Issue 98

Better Living Through Music!

Better Living Through Music!

Frank Doris

First of all, I want to give a huge thank you to our writers, Paul McGowan, Bill Leebens and a special acknowledgment to the wonderful Maggie McFalls for helping me get through the job of actually producing our first issue together. Whew!

Big news: at a November 8 press conference at the New York Audio Show, hi-res streaming service Qobuz announced it was eliminating its MP3 streaming tier and going to a lower $14.99 per month pricing plan that includes access to all hi-res and CD-quality streaming. The new Studio Premier plan is available to the first 100,000 subscribers and is $12.50 per month with a yearly plan. Qobuz’ Dan Mackta noted the service is adding 10,000 albums per day. The announcement follows on the heels of Amazon’s reveal of its own $14.99 plan ($12.99 for Prime members). More affordable hi-res streaming can only be a good thing, especially in bringing the pleasures of better-sounding music to more people.

Among this issue’s contents: Tom Gibbs looks at re-issues from the Stooges, the Stones, Miles and more. Woody Woodward tells a tale of haunted roads and the inimitable Bonzo Dog Band. Professor Larry Schenbeck offers insight into Russian composers Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev. Anne E. Johnson gives us an unflinching look at the Pogues and the work of Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most important composers of medieval sacred music.

J.I. Agnew provides an overview of the history of magnetic recording. Roy Hall has us salivating over culinary delights in Puerto Rico (well, maybe not if you’re a vegan). I contribute some thoughts on the recent Capital Audiofest 2019. Dan Schwartz tells a tale that may be familiar to more than a few of us, about having a great-sounding system...and then changing it.


The Sound of My Stereo and the Quality of Cables

The Sound of My Stereo and the Quality of Cables

The Sound of My Stereo and the Quality of Cables

Dan Schwartz

I’ve written about the sound of my system before – and how it had devolved from its extraordinary condition of more than 20 years to one which was, in hindsight, sort of threadbare. Now I’d like to write about its resurrection.

For many years very little in my system changed: Immedia RPM-1 turntable/arm, EAR G-88 preamp, a pair of BEL 1001 Mk IV/V amplifiers and loudspeakers custom-designed by the great Richard Marsh. I eventually sold, and regretted selling the turntable and the irreplaceable preamp, but no point crying over etc. etc.  Allen Perkins’ designs had moved on, as had Tim deParavacini’s, and I anticipated getting their new designs. I also had Mark Porzilli’s amazing Laufer Teknik Memory Player 64 CD player.

The best laid plans as they say…I went through years of system changes that only made things worse, until recently. Now the system is more or less stable again, so maybe it’s time for me to comment on what’s been happening. For want of a better term: system synergy and sonic coherence.

Virtually all the electronics have been replaced with PS Audio’s top of the line gear. (That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; being an occasional audio writer gets me accommodation pricing from just about anywhere, but given what Paul and company have been doing, it seemed like a good opportunity to observe.) [Editor’s Note: No one at PS Audio prompted Dan to include PS Audio-related content and I had no inclination to delete it as it’s germane to the story.]

While my electronics are from one company, at the same time they embody some very advanced ideas from some of the best high-end designers there are: Bascom H. King, Ted Smith, and the fairly new guy, Darren Myers, as well as the rest of the PS design team. I’m not supposed to write too much about PS, so I won’t, but at the same time it’s impossible to avoid if I’m going to write about what I’m hearing.

Which is what? In a word: coherence. That’s what I keep thinking about lately; this system’s synergy. Partly that’s a result of moving over to an all-balanced-electronics set-up, but (I assume) it’s also in the implementation of these components. My old system worked by happenstance, and I confess I chose the components that way too. There wasn’t any planned thought involved, other than the usual professional standard of making sure all the components cooperated together. I tried a preamp (G-88) with my old amps (VTL 500s), found one that sounded great, moved on when I found amps that sounded even better and so on – nothing different than what most audiophiles would do.

The sound of my current system is as good, certainly, though slightly different. The BHK Signature 300 mono amplifiers are different from the BELs by small degrees, not orders of magnitude, possibly because of the presence of tubes in the new amp, possibly because of the increased power. They’re slightly (really slightly) less bright, slightly more beefy-sounding.

A brief aside: in the search for the elusive quality of coherence, many years ago Dan Meinwald and I compared the BEL to deParavacini’s 100-watt EAR 509 amps. Dan felt that the EARs were marginally better across the board. I didn’t – I felt that they were better on 2- and 3-mic acoustic recordings, but the BELs had the edge on everything else (the Fab Four, f’rinstance).

My old EAR G-88 preamp was a pure tube design. I used it for over 20 years, hardly ever turning it off and in that time only had to change the tubes twice – it was really the most amazing thing. And strangely, in my older system, the G-88, had a bit more “edge”, a seemingly slightly more elevated upper-mid, than my current BHK Signature preamp.

But mainly I now have a much greater sense of this coherence that I’m writing about, though I’m hard put to describe how it sounds – I ain’t Harry Pearson. It’s as if everything in the music and the sound is moving in a common direction, if that makes any sense. But I wouldn’t know that, if this coherence wasn’t so subtly different from what I listened to for years.

I’m now hearing an ever-so-slightly more-solid low-end and ever-so-slightly less treble information, but also a greater ability to “hear into” the sound, a quality I first wrote about years ago when talking about my Grado headphones. I can hear into the recordings even more, with the result of those “blacker” backgrounds – I know, that’s become the most notorious of audio clichés, yet it’s real.

It’s a trade-off, but a good one.

Regarding the change from my old Memory Player to the new DirectStream DAC: the jury’s still out on this one. As of now I prefer the older player, but I’m not sure yet if I just like PCM compared to DSD (the Memory Player is PCM and the DirectStream converts everything to DSD), the interfacing between their DACs and my new preamp, or something else. So far, I suspect the Memory Player doesn’t have the same depth as the DirectStream, but its presentation of music is more forward, and again, marginally, though crucial, gives the impression of just a hair more upper-mid/treble. Also, I’m waiting for an updated version of the Memory Player to arrive.

Turntable-wise, I’m using a VPI Prime with 3D-printed arm and Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge. I absolutely didn’t like it at first – and then I got the Stellar Phono Preamp. Suddenly I’m in love with records again. Listening to a bunch of Water Lily recordings all recorded with different mics, on different tape machines, the changes from set-up to set-up are completely apparent, and all of them transparently great. When I read that the Stellar’s designer Darren Myers and McGowan chose to set aside measurements and design first by ear, I was interested, and now that I’m listening – it’s a win. And I prefer it to digital – yet again.

So that’s a rough assessment of several years of sideways motion.

There’s something else though that’s helped my system attain that elusive quality of coherence. In Issue 36 I talked about my extreme reluctance to write about cables. In response, I heard from an old friend from a cable company who wanted me to hear their products. He sent a heap of cables, which I used exclusively for a year.

At first, I was delighted at the sonic difference – just because it was different. And quite a bit different. But gradually I became dissatisfied with the sound. I forget whether HP would have described it as yin or yang, but it was definitely leaning towards one of those. (And to defend my pal’s company’s work, they were a class of cables not meant to compete with the best.) I was at a loss.

So: I went to Cardas, specifically newish company head Angela Cardas Meredith, George Cardas’ youngest. I called her, pled my case, and she agreed to send some cables for me to play with.

But I have to say, I didn’t expect what she sent (though I crossed my fingers): Clear Beyond XLR and Clear Reflection XLR cables. First of all, these Cardas XLR connectors are like gorgeous jewelry. My old Cardas stuff used Neutrik; not these massive, gleaming, golden barrels. These are serious connectors.

I haven’t yet discerned quite how Clear Beyond is different from Clear Reflection, but if there is a difference it’s extremely subtle and all falls well within the family. The difference is claimed to be that Clear Reflection is a kind of hearkening back to George’s old Golden Reference cables, which were a real breakthrough. Also, being able to hook up all my electronics via balanced connections rather than single-ended is something that I’m sure leads to a greater coherence, as well. (Now the only pieces that don’t have balanced connections are the turntable-to-phono-stage and the Magnum Dynalab FM tuner.

Am I done? HAH!

As I’ve written, I may be dying soon, and if this is where the system is going to be in the time I have left, I’m happy with it. But you know, if I’m going to survive, well…

There are some very interesting speakers out there.

Potent Potable

Potent Potable

Potent Potable

Charles Rodrigues

Russian Composers: Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev

Russian Composers: Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev

Russian Composers: Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev

Lawrence Schenbeck

They were contemporaries. Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943) was born seven years earlier than Nicolay Medtner (1880–1951), who arrived a year before Sergey Prokofiev (1881–1953). Rachmaninov studied first at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, then at Moscow. Medtner studied at Moscow, then privately with Taneyev. Prokofiev received extensive tutoring at home, then spent ten tumultuous years at St. Petersburg; he also got encouragement from Taneyev.

All were pianists—which is a bit like saying that Newton, Einstein, and Bohr were all physicists. In fact, these three Russians were among the most accomplished keyboard artists of their generation, concertizing internationally and drawing upon their immense knowledge of the piano to create works for it that remain among the most performed music of the 20th century. We can only sample some of it here, but that should be enough to acquaint us (or remind us) of their prodigious individual talents.

Rachmaninov wrote his solo Préludes over a period of nearly twenty years. In a tradition established by Bach, Chopin, and others, he presented each in a different major or minor key, making a complete set of 24 miniatures. That’s no big deal; more significant is the astonishing range of emotions they demonstrate, plus the pianistic skills they demand. You probably know the first of his Préludes, written right after he graduated from conservatory in 1892:


In just a decade, Rachmaninoff came much more into his own, as shown in the Second Piano Concerto’s sumptuous harmonies and broad, singing melodies. A contemporaneous set of ten Préludes, op. 23, offers plenty of that but also shows a new sense of control: keyboard coloration is more often subdued and subtly varied, overall forms more concise and well-proportioned. Here is some of No. 3, a quasi-minuet (but listen to that errant, impertinent bass line):

Or No. 4, as lovely a tune as he ever wrote:

No. 9 sounds another fresh note:

And No. 5, marked Alla marcia:


The music we’ve been hearing comes mainly from Boris Giltburg’s new Naxos recording of the complete Préludes, which to my ears is quite competitive with Ms. Wang and various venerable masters like Sviatoslav Richter. Good sound, too.

With the thirteen Préludes of op. 32 (1910), Rachmaninov made it to 24. Perhaps these last works reflect the world of his Third Piano Concerto: moods are darker, harmonies more pungent. No. 10 reflects this deepened introspection:

In terms of technique, Rachmaninov continued to test the limits of players’ skill, as shown in No. 12:

Nice to have them all in a single collection.

It’s also nice to have Alexander Melnikov well-launched by Harmonia Mundi on a three-album set of Prokofiev piano sonatas. Prokofiev never drank as deeply of the Romantic Kool-Aid as had Rachmaninov. You can clearly hear the younger man’s turn toward cool (or biting, or ironic) modernism in these works, which—conveniently for historians and critics—are scattered throughout his creative lifetime.

Like Rachmaninov, Prokofiev wandered the world as an artist although, unlike his older peer, he eventually returned to Mother Russia. Melnikov’s volume 2 includes Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, the last work Prokofiev completed before heading west in 1917. Subtitled “From the Old Notebooks,” it is based on music he worked up as a student but left unfinished. More so than in most of Prokofiev’s later music, you can hear Romantic mystery, sense an old, dark Russian spirit here. Many Prokofiev scholars link this sonata with his 1918 Skazki staroy babushki (“Tales of an Old Grandmother”), and they’re onto something:

Between 1939 and 1944, Prokofiev—now back in Russia for good—wrote three great piano sonatas, Nos. 6, 7, and 8. Collectively known as the “War Sonatas,” they’re popular with performers and audiences alike. Some indication of their appeal can be seen in Melnikov’s decision to include two in his first volume and the remaining one in his second. (The composer worked simultaneously on all three, actually finishing No. 6 last.) Spurred on by the chaos and privations of the time, Prokofiev reverted to the violent modernism of his earlier (i.e., 1920s!) music.


You can get a good sense of the “War Sonatas” via Melnikov’s rendition of Sonata No. 6, above. Begin with the first movement’s edgy, curdled first theme and then its (momentarily) tranquil second theme. An increasingly frenzied development gets underway after 2:45, building steadily to a furious climax, after which (at 5:45) the original themes return.

At 7:26 the second movement begins, with clipped phrasing, clever harmonic dodges, and a minimalist, staccato accompaniment; an interlude emerges at 9:40, smoky with mystery and menace, quickly swept away. The third movement (11:43), marked Tempo di valzer lentissimo, mixes woozy nostalgia with bursts of grandiosity. A concluding Vivace (18:52), fast and often furious, nevertheless gives the impression of enormous energies held in check; it neatly recalls motives from earlier movements. You may want to check out Richter’s 1956 Prague recital for a useful comparison.

I like Melnikov’s approach very much. He plays with fire and precision, balancing the disparate elements of this music better than others have done, and he’s well-recorded. I’m looking forward to vol. 3, which will presumably include Sonatas 3 and 5.

Speaking of skazki, I’d never heard the word before I reviewed Hamish Milne’s terrific Medtner recordings. Now comes Norwegian Gunnar Sama, who’s cherry-picked eighteen Medtner miniatures for a recital on 2L, the high-res, immersive-sound label so ably steered by Morten Lindberg. The result should have been a DXD tour-de-force for Sama. But I may be getting ahead of myself. First we should introduce Nicolay Medtner. A year older than Prokofiev, he stood worlds apart artistically. Milne writes:

A proud and unbending man, Medtner held fast throughout his life to artistic beliefs which were hopelessly at odds with prevailing currents. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss were just a few of his great contemporaries towards whom he expressed scorn bordering on disgust. . . . Today, as we standing at a lengthening distance from these disputes, Medtner himself stands as an almost heroically independent spirit.

As for skazki, it translates as “tales.” But not fairy tales, really. And not “legends” or flights of fantasy, regardless of the record jacket art. As Boris Asafyev (who somehow managed a lifelong friendship with Prokofiev) put it, these short works “are tales about personal experience, about the conflicts of a man’s inner life.” They are not markedly different in style from the Préludes of Rachmaninoff, Medtner’s lifelong friend.

I can do no more than wholeheartedly recommend Hamish Milnes’s two monumental Medtner albums, Skazki and Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies. Here are two excerpts from my own favorites, the first a skazki, the second a dithyramb (which for Medtner apparently connoted solemn ceremony).

As for Sama’s recital, it counts—for me, anyway—as one of 2L’s very few swing-and-a-misses. In this case, the venue (the cavernous Sofienberg Church), the instrument (a new C. Bechstein D282), and the engineering all seem to have worked against the elusive magic of this music. (I preferred the stereo mix, which minimized the room’s “contribution.”) Consider downloading Milne, who even at Redbook resolution speaks more eloquently on this music’s behalf.

The Bonzo Dog Band and the House on Daleville Road

The Bonzo Dog Band and the House on Daleville Road

The Bonzo Dog Band and the House on Daleville Road

WL Woodward

I discovered the weirdness of the Bonzo Dog Band in the 1970s when living in a possessed A-frame house that was located at the end of a haunted road. I know, maybe you don’t believe in hauntings. But I lived through them.

Those experiences paralleled my introduction to the Bonzo’s electric giraffe music, and the two are forever intertwined in my life.

The A-frame was on Daleville Road in Willington, Connecticut, past where the road turned to dirt and skirted a small horse farm. It was a few miles from the University of Connecticut campus where I was supposed to be attending classes. I always felt in peril when I walked down that road. Part of my foreboding was caused by a band of gangster geese that lurked at the pond by the road and attacked passersby, hunting for exposed flesh and lunch money. But there were greater mysteries to scare me and my friends, who refused to walk the road at night. An abandoned World War II mother of pearl button factory, where I once stood surrounded by thousands of little buttons, only added to the creepiness.

One cold and starless night I had just gone over the hill past the Willington Oaks Apartments to check my mail. I heard a horse and rider behind me and turned to see them in silhouette at the top of the hill. I turned my back to them, closed the mailbox, then looked to greet the rider – but no one was there. Yet I heard and felt the horse and rider clop past me and my eyes were never wider open than at that moment. Frozen, I couldn’t move until there was no more sound of the rider. I busted for home, the leafless trees reaching for me in the restless wind.

I know many non-believer folks who scoff at such stories. But those and many more are real to all of us who lived on Daleville Road. Mercifully, the A-frame, though not immune to other unexplained goings-on, was also the home of many happier memories and discoveries.

My college roommate Lynn and I lived in the basement apartment, with the homeowners upstairs.   Lynn’s musical tastes were more eclectic than mine, and from the first time he played me The Bonzo Dog Band I loved their wacky humor that reminded me so much of Firesign Theater.

The Bonzo Dog Band, originally the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was formed in 1962 by some musical lunatics attending London’s Royal College of Art. Early member Vivian Stanshall (vocals and wind instruments) was recruited by Rodney Slater (sax and clarinet) and Tom Parkinson (sousaphone). Slater and Parkinson were playing in a trad jazz band at the college and soon recruited other musicians they knew, to form a loose unit of revolving players to parody the jazz of the day. They soon morphed into a more comedic style incorporating idioms from 1920s jazz bands.

At the time comic stylings were popular in the UK with artists like Spike Milligan, who was the principal writer and performer in The Goon Show, a TV program that would heavily influence Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Comedy pop records by artists such as Charlie Drake and Bernard Cribbins were all the rage and were influencing musicians and comedians as diverse as the Beatles and Peter Sellers. Such influences were absorbed and twisted by the Bonzos into their own brand of musical mayhem.

The band went through personnel like M&Ms through a puppy. In 1963 they added Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell (banjo, double bass, electric bass) and Neil Innes (songwriter, piano and guitar), members who would prove pivotal to the band’s future development. Innes’ addition would prove particularly fortuitous for his writing and professional approach to the music, as would the hiring of drummer “Legs” Larry Smith, the final key band member.

The following years found the band continually changing styles and members while refining their campy style, which would gain them attention and gigs throughout the UK and later internationally. In 1967 The Bonzo Dog Band got their first big break getting hired as the house band for the popular children’s TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set where they met future Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michel Palin.

In ‘67 they released their first album Gorilla. Here from that album is “Ali Baba’s Camel.”


From the same album came the song “Death Cab for Cutie,” the title later used as the name for that indie band. More importantly. Paul McCartney hired the Bonzos to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film in which they performed the title song.


In October 1968 the band scored a Top Five hit single with “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” produced by Paul McCartney under the nom-de-plume Apollo C. Vermouth.


The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s name was officially shortened in 1968 to The Bonzo Dog Band and they released The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. This was a musical departure, being more rock-based but still featuring their comedic style. It’s best-remembered for satirizing the then-current British blues-rock craze with the immortal “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”


And “Canyons of Your Mind.” Bravest guitar solo ever.


Doughnut offered some hairy rock and roll while still managing to make fun of traditional and the contemporary music even of the period. Doughnut is a classic, a must have for the eclectic collector.  (Remember I coined that phrase!)

1969 found the boys booked on a US tour backing bands like the Who and The Kinks but the tour was badly organized and promoted and didn’t result in real success. In June they released Tadpoles which was the first Bonzo album my roommate Lynn played for me. I can still remember the first time I heard “Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah.” (The ‘H’ is silent, sort of.)


In August the band played the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival where drummers Keith Moon, Aynsley Dunbar and Jim Capaldi sat in while Bonzo drummer “Legs” Larry Smith wowed the show with his famous tap dancing routine.

Keynsham, their fourth and last album from this period, was not well-received but represents a creative peak for the band. Essentially a concept album about a psychiatric hospital, the songs are loosely organized yet showcase Innes’ songwriting growth. Keynsham was the band’s last album of the 1960s.

By then the creative momentum had unraveled. The band continued doing radio and TV appearances and a few more albums in reunion mode, like the aptly named Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly.

The Bonzo Dog Band was an important if decidedly weird band that probably couldn’t have happened in any other decade but the freeform 1960s. Some amazing music came out of that stew and The Bonzo Dog Band was a fun part of all that.

Bonus video: The Bonzos talk of Magical Mystery Tour and Eric Idle and Neil Innes forming The Rutles.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Licentie voor afbeeldingen van de Beeld en Geluidwiki.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Roy Hall

“Why are we here?” I asked my host Harry. “Wait, just wait” was his reply.

I loved going to Puerto Rico. I would plan these trips in winter when the snow was deep in New York and that bone-chilling wind was trying to kill me. My favorite moment was when doors of the plane opened and that warm, humid, tropical air wafted in.

La Ruta del Lechón

An hour’s drive south from San Juan in the direction of Ponce takes you through the mountains to the town of Guavate. The days to go are Saturday or Sunday. The time, very early because something magical happens in this town and if you don’t get there in a timely manner you will be stuck for hours in a traffic jam while your mouth is salivating from the smell of food.

In English, La Ruta del Lechón means “The Pork Highway.”

Whole roast suckling pigs (Lechón) are slow-cooked over charcoal. It is impossible to count the number of restaurants that flank the road as you drive through the winding thoroughfare. At random we stopped at one of them and sat down. The menu scratched on a blackboard read something like this:

Lechón Asao directo desde Guavate (barbequed pork)
Pollo Asao (Barbequed chicken)
Arroz con Gandules (Rice and beans)
Morcillas (blood sausage)

The portions were massive. A large chunk of melt-in-your-mouth pig served on the plate with all the sides cost around $10 per person. If you asked nicely you could get an ear or, even more delicious, the snout. (A favorite of mine. It tastes a bit like tongue but chewier.)

During lunch a band started to play playing merengue and salsa music. People got up to dance and after a few beers, I joined in.

It is hard to describe just how joyous a meal like this can be. I have eaten in many fine restaurants around the globe but this simple meal, in this setting, perfectly prepared, brings happiness to my heart.

El Batey

On one trip I visited my friend Harry, who, along with his business partner Mike, ran a cool hi fi store in San Juan called Precision Audio. After doing business Harry said “let’s go out for dinner but I have to first visit my advertising agency.”

The agency was located in a building in one of these lovely painted streets in Old San Juan. While I was waiting for Harry to finish, I noticed a large amount of deep-fried pork rinds packets strewn around the room. The meeting over, I asked the woman who ran the agency why she had all these packs of pork rinds. She laughed and said, “we have been tasked with promoting them as health food. And, if you think that’s funny, I’m Jewish.”

After dinner we strolled over to this grungy dive bar called El Batey. Located on Calle del Cristo in old San Juan, it is small and dark with lamps covered with years of faded business cards taped to the shades. We ordered some Heineken. In those days (the late Eighties), for some reason Heineken was shipped to Puerto Rico in large casks and bottled locally. I was familiar with the original brew bottled in Holland, but this local version tasted odd and after far too many of them a sour, slimy, almost nauseous taste colonized my mouth. At this point I asked, “why are we here?”

Sometime after midnight a car drew up to the door and two of the most beautiful women I have ever seen entered. A short while later, they were joined by another three women of equal beauty. When yet another group of stunning women arrived, Harry smiled, turned to me and said, “now you know why we are here.”


The elegance of the pelicans, dive bombing the water to feed, contrasts with their ungainly waddle on land. They hit the water with such speed that you wonder why they don’t kill themselves. They rise from the sea, spit out the seawater and swallow the fish caught in their pouches.

We would watch them early in the morning as we sipped our café con leche and ate tropical fruit for breakfast.

The Horned Dorset is the luxury hotel in Rincon, a town on the far west of the island. Our villa was on the edge of the Caribbean Sea and it had a plunge pool on our porch. Every morning I would dive naked into this mini pool and let the water wake me up. Breakfast was on the beach under coconut palms ringed with bougainvillea. The sea was calm and the only life on the beach apart from the pelicans was a lonely fisherman who each morning threw his cast net into the sea. His casting was so flawless and precise that he always landed a good catch of small fish.

Rincon is best known for its surfing in winter when the wind drives the currents from the Atlantic to the Caribbean Sea. Not a surfer, I preferred the bars that service that part of town, especially during the spectacular sunsets that draws crowds.

One morning, instead of eating breakfast in the hotel we took a drive up quite a windy road to La Rosa Inglesa (The English Rose). It’s a tearoom/bed and breakfast, perched on the side of a mountain with the most incredible vistas of the sea. It serves real (i.e. strong English) tea and among many other offerings, a wonderful English breakfast: two eggs, sautéed spinach, pork sausage, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, skillet potatoes and homemade toast.

It was so authentically British that the only thing missing was the cold and rain.

One of the things I love about Rincon is its lack of a tourist “downtown” filled with souvenir shops and lousy restaurants. It is just a regular Puerto Rican community that caters to its population while also welcoming tourists.

We have visited Rincon twice. Both times were before Hurricane Maria devastated the island and eroded at least half of Rincon’s eight miles of beach. I hope the beaches and the town can be repaired but knowing the state of both the local and island-wide economy, I doubt it will happen soon.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Oquendo from Freeport, NY.

The Multiple Facets of Magnetic Recording: A Brief History

The Multiple Facets of Magnetic Recording: A Brief History

The Multiple Facets of Magnetic Recording: A Brief History

J.I. Agnew

Grooved media – phonograph cylinders, gramophone records and so on – kickstarted the recording industry and were the dominant commercial recording and playback formats up until the Second World War. However, long before WWII there were a number of developments which led to the advent and commercialization of magnetic tape recording as we now know it.

Wire recording dates back to 1898 and early experiments by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen. His efforts yielded the Telegraphone, which recorded a signal on a spool of steel wire by guiding it past a recording head, which magnetically stored the information on the wire. If guided past a playback head capable of converting the wire magnetization into an electrical signal, the recording could be reproduced. Then came steel tape and the Marconi-Stille tape recording system, used in the 1930s.

Valdemar Poulsen 1898

“One of the Blattnerphone BBC recording machines on which the programs are recorded by a magnetic process for Empire broadcasting.” February 1937

While coated plastic tape had already been invented by 1928, it was not widely used until the 1940s with the development of the Magnetophon system in Germany by AEG. The basic principles of magnetic recording are the same for all the various systems, but the real breakthrough of the Magnetophon was the combination of plastic-base tape with AC bias, which provided vastly superior sound quality along with the ability to easily cut and splice tape for editing purposes. AEG introduced the K1, the world’s first practical high quality tape recorder.

After the war the Magnetophon technology was brought to the US by Jack Mullin, who had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Germany and obtained two of the recorders before returning to the US. He improved the machines to the point where, thanks to his efforts, an entire industry was created based around the various commercial uses of magnetic tape recording technology.

Tape editing in action. Photo courtesy of Magnetic Fidelity.

One very convenient aspect of plastic-backed tape is that it can be easily manufactured in different widths, coated with different types of magnetic oxide particles, run at different speeds and divided into multiple tracks. This last point deserves further explanation. The tape itself is not actually physically divided into tracks. The entire width of the tape is uniformly coated with magnetic particles. As such, the same tape could have one “channel” of information recorded across its entire width, or two channels recorded in parallel, one next to the other and each occupying half the width of the tape, or three channels with each occupying 1/3 of the width, or even 24 channels, with each occupying 1/24 of the width!

It is the configuration of the magnetic heads on the tape machine that define how the tape is to be utilized. For example, 1/4-inch tape was used for the commercially available reel-to-reel tapes of the 1950s and 1960s. Monophonic tapes commonly contained two tracks (referred to as half-track mono) and stereophonic tapes had four tracks (quarter-track stereo). After playing one side, the tape was flipped over to play the other side.

The same 1/4-inch tape was also used for four-track tape recorders such as the classic TEAC A3340S, which enabled musicians to create high-quality multitrack recordings at home in the 1970s. Same tape, different magnetic head configurations.

NAGRA IV-S; Photo courtesy of George Vardis.

An aside for historians and archivists: while it is convenient to be able to use tape in different ways, this leaves us with a challenge: Given an undocumented reel of tape, it is impossible, without considerable effort expended in trial and error, to tell how many tracks (channels) have been recorded on its surface, at which speed it is meant to be played back, what equalization should be used on the playback electronics, if any form of noise reduction system has been used which would require decoding, or even what kind of program material the tape is meant to contain!

The practicality and stability of the tape recording process made the technology incredibly popular. In fact, it enabled the very existence of recorded music as we know it today and the advent of the VCR (VideoCassette Recorder) in the 1970s. Tape recording also found application in a wide range of other fields, some of which had nothing to do with audio.

Aside from recording studios and home entertainment systems, tape was quickly adopted by the broadcasting sector, replacing disk recording/reproducing systems not only as a means of playing back music and recording programs, but also for 24-hour logging of a station’s output. Prior to tape, a considerable industry existed for the purpose of supplying disk recording lathes for 24-hour logging. That industry disappeared as soon as tape machines entered the broadcasting market.

Tape was also very widely used in television and film, not just for sound recording but also for video recording in the form of the VTR (VideoTape Recorder) and eventually VHS (Video Home System) and other formats. In the film industry, magnetic coatings were used on the film itself to magnetically record the soundtrack onto the film in sync with the image. In a different sound-on-film process, the audio track can also be optically encoded onto the film, but this is another story. Cartridge-type formats such as the 8-track cartridge and the cassette tape were also eventually adopted by the broadcasting sector as well, alongside many other tape formats.

VHS tape

On the consumer side of things, commercially available albums first appeared as monophonic tape reels at 3.75 ips (inches per second), then evolved into stereophonic formats at 7.5 ips and eventually became 8-track cartridges, cassette tapes and other little-known formats. (Who else remembers Elcaset?)

Studer A80; Photo courtesy of George Vardis.

Tape machines also found use as instrumentation recording devices in industrial facilities, for logging purposes, process control and other applications. They were widely adopted by the aerospace industry as on-board flight data recording systems.

Tape also became popular for the storage of digital data for computer systems, in various different formats including DAT tape, open reel systems and even cassette tape. Users of Commodore 64 and other computers of that era can shed a tear of nostalgia here. The hard disk drives used for data storage applications in computers and external drives are very similar to tape in operating principle since they’re also magnetic recording devices.

DDS2 digital storage tape

In addition, various tape formats have been used in telephone answering machines, call centers and many other telecommunications applications.

In recording studios (back to talking about audio), the first tape recorders were monophonic, moving on to two-track tape machines for stereo recording or overdubbing. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s came 3-track, 4-track, 8-track, 16-track and 24-track multitrack tape machines on wide-format tape. Typically, the 16-track and 24-track machines use 2-inch tape. The multitrack tape machines allowed musical instruments to be recorded individually at different times and places (overdubbed), layered, or doubled, often in ways which would not be possible in a real-time live performance.

The 24-track, 2-inch tape machine, having a track width equivalent to quarter-track stereo on 1/4″ tape, or a bit less than double the track width of a stereo cassette tape, was the largest number of tracks considered acceptable from a quality standpoint for professional recording. As such, this was the largest number of tracks offered on professional tape machines by commercial manufacturers. Larger numbers of tracks have been seen, but never became popular in the analog domain.

The multitrack tapes would then be played back, with each track directed to a separate channel of a multichannel mixing console to be combined to two channels (left and right for stereo) and where processing such as equalization, compression and other effects could be added, which is similar to the way recordings are made nowadays. This two-channel output would be sent to a two-track tape machine which would record the stereo mixdown onto a stereo master tape. The master tape would normally be copied a few times to make safety copies or production masters to be sent off for disk mastering, perhaps in many different countries.

RCA 1/4″ Tape Cartridge

Copies on cassette tape would be made for the producer and artists to take home and from the 1980’s onwards the master tapes would also be digitized onto DAT tape, or U-matic tapes as used with the Sony 16xx series of machines, then considered to be the industry standard medium for transferring the digital audio information to the glass masters used in CD manufacturing.

Throughout the 1980s a number of open-reel digital tape sound recording systems were introduced, along with DAT (Digital Audio Tape), DTRS (Digital Tape Recording System) and various other cassette-shell tape formats, all of which have faded into obsolescence by now.

Most recently, commercially available open reel tapes have been enjoying a resurgence among audiophiles, usually in the form of copies of master tapes on 1/4″ tape at 15 ips. These releases can offer extremely high sound quality if done properly and really are genuine copies of the original master tape. However, it’s important to verify, if possible, the provenance of so-called master tapes. For example, many tape archives have been found in warehouses, or among the auctioned assets of bankrupt record labels, pressing plants and broadcasting facilities. These are often 5th generation production masters, recorded with signal processing for cutting lacquer master disks or for cassette tape duplication. They are far from the original master tape in terms of sound quality.

Naxatras III Copies of Master Tape on 1/4″ reel-to-reel tape. Photo courtesy of Sabine Agnew, Magnetic Fidelity Recordings.

To not leave out some oddities, tape was also used in dedicated tape delay units used by recording studios and musicians. These units were equipped with multiple magnetic heads to record and play back a signal multiple times, creating multiple repeats. Normal tape machines can also be converted for special effects, something which I have personally enjoyed doing on several occasions in the studio.

Here is an example of tape effect on the vocals, done in real-time as the band was performing, by manipulating the tape by hand. A second tape machine was recording the outcome.

Tape machines have even found use in recording control voltage signals from modular synthesizers; the tape can then be played back to control the synthesizer instead of playing the synth in real time. In fact, this along with obsessive tape editing, tape loops and other techniques, developed into a dedicated genre known among aficionados as “tape music.”

Tape loop inside tape delay unit. Photo courtesy of Magnetic Fidelity.

However, by far the most popular application of magnetic recording is the most mundane one: That little brown strip on the back of your credit card, debit card and others like it. It’s a small piece of magnetic recording material.

Carefully stored, magnetic tape is one of the most durable and stable media for long term archival storage of anything important, from valuable sound recordings to critical digital data. That said, its ultimate shelf life still remains to be determined. It is reassuring that my own collection of 1950s tapes shows no sign of deterioration in 2019.

Capital Audiofest 2019 Show Report

Capital Audiofest 2019 Show Report

Capital Audiofest 2019 Show Report

Frank Doris

I’ve known about Capital Audiofest but hadn’t gone until this year. I’d heard it was a small but fun show – not enough to compel me. I didn’t have the money or the time. The New York Audio Show happens around the same time and is only a train and subway ride away so I’d go to that instead.

This year I finally made it and boy do I realize what I was missing. CAF is now a major show. Coordinator and audio luminary Chris Yuin told me that Capital Audiofest started almost a decade ago in founder Gary Gill’s house. This year it was held at the Hilton Washington DC/Rockville Hotel and Executive Meeting Center in Rockville, Maryland, about a 45 minute Metro subway ride from DC’s Union Station. (The subway stops right at the back of the hotel – how convenient!) There were 119 exhibitors listed and 234 brands. CAF now has the size, look and feel of a “real” show if not as big as Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, AXPONA and other such audio events…yet.

Right off the bat I noticed that the show seemed more upbeat, relaxed and well, fun than others. This sentiment was shared by everyone else I talked with. People were clearly there to have a good time both during the show and after hours. Olive’s, the hotel bar, became the unofficial after-show hangout.

I only had less than a day to check out as many booths as I could, so this isn’t comprehensive coverage. I just took a Zen approach to visiting the rooms and went where chance and circumstance led me. If I left out a room here, it wasn’t necessarily because it didn’t interest me or didn’t sound like the angels singing from on high.

And I would have loved to have heard Tom Fine (son of legendary Mercury engineer Wilma Cozart Fine and a top-notch audio man in his own right) and his presentation of the new Analogue Productions/Mercury Living Presence LP re-issues of the Janos Starker Dorati/Dvorak Cello Concerto and Bach Suites for Solo Cello (in the Robyatt Audio room). Or attended one of The Absolute Sound and Positive Feedback reviewer Greg Weaver’s popular listening parties in the big VAC/Von Schweikert room. Or gone to a Waxrax punk/post-punk/reggae 45 vinyl listening set. And other cool events I wasn’t even aware of.

I never make absolute judgments based on the sound I hear at a show. (Sorry to disappoint anyone who’s looking for Pronouncements from On High.) I’ve worked on room setups enough times to know that it can be a high-stakes crapshoot. The room may be lousy. The AC power may be lousier. If you’re using streaming audio as a source, I hope you’re not the anxious type when the internet connection goes down. A little insider tip – sometimes when manufacturers co-exhibit, a not-uncommon way to share room rental expense, they’ve never tried their gear in combination with each other before. Talk about rolling the dice. (Others have their equipment locked in to the last speaker spike.)

So…if I hear unimpressive sound, I don’t make a snap judgment. I’ve been to shows where the same speakers sounded OK at one and mind-blowing at another. (I know associated equipment matters but still…) Or maybe the stuff just needs warmup. (It’s no secret that some exhibitors work feverishly through the night getting their rooms ready before opening day.) If I hear good sound, I take that as a sign the equipment is good and will probably sound better at someone’s home. If I hear fantastic sound, I consider that the stars have aligned. That and the exhibitors worked very hard! Kevin Hayes, president of VAC (Valve Amplification Company) told me that for their huge exhibit in the Potomac room, they got special permission from the hotel to bring in their mountains of gear two days early. It showed.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the industry over the last few years about how high-end audio may be a dying endeavor, to be lost forever when the last of the baby boomers lose interest, and as a corollary to this thought, that younger people don’t care about good sound. To all this I say: nonsense! Based on the evidence at Capital Audiofest and other shows I’ve attended in the last few years, I’d argue the opposite. CAF’s Gill told me that attendance was up almost 10 percent, and I’ve noticed more and more younger people (even pre-teens), women and non-audiophiles coming to shows. (Sorry guys, you can usually spot a wizened audiophile 60 yards away and no offense, I’m one of yez.)

Another enticement – if you’re in the Eastern seaboard or New York metro area, it may not be as expensive as you think to make the trip to the show. I took Megabus from NY’s Penn Station to Union Station and it cost…$41.99 round trip. The EVEN hotel where I and many other attendees stayed had a base rate of $108 a night. Plus, the show is a blast!

The most fun moment of the show? I was in the KR/Caprice/Alta Audio room listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Big Black Cadillac Blues” from the live Blues Hoot album. Excellent sound quality. I had little time and got up to leave halfway through the cut.

At that exact moment Lightnin’ yelled out, “COME ON BACK!” It was startling. I stopped dead. KR’s Calvin Johnson, Caprice’s Luis Alberto and soon everyone in the room joined in and yelled, “Come on back! Come on back! COME ON BACK!”

I sat back down and said, “Well holy crap, I guess I gotta come on back! When Lightnin’ Hopkins tells you to come on back, you better listen!”

Here are some CAF highlights.

One of the two impressive displays – couldn’t fit them both in one photo – in the Daedalus Audio suite also featuring Lampizator, Linear Tube Audio and more.
You want tubes? CAF had ‘em, including the mighty KR Audio Kronzilla SXI stereo tube amp. The T-1610 tubes drive the speakers directly — there’s no output transformer.
VPI’s Harry Weisfeld reveals his secret identity as The Flash! Although he ran right back to hear the spectacular KEF Muon speakers, and the new flagship VPI Vanquish turntable and Shyla cartridge. The Muon’s chrome finish is actually polished aluminum.
Finding the sweet spot in one of Genesis Audio’s rooms.
The resurgence of vinyl was in full evidence in the Atrium, which had 40 exhibitors, up from 25 last year. I found not one, but two copies of ex-Genesis member Anthony Phillips’ rare The Geese and The Ghost – one sealed for $10!
Legacy speakers big and small for one and all.
Digging those good sounds...Clement Perry of Stereo Times and Alta Audio’s Mike Levy.
Just Audio had two floors’ worth of extensive new and used equipment displays including this lust-inducing vintage audio rack, all fully restored and ready to play.
For fans of coaxial speakers, the ModWright Instruments room featured the Fern & Roby Ravens and Tredegar turntable (with Soundsmith Zephyr cartridge and Schroder CB arm), along with ModWright’s tube integrated amp, phono stage and modified (natch) Pioneer UHD LX-500 disc player.
Copper’s own Roy Hall with a bevy of Music Hall turntables.
Designed by the great Andrew Jones, Elac speakers deliver superior sound at surprisingly attractive prices.
Elegant design – and sound – in the Soundsmith room.
Powerful dynamics were heard from the Tekton Moab speakers. I thought they were hooked up to the big St. George Audio tube amp on top of the rack – but it was the little silver amp (I misplaced the name, unavailable at press time) doing the work!
“And now we’re full of energy”...the new VAC Statement 452i IQ MusicBloc amps striking a Kraftwerkian pose, framed by the Von Schweikert Ultra 11 speakers.
VPI’s new flagship Vanquish turntable/phono stage/power supply with the new Shyla cartridge. Cable management not included! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
By the end of the day this is how a lot of us felt like. Not to worry, the Soundsmith turntable/arm/cartridge combos I heard sounded as clear as the picture is blurred.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Anne E. Johnson

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is one of the most important composers of medieval sacred music, revered today for an unfettered and original style that has little to do with what other composers were up to in the Middle Ages. That she’s remembered at all is astounding, given her rough, lowly start in life.

In early 12th-century Germany, a girl who saw patterns of bright colors and had constant debilitating headaches wasn’t a mouth that a poor family had the luxury of feeding. So Hildegard’s mother gave her child away to a Benedictine abbey. While it must have been traumatic for 8-year-old Hildegard, her years as a nun and then abbess blessed us with some unique and fascinating music.

The problem with focusing on only one of Hildegard’s gifts means that I have to leave out all the others, but let me just acknowledge her groundbreaking work in women’s health and her astute political mind. She was also confirmed by the Pope as receiving visions from God, a recurring and painful experience that today would likely be diagnosed as severe cluster migraines causing visual anomalies. Her fans prefer to think of her as a mystic, as she was understood to be in her own time.

As for her compositions – among the earliest by a named woman and the largest set of pieces (nearly 80) by any named composer in that era – they seem to have been just a sideline in this busy life, a way of giving the nuns around her a new way to praise their Creator. She had iffy musical training at best, resulting in a blissful ignorance of the rules of chant-writing that gave her freedom to write whatever the heck she wanted.

Since 1994, when Angel Records released Vision: The Music of Hildegard of Bingen, a CD of synth-and-vocals arrangements by Richard Souther, there has been a steady stream of Hildegard recordings, running the gamut from New Age sycophancy to scholarly medieval reenactment. The past couple of years have been no exception.

It’s appropriate to begin this survey of recent releases with the box-set retrospective by the award-winning medieval ensemble Sequentia. In 1982, under the founding musical director Barbara Thornton this top-echelon vocal group began what they termed The Hildegard von Bingen Project, a goal to make performance editions and recordings of all of Hildegard’s works. With Benjamin Bagby taking over when Thornton died in 1998, the project was finally completed in 2012.

The 2017 box-set release (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is the first time all of Sequentia’s Hildegard endeavors have been collected, as well as the only recording of her complete oeuvre, which includes dozens of songs and a couple of theatrical pieces. Just the fact that they made these recordings is reason to praise Sequentia, but they also made wonderful recordings. If the spirit of Hildegard still keeps track of what’s happening on earth, she must be thrilled and proud.

Here is Sequentia singing the chant “O vos angeli” (“Oh You Angels”). Their meditative, flowing style has become the model for how to sing this music. And this particular chant is a perfect demonstration of some of Hildegard’s identifying traits: women’s voices singing over a droning tone, long phrases containing expressive and fluid melismas, and a pitch range that reaches from contralto to high soprano. No other medieval chants have a range like Hildegard’s. And if you know your modes, you’ll recognize the spooky Phrygian scale (the one starting on E), which was her favorite.


As calming as this recording sounds, the music is extremely hard to sing well. Not only do the women need a huge range that’s never strained or out of tune, but there’s also the rhythmic aspect. Hildegard’s music was written as pitches only (normal for the early 12th century), so the rhythm has to come from the Latin words, a luxury not available in the open vowel of a melisma. Sculpting the melismas for unison singing requires a director with a clear idea of what she wants and the means to communicate it.

If you have any curiosity about exploring this music, start with Sequentia, the gold standard.

It’s interesting to compare other ensembles that have surely been influenced by Sequentia’s recordings. On their collection of Marienlieder (Songs of Mary) from a manuscript called the Villarense Codex, the German group Ensemble Mediatrix includes one chant by Hildegard. They are directed by Johannes Berchmans Göschl, and this is their only currently available album (on the Profil label).

In this recording of “Femina forma Maria” (“Mary in the Shape of a Woman”), you can immediately hear the difference between them and Sequentia. The tone is less pure and steady, the phrases less carefully crafted. This is closer to the average performance one finds of Hildegard’s music.


Hildegard’s most famous work is Ordo Virtutum (The Play about the Virtues), a musical morality play of sorts, featuring characters such as Patience, Mercy, and Discretion. The only male character is the Devil (heh heh).

Some groups with bigger budgets go in for costumes and special lighting when they perform this work. One organization to give that a try is the German medieval group Ars Choralis Coeln, which has performed its Ordo Virtutum around Europe for the past ten years. They have now put out an audio recording on the Raumklang label, capturing a studio version of their semi-staged performance.

You can hear a six-minute live excerpt of the stage version here, complete with Brechtian German texts interpolated between sung sections. If the rather murky notes on the ensemble’s website are to be understood, these texts are also by Hildegard from the same book that the Ordo Virtutum comes from, but which Hildegard never set to music.  Director Maria Jonas, determined to produce an innovative reading, even rejects the usual belief that the word “Ordo” in the title means “Play,” and instead thinks it refers to the rules of Hildegard’s religious order.


The psalteries and rebecs (medieval bowed stringed instruments) blend ethereally with the women’s voices, which were recorded in a highly resonant church. They might not have the precision and elegance of Sequentia, but their performance will take you to a higher place if you allow it. You can listen to all of it on Spotify.

Jonas is not the only one to find Hildegard’s non-musical texts worthy of recording. In a 2019 release by Ensemble Cosmedin (on Alte Musik Zweitausendeins Editions), there’s more speaking than singing. Although Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church, Hildegard wrote most of her prose in German; it’s likely that she simply didn’t know Latin very well.

This album, Du aber sei ohne Angst (But Let Thou be Without Fear) is mostly Hildegard’s German words, gently declaimed by Stephanie Haas while her husband Christoph Haas plays atmospheric percussion. However, there are a few tracks of music. Here is “O ignis spiritus paracliti” (“Oh fire of the comforting spirit”), rendered with moving passion by Stephanie Haas, despite the pinch and shake in her voice. It’s very interesting and rare to hear this music sung by a solo voice.


Meanwhile, the influence of Richard Souther’s experimental and game-changing 1994 Vision lives on, so it’s appropriate to leave you with this dissonant arrangement of “O ignis spiritus paracliti” by saxophonist/composer Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble:

Hildegard of Bingen’s music is still a living, changing thing.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images, line engraving by W. Marshall, cropped to fit format.

The Pogues

The Pogues

The Pogues

Anne E. Johnson

When a band’s original name – Pogue Mahone – is an English spelling of the Irish for “Kiss My Arse,” you can expect some attitude. The concept was a unique combination of punk style and Irish traditional instrumentation. Who’d have guessed that an anti-establishment vocal snarl could go so well with banjo and tin whistle?

Punk singer Shane MacGowan famously met tin whistle player Spider Stacy in the bathroom at a Ramones concert in 1977. Stacy had a band called the Millwall Chainsaws, which MacGowan joined informally. In 1982, along with banjo player Jem Finer, they started Pogue Mahone. James Fearnley came on board with his accordion, having been the guitarist for MacGowan’s band The Nips. A year later, they hired Cait O’Riordan on bass and Andrew Rankin on drums.

The band gigged enough to get a solid reputation in the British punk scene and found themselves opening for the Clash on tour in 1984. That’s when they landed a record deal with Stiff Records and put out their first album. They were also required to change their name to the less incendiary “Pogues.”

While the debut release, Red Roses for Me (1984), gave a taste of the raging sarcasm fans would come to adore, about half the tracks were Irish trad songs in punk arrangements. British critics loved it, interpreting the raunchy energy as a profound understanding of the raw power of traditional tunes and a poke in the eye to the commercial establishment.

All the non-trad songs on the album are credited to MacGowan. (If you’re a fan of the hilariously twisted Warren Ellis/Darick Robertson comic book series Transmetropolitan, you’ll find the song that inspired it here. No accident that the comic’s main character is named Spider.)

“Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” is another MacGowan composition. The eerie chime-like percussion that opens the track leaves you surprised when the song itself seems to be a cheery pub raise-the-roofer. But keep listening for the chilling screams at the end.


The Pogues were joined by a friend, guitarist Phil Chevron, at the Red Roses for Me sessions, although, ironically, only a little of his piano playing and none of his guitar licks made it onto the album. For their second endeavor, Rum Sodomy & the Lash (1985), Chevron was made a full member of the band. The unusual title is a snide recasting of a Winston Churchill quote, who once described naval tradition as “nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”

This record, which was produced by Elvis Costello, is important as the source of what became a Pogues signature number, “Dirty Old Town” by Ewan MacColl, a Scots songwriter who specialized in devastating commentary on social reality. And if that’s not a tragic enough song for you, the Pogues kindly included Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” sung from the point of view of a soldier who loses both legs in battle.

And then there’s “Billy’s Bones,” by McGowan. It’s a frantic polka (a common tune type played in Irish pub sessions), sung so fast that you might miss what a strong anti-war statement it contains.


Both Chevron and MacGowan struggled with substance abuse, and neither made it through the 1987-88 band tour. The band temporarily fired Chevron, but let MacGowan’s no-show habit slide for the moment. Joe Strummer, of the Clash, stepped into the tour to replace both musicians at once, as guitarist and singer.

Chevron got his job back for the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), which also saw bass player Darryl Hunt replace Cait O’Riordan. Terry Woods, of the innovative folk band Steeleye Span, joined the lineup, contributing virtuosic work on mandolin and cittern.

The biggest hit from the record was “Fairytale of New York,” which features guest vocals from Kirsty MacColl. Banjo player Jem Finer contributed more to the songwriting than in the past, including the high-octane instrumental march, “Metropolis”:


The band seemed to be longing to expand their influences, and the album Peace and Love (1989) shows them experimenting with music outside the trad Irish realm. The opening song, “Gridlock,” by Finer and Ranken, uses jazz harmonies. But maybe the most interesting offering is “Cotton Fields,” a MacGowan song inspired by American bluesman Leadbelly’s song with the same title. But one is hardly just an arrangement of the other.

Here’s the Leadbelly:


And here’s the re-conception by the Pogues, who turned it into an angry rant against society and an Irish/Cajun stylistic mashup. All they keep from the original is a line of the chorus:


Hell’s Ditch (1990) was the last album with MacGowan. His drinking had grown out of control, and when he missed some tour dates the band fired him. For the 1991-92 tour, lead singing duties were again handed over to Strummer. He never did record with the Pogues, however, and following the tour Stacy became the band’s singer.

It’s interesting to hear Terry Woods’ contribution, “Rainbow Man,” which is in a markedly different style from the rest of the album. The Pogues’ uniquely frenetic energy is still there, but it’s skewed now toward a bluegrass sound and a country-rock sensibility.


Waiting for Herb (1993) is the only album not to include any traditional Irish songs. Irish trad had birthed them, so maybe it’s fitting that their creative years were numbered once they left their musical mother behind.

Again they were on the hunt for other sounds. Bassist Hunt wrote a couple of songs on the album, including “Modern World” with its Middle Eastern riffs.


Sensing that it was the end, the band chose to name their 1996 album Pogue Mahone after their original band name, in defiant memory of being forced to change their name by Stiff Records back in 1984. (The record company had worried that the BBC wouldn’t risk offending Irish-speaking listeners with such coarse language.)

Defiance notwithstanding, the band was falling apart. For one thing, Jem Finer was itching to move on to other projects. The fans must have sensed the melt-down too, since this album tanked commercially.

Still, it’s an interesting piece of history as the final Pogues album. The most charming – and surprising — thing on it is this cover of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.”


While Pogue Mahone was the last Pogues album, it was not the end of the Pogues. In 2001 they regrouped, including MacGowan, and did on-again, off-again tours for the next decade and change. It might not have been pleasant, but it was lucrative. As McGowan once put it, “We’re friends as long as we don’t tour together.” They parked the tour trucks in the garage permanently in 2014.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Aaron Roe Fulkerson.

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

Paul McGowan

Paul and Terri McGowan spent time as leaf peepers this fall in New England. Along the way, we stopped on Maine’s rugged coastline and watched as the angry sea pounded the rocky coast.

240mm lens, Sony A7

Three Hits and a Big Miss!

Three Hits and a Big Miss!

Three Hits and a Big Miss!

Tom Gibbs

The Stooges  The Stooges (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

When the Stooges burst onto the scene in 1969, they had a much-deserved reputation as an incendiary live act. Along with Ron Asheton’s fuzzed-out guitars, brother Scott’s pounding, primordial drums, and Dave Alexander’s blistering bass, their shows were also filled with the increasingly insane stage antics of Iggy Stooge (soon to be Iggy Pop). Yeah, Ig owed a lot of his swag to mimicry of an early Mick Jagger, but he was very quickly forging his own identity and solidifying that of the band. So when they convened in New York at the Hit Factory in April of the same year, it soon became obvious that producer John Cale—despite the coolness of his Velvet Underground credentials—just didn’t get them. At all. To complicate things, Iggy showed up with only five songs—which were the staples of their concert repertory: “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “ No Fun,” “1969,” “Ann,” and “We Will Fall.” Iggy has basically come clean over the years about the quality of Stooges songwriting: the songs all had about two minutes of song structure, compounded with limitless opportunities for impovisation.

When the guys from the record label made it clear that only five songs wouldn’t quite cut it, Iggy lied through his teeth and told them that they had “lots more songs.” Overnight, they wrote three additional songs, “Real Cool Time,” “Little Doll,” and “Not Right,” which were all played for the first time the following day live in the studio. Ultimately, everything worked out okay in terms of the length of the album, but Elektra chief Jac Holzman rejected Cale’s overly compressed final mix. Iggy and Holzman combined to create the mix that eventually made it onto the record; already, Iggy was beginning to exert creative control for the Stooges. The biggest complaint with Cale’s session tapes was that he took an incredibly energetic live act and made them seem almost anemic in the studio. Regardless, this album and the Stooges next two have become proto-punk landmarks, and created the template for much of what was to come when the punks revolted near the end of the seventies.

The 2-disc version of The Stooges (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) contains a new 2019 remaster of the original album’s eight tracks, imparting to them a newfound clarity that’s a stunning improvement over any previous version. It also contains the original John Cale mixes, which had also been released on the 40th anniversary disc. But there were issues with the tape speed then that marred that release even further; it’s been fixed here, but, well, they still sound just as compressed as they did back in the studio in 1969. There are plenty of outtakes and alternate takes; Stooges fans and completists will revel in the riches of this outstanding set. I did all my listening to the 24/96 MQA version on Tidal; the sound quality was exemplary—for an album as raw and crudely recorded as this one.

That said, it’s such an influential album; it definitely deserves a place on everyone’s record shelf. In my current frame of reference, this is not an album that I pull out with regularity; I have to admit that I found the official release mix a little stilted towards the left channel for my tastes. The original John Cale mixes—on the other hand—while not having the level of clarity of the Iggy/Holzman mix, offer better balance to the instruments in the soundstage. Ron Asheton’s always over-the-top guitar is firmly anchored on the left; brother Scott’s relentless drum kit is very solidly to the right, with Iggy and Dave Alexander right in the middle. In the Iggy/Holzman mix, Ron is still on the left, but Alexander is on the right, with Ig and Scott in the middle; it just seems unbalanced during playback. Aside from the heavy level of compression used by John Cale, I actually find his mix to offer a better portrayal of the band, even though Iggy and Jac Holzman definitely had different thoughts on that matter.

Despite being a mixed bag soundwise, if you’re a fan, this is the version you should be listening to. Recommended.

Rhino/Elektra Records, 2 CDs (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, Spotify)


The Rolling Stones  Let It Bleed (50th Anniversary Edition)

Let It Bleed marks a major point of demarcation in the history of the Rolling Stones. Founding member and principal mischief maker Brian Jones would only play on two of the album’s tracks and would mysteriously die a few short months before its release. New guitarist Mick Taylor would join the group during the recording, also appearing on just two tracks. Mick Taylor managed to hang around for the next five years and five remarkable albums, departing in 1974 and clearing the way for the Ron Wood era to begin. But Taylor appeared on such classics as Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, Sticky Fingers, Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock and Roll, and Exile on Main Street. Let It Bleed was also notable in that it was the last album to appear on the ABKCO label, and it was the absolute pinnacle of that tumultuous period for the Rolling Stones. Afterwards, the Stones’ later catalog titles would bounce from WEA to CBS/Sony to Virgin and back-and-forth for decades to follow.

The 2019 remastered version I checked out was the 24/192 MQA version on Tidal; I don’t have access to 24/192 MQA playback, so it was downconverted to 24/96 for all my listening. It’s also available as a CD and LP, and there’s also a massive box set Super Deluxe Edition which consists of 2 LPs; one remastered LP in stereo and one LP in mono. Also included are two hybrid SACDs; one that contains the 2019 remastered stereo SACD version, and a CD layer of the remastered stereo version. Also included is a strictly mono hybrid SACD version with a CD layer that’s also strictly mono. There’s also a casebound coffee table book, a replication of the poster that was included in the original LP release, and three limited edition prints. Plus a 7-inch vinyl single of “Honky Tonk Women” (with Mick Taylor on guitar), backed with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” In an age where the Beatles are releasing Super Deluxe Editions of their great albums, why shouldn’t the Stones follow suit, right?

The big difference is that the Beatles boxes contain a treasure trove of alternate takes, demos and never-before-heard material bound to delight completists. What—aside from the casebound book and the mono versions and the seven-inch vinyl—do you really get for your money with the Stones’ box? Nothing, really—aside from the remastered sound, courtesy of Bob Ludwig. Yes, that Bob Ludwig. But no alternate takes, no between-takes chatter, no extra material of any sort. Apparently the Stones have the final approval on anything that ABKCO produces, and they refused to authorize any extras on the Let It Bleed box set based on their still-tempestuous relationship with the label. So the sound has been remastered, but not remixed in the same way that has made the Beatles’ 50th Anniversary reissues such a complete pleasure to listen to.

So how is the sound? I have to admit that Let It Bleed is far and away my favorite Stones album, and it would take quite an improvement to better the sterling sound of the 2002 SACD reissue on ABKCO. Listening to the Tidal version, right out of the gate, I felt that Keith’s guitar and Charlie Watts’ drumkit had significantly more punch, as well as Mick’s vocals being a bit more present in the soundstage. I grabbed the 2002 SACD and popped it in for comparison, and, yep—a healthy dose of compression has been added to the new 2019 remastering. Not the compression of death that has killed a lot of recent remasters—this is a Bob Ludwig remastering job, mind you—but it became very quickly, very abundantly clear why everything seemed so much punchier than before. The 2002 SACD, on the other hand, seemed much more organic and analog in its presentation, and much more akin to listening to my original LP. I had to dial back the volume on the Tidal/MQA version significantly to match volume levels with the SACD for comparison purposes.

I’d have to pass on this; especially with the absence of any bonus material, there’s no compelling reason from a sound standpoint to own any version of this release. And unless you’re dying to have the coffee table book or the mono mixes, who needs to spend all that cash on an album that is bettered by a previous release? YMMV.

ABKCO Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds  Ghosteen

Nick Cave’s Ghosteen is a landmark of sorts for him; it marks his fortieth year in the music business—boy, that doesn’t seem possible! And it’s also is the first album he’s written and recorded in the aftermath of the death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015. Easily the most poignant album of his career, much of the record is a meditation on death, mourning, and grief, and serves as somewhat of a travelogue, mapping how Cave has processed his emotions into his current reality. Ghosteen is alternately contemplative and comforting, and sometimes downright distressing—there’s a shocking range of emotions on display here.

Ultimately, though, Cave seems to have found some level of solace in Ghosteen. There are two parts to the album; Part One consists of eight songs where Cave explores how he has learned to cope with bearing the unbearable. Part Two is constructed of two longer set pieces connected by a spoken word bridge called “Fireflies.” While parts of this album are very dark indeed, those moments are often tempered with the light of acceptance that his life is evolving—and he’d better get on with it. Most of the songs do not directly address his son; they’re more figurative and metaphorical in nature.

In the opener, “Spinning Song,” which, strangely, is a song about Elvis, he sings a hopeful chorus of “Peace will come in time for us.” You can’t help but get the sense that Cave really wants to believe this. In the song “Bright Horses,” which has a beautiful piano accompaniment, you get the feeling that perhaps he might not have reached such an elevated level of acceptance, and that his son will simply get off the approaching train at the station. And there are numerous references to Jesus and God, yet not so much that he’s embracing religion, but rather abandoning his faith and looking for anything to fill the gaping void his life has become. But in the spoken word “Fireflies”—which is one of the most beautifully written existential pieces I’ve ever heard—Cave admits that “Everything is as distant as the stars; I am here, and you are where you are.” Surely neither Sartre or Camus ever wrote more beautiful words.

Ghosteen can be something of a difficult listen; the darkness of the album’s instrumentation weaves an often very ghostly tone (no pun intended)—and though Nick Cave is expressing his own raw emotions, there’s a certain universalness here that we can all embrace. Death—and how it impacts the human condition—is something that has touched virtually all of us. Ghosteen may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for fans of Nick Cave, it’s essential listening. Recommended.

Ghosteen Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music)



Miles Davis  Rubberband

After decades with Columbia, Miles Davis shocked the jazz world and signed with Warner in 1985. He then convened at several studios in North Hollywood with co-producers Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles, where, over a period of several months, they worked on the jazz/funk/pop/soul opus Rubberband. Ever the chameleon, Miles never wanted to linger too much in the past, and wanted to play music with a current crop of young cats; music that he hoped would be embraced by the youthful masses. Miles was really taken by funk, pop, and (in its infancy) hip-hop trends of the mid-eighties, and he wanted to create an album that fused his classic trumpet stylings with the cool sounds of the day. Miles’ plans for the album would  feature a heavy emphasis on vocals, and the session tapes included work from guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr., who also happens to be Miles’ nephew. Warner Jazz mogul Tommy LiPuma was curious about the progress of the Rubberband sessions; Miles was very enthusiastic about the results, and outlined his plans to bring in vocalist Chaka Khan on several of the tunes. LiPuma was less than ecstatic with the results to that point, and the project was permanently shelved. Miles’ debut album with Warner went on to become Tutu, but a number of songs from the Rubberband sessions became staples of his live sets over the upcoming years.

The incomplete Rubberband tapes lingered in a Warner vault, essentially untouched for over thirty years, although there were whispers of a great “lost” Miles Davis album. And some of Miles’ solos from the session were bastardized from their intended context and dubbed into the posthumous release of Doo-Bop in 1992. In 2017, session drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr. met with original producers Hall and Giles, and they were able to determine the whereabouts of the original tapes. Work was begun on an EP featuring the title track and four other tunes; it was eventually released in 2018 on Record Store Day. The reception was so overwhelmingly positive they decided to continue with the original tapes for a full album release. Everyone involved with the project has been ecstatic with the results, and Rubberband is a welcome addition to Miles’ already impressive catalog. This year has welcomed several important discoveries and the subsequent release of long considered “lost” performances from the likes of Coltrane (Blue World) and Miles that have shocked the jazz world with their freshness and vitality.

Working with the original session tapes, guests artists ranging from vocalists Lalah Hathaway (daughter of Donnie Hathaway) and R&B singer Lidisi were brought in to handle the vocal tasks originally earmarked for Chaka Khan. Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles played many of the instrument fills where needed throughout the album, including bass, guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, and drum programming. But the real focus and star of this album is Miles’ trumpet runs and fills, which help make Rubberband a complete artistic triumph on every level. Highlights for me were both opener “Rubberband of Life” (featuring Lidisi on vocals) and the closer “Rubberband,” which bookend the album; “Rubberband” features a scorching guitar solo from Mike Stern. “So Emotional” is a ballad-tempo song that features a beautiful vocal from Lalah Hathaway, and “Paradise” has a funky, calypso-beat that’s darn-near irresistible. “Echoes in Time/The Wrinkle” is a nine-plus-minute set piece that echoes back a bit to Kind of Blue, before going full-on funk. All in all, a pretty amazing reconstruction of a great album.

I did all my listening via the 24/96 MQA version from Tidal. The sound quality of the performances here is surprisingly good for nearly thirty-five year-old tapes; yes, it’s obvious from the volume settings I chose that some compression has been employed—but it hasn’t been compressed to death. (Like some releases from some of the poster boys for this kind of thing, courtesy of Rick Rubin et al and the “loudness wars.”) Miles’ trumpet has a very live, in your room quality, and only occasionally is he mixed overly prominently as compared to the levels of the other players. Oh, and the bass content of this album will either shock or delight you; my twin subs—especially the REL—shook my entire house furiously. Definitely recommended.

Rhino/Warner Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, Deezer, Google Play Music, Apple Music)

Header image: Miles Davis, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Peter Buitelaar.