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Sunday, December 18, 2011

JAGA JAZZIST - ONE ARMED BANDIT

Ninja Tune (2010, Jan.)
Original U.K. pressing ZEN 152

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
 
Rating: 7.5/ A 

Category: Post-Prog-Fusion
Format: Vinyl (2 x 180g at 33 1/3 rpm)


Musicians:
  • Lars Horntveth - Clarinet, Flute, Guitar, Piano, Clarinet (Bass), Keyboards, Programming, Sax (Baritone), Sax (Soprano), Sax (Tenor), Lap Steel Guitar
  • Martin Horntveth - Percussion, Drums, Programming, Bells, Psaltery, Drum Machine, Temple - Blocks, Marxophone, Mandolin Harp
  • Mathias Eick - Piano, Trumpet, French Horn, Keyboards, Bass (Upright)
  • Line Horntveth - Flute, Percussion, Tuba, Glockenspiel, Vocals
  • Erik Johannessen - Trombone, Marxophone
  • Andreas Mjos - Guitar, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Marimba, Vibraphone
  • Øystein Moen - Organ, Synthesizer, Percussion, Piano
  • Even Ormestad - Bass, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Keyboards 
  • Stian Westerhus - Percussion, Guitar (Electric), Harp, Guitar (12 String), Effects, Guitar (Baritone)
  • All music written by Lars Horntveth
  • All music arranged by Jaga Jazzist and Jørgen Træen
  • Produced by Jørgen Træen and Jaga Jazzist
  • Recorded by Jørgen Træen in Cabin Recorders and Wallpaper, Oslo, December 2008
  • Assistant Engineering by Even Ormestad
  • Mixed by John McEntire in Soma Studios, April/May 2009
  • Additional Mixing by Mike Hartung and Chris Sansom in Propeller Music Division, August 2009
  • Mastered by Chris Sansom in Propeller Mastering, August 2009
  • Design by Yokoland 
  • Photography By – Morten Spaberg


There's fusion and then there is Fusion. Although the former is usually found in the company of jazz and rock; the latter is very rarely encountered or accomplished in music. Norwegian multi-talented nonet Jaga Jazzist tends to fall in the second clan. Having just played the 'Festival International de Jazz de Montréal' last July, the band still on the heels of their fifth album One-Armed Bandit,are at the top of their game.




Often considered the first jazz-rock fusion recording, Miles Davis' 1969 In a Silent Way (Columbia) certainly laid the groundwork for what would be the main creative jazz incarnation of the following decade - although hinted the year before on Miles in the Sky (Columbia). Without diminishing the importance and creative genius of Miles, we must not forget the earlier works of Gary Burton with Larry Coryell nor the psychedelic extended jams of Haight-Ashbury's Grateful Dead nor the 'nothing is sacred' experimentations of the Mothers of Invention.


In fact Frank Zappa is probably the most direct musical influence on One-Armed Bandit; add in a dash of Reich minimalism and sprinkle some more modern fare of the likes of Chicago's Tortoise, and you pretty much get the winning recipe. Interestingly, most of the album was mixed by John McEntire of Tortoise; with additional mixing by Mike Hartung and Chris Sansom, the latter responsible for the mastering.


Four different front covers representing the typical set of slot-machine symbols - grapes, bell, cherries, etc. - grace the LP's and CD's.


Although not a gatefold, the jacket is nonetheless nicely presented in a quality carton distinguished by its front visual simplicity with back artistic hues and tactile pleasure; the 'Warhol' look contrasting with the nature morte of Morten Spaberg.


 Inside there is a simple album-sized shiny insert sporting the 'slot' symbols on one side and numerous credits on black background on the flip side.


The LP's are housed in quality black paper sleeves with 'angled-cropped' corners, there is no protective liner so care must be taken not to scratch the surfaces during insertion. The labels feature the grapes, bell an orange symbols respectively on my copy while side D features 'KA-CHING' written in yellow on black The vinyl was flat, shiny and black with nice groove modulations for the eyes.  The 'groove width spread' is approx. 3 1/4 inches for side A and 3 1/8 inches for side B and C. D has no music content; instead it is visually quite special with the words 'BLAM', 'CRASH!', 'KA-CHING' and FWEEEEEE' inscribe across the vinyl. At no more than 20 minutes of music per side and 33 1/3 rpm, it should not present any problem for bandwidth and a medium cutting level. That said, spreading the ten tracks on all four sides instead of three would have been a wiser choice in sonic terms of course.

Place your bets!


The cutting level on side A lies at a moderate level, higher than the Cars on MoFi and lower than the Vex'd on Planet Mu. "The Thing Introduces...", opens with a gong followed by a crescendo of low cut bandpass-filtered brass ensemble and crash cymbal. Lasting a mere 23 seconds, it serves as a short intro to the title track of the album. A 'pinched sound' type keyboard which I presume is the marxophone leads the way, french horn, brass, raunchy guitar, drums and percussion build up track over track leading to a sound density close to distortion. There are 'Bond-esque' stylings to the musical arrangements and the french horns or brass share two musical themes. The sound somewhat veiled, is only fair.

"Bananfluer Overalt" starts with the drums; there is a slight doubling effect, an extremely short delay blended in, thickening the sound. The whole thing lacks airiness. The initial smooth tempo changes radically at the bridge, jumping into a hurried frenzy and later returning to the calmer main theme.

A complete change of ambience awaits us with the last track of side A. "220 V/Spektral" presents a delicate piano intro, bass follows, subtle bass clarinet or sax add their touch. Syncopated beats keep it interesting; the close mic’ing captures well the breathing of the sax. The sound is better, airier, less compressed and less thick. A distorted synth comes in and the rhythm is very complex. Unfortunately cymbals are dirty and confused. Up to now the pressing is perfect, not one tick or pop; the E.U., no doubt trying to redeem itself on that front.


Flipping to side B, there is a tiny pressing circular spot on track one. Also it seems cut just a bit lower. "Toccata" opens with an intro worthy of Steve Reich's groundbreaking pieces Drumming / Music for Mallet Instruments ...(Deutsche Grammophon) from 1974 and Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) from 1978. And like the Master of Minimalism himself, Jaga Jazzist juxtaposes organ with piano with marinba in a 6/4 meter heading towards another Bond-esque theme, this time recalling moments from John Barry's 1967 soundtrack of You Only Live Twice (United Artist). In a nutshell, think Philip Glass' 1983 The Photographer (CBS) meets brassy big band meets John Barry meets Reich - blended in one superb hook. The sound keeps getting better, cleaner and breathier. Best track up to now.

"Prognissekongen" has the markings of King Crimson's Robert Fripp doing the "Elephant Talk" / Discipline / Larks' Tongues in Aspic dance. Throw in some early 1970s syncopated Yes, an accelerando piano a la ELP, a snippet of prepared piano and the interplay of The Bad Plus with the blessing of Zappa; like the title implies this track is truly the king of heavy progressive. A close second to the previous one in sound.

The drum 'doubling delay' returns on "Book of Glass". Dribbling rhythm of bass and drums in a filtered murky sound give a hectic pace to this somewhat 1980s prog-fusion styling. In the background we hear a repetitive metronomic synth counting time. Further down the road the instrumental buildup distorts, losing both extremes of the spectrum; probably wanted for creative purposes, nevertheless it becomes bothersome up to a point. Back to average sound.


Moving on to side C, the pressing looks beautiful with nice groove 'etchings'. "Music! Dance! Drama!" displays veiled drums, artistically wanted no doubt. Some warbling synth accompanied by glockenspiel subliminally recall 'space music' heard in Star Trek's original pilot "The Cage"by Alexander Courage. Electric guitar, harp and brass contribute to a large buildup until a very syncopated break of brass augmented by abrasive guitar, culminate again in grandiose 'Bond-sound character'.

"Touch of Evil" gives a nod to Pink Floyd's The Wall (EMI Harvest) with a short helicopter intro. Heavy distorted bass goes down low, producing good weight plus fine details in the highs. A quick tempo 4/4 meter driving-kick followed by handclaps, background syncopated snare and trombone lead to some angular guitar riff 'taken right out' of a Shellac/Albini record. This is the best track music and sonic wise.

"Endless Galaxy" (which appears only on the LP version) is quite complex in rhythm. The break lets glockenspiel, percussion, bass and acoustic guitar share the intimate stage before a 4/4 syncopated beat adds the finishing touch.


Lastly, a comparison between the CD and LP versions revealed the former to gain a bit in the lower registers regarding weight while the latter easily came out on top in the treble airiness, with lesser compression and congestion in the oftentimes dense mix. The supplementary track combined with the excellent pressing quality and vastly superior artistic design make the vinyl LP the natural choice.

Summing up, owing more to the 'left cerebral hemisphere' than the 'right', Jaga Jazzist's One-Armed Bandit was still sufficiently enticing to tap my foot to their challenging music compositions, which is not always the case with most fusion.

Combining such diverse instruments as drum, percussion, bass, guitar, tuba, trombone, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, saxes, marxophone, piano, organ and many more plus odd meters used as the default time signature, it should delight any open minded Zappaesque enthusiast as well as the post-prog-fusion crowd.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

VEX'D - CLOUD SEED

Planet Mu Records (2010, March)
Original U.K. pressing ZIQ260 

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Averaged Rating: 7.5/ B+ 
Rating: 6.5 - 9.0/ D - A+

Category: Experimental Atmospheric Dubstep / Industrial / Grime / Ambient
Format: Vinyl (2 x 150g at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
  • Jamie Teasdale
  • Roly Porter
  • Sequenced by: Mike Paradinas 
  • Produced by:
  • Engineered by: 
  • Recorded at  
  • Mastered by: 
  • Pressed at 
  • Artwork [Front Cover] by Sven Sauer
  •  

Cloud Seed is Vex'd's second and final album. The renowned British Dubstep duo of Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter have at long last completed a project that assembles tracks recorded between 2006 and 2007. Featuring guests Warrior Queen, Anneka and Jest, this eight track double LP intrigued me enough to investigate further.



Like any kind of music genre, Dubstep has more than one facet to offer. I was already familiar with the more 'traditional' forms which include fast paced rhythmic syncopation, sweeping low frequencies and prodigious bass density. These extrovert qualities clearly drawing roots from 'drum and bass', Jungle, two-step and of course Dub.

Sven Sauer's front cover with it is low-key two-tone 'segued' photos, conjures up a dark industrial bleak and cold future; something not too far from a post-apocalyptic landscape. As we shall soon discover, it also renders well the 'feel' of the album. The semi-gloss finish adds a nice touch to this efficient but rather austere packaging. The LP's are housed in quality white paper sleeves only, so one must take care of not scratching the surfaces and static may build up over time. The vinyl was flat and black with nice groove modulations indicative of promising deep bass 'explorations'.  The large 'dead wax' spacing reflect the cutting engineers decision to limit the 'groove width spread' to 2 1/2 inches for side A and 2 7/8 inches for side B, C and D falling in between; thus favoring a larger inner groove radius. All things being equal, this reduces high frequency distortion. But all things are rarely equal. Given nine to ten minutes of music per side, at 33 1/3 rpm the 'limited groove spread' is logical. Cutting at 45 rpm would have been probably pushing it at the limit considering the typical frequency spectrum of dubstep.


From the start the cutting level on side A is quite loud especially after following the Cars MoFi reissue but no more so than normal 'drum and bass' or Techno material. Opening with "Take Time Out", guest singer Annette Henry aka Warrior Queen lends her voice to a slow repetitive rhythm dressed in Industrial underpinnings. The drum beat is tight, highs are aggressive and there is compression tending to early listener fatigue. Not a great starter in my opinion but we continue with...

"Remains of the Day"; more experimental in 'sound landscape', a rhythm loop plus lots of panned effects, later augmented by a low frequency pounding synth. Again highs distort. At least it is much more interesting musically. The pressing is noisy as I've encountered frequently on U.K. imports in the past. I do not know if it's the PVC pellets used to make the vinyl that could be responsible.


Changing sides on the platter, "Heart Space" features guest singer Anneka; very sought after in the electronica and dubstep milieu. My first impression was that Beth Gibbons from Portishead was in front of the mike such are the resemblance in tonality and phrasing style. Superb deep low bass and nasty low grunt. Still compressed, ends with a 1980s sounding chime synth solo. Highs are a bit dirty. Good articulation in rhythm pattern and fine tonal balance.


"Out of the Hills" follows up; more a dub-industrial hybrid, it goes way down in the infra region with reverb effects of course. The rhythm is repetitive with an occasional 'double kick' or beat shuffling in the extreme lows which is quite effective. Too bad the highs are dirty and distorted. There is compression leading to some listener fatigue.

Continuing with side C, I noticed a bit of smudge dirt pressed in the outer grooves. I could have cleaned it on my Nitty Gritty but I always do a first evaluation 'as is' which reflects the true quality control of the label and pressing plant. And again this is a noisy pressing that tends to worsen during loud climaxes.

"Bar Kimura" (Jamie Vex'd Remix - original by Plaid) has a slow industrialized loop with some male vocals appearing. At first the beat is a bit thin sounding - surely wanted for contrast - but later the bass pounding comes in strong. The very deep grunt in the lows is accompanied by aggressive treble and higher compression in some instances for dramatic effect.

"Disposition" has a very nice punch in the bass kick region, a 'stuttering' or shuffling beat, Soviet rapper Jest makes a welcome contribution adding to the dark mood of the track. Although the general sound is cleaner than the previous track, there is nonetheless 'dirty' sounding sibilance in the highs and vocals. Clearly some form of de-essing on the vocals would have helped.

On side D, the pressing is a bit noisy with several little ticks and static-type sounds and seems cut a bit lower in level. "Oceans" has a beautiful sweeping synth intro, after which the beat enters with a 'double kick hiccup' of sorts and hi-hat establishing an extremely interesting rhythm. Additional synths sounds are crunchy and 'creatively distorted'. Midway the big beat ceases, yielding to a filtered fainter one. Some voice layer comes in to bring an eerie ambience.


'Ocean wave' sounds conjures up the coda of Planet Of the Apes when Taylor and Nova ride horseback on the shoreline. Very original track leaving this listener with an incredible feeling plus superb sound does indeed make this one a winner all the way.

Lastly "Nails", nails it indeed with another incredible track. Starting with some strange looped voices, a 'stuttering' rhythm enters the picture. There is nice detail on the hi-hat. Superb ambience and tension throughout. Briefly only the highs remain followed by a 'Murcof-type' lull. Abruptly a menacing, industrialized, heavily compressed and distorted beat dominates, before a second clean synth break comes to the rescue. The menacing beat(s) returns with an even greater vengeance - but it all works out perfectly in this context - reminding me of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter's insanely troubling 2002 soundtrack of Irréversible starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. Again, superb sound. These last two tracks are so good, they are reason enough to get this album.


Summing up, what started out on a rather disappointing note along the way, transformed itself into an impressive lasting impression, at least music-wise. In audiophile terms; on the one hand, many of the tracks go quite low to elicit thorax like sensations if ones system permits which can be impressive alone or 'showing off' with company. On the other hand, the highs are at times aggressive and dirty plus some 'cracking' pressing issues can detract ones pleasure.
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

THE CARS - SHAKE IT UP

Elektra (1981, Nov.)
Canadian 1rst pressing X5E 567

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2009)
reissue MFSL 1-325

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 8.3/ B 

Category: New Wave / Synthpop
Format: Vinyl (180g at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
  • Ric Ocasek – rhythm guitar, lead vocals on 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9
  • Elliot Easton – lead guitar, backing vocals
  • Greg Hawkes – keyboards, backing vocals
  • Benjamin Orr – bass guitar, lead vocals on 5, 7, 8
  • David Robinson – drums, percussion
  • Written by: Ric Ocasek
  • Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker
  • Engineered by: Ian Taylor for R.T.B. (Audio-Visual) Productions U.S.A.
  • Assistant Engineers: Walter Turbitt and Thom Moore
  • Recorded at Syncro Sound Studios, Boston, U.S.A. 
  • Originally Mastered by: George Marino
  • Remastered and Lacquer-Cutted by Rob LoVerde for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Sebastol, CA, U.S.A. 
  • Pressed at RTI, CA, U.S.A.
  • Cover Design: David Robinson
  • Photography: Clint Clemens


Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab shakes it up once more by remastering and reissuing The Cars' fourth album on the black medium. Recorded in Boston in their -then- newly acquired Intermedia Studios and rechristined Synchro Sound, Shake It Up would be the first and only Cars album to benefit from these facilities.


Slowly moving away from their New Wave roots, the LPushers in the emerging 1980s synthpop while retaining just enough of that earlier spark to keep it interesting. If one were to make a case for taking parallel musical directions, one could be found in another four letter American band. Are we not talking about Devo? We are indeed! Both bands burst onto the scene in 1978 with an original debut, releasing one album per year and by the time their fourth LP hit the charts in 1981, the keyboard became the dominant instrumental force. This 'transitional' period brought a breath of fresh air to the music industry but alas was short-lived. By the end of 1980, this New Wave was no longer making waves.


Like so many of the New Wave pioneers, The Cars had to adapt to the changing decade by pushing the electronic percussion and keyboards ahead of the drums and guitars. By doing so they furthered their distance from rock while embracing the more commercial offsprings of German-based visionaries Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. Those that did not comply, simply disappeared from the scene when 1981 came knocking at the door. Interestingly the group's drummer, David Robinson, was far from being a newbie. He cut his teeth with the often forgotten but seminal Boston protopunk band The Modern Lovers.


With this reissue MFSL have improved considerably upon the original artwork. First off they took the pains of making a gatefold jacket when none existed at the time. By integrating the original 'waxed paper' inner sleeve inside a sturdy heavy carton of superior quality, it not only insures long term protection but adds to higher value and personal satisfaction. Apart from their signature green band at the top and the barcode on the reverse, the front and back cover are faithful to the original.


Inside the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'.In addition, a folded light carton with 36 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was flat and black and shiny. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Elektra) but instead is plain black with silver writing. The original U.S. and Canadian pressings are typical of 1980s' low standards, fitting in the cheap 'floppy disk' 100-120 grams category. Visually there is no contest. Simply put, the MoFi makes a mockery of the original Elektra.

Mastering and cutting engineer Rob LoVerde chose a groove spacing coverage of approximately 3 1/4 inches on side one and 3 inches on side two - compared to 3 3/8 and 3 1/4 respectively for the original lacquer cut by George Marino at Sterling Sound, N.Y. Thus the remaining 'dead wax' should be sufficient not to aggravate the usual high frequency loss but it is pretty much at the maximum, radius wise. With roughly 20 min./side, there should not be too much compromise regarding adequate cutting level and bandwidth for the chosen speed. MFSL's half-speed mastering/cutting will also help in keeping things clean in the highest frequencies.

I did not have the original U.S. Elektra 1rst pressing on hand so I settled for the above Canadian pressing which I believe is an early pressing. Generally pressings of that era were not that far appart in sound but there's no guarantee that a different stamper was not used this side of the border.

Contrarily to The Cars' 1978 debut album which I knew held promise for good sound, I was more skeptical regarding this later release, fearing the usual '3D syndrome': the dreaded digital decade. Then again, it was recorded in 1981 and not 1984 when the full onslaught 'flourished'.


I started out my evaluation with the Elektra (the original from now on) cueing the first track "Since You're Gone".  As expected it was lousy; sounding thin, compressed, lacking weight, poor vocals pushed up in the mix, peaky low treble, lack of refinement, overtly cool and hints of early digititis. In other words quite typical of the first and mid part of that decade. Having to rate the original, I would be hard-pressed to give it more than a 2 out of 5.

Switching to the new reissue by MoFi was a revelation. Cut a good five decibels lower than the original, l turned up the volume to better match levels on my trusty sound meter. All of the negative aspects noted earlier were favorably addressed. Gone was the cheap cold limited bandwidth, replaced instead with a wide warm bassy but refined tonal balance. I was stunned that such a non-fatiguing warm sounding palette was coming from a 1981 recording. Putting aside the various musical stylistic cues; on a purely sonic basis this new equalization shared more the aesthetics of the 1970s than any other era. Sure the dynamic range remained somewhat limited but the 'mix compression' sounded analog and in line with this type of music.


The title track displayed the same major improvements on the MoFi, discovering anew this oh so familiar hit. To partially paraphrase an old standard: 'What a Difference a remastering Makes'.


Same goes for "I'm Not the One" which oddly was posthumously released as a single after being included on their 1985 Greatest Hits album.

"Victim of Love" recalling "My Best Friend's Girl" from their debut LP, had great warm punchy bass - again very surprising for this music/recording period. The original sounded boring right after and this pattern was consistent throughout the album. Once you've heard the difference you will not want go back to the original.

"Cruiser" being the last track of side one shows some restriction in bottom and top compared to the previous ones but still comes out better, less 'middy' and compressed than the original. On this song, Benjamin Orr adopts a vocal style close in delivery to Rough Trade's Carole Pope who was at her peak at this point in time.


Side two simply reaffirms the pleasant sound balance with "A Dream Away", followed by "This Could Be Love". This song could easily pass for a Gary Numan composition a la "Cars" (no pun intended) or even "Are 'Friends' Electric?" but with Bowie taking charge of the vocals. It is probably the most New Wave track of the album, closer to "Good Times Roll" from their debut and perhaps the best sounding track of the LP.


"Think It Over", a faster paced New Wave has double handclaps that reminds me of The Tourists' "I Only Want to Be With You" from 1979's Reality Effect (Logo) and Altered Images "I Could Be Happy" from 1982's Pinky Blue (Epic). In the end it segues from the right channel panning left into..."Maybe Baby", the closing song. Good bass and an energetic rambling rhythm support vocals resembling The Cure's Robert Smith.

Both sides played perfectly noise free, devoid of any ticks and pops; this despite the lower cutting level that could have proven more problematic than the original had the pressing not be flawless. On the other hand, the rather constant levels encountered on this type of recording are more forgiving in nature than Beethoven's Fifth.


Summing up, it is one thing to reissue a fifty (plus) year old 'Golden Age' recording that always impressed audiophiles with incredible warm sound and invite never-ending debate on the merits of remastering such a classic - nothing original there. It is quite another to take the gamble of remastering a 1980s New Wave-synthpop recording that never showed any sign of promise and then disproving categorically the saying "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". Mobile Fidelity has and kudos to engineer Rob LoVerde for finding the appropriate equalization settings to produce this worthy 'make-over' full of warmth and zero listener fatigue; now that's something I rarely encounter in current recordings and CD's even more so.

Now this begs the million dollar question: how many other hidden gems of this '3D period' await a proper resurrection?

I think Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab may have already figured that out.
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Postscript: Winner of Enjoy The Music.com's Blue Note Award 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

JAH WOBBLE & THE NIPPON DUB ENSEMBLE - JAPANESE DUB

Original U.K. CD (2010, April)
30 Hertz Records Ltd 30HZCD31 

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
 
Rating: 7.0 / B

Category: Japanese Dub / Downtempo 
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k) 
  • Engineered by Paul Madden, Ando and Jah Wobble
  • Mastered by Jah Wobble
  • Produced by Jah Wobble
  • Arranged by [Trad.] – Jah Wobble (tracks: 3 to 6, 10, 11)
  • Bass, Drums [Beats], Programmed By, Keyboards,  – Jah Wobble
  • Koto, Backing Vocals, ShamisenKeiko Kitamura
  • PercussionJoji Hirota (tracks: 1, 3 to 6, 8 to 11)
  • ShakuhachiClive Bell
  • Vocals, Drums [Taiko]Joji Hirota
  • Voice [Spoken Word]Keiko Kitamura (tracks: 2 to 4)
  • Written-By –  Jah Wobble (tracks: 1, 2, 7 to 9), Trad.

Having previously released the highly original 2008 Chinese Dub, ex-PIL bassist Jaw Wobble fittingly followed up two years later with Japanese Dub through his own label - 30 Hertz Records. The latter should be self-explanatory to any audiophile worth his or her salt. Attention, attention: we are talking major sub region territory. Not that you necessarily need a separate subwoofer to tactilely enjoy the many rumblings of this recording; a solid big box '8 incher' can get the job done, just stay away from those 'miracle' mini woofers. 


But don't get me wrong, Japanese Dub is not just a lame excuse to impress your fellow neighbor in seismic vibrations nor the mere relevance of a 38 foot wavelength; it is a fascinating exploration of two distinct musical and cultural heritages intertwined. Not only are the traditional instruments of each completely different in musical scales and execution, so are the natural overtone intervals and frequency spectrum distribution. Indeed the latter's contrasting styles complementing one another, the resultant being a very wide bandwidth in frequency, melody and harmony. It is said that Wobble felt artistically restricted within the PIL 'framework'. Somewhat surprising given the challenging experimental music they espoused, even more so for the period; we are talking about the late 1970s - early 1980s after all. Within the quartet, bassist Jah Wobble infused heavy dub on their sound, a signature trademark he still brings to his post PIL projects.


The CD is housed in a standard jewelbox comprising a sixteen page booklet mainly describing Wobble's exploration and fusion of dub and traditional Japanese music, of which the cover illustrates the Japanese character for Ma. In part based on his prior study in traditional Chinese music, it's an interesting read for admittedly a neophyte on the subject like myself. Instruments of interest are presented along with a respect for Japanese and Chinese culture, bringing a Zen atmosphere - and in effect Zen Buddhism is reflected upon within - to the fore. General credits can be found towards the end.

Recorded at three different studios and engineered by Paul Madden, Ando and Wobble; himself producing and mastering the album. The presentation though informative is visually bland with only a few subdued drawings printed on basic paper; the net effect being a bit disappointing. At best one could describe it as a low-key approach reflecting Zen philosophy but still, some kind of textured paper would have helped greatly.

Japanese Dub features eleven tracks, five of which are variations of the same song - "Kokiriko" - which it seems is one of the oldest Japanese songs, dating back a thousand years ago. It's also a percussive instrument. Mixing traditional Japanese singing, Koto (strings), Shakuhachi (flute) and Jah Wobble's bass; the whole produces one big harmonious sound with warm treble detail balancing out the muffled bass. Tracks 4-5-10 & 11 are alternate dub versions, some tending towards a more reggae 'feel', while others truly emphasizing the dub side with 'Roland type' space (tape) echo in differing amounts and loop speeds.


"Shinto Dub" opens the album with bass reaching down quite deep. Metronomic metallic percussion gives an industrial, chain-gang cadence, overlaid by an aggressive sustained sinewave-type sound. At times distortion and saturated bass can be heard - in order to be sure this was not system dependent, I tested it on different tube & transistor amps and speakers at varied levels. I reserve some doubts that this was a desired creative effect; rather I suspect this is a defect given the overblown bass energy. Depending on the listener, this cited phenomenon accompanied by some compression can irritate, leading to mild listener fatigue. Conversely, when demoing only one track at a time, it can impress on certain levels.


The second track "Cherry Blossom Of My Youth" leads with female Spoken word. Koto and low-fi beat box , followed by deep reaching bass establish a groove. A distorted gong contrasts with a clean Shamisen - a Japanese three stringed instrument. Moving on to "Hokkai Bon Uta"; vocals, Shakuhachi combined with backing vocals is very special; you can feel the sense of sadness.


"Ma" starts with solo Shakuhachi. One can perceive the vast recording space, for which "Ma" represents the sense between notes, the interval, the emptiness where "lies infinite compassion". The bass making it's appearance later on accompanied by an electro rhythm - phaser processed - borrows from early Kraftwerk. Again 'Roland type' space echo box is exploited. Quite original.


"Taiko Dub" is the heaviest track with weighty panned Taiko drums, gong and distorted sustained lows.


But close on the heels is "Mishima /Kurosawa"; it displays a very well captured flute with a background resembling an open field or jungle. In addition, Spoken word and 'Jurassic' pounding Taiko drums hammering away create an eerie ambience.


With Japanese Dub, musician Jah Wobble demonstrates once again is ongoing musical journey continues; persuing and discovering new avenues that the godfathers of Dub could never have imagined.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND - KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND

TK Records (1975, July)
Original U.S. pressing TK 603

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MOFI 1-012

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 8.5/ A 

Category: Disco / Sunshine Sound
Format: Vinyl (150g at 33 1/3 rpm)

Produced and Arranged by H.W. Casey and Richard Finch
Written by H.W. Casey and Richard Finch
Recorded at TK Studio and Criteria in Miami, Florida
Engineered by Richard Finch (most probably)
Remastered and Lacquer-Cutted by Paul Stubblebine for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Pressed at RTI in California U.S.A.

Musicians:
  • Harry Wayne Casey – keyboards, vocal
  • Jerome Smith – guitar
  • Richard Finch – bass guitar, drum, percussion
  • Robert Johnson – drum
  • Oliver Brown – percussion
  • Fermin Goytisolo – percussion
  • Ken Faulk – trumpet
  • Vinnie Tanno – trumpet
  • Mike Lewis – tenor saxophone
  • Whit Sidener – baritone saxophone
  • Beverly Champion – background vocals
  • Margaret Reynolds – background vocals
  • Jeanette Williams – background vocals

Graphics design: Drago
Photography: Larry Warmoth
Album Coordinator: Sherry Smith


Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, often called MoFi in audiophile circles is the premier quality vinyl reissue company that started the ball rolling as far back as 1977.  With its half-speed lacquer-cutting, headed by experienced 'guru' engineer Stan Ricker and pressed by JVC in Japan - all quite uncommom methods at the time - they slowly developed a devoted legend of worshippers.


Now let's just take a moment to really let that sink in our new hyper fast world. Remember - if your old enough - that 34 years ago, we might as well be living on another planet as far as record practices, purchases, delivery and the entire music industry is concerned. People actually bought either LP's, cassettes or 8-track tapes of their favorite artist in record stores and get this, actually took the time to listen at a side or two while holding the jacket and admiring the artwork. The Majors controlled all aspects of the show with A&R scouts signing 'up and coming' artist, providing expensive studio time and large-scale brick & mortar distribution in return for possible high profits and absolute label loyalty. What percentage was left for the group or songwriter after everybody 'took their cut' is debatable and in some cases lamentable.

How times have changed. To argue which times are better goes beyond the scope of this review; for there are too many plus and minuses, though interesting they may be, to simply side one way. The one certainty is that nearly every recording of that era up until the end of the decade was captured "all analog" and the majority followed the 'sound fashion' of the times which meant 16 to 48 (multi) track magnetic tape with moderate compression in real studios by real engineers who had some respect for sound physics and levels. Which sadly is not, if you been following my previous reviews, the case nowadays.  And to paraphrase a former marketing slogan "What was true in 1977... is still true today", i.e. despite declining CD sales, the market for quality LP reissues plus vinyl in general - after a gloomy lull in the late 1980s to early 1990s - has rebounded exponentially with a vast treasure of well mastered and pressed LP's; so much so, the choice is overwhelming. 

Fast forward to 2011 as MFSL introduces their 'Silver Label Series' to explore strange new worlds - oops sorry Gene - of music styles that others dare not touch such as New Wave, Synth Pop, World Music, Soul, Funk and yes, at last! Disco. To be more precise with this latest release we are talking about the funky, sunny sounds of Miami Florida circa 1975.

The Miami Sound or what we DJ's used to call back in the day, The Sunshine Sound was a particular blend of 'happy party' light upbeat funk - as opposed to the looser heavier funkadelic of George Clinton's Parliament 'menagerie' - and bare bones Disco, aka funky disco. The main independent label was TK Records (named after studio owner Terry Kane), created in 1973 at the dawn of Disco, by Henry Stone, whose past Alston and newly owned Glades label had just come off the charts with" Why Can't We Live Together" by soul singer Timmy Thomas.

Legendary record executive, music producer and TK founder Henry Stone


Harry Wayne Casey aka KC

Two of his employees engineer Richard Finch and record store assistant Harry Wayne Casey, the latter explaining the KC part of the equation began experimenting after hours in the studio; eventually providing TK as well as KC and the Sunshine Junkanoo Band, their first two singles with "Blow Your Whistle" in August followed closely by "Sound Your Funky Horn". The Sound of Sunshine would really come to life in the summer of 1974 with George McCrae lending his soulful falsetto voice to the chart topping "Rock your Baby" confirming that a new sound had arrived on the scene - Disco.


Contrary to perception, this self-titled album by the band was not their debut - Do It Good in 1974 was - but rather their follow up that catapulted them to the top of the charts in the summer of 1975. Containing three major hits -"Get Down Tonight"," That's the Way I Like It" and "Boogie Shoes" - MoFi's choice of going with this album is self-explanatory. 


Apart from the ubiquitous color band at the top of every MoFi reissue since day one, the jacket cover remains quite close to the original in look and feel save for a tad more emphasis in the reds. Inside the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'.  In addition, a folded light carton with twelve album covers taken from the 'Silver Label Series' adorning one side and various products on the flip side, brings further record protection. The standard-weight LP - around 150 grams I presume - is pressed at RTI in California. It was flat and black with a few visual scuff marks mainly on Side 2; the latter common enough under good lighting conditions but rarely affecting the sound. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case TK) but instead is plain black with the 'signature' KC logo adding a nice touch.


The groove spacing seems nearly identical to the original U.S. TK pressing, utilizing just over 3 inches of width modulation equally on both sides; the remaining 'dead wax' sufficient not to aggravate the usual high frequency loss. With roughly 15 to 16 min./side, equating to 5 min./inch of linear travel, there should not be too much compromise regarding adequate cutting level and bandwidth for the chosen speed.


As a refresher I took out my original U.S. TK 1rst pressing and gave it a spin to reacquaint myself with this 'old friend'. My general recollection - that it was fair sounding but below average compared to most disco recordings as well as below par for TK's usual high sound quality - remained true; in fact I have to admit that the original left me even more disappointed than I expected. The general 'sound sins' were: obvious compression - though not in the heavy brick wall limiting of current aesthetics - , some thinness in tonal balance, ascending and peaking in the upper mids-lower treble and definitely lacking bass bottom. This was pretty much consistent throughout the album but worse on side one. Having to rate it, the original TK would garner between 5 to 6 on 10.  In other words, nothing to crow about.


Fortunately for us the new reissue by MoFi addresses the above criticisms. Cut at a lower level by about four decibels, l had to turn up the volume to compensate. It was immediately obvious tha the tonal balance has been restored to a more linear and flattering equalization. Starting with "Let It Go (Part One)", you can hear more bottom and warmth so the groove is better felt. The top end treble is cleaner and thus better. Though still not a fat sound for sure, its remains appropriate in the context of a typical funky sound.

These sound improvements are all the more confirmed by the blockbuster dance floor hit "That's the Way I Like It".  Evident is the considerable reduction in overall distortion and 'dirt', leading to a better, cleaner, more extended 16 beat hi-hat rhythm pattern from the intro and omnipresent in the mix. Again much better bottom, good snap and the vocal track is lower and better integrated for Disco music as well as high decibel clubs. While warmer, the whole brass section sounds more natural, retaining bite but more integrated and less shouty than the original. The latter exhibiting brighter upper mids, exaggerated because of the compression.


Another classic track - "Get Down Tonight" - showcases the same improvements with better funky guitar in the intro and treble detail purity. Party on!

Surprisingly the biggest sound improvement was kept for "Boogie Shoes".  As the last song on side one, I always attributed the loss of high frequencies heard on the original pressing as normal due to the smaller groove radius. MoFi, no doubt advantaged by the lower chosen cutting level and superior custom mastering/cutting gear were able to transform this short low-fi track into something quite good. Much better groove, the bass guitar is warmer and more present in the mix. Gone is the compressed shouty mids. At last for the first time I'm hearing actual top end detail on the hi-hat plus brass harmonics.


Flipping sides, "Ain't Nothing Wrong" had indeed nothing wrong in particular. This has a mid tempo and light catchy melody hook, that surprisingly did not receive as much airplay than it merited. The original pressing was decent with less compression and cleaner sounding than the previous side but minor improvements could still be heard on the latest reissue. 

"I'm So Crazy ('Bout You)" is way warmer and better on the reissue. The fact that you want to turn up the volume, is always a good sign that there's no listener fatigue and you're getting more involved in the music and vibe.

"What Makes You Happy" stands out from the rest for not fitting in the disco nor Sunshine Sound mold. Instead this is definitely a harder, looser funk, tending a bit towards Bloodstone and Parliament. The soundstage is wider also on this track. At this point I stopped comparing, the improvements being too constant, I let the MoFi run its course.


"I Get Lifted" literally does just that; this is the best song and sound of the entire album. Originally written and recorded for George McCrae's 1974 Rock Your Baby [TK 501] LP, here it gets star treatment from M0Fi. Very impressive sound with power and weight in the lower registers. This aided by the slower groove; soulful and funky Sunshine Sound at its best. Notice the clean trebly guitar on the left plus tambourine and percussion counterpart.

Finally, "Let It Go (Part Two)" is the only track suffering from some lack of top end extension plus some mild distortion particularly evident when played immediately before or after the "Part One" - perhaps due to the natural 'end groove' disadvantage. At least the bass seems a bit stronger in the "Part Two", which is welcomed.  Globally mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine has got the EQ pretty nailed down and done a significant upgrading on this 'classic of the genre'.

Veteran Re-Mastering Engineer Stan Ricker 'hands over the reins' to Paul Stubblebine

As for the previously noted visual scuff marks, both sides played perfectly noise free, devoid of any ticks and pops; this despite the lower cutting level that could have been more precarious on this issue. Also this type of music being rather constant in level compared to other forms is somewhat less demanding in 'absolute' noise floor terms.


Summing up, by Shaking the Industry's Booty more than three decades ago, as well as in The Present with the first ever Disco reissue to get the royal treatment, Mobile Fidelity have once again demonstrated their musical openness to atypical Audiophile material. As an 'Audiophile DJ', I could only wish that a 'Chrome Label Series' would be reserved for quality 'discothèque classics' reissues. So spin that mirror ball and let's cross our fingers for some future Barry White, Love Unlimited, Philly Sound, Trammps, Gloria Gaynor, BT Express, Donna Summer and Giorgio reissues - just to name a few. 
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