Wednesday, June 12, 2013
It's not that I'm jaded or have low expectations when it comes to listening to a CD from someone new, but it's gotten to the point where I'm floored when I discover someone with true talent and originality. Such is the case with the new album from the Smoking Flowers, 2 Guns. Perhaps it's because Kim and Scott Collins, a Nashville-based singing duo who draw obvious comparisons to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, have been around for a while, opening for such groups as the Black Keys, Ben Folds Five, Ziggy Marley, Concrete Blonde and the Strokes. They've been performing since shortly after they met in 1998, so they're seasoned and not the typical twenty-year-olds who dream of hitting it big while struggling with the pitfalls of such naivety.
The first thing you'll notice about 2 Guns is Kim's voice--despite the aforementioned comparisons she doesn't have Emmylou's delicate warble. She has big pipes and sounds a lot like Ann Wilson from Heart (although on "Something I Said," she seems to channel Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star in the quieter moments of the song). She has a beautiful, impressive voice. Scott, on the other hand, has a more casual grumble that grounds her to the music and keeps her from flying away. They have a loving, familiar way with harmonies that illuminates the years they've spent together. Second, they're damn fine songwriters, and these 13 songs are rich with confidence and craft. You won't find any filler here.
Adding to the poignancy of 2 Guns is the revelation that Kim just emerged victoriously from a battle with breast cancer--the album was actually recorded last year and was delayed until she recovered. None of this leaks into the hard-bitten spirit of the album, for obviously temporal reasons, and what emerges is a Western adventure of sorts, inspired by a Route 66 roadtrip. We're talking about the real 66, the dirt road itself and not the fractured sections of I-40 we know today, and the evidence is there on the cover of the album. Kim took this from the hood of their car. That's them, and that's the road, and that's a real and heartfelt kiss that's captured. In fact, 2 Guns is the name of an Arizona ghost town the couple visited. The lonely surreal atmosphere of that visit permeates the album, where their love is the biggest thing on the horizon.
It's rare that an album captures this kind of unabashed emotion without resorting to hip distancing devices or a wall of sound. On songs like "El Matador" and "The Juggler," you hear the celebration of a couple in love. This is not the couple who embarrasses everyone else in the room with their unbridled PDAs, but a couple of poets who can express such things in a way you haven't heard before. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned how much this album rocks--just in case you were under the impression that this was an album of soulful ballads. ("Pistol Whip," for instance, sounds like a countryfied version of Queen's "Sheer Heart Attack," if you can imagine that!)
This is great stuff, and I highly recommend it.
Monday, June 10, 2013
When I arrived in Texas four years ago, I was a little bit apprehensive about the music scene. Sure, I was moving to Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, but growing up in hard rockin' Southern California made me more than a little allergic to country music in my formative years. One of my close friends told me, just before I moved, that I was going to have to buy several huge belt buckles and a pair of cowboy boots if I wanted to hit the clubs downtown and not get my ass kicked. Suffice it to say that I experienced the opposite when I actually arrived in the City of the Violet Crown. The music scene on Sixth Street and SoCo was skewed more toward metal and hardcore and anything-goes, and the country-ish music I did hear was so genuine and heartfelt and intelligent--the opposite of what would be considered mainstream these days--that I immediately embraced it. There's country music, and there's music from Texas--whether it's swing, Tejano or friggin' dubstep. They ain't the same thing, so put that silly big belt buckle away.
Sweet Felony is an alt-country band from San Francisco, but they could easily stroll into the Continental Club off South Congress, plug in their guitar amps and no one would blink. The formula is simple: two cute tattooed girls in boots sing stripped-down country pop songs that seem innocent at first but ultimately reveal layers of hurt, regret and resolve. Christa DiBiase and Amanda Guilbeaux strum their guitars and sing in polished harmonies that have just the right amount of ache to them, an amount that cuts the sweetness like a teaspoonful of vinegar. On their new album, Split Ends Mend, the duo starts off with straightforward rockers such as the opener "Us Again," and then sneakily shift to more frenzied and dissonant tunes that kept reminding me that cowpunk masterpiece of the '80s, X's More Fun in the New World. It's amazing how close these two can get to Exene and John Doe while still sounding completely accessible to the country masses. The last three songs on the album, "Just Friends, "Dream" and "At Night," are slightly mournful, beautiful and ruffled up, like the end of all-night party where things didn't quite go as you planned and now you're sitting on a park bench, alone, with an empty Lone Star (or Anchor Steam) bottle in your hand. Where the hell is your car?
Backed up by Carl Horne on bass, Mike Ingram on lead guitar and Paulo Baldi on drums, Sweet Felony knows how to balance the humor and the heartbreak in their songs--which also makes them a shoo-in for the Austin life. (Or, as a stuffy old geezer from Houston once told me, Austin is the only American city without parental supervision.) That, of course, makes me wonder about the current music scene in the Bay Area--are bands like Sweet Felony praised for their irony, for producing Texas-friendly music with a wink, or are they recognized for their emotional sincerity, simplicity and soulfulness? What causes a tear in Austin may prompt a knowing smirk in San Francisco, or perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, some of the best and most original country-rock came out of Northern California in the '70s, so the scene can't be as buttoned down and snarky as I imagine. But I imagine the reception to Split Ends Mend in these two cities differs in subtle but interesting ways.
Regardless of the audience, Sweet Felony still possesses the warm, grateful countenance of a band who knows how to stand on a stage and connect on an emotional level. It's the most basic reason to perform music, to deliver sounds that make couples sway, loners sigh and drinkers order another cold longneck.
Split Ends Mend is available from Sweet Felony's Bandcamp site. It only contains seven songs, but it's just $7. It's money well-spent for sweet, relaxed and memorable tunes for those long Texas summer nights--even if you're in San Francisco.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
As I said in part one of this report, CCI partnered with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery for the Newport Beach show last week. Dan also partnered with our good friend Bob Clarke of Profundo--US distributor of VivA, Trenner & Friedl, Transfiguration and Heed--in two additional rooms next door at the Atrium. Colleen and I didn't get a chance to see many other rooms during the show, but we did get to spend a lot of time on set-up day with Dan, Bob, Alpar Huszti of Heed Audio, Alan Fong of Syncopation (a dealer in Stockton, California) and Edwin, one of Alan's favorite clients. In other words, I did get to hear some great sound at the show--other than mine, of course, heh heh--courtesy of these guys.
You might remember that CCI, Blackbird and Profundo partnered up at last year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. We had two separate systems in that room and offered kind of a "dueling distributors" theme--we played our system for an hour, and then Bob would play his system. Dan acted as sort of the mediator and kept the music flowing. Well, we all had such a great time doing that room that we may repeat the set-up at this year's RMAF in October. In fact, it felt sort of odd to be at the same show with Dan and Bob this time--but separated by a parking lot.
Of course it helps that Dan and Bob are both vinyl lovers, which is why we all get along so well. Dan is a Basis Audio dealer, and Bob is a huge Basis fan--and owner. I'm pretty sure he'd be the US distributor if they weren't already made here in the US. In one of their two rooms at the Atrium, Bob and Dan included this Basis 2200 Signature turntable, with a Basis arm and the new flagship Proteus cartridge from Transfiguration--my current favorite manufacturer when it comes to cartridges. I'm also a big fan of the Basis turntabes--ordinarily I'm not in love with acrylic plinths, but Basis TTs always extract the light from the music in a masterful, confident way.
The big news at Profundo, however, is the introduction of the latest speaker from Trenner & Friedl, the Isis. The Isis is cut from the same cloth as the Pharaoh and the RA Box--wide, shallow cabinets and efficient designs--but the Isis is a 3-way design with a 15-inch woofer. It offered a sonic presentation that seemed without boundaries, effortless and thoroughly engaging. It reminded me of Trenner & Friedl's flagship, the Duke, which I heard at the 2011 CES. That's saying a lot, because the Isis costs less than one-fourth the amount of the $175,000 Duke. More than one person in the room commented that the Isis gives you a big hunk of the Duke's sound in a much smaller footprint. But as you can see from the photos, the Isis is still an imposing loudspeaker.
Amplification in the room was by VivA, another stellar brand imported by Bob. The VivA amplfiers offer some of the most beautiful designs available among tube amps, with rich, sexy curves, big tubes and gleaming surfaces. Of course they do--they're made in Italy! Cables were from Cardas Audio--enough said. This was an absolutely amazing room.
In the second room was an all Heed Audio system. As great as the first room was, this room really caught my attention because it made such a compelling sound from relatively affordable equipment. Those unique-looking Heed Enigma speakers are only $3800 per pair, but they offered full, impressive bass response and a huge soundstage--the kind of sound that you usually expect from speakers over $10K. You know how I feel about Heed electronics--the Obelisk integrated amplifier with X2 power supply is my first choice for solid state amplification for less than $5K. Here, Bob and Alpar brought their top-of-the-line monoblocks, preamp, phono preamp and digital transport and DAC. Dan also included his excellent Funk Firm turntable and arm with another Transfiguration cartridge. This was a system I could easily live with for the rest of my life.
These new equipment racks from Audio Strata were gorgeous as well. Dave Neilson, formerly of Splintr Design, made these racks specifically for the show. He was going to make one for us, but we all ran out of time. We should have one for Rocky Mountain and CES, so come on by and see these lovely pieces of furniture in person. (That's an in-joke--Colleen thinks racks should always be called racks, while Dave prefers audio furniture.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again--Bob Clarke has exquisite taste when it comes to representing product lines in the US. Although I don't have any seat time with VivA, I do own a pair of Trenner & Friedl speakers, I've reviewed Heed Audio and I've used Transfiguration at other trade shows. All four of his lines are just musical beyond belief, and that's coming from a "competitor" in an industry where "if I don't carry it, it must be crap" is almost a motto. And this speaks doubly well for Dan Muzquiz, who carries Bob's lines as well as ours--lines that I'm very proud of, too.
I recently had someone call me on this at a recent trade show--he was listening in as I told a retail customer that I carried the lines I did because I loved them. I'm not a salesman by trade, and I don't think I could sell something I didn't like. "That's a great sales line," that person said, and we laughed. But it's absolutely true. I think Bob is the same way--he loves his brands, and his system at home (which I've heard a few times) is made up of these brands and it sounds great.
As I've said more than once, I have the best job in the world. And I get to hang out with the best people.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
"I bet you thought you were coming to Newport Beach."
That was sort of the running joke at this year's T.H.E. Show, which has been dubbed "the Newport Beach show" for some time--despite the fact that it's not actually held in Newport Beach. It's actually held at the Hilton and Atrium hotels near John Wayne Airport, whioh means they're actually in Costa Mesa...or Santa Ana, or Irvine. You know, the place where all those cities congeal. I was born and raised in Orange County, so I know the Newport Beach show isn't actually in Newport Beach, but nevertheless many show attendees and exhibitors seemed a bit distressed when they looked out the windows of their show rooms and saw no ocean, no port and no beach.
This was the third annual T.H.E. Show in Newport. Colleen and I missed the first two--we just couldn't fit the show into our schedules in 2011 and 2012. We were told repeatedly that we had made a horrible mistake because the first two shows were reportedly well-attended and lots of fun. Maybe the bloom has come off the rose this year, but the show was merely good--no different than any other show we've attended this year (and we've done five in the first five months of 2013).
The pros of the show were great weather, of course, and well-mannered and well-informed attendees. (On that note, I don't think I've seen so many German cars or Reyn Spooner shirts in one place in all my life.) I also enjoyed the cigar booth in the lobby, and the fact that I could enjoy one of those cigars out by the swimming pool.
The cons, however, centered around the exhibit rooms at the Hilton, where CCI was located. There were no power outlets near the front of the room, where the system needed to be set-up--hence the strange equipment rack configuration you see in these photos. In addition, the floors of the room tended to be either concave or convex, which meant that even when my bird's-eye level said my speakers were sitting flat, my eye-crometer told me that they were actually tilting toward each other. Finally, the rooms were NOISY. The halls were NOISY. The AC unit in the room was NOISY. The walls between the rooms were obviously thin, which meant it was very difficult to audition our equipment in a reasonably quiet environment. We spent most of the show competing with the PBN room across the hall, and those speakers were almost seven feet tall. In other words, we lost that battle.
In the Atrium, where our partner Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and our friend Bob Clarke of Profundo were exhibiting new products from Heed, Trenner & Friedl, Viva, Transfiguration, Basis and Cardas Audio, they fared a bit better. The power outlets were located all over the room, the proportions of the room were more complementary to a sound system--despite floors that were far more lumpy and uneven. If we come back next year, I want to be at the Atrium.
Here's a shot of our basic system. We used the Unison Research Giro turntable with arm and UN1 cartridge ($3995 complete), PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500), Unison Research Unico CDE CD player ($4120), Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier ($6495) and the Opera Seconda loudspeakers ($3995/pair). All cabling and power management was from Furutech of Japan. Those of you who read this blog regularly or know me from Facebook have probably already recognized this system as my own. Yup, that's right--that's pretty much what I've had in my listening room over the last year. I do rotate the Trenner & Friedl ART monitors and the My Audio Design Grand MS speakers whenever I can, and the PureAudio Vinyl preamplifiers tend to get sold as soon as they arrive which means I have to use my back-up Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE more than I'd like (it's a wonderful $1000 phono pre but it's NOT the PureAudio). But when it comes to the turntable, arm, cartridge, CD player and amp, those are my daily drivers. And they sounded very nice at the show.
Here's a shot of the Secondas. People at the show dug them in white. Of the four finishes Opera provides (black, white, cherry and mahogany), white used to be ranked choice #4. In the last couple of years, it's now #2. White audio components are HUGE in Europe right now, and getting bigger in Asia. It's getting more and more popular in the USA lately as well.
Here's a pic of the system I stole from Dan Muzquiz. Here you can see the strange set-up, which did prompt some queries from the attendies. We tried to put everything along the side wall, where the power outlets were located, but it sounded terrible. So what you're seeing is the result of power cords being stretched out as far as they would reach so the speakers could fire out from the front wall. I was typically unhappy with the sound on set-up day, but by the time the first attendee walked through our door, the sound was much closer to what I experience every day in my listening room.
Here's a close-up of the Furutech power filter and the power cords. Man, this is gorgeous stuff--beautifully constructed, classy looks and great sound. Most of it was hidden behind the rack in the corner, which was a shame--these cables deserve to be front and center. When Peter Breuninger of A/V Showrooms came into our room to shoot a video, I almost forgot to mention Furutech. When the video is posted, you can hear me scrambling to mention Furutech before he leaves the room.
Colleen and I were trapped in the room for almost all three days. Dan Muzquiz did relieve us for an hour or two, but for the most part I saw very little in other rooms. Fortunately, everyone seemed to come and visit us--including Mat Weisfield of VPI. He was carrying around the revolutionary new VPI 3D tonearm which has been created out of epoxy by a 3D printer. The photo above is of Colleen and Mat, sharing the 3D love. I talked to Mat briefly about a future interview for my Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever, and he's up for it!
At every trade show, John Atkinson from Stereophile always stops by on the last day about 15 minutes before the show ends. This year he came about three hours early, catching us off-guard. On the first day of the show Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds dropped off some test pressings of new releases, and I spent a big chunk of the show playing Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley." That's what we played for JA, and I'm pretty sure he dug it--his head and body were swaying from side to side. JA currently has the PureAudio Control preamp and Reference monoblock power amps for review, so he enjoyed a chance to listen to the matching Vinyl phono preamp.
By the way, that's Dave Neilson to JA's left. Dave was one of the two guys who started Splintr Designs, makers of the wonderful Trellis equipment racks we've used at the last few shows. Dave has started a new audio furniture company, Audio Strata, and we hope to use his beautiful new products at the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Show and at CES 2014. The new racks are quite a bit more advanced than the Trellis racks, using new composite materials.
Finally, I'll wrap it all up with a photo of the PBN Groovemaster turntable from across the hall. These guys offered amazing sound all during the show--even from across the hall. We kidded them a lot about their volume levels, but they had a huge system and they needed to show it off. I spoke with PBN's founder and designer, Peter B. Noerbaek, and he's designed one hell of a beautiful turntable--which sounds great as well.
I'll have a part two to this report in a day or two, where I'll cover the happenings at the Blackbird Audio/Profundo rooms. Lots of good stuff over there, including an amazing new speaker from Trenner & Friedl!
Saturday, June 1, 2013
The latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl92.html. This is my interview with Daniel Louis White, jazz musician/composer extraordinaire. Enjoy!
Saturday, May 25, 2013
If you loved 2L Recordings' Quiet Winter Night as much as I did, then you probably already know Jan Gunnar Hoff. A well-known bandleader, composer and jazz artist in his native Norway, Hoff acted as the leader, arranger and pianist in that warm, romantic ensemble recording. The relative success of that album--it was nominated for a Grammy--prompted 2L to feature Hoff in his first solo recording, a series of piano pieces titled Living. Hoff's compositions, which are often called "meditative and expressive," are notably accessible when compared to other recent entries in the 2L catalog; along with QWN, this may be the lone recording by Morten Lindberg that will inspire you to listen at night, in front of a fireplace, preferrably with someone you love.
2L has already released a recording of piano improvisations within the last year or so from fellow Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. During casual listening, the seriousness of the music in that recording can easily be lost--its somewhat cheery disposition might persuade you that you're hearing something that can be described as "easy listening." It's only when you sit down and take the time with Ojeilo's compositions that you notice the unsettling undercurrents that add a more somber and reflective layer. Living, on the other hand, grabs your attention almost immediately. While richly melodic and soothing, Hoff's compositions are more rooted in the classical piano repertoire and are more emotionally direct.
Then again, much of the music on Living seems more structured and purposeful because these aren't necessarily improvisations. "Brytning," for example, was originally written for a music festival back in 1992, and "A eg veit meg eit land" is a Norwegian anthem that was originally composed by Elias Blix back in 1896. Hoff does attribute "Karlygash" to 20th century Kazakh composer Akhmet Zhubanov, but is quick to say that his version is "freely interpreted." Listening to the lush, flowing, impassioned performances on Living, it's easy to imagine that they are emanating deep from within his soul, and it's equally easy to assume that another take on any of these tracks would yield tremendous differences in the outcome.
The most striking aspect of this recording is the incredible decay of the piano in the Sofienberg Church. There's a uniquely visceral impact to the space between the notes, almost as if you're embracing the lid of the piano as Hoff plays and you can feel the vibrations of wood and hammered strings. Morten achieved this by placing the microphones at some distance from the piano, allowing the interior of the church to enrich the presentation. A small but noticeable touch, visible in the photos in the enclosed booklet, is the placement of firewood under the piano itself. I wonder what this achieved, and how it contributed to the recording. Morten Lindberg is very much at the cutting edge of recording techniques these days, and it's astonishing to think he resorted to such an ancient solution to bring out the natural timbre of this piano.
Then again, the 2L recordings are so magnificent in their sonic consistency and ingenuity that I won't be surprised when random fireplace logs start appearing in audiophile's listening rooms throughout the world. Highly recommended--the recording, not the logs.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Colleen Cardas Imports, along with Blackbird Audio/Gallery, will be exhibiting at the upcoming T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, California on May 31-June 2. Our system will consist of the Unison Research Giro turntable, PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplfier, Unison Research Unico CDE CD player, Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplfier and Opera Seconda loudspeakers, with all cabling and power management by Furutech. We will be located in Room 525 of the Hilton, so come see us! For more information on the show, please visit the T.H.E. website at http://theshownewport.com/visitors/index.html.