Duke Special – Songs from the deep forest

There’s nothing more hateful in the music industry than a cheap gimmick tagged on to a mediocre artist by some money-grabbing suit behind a record company desk. You know the kind of thing I mean, trendy haircuts, polka dot dresses, matching suits, a ‘the’ name, or some hideously quirky packaging for the latest musical offering.

[Scott Edgar] submitted the following comments [You would therefore think I would hold Duke Special’s April 2006 release ‘Songs From The Deep Forest’ in high disdain. However there is much more inside that sturdy little wooden box than merely six heavy duty 7″ records bedecked in individually illustrated sleeves. The unique packaging is merely a reflection of the art burning within songwriter Peter Wilson and his desire to put out an album which is a completely personal outpouring in every way rather than just a collection of songs.

No one can deny that this is a well thought out as well as evocative piece of packaging but it’s only children on Christmas morning who prefer to play with the wrapping rather than what’s actually inside. The beauty of this album is it’s lack of tracklist. You can start it contemplatively or lift your sunken spirits with three or four minutes of pop perfection. Those little discs are yours to use as you wish.

Featuring some reworkings of Duke Special’s most sublime songs such as ‘Wake Up Scarlett’, ‘Freewheel’ and upcoming single ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ along side equally magnificent new recordings like the Paul Wilkinson penned ‘Slip Of A Girl’ this collection of musical gems will have you transfixed from the moment your speakers give that initial needle on vinyl boom until you’re ready to start all over again.

Few albums this year will feature such attention to detail as will warrant percussion played on household implements, clarinet solos or good old fashioned music hall piano. Fewer still will be so meticulously and beautifully packaged so as to be as easy on the eye as on the ear and if you find an album which crackles to life better on an old 1920’s gramophone then you are a better man than I.]

7″ box sets of albums

I thought I’d have a little rant. I see Jet are just releasing their new album on a 7″ box set which set me thinking. Or my teeth grinding.

This has to be the most irritating way to release an album.

Apart from looking cute it has no practical benefit whatsoever. It sounds worse and its the most irritating listening experience. You have to get up every couple of minutes to change the side/record. That’s no way to listen to an album. Its ok for a single because you probably want to listen to teh same song over and over again. But it completely ruins the experience of an album. Imagine listening to Pink Floyd that way.

I do have sets of Garbage’s first album and I think I had a Paul Weller box too. I never ever listened to them!

It amazes me that the 7″ single is what has been apparently selling so well in Britain as opposed to the sonically superior 12″. Then again if teenagers are only buying them because they’re cool to look at and don’t even have a turntable to play them on…

What do you think?

Let me know in the forums 🙂

Watkins At Large

Classic Records 200g mono reissue of a rare jazz hard bop session originally issued on the Transition label. Beautiful reproduction of the LP cover and label. Super quiet pressing.

Led by bassist Doug Watkins, this 1956 hard bop session features Donald Byrd on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor, Kenny Burrell on guitar and Art Taylor on drums.

ANNA NETREBKO – Violetta

I just bought the new Clearaudio/Deutsche Grammophone vinyl LP of „Violetta“ with Netrebko. It is the only major classical release on vinyl since years coming from a mayor label like DG. So as a listener of all medias (vinyl, reel, CD, SACD) I was very curious whether it is possible extract a good analog sound from the recorded session in summer 2005 at the Salzburger Festspiele in these days.
Since it is really the only big release of present-day classical music on vinyl it must be a topic of friends of classical music.When was the last fully commercial release of a classical vinyl record of a major artistic and commercial performance? 1985?

The LP itself is very well manufactured. 2 records on heavy vinyl. The label on the records shows the DG-sign with a well chosen modern surrounding. The flap cover is done nicely, too. Netrebko on the front of the cover helps surely…

The peformance itself is wonderful. Netrebko is not the Violetta of a Sutherland, Gruberova, de los Angeles or Callas. Netrebko is life itself – high up. Life suits Netrebko. Why must it be down-drodden? From Alfredos father (wonderful sung from Hampson), from Alfredo (Villazón also full of life), from the coming death itself. Depressing.

A Violetta like a rose – in full bloom. But dying of thirst. Not getting the water to allow for survival.

The orchestral performance is a bit weak, but that does not weaken the performance of the singers. Maybe the singers (and the performance) even profit from this weakness.

Those who have seen the performance live or on TV know that this was one of the best directed and played (Willy Decker) opera Salzburg has seen in the last decades. The girls in my living room who have seen the television live transmission were all distraught in tears during the duet between Hampson and Netrebko… I assume that the performance will also be released on DVD in the next months. Buy it! You will like the video.

The sound: I used the opportunity of the television broadcast in 2005 to make an anolog private recording. The transmission was done in Dolby Digital Surround 5.1. For users of a normal TV-antenna the Austrian Broadcasting Service (ORF) mixes the sound down to Stereo. This signal I recorded from my PC together with the picture on DVD. The sound itself was done in CD-quality (44.1kHz). Therefore I have this (only for private use) reference recording on CD-R too, done by myself direct from the Television.
Surely I expected that a commercial release on LP will easely top this private CD-R.

We tried the LP on different systems (Linn LP12, Ekos, Lyra Lydian; Thorens TD124, SME3012, Goldring 1042; and the prefered TD124, Mayfare Unipivot, MusicMaker Cartridge). All show the same result:

the comparison between the expensive LP ($45) and the CD-R shows that the sound on the LP is absolutely bad. Firstly the vinyl itself. It is noisy with a lot of ticks and tacks. The level of the signal is low, so that you have to increase the volume to such a level that vinyl surface noise is in the listening range. We got the feeling that this low recording level was chosen to avoid tracking problems during loud/dynamic passages. During listening of vocal climaxes You get this disturbing feeling that by now or now the tracking of the needle will fail. But this never happens. All high frequencies are delivered without losing tracking control, but with lots of ticks and increased surface noise. The sound of everything (orchestra, singers) is behind a veil and muddly. Where my CD-R delivers a very open sound the LP limits the range in the lows and highs. There is much more control of the soundstage on CD-R, too.

We know the problem when digitally recorded women voices are pressed onto analog vinyl without much care. Where a CD-player has a good decoder in this days a record player shows the pure signal. And when the transfer to analog is badly done then there is no way to get it right anymore at home. On my CD-R Netrebkos voice is quite listenable, does not sound to hissy. On LP her voice is dumber, but nevertheless with a lot of hiss in the high tones. On LP her voice sounds dumb but not that warm. And Netrebko has got such a wonderful warm voice. Not on vinyl…

The voice of Rolando Villazón loses its whole charakter on vinyl and becomes nerving. A lot of hiss in the high peaks of his timbre destroys his voice. Also Thomas Hampson voice becomes dumb.

Quite interesting is also that all the sound of the staging (this is a live recording) itself (the walking, movement of bodies, etc.) is damped on the vinyl. We got the feeling that it was tried to get rid of the Live charakter, also applause is omitted. On my CD-R the sound of “Live” is very present (Netrebko did a lot of running on stage, the aplauses) but not disturbing because it fits into the action.

All in all: What should have become a big opportunity – an actual release of an analog medium of classical music – became a acoustical disaster. Maybe somebody wanted to proof that digital is better than analog?

Maybe the classical industry is happy to got rid of analog, because analog needs a lot of care to get excellent results. Maybe all the know-how is lost by now…

Being a vinyl- and analog addict and knowing from recordings of the 1950’s until the 1970’s that analog sounds properly done much better than digital I have sadly to say: wait for the DVD, that will be wonderful. You will see!

Duke Special – Portrait

This surely is one of very few 78rpm records to be released this year. Duke special seems to be a nostalgia freak. And that comes from a vinyl obsessive!. His cds are printed to look like old shellac records and his singles come out on the 78rpm format.

Philistine as I am, I don’t currently do not have a player capable of playing ancient history. Luckily side B includes the A-side and three B-sides.(if that isn’t an oxymoron!)

The A-side is the song, ‘Portrait’ and is a piano driven ballad. Its uplifting, fun and sung in a lilting Northern Irish tenor voice. Slightly quavering and ever so endearing.

‘Feet in the sky’,(How does that work? Damn musicians, always confusing me!) just might have him chasing a woman. Perhaps.

Thirs and fourth songs are live tracks. ‘Maps’ and Low are beautiful tender ballads played to an enraptured audience in Belfast.

Duke’s songs are heartfelt and in concert he comes across as a realy shy sweetheart. A bit like you’ll come away feeling touched and sure that the world really is a better place. He does hark back to some bygone age. No dodgy programming or electric guitar. Just emotional voice and piano. Its a beautiful record. I can’t wait to hear the album.

Mary Black – Babes in the wood

The UK based Pure Pleasure records seeme to be the audiophile reissue label of the moment. Concentrating mainly on jazz with the odd excusrsion such as this one, they employ the best mastering engineers, Steve Hoffman, Ray Staff and Graeme Durham.

In the short while this record has been in my pocession, it has, I think, become my favourite Mary Black record. I always want put it on, and then repeat it. I always sing along to it. I always marvel at the delicacy of her voice, the background and the musical arrangements. It is a sheer delight. It is a great choice for reissue.

Mary Black has always been noted as a singer with great recordings. I remember getting a free cd mounted on a British hi-fi magazine and marvelling at the sound.

This record I have not seen locally in the 2nd hand racks. Neither was I looking for it. BUt I would like to now compare this reissue to an original. Any other Mary Black recoding I have has always sounded very clean, pristine in its sound. I cannot say if this reissue betters the original. However, considering he original is probably very hard to find at all, let alone in good condition, this reissue is hard to fault. The recording itself is an essential.

The music itself is probably best described as a cross between pop and folk. It does indeed include a song penned by Richard Thompson. The tone is generally uplifting and even mystical. Mary’s voice is light and always a joy to listen to. The record does in some way, remind me of Bryter Layter era Nick Drake. The arrangements are similar.

Again, all I can say is, I keep wanting to play this record.

Music is excellent. Sound is excellent. Sadly, considering the price, packaging is practically non existent. There is a simple cardboard outer sleeve, with some details on the back. Its not a gatefold and there’s no inner picture sleeve. There is a plastic lined plain paper one. And the record is shrink wrapped rather than being housed in a resealable pvc sleeve.

The Guess Who – American woman

Containing, of course, their most successful single of the same name, American woman is a micture of the more rocking version of The Guess Who as well as their trend towards balladeering.

This Cisco release aims to reproduce the best possible sound sourced directly from teh master tapes. By all account is cleans up on the original release.

But what od the music.

I am somebody who loves a great voice, and Burton Cummings, on lead vocals here, has that. His vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Ironically, in my opinion, these are not shown off to best effect on the single, American woman, where Burton’s voice is somehwt stretched and turns up as a cut down version of Robert Plant over a strong repeated guitar riff.

I far prefer the more crooner like songs, No time where Cummings sounds like a 50’s vocalist. He sings the verses where these wonderful Byrdsian harmonies chime in for the choruses. This is thesong I find myself singing in the shower and when driving around. Still here, we have the strong electric guitar playing of Randy Bachman who later went on to form Bachman Turner Overdrive.

Simple acoustic guitar provide the background for talisman which sounds like a medeaval country ballad. Or possibly Led Zeppelin before they get electric.

Side one finishes off with two songs segued into one.’No sugar tonight’ provides the rockier first half while ‘New mother nature’ is one of the catchiest songs i have been lucky enough to hear. I love this song. Despite the lrical content, I find the choruses wonderfully uplifting.

Side two doesn’t contain such gems as above but continues the band’s style of half rockin’ and half croonin’.

I’d say the recording is not the most impressive in the world but this vinyl pressing extracts all that is there. It comes in a nice gatefold sleeve with lyrics printed in the middle. Plastic lined inner sleeve.

Now all I want is Cisco to release Canned Wheat!

Yello – Flag

If ypou don’t know the band or the album, you’ll probably know the massive hit from this album, The race, which was a staple on MTV at the time with its suitably wacky video.

yello are the mildly eccentric couple of Boris Blank and Dieter Meier, one of whom is an industrial millionaire and really is only doing this for the fun.

And what fun! Flag is a riotous collection of varied sound effects, impressive percussion and great vocals from different vocal chords.

The theme is of car racing, hence the Flag analogy(that start and end a race etc.) and that single, and err Tied Up, a song that is repeated at intervals throughout the album.

It is, I guess mainly a dancey or electronic album. Yello came from a more electronic background, but here are augmented by excellent vocals and a great sense of melody. If you are not singing along to the repetitive vocals, or at least humming along to the addictive melodies, there is somthing wrong with your hearing. Or possibly your humour, because somehow these non native English speakers bring a smile to your face.

Even Billy McKenzie of the Associates lends backing vocals to some of the tracks here,

Generally the pace is frenetic, as befits a record about racing car driving, but things slow down for tracks such as ‘Of course I’m lying’ and get somewhat arabic for ‘Alahambra’.

Baas, musically, vocally, and with the odd clap of thunder are impressive. The record is percussion heavy and a delight to hear. This recoding has been and always will be an audiophile’s favourite and an ideal test disc. Its got great bass, depth and stereo imaging. Its a sheer delight to listen to on a good system. If you really can’t find it on vinyl the cd is pretty fine too.

Its on Warner which have a deserved reputation, then and now, for high quality recordings.

Other Yello alums worth checking out are ‘One Second’, ‘Stella’ and ‘Baby’. Although allmusic do not agree. If ‘Flag’ deserves any criticism it is one of repetition. But this is as much a record for hearing your hi-fi as for the music. Highly recommended!