June 16, 2012

Playlist Week of 6-16-12

Cat Stevens - Tea For The Tillerman

* Telemann: The Complete Tafelmusik (d.2-4) (Freiburger Barockorchester) (Harmonia Mundi 4CD)
* Barraqué: Piano Sonata (Chen) (Telos CD)
* Duke Ellington & Coleman Hawkins: Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! CD)
* Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete On The Corner Sessions (d.3) (Columbia/Legacy 6CD)
* Sun Ra: Smuckers, New York, NY 4-17-77 (AUD CDR)
* McCoy Tyner: Nights Of Ballads & Blues (Impulse! CD)
* McCoy Tyner: Inception (Impulse! CD)
* Shakti With John McLaughlin: A Handful Of Beauty (Columbia LP)
* Ronnie Laws: Friends And Strangers (United Artists LP)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: Capital Center, Landover, MD 9-02-88 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-10-93 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Horizon, Rosemont, IL 3-11-93 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman (Island/Analogue Productions LP)
* David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (EMI LP/DVD)
* Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Vol.4 (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Camel: Camel (MCA/EMI CD)†
* Camel: Mirage (Deram/EMI CD)†
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. 2-45RPM LP)
* Patti Smith: Banga (Special Edition) (Columbia CD)
* Elvis Costello: Almost Blue (Columbia/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots A UFO (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Porcupine Tree: Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991-1997 (KScope 2CD)(†/‡)
* Porcupine Tree: The Sky Moves Sideways (KScope 2CD)†/(‡)
* Porcupine Tree: Stupid Dream (KScope CD/DVD)
* Porcupine Tree: Lightbulb Sun (KScope CD/DVD)†/‡
* Steven Wilson: Insurgentes (KScope CD/DVD)
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope BD)
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)†/(‡)
* YOB: Illusion Of Motion (Metal Blade CD)†/(‡)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons Of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Ray LaMontagne: Trouble (RCA/Legacy LP)



I’ve been complaining a lot about sound quality on my blog lately and it makes me feel bad in a way. I do not want to be one of those audiophile snobs who takes the all the fun out of listening to music. The truth is: some of my formative musical memories are listening to a crummy AM radio in the basement of my parents’ house—so I know full well that the power of music transcends its medium. But once exposed to good sound, whether at friends’ homes growing up or, later, in recording studios and at numerous Grateful Dead concerts (the epitome of high-quality live sound reinforcement, regardless of what you might think of the music), it became harder and harder to accept bad sound—especially in my own home where I have some measure of control.

I lived with decidedly mid-fi equipment for many years, but it was sufficient to hear the difference between a good recording and a bad one. And I fully understand there is plenty of great, important music in the canon of recorded music that just doesn’t sound that good, whether they are the primitive gramophone recordings of the early 20th century, Sun Ra’s experimental Saturn LPs, The Velvet Underground’s seminal records, or the deliberately low-fi albums by Guided By Voices and Pavement. In these exceptional cases, the sonic anomalies contribute to the listening experience—those records wouldn’t have the same impact if recorded in pristine high fidelity. But where the recording even pretends to be hi-fi, then the expectations are different. Digital distortion or heavy-handed compression/limiting can ruin an otherwise fine CD and the warble, clicks, pops and other surface noise of a shoddy (or damaged) vinyl pressing can destroy the illusion of musical reproduction, no matter how nice it might otherwise sound. Being an “audiophile” is a double-edged sword and perfection is forever out of reach. Nevertheless, I can enjoy listening to AAC rips to my iPod while driving my car or through high-quality in-ear monitors at work. Good sound is not about expensive playback equipment; it’s about what happens in your brain (and your soul) as you listen. But the source does matter.

Actually, we are living in an unprecedented era of audiophilia, driven, by all things, the archaic LP. No self-respecting act is without a vinyl release of their new album and these limited edition pressings often have superior masterings to their brickwalled CD counterparts—hipster cachet notwithstanding. Moreover, some of the major labels like Warner Bros./Rhino along with boutique companies like Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab and Music Matters are producing superlative reissues of classic albums that in most cases betters the minty-est original in every way, from pressing, packaging and, most importantly, sound quality. If you have a half-way decent turntable, we are living a second Golden Age of high fidelity and a record collector’s dream come true. It seems a bit ridiculous to me that this Industrial Age technology remains the standard for hi-fi in the 21st Century, but there you go: I was promised flying cars and jet-packs; instead I get a needle dragged through a piece of plastic, same as it was in the 1970s—only better (and more expensive). Yay.

Chad Kassem has been a long-time player in the LP reissue game, going back to the dark ages of digital when he founded the audiophile mail-order company, Acoustic Sounds, Inc. in 1986. In 1991, Kassem established Analogue Productions, a record label specializing in limited edition, high-quality vinyl reissues of classic albums, now numbering some 450 titles. But the vinyl renaissance of recent years has overburdened the few remaining pressing plants (such as RTI and Pallas), resulting in production delays and inconsistent quality control. Taking matters into his own hands, Kassem has built his own plating and pressing facility in Salina, Kansas and matter-of-factly named it Quality Record Pressings (QRP), the goal being to make “the finest records the world has ever known.” To that end, three antique presses (manufactured by SMT, Toolex Alpha and Finebilt) have been re-built and retrofitted with innovative technology such as custom-made microprocessors and ultra-precise temperature controls in order to produce the most perfect LP possible. In addition, QRP has brought aboard the legendary Gary Salstrom to head up their in-house plating department to ensure flawless plates with which to manufacture their LPs. As their website points out: “Not every pressing plant has a plating department. And only one plant—QRP—has the best. Plating can affect everything from pre-echo and high-end loss to record profile and warping. Getting it right is essential.”

The first title to come off the press is Cat Stevens’s 1970 album, Tea For The Tillerman, a long-time audiophile favorite featuring some of his most enduring songs (many of which were featured in the 1971 film, Harold & Maude). Reviews have been uniformly ecstatic since its release last summer, so even though I’m not the biggest Cat Stevens fan in the world, I decided to pick up a copy at my favorite local record store. Wow! The reviewers were right: this thing is just stunningly great in every conceivable way. The original multi-textured gatefold jacket is faithfully reproduced and, as expected, the 200-gram vinyl is superbly well-crafted: my copy is perfectly concentric, flat as a pancake and completely noise-free. The late great George Marino mastered this edition at Sterling Sound utilizing the original analog tapes (long thought lost) and the dynamics and clarity are truly astonishing, like nothing I have ever heard before on a vinyl disc. The music leaps from the grooves from a deathly black background, the quiet bits rendered with tremendously involving low-level detail and the loud parts are astonishingly clean and almost overwhelmingly powerful. It is rare that I’m blown away by the sound quality of these kinds of über-expensive audiophile records, but from the moment I set the needle down, I was riveted to my chair, utterly dumbstruck by what I was hearing. Even if you’ve heard “Wild World” a thousand times, I can guarantee you’ve never heard it sound like this!

George Marino passed away on June 4 after a long battle with lung cancer but this edition of Tea For The Tillerman will undoubtedly stand as the crowning achievement of his illustrious career. This LP is truly reference quality and I’d love to hear it played back on a state-of-the-art turntable rig—I bet it would be completely mind-blowing!  Well worth the thirty-dollar asking price and sure to be sought after by vinylphiles for years to come, making it a likely good investment to boot. If you like this record even a little bit (and have a functioning turntable), I don’t see how you can go wrong picking up the Analogue Productions edition and hearing for yourself just how good an LP can sound.


Another recent release worth mentioning is EMI’s 40th Anniversary edition of David Bowie’s 1972 “concept album," The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. Re-mastered from the analog tapes by original engineer, Ken Scott, the vinyl sounds wonderful, worlds away from the crummy Dynaflex version you’re probably used to—plus it includes an audio-only DVD containing the original mix in 24bit/96kHz high-resolution digital, a 24bit/48kHz stereo/5.1 remix by Scott, and four contemporaneous bonus tracks. This is a trend I like a lot: the best of both worlds, analog and high-res digital, all in an attractive (and reasonably priced) package. I hadn’t heard this record in many years and, listening to it again, I was struck by how provocative and modern it still sounds, precipitating glam, metal, punk and beyond while retaining the suave songwriting and hook-laden pop moves that made him a superstar. I wasn’t that impressed with the remix, which is a little too neat and clean, the edges filed down to a bland smoothness but the original mix is un-castrated and presented here in its definitive edition. Highly recommended.   


Sam said...

I really should upgrade my cartridge. In the meanwhile, here are my lists from last week:

Playlist 2012-06-18:

*Daniel Barbiero and Jimmy Ghaphery: Hermes’ Labyrinth
*Boris Bobby Jr.: 2012-04-22 (wav)
*Boris Bobby Jr.: 2012-06-12 Ghost Print Gallery, Richmond VA (wav)
*Colla Parte: 2011-11-11 “Tenebrae” (wav)
*John Coltrane: Expression
*Eric Dolphy: Iron Man
*Eric Dolphy: Conversations
*Duke Ellington: Blues in Orbit
*Duke Ellington: Ellington Indigos
*Duke Ellington: The Private Collection Vol. 5: The Suites, New York 1968 & 1970
*Stan Getz and Joano Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto
*Coleman Hawkins: Wrapped Tight
*Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra: Live at Jazz Standard
*Steve Lehman Octet: Travail, Transformation, & Flow
*Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble: 3X4 Eye
*Alexander von Schlippenbach: Globe Unity
*Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
*Sun Ra: Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 3
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-02-13 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR) disc 2
*Beach Boys: Classics Selected by Brian Wilson
*Beatles: Unsurpassed Broadcasts, 2nd ed. (CDR) Vol. 12
*Boston Spaceships: Let It Beard
*Al Bowlly: Proud of You
*Circulatory System: Circulatory System
*Earth Wind & Fire: All in All
*Earth Wind & Fire: I Am
*Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO
*Yani Martinelli: Nonna in the Garden
*Yani Martinelli: Bubble Station
*Opeth: Heritage
*Kelley Stoltz: To Dreamers
*Wings: Wild Life
*Stevie Wonder: 1979-12-18 Pasadena CA (CDR) disc 1

Reading List 2012-06-18:

*Kiberd, Declan. Ulysses and Us (started)
*Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, transl. James E. Falen (finished)
*Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, transl. Vladimir Nabokov (finished)
*Norman, Philip. John Lennon: The Life (in progress)

Headroom Mastering said...

Great playlist.. Time to dust off some vinyl ;)