Music

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

Last Sunday evening, I had a chance to do something I hardly ever get to do—devote all of my attention to listening to some music. I uncorked a Portuguese red I’ve never tried before, flicked on a single, small incandescent lamp, then unsheathed and cued up Side One of Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner.

 

The whole exercise felt a bit like a ritual, and I guess you could consider it the musical equivalent of comfort viewing—going to one of the very few things that have always made me feel grounded to reaffirm their ability to ring true no matter how much 

the world has changed around them.

 

A 1975 Bones Howe-produced two-LP set recorded live at LA’s Record Plant, Nighthawks is Waits in full hipster mode, from the period when he was using his faux Kerouac routine to disarm audiences while going up hard against the pop-music mainstream. You were far more likely to know him at the time for Rusty Warren-type retreads like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and “Pasties and a G String” as the epic “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”

 

The first cut, “Emotional Weather Report,” is an extended monologue-quasi-song with Waits resorting to every corny Vegas-comic gag to ingratiate himself, winking so hard the whole time that you can’t help but grin. “I’ve been playing nightclubs and staying out all night long, coming home late—gone for three months, come back and everything in the refrigerator turns into a science project.” “I’m so goddamned horny the crack of dawn better be careful around me.”

 

But parts of the song that had just struck me as laugh lines before—“with tornado watches issued Sunday for the areas including the western region of my mental health, 

and the northern portion of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted emotional situation—it’s cold out there”—felt strangely bittersweet, even wrenching, this time around.

 

Then, as Nighthawks slipped into “On a Foggy Night,” I had a kind of epiphany. It’s common knowledge that Waits went through one of the most radical transformations in pop-music history, but it didn’t hit me until then that the change was far more a maturation than any kind of rebranding. Once you go beneath the jokey surfaces, there’s actually an amazingly consistent through-line to his work. Songs like Nighthawks’ “Better Off Without a Wife” and 2002’s “All the World is Green” might seem to exist in completely different worlds, but just shift the emphasis a little here and there and the actual distance between them is so slight it’s barely there at all.

A lot of the stuff on Waits’ initial albums might seem gaggy and trite, but view it through the lens of everything he’s done since Swordfishtrombones and you realize how fundamentally poignant those early efforts are. They don’t have the rigor, incisive, often bitter, irony, or unflinching moral probity of his later work, but they aren’t just the throwaway ditties of some one-trick booze-addled clown.

 

Then, around the time of “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” I was graced with another seeming insight—that not just his later efforts but the whole of Waits’ work stands at the pinnacle of the American songwriting tradition. Sensing how much Nighthawks honors and feeds from everything that preceded it, in a way then-popular stadium rock never could, I realized how early on he blew past his contemporaries.

 

Most pop performers write songs, but they’re not songwriters. Never having fully immersed themselves in the tradition, instead donning and shedding styles the way they’d try on designer Ts, they not only don’t have a good grasp of the basic mechanics but lack the reverence and awe that would inspire them to match or exceed the best efforts to date. But it’s clear

in retrospect that Waits is, and always was, a master, able to pluck the most vital, fertile, and redolent elements out of the musical stream until he was eventually creating songs where every turn of phrase was a perfect evocation of a different aspect of everything that came before, pivoting seamlessly from, say, Hoagy Carmichael to the Delta blues to Kurt Weill to Big Mama Thornton to Stephen Foster to early Satchmo to Tin Pan Alley to a Salvation Army band without ever using any of it as a crutch, and making it all feel whole.

 

I’m not saying Waits stands alone above his peers and their successors. Randy Newman occupies much the same ground. Both used novelty 

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

songs early on to win over audiences, lacing them with just enough irony to let the intelligentsia know they were fashionably cynical, but both have gone far deeper than their contemporaries, showing a decidedly unfashionable vulnerability and sentimentality that actually lifts their work to a whole other level.

 

Newman, of course, is pared down, almost diffident compared to Waits’ flamboyance and radical experimentation. But each is a fully formed songsmith and not the usual mercenary faddist. And, far too honest in their work, neither would stand a chance if they were starting their careers in the far more intolerant and censorious present.

 

None of the above is meant to suggest that I drifted from listening to Nighthawks into some kind of brooding meditation. Whatever thoughts I had came unbidden, and flickered just long enough for me to jot them down here. Maybe they were just a product of my mood or a reaction to listening to early Waits against the backdrop of these strangely trivial and parlous times. Or maybe it was just the wine.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

Nevermind

In Utero

Qobuz Hi-Res 24-bit/96kHz

 

Nirvana might be one of the last bands you’d think about when the subject of audiophile recordings comes up. Yet, their two landmark albums—1991’s Nevermind and 1993’s In Utero—are admirable examples of how to record and produce rock records.

 

Nirvana was of course one of the key bands that brought grunge to a mainstream audience in the early 1990s. Nevermind featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps the single song that defines the grunge era, along with the irresistible earworm 

“Come As You Are.” In Utero was the worthy followup and featured the hits “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”

 

Want to see if your system can play loud and rock? You’ll know after playing these records, assuming you don’t blow a speaker in the process. These typhoon-intensity sonic assaults “want” to be played at volume. (Well, you really don’t have to—the recordings sound fine at neighbor-friendly levels, but if you want to hear what the band and producers Butch Vig and Steve Albini really had in mind you have to let them rip.)

 

Nevermind was produced by Vig and In Utero by Albini, two very different individuals, and yet, having listened to them back to back, I was struck by how similar the albums sound. Maybe it’s because after Albini sent In Utero in to the record company, the label thought it was too raw, and the band and another producer, Scott Litt, had to go back and make changes (Albini refused)—undoubtedly with Nevermind casting a very large shadow. That said, overall Nevermind is brighter and more open, In Utero darker and sludgier.

 

If you think grunge music equals sloppy playing, the first thing you’ll be struck by on both albums is just how tight they are. This isn’t the sound of three guys playing off the cuff—these are multi-layered, carefully crafted productions, with numerous overlaid guitars. I have far more respect for singer/guitarist/main songwriter Kurt Cobain as a musician now that I’ve revisited these records. His playing is rhythmically exact, in tune, and roaring, thanks to his use of distortion and chorus pedals. His vocals are frequently multitracked, typically with a main vocal front and center and background parts off to the sides. Dave Grohl’s drumming has tremendous impact and presence.

 

Cobain favored distorted power chords and jarring riffs and sang in a vocal-cord-ripping style alternating with more intimate singing. (In interviews, he acknowledged that Nirvana’s “loud-soft-loud” style was influenced by the Pixies, who earlier had codified this approach.) Grohl played drums with masterful technical prowess and sang background vocals and Krist Novoselic laid down a tight, in-the-pocket bass groove.

 

On a good system, the kick drum should pound and wallop 

and the snare should drive the band like a whip driving a horse. Songs like “Very Ape” (Nevermind) show that these guys were a killer band, and you should feel the rhythmic drive and physical presence of the music. (Although Nirvana was never one of my favorites—IMHO, the songwriting is uneven—tracks like this make me wish I’d seen them live.)

 

If there’s one “How to Listen” takeaway from these records, it’s that beyond what’s been mentioned already, what you should listen for are the studio effects and how they’re applied, and how well your system reveals them.

These aren’t recordings where the sounds of the vocals and instruments are set at the beginning of the sessions and then left alone. Everything’s tweaked with every track. Some things to listen for:

 

The equalization, or “EQ,” of each instrument and vocal track—the proportion of bass, midrange, and high frequencies—can be altered, and Vig and Albini use this to deliberate artistic effect. For example, the bass in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rumbly and indistinct, whereas on “In Bloom,” the higher harmonics (overtones) of the bass are clearly heard. EQ is used on the drums to make the bass drum “kick” and emphasize the sound of the beater hitting the head, and on the snare to fatten it up or make it leaner, like a snapping branch.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Cobain’s voice is sometimes goosed with some added upper midrange (though this could be the choice of mics). On “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the guitars have a piercing upper-midrange and treble. Your ears will hurt when it’s played loud. By contrast, the guitars on “Come As You Are” have a mellower top end. Both albums have powerful bass with a lot of weight, and a palpable midrange.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Compression is used not only to even out the differences in volume between loud and soft sounds, but to give instruments like drums and bass added presence. Compression is all over the drums, to give them extra punch. Listen to the tom toms carefully. That isn’t the sound of naked drums in a room—they’re compressed to make them “sit” more evenly in the mix. Once you know to listen for this, it’s obvious.

 

Both albums avoid the excessive use of reverb and delay—in fact, the albums are on the “dry” side, which serves the music well. No cavernous 1980s Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drums here. The soundspaces of Nevermind and In Utero aren’t wide and deep and beyond the edges of the speakers; they’re more like a monolithic wall of thundering and snarling sound. There’s little left-right placement of 

instruments or even a sense that you’re listening in stereo except for some occasional panning of Cobain’s guitars, mostly during solos.

 

The mixes on both albums aren’t all that transparent. You won’t be listening for little tinkly bells or Cobain breathing. On Nevermind’s “Polly,” Cobain strums an acoustic guitar. In Utero’s “Dumb” features a cello. But both instruments sound flat and low-fi. If they don’t seem fleshed out, it’s not your system, it’s the fact that those subtleties aren’t there. Well, these aren’t subtle records and I’m pretty sure the last thing on VIg’s and Albini’s minds was whether audiophiles would be able to count the snares on Grohl’s snare drum or tell whether Cobain had put new strings on. This is rock and roll, not Diana Krall!

 

And I did mention that these records ask to be played loud. I had to try this: For my final listening, I played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through our band’s PA speakers (currently residing in my basement). I blasted the song at a hellacious volume, over 102dB (I measured). Holy mother of gawd! What a glorious brain-frying racket! It sounded titanic! Certainly not audiophile-“correct,” but the freight-train decibel level blew all such cork-sniffer rationality aside.

 

I’d forgotten that rock and roll and volume not only go hand in hand, but are sometimes one and the same. Nirvana, Vig, and Albini didn’t.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a
professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your 

system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

12 Music Streams for Every Taste

It may be the worst of times right now, but in an odd way it’s the best of times for home entertainment as a multitude of fascinating new live-entertainment templates are emerging. Musicians have been performing from their bedrooms and home studios, some even figuring out ways to collaborate all while staying in their safe spaces. Many organizations are opening their archives with previously unreleased recorded performances of plays, operas, and musicals. Heck, there are even global virtual music festivals happening!

 

Here are some current faves—some upcoming, others that may be archived. I’ve tried to focus on performances that offer higher production values but do recognize that in some instances you may well see and hear performers broadcasting via their cellphones! Amazingly, the results are often a lot better than you might expect and no doubt the performances are unique.

 

In each of these recommendations, click on the subhead to jump to the event link. (For those who want to dig deeper, I have written overviews of performances from the lockdown for Audiophile Review.)

12 Music Livestreams for Every Taste
THEATER

The Show Must Go On

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical force behind Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and so many other hit Broadway shows, has a weekly program of free showings of one of his musicals. Called The Show Must Go On, each program is available for 48 hours, so you can tune in whenever you like over the weekend! I watched some of Cats and it looked quite wonderful. Judging from the quality of the trailers shown on the program’s YouTube page, I suspect most will be fairly high quality productions. There is also a full two-hour show archived from Webber’s Royal Albert Hall Celebration.

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
JAZZ

International Jazz Day

On April 30th, Herbie Hancock hosted an event bringing together the jazz music communities around the world called International Jazz Day Virtual Global Concert 2020. Literally featuring artists from across the globe, streamed live via jazzday.com, the concert includes performances by John McLaughlin, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marcus Miller, Jane Monheit, John Scofield, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Joey DeFrancesco. I have watched some of this 720p video stream and it is a wonder. Generally, the fidelity is excellent and the video quality quite remarkable, especially when you see upwards of 20 musicians jamming together on screen from their homes. Even Charlie Puth performing on his keyboard through his computer from his bedroom sounds wonderful. One of my favorite moments is South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah doing “My Favorite Things” on a kalimba (i.e., finger piano)—a wonderfully poignant performance.

 

SF Jazz Fridays At Five

San Francisco Jazz has started a new weekly subscription series called Fridays at Five, broadcasting one-hour Happy Hour concerts from their exclusive archives. The lineup looks impressive, with Friday May 8th including guitar wizard Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano from 2019. I suspect these will be professionally shot high-quality productions and, having seen several shows at the venue, I can attest to its fantastic acoustics and lighting. Other scheduled shows include Wayne Shorter Celebrations (with Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade), Chucho Valdés and Irakere 45, and Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turris. For the $5 entry fee, this seems like a great value and an excellent way to support the jazz community.

 

Jazz Foundation of America Live

Broadcast in conjunction with relix.com, this live concert is a benefit for the Jazz Foundation Musicians’ Emergency Fund. The virtual concert—called Jazz Foundation of America Livefeatures an incredible lineup, including Bettye LaVette, Sheryl Crow, Robert Cray, Elvis Costello, Milton Nascimento, Anjelique Kidjo, Stanley Jordan, and Ivan Neville performing form their homes and via archived previously recorded live concerts. The show was originally supposed to just be broadcast a second time but seems to be up on Relix’s YouTube page as one six-hour continuous program, so hopefully it will stay there for a while for all to enjoy and to continue benefitting this organization’s noble mission.

 

Tuck and Patti

This magnificent jazz duo performs regularly via Facebook through their computer, literally from their living room couch! Tuck and Patti feature Tuck’s gorgeous, rich jazz-guitar work and Patti’s remarkable vocals. Each show I have seen has been a joy, and you can contribute to their virtual tip jar as well (which you should!). Many of their performances are archived at their Facebook page. You can also reach them via their website

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
ROCK/BLUES

New York Guitar Festival

If you want some blues love, this series may be your virtual ticket. Currently focusing on the legendary Reverend Gary Davis, it includes stay-at-home/studio performances by some of the greatest blues/folk guitar pickers of our times. I first got introduced to Davis’ music via Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), who turns in a great version of “I Am the Light of This World” from his Fur Peace Ranch. The amazing duo Larkin Poe offer up a searing “Say No to the Devil” and Fantastic Negrito offers a wonderful “Candyman.”  Bill Frisell’s beautiful “Twelve Gates to the City” is ethereal and haunting, as one might expect from this artist. Much joy here, most of it streaming in 1080p quality on YouTube. Many of these artists have nice home studio setups so the sound is generally solid. The music is sublime.

 

The Rolling Stones’ Extra Licks

England’s once-newest hitmakers have announced their Extra Licks! weekly digital archive series on YouTube, which sounds quite promising. Tied in to YouTube’s #StayHome campaign, the Rolling Stones series began May 3rd with the acclaimed 2016 Latin America Ole! Tour video. Future programming will stream six concert films from throughout their career, including performances from the 1994 Voodoo Lounge Tour.

 

BBC Stay Home Live Lounge

The BBC has pulled together a big roster of artists from around the globe for its Live Lounge program. The Stay Home Live Lounge got off to a super wonderful start with some of the music industry’s biggest stars collaborating on a cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” to raise money for charities. Net profits will go towards The Who’s COVID-19-Solidarity Response Fund. On this one video are not only The Foo Fighters themselves but cameos from more than 20 other stars from around the globe. It’s a wonderful performance.

 

The Mavericks’ Raul Malo: Quarantunes Playlist

Imagine hearing 20 joyous cover tunes done by The Mavericks’ glorious singer Raul Malo from his studio-enhanced home office. Now imagine him playing most of these songs on his Mellotron emulator with all manner of fun pre-programmed rhythm beds and you can imagine it’s a special brew of recordings. I won’t be surprised if he puts these tracks out as an album. But it is really fun watching his videos, which include covers of “All of Me,” “Besame Mucho,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Solamente Una,” and my personal favorite, “Brazil.” You can find the playlists on Facebook (link above) as well as on YouTube.

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
OPERA/CLASSICAL

San Francisco Opera

The world-renowned San Francisco Opera company has announced a special series of streaming performances, including Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles, Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. With each performance, you’ll basically have all weekend to watch and no registration is necessary! 

 

Metropolitan Opera’s Nightly Streams

New York’s Metropolitan Opera company is serving up almost as much opera as you can consume, streaming a different performance every night! These programs appear to be streamed in as high quality a format as possible (probably varying dependent upon age of the source material) via The Met’s website. Included are gems like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Verdi’s Luisa Miller, as well as more contemporary, such as Nico Muhly’s Marnie. I watched some of the Prince Igor stream, and it looked and sounded quite wonderful! Seeing Joan Sutherland again performing her signature role of Lucia brought tears to my eyes. 

 

San Francisco Symphony: Music Connects

While I have not yet heard about any livestreaming full concert performances, the members of the San Francisco Symphony have not been idle during COVD-19 isolation. Via the SF Symphony’s website, I have found numerous solo and group performances that have been shared by the performers as a Music Connects stream. It’s also up on YouTube directly so you can just start the playlist of 23 performances—some are snippets but most are full performance pieces of individual compositions that will cycle through for your enjoyment in 1080p resolution. Look for the adorable moment where the xylophone player gets reprimanded by his young son for playing Bach!

 

 

Clearly, this is a moment where livestreaming is finding a powerful new purpose. I can see this continuing and growing long after the current crisis is over, especially for artists who can’t tour for health or budgetary reasons, especially as they learn how to deliver superior production values and a compelling entertainment experience. Livestreaming is a great opportunity for the arts community!

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

Across the Universe

There is no shortage of things to watch these days, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the good stuff is hiding—especially when it comes to music-related programming. There are often things that look cool but fall flat in other areas, particularly with the actual performances. Some programs sound great but have lesser production values that become obvious when viewed on a quality home theater or media room system. 

 

Here are three music-centric presentations that offer dynamic visuals, impressive—even game-changing—performances, and compelling, often immersive, surround sound experiences. (All three are available on Blu-ray and for download from Kaleidescape. Across the Universe is also widely available for streaming.)

 

 

Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project—Stunning Visuals, Magical Music

Whether you like Pat Metheny’s music or not, watching this live-in-the-studio end-of-tour video featuring his Orchestrion project, is a mesmerizing demo-worthy view. Not sure what an Orchestrion is? Well, perhaps an excerpt from my earlier review of this performance on Blu-ray will help paint a picture:

 

Have you ever been to one of those “Pizza ‘n Pipes” type restaurants? You know, one of those places where they rip apart an old-time movie theater pipe organ and then set it up in a pizza parlor, placing all the inner workings and 

accompaniment instruments (like percussion ‘n bells ‘n stuff) all around the restaurant for all to see and watch while the organist plays. It is really quite entertaining and mesmerizing if you can find one that is still open.

 

So that is effectively what we have here in a 21st 

Century manner—a computer-propelled, guitar-user-controlled orchestra all performing compositions Metheny wrote specifically for this project. The results are spectacular! 

 

I have this performance on Blu-ray and it looks terrific in 1080p, with remarkably crisp definition on all the multitude of instruments in the dynamically lit loft studio space. The lossless Dolby TrueHD surround mix (up to 7.1 channels) delivers a very immersive experience, but even in stereo the sound is rich, engaging, and almost three-dimensional.    Kaleidescape

 

 

Across the Universe—Demo-Worthy Beatles Bliss

Beatles fans tend to be divided about this film, but I have much love for it. It is one of the rare instances where Beatles music has been reinterpreted well, in a compelling new way while still respecting the underlying song.

 

All in all, Across the Universe has a great deal of entertainment depth to it. It can be viewed on its own, with a strong storyline and extremely high production values. As a musical, it works very well too, bringing new meaning/interpretation to the Beatles’ music in the context of the storyline. And if you are a Beatles fan and of ‘60s counterculture, with its iconic stars like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Jimi Hendrix, you’ll no doubt catch the references. There are all sorts of neat little Easter egg-type moments peppered throughout. (For example, all the characters are named after people mentioned in actual Beatles songs.)

 

I love how Joe Cocker plays three completely different characters during the “Come Together” scene (a bum, a hippie, and a pimp!). Be on the lookout for a re-creation/representation of Janis’s psychedelic painted Porsche on the streets of New York in

one scene. There are many references like this throughout the film.

 

Across the Universe is a rich viewing experience with an immersive soundtrack that starts out subtly and builds in intensity as the plot-line thickens. For example, listen how the room ambience changes in the opening scenes during the relatively simple early

Beatles rocker “Hold Me Tight,” which shifts perspective between parallel lives of key characters who have yet to meet. One is shot in a bright wood-floored American dance-hall auditorium while the other is in a murky, claustrophobic stone basement club in England. I’m pretty sure that latter scene was shot in the current version of Liverpool’s Cavern Club (a nightspot where the Beatles initially built up their following). It’s all the more impressive how the music stays in sync between what sounds like two different bands performing (although I suspect it is probably just the different mixes that create that aural illusion).

 

By the end of the film, scenes such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” have sometimes intensely immersive surround mixes supporting the spectacular psychedelic-dramatic visuals. These could become demo-worthy audio-visual experiences for some of you!

 

I’ll leave you with some advice pulled from one of John Lennon’s early solo singles: “Play Loud”!  This movie sounds great when you pump up the volume, so don’t hold back. If you want to read more about Across the Universe, click here and here to get to one of my earlier reviews related to it.    Amazon / Google / iTunes / Kaleidescape / Vudu / YouTube

 

 

Jimi Hendrix: Live At Woodstock—Legendary Rock History

In the annals of rock and roll, there are a handful of seminal concert performances everyone needs to experience at some point. Near the top of that list are the ones by Jimi Hendrix. 

 

This recently updated version of his appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 is particularly important because new footage materialized that fleshes out the performance, in which portions were missing. (Camera people ran out of film stock and were switching reels.) At some points, you can see angles the official cameras missed, especially closeups on Hendrix’

guitar playing. The new footage was shot unofficially by a 22-year old student from Bard College who brazenly walked up on stage with primitive video gear he had access to. He timed his ascent to the stage carefully so he would be seen as part of Hendrix’ and the filmmaking entourage, allowing him to openly set up his gear and record the performance! 

 

In this footage, segments of the performance missed 

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

by the actual film crew were captured and 30 years later were shared with the Hendrix Estate for the sake of historical preservation. So while there are inevitable technical imperfections visually—this new footage is low-res, early black & white video—to be able to effectively see the full performance for the first time is a wonderful thing indeed! All things considered, it looks remarkable, benefitting greatly from the delayed beginning of Hendrix’ set during the daytime on the final day of the festival. If he had gone on at night, the footage would not be so compelling.

 

Original engineer/producer Eddie Kramer mixed the whole concert into 5.1 surround sound so now you can enjoy a quite fabulous immersion into the feel of what it might have been like standing near the stage during Hendrix’s legendary performance. It’s not exactly “demo worthy,” but musically and historically, Hendrix at Woodstock is essential viewing and listening.

 

After this, go back and watch Hendrix’ performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967—his game-changing career breakthrough in the U.S.—and at the Berkeley Community Center (recordings that ended up on the great posthumous album Hendrix in the West).    Kaleidescape

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

As a Hall & Oates and Live from Daryl’s House band member and a multi-instrumentalist who frequently takes his solo act on tour, Eliot Lewis suddenly found himself with nowhere to perform when the world came to a hard stop in March. Like many musicians, he soon embraced livestreaming as a virtual alternative. But, unlike many musicians, he decided to offer his fans a more satisfying experience by bringing his streams as close to the level of studio recording as possible—a laudable effort that deserved a closer look.

—Michael Gaughn

How many Facebook livestreams have you done over the past couple of months?

I’ve been doing them once a week on Wednesday. so it would probably be around eight so far. A lot of people are doing them almost every day—three or four a week. I wanted to make them a little more special than that. Quality over quantity.

 

What are you doing to mix it up a little?

The cool thing about doing a livestream, and one of the reasons so many of us musicians have turned to them, is that it gives us something to focus on. Like with any live show, I work up new arrangements for songs, I’ll take requests. I write my own music. Some weeks I’ll do full backing tracks where it can have all the instrumentation around me, and then other weeks I’ll break it down to an acoustic show.

 

Also, because I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I do something where I’m playing guitar and singing, and I’m also playing drums with my feet. It’s an electronic drum kit I’ve come up with and programmed so everything can be live and spontaneous. I can 

change from one thing to the other on the drop of a dime.

 

On one of your streams, someone asked about the drums and I thought you were joking when you responded that you were playing them with your feet.

There are a few blues guys who will play steel, string, and acoustic guitar, and also play these snare 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

drums or a kick drum, and it’s very, very basic. I expanded that idea into my musical universe and came up with a way of doing it with drum samples and trigger pads. They’re electronic trigger pads but with real heads on them and real kick pedals so it feels like I’m playing a real bass drum. I’ve programmed it where I can have a kick and a snare I can change per song. If I want to do a ballad, I can have a softer sound. I’ve programmed a crash cymbal where I’m hitting the kick drum at a higher velocity.

 

If I’m not mistaken, you perform most or all of the parts on your solo albums.

Yeah, everything is done by me. The only thing I’ll add is some extra background vocals from people.

 

So you’d already had a lot of practice before you jumped into streaming.

Well, yeah, since I was 10 years old. So that’s a few years.

 

Given how many people are relying on performance online now, it seems like it’s on a lot of musicians’ shoulders to move beyond iPhones in portrait mode. Have you seen other people trying to up the quality of their performances or 

trying to innovate a little with how they’re presenting?

When people started to focus on livestreams back in March, most of them were just using an iPhone, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of them were just using the built-in microphone and, depending on the internet connection or their data streaming, the sound could be really not good. And a lot were using the selfie side of the camera, which would flip the image and make a right-handed player look like they were playing lefty. And often the lighting wasn’t great.

 

So I just thought, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it properly.” I literally started with my iPhone as well—iPhone 10, which has got a really decent camera on it. But instead of using the selfie one, I realized it would be much better to use the back-facing camera, which has higher resolution.

 

And I didn’t want to rely on the audio from the phone. I have a Yamaha mixer that’s iOS compatible, so I run everything directly and try to make it a really quality experience. I’m upgrading everything as we speak. I’ve got a GoPro Hero 8.

I also have a pretty good quality Panasonic Lumix DSLR camera with a nice Zeiss lens, which I’m incorporating for some of the stuff.

 

There’s a bit of a learning curve in going from a basic livestream to actually shooting video with proper studio lighting and that. But I had a little bit of an edge because I do a lot of photography to start with.

 

Acoustically, it looks like you’re miking pretty closely so the room isn’t having a lot of influence.

You’re absolutely right. I’m in an apartment, so I don’t have a ton of space. I’ve got full carpeting and I have some sound treatment I have up just for recording purposes, so it’s pretty dry. But I can control that with a little reverb or compression in my mixer as I’m doing it. It definitely is more studio-like than some of the stuff on livestreams where you hear a ton of the room, which can be distracting, obviously.

 

Were you doing professional recording in that space before all this happened?

Yeah. I’m such a self-sufficient musician—I write and record everything myself—so wherever I live, I end up setting up a home studio. I’ve been doing it all of my life since way back with multitrack cassette players. I don’t need a ton of room. I’m sort of a minimalist in that way. Everything I do in my apartment is record-studio quality, so that just transfers right over to the stuff I’ve been doing in the livestreams.

Was Live from Daryl’s House another form of preparation for all this?

Absolutely. I’ve been very, very fortunate because I’m the only musician, aside from Daryl, who’s been on every episode, all 90 of them. So that undoubtedly helped me with my own little livestreams and video performances, although the level is 

completely different. We started Live from Daryl’s House with a very small, very meager production and then it grew very quickly.

 

Are there any specific streams or videos you’ve seen lately you could point to as particularly good or interesting examples?

There are. Obviously, some of the artists have their pick of good production. I’ve seen stuff Keith Urban is doing, and Grace Potter, and, oh God, Allen Stone. Allen did Live from Daryl’s House and he was deep into video to begin with. So when he needed to do livestreaming, it was really properly done. I think he’s probably using OBS and multiple high-def cameras. So he’s really got it going on.

 

A good friend of mine, a great guitar player named Johnny A, is doing a morning livestream on Facebook five days a week. He’s not so much concerned with the video quality. But one of the positive things is that he’s getting a lot more people to interact with him. So sometimes it’s not all about the quality; it’s really about the content and how you present yourself and what you’re saying and who you get involved.

 

You have a new video out inspired by the current situation. Is there anything about its genesis you’d like to talk about?

I happened to be separated from somebody I love during the start of 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

this. The last physical show I did was at Madison Square Garden with Hall and Oates, and that was late February. I was out in the audience with her and friends and it was only two or three weeks later that New York just blew up. So long story short, she went back into the healthcare system so I haven’t seen her in a couple of months. That’s really where that song came about. I thought it’s something a lot of people can relate to because a lot of them have been separated from their children or from their parents in nursing homes.

Do you see all of this permanently changing how musicians are going to be thinking about performance?

I do. One of the positive aspects is that because these streams are live, musicians are going to become more conscious of upping their performance game. Since you can have tens of thousands of people getting onto your livestreams, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared and your performance is right, because you can’t go back and fix stuff. That takes us back to more of the golden era of record-making and music-making where it was all performance. People didn’t have Pro Tools and digital workstations to cut and paste and fix and auto tune things.

 

And I think that when we do get back to a more normal situation where we can play live again, a lot of us are going to incorporate what we’ve been doing now. I know I will, because I really enjoy this part of it. It’s forced me to dive even further into livestreaming and video, and I’m learning a lot through the process.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Best of Tiny Desk

The Best of Tiny Desk

Given how quickly people are burning through entertainment at home right now, we’re hoping to open up some new avenues to explore by highlighting less mainstream content that’s readily available online and will look and sound great on a luxury entertainment system. First up is Dennis Burger’s quick tour of some of the most intriguing musical performances from NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk series.

—ed. 

 

 

I guess I just assumed that NPR’s Tiny Desk would be one of the first casualties of the pandemic. After all, this long-running series—in which artists and bands cram behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and jam their hearts out—doesn’t quite work in this era of social distancing. Turns out, though, like most things these days, Tiny Desk just reinvented

itself as Tiny Desk (Home), with artists from around the world and across all musical genres shooting intimate little shows from the comforts of their own living rooms or garages. I stumbled upon this almost by accident, when the latest Tiny Desk (Home) concert, by nuevo flamenco/rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, popped up on my YouTube homepage.

 

If you’re not already hip to Tiny Desk, you’re in for a treat, since over 

the past 12 years more than 800 of these mini concerts have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. And there really is something for everyone, whether your musical tastes lean more toward roots and folk or rap and rock.

Part of the fun, though, is that since each concert typically runs less than 15 minutes, it’s easy to step outside your comfort zone and explore music you may have not been drawn to otherwise. That’s how I discovered what would end up being one of my favorite bands, Buke and Gass. (Now known as Buke & Gase to make the pronunciation a little easier to grok, I guess.) The duo’s 2011 turn at the tiny desk remains one of my favorites to this day.

If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the amazing 2016 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve seen Derek Trucks live more times than I care to count (starting when he was just a wee 16-year-old playing honkytonks here in Alabama), but I’ve never heard him or his band sound better than this. The controlled environment and lack of screaming crowds put the focus right where it belongs—on the music and the performance.

Speaking of sounding great, if there’s any single Tiny Desk concert that makes the case for listening in a proper media room or home theater instead of hunching over your phone or laptop, that would be Andrew Bird’s incredible show, also from 2016. The performance is stunning, but it’s the recording quality that really makes this one a standout. It’s punchy, dynamic, in-your-face, and incredibly detailed. I’ve seen Bird in concert nearly a dozen times now, 

and I’ve never enjoyed this level of clarity and intimacy in person.

Another fantastic-sounding fav is the 2018 performance by jazz/hip hop/R&B-fusion supergroup The Midnight Hour, formed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge (whom you may know from his work on the Luke Cage score). There’s not much to say about this one other than turn down your lights, turn up your sound system, open up your favorite bottle of wine or cognac, and get ready to groove.

I mentioned above that stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the best things about Tiny Desk. But the series is also at its best when it pushes the performers themselves out of their comfort zones. Take the 2016 performance by Blue Man Group, for example. A cramped little office space is probably the last place you’d expect to see this performance-art group playing their percussive contraptions these days, but this set is every bit as weird and wonderful as any of the 

stadium shows I’ve seen them play over the past couple decades, mostly due to the ways the group is forced to adapt to such an intimate environment.

 

Again, that’s just a tiny taste of what’s available behind the tiny desk, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series, I’ve almost certainly left off 15 or 20 of your favorites. And if you’re new to the series, consider this as more of a jumping-off point for your own exploration than a definitive best-of list.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.