I apologize for for not updating in a long time; the timesink of a real job instead of being a wannabe pro blogger gave me less opportunities to write for this thing. Rest assured, I have since acquired a ton of new records I intend to review in the coming weeks.
Singles are often overlooked by hi-fi enthusiasts, disregarded as junk in favor of limited edition 180g boxsets and the like. In some ways they were the MP3s of the vinyl era: cheap, tradeable, compact, and expendable. So expendable that they are a dime a dozen these days and often in very poor shape (people used to stack them up on their turntable, removing one after each track to create a primitive playlist). But despite the difficulty of finding singles in good condition, they are a good way to get some easy wax into your collection. In addition to affordability, they have a supposed sound benefit because the 45 RPM speed allows greater spacing between the grooves which in turn permits better dynamics.
I own only a few singles, most of which I took from my father’s collection. The rarest in the collection is probably “Robot Love / For Adolfs Only” by The Valves , an incredibly early punk band from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my copy was wrecked when a girl I was dating sat on it. I was sorting through my collection and set the single down on the couch next to me, she plopped down without realizing and hairline cracked the damn thing. The whole thing was my fault entirely but I got mad at her regardless, and we broke up like a month later (for other reasons, but the record cracking incident was the start of the downfall). Anyway, I’m going to give some of my singles a good listen and report back on the sonic quality or lack thereof.
Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days” : The krautrock-esque drums snap outward (but the hihat sizzles in the distance). Ian Curtis’ robotic murmuring emanates from the dead center, the synths swirl and the guitar just kinda stays there. When I flipped it over to “These Days” I hadn’t noticed that side B was at 33 RPM and briefly wondered why it was some cheesy New Order dance remix…yeah. Curtis sounds even more like an android on this tune, proper speed or not. The percussion is desperately thin but the guitars are at least up to something. Track 2 on side B is some kind of alternate take for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and frankly it just sucks.
Nirvana – “Sliver / Dive” : The vinyl is quiet for a used record, ill give it that, but this kind of stuff is hard to judge on audiophile grounds. At the beginning, the bass intro sounds promising but it disappears into mush which I guess is the point. Side A ends with a pointless recording of a hung over / strung out Cobain on the phone with his producer or something. Side B’s “Dive” is a better song and a slightly better recording.
Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side / Perfect Day” : That famous bassline rumbles nicely and the acoustic guitar chills in the right-center channel. The “colored girls” surround Reed on both sides during their bit, but the rest of Reed’s vocals get that irritating sibilance which I pin more on the record wear rather than a flaw in the recording. An unfortunate buzzing quality affects the closing sax solo. “Perfect Day” lacks most of these sonic faults for some reason. The occasional popping and clicking enhances this intensely defeating and ironic tune.
So despite that these singles aren’t shining examples of acoustic brilliance, they are still worthy components of my music library. The only real pain in the ass associated with them that my turntable ( the Pro-ject Debut III) doesn’t have a speed control so I have to remove the platter and physically move the belt to a different part of the motor when I want to switch between 33/45 . Fortunately, there exists a speed box that you plug in between the power source and the table which adjusts the motor speed.
If you’re like me and live in the Washington, DC area, you know that flipping through the radio stations is an exercise in frustration. You basically have the choice among no less than three classic rock stations with identical lineups of tired 70s dadrock, some top 40 channels, a few hip-hop/rnb networks, a couple of bro-rock stations featuring imbecilic Morning Zoo programs, classical and NPR at the bottom of the dial, and the rest is filled out by latin stations or those “mix” channels that are non-stop Cyndi Lauper and Maroon 5 (basically, music for dentist’s waiting rooms).
Before I continue: yes, I do sometimes listen to the radio, unlike most people under the age of thirty. There’s something reassuring and familiar about the FM dial, despite how its rarely a fulfilling experience. And forgetting higher tech stuff like satellite or HD radio, FM is actually a hi-fi format. If you can get a strong signal, you can get high quality stereo audio for free, provided that the commercials and DJs don’t make you tear your hair out. Something cheap and simple like this one from NAD Electronics can get you started off.
The sorry radio offerings around DC are probably the same around most U.S cities, but there was once a great local channel that met a sad demise: WHFS 99.1 . It had been around since the 60s and was eclectic from the get-go: mostly playing prog, art rock and jam bands. In the eighties it took a turn towards indie and “college rock” genres and was the first radio station to play tons of influential groups.
I have many fond memories of listening to this station as a child in the early 90s : rainy Saturdays riding in the back of my dad’s old Pontiac Sunbird to the strains of Soundgarden or The Psychedelic Furs. It was the first place I remember hearing dozens of bands: The Pixies, The Chameleons, Kitchens of Distinction, R.E.M., Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Depeche Mode, Jesus Jones, Stereo Mcs, Big Audio Dynamite, Catherine Wheel, Violent Femmes, Butthole Surfers, The Cure, I could go on and on. Not to say that all of it was good, but it was all memorable. Every so often I’ll come across a song that sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll surmise that I must have heard it before on HFS.
By the end of the nineties, the station was starting to go downhill: you were more likely to hear Papa Roach and Eminem rather than Concrete Blonde and The Smiths. This reflected changing demographics and tastes which is entirely understandable, but it just sucked to hear the station losing its focus (but at the time, my middle school-self actually preferred nu-metal and hip hop so it only sucked in retrospect). Finally, WHFS met it’s demise on January 12, 2005 when it suddenly switched to playing some kind of Mexican polka music. I recall riding home from school in my friend’s car, turning it to HFS and laughing, thinking it was all a lame “wacky” joke. Alas, the switch was permanent, and DC lost its only listenable radio station. Others tried to fill the void, e.g 94.7 “The Globe” which was very HFS-esque for a while then switched to bog standard mix format.
We could blame ClearChannel like a lot of people do, but radio’s demise owes a lot to evolving technology and demographics. The only major bit of hope I see is the fact that the latest iPod Nano has an FM tuner feature…but why would anyone under the age of 40 bother with that when there’s podcasts and free MP3 downloads compatible with the same device?
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
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
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…