Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

SoundStage! TV

Expert

InSight

Shorts

On This Site

World Village Music 468092
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201006_catherinerussellIt's been about two years since Catherine Russell wowed us with Sentimental Streak on the World Village label. Now she's back with a new collection on the same label, and the jury is in: Catherine Russell is one of today's most reliable and remarkable jazz singers. Blessed with a musical background (her father, Luis Russell, was a world-class band leader who often teamed up with Louis Armstrong), she was given a magnificent voice and has developed a keen sense for lyrics, the ability to make impeccable repertory choices, and endless spirit and heart. On Inside This Heart of Mine, she sings standard jazz and blues -- mostly from the 1920s to the '60s -- and she's recreated the spirit and style of those days without ever sounding camp or condescending. There are some welcome familiar songs here: "All the Cats Join In," "As Long as I Live," "Close Your Eyes," and "Struttin' with Some Barbeque" are peppered with some lesser-known classics, including the ultimate personification of liquor in "Quiet Whiskey."

Whiskey, whiskey on the shelf,
You were so quiet there by yourself.
Things were fine 'til they took you down,
Opened you up and passed you around.

Russell has a cream crop of New York musicians playing with her, and the engineering team has created a design that lets them shine without ever obscuring Russell. The overall sound is rich, warm, and clean.

201005_britishinvasionReelin’ in the Years Productions 2.105001
Format: DVD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ***1/2
Picture Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

 

When the Beatles hit number one with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in January 1964, only one other British act joined them on the charts. Dusty Springfield entered WABC’s weekly survey that week at number 24 with “I Only Want to Be with You.” Springfield is one of the subjects in British Invasion, a five-DVD set from Reelin’ in the Years and the first in a planned series. The set devotes one DVD to Springfield, and one each to Small Faces, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Herman’s Hermits. Each disc is available separately, but the fifth disc is available only with the box set. All the discs feature extensive performance footage from British, European, and US television.

Bar None Records BRN-CD-199
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201005_freedyjohnstonRain on the City is Freedy Johnston’s first CD of new material since 2001’s Right Between the Promises, and it marks his return to Seattle’s Bar None Records after a four-CD run with Elektra. The title track is a medium-tempo ballad with vignettes of street scenes and romance, as the rain itself becomes a character and observer. “The Devil Raises His Own” sounds like an acoustic take on Gamble and Huff, and as with many of Johnston’s songs, its lyrics show a sharp storyteller’s eye.

Rain on the City is a deceptively spare recording, but small, rich musical touches keep popping up with repeated listens, and the space around Freedy’s voice gives him and the details of his songs the room they need. “That’s the Kind of Love We’re In” channels Jobim, “It’s Gonna Come Back to You” is rousing C&W, and it all fits Freedy, or maybe he just tailors it to himself. Either way, Rain on the City is a strong, welcome return from a songwriter who deserves a much wider audience. Richard McLaurin has tastefully produced the album, giving it a clean, unfussy sound, with instrumental support from him and other Nashville players.

Analogue Productions CAPB 8755A
Format: Hybrid SACD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

201005_hotspotIn 1990 Dennis Hopper directed The Hot Spot, which starred Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen. It was a good stab at noir in color, but critics were unimpressed. Hopper asked Jack Nitzsche to write the music, and Nitzsche decided that the best way to accompany the images on screen was to use the blues. To play those blues he secured the artistry of John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Taj Mahal, Roy Rogers, Tim Drummond, Earl Palmer, and Bradford Ellis. He basically asked them to improvise on riffs, and since they aren’t just any musicians, their noodling produced some awesome results. Many of the tracks sound alike, but things really move on the vamp-like “Bank Robbery,” which lets Davis shine with muted trumpet licks intoned above a persistent rhythmic figure. The overall result is sultry and hot, and it’s exactly what the film needed.

The recorded sound is excellent and definitely audiophile quality. The moaning of Hooker’s vocals; the smooth sound of Rogers’s slide guitar; and the sassy, pointed attacks from Davis are all exposed with wonderful clarity. The CD layer is fine, but the SACD tracks seem to add a little air around the players, resulting in greater presence. Both sets of tracks are stereo; there’s no effort to synthesize any surround. For this recording, I think that was a good idea.

Deadbeet Records DBR-103
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

201005_dutchmansEloquent imagery and raw acoustics paint pretty, bluesy ballads on Dutchman’s Curve, David Olney’s April release. The Rhode Island-born singer-songwriter has produced an impressive discography since the early 1970s, and his latest album is a worthy addition. Unafraid to bring nontraditional instruments into the blues realm, Olney invites cellist/violinist David Henry and Jim Hoke on autoharp to throw the listener for a loop on several tracks, and he tries his own skillful hand at the ukulele, which fits in smartly on the opening “Train Wreck” and the loping, sultry “I’ve Got a Lot on My Mind.” “Little Sparrow” offers an oddly country-tinged homage to French chanteuse Edith Piaf, but it somehow hits the mark.

Each song tells an intricate story, and Olney reflects on a variety of subjects, from a 1918 Nashville train wreck that was the worst in American history to Vermeer’s painting “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” With poetic inspiration from such a wide range of sources, it’s no wonder that his songs have been covered by such artists as Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, and Steve Earle. Each of Olney’s songs bears a saga, a narrative, or a recount of some forgotten piece of history. On “Way Down Deep,” Olney snarls a murky number over a resonating electric slide guitar and beefy baritone and tenor sax. Most of the tracks are originals, with the exception of the Tommy Goldsmith song, “Hey Sha La La La,” and The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” both soul songs that reveal Olney’s passion for belting out a good “doo wop sh’bop” now and again. Dutchman's Curve is a highly enjoyable album that’s not too serious but is seriously well produced. It’s a thoughtful and intelligent disc that’s rife with pretty riffs and imagery.

Courageous Chicken Music/Nash Vegas Flash CCNF CD 0001
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

201005_jasonscorcheresA band called Jason and the Scorchers should have energy to burn, and it’s been a while since I’ve heard a longish CD (14 cuts) that never lets up, wallows, or runs out of steam. The country punk-rock band has been around, but Halcyon Times is their first album since 1996. It presents band founders Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges in the company of a new, energetic rhythm section consisting of bassist Al Collins and the young Swedish drummer Pontus Snibb. The recordings were done live with a studio audience, which might account for some of the infectious spontaneity. The songs are about people, events, and Americana that the band has experienced and then written as bigger than life. Consider this character from the opening of “Moonshine Guy / Releasing Celtic Prisoners”:

And he yells and he roars
Likes the Stones, hates the Doors
Thinks the Beatles sing for girls
He’s a moonshine guy in a six-pack world

The recording is sometimes refined but often deliberately coarse. When the band is really humping, it sets up an appealing and powerfully raucous sound. There’s a short, homemade documentary on their website that shows how a lot of the album was recorded, and it looks like it was as much fun to make as it is to listen to.

Several new releases piqued my interest this month, so I decided to seek out a few that I knew would be good. Before I discuss the music, however, my experience buying it is worth mentioning. Traditional methods of purchasing music are dying quickly. Have you noticed how drastically stores like Borders have whittled their music sections? What used to take up half of the store is now relegated to a tiny corner that offers only a handful of popular titles. Both independent and corporate-owned record stores are closing in droves, and buying music at a physical store is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve certainly been aware of the dire straits the music industry has been in for some time, but I’m still surprised by the state of retail stores.

201004_black_crowesBut the good news is that prices are low. I purchased four new albums (well, technically five, as you’ll see in the first review below) for under $50. Ten years ago, CDs were nearly $20 each. And while I think the transformation of the purchasing experience puts more power in the hands of the artists and more money in the pocket of the consumer, I also miss the satisfaction of buying a physical product instead of a digital download. I like to hold the case in my hand, turn the pages of the liner notes, appreciate the weight of the package, and smile to myself in the mirrored disc, wondering how long it will be before all those elements are as outdated as 8-track tapes and gramophones.

201004_mcphillips_f_nsLin McPhillips 6-6644964442-9
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Lin McPhillips spent 35 years in the Bay Area singing jazz, and she did a stint in the 1970s and ’80s with the jazz fusion group Solar Plexus, where she used synthesizers and electronics to create wordless vocals, becoming in effect a co-soloist with the other band members. McPhillips, who now resides in the Pacific Northwest, took 20 years off from performing so she could raise a family and teach singing, but she’s returned full force with My Shining Hour, a collection of 11 tracks of traditional vocal jazz.