Tag Archives: hipster

A quick note on the current direction of this site

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

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

Vinyl review : R.E.M. – Chronic Town

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

How bad is MP3? (Part 1)

an mp3 player made out of a grenade casing
Image source: geekologie.com

In my very first blog post I briefly bashed MP3 as an inferior format for tone deaf plebes. I soon realized that was an extremely hypocritical thing to do, as the majority of my music collection resides on my laptop and iPod in either AAC or MP3. But whenever I listen to these formats, I’m usually doing something else at the same time: riding the bus or subway, walking to class, fidgeting in an uncomfortable airline seat, or hunched over my laptop surfing the internet. I reserve my “critical listening” sessions for vinyl, CD and SACD and so I had never sat down and really listened to MP3s. As far as I know, MP3 sounds pretty damn good when piped into a hi-fi setup but I was just going off the standard snobbery and assuming that it sucks.

So, I decided to plug my laptop into my amplifier and give some tracks a good analysis. I had done this before in my previous apartment, but again I never had a chance to critically regard it since it was usually done during parties. To do this, I bought a cheap 3.5mm to L+R RCA adapter much like this one which Amazon is selling for an unbelievable penny, not including shipping. The red and white plugs go into the amp and the other end goes into the laptop or other MP3 device. Some newer amps have a port in the front that you can plug a player straight into using a cable like this.

It’s important to first briefly summarize bitrate: basically, higher bitrates translate to better sound quality. The most common bitrate seems to be 128 kbit/s ; this is what you’ll likely find on filesharing networks unless otherwise specified. By default, iTunes rips CDs to 256 kbit/s AAC format, and the same goes for stuff downloaded from the iTunes Store.

Now that i’m plugged in, I try a few selections:

The Chameleons – What Does Anything Mean? Basically (224 kbit/s MP3) : This layered, atmospheric post-punk/goth really suffers from the MP3 encoding. It sounds as though the music is struggling to escape the speakers, and this tires out my ears because I have to force myself to focus and interpolate what i’m supposed to be hearing. Turning up the bass knob on my amp filled out the bottom end a bit, but I really don’t like to play with the tone controls if I can help it.

Catherine Wheel – Chrome (160 kbit/s MP3) : A slight improvement, but the music still lacks any sort of punch or edge. This might be blamed on the album’s production; shoegaze bands liked to go for the muddy, distant sound.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra (256 kbit/s AAC) : This is one of the better selections so far. The music actually has life and presence, although the violins lack attack/decay. Could this improvement be a property of the AAC encoding?

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Goes to College (141 kbit/s MP3) : First off, this is a live concert recording, so the overall acoustics will differ from something taped in studio. Nevertheless, this actually sounds fairly musical and I would say is the best set of MP3s i’ve sampled so far. The sax and piano are smooth and feel as though they are in a concert hall like they should. However, like all the tracks i’ve tested, the bass is disappointing and there is still that lack of thrust and definition that I like to hear (Additionally, a minor gripe: the applause and whistles of the audience don’t feel “live” either).

Now there are some flaws in this experiment that I’ll readily admit:

1. This is an entirely subjective test. I didn’t take any actual measurements of the sound output (such as level or frequencies), although I kept the volume the same.

2. The output level of my MacBook is probably less powerful than other sources, thus giving the amplifier less to work with. An MP3 player might give different results.

3. I didn’t do any sort of A/B comparison between the same recording on a different source like CD or vinyl. This is why in Part 2 of this article I intend to listen to Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto , a recording that I have on both vinyl and CD, so I can compare the two to an MP3 rip I made.

In the meantime, I can say this about MP3s : They clearly have a lot of advantages, in that they’re , uh, “free” and they take up very little space on your hard drive. And despite that they aren’t a hi-fi medium, i’m willing to bet that most of my readers have a substantial amount of their music in this format. To take advantage of this, and to get the best sound possible, hook your MP3 player into an amplifier + speaker combo. By simple virtue of playing through actual speakers and not earbuds or a cheap docking station, you will reveal details that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell was an album that I had only listened to on my iPod, so when tried it through my system it revealed details like fuller chorus guitar effects.

If you want to get your feet wet with hi-fi, get yourself a setup like the one I recommend and plug in your computer or MP3 player. You’ll get a taste of good sound while keeping your current collection, and I have no doubt that it will inspire you to do more with your system.

For further reading, Stereophile has a good article about the difference between various audio compression formats.

Check out Part 2 of this article for more analysis

Vinyl review : Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody

Artist – Rick Astley

Title – Whenever You Need Somebody

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – RCA

Year – 1987

Yeah, I know, old meme is old and we’ve all been rickrolled over 9000 times already. We really don’t need to talk about Rick Astley any moar, but as far as i’m concerned, haters gonna hate. So while I haz your attention, I’m gonna ask a question: Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like? Because….um..uhh….okay, that’s enough obligatory 4chan memes (but I did briefly consider writing this entire post in Impact).

In case you have been living under a rock for the past three years, Rickrolling was an internet fad where you trick people into a clicking a link to the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. The purported humor lies in the intense eighties-ness of the song and the general incongruity of suddenly viewing a scrawny red haired Englishman awkwardly gyrating in front of a chain link fence instead of that funny cat video your friend promised. This prank was intensely popular throughout 2008; it became the theme song for Anonymous (the ad-hoc group of Guy Fawkes mask wearing basement residents who surface in public to protest Scientology, of all things), the target of online poll spamming to get it played at Mets games, and finally culminated in Astley himself lip syncing the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I gotta be honest , I’ve only listened to the first half of this record so far and I don’t really plan on even attempting the B side unless under extreme duress or extreme intoxication. Like all of Astley’s oeuvre, it consists of competent but uncompelling dance-R&B constructed on synth equipment that sounds charmingly dated to modern listeners. But even before Rickrolling was a thing I unironically enjoyed “Never Gonna Give You Up” and to this day maintain that it is a corny but solid pop song, despite all the jokey baggage it accumulated thanks to Family Guy and the Internet.

Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody vinyl LP plus liner notes

Like most mass-market LPs, this album comes on thin, floppy vinyl. The inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, credits, and several B&W portraits of the man himself. Drop the needle on Side A and that opening drum fill we’re all too familiar with bursts out the speakers with surprising depth. In fact, the tracks I’ve listened to so far have a fairly rich and detailed sound for something that was likely recorded on some crummy 16-bit Sony DASH machine. However, it’s still difficult to judge the sonic properties of electronic music like Astley’s because drum machines and synths don’t “exist” in an acoustic space, they are dumped straight to their recording medium instead of being miked in a studio.

In about 10-15 years when we’re all grown up, Rickrolling will officially count as nostalgia. If you have this album on vinyl by then, you can put it on during one of your yuppie wine & cheese parties and smugly revel in the fact that you just Rickrolled your friends…IN ANALOG! The guests geeky enough to remember the joke will briefly laugh and reminisce about various other dumb memes from a youth wasted online, while those who don’t get it will just shrug and go back to their Pinot Noir. To prepare yourself for that day, Amazon has used copies starting at just under five bucks , or you could probably find it at your local record store like I did.

NEXT WEEK : “Bed Intruder Song” split 7″ with Eduard Khil

Music: C

Sound: B-

Vinyl review : Crucial Youth – The Posi-Machine

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