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
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 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
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
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
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.” (www.bobdylan.com – 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 Mogwai, Hardcore 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
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
When I was putting together my previous post(s) about Patti Smith, I ran across a video of John Cale doing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Cohen’s writing was stark and hauntingly beautiful; certainly well worth checking out. But watching the video reminded me of how truly interesting John Cale is.
A former member of the legendary Velvet Underground and a producer for the likes of Patti Smith, The Stooges, and a bazillion others, Cale’s solo work runs the full spectrum of style and emotion; from lovely dark ballads (I Keep A Close Watch) to neo-classical ambience (Words For The Dying) to full on anger-induced rage (Leaving It Up to You).
KPL stocks Artificial Intelligence, commonly regarded as one of Cale’s worst solo efforts and admittedly not none of my own favorites. If you really want a concise discovery of Cale’s earlier solo work, scrounge around for a copy of his 1977 Guts compilation. Nary a single loser among the nine tracks and the cast of characters is impressive; Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Richard Thompson, Chris Spedding, Phil Collins (yep, back when Phil was a drummer), and a host of others. Close Watch - An Introduction To John Cale is an updated and re-mastered version with some of the same tracks. Island Years (1996) is even better; a two-disc set that pulls together 36 essential tracks, including everything from Guts. (This has since been re-released as a budget disc called Gold.)
A personal favorite of mine is Honi Soit from 1981. You won’t find any tracks from it on the compilations (it’s a different record company), but no matter. Everything here is as powerful and immediate as it was when it was released nearly 30 years ago (ack!).
If you want to read more about John Cale, check out What’s Welsh for Zen: the Autobiography of John Cale. The book is a dozen years old now but an interesting read with loads of great photos and drawings. And Hans Werksman’s Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend website is an essential resource if you’re hooked.
Here’s Cale in a lighter moment… Hallelujah.
What's Welsh for Zen : the autobiography of John Cale
Rolling Stone Magazine’s latest issue is a round-up of the “best” music of the decade. Radiohead’s Kid A tops the list, a choice I find both apt and unsurprising, as the album is a textured experiment in rock music that started the decade off with a great buzz. I was a college freshman when it was released, and I remember buying Kid A (back when people bought albums, not downloaded them) the day it came out, only to hear it echoed in virtually every room down the hallway of my dorm. Listening to it nearly ten years later, it still feels pertinent and new.
Although I do love Kid A, Rolling Stone and I differ when it comes to the best of the decade. My favorite album is another year 2000 release: PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (available via MeLCat). Every song on Stories is a miniature masterpiece, creating a pure rock album that ruminates on love, life, and death with a New York City backdrop. I find myself returning to this album time and time again.
Other favorites of mine, in no particular order, include:
Le Tigre—This Island (2004)
The Fiery Furnaces—Widow City (2007)
CocoRosie—La Maison de Mon Reve (2004) (available via MeLCat)
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins—Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) (available via MeLCat)
Spoon—Gimme Fiction (2005)
Regina Spektor—Soviet Kitsch (2004)
Gorillaz—Gorillaz (2001) (available via MeLCat)
Bat for Lashes—Fur and Gold (2007)
Neko Case—The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
Interpol—Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)