Critical listening

Headphones are something of a necessary evil. For listening to playback, nothing beats good bi-amped nearfield monitors in a near-anechoic chamber. I look back fondly on the nights I used to spend in UTEMS listening to my work on a pair of Genelec 1030a nearfields. Genelec stopped making the 1030a last year–something kind of sad about that (underscored by Coltrane’s recording of “Lush Life” which just popped on as I write this). The Tannoy Dual-concentrics we had in the MIDI room weren’t too bad, either. Tannoy, a Canadian company, came up with the idea of placing the high-frequency driver right in the center of the low-frequency driver. This creates a single point source. Neat idea. But the Genelecs are a dream; the Finns know how to do good audio.

So what if you don’t have a quiet room–no outside noise, no worries about your sound leeching out and bothering people (a concept I’ve tried in vain to explain to my downstairs neighbour for the last four years)? Well, then it’s time to slip on this cans. So, I like the Finns for their powered speakers, but when it comes to microphones and headphones, there’s only one place you need to visit, and that is Austria! A good pair of AKG cans, mine are the K240s, are as ubiquitous in studios as an old Strat, a pair of Yamaha NS10Ms, or a coked-out groupie. And for good reason. First, they are beyond comfortable. They actually feel good on your head. That’s important for when you’re doing a 10-hour session. Second, they sound good. It’s too bad they discontinued the 600-Ohm version of the 240. Only professional equipment can drive it to loud levels. At least that way, you can only burn your ears out on good-quality audio.

Cans have one legitimate, important, use in audio, and that’s in quality checking. You more easily hear detail on them that can be masked by nearfields. Unless you have your nearfields running at a crushing SPL. Bad edits, small clicks, pops, weird vocal noises, all these tend to leap out at you on the cans.

But cans can also give you special treats. You can sometimes hear comments, jokes–audio Easter eggs–especially during count-ins and fade-outs. This morning, I heard something I had always missed on a song that I’ve heard a million time before, which is what prompted this little foray. On “Back in Black”, on the final upbeat before the first E Major chord, you can hear someone way in the background say, “four”. I’m not sure why, but there’s something special to me about that.

Sedrick: Hell Yeah!

I sure do love me some of that new Sedrick. Just downloaded an album’s worth of their new stuff here, and I suggest you do the same. Now! Cool thing is, this stuff was recorded on the new gear that we discussed here on cyberkrunk. And it sounds not too shabby. Hey Will, are we hearing any of that new Les Paul on these tracks? Thanks guys!

Theatre Review: Jazzabel

London, Ontario came to New York this week in the guise of Jazzabel, the one-woman (and three-guy) show produced by a trio known collectively as “Femme Fatale.” The show is the product of chanteuse Denise Pelley, author Jacquie Gauthier, music director & composer Jeff Christmas, and producer (and ex-high-school-colleague-of-mine) Louise Fagan. Londoners of note, all.

The show has been the buzz of the London theatre scene for a while, and the excitement leading up to the New York run was high. I missed the Gala opening and the opportunity to hang with the Canadian Consulate muckity mucks. Instead, I caught the show on a wickedly cold Saturday night, surrounded by an audience of imported Canadians, some of whom seemed to have just put down their martinis moments before entering the house.

The idea for the show is promising, if not Earth-shattering: in between sets of hot jazz from the ’30s and ’40s, two jazz singers, played by one woman, tell their story. The two singers couldn’t be more different. Grace is green, excited, a little afraid, and clean cut, if not a complete square. Jane, who becomes Jazzabel, is hard-living, substance abusing, rather tragic. Parallels in jazz history are many. Ella and Billie are the quickest to come to mind, but if they were men, they could just as easily have been Bird and Diz.

As much as I enjoyed the show, and it is enjoyable, it did not completely hit the mark. I’ll talk about the music first. Jazz is, we all know, an improvised art form. When all the parts are written out, solos and all, you get something out that isn’t quite jazz. It’s jazz-substitute, processed jazz food, an edible jazz product. But it’s not jazz. Christmas actually did an admirable job on the arrangements. But the band could have really cooked if they had run though his charts once or twice and then tossed them out. Denise Pelley’s voice is great. No problem there at all. The artifice of the show had her a bit too removed from the boys in the band. I think that the intent was to show that the sidemen weren’t really on the stage with, that they were in the pit or something. Again, jazz is all about communication, people listening and interacting with each other. In such an intimate setting, her lack of contact with the band was a little unsettling.

The script has some issues, too. While I buy the story line, Gauthier’s dialogue, or monologue, I guess, doesn’t sell it. Big, long sentences that don’t always ring true. Here’s another radical idea: letting Pelley internalize the script and then throw it out would help. More improvised music, more improvised story-telling, less constraint, and in short, more jazz.

Smokin’ on the UWS

Headed up and to the left last nite to listen to some B3 grooves, and help out in some belated birthday activities. The venue was Smoke, an old-fashioned uptown boite de jazz. This place is what a jazz club should be, it’s small, has good sight-lines everywhere, good sound system, not too expensive (unlike those downtown tourist traps), nice vibe and comfy couches. And, as someone at our table pointed out, Smoke, sans smoke, is nice. (I could digress into a brief request that we pillory all those fools who screamed that banning smoking would kill the city’s night life–the place was packed, and not an iron lung in sight.)

As for the band, the Mike LeDonne quartet played them some good grooves. I was most impressed with tenor man Eric Alexander. This cat’s good. And he has that cool, serious, young jazz genius thing down, think Steve Dallas in The Sweet Smell of Success. In fact, Eric pretty much stole the set. I thought that guitarist Peter Bernstein would finally get his moment during a scorching slow blues–that’s guitar turf, man! But Bernstein is so intent on doing this quiet, unassuming melodic style, that he still held back. By the end of his solo, the blues had worn down to a funeral march. It was a weird moment. I liked his playing and loved his tone, but I wanted to hear much more. Peter, cut loose once in a while, you’ll feel good!

Violated on the Bowery

Just got back from seeing those Depeche-mode-playin’ gals at a newish club called Crash Mansion. Professor E. was crashed out on a couch as we checked out the opening act, a U2 cover band that doesn’t seem to realize it’s a U2 cover band. Ho hum. Violator hit the stage and this new iteration is the best one yet. This is the third guitarist I’ve seen them with, and she coaxed some nice textures out of her LP->Pod->Twin setup. PG’s bass sounded better than ever, with a nice Korn-like crunch. Tracy the drummer, whose birthday was the excuse for this here gig, rocked steady as ususal. Then t’was out into the cold street and into a warm cab to zoom back uptown and tuck the Prof into another cozy crash pad. As for me, I’m going to browse “How to play Bebop” for a while longer…

The all spins zone

The engineers at Cyberkrunk Labs need to keep their audio equipment calibrated with contemporaneous vibrations and are therefore always on the lookout for new sonic material. Some recent entries include the Kasabian debut, relatively well received, and the latest Weezer, which was almost spat out. Both Franz Ferdinand discs were recently submitted and the results were surprisingly good. The Postal Service was also entered, and once again the meters hit the correct zone.

At the same time, older reference material serves as a good baseline and we couldn’t be happier with the tests we have performed on Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation album. The machine hummed and sputtered, then outputted on the teletype interface “Where has this been hiding all my life? More!”

Sonically, the Voidoids fall almost precisely between Television (whom we love dearly) and The Clash. But unlike either, they are funny. To wit:

Love comes in spurts
Oh no! It hurts!

This track weighs in at 1:59, not a second too long, practically begging you to play it again. You will either hate this record for its sophomoric crudity or love it for the same reasons. Was 1977 the apex of American pop music?

At the same time, it is always good to re-acquaint the monster cable with Gang of Four’s Entertainment. Their resurgence was almost guaranteed following the anthrax scare of ’01. And they’re touring, too. I just read that they were doing a date in Brooklyn. That’s near New York, isn’t it?

Now, let’s hear that song again…

Joni said it right

Watching a fascinating DVD set of Dick Cavett music shows from the ’70s. Joni just came on and sang this, a cappella. She prefaced it by saying, “This is how I feel as a Canadian living in America.”

The Fiddle and the Drum

And so once again
My dear Johnny my dear friend
And so once again you are fightin’ us all
And when I ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry, and I fall
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum

You say I have turned
Like the enemies you’ve earned
But I can remember
All the good things you are
And so I ask you please
Can I help you find the peace and the star
Oh, my friend
What time is this
To trade the handshake for the fist

And so once again
Oh, America my friend
And so once again
You are fighting us all
And when we ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry and we fall
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum

You say we have turned
Like the enemies you’ve earned
But we can remember
All the good things you are
And so we ask you please
Can we help you find the peace and the star
Oh my friend
We have all come
To fear the beating of your drum

–Joni Mitchell

Jimi got it right

Rainy day, dream away
Ah let the sun take a holiday
Flowers bathe an’ ah see the children play
Lay back and groove on a rainy day.

Rodgers that

In all the late-60s-English-blues-guitar-god listening I’ve been doing lately, I’ve taken a real fancy to Free. I’m drawn to both Paul Rodgers tasty, cooler-Rod-Stewart vocals and Paul Kossoff’s tasty Les Paul guitar tones. (Though he is also named Paul, Paul McCartney does not enter into the picture, though Pauline Kael might.) Free had, true to their name, a nice looseness that Bad Company lacked. And although Free had a big following, the songs on “Fire and Water” have a quiet intimacy–they would come across better in a small club than a stadium. “Cooler Rod Stewart?” you ask. No, it’s not a joke; I’m thinking of Rod in the “Jeff Beck Group” era, before he blew all his blues rock cred with those horrible multi-platinum albums in the mid 70s. Pagey formed Led Zepplin as his New Yardbirds (with John Paul Jones on bass). How much less ridiculous would Zep had been if Rod was its singer. As he was in Jeff Beck’s own version of the New Yardbirds. Well, you can compare them directly since both groups did “You Shook Me” on their first album. Personally, I prefer Stewart to Plant. Gasp! Here’s more fantasy football, what if Rodgers had been the singer for Zep? Would it sound anything like “The Firm”, the group that Page and Rodgers eventually formed together in the 80s? Don’t know, never heard them. Any comments here?

Where am I going with all this? Ah, grasshopper, always impatient. When Zep formed their vanity label, Swan Song, Bad Company was the first act they signed. Their other big act was the group that Paul Rodgers is now touring with, and of course I’m talking about Queen. And now you know… The rest of the story!

Rock ‘n Roll politics

A while back I celebrated my long-delayed Karaoke debut. This took place appropriately enough in “Music City, USA”. Nashville certainly earns that title, covering as it does that wide stylistic expanse from Country to Western.*** Up on stage, S.Fo and I performed My Generation (my choice) and LA Woman (his choice). Both songs are probably revealing of something or other. Leafing through the giant binder full of songs, I flipped past one page with about a third of the page blacked out. At first, I just continued browsing, but the blackened section piqued my curiosity, compelling me back to figure it out. Wild Turkey in hand, doing my best darkened Honky-Tonk 1:00 a.m. Wednesday squint, I gradually began making out letters behind the magic marker. When the mystery was revealed, I was hit with a wave of queasiness. In a move confounding authoritarian jackassery with patriotism, someone had blackened out all the songs by The Dixie Chicks.

What reminded me of this funny and sad incident is the new story about Sweet Neo Con, the new Rolling Stones tune that tells president Bush what the Glimmer Twins really think of him. Now, instead of three young Southern women criticizing Bush, you have the full force of the British Rock ‘n Roll empire launching an attack. And funnily enough, the calls for burning their album in the street haven’t been heard. The calls to ban Start Me Up from football games. And while it’s generally true that bullies don’t like to pick on people their own size, I suppose I can imagine another defense, Scott McLellan informing us that “The United States does not interfere with the Rock and Roll of sovereign nations.”

So more often than not, Rock and Rollers are part of the VLWC, and of course most C&Wers are Ditto-Heads, but there are plenty of notable exceptions. We have the Dixie Chicks on the one hand, and Johnny Ramone on the other. We saw the documentary “The End of the Century” last night. If you’re the kind of person who has read “Please Kill Me”, you need to see this movie. Just like the book, the story of the Ramones is interesting and surprisingly sad. Much of the movie focuses on Johnny, for two practical reasons 1) he was still alive (unlike Joey) and 2) he wasn’t strung out (unlike Dee Dee). Joey had succumbed to Cancer at age 49. In 2001, Dee Dee ODed at age 49 in 2002, two months after the film wrapped, and Johnny made it all the way to 55, losing out to prostate cancer in 2004. Johnny comes off as a humorless, fairly bitter, generally not fun to be around kind of guy. Which is a shocker, but you realize that without his level-headed discipline, the never would have survived for as long as it did. Johnny was the enforcer. He made them practice, he made them dress alike, he made them tour like maniacs, he kept tight reins over their finances. And because they were all such complete misfits, they stuck together, realizing they would collapse without each other.

Even though they hated each other.

Johnny had a revealing and unfortunate Spinal Tapian moment when, reflecting on Dee Dee quitting the group, he utters words to the effect that the band would have been exactly the same with another bass player, another drummer and… another singer. For Johnny, it was all about Johnny. For the rest of us, of course, the Ramones are all about Joey. We already know what the Ramones would sound like with out Joey: Green Day, Blink 182 or take your pick of a few dozen other imitators. And I’m not buying any of them. Johnny and Joey’s bitterness had many sources, not the least of which was Johnny stealing Joey’s girl and marrying her. (The KKK took my baby away.) Politically, they were polar opposites with Joey playing the New York Jewish Left-wing Woody Allen type, and Johnny on the Right. Johnny took time to praise president Bush during the band’s induction in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I like to think that at that moment, in Rock and Roll heaven, Joey and Rock ‘n Roll Jesus glanced at each other, rolled their eyes and smiled.

***Evidently, I never tire of that joke.