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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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Dr. Sardonicus Does the Music!
by Rick "Dr. Sardonicus" Gardner

Foreword

No... this is not some misguided attempt at a Guinness World Record for the most music reviews from a single reviewer in a single issue of an audio magazine. As I have become increasingly involved with Positive Feedback over the years, I have also become (of necessity) more involved in the world of fine audio.

In truth, this increased involvement has been somewhat of a struggle for me. For a very long time I existed as a solitary audiophile. When I was given the opportunity to join the audiophile community I jumped in with both feet... and I have been educated. In the beginning I generalized from my highly pleasant experiences with PF and thought that "high end audio" was all about beauty, nourishing the soul and sharing this most basic of human experiences, music.

To a distressing degree I was naïve in my assumptions. The unrelenting conflict, narrow-mindedness, gossiping and general rancor that is all too evident in audio these days threatened to diminish the joy with which I pursue this avocation. But, as I have done so many times in my life when soul-sick, I returned to the why of it all... and focused on the music. Along with what my ex-wife described as a "slightly" compulsive nature, these reviews are record of the medication I have been taking to feel better... and as always, music saves my soul.

Super Audio Compact Disc Reviews

I think even the most casual Positive Feedback Online reader can discern my position on the superior sonics of SACD and the operational excellence of the Sony SCD-1 machine in my listening room. For a long time I was concerned that we would piss away our best chance at a truly high-resolution medium…I wasn’t sure that the format would survive the histrionics and hassles that such adoptions generate. Early SACD adopters (people like Ye Olde Editor, Stu McCreary, Jennifer Crock, Mike Pappas, Greg Maltz, Brian Moura, Kelly Tang and I) were all too often having to purchase whatever music was available, regardless of taste or preference. I guess in some ways this is an eloquent comment on SACD sonics. People have invested regardless of the flow of new titles, not because of them. The paucity of compelling new titles has been especially troublesome in the pop and rock genres. This deficit has been even more tragic given what SACD can do with this type of music.

However, things seem to be improving in an encouraging way these days. With the Universal Music Group and Verve Music aboard the "SACD Express," the advent of more REAL MUSIC on SACD (witness July’s slated release date for the first of a MAJOR BATCH of SACDs from the ROLLING STONES!!...as in, "I can FINALLY get some ‘SATISFACTION’!), and the gathering momentum for DSD Surround (lots more on that subject in future writing here on Positive Feedback Online), it looks like critical mass for DSD and SACD has developed. Finally! (It’s about time…)

Enough of that; now for some SACD reviews…

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Paul Dukas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Telarc – CD – 80515-SA

This recording may be the single most compelling argument for SACD currently extant. Native DSD (no messing about with analog or PCM masters). This is wonderful music, exquisitely performed and recorded. This disc is what we have been waiting for. More than any other SACD disc in my collection, it highlights the capabilities of DSD and the immutable fact that DSD does NOT sound like analogue any more than it sounds like PCM digital... it sounds like what it is... the closest thing we have to the master tape.

How do I know this? See, we get into these silly discussions about controlled listening tests to ferret out the subtle differences between analog, digital and DSD... as if we were trying to discern fleetingly small gradations of differences. This disc should put this question to rest for most people. From the opening notes of Fanfare to La Péri to the heart stopping, instantaneous pp to fff of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and yes, I can’t shake the image of Mickey with those damned brooms either), the listener is immediately and continuously aware of the differences among analogue, PCM and DSD. Perhaps auditory memory is not sufficient for a number of critical listening tasks, but it is sufficient here. Putting aside analytical discussions of specific elements of the listening experience there is a rightness here... a closeness to the sound of real instruments in a real space that is incomparable.

I would suggest that if you are contemplating SACD and you want a good test, do this... along with this recording, get a copy of the superb, Water Lily SACD (WLA-WS-66) of Sawallish’s Natures Realm (dual layer). This is a NEW tube-based, full analogue recording of a major orchestra. These two discs will give you the ability to compare the standard CD layers of both tubed analogue and DSD, as well as the SACD layers. I won’t comment on what I hear, just invite you to do your own comparisons. Highest recommendation!

 

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Manfredo Fest, Just Jobim
DMP – SACD-05

Here we have one of my nominations for best sound in new release SACD’s. If you are an aficionado of Brazilian music you already know the late Sr. Fest. If you are not... hie thee to a music store and correct your inadequacies. A bossa nova GOD, Fest is not as well known outside Brazil as he should be. The son of a classically trained German immigrant pianist father, Fest learned to read music in Braille and studied classical piano for a time before moving to jazz. He immigrated to the US in 1967 where he lived until his death in 1999. This DMP disc is simply astounding. Taking the audiophile approach (what can I add to what has already been written about the music of Jobim, anyway?), this disc has perhaps the best rendering of piano of any digital recording I have ever heard. The harmonic complexity presented here is simply breathtaking. Huge, deep soundstage... luscious shimmer and air. Great music, perfectly played.

This is what being an audiophile is all about!

 

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Joe Satriani, Engines of Creation
Sony/Epic ES-67860

As you can probably tell, I listen more to rock, pop and blues than I do classical and jazz, and it PISSES me off we are not getting better offerings from these quarters on SACD. But when we do... oh mama! The opening cut "Devil’s Slide" almost made me swallow my tongue when I first heard it at David’s house, with the Linn Klimax’s doing almost that through the superb Nova Rendition IIs.

I want to drag every metal-head musician I can lay my hands on over to my room to hear this disc... to hear what studio-produced rock can REALLY sound like. This disc will slam your system to the stops and will have all but the most robust speakers and amps crying for their mamas! SETs need not apply here! Listening to the disc from my nearby office, the coffee in my cup was trembling like the water pools in Jurassic Park! My now-gone (and unlamented!) ex-wife sat with her now-gone mouth agape on first listening, muttering "Oh... my... God!" Satrianni is a technical guitar monster. The disc is dangerously recorded. Exciting stuff!

 

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The Florestan Trio, Piano Trios – Debussy, Fauré and Ravel
Hyperion SACD – A67114

David and I were both delighted to see Hyperion join the SACD movement—and what a debut it is. Arguably one of the most accomplished trios extant, Florestan gives the venerated Suk Trio a run for their money on this disc. The Florestan Trio’s playing is perhaps most defined by a sense of delicacy. Brighter sections from these three works {Debussy’s Piano Trio in D minor (op.120) Fauré, Piano Trio in G minor, and Ravel’s Piano Trio} fail to break completely free from their ever so civilized restraint but are luscious, nonetheless. Simply superb!

 

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Jay McShann, What a Wonderful World
Grove Note – GRV1005-3

This, the second of the Groove Note dual-layer SACD’s to find its way into my hands, is simply wonderful. An analog recording (originally recorded to the Studer A-80 2-track at 30 IPS and mastered by Bernie Grundman to DSD), sonics are stellar, warm... lively and immediate. The venerable Kansas City piano elder statesman, Mr. McShann is well into his eighth decade of life (he reputedly gave Charlie Parker his first professional opportunity), and a fixture of jazz music since the early 1930’s. McShann is joined in this fresh as a daisy, blues-driven effort by Gerald Spait on bass, Todd Strait on drums, Ahmad Alaadeen on tenor sax, and Sonny Kenner on guitar. Particularly toothsome are Jay’s sophisticated and sweetly fragile vocals, so purely right for this music which includes cuts like, "Cherry Red," "Hot Biscuits" and "Blue Monday." If Groove Note keeps this level of contributions up they will surely achieve preeminence as a source for the finest SACD has to offer.

 

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Terry Evans, Puttin’ It Down
Audioquest AQ-SACD1038

Here is a fascinating opportunity to directly compare analog-mastered material in PCM and DSD reissues. For some years I have enjoyed this offering by Mr. Evans on the JVC-XRCD re-issue. I have long held that the XRCD’s represent the best PCM has to offer. Produced by Joe Harley, this live-to-2-track (except for minimal overdubbing on a couple of tracks) was originally recorded by Mike Ross on a modified ATR-124 2-track running at 30 IPS at OceanWay studios in 1995. The SACD re-issue was done by Bernie Grundman, using the Ed Meitner DSD converters. So we start with great music, recorded beautifully to 2-track analogue tape. Then we evoke the JVC PCM wizardry on one side...  and Mr. Grundman with his Meitner powered DSD equipment on the other side. And... drum roll... the results? First, props to JVC. The XRCD version of this recording is truly wonderful, with deep, meaty bass and smooth as silk sonics. The SACD... well, sorry... there is simply no substitute for the additional resolution and simplicity of DSD. The primary differences are what one might logically expect, greater ease, resolution and a three-dimensionality that is most evident with Mr. Evan’s voice and brass instrumentation. Interestingly, the bass on the SACD is not as prominent but more natural and differentiated than that on the XRCD. Both discs are stellar. Well, I’ve said it before, but here I go again... I would love to see the folks at JVC move to DSD and start working their way back through their impressive catalog of re-releases. The world would be a happier and better place for it.

 

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Pierre Boulez, Boulez Conducts Ravel
Sony – SS-89121

Although I have never been able to reconcile the images of a nubile Bo Derek "10" with that short, stumpy English fellow, Ravel’s "Bolero" has almost become synonymous with carefully timed sex (surely you HAVE tried doing it to this music, at least once, have you not?). Everyone loves Ravel, even people who couldn’t tell you who he is. They know the music. This is one of those great Sony archival SACDs. Originally recorded over a period of time from 1969 to 1975, the renown Boulez gives great readings of "Bolero," "Rapsodie Espagnole," and the haunting Daphnis Et Chloé, working with (in order) the New York, Cleveland and again the New York Philharmonic Orchestras. Sonics are great, with the different venues clearly audible. Truly wonderful. A must have.

 

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George Frederick Handel, Water Music – Music for the Royal Fireworks, Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic
Sony SS-8912

One of the most recognizable pieces of music in western consciousness, it had been ages since I listened to this old chestnut. Recorded between 1973 and 1974 at the Columbia New York studios, these two nearly inseparable works are beautifully executed by Mr. Boulez and the New York Philharmonic. Sonics are little up-front in perspective, but without glare or hardness. Makes me fantasize about someone storming the castle and breaking those wonderful Mercury Living Presence recordings free and transferring them to DSD as fast as possible. Oddly, I often find myself enjoying SACD the most with heirloom classical recordings, with a few exceptions. Highly recommended. You know the music, you know the director, you know the orchestra, now hear them on SACD.

 

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Wynton Marsalis, The London Concert
Sony – SS-57497

My first instrument (after the Flutophone®, of course) was the trumpet and one of my life’s great possessions was an Olds Opera I had for years and years. Sadly, it was a better instrument than I was a musician, and besides... eventually I discovered rock, women and herb and moved on. But I will always remember hooting my way to a second place recital award doing "Wonderland by Night." Well, brass lovers, this is the SACD for you. The London Concert shows Mr. Marsallis at his classical best, giving us Handel, Mozart, Fasch and Hummel with a deft hand (or is that lip?). The Hayden (Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-Flat Major) is particularly tasty. This is Sony SACD at its best, straight ahead classical music from analog masters. An endearing disc that will see a lot of play on my system.

 

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Giovanni Gabrieli, Antiphonal Music
Sony SACD – SS-89173

Originally recorded in 1966 there are performances here by the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Brass Ensembles. In addition to Gabrieli, works by William Brade, Johann Pezel, Orlande De Lassus and Anthoy Holborne are also featured. Sort of a greatest hits of the 16th century. I have always thought PCM fell hardest on its face with recordings such as this, but I am pretty sensitive. For example, I have always had a hard time with Miles Davis CD’s because of how PCM does muted trumpet. Hurts my ears. Not so DSD. While one can only wonder what this recording would be like in native DSD, it’s a hoot (yuk, yuk) as is. The cover says, "The glorious sound of brass" and it is absolutely correct. Unlike a lot of the stuff currently coming out on SACD this is real music and really enjoyable. While Gabrieli is obviously the star, I particularly liked the Pezel suite. Although I found myself repeatedly thinking this was probably a good Christmas disc, it is still recommended.

 

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Jacintha, Autumn Leaves – The Songs of Johnny Mercer
Groove Note – GRV-1006-3

David Robinson actually ordered this disc for me without my prior knowledge. It is significant to see Grove Note adding their voice to the SACD cadre, but such boldness on David’s part!

I joke. It’s rare when grouchy old men approaching the half-century mark become fast friends in the old fashioned way (read – NOT business, or "what can he do for me?" which I consider to be modern forms of male bondage). He even introduced my ex-wife to cigars, something I thought she would never even try. (But then, one never knows about women…which is why she is now "ex".)

Oh, right... the disc... This is the smoky, sweet, late night jazz we all put on when we are in the mood for romance, or lamenting lost love. Jacintha has a classic voice for this material, expressive, subtle and patient with a phrase. I know these songs. I know this sort of voice... but then, like the slow flush of good brandy, song after song, that subtlety takes root and appreciation grows. Elegant, understated... classy. This is a wonderful disc and a wonderful present (even if technically I did have to pay for it). Thanks Dave!

 

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Jay Leonhart, Salamander Pie
DMP – SACD-07

Featuring Mike, Renzi, this 1983 recording of well-known bassist Jay Leonhart is a sophisticated, witty, and entirely delightful exercise in jazz whimsy. Originally recorded on a Mitsubishi X-80 digital recorder at 50.4kHz, the transfer was made from the original tape using an EMM Labs DSD converter. No equalization or processing was used in the transfer. I include this information because this disc seems to avoid the majority of the problems associated with PCM to DSD conversion. This means we may have a rich source of high resolution PCM masters that will serve well in DSD conversion and that would be great for everyone. And now the music... this disc is light-hearted fun, with such tunes as "Drink No More" and "Beat my Dog." I always take it as a good sign when I giggle listening to jazz. Jay’s voice works fine with these fairly non-demanding songs, and Mike Renzi’s piano is deft and sure. Lots of fun!

 

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Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, The Very Tall Band
Telarc CD-83443-SA

1998 live recording at the Blue Note. You probably recognize the names. Seventy-one minutes of classic jazz-trio joy. SACD sonics. Bliss. What else is there to say?

 

...and now, things get a bit murky...

OK, whatever your position on this, you probably need to know about these SACD reissues: Billy Joel, 52 Street, Journey, Escape and Cyndy Lauper’s, She’s So Unusual. Of the three, I confess a guilty pleasure with the seductive Ms. Lauper (I am afraid my fascination with her is not entirely platonic). Yes... shaving one side of her head and forming an association with professional wrestling suggest less than stellar decision-making, but some of the most memorable ballads of the eighties came from her ("True Colors," "Time After Time," etc.). Whatever you think of her music, she has a tremendous voice and boy was she completely HOT in that little white dress in Vibes! I use the Lauper disc to demo SACD, because I have the original LP, the original CD and the 20 bit PCM re-master of some of the songs. Makes for interesting comparisons. Oh, the other guys? The discs sound better than stock, better than the LP’s (Yes, sadly I have both) and at least we are getting SOME rock and pop discs, even if it is just these. Bring on the Rolling Stones!!!

 

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Flim and the BB’s, Tricycle
DMP SACD-08

I have much the same reaction to Flim and the boys as I have always had for Mannheim Steamroller... yeah, well... OK. This is contemporary jazz-pop... something. DMP does a great job with the recording... but my question is, why? The disc is pleasant enough, but not a lot of substance.

 

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Joe Beck & Ali Ryerson, Alto
DMP – SACD-06

The first cut from this guitar-flute duo is "Ode to Billie Joe." Yeah, right... that one. We get "Willow Weep for Me," "Autumn Leaves," and even a medley of "Scarborough Fair and Norwegian Wood." This is sweet, mellow stuff, and although I did feel my brain waves flattening out considerably with extended listening, it is beautifully recorded and for those of you who like easy-listening jazz, I am sure it will give great pleasure. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

 

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Next Move, Hue and Cry
Linn – AKD-131

I ponder the significance of Linn entering into the SACD recording camp. What does it mean, gang? Can we look forward to an SACD-12 (and wouldn’t that just be nifty?)? Anyway, to the disc. I am less enamoured of this disc than is our estimable Editor, David Robinson. First of all, it sounds like PCM to me. I am not sure, but I suspect this was cut from a PCM master... and, as with the Delos SACD offering, you can hear the difference. Secondly, the music is not terribly distinguished, post-modern, male vocalist jazz. Passably well-played and sung, there is just so much more worthy music out there waiting for the magic of SACD.

 

Red Book CDs

Chesky

 

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Christy Baron, Steppin’
Chesky JD-201

...and I will tell you why I hate Christy Baron. First, she is beautiful. Secondly, she is a highly talented and successful stage and film actress, and as though that wasn’t enough... she can sing, and jazz nonetheless. At first glance, Steppin’ is way-familiar ground for audiophiles. Relax, take a puff, and sit back. Wait, don’t relax too soon! There is some "mouth music" at the front of "Tomorrow Never Knows." Yes, this is almost trippy, vaguely psychedelic. This is unconventional (although Mickey Hart also put some of this aboriginal music in arrangements on his most recent disc). There is the fact that Christy only lets them do whatever it is they do for the top side of the cut. After that? Well, a highly mannerly treatment of this Beatles tune. "This must be Love" starts promisingly with bongos and harmonica. Very pleasant. Now we move to the Zombies, "She’s not There." Bongos again. Kind of bluesy-groovy. Surprisingly, it works. But seriously folks, how many renditions of "Spooky" can we take? Sheesh. The last cut, "Night and Day" sounds it was arranged for a comatose Cassandra Wilson. Overall, not a bad outing. Sonics, as with all the Chesky discs, are... Chesky.

 

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Clark Terry, One-On-One
Chesky JD-198

Ah, the estimable Mr. Terry... I never tire of his classic approach. This disc is no exception and features a gerzillion stellar contributors. From Geri Allen and Billy Taylor, to Monty Alexander. Such delightful cuts as "L.O.V.E.," "You can depend on me," Honeysuckle Rose," and "Misty" bring a comfortable smile, the shoes come off, and the sweet red from Portugal begins to pour. Delicious.

 

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Dave’s True Story, Unauthorized
Chesky JD-189

Naively, at first I wondered if this could be some alter ego project of a, ahem, well-known artist, but it turns out this delightful duo (David Cantor, Kelly Flint) are ten-year veteran performers on the New York music scene. They allegedly formed their relationship while under the spell of demon rum. Whatever... this is my vote for the most fun disc of 2000 from Mr. Chesky, at least so far. I giggled through the darkly vampy "Misery." "Lily 110-140" had me believing I was listening to the Jody Grind. Vastly amusing to a conga beat. "China Tour" finishes the disc on a wry note. Definitely recommended.

 

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The Conga Kings
Chesky – JD-193

It is gratifying to see the growing interest in Latin music. Some of the most repulsive miscreants I have ever met still possess sufficient soul to think the Buena Vista Social Club is wonderful. The Conga Kings are Candido Camero (what an absolutely kickin’ name!) on conga and vocals, Guillermo Edgehill on bass, and Joe Gonzallez on bongos. We get occasional flashes of this stuff, such as with the beginning of some Eddie Palmieri (Lacuma) and Trio de Paz cuts, but here you get the whole pescado. Hypnotically repetitive, this is the opposite of brash tropical fireworks but with driving rhythms and red-hot passions more subtly told through unamplified traditional instruments, redolent of Africa. This disc requires and warrants patient consideration before it will give up all of its subtle charms. Makes me want to eat something in a banana leaf. Just perfect.

 

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David Johansen, And the Harry Smiths
Chesky JD-196

Coincidentally, Stereophile recently featured one of their regular "Rick Rosen Visits with Famous Musicians who have Crappy Stereo Systems," interviews with David. A veteran of the New York Dolls and his alter-persona as Buster Poindexter, David has gone folky with some interesting results. His gruff, growling voice works very nicely on this blues-folk material. I confess it took me a while to warm up to this disc, but I suspect it was head and not heart things that were in the way. While the disc isn’t a barn-burner, it has limited charms. "Darling, do You Remember Me?" was interminable, but "Well, I’ve Been to Memphis" is jaunty fun.

 

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The Coryells
Chesky JD-192

This family guitar trio (with bass and percussion contributions) led by the veteran guitarist, Larry Coryell is likeable from the first few notes. The Chesky recording method particularly suits this group. Sonics were absolutely fine; great body and sound stage depth... and a real sense of air, often missing from even the finest PCM recordings. This is a long disc, chuck full of acoustic guitar delights. Really sweeeet!

 

Mapleshade

We at PF have often, and affectionately written of Mapleshade recordings. For myself, along with an appreciation for their focus on natural sounding recordings, I have always thought the Mapleshade bunch had great taste in music. This latest gaggle of releases is no exception.

 

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Sunny Sumter, Sunny
Mapleshade 05932

Silky sweet, smoky and sexy, Sunny Sumter gives us a modest, but highly enjoyable disc. Supported by Larry Willis (who also gets production credits), and other Mapleshade familiars, this is laid-back acoustic jazz with much that is familiar (songs like, "Nobody knows the trouble I seen" and "I fall in love too easily."). Sunny’s voice is expressive and poignant. This is one of those perfect, "port and walnuts by the fire" discs. Most pleasing.

 

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Bob Willoughby, Blues, Booze and Oldtimey Soul
Mapleshade 06452

It’s not that I have a specific problem with "white blues." From John Mayall to Dave Hole, there are distinguished white artists who have added enormously to this genre. But, as with this disc, sometimes it just doesn’t ring true. When boiled down to its essence the blues is essentially about heart and crotch and sadly there is little of either here. Bob is a great piano player and just maybe this disc would have been more successful if the original idea of a solo piano disc had been pursued. However, it was not. And, at the risk of seeming uncharitable, Bob’s wife Amy seems incapable of singing reliably on pitch. Her presence on the disc adds an irritatingly amateurish cast. Good songs, good piano, Pierre’s great production, but just too white-bread for my tastes. Pass.

 

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Various, The Art of the Ballad
Mapleshade – 006132

OK, this is just yummy! Larry Willis, David Murray, Harriet Bluiett and a host of other luminaries makes this "greatest hits" disc a real pleasure. As stated earlier, I like Pierre’s taste about as well as anyone working in the audiophile music scene. If by some chance you are not familiar with Mapleshade, this disc is definitely the place to begin. Spanning a fairly wide range of styles, The Art of the Ballad, is precisely what it purports to be... a nice cross section of ballad-based jazz styles beautifully recorded and assembled. First rate stuff!

 

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King/Bluiett Trio, Makin’ Whoopee
Mapleshade – 4832

I think this is my favorite of the new issues from Mapleshade. Obviously, it is a homage to the Nat King Cole Trio. Tasty it is too. Except for the annoying "Route 66" (which, sadly, takes up over eight minutes of this recording) and one briefly misguided and inexplicable synthesizer foray, the disc is a pure joy from beginning to end. Sax, bass and guitar, intimately recorded. Great sax sound; meaty, big and bouncy, as it were. Sure there is comfort in the old songs, but there is also fresh life infused by this talented group.   Nicely done.

 

JVC – XRCD

 

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Gino D’ Auri, Flamenco Passion
FIM XRCD 23

This disc faced an uphill battle with me. First, I think Flamenco is as much a visual art as it is a musical one. Secondly, although it is said that Flamenco is characterized by a lack of conventional percussion instruments, in live performances the percussion is found in the foot-stomping and castanets-clicking of the dancers and this is typically missing from studio recordings of this genre. I truly miss the sound of human feet and the vocalizations of the dancers. Their absence turns a sweaty, sexy, emotional experience into something more cerebral and less compelling. Italian guitarist, Gino D’auir is not a classical Flamenco artist. He has done electronically enhanced music, fusion forms, and has even appeared on two discs by Keiko Matsui, new-age/world fusion recording artist. The compositions on Flamenco Passion are all contemporary and all written by Gino himself. For me, this means several strikes before I even pulled it out of the wrapper.

Now, all this being said, this disc has its own, inescapable charm and allure. "Galicia Flemnca," and "Las Minas," are simply brilliant. Sonics are JVC superb... I keep fantasizing JVC will begin to produce SACD’s. Can you even imagine their current catalog available as dual layer, SACD/XRCD discs? I almost lost consciousness writing the sentence. It shouldn’t be, but this is a great disc and in spite of my churlish biases, I have to recommend it highly. Bravo!

 

DCC

Ok, so what do the following have in common? Jim Croce, Metallica, Judy Garland and Queensryche? That’s right, "what is... what passes for A& R currently at DCC?." Simply amazing, and I am a very open sort of guy to differing musical styles. Well, let’s take a look.

 

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Metallica, Ride the Lightening
GZS-1136

This 1984 recording finds our devil-worshipping band of merry men assiduously pursuing their collective speed-metal thang. This is everything you were warned about. Every prejudice you have against long haired, tattoo festooned, morally challenged rockers finds its unholy embodiment here. Mind-numbingly loud (well, it is if you play it correctly), brutally percussive, sweatily excessive in every dimension. Gothic titles like "Creeping Death," and "The Call of Ktulu" pretty much say it all. While I can’t really recommend it, I loved it. Caveat Emptor!

 

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Judy Garland, At Carnegie Hall
GZS-1135

Now, things start to get a little weird. Recorded live at Carnegie Hall in April of 1961, this three channel stereo recording (2 discs) takes us back to the early days of commercial stereo. And I mean early... we get two hard-left, hard-right channels for the instruments, with Judy inhabiting the middle channel. Once you get used to it it’s not a bother. However, at best the sonics are fair. But never mind pussycat, because this is all about Judy and... this is the lady herself, raw... vibrant, not always on key, and simply staggering. We forget how slick everything is these days, even the alt rock. Not here. I was almost embarrassed at times, faced with a level of intimacy rarely achieved in recorded sound. The sense of her... hell, the SMELL of her, filling the room. This is a mesmerizing recording. Even if you are not given to this sort of thing, treat yourself to a "human" recording and remember there is a living, breathing creature at the microphone who holds nothing back in some misplaced attempt at "cool." God love her, she was with us such a short time. I can’t listen to this one much; breaks my heart.

 

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Queensrÿche, Empire
GZE-1138

Here we have delicious paradox, "intelligent" heavy metal, well-recorded and even re-mastered. The original was very well done and Steve Hoffman’s careful attention only improves things. "The Thin Line" and "Della Brown" are startlingly well-crafted. But what do you do with a metal band that does not write songs to the devil, can actually sing, but frequently and disturbingly sounds sort of like Rush, if they had a normal amount of testosterone? Damned if I know.

 

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Jim Croce, Words and Music
GZS-1134

Once upon a time I threatened my fellow bar-band colleagues that if I EVER had to play either, "Leroy Brown" or "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" again I was going to maim someone and they were high on my list of possibles. Despite this, I have no rancor for the charming, late Mr. Croce. If I had to pick I’d take him over John Denver every time. Well, here we are in 1972 (I was a junior in college) and James Taylor, John Denver, and Cat Stevens and other folkies provided tuneful balance to the likes of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin. This is a fine recording, and if Mr. Croce’s sweet, blues-tinted, folky jive is your cuppa, this disc is a quiet pleasure.

 

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Metallica, Master of Puppets
GZS-1133

It’s starting to get weird again. Don’t ask me why, but I have this premonition they are going to work their way through this group’s discography. Noooooooooo! Seriously, I dump on them because of the genre, but Metallica is really a bit more than a markedly successful speed-metal band. There is more to this group than simple bitter hostility, sturm and drang. This 1987 recording is a little more raw and youthful sounding than Ride the Lightening but just as much fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Everything said about Ride the Lightening applies here... including the question for DCC... with audiophile CD sales where they are, what was the intended niche for these two discs?

 

Jazz CDs

 

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Ronnie Earl, Healing Time
Telarc CD-83490

I am annoyed. This is a native DSD recording from a company that is producing SACDs, but we get it as a standard CD. Damn, what a waste! However, you must remember I am the guy is trying to figure out some way to get AC/DC to come to my house and hear Satrianni’s, Engines of Creation, so they can hear what their already finely recorded albums can sound like. But to the point at hand. Ronnie is a veteran of Roomful of Blues before he formed his own group, The Broadcasters. His distinctive guitar work, formed of equal parts intense fire and precision machining, makes this disc both a technical killer, but also keeps the heart and toes engaged. Jazz, blues and whatever else was in the refer when he was fixing dinner are offered up. Great stuff.

Yes, the sonics are fine, but alas... they are a pale imitation of what they could have been. There aren’t that many native DSD recordings out there and we disserve to have each and everyone of them on SACD. Harrruummph!

 

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Kenny Drew, Jr., This One’s for Bill
AGB99352

This is a nicely recorded solo piano album, featuring some old favorites, like "Suicide is Painless," and "The Days of Wine and Roses." Son of a famous musician, Jr. is a talent in his own right, winning the Jacksonville jazz piano competition. The recording (done at a Mason Hall and edited and mastered by the redoubtable Mr. Rudy Van Gelder) is excellent, getting some of the best non-SACD left-hand piano sound I have heard for some time. Immediate, warm and inviting, it’s perfect for cozying up with your favored life-form and exploring la dolcé vita!

 

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Louis Hayes Quintet, Quintessential Lou
TCB-99652

If jazz is dead how come great discs keep coming? This group of lions has made a scorcher of a traditionally rooted jazz disc. Firmly in the West Coast bebop tradition, the maturity, taste and skill reflected here is simply joyous. One can certainly hear the influences of Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, et al. This is a studio album, and the venerable Mr. Hayes’ drumming is front and center. It is one of those rare discs that really captures percussion well. Lots of air and dynamics in this recording... and smooth as a baby’s butt. "Tenderly" (with Abraham Burton’s unaccompanied sax taking the opening) is first moody romantic... and then scintillating as Riley Mullins joins on horn. The first cut, "Progress Report" is a delightfully creative read, with enough personal touches to avoid a "me too" arrangement. This is great stuff for those of you who are worried that jazz is a dying art form. No worries.

 

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Keith Jarrett, The Melody at Night With You
ECM-1675

The nice people at ESP sent me this disc (I employ their power cords and distributor strIPS throughout my system), with a note that their cables were used exclusively in the recording of this solo piano disc. Keith has been sick for some time and this is his first foray back into the studio in way too long. The disc is dedicated to his wife. It’s simple, sweet and unabashedly romantic. Maybe adversity brings us closer to our core, what is really important to us... but I respect a man who recognizes and celebrates the bond with his life partner. "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Don’t Ever Leave Me," and "Be My Love" are tenderly played. This is a quiet disc that reveals its charm slowly, and with great tenderness. Sonics are great. Recommended.

 

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Joao Gilberto, Joao Voz E Violao
Verve 314 546 713 2

I have always thought that Brazilian jazz was the epitome of sophistication, the mixing of tropical heat and sun-drenched rhythms with unbridled romanticism. Joao is a national treasure in Brazil. The preeminent author of the bossa nova, Joao offers a scant half-hour disc, his first in nearly a decade. Minimalist recording... his dulcet, shy voice and guitar, move artfully between old classics ("Voce vai ver," "A cor do pecado"). One might wish for a few more tunes, but could hardly wish for anything more touching and beautifully done. An instant classic.

 

"Da Blues" CDs

 

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Koko Taylor, Royal Blue
Alligator – AlCD-4873

My ex-wife was once fortunate enough to see Koko in a small venue in Nashville, Tennessee. After this encounter she was as one who has experienced a piece of the true cross. She talked about it for days.

See, Koko Taylor is the real thing. When they say she is the Queen of the Blues, they are crapping you negative. Long time Alligator recording artist, we have not had new material from Koko for over seven years. Royal Blue finds her shed of her more "modest" backing musicians, and getting the studio attention her stature warrants. Even B.B. King makes an appearance. The disc is an absolute delight... but, I sort of long for a more minimalist approach that puts her incredible voice in the expressive forefront. Here’s to hoping we hear from her often now she has returned to the studio. Brava! Must have for anyone who thinks of themselves as a blues fan.

 

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John Primer, Knocking at Your Door
Telarc CD-83456

A veteran of thirteen years with Magic Slim and the Teardrops, and former side man for Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, John has certainly earned his "props" as a bone fide senior Chicago blues man. This Telarc recording is the real thing for Chicago style blues aficionados. Rough as a cob and completely without compromise, the fine sonics of this disc capture a mature musician in the height of his powers. "Excited by Your Charms," and "The Kiss of Fire" are standouts on this impressive recording. I am particularly impressed that Telarc’s first blues series is as well thought-out and tasteful as can be. Toe-tappin,’ rock & rollin’ fun, from first cut to the last. Recommended.

 

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James Cotton, Fire Down Under the Hill
Telarc – CD-83497

Continuing with coverage of the Telarc blues series, here we have a roots-driven quartet fronted by the gravely voiced harmonica monster, James Cotton, and featuring the considerable talents of Rico McFarland, David Maxwell, and Darrel Nulisch. James’s vocals are sadly roughened by illness in this latest disc, but charming nonetheless. Remember, this guy was playing harp for Muddy Waters when most of us were still playing with blocks. A student of Sonny Boy Williamson, his vocal pyrotechnics may be a thing of the past but do not despair. This is a wonderful disc in the traditional mode, with no percussion. I especially like the boogie-woogie offerings, such as "Cotton Jump Boogie," and "Boot Knockin’ Boogie." I have to confess at first I sort of missed percussion, but that didn’t last long. Who says you need a kick drum, to kick ass? Sonics are superb. Another hit from Telarc.

 

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Zydeco Madness, Gaga for Ya-Ya
Winter and Winter – 910-041-2

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is one of those best-selling "chick-books" so in evidence these days (my ex-wife loved the book…for what that’s worth). Winter and Winter are a German company, with which I was unfamiliar before David dropped this recording off for my consideration. I guess it was not to his tastes, although he never said. Basically, this is a pretty shallow survey of Zydeco (the more African influenced form of Cajun music). While it has little new or interesting for anyone with any real knowledge of this genre, it’s a very pleasant disc for the newbie. Recording quality varies by original source, but overall is quite good. If you can avoid cuts like "Iko" and "Tequila" there is some enjoyment to be had here, with Boozoo Chavez, Geno Delfose and Beau Jacque kicking it. Not bad.

 

World Music

 

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Femi Kuti, Shoki Shoki
Polygram – 559-035-2

Sparkling, horn-driven Afro-pop, this disc is a must-have. Femi is the scary-talented son of famous Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti (perhaps one of Africa’s most respected musicians). Before striking out on his own he apprenticed with his father’s band, Eygpt-80 for more than a decade. He emerges on his own, fully formed and laying out a funk-drenched groove I predict Americans will find irresistible. His remake of "Beng Beng Beng" is just killer. I truly appreciate the socially conscious, but never heavy-handed touch with these songs. Like Zap Mama there are fusion elements here, but so tastefully composed as to avoid the too often obvious "lifts." Sound quality is very good. If you haven’t made a significant foray into world music this is as good a place to begin as any. Beng, Beng, Beng!

 

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Kiyoshi Yoshida, Asian Drums
Chapter One – chcb-10013

I suppose it should be a tip-off when a CD comes with its own incense packed inside. I would like to believe I am a pretty open guy when it comes to musical forms, but this whole new-age, world fusion stuff mostly makes my ass itch. Try as I might, I really could not meaningfully differentiate among the cuts on this disc; sort of like most Japanese cars... look away for a second and you can’t remember what they look like. Mushy, diffuse, ambient glop. Oh, and the incense smells like fly-spray... pass.

 

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Hyperborea, Ten Years Under the Earth
Global – CD-001

As tough as I am on world-fusion forms there are some interesting exceptions. The mixing of Celtic and African forms produces some interesting music, on occasion. With Hyperborea we have these two influences with yet another two added, Arabic and western dance/hip-hop rhythms (including super deep, synth bass lines). Recorded in Dublin, this is my first exposure to Hyperborea and I have to say I am impressed. The recording is superb, and the music is strangely compelling. It takes careful restraint to mix this many "influences" together and still produce a coherent musical experience. If you like Celtic music, but are looking for something a bit more adventurous this might be for you.

 

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Mystic Rhythms
Xquisite Planet ORR-58682

Rick Wakeman underwent a spiritual conversion and, in a moment of mescaline induced madness, kidnapped a group of Native American musicians and dancers. Locked behind the cold walls of his castle estate, he proceeded to have his demented musical way with them. Ok... so that didn’t really happen, but this would be the sound-track if it did. However, to be completely honest (as far as I am aware) Rick doesn’t even know this disc exists. By now I am betting that you think I hated this recording. Well... not really.

I struggle intellectually with the idea of Native American Electronica, but the actual experience was really sort of pleasant. Oh, by the way... they also throw in some Tibetan, Indian, Chinese and "aboriginal" (Aboriginal from whence? They, don’t say.) chants. In the completely unrevealing liner notes, there is a suggestion that all "Indian" languages share a common ancestor (continental drift and all that). Boy, does this disc do bass. My Timbre DAC was shaking the sidewalk outside. In spite of myself I like this disc. I sure prefer it to the most recent outing by Rick himself, a hopelessly self-indulgent and tedious return to "The Center of the Earth."

 

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Michael Dog, Summer Night Sessions
Entry LIQ021CDL

Trance/trip hop, world fusion influences form this curiously compelling disc. One of the defining characteristics of trance music is, of necessity, repetition. It’s here where most of it leaves me cold. The combination of endlessly repeating phrases, electronic nibbles and nabbles, chilly ambience synthesizers and that whole Gary Newman mecho-cyber emotionless drone is typically more than I can take for long. Not here. I suspect that it has to do with the fact each cut is from another source. We have normal, living humans like Tony Hunt and Grant Wilkinson who AKA as "entities" such as Rootsman, SexyrubberSoul, Metamorph VI, et al. I must confess, I have NO idea where Michael Dog comes in. I can’t find any references to the name and the liner notes are completely devoid of mention. Sonics are quite good. Nice, three-dimensional, airy as the term "ambience" suggests. Not half-bad.

 

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Sorma, Mirage of the East
Chapter One CHCB-10014

Ok, this one comes with incense too but boy is it an improvement! (The music, the incense still sucks). I don’t know much about modern Japanese music, but this disc makes me want to learn more. Replete with Indian influences and quirky quarter-tone vocals, covering pretty conventional dance-music foundations, there is charm here. Besides, how many young musicians do you know who actually play the sitar? Sorma is apparently one of those "project" groups so common these days. As many as four female vocalists appear on the disc, as well as a bunch of players. Tadahiro Wakabayashi is credited with the Sitar. Yoichi Shimada gets most of the writing credits, and Sorma turns out to be the mixing engineer and producer. This is their second disc and apparently it contains some re-mixes from the first (Illusion). I find there is a "female" delicacy and refinement to this disc I am not used to hearing in electronic-based music. Good recording. The music is unexpected, and mostly very interesting.

 

Safe and Sane Pop CDs (Seat-belts are not required, but may make the reader more comfortable)

 

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Patti Smith, Gung Ho
Arista 07822-14618-12

This is Patti’s third offering since exploding back onto the music scene in 1996, after a fifteen year hiatus to be married and act like a real person. While I could appreciate both of her more recent offerings there was little there to evoke the spirit of her debut album (Horses)... until now. This disc is killer! At 53, it seems Patti has reconnected to her passionate past and fetched up a treat you simply have to hear. This disc is not just a nostalgic return to her roots, but rather a complete reflection of then and now, with a clarity and articulation that is simply breathtaking. Production values are first rate. Go get this one!

 

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Tracy Chapman, Telling Stories
Elektra 62478-2

One of the seduction tools I used on my, then to be wife…now my cursed ex-what’s-her-name... (along with my porcini risotto-stuffed chicken), was Tracy’s first offering, a disc that hit me like a hammer from the blue. The first time I put it on I listened completely through... transfixed, mouth open, shocked. I was alternately angered, saddened and moved by this brilliant young woman who seemed to have come from nowhere, carrying the pain and sorrow for every unfortunate who dangles from the thin threads of the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Then I watched every successive album grow dimmer and less... well, just less.

Telling Stories is her best offering since her first, in 1988. It still suffers from preachy navel watching, something absent from that first transcendent effort, but in Telling Stories these things don’t dominate as they have so often in the past. I particularly liked "Wedding Song." Ok, it’s still unremittingly glum but we are closer to that burst of originality that defined her first album as a defining work in pop/folk music. Sonics are HDCD and should be better than they are. Something funny about how they did her voice. It’s not a deal breaker, but she deserves better.

 

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Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now
Reprise – 9 47620-2

Upon reaching middle age, male rockers and folkies of the 60’s generally seek rehab, the arms of younger women, and try to arrange dinosaur revival tours to fund their retirement plans. The women? They make recordings of standards (well, not Gracie, but she never did anything much like anyone else).

Both Sides Now is an audiophile’s wet dream. There is this wonderful story floating around about Allan Sides at Ocean Way doing a DSD 6-channel mix of this recording for her nib’s gratification. The disc is HDCD... but it would have been so much better to have been issued as a dual-layer SACD.

And the music? Don’t get me wrong. I am a long term Joni lover (I NEVER forgave Joan Baez for being such a male-type member to young Joni, simply because Joni’s talent made her feel a tad insecure). I really wanted to like this disc. There is nothing specific to object to, other than (including her own tunes) all of these songs were quintessionally defined long before Joni’s "homage." I have this occasional fantasy when I wonder about Jimi, Janis, Buddy Holly, and so many others we lost too soon, about what they would have done, the music they would have written and performed had they lived on.

Well, that’s what fantasies are for.

I think that Joni should be allowed to do anything musically that she wants. I just wish it hadn’t been this. However, from an objective standpoint this is a nearly perfectly recorded disc of great songs from one of America’s living musical treasures.

 

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Noe Venable, No Curses Here
Intuition – 3508-2

Let’s see. Talented young woman, dark folky songs, no hooks, unknown label. Yeah, this girl’s got about as much chance of getting airplay as I do getting a Nike television commercial. Unfortunate, too. If you can find this quiet gem, it’s worth a listen. Sonics are good. She has a unique voice and that most rare of commodities, something worthwhile to say. I hope she survives.

 

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Marianne Faithful, Vagabond Ways
Instinct Records – INS515-2

OK, so we all know what a hose-monster and junky she was. Most of us remember her scalding rendition of "Broken English" on SNL, when she was just coming off a major coke fest. Her voice was so hammered she could barely croak the lyrics, which worked PERFECTLY for that piece.

I am glad she is alive and healthy and making recordings, but I have some continuing problems with Marianne and strings. I would much rather see her following Patti Smith’s lead. It’s not that the songs are uninteresting or that her performance is uninteresting, it’s just I would rather her explore her angry, minimalist self once again. This newest offering is very well done and beautifully recorded. What we mostly have here are slow and mid-tempo ballads of aging and dissipation. It’s all very arty and sophisticated. Sad, she doesn’t seem to be able to rock any more.

 

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amercianfootball
Polyvinyl Records  Prc-025

The most recent effort of Joan of Arc co-founder, Mike Kinesella, amercianfootball is a sparsely arranged, post-punk dreamy delight. Beautifully recorded, this minimalist disc prominently features Mike’s delicate and emotionally expressive voice. Guitar work is restrained and also very delicate. Oddly endearing touches like the horn part in the second cut, "Imagine Us Together," add poignancy to this uniformly pleasing outing. I doubt it will get much airplay... lacking any discernable "hooks," but for those of you who associate "punk" (post or otherwise) only with violence and cacophony... you will be surprised and I think seduced by this gentle marvel. Highly recommended.

 

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Josh Rouse, Home
Ryko SRRCD45

This is pop poet purity with the faintest alt-country spicing. Josh’s second recording is a quiet achievement. Completely lacking in any pretenses these are simple songs quietly told. This is one of those special pop discs that just melt your cares away and loft you away along a quiet river of contemplation. I played "100m Backstroke" over and over. "Hey Porcupine" gives you a little more of that alt country groove, with a Prefab Sprout sensibility. The recording is congruently transparent and sweet. Josh’s tender voice is well served. Really, a very touching work, worthy of a peaceful Sunday morning’s listen while you watch the new day begin to unfold. Completely recommended.

 

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Travis, The Man Who
Epic – EK62151

Here we are solidly again in trippy, lush pop confections. Travis’s first disc (Good Feeling) got virtually no US airplay. Sad. Avoiding the excesses of Oasis, et al, there will be the inevitable comparisons. Only with Travis you get none of the rock-star crap and self-indulgent cynicism. This is one of those quietly crafted pop discs that grow more dear and familiar with each playing. Underneath it all one suspects these are very nice lads, in spite of the occasional gentle jab at their contemporaries. Recording quality is very good, marred only by a little grain on the voices on a couple of cuts. Simply delightful.

 

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Unamerican
MCA – 012 157 207-2

Unamerican are Steve McEwan (vocals and guitar), Pete Clarke (bass), Mathew Crozer (Lead Guitar) and Tim Bye on drums. These four young English fellows are solidly in the middle-tempo, pop territory. Nothing to offend here, but nothing to get terribly excited about either. I did like the tuneful cut, "Wicked" with its tremolo guitar and refrain, "Out of my head, in my head." I also liked the Nuclear Valdez-like, "That’s How it Goes." Solid "B" work, but I just couldn’t connect with it emotionally. Sound quality is no better than C+.

 

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Steve Earle, Transcendent Blues
Artemis Records – 751033

Steve’s last outing was a pleasant but forgettable bluegrass association with the Del McCoury band (The Mountain). Arguably, Steve defines alt country. Transcendental Blues is his fifth disc in five years and he seems to have an absolute font of fine ideas. Although most associated with country-based forms, Mr. Earle has always had a strong grounding in blues forms as well. This deliciously crafted disc bounces from densely layered Tom Petty rockers, to neo-Celtic tunes like "The Galoway Girl." This is easily the most satisfying Earle disc since the early post-rehab, I Feel Fine. Steve’s band mates are monsters and the sonics are great on this stellar disc. From first cut to last, a real winner. If you don’t know Steve, buy this one. If you do know Steve, buy this one. Completely recommended.

 

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Buddy Miller, Cruel Moon
HighTone Records – Hcd 8III

Emmylou Harris’s taciturn and brilliant guitarist and friend, wife to Julie Miller (and I think the whole bunch has weekend barbecues often with Steve and Stacy Earle and Patty Griffin)... Buddy is to REAL country music, what the Dixie Chixs are to wax fruit. Much closer to the sun-source than Steve or even Emmylou are now... this is challenging, gritty, honest stuff. I particularly appreciated "Does my Ring Burn your Finger," "Sometimes I Cry," and Gene Pitney’s, "I’m Gonna be Strong" (although I still prefer Cyndy Lauper’s version on Blue Angel). The point with Buddy is always emotional impact, and keeping it raw and real. Bravo. Sonics are a little nasal, but this is apparently how he likes it because all three of his discs share the same characteristic.

 

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Judith Edelman, Drama Queen
Compass Records – 7 4293 2

Judith resides in the middle of nowhere, literally. Victor, Idaho is a remote mountain town, geographically proximal to nothing you have ever heard of, save perhaps Jackson Wyoming. Continuing her evolution from early comparisons to Alison Krauss and Claire Lynch this third disc finds Judith more in command of her own unique voice. While the bluegrass roots are always obvious, her song writing is more complicated and twisty than the typical fiddle tune. This is joyous, tuneful mountain music for the new century. "A Load of Blues" is a poignant plea from a working woman, morphed into an up-tempo vision of a better future. "Blood Reunion" is a snappy, slide-driven, dark look at family relations. Production values are Nashville clean. Great recording, great music... and the sweet little girl from Victor. What more could you want?

Beyond Here There be DRAGONS!

 

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LeTigre
Mr. Lady Records mrlr-07

I seem to have a "cat" thing going on this issue. LeTigre is a frowning girl-group trio, fronted by ex-Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna. Radical feminism with a Go-Go’s bop groove. Well, that is until you actually listen to the lyrics, which is totally unnecessary by the way, because this is primarily an ass-shaking romp. From Tom-Tom Club to new wave and electronica, every toe-tappin’ tune cries out for shutting your audiophile sensibilities down and raising your hands in the air as you shuffle your feet across the floor, finger-popping right along with them! Just the thing for the partially-dead, white audio professor in you.

Sound quality? My theory is they just didn’t have enough money to screw it up. Clean, simple and very pleasing.

 

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Kittie, Spit
Artemis 751002-2

Cats again... this time, however, they are completely feral. Cuts like, "Do you Think I’m a Whore?" and "Get Off (You can eat a dick)" pretty much communicate what this indelicate foursome is all about. This Ontario, Canada Grrrrrrl group offer equal measures of baby-doll S &M mixed with very competently played death-metal guitar. The thing is... they are pretty good at it. I just don’t expect this level of mature musicianship from children.

OK, most of you will be offended (if you already aren’t) by this disc, but your kids will LOVE it! Sound quality is very good and the Marshalls never sounded as sweet. Oops. Well, I am relatively sure they are all over eighteen.

 

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Bad Livers, Blood and Mood
Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3905

This disc starts with a slow, rap-driven hillbilly... something, entitled "Fist Magnet." Damn, funny as hell. If you can imagine some demented amalgam of punk, hill music, and rap music... well, you still wouldn’t get it. This stuff is truly bleeding edge, and yet strangely accessible as soon as you leave off expecting it to resolve itself into something known. There are some up-tempo slammers, like "I’m Loosing" and "One More Night in a Hotel" but there are also some cuts that are almost civilized... almost. If you are considering broadening your listening horizons to something you have never experienced, this is a good one. Brilliant, wacky... and absolutely wonderful. Recording quality is surprisingly good.

 

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Marvin Pontiac, Greatest Hits
Strange & Beautiful Music – SB-0118

Marvin Pontiac was killed by a bus in 1977. The only known photos of Marvin (tightly wrapped in white) accompany this disc and were reputedly taken by a fellow inmate at the Esmerelda State Mental Institution. Of course, the CD was recorded and produced in 1999 and the recording sounds strangely like the upper end of current digital technology. Try for the life of me, I could not discern the sound of analog tape hiss (surely present in a mid-seventies recording... wink wink). All songs are written and performed by the mysterious Mr. Pontiac.

I suppose you will try to figure out who he really is too. I would guess that is part of the point. This stunningly well-recorded disc is as quirky and mysterious as the man himself. "Small Car," for example, could easily have been written by Laurie Anderson. All that’s missing are her trademark electronic effects. Marvin’s richly dark voice is a continuing delight. Sometimes more speaking than singing, he weaves his strange web with art and finesse. Nominally this is blues-based... but only nominally. While never exactly creepy, it does come close.

Let’s put it this way, if you like the Los Lobos project Latin Playboys this will be just your cup of tea. The list of contributing players is most impressive: Eszter Balint, Marc Ribot, Angelique Kidjo and Billy Martin, to name a few. Most worthwhile.

Oh by the way... think Lounge Lizards for the origin of the mysterious Mr. Pontiac.

 

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Babylon Whores, King Fear
Necropolis Records – NR 045

Like many bands these days, the Finnish cult band Babylon Whores has its own website. However, unlike most, it is virtually incomprehensible, and not just because I don’t speak the language. This is Goth with either a vengeance or a large-tongue-in-a-small-cheek, and damned if I can figure out which. The first cut, "Errata Stigmata" features speed-metal drumming, and the charming refrain, "Say you Love Satan." Cut two is "Radio Werewolf," it’s chunky Marshall sixteenth notes and a melody line oddly similar to the first cut. Sonics are strangely first-rate, with more front-to-back depth than the typical compressed metal recording. The playing is quite competent. I even sort of like Ike Vil’s vocals, but if this truly is for real... well be afraid, be very afraid. "Kissed by a snake you will give birth to a worm that eats into small black hearts pumping poison as it turns . . ."

I think I may have gone just a little too far with this one.

 

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Slowrush, Volume
Epic / Sony EK-63739

Rob Diaker sounds a lot like Joan Jett to these old ears. Recorded locally here in Portland at Falcon studio, this is one of those "grows on you" balancing acts, poised between pop and hard rock sensibilities. Thankfully, we are well away from the post-grunge rehashing here. Maybe its because it’s local and maybe even its because they use Mesa amps (so nice), or perhaps it’s the Joan Jett thing (did anyone ever look better in black leather pants and blue eye-liner?), but I likes ‘em! Fresh ideas and thoughtful arrangements separate these guys from a bushel of wannabes. The recording is pretty dense and compressed, but less "crunchy" than average with a nice tight and very extended bottom. Significantly better than average sonics. If you want some Northwest rockers who sound like they never heard Nirvana, these guys might just do it for you. Recommended.

 

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Full Devil Jacket
Island -  314 546 809-2

Hum, we do have a theme here, but not the one you think. Satan no, Mesa Boogie yes. That’s right gang, yet another solid rock band with the good sense to use Mesa guitar amps. Ok, so we do have the Metallica meets Trent Reznor thing going on, but nicely done. The recording is HUGE, deep and wide, just about as good as this sort of rock recording gets. There are little Rage Against the Machine touches, with Alice in Chains smoldering bitterness. We even get a Red Hot Chili Peppers-like acoustic intro into "Where do you go?" a superb distortion-fed ballad, probably my favorite cut on the disc. Very satisfying, intelligent metal. Worth a serious listen.

 

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The EELS, Daisies of the Galaxy
Dreamworks – 0044-50128-2

This is the EELS third outing follows the commercially tanked, Electro-Shock Blues (1998). Bolstered by the collaboration with Grant Lee Phillips and Peter Buck, Daisies is an impressive come-back. Production values are significantly better than earlier discs, and overall the recording quality is stellar. The songs are well-crafted and performed tributes to pain and emergence. I understand that Mark Everett (now known simply as "E") has experienced some pretty horrific loses in his personal life. In that context, this is not dark, depressing stuff... however, neither does it get up and dance with joy either. Quirky, and thoughtful (as with the cut, "Birds") this is worthy stuff and may come as a pleasant surprise to the uninitiated.

 

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U.S. Crush
Immortal Records - 7243 8 48868 2 0

OK, sonically it’s a disaster.

But hey, here we have heavy metal with the layered harmonies of the Hollies and a pop sensibility that manages not only to live with metal, but turn it strangely into something more lyrical, less familiar and hugely entertaining. There is no growling, grunting, screeching or screaming here. These dudes can SING. If your system is tipped up on the high end you will be able to peel paint with this one, but even then it’s worth a listen. David’s right. It’s sad when you hear SACD and realize what we are missing every time a recording is done in PCM. But, if you can stand the pain, there is an enjoyable experience waiting here for you, and a real departure from the rock mainstream.

 

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The New Cool Collective, BIG
Radio Netherlands – AL-73164

I blame it on the hashish. It’s legal there, you know. Why else would this happen? A big band formed up around music most appropriately placed in yet another Austin Powers flick. This is strident, boogaloo 60’s television theme music. Shocking, off-putting. As nostalgic as I am able to be, I still find it... creepy. They redo "You can Have Her" and the Carpenters, "We’ve Only Just Begun." Precisely why they do this, is somewhat unclear.

Hard, bright, recording... harsh as hell. Totally perplexing. I blame the hashish.

 

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North Mississippi All Stars, Shake Hands with Shorty
Tone-Cool Records – TC34047-1177-2

Like Cream and Police, this is a power trio... but  with a twist; it’s a roots-blues/country power trio. When did you last hear a country or blues album with samples? This is rollicking, blues drenched, funky fun! We got punk flavored swamp boogie, traditional blues, seductively weird slide guitar that is, at the same time, completely familiar and totally alien in form. At this writing this disc is very new. Everyone I have played it for was totally floored. When we lament the paucity of originality, sometimes the fault lies with ourselves. Too timid to experiment, we are browned by sameness when some artful exploration will produce discs like this one. From roots-blues howls to a T-Rex bumpy shuffle, brilliant and sonically fine.

 

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Drunk, Tableside Manners
Jagjaguar JAG-16

Is it a saw? Is it a therimin? Ah, who cares... ? Atmospheric and not quickly nor easily groked, Drunk’s (composed mostly of Rick Alverson, and twelve other folk) fourth release is perfect balance between gloom, spacey ethereal delicacy and occasional bursts of reasonably good humor. This is one of those recordings you have to be patient with. Like some people, not everything is an open book. Touching. Intimate. This immediately recorded disc will make the grade for most audiophiles, and it may even grow on you.

 

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The Cure, Bloodflowers
Elektra- 62236-2

It is a simple matter of fact that my ex-wife made me buy this disc. I liked the early Cure ("Let’s go to Bed") just fine, and I have no problem with kohl-eyed, androgynous depressives. It’s just that, well... you heard one Cure song and you have heard most of them. And generally after two or three of their dirges, I am ready for a razor or Prozac. Now here we have a delicious twist of irony. This is reputedly their last issuing, and it’s... well, almost jaunty in places. Could it be they are experiencing some collective relief that they can finally scrape the make-up off, dress is something other than black and actually come out when the sun is shining?

Now before I mislead you, this is no romp in the park and there are moments when I grew a little moody listening to it, but this last disc is worth hearing if you have any interest in this sort of thing at all. Recording is good.

 

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The Tragically Hip, Music @ Work
London Sire Records – 31135-2

I have always admired this Canadian band and secretly felt it was part of Canada’s ongoing apology for Brian Adams. Never more than an artsy curiosity in the states, perhaps they are due for a change. This most recent disc is a confident, lyrical and completely mature expression of their poetry based rock ("Maybe a prostitute can teach you how to take a compliment."). The opening cut is a swirling, skirling up-tempo rocker, followed immediately by one of their trademark quirky-murky cuts, "Tiger the Lion." "Putting Down" strongly evokes REM comparisons, with The Tragically Hip the clear winners. There is an ebullience REM could never pull off convincingly. And, most importantly, REM rarely made me want to dance, and this disc is a real rocker.

The Tragically Hip have always paid close attention to how their records sound (Trouble in the Henhouse, is one of the best recorded rock albums ever). This new disc is no exception. Stellar!

 

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U.P.O, No Pleasantries
Epic – EK 69869

Yowzers, yet another fine rock band appropriately crediting Mesa amplification! Firmly in the tradition of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin et al, this is bass-driven nasty rock at it sweaty best. No pretensions. Hot playing, killer percussion and great guitar work. As the title suggests, this is not for the faint of heart. However, if you still have enough cartilage in your back to allow free movement this one should put your feet on the floor and your ass in the air. Good recording, great band. My neck is sill sore from trying to whip my non-existent hair around.

 

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