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Staff Picks: Music

Pearl and the Beard

Take a listen to Pearl and the Beard, a three-piece group with a live recording accessible at Kalamazoo Public Library via Hoopla. Pearl and the Beard is a trio that incorporates cello, keys, guitar, and percussion plus really nicely done two and three part vocal harmonies. Each arrangement is unique in the way it takes you somewhere, lyrically and musically. Videos for several Pearl and the Beard songs are available at their website. The editing in the video for "40K" is so interestingly intertwined with the sound recording, especially in the ride-out, that I want everyone to see it (the video is also interestingly creepy). The studio performance videos are also totally worth seeing and hearing. I really appreciate what Pearl and the Beard and associates are producing, musically and visually. 

New in Town

First off, let me acknowledge that this recommendation is not actually music, but it’s not a movie or a book either, and those are the three headings found in the Staff Picks section of our website, so I’m going with the technicality that this one is found on an audio disc. It’s a spoken work compact disc, so this is where I’m putting it. More specifically, it’s a stand-up comedy album, and one worth checking out.

I was aware of John Mulaney from his frequent appearances on The Kroll Show, and I knew he had been a writer for Saturday Night Live, but I didn’t become a John Mulaney fan until I heard this album, New in Town, from our comedy collection (located in under the Dewey number 792.76 in our nonfiction audio section). His goofball charm and precision joke writing made me an instant convert. He has a terrific new special recently released on Netflix called The Comeback Kid which I encourage you to check out also, but be sure to start with New in Town. He’s had one unsuccessful attempt at a network sitcom, but despite that, I have a feeling you’ll be hearing a lot more from John Mulaney in the future. 

Stand-Up Comedy

I find driving to be a stressful experience a lot of the time, especially when I notice the number of people sending text messages or while listening to the news. To take my mind off those stresses, I’ve started listening to stand-up comedy albums in the car. It’s difficult to be worried when you’re laughing hysterically. Here are some albums that I’ve enjoyed recently:

Aziz Ansari - Dangerously Delicious

Maria Bamford - Ask Me About My New God!

W. Kamau Bell - Face Full of Flour

Hannibal Buress - Animal Furnace

Cameron Esposito - Grab Them Aghast

Kumail Nanjiani - Beta Male

Wyatt Cenac - Comedy Person

Portable Hi-Resolution Audio? Really?

Taking your music with you these days is a given. Mp3 players (iThings) and streaming media (Hoopla, Pandora, etc.) make your music available pretty much anywhere. But the downside of all that portability and convenience is that those are all lossy formats… in other words, they sound “good enough” to make them listenable, but clearly not what you would expect in terms of quality from an old school analog or high resolution digital recording when brought to life through a decent home or car audio system. But unless you want drag your turntable along with you to the beach (not recommended) or park a computer with a decent sound card in your car’s trunk, we’re forced to let “good enough” be just that… good enough. That is until now.

Frustrated with an industry built on a tradeoff between maximum convenience and minimum quality, veteran music-maker Neil Young is spearheading an effort to make true, lossless high resolution audio available in a conveniently portable format. Allied with some of the leading technical minds in the sound recording industry, PonoMusic is being launched to offer high resolution digital music available in a convenient iPod-like format. But according to the Pono website, “PonoMusic is more than just a high-resolution music store and player; it is a grassroots movement to keep the heart of music beating. PonoMusic aims to preserve the feeling, spirit, and emotion that the artists put in their original studio recordings.”


So, high quality audio can now accompany you anywhere you go… yes, even the beach. But is there really a difference? For the sake of comparison, most mp3 files have a bit rate of 160kbps to 256kbps, 320k if you’re lucky. Mp3 of course is a “lossy” format… some of the sound is actually removed in an effort to make the files smaller and more portable… think of a photograph in a newspaper… it looks “ok” at arm’s length, but up close you’ll see that it’s actually a bunch of dots and not really all that clear. Pono, on the other hand, is designed to play high resolution FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files - we’re talkin’ full resolution 192kHz/24 bit files that will “fill in” those holes with upwards of 30 times more information than a standard MP3; about four times more than a standard audio CD. The result is said to be nothing short of amazing. And you’ll feed your Pono player through a familiar looking online music store not at all unlike iTunes. And yes, your existing mp3 files (and other formats) will work, too, so there’s nothing to lose and plenty to gain.

So after a couple of years’ worth of prototypes, development, and grass roots promotion, Pono (Hawaiian for “righteous”) is preparing to launch later this year with the help of a Kickstarter project. The project hoped to raise $800,000 in capital in 35 days – a lofty goal, perhaps, but enough to put the program on the street and (hopefully) create a buzz among music lovers. Well… the Kickstarter project so far is working… uh… rather well… to say the least. Pono met its initial goal in a mere 12 hours, and as of this writing, the project I hovering just under $4 million… with 28 days still to go!

Here are some pretty remarkable celebrity endorsements of the new system. If you’re a music fan like me, you’ll probably be salivating after you hear these. And if you’re serious about it, log on to the Pono Kickstarter site and ante up… you could land some pretty righteous swag for your efforts.



Harold Budd's In the Mist

Harold Budd  has been making minimalist, ambient music for a long time. Gentle and expressive, Budd’s compositions are full of open space and long pauses with instrumentation woven in between the silences. The melodic substance of a piece takes a bit of time to unfold but patient, attentive music lovers looking for an alternative to traditional, classical music genres will appreciate the Zen-like economic elegance of Budd’s work.


In the Mist

First World Problems

If you do one thing this Wednesday night, that thing should be coming to see The Relations play the KPL Concert Series at 7 p.m. at the Central Library. But if by chance to have the ability to split yourself in two and be in two places at once, be aware that the Rave City Place 14 Theater will be one of the select theaters nationwide to screen Shut Up And Play The Hits a documentary and concert film about LCD Soundsystem's final show at Madison Square Garden.

The scenes in the film that show the end of the final show in which members of the audience and band are standing around in a wierd kind of dispair absolutely reek of first world problems to me (see minute 1:50 in the trailer), but I did love LCD Soundsystem and will want to see the film when it comes to the library's collection after it is released on DVD. So come see local live music at KPL from The Relations on Wednesday night...the movie theater would probably be freezing cold anyway, and those seats are not THAT comfortable, and popcorn costs so much...




Sound of Silver

PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

I became a fan of PJ Harvey way back in 1995 when I heard her song “Down by the Water” played on the radio, a song that mesmerized my thirteen-year-old mind with its weird lyrics and slightly dissonant sound.  The videos off the album To Bring You My Love, which I caught late at night on MTV’s Alternative Nation, only furthered my fascination; her bright red lipstick and heavy eye makeup lent an odd theatricality to the videos that was unsettling and so very cool.

I’ve followed PJ Harvey through many albums in the subsequent years, and she never fails to captivate my attention.  Each album seems like a departure from the last, whether it’s due to the introduction of a new instrument (such as the piano on 2007’s otherworldly White Chalk), a change in her vocal styling, or the subject matter of the songs.  Her ability to stave off boredom in her album-making has made her a musician who always manages to entertain me, and her latest album, Let England Shake, is no exception. The subject matter—the destruction and devastation caused by war—is darker (somehow) than her other albums, and the use of the auto harp and saxophone lend a distinctive sound to the songs.  It’s a dark album, but it’s catchy and will stay with you for days. 


Let England Shake

Stick With Mono

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on 24 May 1941, today marks Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Celebrate the occasion right along with Bob by lending a fresh ear to the Best of the Original Mono Recordings, a single disc sampler from the recently released 9 CD set featuring Dylan’s first eight albums. Recorded between 1962 and 1967, these recordings are “universally regarded as some of the most important works in the history of recorded music, painstakingly reproduced from their first generation monaural mixes.” ( – Sorry, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.)

During the 1960s and before, monaural (mono) was the most common format for recorded sound, though many of us today might not have ever heard these records that way. The subsequent “stereo” versions often suffered from unrealistic separation—voice center, harmonica on the far left, guitar far right, etc.—and for technical reasons, simply flipping the switch from stereo to mono only makes matters worse. (I say “stereo” because early stereo was often faked for novelty effect rather than sonic clarity.) Now presented for the first time on CD in their proper format, these songs can all be heard as the producers—and probably Bob—originally intended. And in many cases, the differences are not subtle.

So, Scotty, “what is the antidote to stereo? Well, it’s been right in your home all along. Good old American mono.” Happy birthday, Bob!


The Original Mono Recordings


If you’re a fan of extended atmospheric guitar work with a slightly intense edge, you might want to dive into the seventh and latest studio album from the Scottish band MogwaiHardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Mogwai first came to my ears through an NPR live webcast soon after the band formed in 2006, and I’ve since become quite fond of them. Their sound is unique but familiar, combining elements of post-punk Radiohead, Sonic Youth and even Flipper with gorgeous atmospheric textures of old school prog rock ala Pink Floyd. The result is what the band calls “serious guitar music.” But don’t let that scare you, Mogwai creates some truly beautiful and accessible (mostly instrumental) music. The band will take part in the iTunes Festival in London this summer and return to the US for a (rescheduled) tour in the fall.


Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Pinetop Perkins

Boogie-woogie piano legend Pinetop Perkins, one of the last of the pre-war bluesmen, passed away on Monday. Born Joe Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi, on 7 July 1913, Perkins became known as “Pinetop” after his famous 1953 Sun Records recording of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.”

Perkins was perhaps best known for his work as a member of Muddy Waters’ legendary band between 1969 and 1981. He released his first album under his own name as a leader in 1992—followed by some 14 more during the years since—and he toured almost constantly. Perkins performed with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith at the State Theater a year ago and just last month, Perkins and Smith won the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy award for their recording Joined at the Hip. Pinetop won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

“He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen,” said fellow blues legend BB King in a statement on Perkins’ website. “He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world.” Said Perkins, “I just wanna make people happy and make a dollar or two. It’s all I know to do.” Pinetop Perkins was 97.


Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, photo by Steve Azzato