Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

Vinyl review : Crucial Youth – The Posi-Machine

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Artist – Crucial Youth

Title – The Posi-Machine

Format – White Vinyl LP

Label – New Red Archives

Year – 1988

I first heard of Crucial Youth back in middle school, from a friend whose uncle was in the band. I managed to find a few MP3s on Napster, downloaded them, had a laugh, then forgot about them. I came across this LP on eBay a few years ago and just now decided to give it a review. Basically, Crucial Youth was one big parody of straightedge hardcore, featuring hilariously overblown songs about brushing your teeth, eating a balanced diet, and not masturbating. Active in New Jersey in the mid through late 80’s, they were a pretty good antidote to overbearing punk bands preaching militant asceticism, and pointed out just how silly the whole thing can sound to an outsider.

Tracks on this album include “Caffeine”, a warning about the dangers of legal stimulants (“STAY A-WAY FROM MEEEE WHEN YOU’RE DRINKING YOUR CO-FEEEE!!!”), “4 Food Groups”, a primer on healthy eating, and “Cross at the Green (Not In between)”, an informative lesson on crosswalk safety. The music itself is unremarkable, intentionally amateurish hardcore somewhere between Cro-Mags and DRI. Vocalist “Joe Crucial” delivers appropriately trite lyrics in a honking bellow (a commenter on another website described it as “Ian MacKaye with a 47th chromosome”) that consist of gems like:

“When you smoke pot / what have you got? / I’ll tell you what / Not a lot!”

album cover + record for Crucial Youth - The Posi-Machine

Hardcore albums in general aren’t known for their impressive sonics, and this record follows the rule. The guitars groan and drone in the distance while thin, spitty drums dominate the mix. Great sound isn’t the point of this record though, it gets its satirical message across just fine.

This album comes on “milk white” vinyl and has cover art depicting the band and their crew gleefully steamrolling glam rockers and Quincy punks. I’m not sure if it originally came with the “Crucial Youth comix” or if these were in a zine, but my copy didn’t have them. A seller on GEMM.com is offering it for almost 60 bucks, which means I got it for a steal at 10 from eBay. If you want the CD, Amazon has it for 14 dollars and it’s probably remastered so the sound will be improved. Buy it to troll your sXe friends with, or just as a vaguely amusing satire of a scene that desperately needed it.

Music: C+

Sound: D

SACD Review : Pixies – Surfer Rosa (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster)

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

cover of surfer rosa mfsl sacd

Artist – Pixies

Title – Surfer Rosa

Format – Hybrid SACD

Label – 4AD

Year – 1988 (original) , 2007 (remaster)

When the topic of the Pixies comes up, I’ve actually heard some indie fans scoff and call it “entry level”. Fuck that opinion. Yeah, everyone’s seen Fight Club and we all know how Kurt Cobain admits he was basically ripping off the Pixies for most of Nevermind, but you can’t dismiss how pivotal this album was in the context of the 1980’s. Before this album, American indie rock was dominated by jangly R.E.M imitators, stodgy post-punk (yes, I know I just previously reviewed Mission of Burma), or hardcore bands that finally learned to play their instruments. Surfer Rosa defined the sound that carried through to the 90’s and was unfortunately beaten to death by the middle of that decade. The album isn’t perfect (“Tony’s Theme” is a painfully lame piece of filler), but the first seven tracks are unforgettable classics.

I’ve had this album on vinyl for a while but it has a really bad warp that affects the first couple tracks on each side. I figured I should get a more listenable version of it, so I went with the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD. For the uninitiated, a brief intro to SACD and MFSL: SACDs (Super Audio CD) are basically hi-resolution, dual layer CDs. Think Blu-Ray, but for music. The first layer contains the SACD recording, which is stored at a whopping 2822.4 Khz sample rate .The second layer contains the standard “Red Book” recording at 44.1 Khz, which works in any CD player and can be ripped to a computer. In order to get the improved sound of a SACD, you need a compatible player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has specialized in audiophile-grade remasters of rock albums since their inception in the late 70’s. They start from the original master tapes and produce an excellent new version true to the intended recording and not all compressed and shrill like modern attempts at remastering (louder=better!!!!111). There is currently a dearth of rock music on SACD, as most of it is classical and jazz, but MFSL is definitely filling the gap. Surfer Rosa is the first non-classical SACD that i’ve bought, as well as the first MFSL release.

So how’s it sound, Mike? Amazing. I started with high expectations which were more than fulfilled. Every song has a distinct sense of ambience and reverb, I really get a sense of the recording space. The drums sound like an actual drum kit and not a bunch of detached, percussive strikes. Joey’s guitar screams and squawks without sounding unpleasantly harsh, and Frank’s strained shrieks are maddeningly detailed. I heard little things that I hadn’t noticed on previous CD and vinyl versions; bits of feedback, string squeak, and a creaking chair during the studio banter at the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Surfer Rosa SACD unpacked

The only letdown was the packaging. I had expected a plastic case but was instead served a cardboard sleeve (which at least had a protective slipcover for the disc). If you want to own a quality physical copy of this landmark album, I would definitely recommend this version. You can get it from Amazon for about 27 bucks. Even if you don’t own an SACD player yet, this is worth getting because you’ll still get some of the sonic benefits of the remaster on the CD layer.

Music: A-

Sound: A+

Vinyl review : Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Mission of Burma - Signals, Calls, and Marches

Artist – Mission of Burma

Title – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Format – 2x 180g Vinyl LP + bonus DVD

Label – Matador (remastered edition, original release on Ace of Hearts)

Year – 1981 (original), 2008 (remaster)

Among the slew of post-punk bands in the early 1980s, Mission of Burma was one of the few American groups, and probably one of the best. I had known of them for years but never checked out any of their work until the autumn of last year when I downloaded their Rykodisc compilation. I was living in Scotland at the time, and something about their songs really resonated with me as I spent countless grim mornings huddled at a bus stop in the pouring rain, hood up and headphones on.

The two disc set consists of the original 1981 EP (remastered from the original tapes) and their debut 7” , both on 12” , 33 1/3 records. These are 180g LPs, which means these records are thicker, heavier and generally better quality than other discs, which are generally 120g-140g. Most audiophile grade recordings are on heavy vinyl, and the improvement in sound is apparent. This is some of the quietest (in terms of surface noise) vinyl I have ever heard. Not a single pop or crack in either the lead in or run out groove, just a faint hiss. Nearly every other record I own has a noticeable amount of crackle, even brand new ones.

Little details are revealed by the new remaster, like the acoustic guitar buried in “Academy Fight Song”, and the bass has a good punch without being overwhelming. However, the vocals are a bit thin and the drums are vaguely distant. Despite this, i’m quite pleased with the sonics: the background is nice and black like I mentioned, and the whole thing has that laid back analog sound I know and love.

The set also includes a coupon for a free MP3 download of the album, booklet with pics and interviews, and a DVD of some live performances from 79-80. I haven’t checked out the DVD yet, but they supposedly had a mixed reputation as a live band (hence the title The Horrible Truth about Burma for their live album). You can get it from Amazon for 28 dollars , but I got mine from elusivedisc , a company i’ve been a fan of for a while.

Music: B+

Sound: B

CD Review : Vince Guaraldi Trio – Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

A boy named Charlie Brown

Artist – Vince Guaraldi Trio

Title – Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown

Format – CD ( AAD )

Label – Fantasy Records

Originally released in 1964, CD released 1989

This CD somehow found its way into my collection from one of the many roommates I had in college; lost and unclaimed among the multiple move ins/outs. According to Wikipedia, it is the soundtrack to a 1963 TV documentary about Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts comics, which lead to the 1965 animated Christmas special (that was followed by dozens of forgettable sequels).

The album includes “Linus and Lucy” , a song which all Americans hear roughly a billion times every holiday season yet still somehow retains its charm. The rest of the CD is in an identical vein: cocktail hour jazz piano made by, and for, white people. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just that I get the feeling that I should be drinking a martini and lounging on Dutch Modern furniture while this plays.

As for the sound, the double bass booms and buzzes, the hi hat spits out of the left channel and Vince’s piano glitters (but not too brightly) to my right. The whole CD seems to be recorded fairly hot and with not as much dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest parts) as I’d like. It’s nowhere near modern loudness war levels, but it isn’t great either. Overall, the recording is still engaging, so it’s worth throwing on during a classier shindig or if you just want to kick back with some single malt scotch.

Amazon has it for fourteen bucks, but lists it under a slightly different title for some reason. Check it out if you want some accessible jazz for your collection.

Music: B-

Sound: C+

Vinyl review : Time-Life Great Men of Music series

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

One way to enhance your hipster cred is to feign interest in the high arts, so what better way than occasionally listening to classical music? Classical music on vinyl at that…

Time-Life Great Men of Music LP Boxsets

I own 8 out of the 13 pictured

Much of my LP collection started out as stuff my parents previously owned. Nearly all of the classic punk and new wave I own once belonged to my dad, but I also claimed the classical music he got via mail-order back in the early eighties. These were from the Time-Life Great Men of Music series, which consisted of 4 records each from all the major classical composers. Each set had the composer’s most famous works (e.g. Symphony No.5 for Beethoven, Rondo alla Turca for Mozart) but also had some of their lesser known pieces. The full series pretty much covered everyone from the Baroque to the early Modern period (Bach to Copland), but my dad only had 8 of the 30 box set.

The records come in sturdy, attractive boxes with anti-scratch sleeves and a booklet containing the history of the composer and notes on each included recording. Many of the recordings are sourced from the well-regarded RCA Living Stereo series. Internet research later backed me up, but I had originally suspected this when I first played the Living Stereo SACD of Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto and found it…somehow familiar. Sure enough, they are the exact same recording.

The overall sound quality of the records is pleasant and mellow; as I write this I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2, which flows smoothly from the speakers while demonstrating a well defined soundstage (that is, every instrument has a discernible “place of origin” emitting from the speakers that mostly corresponds to how an actual chamber orchestra is set up). Mozart’s piano works are crisp and believable , if not a tad bright, while Beethoven’s Fifth is immersive and effective. The recordings aren’t always perfect though, some of the tracks, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, aren’t true stereo but are “electronically reprocessed” , which I personally don’t like but YMMV. Some of the speedy glissandos in Chopin’s Etudes kind of smear together, but I suspect this is a weakness of my system rather than the recording.

These boxsets are a great way to start a classical collection, and they seem like the kind of thing you could score from a yard sale, thrift store, or Craigslist. Amazon has just the Beethoven set starting at 22 bucks, but if you’re more of a completist then eBay has most of them, unfortunately sold separately.

Final scores:

Music: A

Sound: A- to C+, depending on each recording.