Vinyl review : Times New Viking – Rip It Off

October 23rd, 2010

Times New Viking - Rip it Off

Artist – Times New Viking

Title – Rip It Off

Format – 180g Vinyl LP

Label – Matador

Year – 2008

Finally, I’m reviewing an album that isn’t from the 1980’s ! Times New Viking is a loud as fuck lo-fi group from Columbus, Ohio. Now I know what you’re thinking : a lo-fi recording on a hi-fi system? Is it even fair to evaluate this on sonic grounds? Well, I picked up this record to hear how my system can handle an intentionally poor recording, and to also find out if a lo-fi band can still create a recording that is in some way acoustically remarkable.

I’ve “owned” this album in MP3 form for a few years, so I am familiar with how earsplittingly hot and strident this recording is. Quite often it comes up during shuffle mode, causing me to wince and fumble for my iPod volume. Having experienced this, I lowered the tonearm on Side A expecting Teen Drama to explode out of the speakers. Strangely, and somewhat disappointingly, I wasn’t blown backward like the Maxell guy. The music buzzes and blares but makes no attempt to go forward, politely making a din at a reasonable distance. On the back of the album cover reads the advice “please play loud”, which didn’t help much when I tried. Everything is mostly the same volume. The drums sounds like someone hitting cardboard boxes. No bass frequencies to speak of. Just one constant midrangey howl.

Some of the tunes are really catchy, e.g. DROP-OUT and RIP allegory, but the rest of the album sounds like short Dinosaur Jr. songs with broken equipment and forced indie affectations. The packaging is cool, if you dig played out typewriter and collage motifs. There’s a “contains explicit lyrics” warning on the front, which I found very amusing.

I put this record on expecting shit, I accept this, but I thought it would be shit with some feeling of engagement or presence. It offers little improvement over the MP3 copies (and the album comes with a coupon for the free downloads if you want them). Buy the album here for around 20 bucks if you want some hipster cred (which is a new grade I’m adding to my reviews from now on). At least it’s on 180 gram vinyl.

Music – C+

Sound – D-

Hipster Cred – B

Vinyl review : Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

October 14th, 2010

minutemen double nickels on the dimeArtist – Minutemen

Title – Double Nickels on the Dime

Format – 2x Vinyl LP

Label – SST

Year – 1984

A few years ago I kept reading how groundbreaking and influential Double Nickels on the Dime was so I downloaded the album (naturally). I tried to listen to it but couldn’t really get into the music for some reason. The short, quirky, directionless songs didn’t do anything for me, with the exception of “Corona”, which anyone can immediately recognize as the Jackass theme. Recently, I picked the vinyl version up on a whim and gave it another shot. Now I finally get it. The reason I didn’t like this album on MP3 was cause I kept skipping around between tracks, looking for something that I instantly liked. Double Nickels does not work that way. The record has to be taken as a whole, with the good songs nestled among the weak and forgettable. Listening to it on vinyl makes shuffling around the tracks practically impossible, forcing you to groove on the gestalt. And that goes for any record regardless of genre, which is yet another advantage of the almighty LP.

I’ll leave you this link to Wikipedia for all the background about the band and the record because they summarize it much better than I can, and it’s not really relevant to the audio review. I will say that for a band that “jams econo”, the production on Double Nickels is uncharacteristically great. Great in the sense that there isn’t really any production to speak of, no effects or multitracking or anything, just a solid analog recording of the band doing their thing. The tracks run together with little gap between, which is totally intentional and give the impression of an extended jam session. I noticed quickly that the soundstage is kind of compressed and cramped, but it seems to open up as the album progresses. Hurley’s drums and Watt’s bass burst out of the speakers without assaulting my ears to the point of annoyance. Quieter acoustic guitar portions are well defined and natural, with humanizing string squeak and a good sense of dynamics. D. Boon’s vocals are satisfactory in the acoustic sense, but the lyrics are mostly just stoned ramblings with a few trenchant insights sprinkled in.

The album’s packaging ain’t bad, a nice gatefold sleeve with barely legible lyrics on the back and some band pics plus Raymond Pettibon artwork on the inside. Double albums always have beefy spines that look good on a shelf, so much so that i’ve encountered records that are only a single disc but put in double packaging anyway (like the Plain Records re-release of Loveless).

Double Nickels on the Dime proved that punk rock could be more than just power chords and blastbeats. Get this record for the noteworthiness but also for a true vinyl experience. Drop the needle, ingest your intoxicant of choice (optional) and take an engrossing ride that tosses you between genius and garbage. Amazon has this sucker in a warehouse just waiting to be raked with a microscopic piece of diamond, all for the low-ass price of thirteen bucks!

Music – B+

Sound – A

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbBVOnRFHF8

A quick note on the current direction of this site

October 14th, 2010

Regular readers (if I even have any yet) may have noticed that lately I’ve been heavy on the album reviews and essays and not done any new equipment reviews/recommendations. When I started this site, my main idea was to write about affordable hi-fi and review “budget” components. Problem is, I really haven’t had the spare cash to get much new equipment these days, even the affordable stuff. As soon as I’m in a situation when I can, I’ll start picking up some new gadgets (new speakers are going to be my first big addition) and doling out my opinions on them. If you are interested in learning about an affordable stereo setup in the meantime, check out my post with prices and advice on a good beginner’s system. In the coming month I plan to review some audio accessories, such as the Spin Clean Record Washer, a manually operated record cleaner that does a thorough job and only costs 80 bucks. For the time being, I’m happy just typing up record reviews, and I hope my readers are enjoying these reviews too.

(semi-serious) P.S. : If you are an equipment manufacturer or a band, get in touch with me. I’d be happy to review your gear or music…

Vinyl review : Felt – Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

October 5th, 2010

Artist – Feltfelt - crumbling the antiseptic beauty

Title – Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – Cherry Red

Year- 1981

Felt was an early indie band from England that mostly made jangly stuff centered around guitar melodies. The lead singer and songwriter goes only by “Lawrence” and sounds kind of like Bryan Ferry on valium.

…i’m not sure what else to say, really. Having listened through some of their 10 year discography, it’s all kind of samey : shimmering, atmospheric instrumentals paired with plaintive lyrics. They get a little poppyer and uptempo as they progress through the 80s, but this debut record is on the darker side..

The album opens with Evergreen Dazed, a 5 minute instrumental piece whose pained guitar lines evoke shuffling through chilly fall afternoons under steel gray skies. Unfortunately, the guitar on this track is kinda shrill, I mean I guess its meant to be high pitched and twangy but it’s still not as smooth as I expected from vinyl.

Our next song is Fortune , and the version on this album is different than the one i’ve heard before, it’s slower and has tribal-ish drums instead of porn music rim knocks. Wiki tells me it was re-recorded and re-released in 84 as a b-side, which is probably what I heard before. I prefer the single version.

Guitar harshness is reduced on the rest of the tracks, but still seems too jumpy and fake. On the tracks that have percussion, the drums are primitive style tomtoms and hand drums that have appropriate bass and a sense of being struck by a person. Lawrence’s vocals can get rather hissy and sibilant, especially on I Worship The Sun. In sum, the album’s sound isn’t terrible but it left me disappointed, especially since I had only heard the MP3s from the CD version before so I was expecting to be blown away by a rich sonic landscape. I guess if I had a tube amp it would mellow out the edges a bit.

Being that this is a fairly rare record, I can’t find it on Amazon for you guys. I got my copy from a guy on Discogs for about 55 dollars, which is fairly steep but at least it was in near mint condition.

Music – B-

Sound – C

How bad is MP3? (Part 2)

September 29th, 2010
lego mp3 player

Image courtest of stuffwelike.com

Last week I wrote up a post about my opinions on the MP3 format which included a few listening reviews of various MP3s in my collection. I admitted the weakness of this experiment, in that I wasn’t comparing these recordings to any other format, so I concluded that I needed to do a review the same recording in both MP3, CD and vinyl forms.

I chose to review Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1961 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”. Specifically, the third and final movement. I own this recording both on vinyl as part of the Great Men of Music boxset I reviewed a while back and as an RCA Living Stereo SACD . I ripped an MP3 copy at 160 kbit/s using iTunes, which was sourced from the CD layer of the SACD disc. Before each test, I calibrated the sound level for each source to -25 dB using the trial version of Electroacoustics Toolbox 2.0 , a versatile sound analysis program. To do this, I placed my laptop in my listening position and then played a 1 KHZ test tone from the Stereophile Test CD , test MP3 file in iTunes, and the Cardas Test record . The laptop microphone picks up the test tone and displays the current SPL (sound pressure level) ,and I would adjust the volume knob on my amp until it reached -25 dB. Performing this adjustment for each source reviewed ensured that the music was being pumped out the amplifier at a consistent level so that differences in the sound pressure wouldn’t color my judgment. So, here’s what I came up with:

CD- I made sure to play the CD layer of the disc for this test, as it wouldn’t be fair to compare the MP3 it was sourced from to a hi-rez version of the same recording. Bass frequencies are very present (if not fairly boomy) and Cliburn’s piano is fresh and lively but demonstrates some “smearing”. The strings are dense without sounding excessively stodgy and the soundstaging is good. Everything is in its proper place, and since I have actually attended a concert in that hall before, I could really reimagine it.

MP3 – A marked flatness is apparent right off the bat, the dynamics are severely reduced. Just as I had remarked about some tracks in the previous week’s part of this review, the music just can’t seem to escape or transcend the speakers. The orchestra is trapped in a wood and kevlar prison. In contrast to the CD recording, the piano seems a bit more defined and runs together less. But despite the improved clarity, the piano still suffers from a loss of energy. The soundstage has shifted to the left somewhat…somehow. Overall, the MP3 was not unlistenable but still not ideal.

LP- Well, to start off, hissing, rumble and clicks are apparent in quiet portions (no shit) but it’s not bad enough to be distracting. This recording shows excellent soundstaging and the bass is subdued when compared to the CD and MP3 edition. The piano isn’t as shiny as the other two tests, it lacks in high treble which can be a limitation of vinyl records. This was craploads better than the MP3 and rivaled the CD for clarity, warmth and overall enjoyability.

So to conclude, MP3s still kinda suck. But as I wrote last time, they have their definite advantages if you’re concerned about space and price. I understand that this wasn’t a double-blind ABX test , the gold standard for hi-fi experimentation, but the point of these reviews wasn’t to determine if one could tell a difference between the formats (which ABX does), but instead to assess the subjective qualities of each format. Sound is still always a matter of taste and preference, so you might not mind or even care about the sound of an MP3 if it seems okay to you. But for me, i’ll stick to MP3s cranked out of a portable device for when i’m on my way to work, and i’ll use CD and vinyl for when I really want to sit down and enjoy the music.

Vinyl review : R.E.M. – Chronic Town

September 23rd, 2010

R.E.M. Chronic Town EP

Artist – R.E.M.

Title – Chronic Town

Format – Vinyl EP

Label – IRS

Year – 1982

Short record, short review. This five song EP was R.E.M.’s first major release after their 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” (and that single sounds a hell of a lot different than the album version they put out a few years later).

I picked this up for $12.50 at Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, MD, a shop I used to visit at their old Rockville location before I left for college. The record is in good shape with quiet grooves, although i’m pissed at myself for damaging the sleeve when peeling off the pricetag. With the needle down, the guitars ring and chime appropriately and Stipe’s mumbling follows suit. Bill Berry’s drumming on the first few tracks, especially on “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” are really muted and indistinct; the cymbals mush together and sound like those maracas you made out of an oatmeal box filled with rice back in 2nd grade art class. Side B’s percussion has much better definition and push, but the cymbals are still kinda dialed down. I guess we can’t really expect world-class sonics from a debut EP.

Acoustic flaws aside, this is an excellent first record that nicely lays out the style they pursue on their next two LPs.  Some smug British dude wrote that R.E.M.’s stuff from the first half of the eighties was just Stipe “…mumbling gibberish into his fringe over tinny old Byrds riffs”, but I think that their work from that period was some of their best. Everything after Monster is entirely forgettable. Speaking of irrelevant musicians, Stipe should team up with Moby and do a tour of bald vegan white dudes with serious opinions about things.

Music – B+

Sound – B