Frank Doris Tag

Review: Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema

Shalom Bollywood (2017)

Many Cineluxe readers will know that Bollywood—the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, hence the term “Bollywood”)—is huge; a significant segment of Indian cinema, which produces the largest amount of feature films in the world. But how many know that Jews, and more specifically Indian Jewish women, played a key part in the origin of Indian moviemaking?

 

I certainly didn’t, until chancing upon the 2017 documentary Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, now available on Amazon Prime. (The term “Bollywood” was coined in the 1970s.) Written and directed by Danny Ben-Moshe, 

Shalom Bollywood tells the story of why Jews were so crucial to the development of Indian cinema from its origins more than 100 years ago.

 

Amid the more than one billion Hindus, over 300 million Muslims, and millions of Christians in India lived 3,000 Jews. They had first begun settling in India more than 2,000 years previously, fleeing the Roman invasion of Israel, and major migrations took place in the 1600s through 1800s. The Jews were assimilated into Indian culture, yet maintained their Jewish identity.

 

At the dawn of the Indian moviemaking era it was taboo for Hindi and Muslim women to perform in public. Men would play the female roles. But Indian Jewish women had no such cultural restrictions on performing, and as one of Shalom Bollywood’s narrators notes, “their high cheekbones gave them the popular ‘Hollywood look.’ And the low-light filming conditions of the time meant their lighter skin was an

BOLLYWOOD AT A GLANCE

A fascinating look at the tremendous impact India’s tiny Jewish population had on the creation of that country’s Bollywood film industry.

 

PICTURE

Black & white footage is often surprisingly detailed & textured, with rich gradations of blacks, whites & grays. Color footage tends to be warm yet not overly vivid, almost akin to Technicolor.

 

SOUND

Sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well.

advantage.” With artful makeup and clothing and the ability to speak Hindi, the Jewish women were easily convincing in playing the roles of a wide range of female characters.

 

Rather than presenting a comprehensive historical documentary, Shalom Bollywood focuses on the careers of four of Indian cinema’s greatest female stars from the 1940s to 1960s: Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Pramila (Esther Abraham), Miss Rose (Rose Ezra), and Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), as well as David Abraham Cheulkar, a slight, balding Jewish-Indian character actor who nonetheless possessed charismatic screen presence. It’s literally easy to see why the women rose to stardom—they were mesmerizing on screen.

 

The film is divided into three acts. The first act sticks most closely to a standard documentary format, laying out the historical beginnings of Indian cinema and how and why Jews came to have such a prominent role both in front of and behind the camera (where many Indian-Jewish men also worked). This segment charts the rise of Sulochana (“the one with the beautiful eyes”), Pramila (the first Miss India in 1947), and Miss Rose, offering a rich selection of film footage and interviews with the stars themselves as well as with husbands, relatives, friends, and business associates.

 

Sulochana, Pramila, and Miss Rose popularized the role of the vamp in Indian cinema, the temptress who attempts to win over the heart of the hero, who is often torn between the seductions of the vamp and the attentions of the heroine. The vamp became a key element of Indian movies. Director Ezra Mir (born Edwyn Meyers) introduced the first onscreen kiss to Indian 

cinema, which caused an outrage among censors, and the banning of movie kisses for decades.

 

The films leaned heavily on the “all singing, all dancing, all drama” format, which began in 1931 in India’s first talking picture, Alam Ara (Light of the World). Shalom Bollywood conveys the look of the era’s films beautifully. The black & white footage is 

surprisingly detailed and textured in many instances, with rich gradations of blacks, whites, and grays. The color footage has a warm yet not overly-vivid palette, almost akin to Technicolor in some instances. The sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well—and, oh, the music! The singing, dancing, and performances are captivating. Shalom Bollywood makes me want to see and hear more, especially Ashok Kumar, who, as a narrator remembers, “Could really belt out the notes.”

 

Act One also features a wide variety of movie stills, posters, and advertisements, historical footage, playbills, shots of old movie theaters, and other material. Director Ben-Moshe clearly dug deeply to find this material. My one quibble (which I’ve noted about other historical documentaries): At times, Shalom Bollywood resorts to animation to illustrate its points, and let’s just say it’s not Pixar-level. I get it—footage can be hard to come by (according to Wikipedia, no known print of Alam Ara exists)—but it adds an element of cheesiness to an otherwise wonderfully-done production.

 

By the 1940s, Sulochana was branching out into production with her company, Silver Films. Some were hits, others flopped, but as the film notes, she continued to smash existing taboos. By then it wasn’t all singing and dancing, as 1940s filmmakers documented India’s struggle for independence, which happened in 1947.

 

Act Two looks at what Shalom Bollywood calls “The Golden Era,” beginning in the 1950s. By now, Mumbai was a center of Indian cinema and Nadira was its newest and biggest star. The 1952 epic Aan (released as The Savage Princess in the US and UK) was the first post-independence film to achieve global status. In 1954, it was followed by another hit, Shree 420, and the decade saw the rise of David Abraham, who initially tried law school but “was bitten by the bug and had to be in front of the camera.” By this time the taboos against Indian women appearing in movies had broken down even more, and the previous generation of Jewish stars began to feel competition from a new generation. Producers now wanted more “Indian-looking” actresses, and aging stars like Sulochana and Pramila were shunted into roles as mothers and other older women.

 

Act Three shifts from the historical to the personal, charting the lives of the stars and their families as the actresses’ careers fade, a younger generation blossoms, and Indian cinema evolves into the present day. The Jewish heritages of many of them remain strong. For example, Sulochana’s family decides to move to Pakistan but she stays behind, wanting to remain in a more Jewish environment.

 

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but as can be imagined, time and circumstances pull many of the actors apart. Others stay in India and by the 2000s, many have passed away, some alone and in poverty. As Nadira observed: “When you are famous and successful, you are surrounded by loving people. But they disappear the moment you lose your stardom.” Yet there’s also a 50-years-in-the-making success story (again, I’ll back off the spoilers). The film moves from rapidly focusing on historical events and careers to slowing its pace and lingering on the stories of the people originally involved and their families and children.

 

Although the Jewish influence on Indian cinema is part of its heritage, Bollywood is a far different industry today, as film editor Rachel Reuben, granddaughter of Miss Rose points out: “When I was turning 30, it hit me. It does not matter if you’re woman or man, white or black, Hindu, Muslim, anything. It doesn’t matter. Here was a force of people and they were all coming together to do one thing. And I found that very, very powerful.”

 

Shalom Bollywood is an illuminating, well-researched, heartfelt, and at times just-plain-delightful movie that deserves more attention. Highly recommended.

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.

Review: Zappa

Zappa (2020)

On November 27, Magnolia Pictures will release Zappa, a documentary about the life of Frank Zappa (1940–1993), one of the few rock musicians to deserve the appellation of “genius.” (Need evidence? Listen to “Peaches En Regalia” or “The Black Page.”) Though rooted in R&B and doo-wop, the influence of Edgard Varèse and other composers. and the anything-goes experimental ethos of the ’60s, singer/composer/guitarist/conductor/satirist/political activist Zappa’s music is unmistakably unique, as is his idiosyncratic and inimitable guitar playing.

 

Frank Zappa was, as the movie points out, far more complicated than the typical categorization of him as a brilliant and demanding musical tyrant who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who delighted in skewering any number of aspects of American culture. Though all of this is true, Zappa was much more nuanced and multifaceted, and this two-hour-plus documentary 

does an admirable job of bringing Frank Zappa, the man, to light. In the movie, Zappa says, contrary to his portrayal as a curmudgeon, “If you could get a laugh out of something, that was good. And if you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good.”

 

As director/producer Alex Winter stated, “I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual.” (In addition to Zappa’s music, the documentary features a score by composer/producer John Frizzell.)

 

Zappa fans will be thrilled by this movie, which will be available on most of the major streaming services. I can state this with complete confidence since I am a fan, having seen Zappa and/or the Mothers of Invention in concert about 25 times back in the day and having immersed myself in his work for most of my life. (Zappa was a workaholic 

ZAPPA AT A GLANCE

Alex Winter’s documentary on the life of the iconoclastic musician offers a rounded portrait by focusing mainly on interviews and biographical material and going light on performance footage.

 

PICTURE     

Video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material.

 

SOUND     

The audio is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

and released 62 albums during his life; 53 posthumous albums have been issued.) His wife Gail and son/producer Ahmet granted Winter, producer Glen Zipper, and the creative team access to Zappa’s vast vault, which contains hundreds of audio and video tapes and film reels, much of them unreleased. The inclusion of this archival material (wait until you see the scenes that show it) gives Zappa a depth, richness, and authority that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The home movies of Zappa’s childhood and teen years alone are worth the price of admission.

 

Zappa features an abundance of interviews with Frank Zappa, along with Gail Zappa and other key figures in his life, including former band members Ruth Underwood (whose mallet percussion playing is a key element of much of Zappa’s work), “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Ray White, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and Scott Thunes. (When an interviewer asks Zappa, “You were always a renegade against the music business. Why?” Zappa replies, “Because most of what the music business does is not music.”)

 

The film progresses in chronological order, beginning with Zappa’s early childhood (and a fascination with chemistry, explosives, and gas masks, influenced by his father Francis’s occupation as a chemist and mathematician at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland). Zappa had health problems as a child, which prompted the family to move to California in 1952. California would permeate his musical sensibility throughout his life (and yield his biggest hit, “Valley Girl,” featuring daughter Moon on vocals).

 

Zappa began composing at an early age, and in the early 1960s was able to purchase a recording studio, Studio Z, where he began his lifelong habit of working constantly on his music. A 1965 incident at Studio Z shaped his distrust of authority. In what turned out to be a sting, he was asked to produce an “erotic” audio tape, for which he was arrested, charged with conspiracy to produce pornography, and briefly put in jail. Zappa covers this in fascinating detail, and the film continues this 

Zappa (2020)

level of thoroughness throughout, from the early days of the Mothers of Invention to Zappa’s prolific solo career and his last concert conducting The Yellow Shark with the Orchestra Modern in 1992.

 

The documentary focuses more on historical events and interviews with Frank and Gail Zappa and others than it does on live concert material. Although there’s plenty of musical content—how could there not be?—this is not a concert film, 

and the movie doesn’t include an abundance of Zappa songs. (If you want those, there are plenty of live concert Blu-ray and DVD discs out there.) Rest assured though, the musical brilliance, exactitude, and sheer creative power of Zappa’s music permeates the film, and the footage of Zappa, various incarnations of the Mothers of Invention, and Zappa’s rehearsing and performances of later orchestral work provides a riveting look at what it was like to be there.

 

In particular, the material shot at the landmark Garrick Theater performances in New York in 1967 reveal how Zappa and the Mothers came to realize the importance and impact of performing rather than merely playing. (Zappa commented, “If we hadn’t left Los Angeles, we would have just evaporated after the first album.”) Perhaps this fueled Zappa’s later pioneering work with projects like the 1971 and 1977 musical films 200 Motels and Baby Snakes. As an artist himself (he had a brief early career as a greeting-card illustrator), Zappa was well aware of the importance and impact of visuals, as evidenced by his longtime affiliations with album-cover artist Cal Schenkel and animator Bruce Bickford. (It took 13 months of negotiations with the Beatles to ensure there would be no legal trouble from Schenkel’s parody re-creation of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover in the inner sleeve of the Mothers’ album We’re Only in It for the Money.)

 

The video quality ranges from rough to clear and direct, a reflection of the quality of the source material. After all, excepting some of the interviews, the footage was shot from the 1960s through the 1990s, before the advent of digital filmmaking and HDTV. I’m glad the documentary’s creators didn’t go overboard with enhancing or “improving” the look of the film, which in my opinion would have been intrusive and would have detracted from the historical look and feel. And the movie would have suffered without the inclusion of the roughly-shot home movies and some of the concert material. The sound quality is excellent; the dialogue is distinct and the music is full-bodied, with a good tonal balance, detail, and depth.

 

Unlike many music-related documentaries, Zappa doesn’t rush through the later period of Zappa’s life. It’s well-paced, covering everything from his adoption of the Synclavier, an early (and extremely expensive) digital synthesizer; his efforts against musical censorship, including his testifying before Congress in 1985 against the efforts of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC); his importance to Czechoslovakia (he was an artistic hero to the country and in 1990 was designated Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism)—and his illness and the events leading up to his death from prostate cancer.

 

In fact, a significant portion of Zappa is devoted to his diagnosis and losing battle with the disease. Zappa faces his illness with typical candor and humor, and  by plunging with even greater commitment to his work, even as it takes its physical toll. In one scene where he’s rehearsing with the Ensemble Modern, the previously unflappable Zappa struggles to maintain his energy level and concentration—and it’s heartbreaking.

 

As the film was concluding, I became more and more aware of my one major criticism and dissatisfaction—there wasn’t nearly enough of Zappa playing his guitar. This was an egregious blind spot, since Zappa was one of the most brilliant and unfairly underrated guitar players of all time.

 

But I think Alex Winter may have done this deliberately.

 

In the closing credits, Zappa plays a version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” For the most part, the song is a long guitar solo, originally heard on the album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III. The song serves as main character Joe’s farewell to his musical career, and it’s one of the most moving pieces of music Zappa, or anyone, has ever produced.

 

As the closing piece to Zappa, as the guitar playing in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” goes on and on, every note is a reminder of the impact of Zappa’s life, every phrase getting emotionally deeper and deeper in complete defiance of the idea that he was an uncaring and aloof person. By holding back on any extended Zappa guitar soloing until the end, the film magnifies the impact of his music and life, to the point where feeling his loss is simply devastating.

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: Roy Orbison

How to Listen: Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison had one of the most magnificent and distinctive voices of all time. It’s been called “operatic” so many times as to become the go-to cliché when describing it, but it’s true. He could hit stratospheric high notes or sing in a near-whisper. I saw him perform live more than 10 times, and his voice could vibrate you. More importantly, no one’s singing had as much emotional impact. Just listen to magnificent classics like “Crying,” “It’s Over,” and “Running Scared.” If you’re not moved, you’re dead.

 

The good news: Thankfully, Roy Orbison’s early albums on the Monument label are wonderfully recorded in stereo, with his voice captured in all its glory by the masterful Bill Porter, who sadly passed away in 2010. (Orbison recorded a number of 

sides for Sun Records previously, but these were before his first hit, “Only the Lonely,” on Monument.)

 

Porter worked out of RCA Studios in 1960s Nashville and as such was one of the architects of “The Nashville Sound.” In addition to Orbison, Porter recorded Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, the Everly Brothers, and many others, including Elvis, for whom he also mixed live sound. He was exacting and expert enough to install room treatment in the RCA recording studio upon his hiring when he thought the acoustics weren’t good enough, and to create new vocal recording techniques. (I was fortunate to have met him a number of times, and he was also one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and generous to share his knowledge.) Later, he also recorded at Monument Studios, where “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “It’s Over” were produced.

 

Orbison released four albums in his classic Monument period: Lonely and Blue (1961), Crying (1962), In Dreams (1963) and Orbisongs (1965), which contained his last big hit, the titanic “Oh, Pretty Woman.” There are also a few original Monument compilation albums: Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1962), More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1964), The Very Best of Roy Orbison (1966), and The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (1972, 2-LP).

 

After that he went to MGM and never achieved his past chart glories—nor his Monumental sound.

 

The sound created by Porter, producer Fred Foster, and engineer Tommy Strong is breathtaking—full-bodied, lush, enveloping, and detailed but not in any hyped-up “audiophile” manner. It’s simply some of the best recorded sound you’ll ever hear, with a perfect balance of Orbison’s and the background singers’ vocals and instruments along with the room sound and some added reverb. This is all the more impressive considering most (or maybe all—I haven’t been able to determine this definitively) of these recordings were done “live” in the studio with all the musicians and singers performing together. The dynamic contrasts are also among the widest ever captured during the era—“Running Scared” was recorded with an astounding 25dB dynamic range.

 

Not that the sound is perfect. On the first Monument recordings, RCA only had the budget to install studio reverb on one of the two stereo channels, but Porter used it so artfully that you’d never know without listening carefully, and even good stereo systems may not resolve this.

 

HOWEVER: There are so many re-issues and remasterings of Roy Orbison’s material on vinyl, CD and streaming/ download that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them. And the remasterings vary significantly in quality. Some of the worst-sounding re-issues, like the shamefully flat, 

opaque, and bass-deficient 2013 The Monument Album Collection are available in 24-bit/96kHz Hi-Res Audio.

 

Which hammers home an even more important point: Just because an album is offered in high-resolution audio doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to sound better.

 

I know I’m going to sound like a vinyl snob here, but I’ve heard nothing that comes close to the sound of the original vinyl pressings and certain re-issues, like the out-of-print DCC Compact Classics LP remastering of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, which ranks among my personal all-time greatest sounding Orbison discs. (And not all vinyl pressings sound the same—check the postscript from my friend and colleague Michael Fremer of Analog Planet and Stereophile.) The first three albums, on Qobuz in 24/96 Hi-Res Audio, lose some depth and sparkle, though they’re pretty darn good. (Orbisongs isn’t available on Qobuz.)

 

As a result, all the following comments are made with the assumption that you are listening using good source material.

 

A quick test to see if your system is any good: It may be hard to believe but on the earlier songs, Porter felt Orbison’s voice needed some strengthening, so he added a “slap-back” tape delay to beef it up. An example: On “Only the Lonely,” towards the end of the song where Orbison sings, “but that’s the chance/you’ve gotta take,” on the “k” sound of “take,” you should hear a distinct, quick echo. It’s faint but if you don’t hear this, either your system can’t resolve it or you’re listening to a lousy remastering. You can also hear this slap-back effect on “Blue Angel” and other songs.

How to Listen: Roy Orbison

The Porter sound gives you a wide and deep soundspace, though you will hear some hard left and right panning, as on “In Dreams” where the electric bass and rhythm guitars are in the left channel and the strings and chorus in the right. It’s a big sound. The strings on all the Monument material should have extended highs but never be steely. Orbison’s voice should always be pure, present, and rich, with no mistracking or stridency whatsoever, ever. Since this material was recorded live in the studio, the balances have a natural “feel” to them—you can really hear that everyone’s playing together.

 

“Crying” has one of the most demanding tests for system resolution I know. At the beginning, there’s an acoustic guitar, some softly-struck tom toms—and a ride cymbal with rivets in it. On a good system, you should be able to get a palpable sense of the rivets in the cymbal “sizzling,” and on a great one, feel like you’re hearing the individual rivets. Sadly, on some remasterings, even including the Qobuz hi-res 24/96 version, you’ll be lucky to hear this.

 

On “Dream Baby,” the sax should have body and weight, sounding closer to someone playing a real sax than a recorded facsimile thereof. In “It’s Over,” listen for the “rush” of the strings in the left channel as they go in and out—it’s a subtle but thrilling effect. That song, along with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” was recorded in a different studio (Monument) than the others (RCA) and you can plainly hear this in the drier, less reverb-washed sound. On “Oh Pretty Woman,” the drums have a great natural-sounding presence and tone, especially the snare, which irresistibly drives this beyond-great song. And listen for the

Postscript: Roy Orbison on Vinyl

I corresponded with analog expert Michael Fremer to get his impressions on various Monument pressings. He responded:

 

The original LP of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison is not great. The DCC Compact Classics reissue of that album is good. Then there was the Mobile Fidelity reissue. But I’m not sure if any of those are as good as the original Monument mastering of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits and More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits—but, only one original mastering of each of those is really good and there are three different masterings!

 

I have multiple copies of the original Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP 18000). They have the early laminated covers with the yellow ‘flag” on top. There are two versions, both with the same green/yellow label, but one says “Hendersonville, Tennessee” at the bottom and one says “Monument Record Corp, Made in USA.” That one sounds like nothing compared to the “Hendersonville” one! [I have other copies with different nomenclature. Guess Fremer and I are going to have to have a listening party. —FD]

 

More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP19024) has “Hendersonville” on the label as well and sounds great! But there are also later copies that were mastered by Columbia Records with the “Columbia” stamp and those suck. STAY AWAY, even though the jacket is the older Monument one and looks similar, but it’s not laminated and doesn’t have the “flag” logo.

multiple electric and acoustic guitars, including a very subtle acoustic rhythm guitar that’s snuck in there.

 

Roy Orbison left Monument in 1964 and recorded many subsequent albums on MGM. As noted, he never had another hit while on MGM, or came close to the Monument sound. Or did he?

 

Original MGM LPs are seriously lacking in dynamics, transparency, and depth. However, in 2015, Universal Music/Roy’s Boys released Roy Orbison: The MGM Years, and it’s an absolutely superb remastering of every single album Orbison ever cut for the label. Where the original LPs range from mediocre to decent, the Qobuz hi-res versions are stunning—clear and detailed, with excellent depth and tonality. The comparison between the original vinyl and the new versions (available in various formats) is actually kind of shocking. Now this is an example of remastering done right!

 

The music ranges from some choice almost-hit cuts like “Crawling Back,” “Breaking Up Is Breaking My Heart” 

and “Cry Softly, Lonely One,” to satisfying country material such as “You Fool You” and a cover of Don Gibson’s “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time,” to just plain awful, like “Twinkle Toes” and pretty much the entire The Fastest Guitar Alive soundtrack. Still, there are a number of gems to be found.

 

After the MGM years, Roy’s popularity declined, until, as most of us probably know, his rediscovery and career resurrection in the mid-1980s. This is exemplified on the 1988 Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night DVD, now available remastered on Blu-ray, CD, and streamingHe released a number of post-MGM albums, although personally, I don’t find any of them sonically exceptional with the exception of one song, “Love s a Cold Wind” from 1979’s Laminar Flow (Asylum Records). This is late 1970s multitrack recording at its finest, a beautiful song beautifully recorded. His 1989 comeback album, Mystery Girl (Virgin), has (mostly) excellent songs served by good sound, with clarity and a deep soundspace, but the production is too “squared off” for my taste, with everything sounding like it’s locked to a grid. Sadly, after a life of personal tragedies and health problems, Roy left us all too soon in 1988 at the age of 52.

 

I am surprised that Roy Orbison’s life and legacy have not been honored with a definitive high-resolution remastering of the classic Monument catalog. Perhaps it will come.

—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.

Review: Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

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.

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.

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Like so many of us, when using Netflix or some other streaming service I tend to browse to find something to watch rather than zeroing in on a particular show. Since my tastes run to music, I usually seek out music-related documentaries and concert films. So I somewhat semi-randomly stumbled upon this episode of a Netflix series called Once in a Lifetime Sessions, a documentary series featuring musicians talking about their careers and performing live in concert and in the 

recording studio—including a live-to-vinyl session! If you’re looking for a “history of the band”-type documentary, this isn’t it—but it is an insightful look into Nile Rodgers’ career, life, and flat-out incredible musical chops.

 

Rodgers is the co-founder of Chic (along with bassist extraordinaire Bernard Edwards), a band that burst upon the disco and pop music scene in 1972 with hits like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and their signature, oft-sampled mega-smash “Good Times.” Rodgers is also an extremely successful producer—a small sample of songs he’s been behind the board for include David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, and a little thing you might have heard recently—Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

 

He is also known as one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time, with a distinctive funky propulsive style that, while 

NILE RODGERS AT A GLANCE

The Chic co-founder, hitmaker, and legendary rhythm guitarist dissects his most famous tracks, talks about his life, and stages a super-tight club performance with his bandmates. 

 

PICTURE     

Attractive and direct documentary-style visuals mercifully free of gimmicks.

 

SOUND

Clean, rich sound, with plenty of bass and with each instrument clearly heard—but in a mix so lacking in stereo spread it borders on mono.

deceptively simple-sounding, no one else can quite duplicate. Think of that opening riff to “Good Times.” You’re probably hearing that unstoppable guitar groove in your head right now, along with Edwards’ iconic bass line, maybe the greatest electric bass riff ever.

 

Naturally I wanted to know—how did he do it? The documentary answers that question and a whole lot more, featuring plenty of interview footage at Angel Studios, London, where Rodgers tells exactly how he did it. An engineer pulls up individual tracks from the master tapes so you can hear each musician’s parts while Rodgers explains the creative process of how and why the players came up with them. For a musician like me, fascinating, and even if you can’t play a note you’ll learn a lot about the process.

 

Rodgers goes into rich detail about how he and others wrote the songs. Just one of many quotes: “As musicians, we want our voices to be heard, right? That means we want hit records . . . We knew that we had to come up with our own formula for making hits, and we knew that the chorus somehow was what people always wanted to get to . . . So we thought, well, what if we just started with the chorus? That way we give people the dessert first!”

 

He doesn’t just talk about the song-creation process, though. The interviewer draws plenty of life experience from Rodgers, whose parents were drug-dependent. As a result, the family moved a lot and he was the only black kid in a lot of the schools he wound up in. “I didn’t fit in and I was bullied a lot.” Rodgers is unblinkingly candid about his bouts with alcohol and drug

use and falling into the vortex of the 1970s and 1980s partying lifestyle. He thought he was young and invincible and could sustain that level of excess (it worked, for a while), but after it started to affect his playing, he just stopped cold and has been clean ever since.

 

But, for me, the highlight of Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

is the live performance footage. Rodgers and his musicians and singers are incredibly tight. I mean, unbelievably tight. I mean, ridiculously superhumanly astoundingly tight. Watching them is a master class in how to play together, how to lock in as musicians, how to groove. As a musician, I can tell you it’s tough to just play through a song without hitting a “clam” (wrong note), let alone play with any kind of feel and swing and togetherness.

 

In this respect, watching Chic play together is in the true sense awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling. In both the concert footage (actually a club somewhere in the UK) and the in-studio performances, these guys and gals are killing it. Nailing it. Destroying it! Every musician is remarkable, and singer Kim Davis-Jones is hair-raisingly good, just an absolute complete knockout. I don’t care if your thing is folk, rock, hip-hop, whatever—if you’re a musician, consider this required viewing.

 

The sound quality is extremely good—clean, rich, and with plenty of that all-important bass and kick drum, and every instrument can be clearly heard. Yet the sound is somewhat mono-ish, lacking in stereo spread. Although I’m usually a sonic purist, I tried various modes on my old but great-sounding Harman Kardon A/V receiver and found the music most enjoyable while listening in surround, particularly Harman Kardon’s Logic 7 Music mode.

 

The visuals are fine—pretty much straightforward. I mean, how much “production” can you do with interview filming that wouldn’t ultimately be distracting? And the concert footage is refreshingly direct, alternating between shots of the band and the individual players with a lack of distraction and gratuitous effects. (We’ve all seen way too much of that sort of thing.)

 

Rodgers concludes the documentary by talking about his “insane” work ethic, something he’s never let go of. For him, hard work and life are one and the same. The 67-year-old Rodgers states, “I always say that I have 10 good years left. I’ve been saying that since I was 20!” Amen, brother.

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.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

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.

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

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.

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.