donor, they considered one of two friends, David Crosby or Brad Pitt. They chose Crosby. “My teenagers now are, like, ‘I could have had Brad Pitt,’” Etheridge later said. “‘I could’ve been amazingly handsome.’”
Although I’ve stressed narrative issues so far, I don’t think the specific storyline for Pixar’s Soul need concern us overmuch. There’s a Guy Named Joe. This time, he’s a frustrated part-time band director at a middle school, but his dream is to play piano in an A-list jazz group. We hear just enough of his playing to realize he could step into that dream at the drop of a hat.
And then the hat drops.
To say more would do unnecessary damage to a necessarily fragile storyline, one that (like many a Rossini opera!) only achieves liftoff by relying on the virtuosity of its performers—in this case not only the actors and musicians but also Pixar’s talented animators. I happened to watch Soul with a friend who became annoyed when the story was interrupted or prolonged by clever visual fantasies. Shallow showing off, said he. No, no! Virtuosity! said I.
That’s because Soul’s luminous graphic displays reminded me of Paganini, Liszt, Eddie Van Halen. Such triumphs of craft and creativity continue a proud cinematic tradition going back to the very beginnings of film (see below). Historically, the magic realism of movie cartooning led quickly to Clarabelle Cow‘s delightful ambulations; ultimately it enabled those legendary battles between Bugs and Elmer, Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner.
Really, why would a filmmaker cast any story as a feature-length animated cartoon, if not to draw upon animation’s peculiar powers, to go where “naturalism” dare not intrude? Skilled animators can use smart, funny, breathtakingly ingenious visuals to sustain the slightest of stories—stories that usually include supernatural elements already. That sort of narrative needs all the virtuosity an artist can bring—as many trills, passaggi, and high C’s as possible. (It’s possible that Soul’s flawless execution of the “what if” trope will help save the trope itself from extinction in our time.)
Speaking of trills and passaggi: Pianist Jon Batiste, who “plays” Joe the pianist on the soundtrack, festoons his keyboard improvisations with all the melodic decoration the law will allow. Soul constantly reminds us that jazz itself is an improvisatory genre. Pixar’s animation trickery skips away hand-in-hand with whatever the musicians throw at it, which is a lot.
The quartet playing most of the onscreen jazz probably consists of Batiste, drummer Marcus Gilmore, bass player Linda May Han Oh, and saxophonist Tia Fuller (a Spelman alumna I got to know during her student days in Atlanta). Legendary bebop drummer Roy Haynes—Gilmore’s grandfather—also plays on the soundtrack, as do saxophonist Eddie Barbash and singer-songwriter Cody Chesnutt. A slew of advisors seasoned the stew: Questlove, Terri Lyne Carrington, Herbie Hancock, and several distinguished academics. (The film’s music credits are extensive but vague and apparently incomplete; you’ll find helpful discussions of how the puzzle was put together in reports from Ethan Iverson and Mekado Murphy, plus Fuller’s detailed description of her work.) Batiste composed original music but also incorporated staples from the Ellington and Brubeck catalogs; one’s overall impression is of exuberant hard bop from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But wait, there’s more: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contributed synthesized music for scenes in the Great Before. In short, there’s a lot of music in there; see Wikipedia’s discussion of the soundtrack.
And now, patient reader, we return to the “what if” trope for a few parting shots. In one helpful comment, Rothman (remember Rothman?) reminds of us just how broadly the trope can be interpreted:
As Sartre says, we are who we are. But isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real; to know what someone isn’t—what she might have been, what she’s dreamed of being—this is to know someone intimately.
If you could use some help picturing negative space, just watch Céline Sciamma’s celebrated Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which amplifies and widens Rothman’s discussions by adding sexual taboos and patriarchal politics to its geography. In the film, three 18th-century women, a painter, her subject, and a housemaid, negotiate their futures—the lives they will lead, and the lives they have been denied—separately and together. Sciamma chose to make the film with a virtually music-free soundtrack (we do get bits of Vivaldi at crucial moments); the effect is ravishingly beautiful.
Music—and Puccini’s La Bohème at that—looms larger in Moonstruck, an Oscar-winning movie from 1987 with Cher, Nicholas Cage, and a host of wonderfully well-cast supporting actors. As the pandemic raged on this summer, Moonstruck became popular again, especially with New Yorkers. For half a clue as to why, you could do worse than read “‘Moonstruck’ Knows That the Best Things in Life Aren’t Chosen,” by B. D. McClay (warning: many spoilers). In the film, it’s immediately clear that Loretta Castorini, age 37 and widowed, has not made a major effort to imagine her unled life. When alternatives arrive, they hit her eye like a big you-know-what. The magic of the story is that it reconciles ironclad reality with the wondrously accidental. There’s also something special about the sight of Brooklyn’s crowded streets, shops, and little restaurants, newly wondrous again now that they’re nearly deserted.
The “what if” trope has given us dozens of modern time-travel fantasies, from H. G. Wells’ original dark tale through Back to the Future, Dark, and Christopher Nolan’s entire fictional universe. It contributes to Bohème, in which aspiring poet Rodolfo meets a girl in the stairwell and gains the inspiration for his next 200 bad poems. It’s central to Verdi’s La Traviata, in which party girl Violetta Valéry meets a boy at a party and decides—just for him—to forswear partying forever. It probably belongs to that handful of starter myths that kept our ancestors, primeval fabulists all, up at night gazing at the stars and naming dozens of constellations, each a story waiting to be told.
Great cities seem essential to modern takes on “what if,” perhaps because the best ones happen when people are crammed together, forced to interact in surprising, touching, fanciful ways. If it can’t be Paris, City of Light, then New York, city of Con Ed, will do nicely. New York works better, in fact, if the story involves a piano player named Joe and a fabled club called (here) the Half-Note, just down a flight of stairs somewhere in the Village. Hope to see you all there again, this year, for real, in person.
Header image: Trombone Shorty, age 5, New Orleans 1990.
J.I. Agnew, Ivan Berger, Steven Bryan Bieler, Ray Chelstowski, Cliff Chenfeld, Jay Jay French, Tom Gibbs, Roy Hall, Robert Heiblim, Rich Isaacs, Anne E. Johnson, Don Kaplan, Ken Kessler, Don Lindich, Tom Methans, B. Jan Montana, Rudy Radelic, Wayne Robins, Alón Sagee, Ken Sander, Larry Schenbeck, John Seetoo, Dan Schwartz, Bob Wood, WL Woodward, Adrian Wu
“Cartoon Bob” D’Amico
James Whitworth, Peter Xeni
James Schrimpf, B. Jan Montana, Rich Isaacs (and others)
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Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) boasted two key requirements for a successful musical career in late 17th-century Paris: a well-connected father who could introduce him to potential patrons and two years’ worth of compositional training from the Italian maestro Giacomo Carissimi. He also had plenty of natural talent and ambition. The result was a catalogue of beautifully constructed Baroque works, both sacred and secular, several of which have been featured in recent recordings.
The great majority of Charpentier’s output was sacred, written both for private patrons (in particular, a wealthy duchess, Marie de Lorraine, who employed and housed him for 17 years) as well as the Jesuits, who hired him after the duchess died. Many of his hundreds of surviving works are Masses, the genre best represented on recordings from the past year.
The Messe à quatre choeurs (Mass for Four Choirs) is an early work, believed to date from 1670. Charpentier wrote at least four settings of the Mass that year. In a beautiful performance on Harmonia Mundi, Sébastien Daucé conducts the vocal and period-instrument group Ensemble Correspondances. The programming is clever: The track list follows young Charpentier on his travels from Paris to study and work in several towns in Italy. Between pieces by Charpentier are compositions by other musicians with whom he would have come into contact, such as Francesco Cavalli and Tarquinio Merulo.
The first phrases of the opening Kyrie establish both Charpentier’s highly developed skills, even in his twenties, as well as the power, intensity, and accuracy of the Ensemble Correspondances. The singers, using vocal placement and pitch carefully researched for the place and time, lean into the minor mode harmonies and dissonances Charpentier has crafted to give weight and pathos to this solemn text, “Lord, have mercy.” The Gloria of this Mass opens with a delicate duet between soprano and mezzo soloists, but then expands into a mighty chorus and the text continues. (Later, in Vivaldi’s hands, the Gloria text alone would become its own 12-movement oratorio!)
Harmonia Mundi does not allow its releases on any free streaming services, but you can sample all the tracks here: http://www.harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2656 If you have a Qobuz account, listen to the album in hi-res streaming here: https://play.qobuz.com/album/utabouskl7tva
Another new French recording captures a somewhat later Mass. Charpentier seems to have written the Messe pour Monsieur Mauroy (Mass for Mr. Mauroy) in 1690, and Le Concert Spirituel’s effort under director Hervé Niquet on Chandos attempts to give it a celestial sheen. The composer included not only the Ordinary sections of the Mass (the texts used every time), but also some of the Propers (texts that change with the liturgical calendar), resulting in an hour-long work.
The orchestra’s playing is flawless. In the second section of the Kyrie, the instrumental ensemble, featuring a richly toned recorder solo, moves light-footed through Charpentier’s elegant, courtly measures. Niquet gives a dance-like quality to this section, where the text is “Christ have mercy,” traditionally treated more gently by composers than the “Lord have mercy” section. Unfortunately, one of the two soprano vocalists sounds quite strained.
The three male soloists in the Agnus Dei fare somewhat better, but overall the vocal tone is strangely harsh, so consistently that it appears to be a stylistic choice. On the other hand, the singers’ intonation is excellent, as is their phrasing, and it’s interesting to hear Latin pronounced in what is presumably a historically accurate French manner.
Deutsche Grammophon offered up more sacred works on its new recording Charpentier: Baroque Splendor by Les Musiciens du Louvre, a chamber ensemble founded in 1982 by Marc Minkowski, who remains its conductor. Along with two Masses, the album includes Charpentier’s Suite pour un reposoire (Suite for a resting place) as well as his Te Deum, H. 146. The Te Deum is a medieval hymn sung at the matins prayer service; it became a favorite text for composers to turn into glorious polyphonic works, especially in Catholic France.
This short duet for bass and alto with continuo and obbligato from the Charpentier’s Te Deum gives a good indication of the work’s elegance, as well as the tasteful, detailed performance by Mindowski’s ensemble.
The Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) was written for the Christmas Eve service, probably in 1690. Following long-established Catholic tradition, the Gloria movement opens with unison voices giving the opening line in Gregorian chant. Then the polyphony begins, first a passage sung with gentle wonder, which is quickly contrasted by a tightly articulated, aggressive section, then a series of solo passages. The lengthy text continues in short, varied bursts, each one performed beautifully by the Louvre musicians. In this recording, you can really hear how the French baroque inspired Handel in the following generation.
Although the bulk of Charpentier’s output was in the sacred realm, he also received commissions for secular works. The was particularly true when the duchess was his patron. As a wealthy, influential personage, she had sway over the work of artists keen to please her, including the playwright Molière. When he needed incidental music for his comic play Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) in 1673, the duchess pressured the playwright to hire her favorite composer.
In a new self-published recording called Charpentier: Torum esse vitae (She Was Living), L’Orchestre Baroque d’Avignon presents this incidental music, arranged for mixed ensemble and conducted by Lois de Crihlon.
Much of Charpentier’s music for this play was meant to be danced to. Thanks to the tastes of King Louis XIV, the French come to expect ballet in every theatrical work. But other movements are clearly intended just to set the mood. It’s fascinating to hear this humorous, even silly, passage by the same composer who wrote all those lofty Masses. While the playing is excellent and Crihlon is to be admired for taking on this unusual material, the sound quality is muffled – a wasted opportunity to make a really nice recording.
One further release from the past year should be mentioned. Charpentier wrote many theatrical pieces such as divertissements and operas (either for patrons’ private homes or the larger public stage). Among the latter is his version of the Orpheus and Euridice myth. This story obsessed composers when opera was first invented around 1600; Charpentier learned well from his teacher, Carissimi, and created a stylish and exciting work.
La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld), released on Alpha Music, features the vocal ensemble Vox Luminis, directed by Lionel Meunier, and the vocal and instrumental ensemble A Nocte Temporis, directed by Reinoud Van Mechelen. It’s a sensitive and skilled performance, always aware of the breathless rhythmic motion (known to musicologists as “over-dotting”) so essential to 17th-century French opera. This short excerpt, sung to Orpheus by three denizens of the Underworld longing to be free, demonstrates the idea:
Les Paul was a tremendous influence not only on guitar players but anyone who’s ever listened to music recorded after around the late 1940s. Aside from being a dazzling guitarist and one of the first electric guitar virtuoso “shredders,” Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss) pioneered or was one of the first in the development of multitrack recording, close-miking, tape echo, pitch-shifting and other modern recording techniques. The Gibson Les Paul guitar is an iconic rock and blues instrument, with a thick, powerful sustaining tone. In his heyday Les Paul and his musical partner Mary Ford were top stars who sold millions of records.
Les Paul certainly had a major impact on me, especially since I got to hang with the guy a few times.
In 1991 I was working at The Absolute Sound when a CD box set, Les Paul, the Legend and the Legacy arrived at the office. It was an excellent compilation of Les Paul and wife/fellow performer Mary Ford’s Capitol sides from 1947 through 1958.
The CD package came with press information, and, thinking quickly for once in my life, I saw this as an opportunity to interview Les Paul. I figured it was far from a certainty – after all, this was Les Paul, guitar legend. And I’d heard he could be difficult and had an ego. But I knew the man’s career and music, made a convincing pitch to Capitol’s PR person…and they said, “Come down to Fat Tuesday’s (the Manhattan club where Paul played on Monday nights) and you’ll be able to interview Les about an hour before the first show.”
A couple of weeks later it was time to drive from Sea Cliff, New York into Manhattan. I had brought my 1984 Les Paul Standard gold top for Les to sign. I loaded up my 1992 Honda Civic and drove away…but something didn’t feel right…
After driving about a mile I realized that in my excitement over being able to meet Les Paul I had forgotten to load my guitar into the car! I had left it in the street!
Panicked, I drove back to the office. I pulled up to the spot where I had left the guitar and it wasn’t there. Crushed, I went to the office to call the police (no cell phone in those days)…and saw an elderly man standing at the door with my guitar in hand. He had found it in the street, saw the TAS business card that was taped to the case and had gone to the office to return it. After I proved who I was, the man gave it back to me, refusing any kind of reward.
What a way to start the trip. Every five minutes I’d turn my head and look in the back seat to make sure the guitar was still there.
I got to Fat Tuesday’s and there was Les Paul, hanging out by the small stage in the small room, kibitzing with the other musicians, his son Rus and some other people. He still had some tinges of red in his hair (before making it as Les Paul he was known as Rhubarb Red), was wearing a turtleneck and old-man pants, and was thin, smaller than I’d imagined him. I was introduced to Les. “Hi, so you’re the guy from the magazine who’s going to do the article!” Les practically yelled it out in a gravelly yet friendly voice. He shook my hand, eyed my guitar case with a smile (said case in my left hand in a vise grip) and said, “C’mon, let’s go!”
He led me to a tiny back room with irregular dark walls and exposed pipes, boxes of food and liquor and a small, battered table. I’d pictured a fancy green room but nope; the two of us barely fit. Clearly, Les Paul wasn’t a man of affectations. I laid out my tape recorder and notebook and Les bellowed, “well, go ahead. Ask away!”
I was tongue-tied. I This was my first interview with a bona-fide legend. Sensing my nervousness, Les looked at me and said, “I know, I know…you’re all alone in a room with LES PAUL!” He said it in such a self-deprecating manner that it was a perfect way for him to break the ice. We laughed, then I looked at my notes and said, “I had all these questions I was going to ask you but now that I’m sitting with you, it doesn’t seem right.” He replied, “OK, let’s just talk. Ask me anything!” Which we did. Portions of the interview, which originally ran in The Absolute Sound in 1992, are included below with permission of TAS, along with a link to the complete interview. We talked about the beginning of his recording career in the 1920s, his early experiments with guitar amplification, his working with Mary Ford, specific recording techniques, his favorite guitarists and a lot more.
Then it was time for him to do a soundcheck with the rest of the musicians, long-time second guitarist Lou Pallo (who passed away in 2020) and I think Gary Mazzaroppi on bass (I’m not sure). Les picked up a brown sunburst Les Paul that looked somewhat customized (many of his onstage guitars weren’t stock), plugged into a seventies Fender Twin Reverb house amp, and played a few notes.
What is that indescribable something that defines a great artist? Their sound. Their tone. It’s the combination of the way they attack, hold and release the notes, the dynamic shadings of their touch, their timing, the spaces they leave between the notes…and an X factor that maybe none of us will ever understand, including the artists themselves. Les was playing 10 feet in front of me, and time stopped. There it was. The sound. THAT sound. Oh my god.
The rest of the band joined in and ran through snippets of a few songs to make sure the levels were right. Before leaving the stage, Les looked at his guitar, made a face and said, “you know what? This guitar is a b*tch!” I thought, here’s a guy with dozens of guitars in his house, who could play any guitar in the world, and why is he using one that’s hard to play? (Never got the answer.)
After the soundcheck Les went to the bar to hang out. He was drinking Miller Lite. Again I thought, this guy can afford any drink and why is he…I couldn’t help it. I asked him, “why are you drinking Miller Lite instead of something better?” He rasped, “because I like it!”
Someone tapped Les on the shoulder and motioned it was time for him to go on stage. In that short walk from the bar to the stage he transformed from some guy at the bar to…Les Paul. He bantered a little with the now-packed house, counted off the first tune (might have been (“Caravan”), and…pure magic.
Mesmerizing. Enchanting. Les had arthritis by this time and couldn’t play as adeptly as in the past. Didn’t matter. The notes, the sound, the music coming out of him was sublime. He played mostly (or maybe all) standards, and what playing, weaving jazzy and country licks, fast runs, slow bent notes and an endlessly creative stream of melodies, combined with that clean, articulate, bright yet full-bodied unmistakable hi-fi tone that no one else has ever attained.
After the show, many admirers wanted to shake his hand and get his autograph. I stood on the line to meet him with my guitar in hand. I figured I’d have him sign the edge or the back of the guitar so as not to mark the guitar’s gorgeous, pristine metallic gold top. As I got close to him I took the guitar out of the case to get it ready. I started noodling on it. When I got to Les he looked at me and said, “hey, you can play!”
If I’d died on the spot my life would have been complete.
I handed him the guitar and he said, “where do you want me to sign it?” I answered, “oh, I don’t know, maybe on the side or the back?”
He made a face and said, “If I sign it there, no one’s going to see it!” He waved the Sharpie I had given him around with a flourish.
What am I going to do, say no to Les Paul? “OK, sign it wherever you want to.” He smiled – and proceeded to scrawl, “To Frank – Keep Pickin’! Les Paul, 12-91” on top of the guitar.
I don’t know what kind of nuclear-winter-resistant ink they put in that Sharpie, but look at the condition of the signature today.
I saw Les a couple of more times in the 1990s at Fat Tuesday’s (now defunct) and at trade shows. He was always wearing a turtleneck and old-man pants and drinking Miller Lite. On November 13, 1993 I went to Fat Tuesday’s as a guest of Sony, and they lent me a portable DAT recorder with permission to record the show for personal use. I still have the tape.
I was surprised that he always remembered me, but he did, and greeted me warmly every time. The last time I saw him, around 2005 at an AES convention, I ran into him in the JBL booth. I hadn’t seen him in something like 10 years, but he went right up to me and said, “how are you doing?” The people working the booth thought I was some kind of rock star or something, but no, I was just someone lucky enough to have met Les Paul.
Once time I went to Fat Tuesday’s with my wife. We got there and Les said hello – and promptly ignored me once I introduced my wife to him. I have to tell you that women were attracted by Les’ easy charisma and well, flat-out star power, and he clearly liked their attention in return. Les lit up in talking to her. I disappeared into the background for a few moments.
On the way in to the show I’d been thinking – our wedding song was “Blue Skies,” and I was debating whether to ask Les to play it to surprise her. But I wimped out; I figured, he has a set list; he doesn’t know the song; he probably gets annoyed by constant requests.
Then Les got on the stage, greeted the crowd and counted off the first song.
I couldn’t breathe.
After the song ended I looked at my wife and, very emotionally, said, “I can’t believe it.” And told her I hadn’t put Les up to it.
It was fate.
After a couple of more songs, she turned to me and said, “he could have any woman in this room if he wanted.”
Excerpts From the Interview
The following are excerpts from the interview Les and I did in 1992.
For a link to the complete interview – over 6,000 words worth! – click here: Les Paul, Complete Interview. We talk about topics including wire recording, Bing Crosby, Jimi Hendrix, how Les Paul and Mary Ford met, analog versus digital, solid-state, tubes, drilling holes in tape recorders and a lot more.
Frank Doris: When did you first get involved with recording?
Les Paul: Right at the very beginning, in the 1920s.
FD: When did you realize that not only did you have to play the guitar, but wanted to get a certain sound?
LP: I wasn’t happy with the acoustical sound of the instrument. I heard what was happening on the string itself, without the influence of the guitar body…that was the sound that I wanted, and so analyzing it I strung up the string on a railroad track, then on a piece of wood…then on the guitar itself, and I said, “Now look. The guitar alters it. It enhances it. It changes it. It distorts it. It makes it something different than it originally was. What I would like to do is go back and build the guitar starting with the string itself. Picking up the [pure] sound of that string and then modifying it any way you wish. And so I came up with the idea of making a reproduction of the sound of the string only [and] came up with a 4 x 4 [piece of wood] with a string on it.
FD: The description of it sounds pretty close to what the Les Paul guitar eventually evolved into – two pickups and a solid body.
You started with disc recording in the Forties. It’s incredible that you even thought of doing sound-on-sound on disc. Were you using acetate in those days?
LP: Aluminum [discs] in 1928. [Les would record a track on one disc, then overdub another track onto another disc while playing along with the first one, and so on.]
FD: The tape recorder first came out after World War II. Were the original wire recorders impractical?
LP: Oh I had the wire recorder in ’36…I was tying knots in that wire…(laughs) I knew that wasn’t going to work. I went back to the disc and stayed there.
FD: And then Ampex came out with their magnetic tape machine.
LP: No Ampex didn’t. Rangertone.
LP: Col. Ranger. Dick Ranger. He worked for me. He approached me in 1946.
FD: I’ve never heard of him!
LP: I’m sure very few know him. [Then] Jack Mullin took the idea to Ampex, who put it out, but I already had told Bing Crosby that Col. Ranger had built one.
FD: I suppose it must have taken about a hundredth of a second for you to get the idea that you could do sound-on-sound by recording on one tape deck and bouncing the sound onto another.
LP: When I first saw the Ampex 300 tape machine, Bing Crosby brought it in my backyard and says, “Here’s a present for you…” I took a look at it and said, “How in the hell am I going to take this on the road so we don’t have to take the whole garage with us to make recordings!” And all of a sudden I said, “Mary, I got it! I can make a thing called sound-on-sound!”
We drove to Chicago to play a date. I told Ampex I needed a new [tape] head [and] had burned mine out, and I asked them to send a new head to the New Lawrence Hotel, where we were staying. I didn’t want to let them know what I was doing! I hooked that head up after I had a guy drill a hole for me in the top plate. And we wired in the head and I spoke into the mike and said, “Hello, hello, hello,” and out comes two hellos, three hellos, four hellos, and I went to work and Mary says “My god, the thing works!”
FD: How did you manage to go all the way to eight tracks?
LP: Well, it was very simple. In terms of fidelity, and according to available track width, we decided that eight was the magic number.
FD: It really didn’t catch on in pop recording until…
LP: Till the Beatles.
FD: Sgt. Pepper, ’67.
LP: I asked Paul McCartney about it and he says, “Les, we just worshipped what you did,” et cetera, et cetera. I said, “How come you didn’t grab it sooner?” And he said, “We didn’t know about it sooner!”
FD: What advice would you give aspiring guitarists?
LP: Do your own thing. No one guitarist can do everything. It helps to study the ways other guitarists play, but ultimately, you have to find your own voice. It you do that, playing will be a lot easier than if you try to force yourself to play in a style that isn’t you.
It’s no surprise that John Legend wasn’t born with that name, but it’s a bit surprising how recently he started using it. In 2003, at age 25, he was still performing under his birth name, John Stephens. Whatever you call him, this accomplished singer, songwriter, and pianist is a major force in the R&B scene of the early 21st century, developing a seamless blend with rap and other Black-led genres.
The Ohio native was raised in a family of church singers and organists. He had such good grades in high school that he was offered a spot at Harvard, but he turned it down in favor of the University of Pennsylvania. Although music wasn’t his major, it was his extracurricular passion.
A friend introduced him to Lauryn Hill, who invited him to play piano on her then-new album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which went on to be nominated for ten Grammys and win five. An even luckier connection happened after he’d graduated, when he met Kanye West, whose career was new but growing quickly. West loved Legend’s vocal style and asked him to sing on some tracks. More significantly, West signed him to his label. A poet friend came up with the name John Legend, and it stuck.
But before that stage moniker was official, he made his first recording as John Stephens. Live at SOB’s came out in 2003, recorded during a show at the famed New York club. His voice on “Hurt So Bad” has an exciting, raw sound, something that would be smoothed out, along with his song arrangements, as he became an increasingly mainstream artist. The style on this number seems less influenced by the original Little Anthony and the Imperials recording than by the emotional raggedness of Stevie Wonder. Jimmy Coleman’s drumming lays down an infectious groove.
Get Lifted (2004) was Legend’s debut solo studio album and the first to use his new name. Released by Kanye West’s GOOD Music along with Sony Urban and Columbia, the record hit the top ten, went double platinum, and won the Grammy for best R&B album. Production was a group effort, including input from will.i.am, Devo Springsteen, and West himself, who was also managing Legend at the time. This team approach has remained Legend’s standard procedure.
The song “Refuge (When It’s Cold Outside)” was co-written by Legend, DeVon Harris, and Paul Cho (another producer). As expected, given the people working on it, there’s a tighter, more technically complex approach to arrangement than on the SOB’s show. What has not changed is Legend’s ability to infuse his voice with sincere emotion and explore the breadth of its pitch and dynamic spectrum.
Although the album Once Again (2006) did just as well in sales and radio play, critics complained about Legend’s new leaning toward a pop sound. This project truly took a village: The personnel list numbers around 100 musicians and producers!
One of the few tracks not released as a single is the album’s closer, “Coming Home,” written and produced by Legend and will.i.am. It’s an intimate autobiographical song, wistful but carefully crafted to stave off sentimentality. The military-style snare drum that enters as the strings soar in the final chorus is one example of the counterbalance against the maudlin.
Legend continued with GOOD Music for Evolver in 2008, and the production team was just as crowded. But there were some new elements to this album. In an interview for the British magazine Blues & Soul, Legend pointed out his greater reliance on electronics, as well as the his first political song (“If You’re Out There”).
There are also some forays into reggae style. The best of these, “Can’t Be My Lover,” was not included on the original album, but was a single and eventually a bonus track. It features Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton, whose earthy delivery is an effective counterpoint to Legend’s more ethereal style.
Politics became a stronger force in Legend’s music when he worked on Wake Up! (2010), a collaboration with The Roots inspired by the election of Barack Obama to his first term as US president. Rather than write an album of new songs to celebrate the first Black president, Legend and his colleagues took a historical approach, recording politically and socially aware songs by Black artists of the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s a lot to sink your teeth into on this meaty album, from Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times” to a nearly 12-minute version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” But a little gem shines brightest: a simple, inspiring arrangement of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” made famous by Nina Simone.
Three years of intensive touring delayed the completion of the next album, Love in the Future (2013). The leading single, “Who Do We Think We Are,” contains excerpts and samples from songs by Lenny Kravitz, Marvin Gaye, and others. Samples used on other songs were taken from a wide range of artists, including Dr. John, The Dells, and Sara Bareilles.
For one track only, Legend looked to the production skills of rapper Q-Tip. It’s one of the most interesting and unusual songs on the album, combining a soulful melody with intriguingly out-of-sync backing vocals and a relentlessly jumping electronic bassline that counteracts and confines the free vocals. When that jumping pattern disappears for a few bars, the melody soars, only to be walled in again.
Darkness and Light came out in 2016, Legend’s final collaboration with West. He then recorded the holiday album A Legendary Christmas and committed to a major project outside his comfort zone, performing the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar live on NBC on Easter Sunday, 2018. Although his acting was unremarkable, his singing raised the musical level of this role to rare heights. His job as executive producer on that broadcast won him an Emmy Award, making him one of only a handful of artists to earn the so-called EGOT combination: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar (for the song “Glory” in the film Selma), and Tony (for producing August Wilson’s play Jitney).
After that detour, Legend was ready to go back to the studio. His most recent album is Bigger Love (2020), on Columbia Records. For several tracks he brought in the producer Warren Felder, known as Oak, who produced the album’s opener, “Ooh Laa.” That track is John Legend in microcosm: Smooth R&B singing shaped by a rap sensibility. Sexy and luxurious while simultaneously edgy and street-smart.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tech Sgt. Samuel King Jr.
When you run through a list of the biggest rock concerts of all time, one thing you’ll notice is that most were held during the summer months. I guess this isn’t much of a surprise, although there are actually a fair share of exceptions that took place in the spring and early fall. But guess which month is largely absent of almost any big shows? If you guessed January, you win.
Even December has made more noise, hosting its fair share of memorable and infamous moments like the Rolling Stones’ performance at Altamont in 1969. Things just seem to come to a halt in January. Frankly I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the holidays take the wind out of concert-going crowds. Maybe weather plays a role. But as I look back at my own personal concert-going, the month of January has always been light.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant January concerts or even shows that changed the face of music. For example, the legendary Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite show that Elvis Presley hosted on January 14, 1973. I remember watching that as a kid and being dazzled by the fanfare built around a new technology breakthrough: the first live concert broadcast via satellite. That enabled The King to go global. The concert delivered better viewing numbers than any moon landing. Then there was the Trips Festival in 1966. 10,000 people attended this three-day event that featured bands like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. This festival put concert promoter Bill Graham on the map and became a psychedelic landmark, one of the first events to pose the question: “Can you pass the acid test?”
Then, there was that crazy moment in 1978 at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas, where the Sex Pistols took to the stage. From the get-go the band tirelessly taunted an audience of mostly cowboys with insults and digs. Things reached a boiling point when Sid Vicious hit a patron in the head with his bass. It became a definitive moment in the world of punk where the line between art and life became largely blurred.
These all were significant live music moments, but it’s hard to imagine how any past or future performance in the month of January could possibly top the one I’ll name as the greatest of all time.
I’m speaking about Johnny Cash’s performance in front of about 1,000 inmates at Folsom State Prison in 1968. Much like the comeback special that Elvis would host later that year (not to be confused with the Aloha From Hawaii show mentioned earlier), this performance catapulted Cash back to the forefront of American music. Prior to this appearance Cash’s career had hit the skids, derailed by an addiction to pills so strong that it had him contemplating suicide. But on Saturday, January 13, after two days of rehearsal in a Sacramento motel and with a new producer and the approval from Governor Ronald Reagan Johnny took to that stage in his trademark black ensemble. Backed by a small, tight band, he sat on a white stool and introduced himself to the crowd with the immortal words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
What many don’t know is that Cash insisted on two performances, one at 9:40 am and another at 12:40 pm, in the event the first show wasn’t fit for recording. In both cases Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers opened the show, each singing a song or two. From there, Cash was introduced and he ripped right into “Folsom Prison Blues,” The performance was later released as a live record, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and would become his best-selling disc to that date. It also would provide him with a new footing that convinced June Carter that he was back on track. They married shortly thereafter.
Many artists, across genres, consider this live record to be a seminal work of American music. Longtime Cash sideman (and son-in-law) Marty Stuart once said, “if I had to point to one record – if you’ve never heard rock and roll in your life, if you’ve never heard country music in your life, go get this record. If you want the definition of American country music, American rock and roll, whatever Americana music is, here it is. If I had to take one record to Heaven with me, it would be that one.”
Cash was no stranger to jails. He had been locked up over the years for public disorder, drug offenses, public intoxication, and breaking curfew while picking flowers in Starkville, Mississippi. That last brush with the law even inspired his song “Starkville County Jail.” Those experiences stayed with him and informed his writing.
In the early 1960s after Cash had written “Folsom Prison Blues,” prisoners across the country wrote letters asking Cash to play for them. Truth be told, he had actually played at various prisons before the idea to record his shows was proposed for Folsom. During these visits, Cash took the time to sit down with inmates from Arkansas to California and hear their stories. Through these moments he became their champion.
Almost a year after Folsom, Cash returned to California to play at San Quentin State Prison. Ironically, among the group of inmates was Merle Haggard. He would later say of Cash’s performance: “It gave everybody the feeling that if they could learn [from] “Folsom Prison Blues,” maybe they could stay out of prison.” June Carter Cash described the day as the moment they had come to “see the lost and lonely ones. Some kind of internal energy for those men – the prisoners, the guards, even the warden – gave way to anger, to love, and to laughter…a reaction like I’d never seen before.” In Johnny Cash the inmates at Folsom and San Quentin found a brother, and the photos and footage from both shows reveal the joy and the sense of hope that he brought to them. Apparently for Cash, performing at these correctional facilities was an important reminder of where he would be headed if he didn’t get control of his own personal demons.
This dedication to bringing music to inmates would move beyond Johnny Cash and extend to B.B. King’s Live at Cook County Jail in 1971 and even Metallica performing at San Quentin in 2003. Cash started a movement at Folsom in more ways than one. What few now know or remember about his prison tour is that he donated a portion of proceeds from their hit albums to prison reform campaigns, and in 1972 Cash testified in front of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on National Penitentiaries. He also sat down with President Richard Nixon to plead his case.
These Cash performances at Folsom Prison are in my opinion the centerpieces of his eternal legacy. They are the perfect intersection of his music, his qualities as a performer, his humanity and his own sense of justice. An otherwise musically quiet day in January was the spark for a body of music that still can change just about anyone’s mindset and mood. Listening to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is a great way to kick off any new year and after the one we’ve just lived through, now might be the perfect time to tap into an electrifying performance that was truly transformational – exactly what we all are hoping for from 2021.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Abernathyautoparts~commonswiki (assumed), cropped to fit format.
Our Paul McGowan asked me to recount the truly massive amount I’ve made from streaming sources. So here it is. But first, while I won’t reveal the figure, I will say that prior to Napster, prior to everyone thinking that music should be free, the Sheryl Crow album I worked on made me a pretty healthy income (thank you, Bill! It was called Tuesday Night Music Club.) There have been quite a few other projects I’ve made money from, but TNMC is the big one.
Now music is free. As I type, Susanna Hoffs and I are trying to figure out how the finances of the record we did way back when will work out. I’ll buy a recording from an artist I know I like (Shriekback, the Firesign Theatre, etc.) But otherwise…
TNMC was an album we did for A&M Records, now owned by Universal Music after a number of mergers, and in turn, Universal is now owned by a French toilet company called Vivendi. Or is it? [They’re still part-owners; I had to look it up. – Ed.]
I’ve lost track. Who owns it now? And whoever owned it at the beginning of streaming definitely didn’t have the writers of the music they were making money off of in mind when they assigned rights to stream the music.
Are you ready for the enormity of the size of the check I’ve received from streaming services – the one single check?
One bloody, red cent.
Of course, I didn’t cash the check. It was too good of a commentary on the state of the finances around music to throw away, though – but I’ve lost track of where I put it.
This isn’t quite the whole truth of what people like me get from streaming. Where in the past, I held onto my publishing rights (50 percent of the income from a song) until I sold it*, that income from all sources now goes to Sony, and Universal gets the lions’ share of the rest of the money, which no doubt they made a stock trade for – or some such maneuver. Once or twice a year, I get a statement from Sony that reports there was too little revenue to bother to pay me. My BMI payments on occasion approach relative significance – for song usage – and I get AFM (American Federation of Musicians) payments once a year that can be noteworthy, owing primarily to being one of 500 participants in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.
But as a writer, there’s virtually nothing held over from the world-as-it-was.
*Although other writers on that TNMC album spread rumors about me making more than anyone else, it’s not true – as a percentage of my income from the album, yes – I made 100 percent. But that was the smallest hunk of the total proceeds, owing to my unawareness that I needed to be aggressive about such things as publishing. The other writers generally made publishing deals as a way of getting some money earlier in their careers. When you make a publishing deal, typically the publisher takes all of that income. I didn’t, so I made 100 percent of everything there was to make from my songwriting. And for a time, it was a good income.
PS: I should say, I did some of Phoebe Bridgers’ first recordings – she was a schoolmate of my daughter’s – and she was doing okay before the shutdown of the universe. I couldn’t – and didn’t – advise her about what path to take, When I was that age, the path was clear – you just had to be really good or really lucky. She said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and being happy, so…
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Olya Adamovich.
Leslie West, like Albert King, just knew how to play one note with feeling. It sounds so simple.
The guitar world was just dealt another blow in 2020. Along with the passing of Peter Green and Eddie Van Halen, we lost yet another rock guitar titan, Leslie West of The Vagrants, Mountain and later solo.
It should be noted that, having lost both EVH and Leslie this year that, in terms of guitar technique, these two guitar giants represented the opposite extremes of high-volume rock guitar playing.
Eddie pioneered the superfast shredder/vibrato world. A world of aural and visual pyrotechnics that took what Hendrix did to another level, minus, however, Hendrix’s blues-rock foundation. Eddie credits Clapton as his influence yet I don’t hear that in his playing.
Leslie, on the other hand, took Eric’s style and magnified an aspect of it that involved very slow, single-note picking that, at least to my ears, was more emotionally connecting.
The blues equivalent of EVH can be heard in the playing of Joe Bonamassa and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Both have great blues chops, can play blazingly fast and have excellent vibrato.
Here, however is the difference between EVH, SRV, Joe Bonamassa and Leslie.
There are many great players who can do the EVH, SRV and Joe Bonamassa “thing.”
I have never heard anyone ever sound like Leslie.
Like Albert King’s upside-down, left handed guitar picking, Leslie’s skill is so unique that it just can’t be duplicated.
Our bass player, Mark Mendoza, played in one of Leslie’s post-Mountain bands for three years. Mark tells me that most nights he would shake his head in awe of the tone that Leslie created night after night.
When I teach guitar to young students who want to become shredders, I insist that they slow down and learn how to play one note with feeling. That is the legacy of Leslie West.
Twisted Sister played on a bill with Mountain at a Thanksgiving concert at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York in 1976. On drums with Mountain that night was the Rascals’ Dino Danelli.
Over the years I got to know Leslie, but the first time I saw him play in 1969 is seared into my memory.
The first time I saw Mountain I had just returned from Bermuda on August 13th, 1969. My favorite radio station, WNEW, was pushing a new song by a band called Mountain. It was called “Long Red.” I really liked it and found out that Mountain was playing down the street from me the next night at a club called Ungano’s at 210 West 70th Street in Manhattan.
I had been to Ungano’s one time before, on July 15th, 1969. I walked into a private party for all the musicians on the Blind Faith tour, thrown by the bands’ manager Dee Anthony. Blind Faith, Spooky Tooth and Free were on the bill at Madison Square Garden on July 14th and all of the members of all three bands were at Ungano’s the following night. I was at the MSG show as well. As it was a private party thrown before the night’s regular performer, Dr. John, was to perform, there were about 30 people in the club.
I had left for Bermuda on July 20th (my birthday) and returned to NYC on August 13th. I was so blown away at being in Ungano’s for that private party in July that I couldn’t wait to go back. It just so happened that Mountain was playing the night I went back. I had no idea that it was the Mountain’s third show ever. The club was pretty empty and I sat in the front row.
Leslie announced that they were leaving right after the show to play at the Woodstock festival. (I did not go to Woodstock) Woodstock was their 4th gig!
The song “Long Red” that I’d previously heard on WNEW did not prepare me for the aural onslaught!
It was then and there that I learned about the power of a single note played through two Sunn 1000s amps and a Gibson Les Paul Junior in the hands of Leslie West.
Trying to describe Leslie’s vibrato in words to someone who doesn’t play is hard but hearing it is knowing.
What Leslie did was to take an aspect of Eric Clapton’s playing style and amplify its technique and sound to its most basic and emotionally connective elements.
Controlling finger vibrato is what makes great violin players great. Great electric guitar players also have that ability and Leslie was the king of them all. He played very loudly. The tone of his massive, powerful, high-volume sound meshing with his control over vibrato is what made the searing guitar solos on “Mississippi Queen,” “Theme From an Imaginary Western” and “Never in My Life” so incredible.
Leslie West, like Albert King, just knew how to play a note with feeling. It sounds so simple.
This is the time of year when traditionally there aren’t too many new releases, but there are quite a few new ones on the horizon. The artists I’ve chosen for this issue have decided to release their works digital-only, for downloading or streaming. Julia Stone’s Twin EP has been issued in advance of the full album scheduled for release in 2021, and her Everything is Christmas EP is a one-off for the holiday season.
I finally got my MQA setup with Tidal active, so all my listening was done in MQA this go around, and it offers pretty exceptional sound quality across the board. Most MQA titles are generally close to CD-quality, but go through an unfold process where the final output is usually about double the sample rate of whatever the original was. For example, if an album is 16 bit/44.1 kHz, then the unfolded, decoded MQA version will be 24 bit/88.2 kHz. The MQA camp is doing a major press release push, where they’re basically saying that there’s “no such thing as high-resolution sound,” and that any sample rate converted to an MQA file will sound closer to reality than a high-resolution, high-bit rate remaster will. I won’t get into any arguments about MQA vs. high-res, but I will say that all the MQA selections I listened to this go around sounded pretty exceptional!
Kraftwerk – Remixes
It’s hard to imagine Kraftwerk without Florian Schneider, but at least vocalist and original member Ralf Hütter is still around; his (often heavily processed) voice is one of the most identifiable elements of the group. Surprisingly to me, the other current members of Kraftwerk have between eight and twenty-five years tenure with the band. An album of new material doesn’t appear to be upcoming anytime soon, but Remixes contains a bevy of Kraftwerk tunes scattered across several decades. That is, the actual tunes are from throughout their classic catalog, but most of the remixes that appear on this release were mostly done in the 2000s. The remix artists include Kling Klang (Kraftwerk’s own studio), William Orbit, Francois Kevorkian, Rob Reves, DJ Rolando, Underground Resistance, Alex Gopher, and Hot Chip. The sole exception is the track “Non Stop,” which appears to be a new track, assembled from several different tunes, including material circa Electric Café. At least, no remix information for the track is credited in the scant details available for the album.
Remixes clocks in at a very generous 127 minutes, and while there are actually only six tunes on the album, all except for two get multiple remixes. For example, two of the remixes, “Robotnik” and “Robotronik” (both from Kling Klang) originated in the version of “The Robots” from The Mix. “Radioactivity” is from the album of the same name, and gets two remixes, one from William Orbit — which is more of a dance floor rave-up, and another from Francois Kevorkian, which offers a much more atmospheric presentation of the tune. “Expo 2000” was a non-album single that was commissioned for the Hannover Expo 2000 World’s Fair, and gets no fewer than nine (!) remixes; the range of styles employed has some of the versions bearing very little resemblance to the others (or the original)!
“Aero Dynamik” originally came from the Tour de France album; the original track peaked at Number One on the UK dance charts at the time of its release. Of the four versions here, I prefer the Francois Kevorkian mix, which has subterranean bass that will shake the foundation of your home. If you’re ever wondering whether your subwoofers are actually doing anything, just put this track on for a couple of minutes – it’ll definitely clear things up for you! The album’s closer, “La Forme” also comes from Tour de France, and Hot Chip’s “King of the Mountain” mix is both majestic and dynamic.
The sound here was across the board dynamic and impressive, and despite the outward appearance of significant repetition, the results are so incredibly varied that the album makes for essential listening, especially for fans. Highly recommended!
Parlophone UK, LP (download/streaming from Qobuz, [24/48 MQA] Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Julia Stone – Twin (EP)
Julia Stone is an Australian singer-songwriter and half of the duo Angus & Julia, with her brother Angus Stone. In recent years, she’s branched out almost entirely on her own, and it’s not particularly clear if Angus & Julia are still a thing or not. While her early work with Angus was mostly folk-oriented, her recent songs have taken on something of a synth-pop quality and employ a much broader range of instrumentation and vocal effects. An introductory blurb from her Facebook page prefaces the Twin EP as follows: “Reimagined, reborn and reinvigorated, this new era for Stone replaces dirt under foot with wet pavements and sticky dance floors; trades blue skies for red lights and red lips. Step into Julia Stone’s brand-new world.” That really says a lot about the new direction she seems to have taken.
Stone’s upcoming full album release, Sixty Summers, was scheduled to be released this year, but with the pandemic it’s been pushed back until at least February 2021. She decided to release an EP that includes alternate takes or edits of some of the album tracks as a bit of a teaser in advance of the album. Julia Stone’s voice, while very appealing, has a sort of soft, waif-ish quality to it (I find it very reminiscent of Joanna Newsom), and on most of her songs appears to frequently be multi-tracked. The EP’s four track titles are all monosyllabic, like “Break,” (produced and played on by St. Vincent) “Dance,” and “Unreal,” with the latter tune having two separate renderings. One of them, subtitled [twin], is the full-bore, for-the-dance-floor version, while the second version, [alone] is pared-down and much more introspective.
Overall, I found the EP to be quite listenable, and look forward to the full-length album in February. The EP is only a ditty, but is recommended nonetheless.
Arts & Crafts Productions, (download/streaming Qobuz, [16/44.1 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Julia Stone – Everything is Christmas (EP)
Okay, so Christmas is over, and Julia Stone already has another EP currently out, but this seasonal one was too irresistible to ignore. Everything is Christmas is one of those records that has everything going for it; it’s exceptionally well recorded, and the performances are excellent. The unusual renderings of classic Christmas fare are given such interesting new twists, this EP really needs to be heard!
In my overview of four classic Christmas LP reissues (in Copper 124) I mentioned that my thirty-something daughter has a very non-traditional appreciation for holiday music – especially for music from the likes of Sufjan Stevens – which my wife and I totally bristled at. That said, the four songs here, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” are all given such new and fresh readings that fly against tradition – but they totally work, nonetheless. Julia Stone reverts to more of a folk-oriented presentation for the tunes, which are sparsely accompanied acoustic affairs, with carefully placed percussion and the angelic voices of Stone and Ben Howard, who also chips in on guitar and banjo.
The sound quality here via Tidal and MQA is absolutely superb; you get the impression that Julia Stone and Ben Howard are right there in the listening room with you. My wife, whose tastes in Christmas music runs heavily towards the traditional, even gave this her seal of approval. Very highly recommended!
Arts & Crafts Productions, (download/streaming from Qobuz, [16/44.1 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Max Richter – All Human Beings – International Voices (EP)
All Human Beings is an EP culled from British composer Max Richter’s recently released album Voices, which streeted in late 2020. The EP is a bit gimmicky, but is surprisingly moving, and is another effort on the part of an artist and musician to try and help us find some common ground and unity during the pandemic, and in this most trying of years. Despite Richter’s reputation as leaning a bit towards the avant garde in classical music, I found the scoring here very approachable and enjoyable.
The EP consists of five tracks that are all essentially the same piece of the same length, with only variations in the track timings of a few seconds here and there. As the music begins, there’s a scratchy overlay of a portion of a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt reciting the preamble to the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; this then segues to another, more modern voice that recites an additional excerpt from that declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of community. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
The five tracks are all titled the same, with the exception being that the first one is in English, “All Human Beings,” (spoken by actress Sheila Atim). The successive versions are titled and rendered in four other languages: in Spanish (by actress Maria Valverde), German (by actress Nina Hoss), French (by actress Golshifteh Farahani), and Dutch (by novelist Marieke Lucas Rijneveld). The tracks all feature a full string orchestral and choral backing, but Richter refers to the orchestra as “upside down,” because it employs an unusual complement of instruments, as opposed to a conventional orchestra. Richter says that we live in an upside down time that required an upside down orchestra. Regardless, the music is spiritual and moving. I know this sounds maybe somewhat contrived and heavy-handed, but I found the pieces to be inspiring, and hopefully everyone else will in the way that Max Richter intended.
I know this isn’t the kind of music I typically review here, but in a year where the world has been torn apart politically and by the pandemic, I found this work surprisingly uplifting. Recommended.
Decca (UMO), (download/streaming from Qobuz, [24/48 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
In 1968 we learned about Revolution 9; in 2020 we met COVID-19. Both disruptive, chaotic and confusing, but only the latter delivered unprecedented health and economic duress for so many, with an unconscionable number of lives lost. As we continue to weave our way out of this ghastly pandemic many of us grapple daily with maintaining a sense of calmness and, dare I say, sanity, while increasingly spending more and more time at home.
Research studies have shown that for many folks, music can be a great way of decompressing and escaping day-to-day realities. One can easily get lost in a catchy melody, a great arrangement, or a recording with superior production values. Music can take us emotionally to different places. It can be cathartic, relieving stress and anxiety.
Before dinner each evening, I devote an hour or so to an LP or two to decompress from the day and ground myself, along with a red wine chaser. I find this to be quite calming; the music more than the chaser.
When I was a teen, I’d decompress listening to Black Sabbath. Funny, right? Imagine Ozzy Osbourne playing the role of the Great Soother. My poor mother would come into my bedroom yelling, “what are you listening to?” rightly concerned that songs about Satan and witches wasn’t particularly healthy for a teenage boy’s psyche. She had a point. Mom, you’ll be pleased, I have evolved. Now it’s Bud Powell, Bill Evans or Charlie Parker, sprinkled in with the occasional King Crimson.
William Congreve, an English playwright, poet and politician, famously said in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” There was some head-scratching regarding his choice of words – savage breast vs. savage beast – but Congreve refers to the taming of over-exaggerated affections, thoughts or feelings. In other words, he was saying, “just keep it chill.”
Research studies conducted by Stanford University hypothesized that listening to music seems to change brain function somewhat like medication. “Given that music is so easily accessible to virtually anybody,” the study noted, ”it can function as a great tool for stress reduction.”
The study also found a correlation between music with a strong beat and brain stimulation, causing brainwaves to “resonate” in time with the rhythm. Slow beats seemed to encourage brainwaves associated more with a hypnotic or meditative state. Certainly one can see how the rhythmic sounds and varied cadences used in religious ceremonies can impact the congregants’ level of attentiveness, and realize that music with an energetic beat is well-suited for cardio gym classes.
A highly publicized and controversial study done by the University of California, Irvine linked music to health and state-of-mind has been coined the “Mozart effect,” the theory that listening to his music boosts IQ. It’s popularized the idea that music can affect a person’s cognitive ability or mood.
In the study, three groups of college students were given a standard IQ test. One group spent 10 minutes listening to a Mozart piano sonata, one group with a relaxation tape, while the third group had no stimulus. The findings indicated Mozart’s music consistently boosted respondents’ test scores. (Though many have questioned the study’s validity, just think how many CD’s Mozart could have sold via a late night infomercial.)
Another study examined how music affected surgical patients. Half of the patients in a cataract surgery study received ordinary care, while the other half listened to the music of their choice via headphones during the procedure. Before the surgery began, not surprisingly, the heart rate and blood pressure for all participants was pretty jacked, a case of pre-surgery nerves. While the non-music-listening group remained hypertensive throughout the surgery, the BP for the group listening to music came down rapidly – on average, 35 points on systolic (the top number) and 24 on diastolic (the bottom number) – and remained that way throughout their in-hospital surgical recovery period.
The Artist’s Perspective:
How has COVID-19 impacted today’s artists, the music makers? Musicians in the modern-day era make their money from touring, and with COVID-19 that’s pretty much been verboten. Conversely, many of us mere mortals can work from home and use platforms like Zoom as our portal to colleagues and the outside world. Of course, musicians can do virtual concerts, but for many, their music doesn’t translate well to online platforms, or there are concerns about sound quality and production value, and/or they perhaps simply lack the requisite technological or database marketing skills to connect to their fans online.
Just how pervasive has livestreaming been? In 2020, Bandsintown, a concert discovery and hosting platform, registered over 62,000 livestreams on its site over a nine-month period, with 80 percent of fans indicating a willingness to pay for access. This trend, no doubt, will continue. Even though virtual performances may lack the emotion, intimacy and interaction of an in-person experience, the wide reach of the internet does create opportunities for greater exposure to artists’ material.
I recently reached out to jazz pianist and composer Emmet Cohen to talk about the challenges that artists are facing during COVID-19, and how he has adapted to producing weekly live video streams from his Harlem (New York) apartment. The series is called “Live From Emmet’s Place.” In addition to leading the Emmet Cohen Trio, Cohen has performed with acclaimed artists such as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, Houston Person, Kurt Elling and Billy Hart, among others. He’s also the winner of the 2019 American Pianists Awards and the Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association.
Stuart Marvin: Hey Emmet, how are you and how are your livestream gigs going? I think to date you’ve produced over 35 weekly video streams directly from your NYC apartment – is that right?
Emmet Cohen: Well, the cops showed up the first time. We basically pled our case that this (our apartment gig) is all we’ve got right now. We only do it once a week for two hours, after [working hours] and before people go to sleep. [The neighbors] were cool. People now send us gifts, like bottles of wine, as a thank you. We try to be as nice as possible.
SM: What’s been the evolution of your livestream production?
EC: We had a tour date scheduled in Lawrence, Kansas in March. The show was cancelled due to COVID, but the venue offered us our full fee if we’d do some sort of web stream, to do something good for the world, put something out there, and it would be like our gift to the community. We said sure. That was our first foray. The sound was terrible, like listening to a Game Boy. With “Live From Emmet’s Place,” I’ve tried to improve the sound and video quality each and every week. It’s been an ongoing learning experience. We eventually got some new microphones, a mixing board with 8 inputs, 4 cameras, and a switcher, and I spent hours at night studying open broadcast software on YouTube. A whole quarantine’s worth of research. A lot of trial and error. A lot of failed attempts to get it right.
SM: How has your streaming audience grown since you started?
EC: We did the first one and it [drew] about 40,000 to 50,000 views. And we were like, wow, this is more than anything we’ve ever done before. People really responded to it. They wrote me notes saying we really needed this, and that has continued for 35 weeks. It’s been a slow, gradual build. Between Facebook and YouTube we’ve generated between 30,000 to 120,000 weekly livestreams. People were very thankful and they wanted to know how they could support us. It’s a very symbiotic thing.
SM: Live streaming is a whole different form of audience engagement. What have you learned?
EC: Jazz is all about community. I’m so lucky to have the members of my band, the Emmet Cohen Trio, as part of my community. They lift me up. They’re there for me when I’m working on the tech side (video and sound production), and when it’s time to come back to the music they’re there to ground me right back. They understand my new role and have empathy. It’s incredibly soulful and magical, and not something I could have done alone. Streaming is just another place where jazz has adapted and do what it’s always done in the world, which is connect people, uplift them, offer hope and provide a sense of belonging. Music has always been inclusive.
SM: Tell me a little bit about your business model.
EC: We have a membership platform called Emmet Cohen Exclusive. It’s subscription (premium)-based, and a way for us to keep the livestream free for everyone on the internet, cause a lot of people are going through tough times, and I thought it was important to keep the music free so people can see it and share it. And so we can touch all corners of the world. The Exclusive membership is an opportunity to get further involved, and if a CD or record comes out it gets immediately mailed [to members]. It’s kind of a community of people that helps us do what we do.
SM: How are you balancing quarantine and safety?
EC: We have to be careful, but I’m lucky to have a band that’s more than a band; we’re family. Also, Harlem (Emmet’s neighborhood and where he livestreams) is pretty special and has always been about the power of community. It’s where Billie Holiday lived, where Duke Ellington lived. Sonny Rollins [lives here]. It’s where Langston Hughes and James Baldwin walked the streets. It’s a really historical place, which adds to the majesty of what we’re doing.”
Check out what Emmet Cohen’s up to at emmetcohen.com, and look for his soon to be released debut recording, Future Stride, on the Mack Avenue label.
2021 and Beyond:
The past year brought about a “pivot” to compensate for a lack of artist touring, which lead to livestreams, expanded catalog offerings, and new and different merchandising ideas and options from artists and labels. That will likely continue even after the touring industry returns to something approaching normal (whatever our “new normal” may be).
In the case of some classical performances, for example, producers made a virtual experience more engaging and entertaining by including pre-recorded video interviews with a conductor, adding an up-close and personal feel to a performance. Prior to COVID-19, orchestral concert footage was often videotaped for archival or promo purposes or to enhance an artist or venue’s website, but with no significant focus on production values. The pandemic changed all that and has led to investment in audio, camera, lighting equipment, editing software, and tech personnel, to enhance a performance’s production and entertainment quotient. Now, virtual orchestral or opera producers will literally break down scores and block cameras in pre-production, just like a director would do with a film or TV script.
Moving forward, deploying a combination of livestreams with tours could potentially deliver a more efficient business model for artists, with both pricing and the value proposition on virtual performances likely to evolve. Nothing is as good as a live in-person performance for both the artist and the listener, but on the other hand, livestreaming can broaden an artist’s reach to a wider group of fans, as many secondary and tertiary markets don’t economically warrant an in-person tour stop.
We’re likely going to see more and more hybrid business models (combining tours and livestreaming), with the industry becoming more and more data-driven with investment in technology, staffing, product bundling, price elasticity testing and so on, all designed to optimize fans’ entertainment value and artists’ cost-efficiency and revenue.
What role, if any, will streaming services like Spotify, Amazon Music, Qobuz or Tidal play in this new paradigm? How about Live Nation? Is there a complementary opportunity for these platforms with livestreaming? Some are already fairly engaged, but with performers having to pivot away from touring, we’ll likely see far greater involvement by these platforms and services. Livestreaming can also be a great discovery tool for up and coming artists, especially for those who have a strong stage presence.
More ambitious virtual concert models will also likely leverage digital’s two-way capabilities to drive new kinds of engagement between artists and fans. This could entail, for example, set lists curated in real time by the virtual community. While everything might still pale in comparison to a live in-person concert, making the audience visible and interactive builds on that sense of community. From a technical standpoint, however, there are latency and audio sync issues that make it extremely challenging to align hundreds of thousands of livestreams across the globe.
One thing is for sure; in 2021 and beyond, technology and business models will continue to evolve to facilitate meaningful exchanges between artists and their fans.
Header image of Emmet Cohen courtesy of Taili Song Roth, cropped to fit format.
And you thought they only made intercoms! 1966 NuTone ad.
My parents bought me an RCA Victor Model 1-EMP-2E phonograph when I was a kid. I was able to find another one, pictured here.
11 records or 11 8-track tapes…which would you choose? 1977 Columbia House ad.
Wired for Sound LP, electrical current and festive atmosphere supplied by Marty Gold, 1956. Courtesy of Rich Isaacs.
A circa 1942 prediction from architect Samuel A. Marx.
In the last two installments of this series, I discussed measurements of the two components most prone to developing or causing problems, namely our ears, and room acoustics. The rest of the components in an audio system are perhaps less problematic, but no less worthy of attention.
There is little point in measuring commercial electronic equipment (amplifiers, preamplifiers, digital players and so on) unless you are a reviewer or if you are one of those people who believe that commercial hi-fi equipment is always suboptimal, and it is always possible to squeeze additional performance out of it (i.e. doing “mods”). Some people have a firm belief that only boutique internal components (like capacitors and resistors) could ever sound good, and proceed to rip out all the standard parts and replace them with boutique parts that are ten or even a hundred-fold more expensive. However, while it is true that manufacturers have to take into consideration the cost of production (except for a handful of products targeting multi-millionaires), the specific internal components in a product are often chosen by the designers to achieve a particular sonic result. Changing to something more expensive might change the characteristics of the sound, but is it necessarily for the better? The designers might have tried dozens of alternatives to arrive at their final choice. Would audiophiles do the same, or do they rely on hearsay to decide what to install?
That said, upgrading transistors and op-amps might actually yield some benefits, as the performance of these components has been improving all the time. Op-amps tend to have a bad reputation amongst audiophiles, who might be horrified to learn that the microphone preamps, recorders, mixing desks, compressors, limiters and other professional audio equipment that were used to record their cherished LPs and digital music were most likely chock full of them. Modern op-amps are far quieter, have lower distortion and higher slew rates than the best examples from 20 years ago. However, before you go and swap them all for AD797s (one of the highest-performance audio op-amps currently available), beware that the op-amp could end up oscillating, and modifications to the feedback network might be needed to make sure that does not happen.
Another worthwhile endeavor is to ensure that the transistors are matched in differential circuits and in output stages that utilize parallel devices. An advanced semiconductor analyzer such as the PEAK Atlas DCA75 Pro costs less than $100. Transistors are inexpensive items; buy a whole bunch of them and match them up in pairs and quads. Matching the DC current gain (hFE) is important in differential circuits. The DCA75 Pro measures the hFE at a constant collector current. Beware, however, that the measurement is temperature-sensitive, and holding the transistor between your fingers while doing the test could change the measurement. Also, match both the hFE and the VBE (base-emitter voltage) for parallel output devices, otherwise one device will always conduct more than the other, shortening its life. A friend recently decided to revamp his Bryston power amplifier, and after removing all the output transistors, he found out that they were very poorly matched. Whether they became mismatched over time or started life this way is unknown.
As for passive components, most high-quality thin film resistors have performance characteristics that are very close to perfect at audio frequencies. In situations such as phono stages, it would be worth using high-performance resistors such as bulk metal foil precision resistors. These are much more stable and have tighter tolerances, lower noise and faster rise times than thin film resistors, but they are much more expensive.
There are other places where using more expensive resistors make sense. Wirewound resistors have significant inductance unless you use non-inductive designs, and the inductance increases with resistance. However, several years ago, I started to notice that some Mills non-inductive wirewound resistors, a brand I had relied on for many years, were becoming noisy. I read that more recently-manufactured Mills (since the company’s takeover by Vishay in 2011) have the resistive wire element clamped to the end caps instead of being bonded to them, and these connections could become noisy with repeated heating and cooling. I also noticed that the resistors are no longer manufactured in the US, which usually means an attempt in cost-cutting.
I experimented with military-grade Caddock precision power film resistors (one of the few brands still made in the US.) as tube anode loads and they are excellent. They feel substantial, have gold-plated leads and look indestructible. They look even more high-end than high-end audio components; nothing but the best for Uncle Sam. They are non-inductive, non-magnetic and extremely stable at high temperatures. I had to convince a military supplier to sell them to me, and luckily, they didn’t suspect anything nefarious such as building a nuclear weapon in my garage. There are boutique resistors marketed for audio use that cost more, such as those made with tantalum film, but I have no experience with them and the explanations for their supposed superiority do not sound convincing to me. Other audio resistors that use ancient technologies, such as carbon film and carbon composition, are only useful for restoring antique equipment in order to preserve their character, or to add “tone” to guitar amplifiers.
Personally, I tend to be very conservative when specifying the power handling capabilities of resistors, and I usually over specify by a factor of 4 to 5 fold. For example, I would use a 0.5-watt resistor if the steady-state power dissipation is 100mW. This is an important consideration when restoring antique equipment. You certainly don’t want to save 30 cents on a resistor if a short can take out your 300B output tube or damage your output transformer.
The original Quad II amplifier has a 180ohm resistor that is prone to failure. The resistor connects the cathode winding of the output transformer primary to ground (which means it determines the cathode voltage of the amplifier’s two KT66 output tubes), and a shorted resistor would result in a huge increase in the current going through the transformer winding. It is the reason why many examples of this amplifier on the market have tar leaking out of the output transformers; they’ve been damaged by excessive current. The original schematic indicates that the resistor has a voltage drop of 26 volts across it, which any high school student with a calculator can work out dissipates 3.75W. Yet, the actual resistor installed in the amp is rated at 3W. Peter Walker was known to be rather frugal, but it is really inexcusable to save a few pennies on something so crucial. If you are lucky enough to buy a pair of Quad II amplifiers with undamaged output transformers, I would advise changing these resistors to new ones rated at 7W or above before you do anything else.
My Mark Levinson No. 27.5 power amplifier is 27 years old, and after changing all the power supply caps four years ago, it is as good as new. Everything in there was massively over-specified, and it cost a fortune when new, but in retrospect it was actually very reasonably priced after considering how it has lasted several times longer than its less-well-made competitors. I can sell it today and the proceeds will still buy me a very decent new power amplifier.
Boutique audio capacitors are all the rage amongst many if not most audiophiles. Several enthusiasts have published, on their blogs, listening tests on hundreds of different brands and models. The problem with these listening tests, however, aside from the fact that the testers were not blinded to the identity of the components under test and cost has a large placebo effect (in other words, they didn’t do blind or double-blind tests), was that none of them measured the technical performance of the capacitors. These measurements matter a great deal, as parameters such as dissipation factor, equivalent series resistance (ESR), parasitic inductance, leakage current and dielectric absorption (DA) determine how much a capacitor will alter the signal. The type of film, the quality of the material and the construction all play a role in defining a capacitor’s electrical characteristics.
Teflon has the best dielectric properties (lowest dielectric constant, highest dielectric strength), closely followed by polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene. Polyphenylene-sulfide (PPS) has become popular within DIY audio circles in recent years, and I use them in my preamplifier. They have very low ESR and DA, and are very stable at high temperatures. However, they are hard to find and the range of available values and voltage ratings is limited. Most PPS capacitors are of the surface-mount type (due to their resistance to heat during flow soldering), which makes them a pain to work with for DIYers.
Film and metal foil capacitors have better ability to handle large current surges and lower series resistance than metallized film capacitors, and should be used in high-current situations such as passive loudspeaker crossovers. However, they are larger in size, more expensive and, unlike metallized film caps, they are not self-healing (this is the ability of a capacitor to withstand a momentary short or dielectric breakdown under voltage). Teflon film capacitors do have performance advantages in high-temperature environments such as tube amps, but their cost-benefit ratio is steep.
Many audiophiles think of boutique audio capacitors as artisanal products made by dedicated craftsmen in their garages. The truth is, many of these products are made by OEM manufacturers (original equipment manufacturers) that also make industrial capacitors, since only these companies have the economy of scale and the technical expertise required to manufacture to the tight tolerances expected of modern components.
There are products that use different metal foils in their construction, such as tin, aluminum, copper, zinc, silver and even gold. I have not seen any actual scientific evidence that explains why one metal should be better than the other, but there’s the placebo effect at play: having spent a three-figure sum for a capacitor made of precious metal, how can it sound any other way than magical? Some audiophile capacitors use oil-impregnated plastic or paper. Paper-in-oil capacitors were originally developed for higher-power applications for safety reasons, since the oil helps cool the capacitor, prevents arcing between the plates and because these types of capacitors are self-healing. Paper-in oil-capacitors were commonly used in antique tube amplifiers for the same reasons, since these amplifiers operated at high voltages, and partly accounted for their “antique sound.”
The dielectric absorption of a capacitor is the residual voltage remaining after the capacitor has been fully discharged. This residual voltage introduces distortion to the signal, and a low DA is a prerequisite for a high-performance audio capacitor. The DA of a polypropylene film capacitor is around 0.02 percent, and adding oil impregnation will increase the figure to around 2 percent. Guitar players like to use paper-in-oil capacitors to alter the tone of their amplifiers. Why audiophiles want to use them in the signal path of a modern amplifier is a mystery to me, unless their aim is to introduce some distortion into their music.
So, how does one choose which capacitor to use? After all, every manufacturer claims their products to be superior. Some capacitors do have their own particular sonic character, shaped by the imperfections of their performance (assuming a perfect capacitor would impart no alteration to the signal). This then becomes an art form like cooking, where one tries to achieve a certain taste by using different herbs and spices. But if the goal in an audio component is to minimize alteration to the signal, one should choose the highest-performance capacitors based on the measured parameters listed above.
Over the years, my friends and I have tested dozens of boutique capacitors, and we have arrived at the conclusion that price is an unreliable predictor of performance. In fact, one of the most expensive capacitors on the market, claimed to be handmade, had such poor measured performance that installing it would be akin to adding Jalapeno chili to a dish. But even if some of these boutique capacitors have measured well, I have found them frustrating. Used in high-voltage, high-temperature environments, such as for coupling in tube power amplifiers, reliability often became an issue. I have lost count how many times I’ve had to change capacitors due to an increase in noise (having horn loudspeakers with a sensitivity of 110 dB doesn’t help). And thanks to one of these boutique capacitors, I now have a defunct 300B tube that I keep as a daily reminder of my folly. Nowadays, I just stick to good old Wima film and foil capacitors; they are reliable workhorses and are delightfully free of sonic character.
It is worthwhile investing in an LCR meter, which measures inductance, capacitance and resistance, and an ESR meter, which measures equivalent series resistance. The ESR of electrolytic caps rises as a result of aging, which can start to affect the sound of audio equipment well before the capacitance drifts out of range. The electrolytic caps in the power supply of your amplifiers are often rated at 2,000 to 5,000 hours, and the life is shortened by high operating temperature (e.g. Class A operation, or poorly-ventilated equipment placement) and high ripple current. A friend of mine once proudly told me that he leaves his system powered on during the day so that it does not need to “warm up” if he decides to listen in the evening. He was horrified to learn that the caps would only last a year under these circumstances. For normal people who use their systems on average an hour each day, the caps would need replacing every 5 to 12 years. The amp will not break down suddenly, but the rise in the ESR will cause the output resistance of the power supply to increase, potentially causing dynamic compression during loud passages. A final cautionary note: if you decide to check on the capacitors yourself, make sure they have been adequately discharged, as they can store enough charge to electrocute someone.
In Part One, (Issue 127), J.I. told us about being suddenly locked down and without an amplifier for his music system, necessitating his purchase of a vintage H.H. Scott 299 stereo integrated amplifier. However, the unit wasn’t quite ready for prime time…
The H. H. Scott Type 299 integrated amplifier I purchased was designed for American power, so in order to use it with the 230 VAC in my home in Europe, it needed a step-down transformer. Fortunately, I had one in my parts stash.
To not risk destroying a good set of loudspeakers, I always try unknown amps on dummy loads first. The 299 powered up with no smoke, sparks, explosions or fire, but the output tube current was at 52 mA per tube, grossly exceeding the maximum plate dissipation of the tubes. It was promptly adjusted down to safe levels by means of the negative bias voltage adjustment trim pot, conveniently located at the rear panel, and the amp was powered off for further investigation.
As expected, the original selenium rectifier bridge responsible for delivering the negative bias voltage to the output stage and filament supply for the input tubes was still in place. Selenium rectifiers tend to develop interface resistance with aging, which reduces the bias voltage, and the tube current rises. But their worst flaw is that if they overheat, either due to a fault (a short circuit as a worst case scenario) or because of rising interface resistance, they release selenium vapor, which is toxic. So, while the tube bias could still be adjusted to spec, I decided to get rid of the rectifier anyway, just in case.
I had a massively overrated silicon rectifier bridge of similar physical dimensions in stock, so this was soldered on. Tube bias was then set accurately along with DC and AC balance and the amp was finally ready to rock.
How is that for “fully functional?”
Frankly, unless I’ve paid a very handsome sum of money to a known, suitably skilled engineer who verifies upon testing by scientific means that something really works, then I just assume it doesn’t. “Fully working” in the context of an online auction for vintage audio equipment should be taken as nothing more than, “all parts appear to still be there and the lights go on.” I was actually quite pleased that I only had to replace a rectifier and recalibrate.
I was now finally ready to listen to music at home, after about a month of not having any opportunity to do so!
The Scott amp was promptly hooked up to a pair of vintage KEF Model 104aB loudspeakers, built into custom cabinets, with upgraded crossovers.
One of my Thorens turntables was set up next to it, wearing an SME 3009 tonearm. I was divided between using a Shure V15 III moving magnet cartridge, or a van den Hul MC-Two high-output moving coil. Both cartridges are excellent matches for the SME tonearm and while I personally prefer the moving coil system, I was worried that its output might be too low for the Scott’s phono stage.
On the other hand, this would be a good test to see how noisy the phono stage really is, so I decided to try the van den Hul cartridge.
At first there was a bit of a hum, but in the process of restoring the 299 I had left the input tube screening cans (the metallic shields that go over the tubes) off, to be able to see the internal elements of all the tubes, to ensure that all the filaments lighted up, that there was no red color on the plates, no arcing and no other serious warning signs. As soon as the screening cans were replaced, the hum disappeared and I was surprised to hear how quiet the phono stage was! I wouldn’t have expected that from a 1950s 12AX7-based design, in an integrated amplifier that was never intended for moving coil cartridges!
I started with Muddy Waters’ “I Feel Like Going Home,” a monophonic recording dating from 1948, originally released by Leonard and Phil Chess as a 78 RPM record on their Aristocrat label. I had the Chess Records compilation of unissued Muddy Waters recordings on a 33-1/3 rpm LP at hand, so I switched one of the knobs on the 299 to the Monophonic Records position and the other one to RIAA EQ.
Conveniently, the Scott amp also offers a “EUR 78” position on the input selector knob, as well as a “NARTB Tape” position. This allows 78 RPM shellac records to be correctly reproduced (even though there were many different equalization curves used throughout the 78 RPM era and the speed was often not 78 RPM!) and even allows the reproducing head of a tape machine to be directly connected to the Scott amp, for all-tube tape playback! I will certainly be trying these features out in the near future“I Feel Like Going Home” features Muddy Waters on guitar and vocals, and Big Crawford on bass. It is simple and minimalistic, yet immensely powerful. The all-tube recording really came to life on the all-tube playback system and offered the most “genuine” reproduction of this recording I have heard to date. Full-bodied and extremely pleasant, with no hint of harshness on the aggressive slide guitar parts, harshness that I have often experienced on other systems.
I was now ready to move the knob to the “Stereo” position and try out something more…stereophonic! What better way to enjoy a 1958 American amplifier than some good ole Red Simpson? I have the two trucker-country records he released, featuring tunes like “Truck Daddy,” “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” and “A Tombstone Every Mile.” I always found these recordings to be a very good representation of the sound and vibe of the instruments involved, but the Scott really rode them curves with no hint of burning rubber! Yee-haw!
I took off my Stetson hat, put the Colt 45 back in the holster, and moved on to A&M Records-era Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust from 1975. I wanted to push that Scott amp harder, find its limits, hear it collapse. But it didn’t!
Quite the opposite, in fact.
My wife Sabine and I both sat there with jaws dropping at the lifelike rendering of Joan’s voice, the impressively solid stereo image, the effortless low-frequency extension, and even how loud it could go, all from a compact amplifier that does not require a forklift truck to move and is only rated at 20 watts per channel!
By now I was determined to find a recording that would push that little amp over the edge.
So I dug out my secret weapon: Sheffield Lab LAB 7: Wagner, the Ride of the Valkyries track. Erich Leinsdorf conducting Los Angeles Philharmonic, recorded direct-to-disk at MGM studios in 1977.
Even there, the Scott held its own, with a very respectable rendering of the soundstage, impressive midrange detail and excellent dynamics, and it was more than able to deliver the realism of the powerful brass that makes this record stand out.
It should be noted that this is a recording I am intimately familiar with. I have used it as a reference on a wide range of ultra-fi studio monitoring systems. I have heard other systems do better with it, but those were all much larger systems, driving much larger loudspeakers in rooms with highly controlled acoustics, all at price tags that would dwarf many a small country’s GDP.
For its size, vintage and price, the Scott is about as impressive as it gets!
The listening session continued until late into the night, but despite my best efforts, I did not manage to find a recording that this amp could not deal with.
The next day, I was somewhere else in the house when Sabine decided to put on a record she liked: Roxette’s Joyride.
Not exactly my musical taste and not really a record I ever found impressive-sounding. However, even from a distance, there was something to it that made me stop what I was doing and slowly allowed myself to be pulled into the living room by the sound I was hearing.
Suddenly, this record sounded massive. I had never heard it like that before. There was detail there I had never noticed before, while some of the not-so-pleasant aspects of the sound were magically gone. For the first time, I was able to sit through the whole album and appreciate that, regardless of musical tastes, Marie (the singer) was gifted with a very good voice, which the Scott really brought to the forefront. (Note: Marie Fredriksson left this cruel world on December 9, 2019, after a long battle with brain cancer.)
I would not say that the Type 299 is an exceptionally accurate amp, although it does sound quite detailed, especially in the midrange. It is definitely a very musical amplifier that can offer many hours of pleasure with a very wide range of repertoire. One can listen to all kinds of music (or “both kinds of music,” country and western, if you were into Red Simpson and Hank Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSZfUnCK5qk) and it will do a decent job of it. If you have very inefficient loudspeakers and need to fill a concert hall, it is probably not the right choice, but for most domestic living rooms with most reasonable loudspeakers, you would be hard-pressed to find something as good for that kind of money.
The 299 has the ability to highlight vocals, guitars and string sections in a very natural way, bringing out the pleasant details of a recording while at the same time not rubbing unpleasant details in your face. Add to that its ruggedness and the fact that there’s nothing in there that you wouldn’t be able to find as a spare part if it breaks, and it makes for a very attractive proposition at a very reasonable cost.
Sometimes I feel it is of utmost importance that designers and manufacturers nowadays look back at what had already been achieved in the 1950s (and in other sectors outside audio, even earlier), to seek inspiration and to determine whether what they are doing can really be considered a worthy improvement over the already high standards set back then. The phrase “The Golden Age of Hi-Fi” is more than justified by products like the H. H. Scott Type 299 and it goes a lot deeper than the color scheme of the front panel!
At 62 years of age, the 299 is nowhere near ready for retirement, still performing on a level that many “youngsters” should be looking up to.
This may have all started out of necessity due to the lockdown, but this Scott is not going anywhere anytime soon. It has rightfully earned its place in my living room!
Producer, engineer, author and educator – these are just some of the roles that can be attributed to Sylvia Massy. Her work with Rick Rubin, Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Lenny Kravitz, Aerosmith, Queens of the Stone Age, Tom Petty, Prince, Seal, and many other artists could fill an entire music library.
In 2017, she and Chris Johnson wrote a successful book called Recording Unhinged, and the publisher requested a follow-up book on vintage microphones. In researching the book, they traveled around the world to find mics, document their stories and gather information from engineers, producers, artists, and studios. In Milwaukee, they met Bob Paquette, who owned the largest private microphone aggregation in the world, amassed over 67 years. Sadly, Paquette passed away before they could meet again, but Massy and Johnson purchased the collection from his estate, which will be a key element in creating the new book.
Humorously referring to her love of microphones and her mic museum collection as a “gear problem,” “Sylvia Massy’s Mind Blowing Microphone Museum!” was presented online as part of the Audio Engineering Society’s AES Show Fall 2020. No stranger to teaching, Massy has conducted numerous workshops for the Abbey Road Institute in London, as well as at Castle Röhrsdorf in Dresden, Les Studios de la Fabrique in France, and in other seminars in Rome, Oslo and other locations. She has a series on her YouTube channel called “Mic du Jour,” where she features mics from the museum.
The virtual presentation was conducted from her studio in Asheton, Oregon. Massy demonstrated the mics using Neve, Looptrotter and WEM consoles, Maag Audio equalizers, and preamps from Maag, Looptrotter and Warm Audio.
Note: unless otherwise indicated, photos represent the types of mics described, not the actual mics from the Massy collection. Because of rights permission or other considerations, not all mics in the presentation are pictured.
Above: a reproduction made in early 1900s): Starting from the beginning in 1876, the presentation showed a replica of the very first microphone, a liquid transmitter mic built by Alexander Graham Bell. Resembling a tall milkshake cup on a small stand, it operated by speaking into the cup, which vibrated a parchment diaphragm connected to a wire dangling in a small cup of acid. The fluctuations of the current moving through the acid is what created the audio signal. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Floyd L. Darrow.)
Above: an original carbon microphone made by David Edwin Hughes, it is a wooden hinged unit resembling a jewelry box with a bracelet on top. A pressed carbon “pencil” sits in the box. It operates by closing the box and speaking into the bracelet-shaped disc, which vibrates the pencil, which, in conjunction with a 6-volt battery charge, creates the audio signal. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Gray.)
Massy actually used the carbon microphone on a vocal session in Los Angeles and it still worked!
Not pictured: an improved carbon microphone. It featured a larger wooden box of similar design, mounted on a wooden pedestal, resembling some of the early telephone boxes seen in old photos (late 1800s) and silent movies. Granulated carbon packed into a tiny button would vibrate in the box to produce the signal.
Above: a metal double-button carbon microphone made by Western Electric, Model ET3, formerly used at radio stations. It has a metal base with a hoop loaded with an 8-spring shock mount ,centering a hockey puck-shaped disc that holds the diaphragm element touching a small button filled with carbon. Sound vibrates the diaphragm, which excites the carbon particles in the button that transmit the sound by changing the signal being sent to the microphone. The power requirement ranges from 6-12 volts. This design became very popular in the 1920s. Photos of movie stars like Gloria Swanson were taken with double-button microphones, which became the US industry standard for the era. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daderot.)
Above: a candlestick microphone. Reminiscent of a tabletop telephone from the 1900-1920s period, it was made from polished brass by Western Electric. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Haupt.)
The carbon mics are classified by Massy as “non-directional” as they are neither unidirectional nor omnidirectional.
Not pictured: an early European carbon microphone (1878) by Siemens and Holstein was called a “Butterstamp.” Used at the post office in Germany for transmitting over telegraph lines, it looks like a wooden candlestick with a wide top and a separate leather cover and leather-bound handle.
Not pictured: a German Reisz Type 104 coal microphone. (Europeans refer to carbon mics as “coal” mics.) It is shaped like a jewel box with a large but very thin layer of carbon particles that vibrate a rubber membrane diaphragm. The case is made from hollowed marble, making it quite heavy. These types of mics were used by Josef Stalin and the UK royal family, among others.
The Reisz microphone was actually developed by one of its young employees, George Neumann, while Eugen Reisz was on vacation.
Above: an improved Reisz type mic built by the Marconi laboratory in London. Marconi refined the design with an octagonal shape and smaller surface area. Massy found one in the EMI London archives with gold filigree ornamentation that had been built for the Queen Mother for her radio addresses. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jan Kameníček, cropped to fit format.)
Massy compares Reisz mics to that of old telephones: limited fidelity but rugged. One of Massy’s music production tricks is to take the carbon mics from old thrift store telephones and wire them up in the studio for recording to get a unique, limited-frequency radio transmission sound.
The condenser mic was invented by E.C. Wente at Westinghouse in 1920. It was the first mic to contain two charged plates with one of them acting as the diaphragm, while the signal was generated from the variance in signal between the moving and stationary plates.
Not pictured: a Neumann CMV-3 with a Telefunken badge. Massy originally thought this was the first high-end condenser mic. It has a long cylindrical tube with a ball end that has a grill on one side.
Not pictured: The Western Electric 394W. E.C. Wente beat Neumann to the market by a few years. The 394 has the appearance of a larger double-button carbon mic mounted onto a wooden box. The box holds the power supply, which contains transformers, wiring, and a large, round vacuum tube. This model was used by president Calvin Coolidge.
Not pictured: a Western Electric 7A. It is alternately nicknamed, “The Tombstone” or “The Mountain Clock.” It looks like a tombstone with a circle at the top inside the arch, which contains a 394 capsule. The base contains the power supply. This mic can be seen in photos in use by Winston Churchill.
Above: a 1928 Western Electric 47A. A long, thick cylinder with an angled grilled capsule, it was designed to hang inverted so that the heat from the power supply would rise and not affect the capsule. It is full of tubes and its design became very popular with amateur radio DIY stations. Hooking up her own power supply to it, Massy tested it, and the sound quality is significantly superior to that of the carbon mic.
Not pictured: a Western Electric 640AA. It is a long, chromed cannon shell-shaped mic with a flat 640AA capsule from the 1930s in a shock mount. It is smaller than earlier mics and closer to the size of a Neumann U47. The internal wiring showed advances in the miniaturization of components and the use of flatter and smaller 382A vacuum tubes.
Not pictured: an Altec 165 “lipstick” mic. This legendary mic is the US version of the Neumann KM53 and KM54 and has interchangeable capsules. Advances in technology, including the narrow size of the 5840 vacuum tube, enabled the smaller size of the mic. It remains an excellent and useful mic to this day.
Dynamic mics were first introduced in the early 1920s.
Not pictured: an early Round Sykes dynamic mic from Marconi Lab designed by Captain H. J. Round. It has a heavy magnet and looks like a theater light with six outer rim rivets and a central rivet holding a plate against a short, wide cylinder. This was the first dynamic mic in history and was excellent for field recording. It was used by King George V for outdoor speech recording to a magnetophone, the first tape recorder. The EMI archives photos show that the King’s Sykes mic had a silver filigree windscreen cover.
Above: a photo picturing multiple Western Electric 618A mics. A very popular mic in the 1930s, there are photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with all of the mics from the radio networks in the photos being this model. It looks like an Inky light on a U-mount yoke swivel. The Vitavox Admiralty mic was the UK version of the same design. The WE 618A design was even copied in Japan.
Not pictured: A Western Electric 630a “Ball and Biscuit.” It is shaped like an aperitif glass with a flat top. A very popular design, it was copied by STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Limited) in the UK, and by France and other nations.
It sounds very natural and Massy has used it in sessions as a room mic. It is still available in used markets from $200-$300.
Above: the beyerdynamic M19B led the way in European dynamic mics. Popular for radio and recording, it looks like a large acorn with a center post and is omnidirectional. (Courtesy of beyerdynamic.)
Above: the classic Shure 55 Series – the “Elvis” mic. Popular with singers, including Presley and Billie Holiday, it debuted in 1939. It is still in production and is the preferred mic of Metallica’s James Hetfield (above, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Pingaiadadocrack).
Above: an Electro-Voice 630. Featuring a small chrome body on a hinged post, this model is still available and good to use for recording.
Above: a Shure SM57. This is Massy’s favorite mic. She owns the one that David Bowie used for the Tin Machine albums (which was borrowed from her personal collection). This mic and the SM58 vocal mic are industry standards on stages and studios worldwide, and have been for a long time.
Not pictured: The first known ribbon mic was the Siemens ELM25 (1925). It looks like an old box camera on a yoke. It is a directional ribbon mic with a replaceable cartridge. It was used by Joseph Stalin. The mic did not need a power supply. The velocity of the sound vibrated the ribbon and the strong magnets generated the signal voltage.
Not pictured: the RCA77A. This large, bulky mic was designed by audio pioneer Harry Olsen. RCA started using ribbon microphones in broadcasting for their high fidelity and because they didn’t need power supplies. The first-ever RCA microphone was the PB17. The RCA 44 (shown above) and others soon followed. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/LuckyLouie.)
Above: a production model RCA 77DX. It’s become an iconic and familiar sight. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Scott Bomar/Jacob Blickenstaff.)
Demonstrating the RCA 44 prototype, Massy showed it was a rich, very warm-sounding mic.
Crystal mics operate on the principle that crystals emit a charge when bent, so a very thin slice of crystal is attached to a diaphragm by a pin. The vibrating diaphragm creates an electrical signal in the moving crystal. Piezoelectric mic development was pioneered by the Brush family.
Not pictured: a Brush BR2S resembles a small Shure SM58 and is omnidirectional.
Above: the Astatic company formed in 1933 and licensed crystal mic technology. They made a hugely popular chrome lollipop-shaped mic: the D104, in production from the 1930s to the 1990s. Since 2000, Astatic is now part of CAD Audio. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/LuckyLouie.)
The Turner 44X, which looks like a sci-fi robot helmet. The Heil Sound “The Fin” mic shown above is a modern re-creation.
Other crystal mics in the collection included the rocket-ship-shaped Astatic 600S, a Massy favorite, and the Turner 80X, which Massy for its different sonic character, akin to a walkie talkie. Crystal mics are not known for their high fidelity but more for use in communications. The inherent problem with these mics is that the crystals are often salt-based and rapidly deteriorate when exposed to humidity.
Sylvia Massy’s microphone collection is a fascinating look as to how the technology has evolved over the last 150 years. For more perspective on its immensity, visit https://www.sylviamassy.com.
I met them as they came off the plane at JFK in New York. About three weeks after the Stranglers’ UK 1981 tour ended (see my article in Issue 111) the American tour was scheduled to begin. The Stranglers are one of the more successful British punk rock/new wave bands of the era and had success with singles like “Something Better Change,” “No More Heroes,” “Always the Sun” and others.)
We all taxied into town and I checked them into Manhattan’s Abbey Victoria Hotel at 51st Street and Seventh Avenue. The next day they started rehearsals at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals, the number-one spot for equipment rentals and a facility with well-equipped rehearsal rooms. SIR was all the way on the West Side of Manhattan, in a tremendous prewar industrial manufacturing building that in the days of old had railroad access. You can still see the tracks. They occupied three or four floors, which was a lot of space. There were more than a few rehearsal rooms of varying sizes, and a couple of showcase rooms where a band could play to guests like the group’s record company or booking agency.
I was familiar with SIR and had used it for other groups at various times. I once was invited to see Steely Dan’s last rehearsal before they began their tour. It was in the early 2000s, some time after their long hiatus, and the band did their set with no breaks, just like in concert. Those showcase rooms were a great place to simulate a concert. In some cases, (not that often) the rooms could also be used as audition spaces. SIR had really worked out the acoustics and besides, you would never know who you would bump into there. Many artists did pre-tour rehearsals at SIR.
In the Stranglers’ case it was not so much for rehearsing their material but to test the keyboards and amplifiers. This is a smart way for British bands to tour the States because for one, there is a different electrical current here (120 volts, 60 Hz) than in Europe (220 – 240V, 50 or 60 Hz). Bringing your own amps and keys could be problematic, even with the use of voltage-conversion transformers, causing buzzes and pops – or worse.
Also, there is the consideration of theft – the Stranglers had their equipment stolen during their previous American tour in 1980. Every band that uses a box truck has their equipment robbed at some time or another, and rental equipment is easily replaced. The Stranglers came into the country with just guitars and drums. The band and crew had to test and get used to the equipment they’d be playing for the US tour, and the best way to do that was by trying it out. They spent a few days familiarizing themselves with the new equipment.
First gig was a three-day affair at the Lexington Arts Center, a ballroom in a building located at 150 East 85th Street on the corner of Lexington Avenue. When it was used for concerts it was called Privates. The opening act was the Bee Girls, and the Stranglers went on at 12:30 in the morning. A very New York scene.
On Monday we drove to Allentown, Pennsylvania in two rental cars for a show at Nico’s. It was a small club with a capacity of 300, no booze or food, just beer. The boys were not thrilled about this date. It was obvious that we were not in New York anymore. This was an uneventful and forgettable night.
Next day we had to drive east to Providence, Rhode Island. On the way I stopped in Jersey City at Hertz to swap out one of our rental cars. We had been saddled with a year-old rental with 23,000 miles on it. For rental cars this was already an old heap; thusly, I did a vehicle exchange. The club in Providence was the Center Stage, and it was a proper rock club with a capacity of 800, much more in line with the band’s stature.
Wednesday, we had a short drive to Boston to play The Channel, which was an iconic rock venue then known as Boston’s largest dance and concert club. A who’s who of bands played there in its heyday. It was located right on the Fort Point Channel in a notoriously famous area that was just a couple of hundred yards from where the Boston Tea Party happened. The Fort Point Channel had a colorful history of skullduggery. The show was a good one, totally rocking, and when the last song was finished, we went through the backstage area to our dressing room. Escorting us from the rear was a club security guard who was a really big man. When we got into our dressing room Jet Black, the Stranglers’ drummer, slammed the door closed and I guess the security guard thought the door was purposely slammed in his face.
Next thing we know, he starts to kick the door in. We’re all looking at each other and on the second kick he splinters the door, sending wood flying every which way. He yells at us, “who the hell do you think you are?” and takes a step into the dressing room. WTF, we are thinking, and at that moment a couple of other security guards show up and grab him. They are all his friends, but they know that what he’s doing is not cool, so they calm him down and take him away. The club’s manager rushes in and profusely apologizes, and he quickly has his crew put up a big piece of plywood as a makeshift dressing room door. The evening’s drama (and our contribution to the area’s colorful history) was over.
The Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Connecticut was a relatively short drive east, maybe 100 miles from Boston. It was another rock club, with a funky smell of stale beer and sawdust on the floor. The stage was small, low and close to the ground.
J.J. Burnel, the bass player, was upset about the date. The club was grungy, but more importantly, the stage was too low, which made for easy audience access. Sometimes unruly audience members would jump on stage. In fact, before going on Jet and J.J. had discussed if they should cancel the gig for safety reasons (their own). As it turned out, it was a good night and a good audience, nice people.
However, this third car that I had rented from Hertz was also crap. I called Hertz and told them I wanted to switch it out on Saturday, when we would be back in the New York City area. This tour was going to be all driving – no tour buses or planes. I needed a good car. As nicely as I could, I told the people at Hertz if they couldn’t get me a decent car I would go to Avis. I was a particularly good customer from all my years on the road and literally hundreds of Hertz rentals. They assured me they would find a car that would make me happy.
It is Friday and we are playing the Left Bank in Mount Vernon, New York. It was one of the area’s more well-known rock clubs with a lot of history and a good reputation. At the time they were booking a lot of New Wave and punk acts. They really had their act together, even providing some humpers to help with the load in and the load out. In other clubs a band’s road crew was pretty much on their own with unpacking, set up and load in. There was usually a stage manager around to answer questions and point things out involving the lights, electricity and such, but for the most part our crew did the humping.
The opening act is Single Bullet Theory and the Stranglers are due on stage at 1:30 am. This is normal for East Coast clubs, because they wanted the patrons to stay late and make as much money from the bar as possible.
Ed Kleinman, the Stranglers’ manager, was coming up from the city with a bunch of guests, so this was going to be an important show. The band delivered, like they usually did. The Stranglers never had an off night, but there were times when the energy was really focused and the show had a special feeling. Afterwards we all drove back to the city because the next night we had a gig at Irving Plaza. I stayed at home that night because I lived two blocks from Irving Plaza. The band and crew stayed at the Abbey Victoria again.
Saturday night in New York City. This is going to be fun. The Irving Plaza show is an important one because a lot of press people are going to be attending. The guest list was big, including my wife and three of our friends.
The Stranglers did not disappoint. Irving Plaza was more like the venues they played in the UK and they were in a good mood and ready. They absolutely, totally kicked butt and did a longer set than usual that ended way after 2:00 am. Afterwards about 20 of us went to an after-hours club to party. The next day the band had the day off but I had to go back to Hertz on West 56th Street to swap out the rental car.
When I got there that afternoon, they were ready for me with a brown 1981 Oldsmobile Delta 88, brand new, with a scant 66 miles on the odometer. “Well, alrighty!” I said and there were smiles all around. In fact, in all my years as a road manager this was one of the nicest cars I ever rented.
Unlike the previous UK tour where my passengers were Jet Black and keyboard player Dave Greenfield, on the American tour I was driving guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell and bassist/vocalist J.J. In hindsight this was my mistake. Jet and Dave were always a few minutes ahead of us and that meant that Jet would get to the gig or the hotel a few minutes before me and had to wait for me to fix any problems or issues. Not an ideal situation. We didn’t drive in a caravan; we just left roughly around the same time. We always had two rental cars on every tour, with J.J. and Hugh in one and Jet and Dave in the other.
When I picked Hugh and J.J. up at the hotel Monday morning they were really pleased with the new Delta 88.
On this tour we spent every night in motels like Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns, decent enough, three stars. The only exception was after the gig we did in New Orleans when we left right after the show for Houston. If we got hungry while driving, we stopped on the road to eat. Sometimes were would eat at the gig but it was pretty much a decision made in the moment.
Then off we went to Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT (yet another famous East Coast club and still open today, though temporarily closed for the pandemic). It was a Monday show and we went on stage at 11 pm, an early night for us.
Now we are really starting to log some miles as we go to Orange, New Jersey, Virginia Beach, Washington DC and Cherry Hill, N.J. Sunday we had a day off and we all decided to drive back up to NYC. Monday morning we leave for Cincinnati and that night on the way there I get pulled over for speeding. The Ohio state trooper asks me to come and sit in his cruiser, leaving Hugh and J.J. back in the car. He writes me a speeding ticket. Then he asks if I have an American Express card, to which I answer yes. He says, “well, you can pay the ticket now with your Amex card.” Really? I give him the card and he swipes it. “OK,” he says, “we’re good; you can go.” I asked, “what if I didn’t have an Amex card?” He answered, “then I would have to take you downtown to the station.” Really? Yup.
After playing Bogart’s in Cincinnati (temporarily closed but still there today) we drive to Athens, Georgia to play Tyrone’s, with an on-stage time of 10:00 pm, a respectable hour for rock and roll. Next day we had a short drive to Atlanta for Friday and Saturday night we’re playing at the 688 Club. Sunday is a travel day, and we drive 500 miles straight through to New Orleans. Monday after the gig we drive all night, 365 miles, to Houston, Texas to play the Agora Ballroom with a 10:30 pm onstage time. The on stage start times have been getting earlier since we left the Northeast.
We catch up on sleep by negotiating a later check-out time with the hotel and leaving later the next day for Austin, Texas, 162 miles away. We are playing Club Foot and it is a lively scene. Austin is a way cool city with a cosmopolitan vibe. They knew who the Stranglers were and showed their appreciation. After the show we were taken out and the night life was really happening.
Next morning we continue to Dallas (the Club Bijou) and the next day we drive to Lawrence, Kansas, (the Opry House), before heading 585 miles west to Boulder, Colorado for two nights at the Blue Note. We were told that the Blue Note was owned by Genya Ravan of horn-driven rock band Ten Wheel Drive. She was not there those nights, so this was unconfirmed. (Do any readers have any information about this?)
Getting up early Thursday morning to get a start on the next lap, we have till Friday to get to Los Angeles, 1,180 miles. We drive all day into the night. I tell the guys that it would be cool to stop over and stay in Babylon, er, Las Vegas, and they agree. It is close to midnight and we are still about an hour out when we first see the lights of Vegas. It is an amazing sight, even considering this was back in 1981. Today Las Vegas is easily 10 times bigger. The closer we get the bigger the lights are. We check into the Stardust and they put us in the back in motel-style outdoor rooms.
The bellhop assures us: anything we want, legal or not, just ask him and we will have it in under an hour. This was still the anything-goes wild days of Las Vegas; unlike today where it is more corporate.
Friday, we play Pasadena’s Perkins Palace. Saturday it’s the Reseda Country Club on Sunday we hit the Bacchanal in San Diego before driving back to Los Angeles.
On Monday when I go to the car, I have an unpleasant surprise. The front passenger side door is bashed in and will not open. I have to exchange the car with Hertz. But we got 6,000 miles out of this one, not bad for 10 days driving.
The tour went on to play many of the same dates as Split Enz had done when I was their road manager (see Issue 124 and Issue 125), except the Enz flew. The Stranglers headed north to Vancouver, then south to Duluth and back east and up again to Canada.
I think it is safe to say the Stranglers were not thrilled with the tour.
It was hard work and they had to play some crummy venues. They are a bigger act in the rest of the world, so this tour with its smaller venues was somewhat of a comedown for them. But give ’em credit – there was no whining from them in their untiring efforts to conquer the American frontier.
The band in 1981:
Jet Black, drummer and founder – retired
Hugh Cornwell, lead vocals and guitar – left the Stranglers in 1990 for a solo career
Dave Greenfield, keyboards – died in 2020 of COVID-19
J..J. Burnel, vocals and bass – the only original member still in the band. He currently lives in France.
How was your New Year’s Eve? New Year’s Eve, ring a bell? Someday this pandemic will end and we will return to celebrating the end of the old year and the birth of the new in the company of total strangers. To quote Prince: “dance, music, sex, romance.”
It’s my theory that my demographic cohort, the Baby Boomers, will be the last generation to plan ahead, dress up, pay an enormous sum for a passable meal, and dance to rock and roll or something close to it. Don’t count on the Gen Xers to take this baton. My people: we can’t afford to lose a year! We’re aging, our knees are degrading, we can’t stay up as late as we used to, and we’re definitely popping two ibuprofen with breakfast. It takes a nation of millions to pay for our health care.
I remember in the late 1980s when the Gen Xers figured out that the Boomers were sucking up all the oxygen on the planet. “It’s a hard world to get a break in/all the good things/have been taken,” the Animals sang. Back then, I had several discussions with these tiresome young people. They complained to me, with their imperfect command of their native language, that, like, you Boomers were always stealing the spotlight and like grabbing everything for yourselves, dudes, and what’s up with that? I always listened politely and then reminded them that we are really good-looking, too.
Dudes. Do you want to be in that number when the Boomers go marching in? Let’s not forget what to do on New Year’s Eve! What follows are a few thoughts on clothes and music from past New Year’s, based on 40+ years of counting down to midnight and raising glasses of cheap champagne at taverns, clubs, discos, restaurants, banquet halls, charity balls, and, once, a rave*.
* A note from AARP: Raves are not for older people. No one has ever gotten to the end of the line for the bathroom at a rave.
Clothes Make the Man
I don’t have to tell women to assemble a special outfit, as women understand that New Year’s is an occasion and an occasion is something you rise to. It’s men I’m speaking to. Don’t wear what you normally wear to the office, and definitely don’t wear what you wear to a Zoom call, since I’m guessing you don’t wear pants to a Zoom call. Go shopping, even if it’s in your own closet, and don’t go without your partner. Other people can look at you, shudder, and move on, but your partner will have to look at you all evening. Have mercy.
The best look for men is a snappy suit, but if you can swing it, get fitted for a tuxedo. Bonus points: a tuxedo with a swallow-tail jacket or with a vest. Any idiot can grind on the dance floor, but how many can pull that off from inside a tux? Master that skill and you will never lack for someone to dance with.
Once you’ve been cleared by the style council, grab your keys. It’s clobberin’ time.
Play That Funky Music
I don’t play an instrument. I type. So it is with some hesitation, but much respect, that I offer the following suggestions to the groups of nice old guys who usually end up playing for us on New Year’s Eve. You guys rock, whether you’re wearing black T-shirts, black button-down shirts, or something Hawaiian, and I love how you always massacre at least one oldie, then turn around and surprise us with a head-banging dance tune with an off-the-hook keyboard solo.
I’m just glad you’re not the band that played one of our events a few years ago. Everyone in that band was 25. They neutered everything, perhaps out of concern for our blood pressure. “Sweet Home Alabama” was about the weather. “Mustang Sally” was about a horse. The singer kept complimenting us on how beautiful we were. I think she was surprised that we were still alive.
- Time your last set so you end about three minutes before midnight, which gives everyone a chance to freshen their drinks and get ready for the countdown. This should be obvious, but we heard a band on New Year’s Eve that stumbled to a stop 10 minutes early. After some onstage consultation, they tried to stall with “Free Bird,” which caused half the crowd to whip out their lighters and the other half their fingers. They would’ve been safer with “Love Shack.” When they finally escaped into “Auld Lang Syne,” it was obvious they hadn’t practiced it.
- Please practice.
- Your audience will begin to evaporate at one minute after midnight. Maybe they want to finish the evening in their bathrobes eating ice cream; maybe they want to get romantic at home rather than against one of your speakers. It’s not about you. You’re awesome.
- We’re all trying to be woke today, so avoid songs celebrating relationships with underage girls: “Well she was just 17/you know what I mean,” “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and your mine,” “Hey little girl won’t you meet me at the schoolyard gate,” “But you’re so young and we can’t go on this way,” and I’m concerned that I knew these four off the top of my head.
- Between sets, the venue’s PA system will play watery hip-hop for people to do the line dancing they learned at corporate retreats in the 1990s. That’s not your problem, that’s ours. Enjoy your beer.
There’s Got to Be a Morning After
New Year’s resolutions are a minefield. How do you make a resolution and stick to it? How do you make a resolution and remember it two days later? There are two secrets to successful resolutions.
This is the wrong way to resolve to start a band: “I will start a band, make a ton of money, and meet a ton of chicks.” But this might work: “Step One: I will decide what kind of music I want to play. Step Two: I will jam with some like-minded musicians.”
If on January 31 all you have to show for your efforts is a dislike for Coldplay and a bass player who keeps forgetting to come to band practice, you will still be ahead of where you were on January 1 and much happier than the people who gave up on January 15.
You’re welcome. My people: Let’s try this all again on December 31, 2021. Happy belated New Year’s!
Header image courtesy of Gerd Altmann/Pixabay.
Goodbye 2020 and here’s to a better 2021. Anything else I could say would pale in relation to what Ray Davies of the Kinks sings in “Better Things.”
Copper announces a new contributor, Cliff Chenfeld. Cliff has been a music business executive for 30 years. He was the co-founder and co-CEO of indie label/publisher Razor & Tie and of Kidz Bop. He was also the executive producer of a number of films and is a partner in the WonderStruck and Wonderbus music festivals.
The interview Steve Guttenberg aka “The Audiophiliac” and I did in Issue 125 and Issue 126 is on Steve’s YouTube channel here. It’s edited a little differently with material not in the Copper interview and vice versa.
Sadly, the closing days of 2020 took three more giants. On December 17 we lost Tim de Paravicini, one of the finest audio designers ever to walk the planet. Dan Schwartz pays tribute in this issue. Leslie West of rock band Mountain passed away on December 23. His roaring guitar tone and voice on songs like “Mississippi Queen” and “Theme for an Imaginary Western” inspired legions of guitarists. On December 25 we lost guitarist/vocalist Tony Rice, one of the greatest bluegrass flatpicking acoustic guitar players of all time.
Also in this issue: Larry Schenbeck, Ray Chelstowski and Cliff Chenfeld reveal their best of 2020. Anne E. Johnson digs into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and pathbreaking trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. Rich Isaacs concludes his tale of interviewing with Genesis in the 1970s. John Seetoo looks into the making of the Elvis recording Where No One Stands Alone. Ken Sander reflects on the end of a Hollywood era. Tom Gibbs covers new releases from Booker T & the M.G.’s, Steven Wilson, Tori Amos, and Kacy & Clayton and Marlon Williams.
J.I. Agnew wants a tube amp during a lockdown. I wonder if an audio system can be too good. Adrian Wu continues his series on testing in audio with tips on doing it yourself. Steven Bryan Bieler ends his war on LPs. Don Lindich interviews Mark Mawhinney of record cleaner company Spin-Clean. Peter Xeni visits analog aliens. We wrap up the year and the issue with cutting-edge technology, hipster music and a welcoming robot.
Christmas came early last month! In the space of ten days, I got four back issues of Gramophone: August, October, November, Awards! (Somehow the September issue managed to arrive in mid-October.) Pandemic postal priorities, presumably.
I’ve enjoyed reading Gramophone for years, but this year the annual Awards issue brought particular delight, because I hadn’t kept up with their customary half-year crescendo up to the actual Awards announcement. Nor had I checked out monthly Editor’s Choices. That made it more fun to discover just where my exultant thumbs-ups had synced — as they occasionally do — with the Gramophone jury’s.
Their 2020 Solo Vocal Award went to Nicky Spence and Julius Drake for a stunning take on Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared (Hyperion). It swept me off my feet late in 2019, so I wrote about it in Copper 101.
Contemporary Award winner Thomas Adès’s one-two punch for DG, Adès Conducts Adès, also resonated with me. The album features Kirill Gerstein’s two-fisted approach to a piano concerto written especially for him. It’s a bonny, brawny brawl, especially with the Boston Symphony backing him up; I wrote about it in Copper 126.
And . . . actually, that’s all, folks. Although maybe I should get two cheers for at least having Gramophone’s Recording of the Year (and Orchestral Award winner) Weinberg: Symphonies 2 & 21 (DG), on my Qobuz playlist for months; I also bought the download. These astonishingly beautiful, heartfelt performances bookend the life of a 20th-century composer still not so well-known as he should be. The City of Birmingham Symphony and, in No. 21, violinist Gidon Kremer give these works a reading unlikely to be bettered for years to come. Bravo everyone, with special kudos to new CBSO music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
And speaking of new music directors: Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been in Philadelphia since 2012, so, not that new. But in those eight years he has restored the Philadelphians to a position of highest honor in the musical world. Gramophone made them the Orchestra of the Year, including a recommendation for Philly’s most recent Rachmaninov concerto set with Daniil Trifonov. Good choice, considering the composer’s historic relationship with this orchestra. Rounding out the Rachmaninoff canon, I can also easily recommend this team’s earlier albums.
To get personal again: Orchestra of the Year is the only award Gramophone opens to its worldwide readership for consideration; our votes determine the winner. Early this year I attended an International Conductors Guild meeting in Montréal, allowing me to observe Nézet-Séguin in action with the Orchestre Métropolitain, an orchestra he has led for twenty years. Via rehearsals, informal discussions, and a sterling performance of the Mozart C-Minor Mass, he showed us how it’s done, connecting quickly, directly, and deeply with musicians and audience alike. What I saw in the frozen north made my Gramophone vote a no-brainer — I chose Philadelphia and Nézet-Séguin.
Let’s now move a few paces further from the Gramophone Awards. I wasn’t especially taken with their choice for Instrumental; others will strongly disagree with me. With respect, I’d rather plug a less-encyclopedic album that nevertheless gave me reliable, continuing pleasure this year, Vikingur Olafsson’s Debussy – Rameau for DG; I reviewed it in Copper 112. Another recital disc, with quite different music, has lately nourished me: French pianist Alexandre Kantorow’s Brahms, Bartók, Liszt (BIS).
This collection of three rhapsodies is fortified (not leavened!) by Brahms’ F-sharp-minor Sonata Op. 2, making a four-course meal of heaven-storming Romantic masterworks. Yet Kantorow’s intensity and technical command allow you to simply relax and enjoy the journey heavenward. I was particularly struck by his talent for creating multiple timbres — an entire landscape, really — placing these keyboard dramas in space as well as time. Listen to a couple of tracks and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
In 2019, at the age of 22, Kantorow became the first French pianist to win the Grand Prix of the Tchaikovsky Competition. This is his first recording since then.
The fact that Kantorow chose to record for BIS at this point in his career speaks volumes about label founder and CEO Robert von Bahr, who received a Gramophone Special Achievement Award for the unprecedented contribution he’s made since 1973. My love of BIS is quite simple: von Bahr maintains an extremely high batting average when it comes to producing music you can listen to more than once. He attracts those who want to create such recordings. I’m thinking of people like Christian Lindberg, Osmo Vänskä, Carolyn Sampson, Masaaki Suzuki, and many others. There are always BIS recordings waiting for me on my review pile (yes, I do get the physical discs, because they’re SACDs, dammit).
Speaking of Suzuki, his new recording of the St. Matthew Passion easily took the Choral Award this year. To usher in the 2021 Lenten season in February, I will survey recordings of Bach’s two great Passion settings (there is a third, sort of); for now I’ll hold off saying much about Suzuki’s contributions (he only just released a second — and extraordinary — St. John late this summer). Here and now, may I simply remind readers of Paul Moravec’s wonderful Sanctuary Road, reviewed in Copper 107 and now nominated for a 2021 Grammy? Thanks.
Moving on to the Recital Award, I’m going to throw the rulebook away and cast a renegade vote for an album released four long years ago: mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes’ remarkable Rossini collection (Aparté). Nothing against Gramophone’s choice in this category: I happen to own Sandrine Piau’s lovely collection of 19th-century French orchestral songs, part of an impressively focused catalog in this subgenre that Alpha Classics has been building. And I love Joyce DiDonato’s triumphant Agrippina, which took the Opera Award: right before NYC’s March lockdown, I wedged myself into a nosebleed seat at the Met to see Agrippina in Sir David McVicar’s production. Masterful! (Alongside Princess Joyce, they fielded a different but very strong supporting cast: see the roster at Met Opera on Demand.)
Deshayes will warm your innards on these cold winter nights to come; her passionate yet delicate way with Rossini will lighten your load, make you forget some of those mac-and-cheese-with-too-much-red-wine meals you’ve put away during quarantine. Her album includes music from La Donna del lago, Semiramide, Cenerentola, and Otello, including a marvelous scena with the “Willow Song.” Oh, and Il barbiere, of course!
Finally, here’s an attempt to make long-overdue amends: this December I have been playing the heck out of a 2006 recording of Handel’s Messiah in its original 1742 Dublin version. I no longer remember why I ignored it fourteen years ago — maybe I played a track or two, filed it mentally (absent-mentally-mindedly?) under okay, yet another Messiah — and stuck it on the shelf.
Except that was no “yet another”! That was phenomenal Bach scholar and organist John Butt, his A-list Dunedin Consort & Players, plus soloists every bit their equal. It won the Gramophone Choral Award in 2007. Only fitting to admit my boo-boo and celebrate them here once and for all. Happy holidays, my friends.
Header image: Itzhak Perlman won the 2020 Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award.
In Issue 125, I told you about my war on LPs and my search for an alternative. After a lengthy affair with cassettes, I switched to CDs. The CD gave me everything I had been looking for in pre-recorded music: small size, no trouble finding songs, portable, easy to shelve, and all the album art and liner notes from the LP release.
But living the CD life is challenging. CD jewel cases crack and break. CD players are disappearing from cars. Recycling CDs is not simple. And when people hear about my CD library, they think I’m nuts. Even Fivethirtyeight questioned my behavior, and that was back in 2014.
The astute reader will note that I have yet to write a word about sound quality. I am not about to claim that music on a CD is superior to music on an LP – not in a high-end audio magazine, I’m not! I share the pages of Copper with connoisseurs – our esteemed editor, for one. When he was younger, he could hear frequencies that only dolphins care about. Intellectually, I know that the LP sounds better than the CD. But to me, the CD is good enough.
You could better understand that last statement if I had graduated from something extra loud, like artillery school. But no, there’s nothing wrong with my hearing. I’m just a guy who’s been loving CDs too long to stop now. I’ve been streaming music since I discovered Spinner.com in 1999, but I also love albums as objects. After some trial and error, “objects” came to mean CDs.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Twenty years ago, the CD was king – and expensive. To find CDs an impoverished writer could afford, I turned to Half.com.
At Half.com, you could buy CDs at half the original price. That was a great deal, given that new CD releases often went for $15 back then, or about $750 in today’s money. But then eBay bought Half and set prices free. That was even better for buyers: the price of rarities rose, but most prices sank. At the bottom of this Mariana Trench were the salvagers who bought orphaned CDs by the pound and sold them for 75 cents each or even a penny. (I’m not sure I ever found an album for a penny, but if I did, it was something like Rossini’s Awesome Overtures or Mozart’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 13.)
Half never changed: they sold books, CDs, VHS tapes, and games when they launched in 1999 and they sold books, CDs, VHS tapes, and games when they closed in 2017. (The last album I bought on Half was Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!) After Half’s closure, I had one avenue left for dirt-cheap CDs: garage and estate sales.
It seems like everyone is getting rid of their physical music these days…except for me and the people I compete with at these events. Before the pandemic, I could spend a happy Saturday morning going from house to house, browsing the CDs set out on a card table or on a blanket on the lawn. This is, of course, a totally random way to buy music, as opposed to searching for specific titles on eBay, Half Price Books, etc., but that’s part of the fun.
You never know what you’ll find when people start decluttering their lives, although I can tell you from experience that most of the music on offer will fall into these categories:
- Mannheim Steamroller
If these are your categories, you’re in luck. If they’re not, be patient, and keep an open mind. You’ll most likely have to replace the jewel cases, but you might find a jewel you never knew existed.
A Torrent of Data
I once had an assignment at a bank where I was not allowed to bring in my CDs – you can’t bring foreign media into a bank. The head of IT opened a rift in their firewall so I could log in to Rhapsody.com, but he was puzzled. Why didn’t I just use an iPod? He had one in his shirt pocket. He had downloaded thousands of songs, but in our conversations I learned that he forgotten most of what he had downloaded. He had never had the time to listen to it all.
Why collect and listen to CDs? Maybe it’s a way of organizing the world, stopping down the torrent of data to something manageable. Or, in my case, maybe I’m haunted by a dusty warehouse and massive stacks of vinyl.
I hope all those Chicago VI’s I hauled around in the summer of 1974 made people happy. If I see this title at a yard sale, even if it’s on CD, I will walk on by.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/Jorge Fakhouri Filho.
2020 was a year that presented all of us with a number of challenges and curve balls, to say the least. One industry that ground to a complete halt was live music. It was impacted so severely that may take years to regain its proper footing. It didn’t end there for the music world. Recording artists wrestled with whether it was appropriate to still move forward with their already-scheduled album releases. That said, some really great rock and roll made its way to us in 2020.
I don’t know if finding new music was easy or challenging for you over these past twelve months. I decided to assemble what I consider to be the top 20 tracks of 2020. I’ll bet that you haven’t heard of a lot of these artists before, and to be honest, that makes tossing this list your way even more enjoyable. I’m hopeful that you take away a few songs that launch a new musical journey and tee up a 2021 that every one of us can agree should be better than 2020.
Bands on this list hail from all over the globe, and for me, that’s fitting. In the end it’s the music that connects us all, and within this list are tracks that were made to get you on your feet and shakin’ your hips.
- Matthew Sweet: “At A Loss”
Sweet has returned with a solo offering called Catspaw, and with the newly-released single “At A Loss” he demonstrates that he has lost none of that musical charm that made him sound like an Indy version of Badfinger all those years ago when he blasted out with his Girlfriend album. The music is 60s infused with Beatle-esque harmonies and steely guitars. “I play free form,” he notes. “Nothing [was] too labored-over and that was important. It’s spontaneous. The more you can do that, the more organic it is. I’ve taken comfort in that as I’ve grown older. Success and people come and go in life, but I know I will always be making music and that it continues to be fun and intriguing – that mystery of discovering what a song is going to become.”
- Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen: “There Are No Secrets Here”
The music video for “There Are No Secrets Here” is a black and white film noir with broad brushstrokes of 1950s Italian cinema. Images jitter on screen and are supported with scenes of cars speeding recklessly and girls clenching the bedsheets in fear. It was shot in isolation at the peak of quarantine, using only an iPhone and three flashlights. The black and white video features public domain footage lifted from 1957s Dementia/Daughter of Horror and 1962’s Carnival of Souls. This retro approach is well-thought out. “Our goal is to play original rock and roll, in the style of the pioneers, but update it lyrically and sonically,” says Castro. “What if Buddy Holly had access to a stack of effects pedals and some Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records?” That’s pretty spot-on for this band from Philly and warrants lending an ear to this haunting new track.
- VAR: “Run”
Other than Björk and the Sugarcubes, it’s not often that we get to hear rock music from such faraway places as Iceland. That’s too bad, because great music that is exciting and makes your heart race is being created everywhere. VAR’s new single, “Run,” fits melody into a space that creates devastatingly beautiful sound that’s both refined and explosive.
The entire process of writing and recording the album took one year. Stretching the process out across this span of time helped create a sound that is one part anxious and angelic; the other resonating and responsive.
- Kirby Sybert: “My Maker”
Philadelphia-based modern-age songster, singer, multi-instrumentalist, photographer and videographer Kirby Sybert makes his solo LP debut with Happy People Make Happy Things. The music here channels to spirit of those early Hall and Oates spins. It sits somewhere between that kind of Philly soul, the basement intimacy of The Band’s first two albums and the music they made at Big Pink with Bob Dylan.
Here Kirby sings and plays guitar, keys and drums. Moreover, much of the recording and production for the album happened in his Philadelphia bedroom. Happy People Make Happy Things is an introspective sonic journey highlighted by Kirby’s soulful vocals, psychedelic guitar riffs, and rubbery bass lines and drums that hit right in the pocket. This is an experiential record of accomplished musical productions, with sounds that are just left of center but fit perfectly into the music.
Arguably the finest track is the soul-stirrer “My Maker.” It begins with an echo-drenched electric guitar that plucks out with a purposeful slinky rhythm. This soon launches into a full blown burner complete with lilting horns and simmering keys. All along the way you are treated to a vocal delivery that suggests that Kirby Sybert was doing exactly what his album title proposes, and then some.
- The Bookends: “It’s Your Turn”
With a sound that feels as if it were lifted straight off of an Austin Powers car chase, The Bookends (not to be confused with the Celtic band of the same name) are a psychedelic go go act that would have fit right into the 1960s swinging London scene. Their music would snap right into place at Tiles, the Oxford Street club where teenage Mods would dance the night away, taunt local authorities and flaunt social norms. Like that London scene, The Bookends’ music is fast, fun and splashy.
- Evening’s Empire: “Tonight”
Evening’s Empire is a high energy rock outfit from San Diego. They have built a name for themselves by delivering powerful live performances. Formed in 2019, they are just about to release their debut album Alive For Us, featuring the hard-driving guitar work of former Dinettes member Shannon Sabin. She is joined by Sam Strohbehn on guitar/synths, David Skolnik on bass/synths and Charles Wile on drums. This is an all-out rock record that channels acts like The Killers and Joy Division. Already the band seems destined for a much better future than the fictional British band featured in Bill Flanagan’s book of the same name. Their song “Tonight” has been licensed for an upcoming movie called “Eat Wheaties,” so the album should enjoy some momentum out of the gates. This is 1980s synth rock meets the arena, with a nod to bands like Kings of Leon, and some really terrific synth and guitar work.
- Tremendous: “Don’t Leave Our Love (Open To Closing)”
Strap yourself in and get ready for a ride! The debut album Relentless from the band Tremendous is out and it’s lively and loud! They’re a glam-rock trio from Birmingham, England that took its name from the catchphrase of the Cuban-American comedian Joey Diaz. Bowie meets Babyshambles with the spirit and energy of the Lower East Side’s D Generation. Almost every song sounds like a car burning rubber as it peels out of a high school parking lot. What holds everything together are the stirring vocals of Mark Dudzinski. They soar with the skills and range heard from most of metal’s leading men, but are more grounded, earthy and soulful. This is where contemporary rock should be headed.
- The Gasoline Lollipops: “All The Misery Money Can Buy”
The Gasoline Lollipops have a sound that’s difficult to define. There are moments when they remind me of an old New England outfit called Girls Guns and Glory. They slide in between country, rock and Americana with an attitude that evokes the Black Crowes and Deadstring Brothers. All the Misery Money Can Buy, the title track from their new album, is as hot and steamy as a New Orleans August afternoon. Clay Rose’s vocals shift from the lilting vibrato of Elvis in Memphis to the earthiness of early Jim Morrison, and the music is rock solid.
- The Moon Kids: “Touch of Venice”
Out of Scotland comes the rightful torch bearers of the sounds that both The Verve and Oasis helped define. The Moon Kids have released their new single. “Touch of Venice.” and it sounds like The Verve by way of a Munich dance club. It’s thoroughly European, framed by sonics that are broad and anthemic. It’s also highly addictive.
- Bonnie Whitmore: “None Of My Business”
Whitmore’s vocals are truly bewitching. Her voice and material remind me quite a bit of The Mavericks front man Raul Malo. Like Malo, Whitmore demonstrates remarkable control while singing about heady topics like personal loss and the great American divide, in music that’s styled but not glossy. She’s been characterized as setting casual conversations to music, and that music taps into elements of 1960s AM pop, country and Memphis. Here she shares a kind of kinship with Shelby Lynne in her ability to bring forward a soulfulness that’s reminiscent of some of classic country’s best songstresses.
- Ricky Byrd: Every track on Sobering Times
Anyone who’s told you rock and roll is dead hasn’t heard Sobering Times, the new album from Ricky Byrd, guitarist/singer/songwriter for Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Sobering Times is an intimate reflection of recovery, delivered via rock and roll. As Goldmine magazine notes, “…The Faces and the Rolling Stones with a dash of Otis…It rocks like a b*tch…early indications make it seem likely that this will be his career statement.” Byrd’s sound blends Big Star, ELO, The Faces, and his own Blackhearts. The music is four-on-the-floor rock but with enough complexity to get you to turn your head and lean in toward your speakers. Byrd delivers his message of hope to those recovering from addiction with frank honesty about the trials of surviving and thriving in a sober life.
- Kurt Baker: “Outta Sight”
“Outta Sight” from Kurt Baker’s latest record, After Party, is power pop on a race track where every lap seems to gain speed and height. Imagine Fountains of Wayne amped up and wilder. Of the new track “Outta Sight,” Baker says, “The main influence on this track is the band Single Bullet Theory. They had one record in the early 80s and are mostly unheard of, but [producer] Wyatt Funderburk and I love them. Wyatt actually found two vintage Single Bullet Theory T-shirts on eBay and picked them up for us. When they came in the mail we sat down and wrote this song off of an idea I had for the chorus. We wanted to build up each chorus so that by the very end it was really big. I think it’s the perfect closer to the record.” It sure is.
- The Midnight Callers: “Return the Favor”
Not since The Strokes arrived has a New York City-based band done so much to carve out their own rock path – and music that can appeal to more than the few folks who can fit into an underground Chelsea club. Enter The Midnight Callers, whose 10-track album has all the grit and grime of the city they call home.
The music is something like what The Byrds might have sounded like if Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds were their backing band. The vocals soar over four-on-the-floor hip shakin’ tracks. It’s no surprise that Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds was involved with the engineering and production. On tracks like “Return The Favor” they sound like an amped-up Jesse Malin. No matter where you drop the needle on this fast and fun record you’ll find something that makes you want to move.
- STONE HORSES: “Good Ol Days”
Boom! Get ready to hear some “Back In The Saddle”-era Aerosmith on “Good Ole Days,” the first single off STONE HORSES self-titled debut. The song drips with swagger, with elements of metal but with enough polish and panache to live on the edges of Hagar-led Van Halen. It’s fist-in-the-air, MTV video-era rock and roll with attitude. Singer John Allen explains, “with this new record, I wanted to give the listener some escapism. As I started to write the song ‘Good Ol’ Days’ at the beginning of 2020, it was already looking a little like we were in for a f#@$d up year, so I figured, Man, let’s remember the good times. Let’s remember the times when we could hang out, go to parties, go to concerts and music festivals! Hopefully, we can get back to that place really really soon. We need some fun back in our lives. I know that might seem childish these days, but it might not hurt to think of those ‘Good Ol’ Days’ when we didn’t have a care in the world.”
- Diane Gentile: “Motorcycle”
Diane Gentile, with her band The Gentle Men has just released her first full-length album, The White Sea. The LP is comprised of ten tracks penned by Gentile and features production by Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), Jesse Malin and producer/songwriter Matt Basile. “Motorcycle” and “Perfect People” have been played in heavy rotation by Steven Van Zandt on his SiriusXM channel, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.”
The LP opens with the rollicking road-trip anthem “Motorcycle.” Diane paints a picture of a carefree excursion seen from the back of a bike; “Blame it on summer heat when the moon is high and the air is clear and the sky is wide.” It’s the quintessential summer song.
- Teddy Thompson: Heartbreaker Please
Teddy Thompson’s eighth album. Heartbreaker Please is a welcome return to the blue-eyed country soul that was so endearing on his 2000 self-titled debut. It’s an album chronicling the end of a relationship, and like its sister record, 2011’s Bella, it’s a mix of Memphis soul, waltzes, light rockers and steady ballads. However, unlike Bella, this is not a lush, lavishly arranged affair with strings sweeping in and out of songs like mighty winds. Instead, the songs on Heartbreaker Please are tight, with plenty of room between each instrument. The album opener “Why Wait” is a Stax-like soul shaker with horns providing punctuation but never overly prominent. This is where it belongs – on Teddy’s emotion-laden voice, which has lost little if anything over the years.
The title track is a nod to the kind of late 1970s Southern California sound that back-up band The Section created for so many artists, tight and tasty from start to finish.
- Paul Weller: “Earth Beat”
An incredibly prolific artist, Paul Weller continues to record a remarkable amount of new music even as he has entered his seventh decade. On June 12th he released his 15th solo album, On Sunset. Weller has always been one to explore a variety of sounds, and with this record he experiments with electronic and orchestral elements. That said, at its heart this is a soul record with pop sensibilities and heart-tugging ballads.
Weller continues to move forward musically, incorporating up-to-the-minute contemporary sounds and collaborators like Col3trane, who appears on “Earth Beat.” But lyrically, Weller, back on his old label Polydor Records for the first time since The Style Council days, is committed to looking back on his past with the insight of age.
- Lucinda Williams: “You Can’t Rule Me”
As soon as Lucinda Williams’ new record Good Souls Better Angels begins you know that it’s going to be one great ride. The album opener, “You Can’t Rule Me,” is a 1960s back-beat grinder that has grit, muscle, soul, and a whole ‘lotta attitude. The time she and her husband Tom Overby spent helping Jesse Malin produce his last two records has left a mark on Williams’ new release. The band and the fuzzy guitars have a real Bowery garage band vibe even on the slow songs. Brilliant music all around.
- Jesse Malin: “Backstabbers”
Like many artists, Jesse Malin has dealt with the impact of the pandemic by hosting a weekly live show. Broadcast from his East Village, New York apartment, the program is called “The Art Of Self Distancing” – a play on the name of his celebrated debut album, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, hasn’t kept him from releasing new studio material. The ever-prolific rocker who last year released the exceptional album Sunset Kids is preparing a follow-up, Lust For Life, largely composed of songs also written and recorded during the Sunset sessions. He’s again produced by Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby here.
Based upon the sound of the first Lust single, “Backstabbers,” it seems like Lust could be Sunset, Act Two. “Backstabbers” has a Boss-infused pop feel and features a glockenspiel that somehow works. Malin noted, “the story is pretty much [about] coming of age, getting out of your small town and coming into the city searching for something new.” “Backstabbers” struts along, sneers and head-bobs with the earmarks of a bona fide hit.
- Alex Harris: “Rollin”
“Rollin” is the feel-good song of the fall. The powerful, soulful single was written by Sam Ashworth, Zachary Hall and Joshua Scott Chasez and produced by Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s, the Raveonettes). If you haven’t heard of Harris it’s likely because most of his time is spent running ACT (Arts Conservatory for Teens) and lecturing worldwide. Alex Harris is a modern soul singer with gospel roots and has shared the stage with Al Green, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, H.E.R., Brandy, and Lionel Richie. “Rollin” in included on Harris’ newly-released six-song EP, Frequency, a blend of southern soul, alternative-music grooves, and gospel. “Rollin” is that perfect kind of soul song. Its sparse arrangement sways and glides with lazy horn lines that pull it forward, yet ensure that nothing overshadows Alex Harris’ remarkable vocals. He combines the delicate delivery of an Al Green with the anguish of Otis Redding and the fire of Wilson Pickett. It’s a powerful and irresistible combination.
There was a message for me to call Dan Meinwald early this afternoon, December 17th. I didn’t think for a second the news would be what it was.
Tim de Paravacini is dead, of Stage IV liver cancer, in Japan.
I was just messaging with him last week, ironically about the health of someone we both care about. I thought he was doing at least as well as me. (Which ain’t so great, but I’m not dead yet…).
How do you encapsulate a life like Tim’s? He started out building rock and roll amplifiers for bands in South Africa (the Flames – who turned out Blondie Chaplin and Rikki Fataar, later to join the Beach Boys – were early clients). His knowledge grew until he built every single component in the recording and playback chain. He didn’t distinguish between consumer gear and professional gear – for him, it was all electronics, and he knew it all backwards and forwards.
He had a reputation for building exceptional transformer-coupled tubed equipment (on both ends, for both pro and home audio), but I recall visiting him at his home in England 28 years ago, and he was equally proud of his single-transistor amp. A single transistor – atop a maybe 6- or 8-inch pole – just for the look of it. Not many of us have had a chance to hear his 78 RPM turntable, or his multi-way speaker – but trust me, both were stunning. He didn’t overcharge, and often undercharged for his creations, but he knew what he had – and charged for the work that went into them.
And have you ever heard the magnetically-coupled EAR Disc Master turntable? No, because it’s really silent – so much so that it redefined turntable silence – it has no sound of it’s own. Its platter floated above a ¾-inch gap, created by magnets on each side of the platter. After I heard it, I couldn’t wait until I dragged the now-deceased turntable master Brooks Berdan to another listening session with me. And Brooks was appropriately stunned.
Tim would pursue any idea that he thought was interesting, and when he thought he had a product, he’d create the most interesting design to complete it.
I never met his mastering-gear clientele like John Dent (of the Exchange mastering studios in London), but he was another acolyte. (Sadly, he passed away in 2018.)
I met Tim de Paravicini in January of 1990 at Winter CES. As soon as he realized I was a musician, no one else existed. He wanted to tell me about his recording gear, and for about a decade I became the US importer of his professional line of equipment. In 1998 I brought him over to the AES show/conference in San Francisco, along with my 1-inch, 2-track tape deck and a selection of masters from Sheryl Crow (who’s Tuesday Night Music Club album was mixed to one of Tim’s machines), Kevin Gilbert and Altarus Records.
But Tim was a wild man. You didn’t want to cross him, or publicly disagree with him, unless you were equally stubborn (and they’re out there…). And he had a bit of a lack of control-of-himself issue, as anyone who did disagree with him found out. My friend, audio industry veteran and former Copper editor Bill Leebens just called, and reminded me of an audio show a few years back which featured a seminar with Paul McGowan, Arnie Nudell and Tim, among others. Tim was so unhappy with his voice through the PA that was provided that he just got rid of his mic and shouted. Such was the Baron de Paravacini.
And he really was a Baron, a title passed down, in proper English style, from ancestors who gave all their money (unwillingly) to Oliver Cromwell. The de Paravacinis are still owed quite a bit.
Or, How I Got to Meet My Idols
My first two interviews with members of Genesis, in 1974 and 1975, were initially made possible by the fact that I was the music director of KRTG, the radio station of San Francisco State University. They had come about through a series of unlikely events (see Issue 125). I graduated later in 1975, and lost the “in” that I had with the record label. I had hoped to continue getting to speak with the band after that, especially since, in the interim, Peter Gabriel had left Genesis for a solo career and drummer Phil Collins had taken over as lead vocalist. Without any connections, I had no idea of how to make that happen. What ultimately ended up transpiring involved another set of serendipitous circumstances.
Genesis was going to play at the Berkeley Community Theater on April 29, 1976, in support of A Trick of the Tail, their first album without Gabriel. My roommate, Dave, was another progressive rock fan and he played bass guitar. He decided to try to get me an interview. In the days before cell phones, one had to pay for long distance calls, and they could be expensive. He got hold of someone’s telephone credit card (I didn’t ask questions) and made a bunch of calls, ultimately finding the travel agency that was booking the tour. He learned that the band would be staying at the Marriott Inn on the Berkeley Marina.
Early in the afternoon of the show, we parked ourselves in the lobby of the Marriott and waited. Soon, a nondescript station wagon pulled up and Phil Collins got out. In a gutsy move that I now can’t believe I did, I just walked up and started helping him unload the car. I introduced myself and asked if he remembered the interview I had done. He wasn’t sure my face looked familiar, and certainly didn’t remember my name. I asked if he remembered me asking him about a Flaming Youth album. He replied, “Oh yeah, at the Holiday Inn two years ago.” Bingo! I then asked if he thought I could do another interview. He said, “Yes,” and had me follow him toward his room. As we crossed the parking lot, tour manager Dik Fraser intercepted me and told me to leave Phil alone. There went my shot at the interview – or so I thought.
That evening, my seat in the theater just happened to be behind that of Stephen M.H. Braitman, another music writer that I knew. I said, “hi,” and we talked for a bit. He told me that he had an interview lined up with guitarist Steve Hackett after the show. Hackett had just released a solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, on the Chrysalis label. Stephen had more mainstream tastes in music and was not really a fan of progressive rock. He said that a friend of his was going to help with questions, but the friend had backed out. He asked if I wanted to do the interview myself! I told him, “my tape recorder is in the car – I’d love to!” After the show, which was great, Stephen brought me backstage while Dave waited. I spotted the tour manager, Dik, and when he saw me, I could tell he was thinking, “how the hell did he get in here?”
After some conversation, it was decided that we would do the interview back at the lobby of the hotel, so Dave and I headed that way. Steve Hackett sat down with us, and bassist Mike Rutherford joined in. Dave and Mike hit it off talking about bass guitars, particularly Dave’s custom Alembic bass. I finally got a complete set of autographs on my Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway albums, and I was able to use material from this and the prior interviews for an article that was published in a Sacramento-based music magazine called the Rock-N-ROLL news. (That article will be reprinted in a future issue of Copper.) I ended up doing a few more articles for the publication. Editor Mike Farrace would go on to establish Pulse!, the in-house magazine of Tower Records.
In March of 1977, Genesis was returning to the Bay Area for two nights, touring in support of their album Wind and Wuthering. I wanted another shot at an interview, but there just didn’t seem to be a way to make it happen, despite having now become a published writer. Once again, Dave had a plan. On the afternoon of the first show, we went to the backstage entrance of Winterland. Dave had brought along the aforementioned Alembic bass guitar. We knocked on the door, and when a roadie came out, Dave said, “Mike Rutherford wants to see this bass.” I was amazed when he was ushered in. While I waited outside for him, I watched as the road crew came out and gathered for a group photo alongside one of the equipment trucks. That picture ended up printed on one of the inner sleeves for the double live album Seconds Out. (Note: Fraser’s name was misspelled as Frazer on the sleeve.) When Dave came out a while later, he had secured an interview for me with Phil Collins at the Miyako Hotel, where the band was staying.
Two days later at the Miyako, Phil was as personable as he had been the first time we talked. His solo career hadn’t begun, and he was not yet the major star he would become. I asked how he thought the tour was going, and he was happy to say that they were drawing significantly larger crowds in the venues they had played previously, along with gratifying turnouts where they were playing for the first time. He also discussed the possibility of the band doing a tour of smaller, club-type venues, noting that he saw The Tubes at The Roxy in Los Angeles and thought they were amazing. Unless I missed something, a Genesis club tour never materialized.
That turned out to be my last interview of any kind for 43 years. (I recently conducted one with musician/engineer/producer Patrick Gleeson for Copper to be published in January.)