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Monday, August 27, 2012

MISSTRESS BARBARA - I'M NO HUMAN

MapleMusic Recordings MRCD 6503 (May 2009)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
 
Rating: 9.3/ A+

Category: Electronica/Tech House
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k)

Musicians:
- Guest singer: Sam Roberts
- Bass Guitar:
- Drums: Keyboards: Bjorn Yttling
- Electric Guitar: Francis Boudreau
- Keyboards: Bjorn Yttling

Produced by Barbara Bonfiglio    
Recorded by
Mixed by Peter Van Uytfanck at Apollo Studios/Montreal
Mastered by Emily Lazar and assisted by Joe LaPorta
Design [Sleeve]:
Layout:
Photography [Back Cover]:


"Between the fear of diving into the unknown and the pain of regretting not to, I chose to be afraid."

It was not that long ago that a female DJ was a rarity. If you look back at the history of dj'ing you will only find but a handful of names in those pioneering early-1970s; Lizz Kritzer, Wendy Hunt and first and foremost, Sharon White come to mind. In the decades that followed, the sheer numbers grew, though admittedly still remaining a minority in the male-dominated profession. It was not until the arrival of the new millennium that the playing field started to level and the gender issue passed from curious novelty act to plain normal acceptance. Coincidentally, another emerging phenomenon was the rise - and fall - of the 'Superstar DJ' as well as the role transition from 'spin-DJs' to 'producer-DJs'. What is still rather scarce is the feminine side of the latter, even more so if we add lyrics, music writing and singing to the mix. This segues us to one Barbara Bonfiglio. Most of the time going by her stage name - Misstress Barbara and the occasional Barbara Brown - the then eight year old emigrated from Sicily, Italy to Montreal, Canada. Which in a way is prescient on her part since the latter is truly the mecca of Beat Culture. 



Although Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Manchester, Munich and Berlin are renowned as the birthplace of house, techno and other related beat-music forms, the Canadian cosmopolitan city is a veritable melting pot of music styles, culture and people. Think New York meets Europe meets East and 'while we're all here, let's make it a big party' and that in a nutshell sums up the typical MTL summer vibe. This metropolitan 'beat love-in' is nothing new; since the dawn of disco and the ensuing new wave, house and techno years, there was no shortage of quality dance venues such as The Lime Light, Le Lovers, 1234 and in later years - Stereo - pumping up the deep house 'four-on-the-floor' tradition on what many considered the best club sound system in the world. Boasting an all analog rig: 1620 Urei mixer; tube processors; Bryston and McIntosh amps on multiple Tad 1603s; 1201s; 4002s and vintage JBL tweeters / horn / speaker combinations [aka Systems By Shorty]; it was an 'audiophile's wet dream' come true.


 

 

Admiring the way underground DJs worked the tables, in 1995 at age twenty, she inevitably switched from drums to platters & mixer and never looked back. Honing her craft among such greats as Barbadian-born British 'veteran' Carl Cox and Canadian counterpart tech-whiz Richie Hawtin aka Plastikman, the lady's new found love and thirst for knowledge made a name for herself driving her towards the rave road of glory, hence Misstress Barbara was born. The early years were mostly spent spinning vinyl and releasing numerous singles & EPs culminating in 2001 with the mix album Relentless Beats [Moonshine Music MM 80143-2] and a 'Vol 2 follow-up a year later. Subsequent to that, MB01 and MB02 [Trust the DJ] were both launched in 2002.

By their very nature, soul and disco, sharing a more humanistic heritage and complex musical structure, retain a certain challenge regarding tempo variations and 'break' possibilities - forcing one to be constantly on the edge. By contrast, house and techno's '808' rock solid bpms and long instrumental passages is like a double-edged sword permitting long harmonic mixes, 'drop ins & outs' but eliminating the 'fear factor' of ruining a groove transition. It is not surprising that most modern house/techno DJs eventually yearn for some higher aspirations explaining in part the 'explosion' of producer-DJs in recent years. Coming from a young-age musical background, the Misstress was naturally inclined to pursue new ventures also. It is often life's unexpected turn of events that leads to results; in Barbara's case, the loss of her father on Christmas Eve 2006 was a great inspiration to free her soul by creating her first original album titled I'm No Human.




 
 Oddly, there seems to be no vinyl issue. In this great vinyl-renewal era and given the musical style, beat culture scene and the Misstress' love of vinyl, this is a major marketing mistake on the part of MapleMusic Recordings and should be rectified immediately.



The double gatefold cardboard jacket shows Miss B adorned with what looks like 'volcano fire'. The latter reappears inside on the 'left wing' while the 'right wing' is dominated by a facial close-up. Tastefully simple, the CD label replicates the central graphics when perfectly aligned horizontally on the jewelbox 'spindle'. On high resolution audio systems, the black-background label will help in getting the maximum out of the pits with a minimum of errors; all things being equal, resulting in better and 'warmer' sound. Finally, the back cover illustrates the recurring theme of the fiery energy with the eleven song titles listed in small print. Included is a matching-color folded 'booklet-type' sheet containing all song lyrics and typical credits. The presentation as a whole, while not outstanding is slightly above average. The album was mixed by Peter Van Uytfanck at Apollo Studios/Montreal. Mastering was accomplished by Emily Lazar at The Lodge/NYC and assisted by Joe Laporta.


The album opens with the title track "I'm No Human". The overall level is not too loud, a welcome relief from what is CDs 'new normal'. Be it a movie, a book or even at that an audio review, the first sequences or chapter are capital; same goes for a music album, getting those first bars right, sets-up the mood and to a great extent determines the lasting impression of an artist' worth and creative standing. That is why when mastering a CD or LP project, I always recommend to musicians to wisely choose that first cut: you want it to impress your 'audience' with a great song and sound. I'm happy to report that the Misstress and the people surrounding her know what they are doing. Rarely have I heard - especially on CD - such a fine combination of great 'hook' and balanced sound and one only hopes that this is representative of the entire body of work. The uptempo beat shows good bounce from the bass synth riff clinging to the kick track with the programmed hi-hat marking every second beat as if in 2/4 pattern; all three perfectly EQ'd and mixed in level. Vocal delivery takes on a mostly monotonous tone in accented English apart from one French sentence thrown in that lends it a Montreal 'flavoring'. The mild process efx added to her voice in tandem with the minimalist music setting, gives it a dark intriguing mood. As the chorus is repeated, slowly a crescendo of middy synth takes on a 'nastiness' of its own. During the break, the latter is panned, envelope-filtered and finally the kick ceases beating, leaving clap track and panned 'train-type efx' phasing. 



"Is It OK" featuring sweet Bjorn Yttling starts off with cello-sounding synth riff followed by solid 4/4 syncopated kick every sixteen beats in turn followed by bass synth run reaching down low. A trebly synth shaker counterbalances to perfection the lowest frequencies, maintaining the high sound quality of the opening track. 




Leonard Cohen's classic "Dance Me To The End Of Love" gets a new twist in this mid-tempo 'face lift'. Solid syncopated kick plus sparse synth riff leads, before hi-hat spices things up and a crescendoed envelope-pitch-shifted synth, climaxes onto the first verse. With main melody playing in the background, left & right high frequency percs come in and remind me of vintage Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder arrangements & productions a la "Try Me I Know We Can Make It' from 1976's A Love Trilogy [Oasis OCLP 5004] and electro disco releases circa 1977 like Les Rockets' "Future Woman" (Decca 78.001) as well as Space and Kebekelektrik's "Magic fly". There are plenty of subtle asymmetric electronic details complementing the superb purity in the synths. Another killer track in both departments.

"Four On The Floor" was inspired by a friend's negative query on teckhouse music in general. Barbara's answer came in the form of a sarcastic caricature song, emphasizing the typical 'native ingredients' of the form. Thus the track opens with a big impressive kick (ass) 808, producing one of the best, tight-fisted, 'in your chest' bass-drums ever put on a CD ('five-inchers' need not apply). The highly repetitive, slightly obnoxious chorus best be taken lightly. The break employs a cheesy 'chiptune' style synth after which the kick slams back in. Francis Boudreau adds a touch of guitar on this and the next cut. This is the first track of the CD, sounding somewhat compressed/limited for loudness gain -- more so during the chorus -- but seems justified considering the song's primary intent. Even so, it remains excellent sonic-wise, though a bit lesser than the preceding tracks.



Do not panic, "Push Pull" is not an anti-single-ended anthem. Kidding aside, track-5 starts out sounding like an ol' scratchy 78. This slow tempo gem goes down quite low changing the ambience and pushing the album and its Misstress in interesting new directions; a kinda sleazy atmosphere. The 'cushiony' bass beat recalls Nine Inch Nails "Closer" from 1994's The Downward Spiral [Nothing/Interscope HALO 8 STPR 5509] as well as Fern Kinney's 1979 discothèque remake of "Groove Me" [T.K. Disco 401] originally a King Floyd 1970 soul classic 7-inch single [Chimneyville CH-435].

The slow tempo continues and digs even deeper into darkness and low frequencies with "Ouais". Yes the 'Blade Runner mood' is a bit of a throwback to the early to mid-1980s weltschmerz feeling reminiscent of such songs as Anne Clark's "Sleeper in Metropolis" and it's B-side "Self Destruct" (Ink Records INK 1213). Great edgy, pure, highly defined synth; subtle panned percussion; perfect mix and sound balance by engineers Peter Van Uytfanck and Emily Lazar. Almost instrumental, this track showcases a lot of researched ambience cues, layers of panned mid percs culminating in 'chip music' stylings. This is the first of three successive outstanding tracks. As you probably know by now, I am quite finicky for sound and must admit this is as close to perfection that I have heard for this genre on CD or any other format at that. Kudos!

The volcanic "Etna" follows the darkish feel of the last two tracks. Mid-tempo kick and clap groove, introduces songé atmosphere of Bernard Thibodeau's sparse reverberated piano, before modulated bass synth run accompanies vocals. The English verses change to Italian chorus reminding me of Pacifika's Silvana Kane - that I reviewed in July - who frequently alternates from English to Spanish to French in a same song. Panned intimate vocals layered over syncopated beats. Superb sound; perfect exploitation of the full frequency spectrum (FFRR); excellent articulated kick with complementary treble 'shaker'. At the risk of repeating myself this qualifies as the best 'song-based' electronica sound on CD ever heard. The mix and mastering is spot on. 


"J'ÉtaisUne Fleur" is the triumvirate apogee of the Misstress' compositions. Panned modulated synth run, accompanied by simple piano - arranged by Ariane Moffatt - for the intro. Kick comes in plus delicate percs and hi-hat highlights. Cellist Chloé Dominguez brings sweeping strings perfectly soothing the saddish melody, sharing some emotive cues with Mexican electro-ambient creator Murcof. This is what I would classify as the zenith in 'emotional electronica'. Barbara's small accent and delay efx gives the song a rare combination of light sensuality and pensive melancholy as if 'Stereolab plays French chanson'. The highs are warmly detailed; there is equilibrium throughout the frequency bandwidth. As the coda approaches, there are less and less tracks; the kick ceases and we appear to be back at the beginning leaving only the modulated synth and piano; the latter having the last say. This is the track you do not want to pass over; very strong songcraft skill. It shows another side of The Misstress that I doubt many people knew or expected coming from a DJ. It is very rare that I would not change one iota on a recording be it for song structure or sound but here I can only say perfection. For such to be the case implies that everyone and every link in the long chain that culminates in a recording got it right, at the correct level and "spiritually" understood what had to be communicated. Bravo! 




The tempo switches gear from jogging to "I'm Running" featuring Canadian rock singer Sam Roberts lending his voice to what is the only 'commercial-leaning' track on the album. The opening chords borrow heavily on Lou Reed's 1972 classic "Walk on the Wild Side" from Transformer (RCA LSP-4807). Vocals come in on kick, with Barbara up first in the center and Roberts second more on the right and the chorus sung in unison. Some nice "ha" "ha" sounds blend in the background and a tambourine-like perc on the left shares stage with a 'dirty-sounding' low-sampled clap.

  
The first part of "Four Days Apart" recalls the short 1979-80 period that fused New Wave with synthpop exemplified by Gary Numan's early albums and especially OMD's "Enola Gay" from Organisation (Dindisc) with emphasis on the double-punch kick in front. But a minute or so from the coda, the energetic song takes a fascinating left turn into a heavier direction reminding me of heavy-electrodisco-rock hybrids such as France's Les Rockets main four hits: 1976's "Future Woman", 1978's "On the Road Again", 1979's "Electric Delight” and 1980's "Galactica". The particular distortion filtered efx applied on François Plante's bass-guitar and song style would be interesting to explore in an upcoming album, perhaps more rockish in flavor.

"Talk To Me" has a superb original intro boasting a solid kick. Filtered dirtyish percs; electric bass funks things up; Brazilian Girls drummer Aaron Johnston adds a very engaging aggressive bold groove; hi-hat and original 'narrower-band' accented vocals come on simultaneously while BG's singer Sabina Sciubba lends b-v; groove gets busier; handclaps bring party feel. Finally a brass trio of tenor, trumpet and trombone celebrate the grand finale. What a closer. Try not to bob your head, tap your foot or dance in your seat - good luck. Bring on the Party!



Summing up, Misstress Barbara has outdone herself on this outstanding debut album, fusing highly danceable teckhouse with darker emotive songcraft along with exemplary production values, combining opposing strengths of warmth and crispness. When I evaluated Pacifika's second album Supermagique [Six Degrees Records 657036 1168-2] last July, I had concluded that although 'definitely above average', I had reservations on the choice of engineers Emily Lazar over that of Ken Lee; attributing the CD's higher compression to her. That this was in fact the case, or somebody else's directives, only those present at the sessions or 'in the loop' know the answer. What there is no confusion though is the superb work from engineer Lazar and assistant Joe Laporta on mastering this CD, not neglecting Bonfiglio's fine production as well as all parties involved, i.e. great team work. Also, although the album sounds modern and fresh in songcraft, I cannot but admire the many sound-textured details that hark back to the golden age of mid to late 1970s multi-track recording when -- disco, electro and prog -- producers were more concerned with sound layering than plain loudness level.

Inside the gatefold it is written: "Dedicated to my father". I'm sure he would have been very proud of his daughter and would probably tell her that she made the right choice and has nothing to fear. _____________________________________________________________________

Friday, June 15, 2012

PIXIES - DOOLITTLE

Original 4AD CAD 905 (1989, April)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MFSL 1-309

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 8.0 / B+ (MoFi)
Rating: 7.5 / B+ (4AD)


Category: Alternative / Garage Rock / Power Pop
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:


. Black Francis - Vocals, guitar
. Kim Deal - Bass guitar,
. Joey Santiago - Lead guitar, backing vocals
. David Lovering - Drums


Additional musicians:

. Arthur Fiacco – cello on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Karen Karlsrud – violin on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Corine Metter – violin on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
. Ann Rorich – cello on "Monkey Gone to Heaven"

. Written by Black Francis
. Produced and Engineered October 31, November 23, 1988 by Gil Norton at Dowtown Recorders, Boston, Ma.

. Assisted by Engineers Dave Snider and Matt Lane
. Mixed by Engineer Steve Haigler at Carriage Studios, Stamford, CT.
. Mastered and lacquer cutted at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopole, CA by engineer Rob LoVerde on the "Gain 2 System"
. Pressed at RTI in California
. Art Direction and Design - Vaughan Olivier at 23 Envelope
. Photography - Simon Larbalestier



This review is the second of a two-part; the first covering their 1988 debut album Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296] and everything surrounding it; roots and influential impact included. The latter is - prior - recommended reading for better understanding. 

I bought my 'Made in England' pressing (in reality pressed at MPO in Averton, France) of Doolittle [4AD CAD 905]not too long after the original's initial release. Contrary to the norm at the time, the album stood out not only for its superior musical compositions and arrangements but equally for its superior sound quality. As a 1980s 'Alternative' album it no doubt made my Top 10 list. Apparently others seem to share a similar opinion; for in 2009, the band began a European tour followed by a U.S. circuit and finally a few Canadian cities were added in spring 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Doolittle; performing the album in its entirety and maintaining the original song order (like Kiss did with the Alive! tour and Rush with Moving Pictures and many others mostly emanating from the 1970s). Little details that are important for us 'pre-historic' music listeners but might as well be foreign to any of today's aleatoric-shuffled 'track jumpers'. In this age of 'instant-anytime-anywhere', the mere concept of recreating the original feeling of listening to an entire album without changing the song sequence (at a live concert no less) seems about as archaic as 'sitting in front of the tube', waiting for NBC's Thursday night prime-time line-up to begin at 8pm.

On this third Pixie release, the band changed producers once more. As opposed to Serfer Rosa, where engineer Steve Albini left his (non-interference) stamp by 'studio-stripping them naked', here they took another direction and went with British record producer and engineer Gil Norton who had previously worked on what is arguably Echo & the Bunnymen's strongest effort, 1984's Ocean Rain [Korova]; 4AD was certainly looking for a more 'traditional' producer's approach for this LP. The fact that they stuck with Norton for two further albums - 1990's Bossanova [4AD CAD 0010 or MFSL 1-311] and 1991's Trompe le Monde [4AD CAD 1014] - implies that whatever friction existed between Francis and Norton (regarding song layers, tempos and lenghts), both parties found enough common ground to make it work. Interesting is the 'delta factor' between Pixies, Nirvana and the common link uniting them - Albini. As alluded in part one; the band's second release Surfer Rosa - which later influenced Nirvana - was engineered and '(non) produced' by Albini while Nirvana's second release - the breakthrough Nevermind - was studio-produced by Butch Vig. Only after, did they 'dump him' and revert to a more 'purist' approach for their third release - In Utero - by hiring Albini while Pixies and 4AD had done the opposite two years prior.

Like Surfer Rosa, Doolittle was also recorded in their hometown; this time at Downtown Recorders, Boston, M.A. on 24-track analog and later mixed at Carriage House Studios, Stamford, C.T. The label must have pinned their hopes on this one, effectively quadrupling the budget to forty thousand dollars compared to the previous album; this excluding producers fee. 4AD afforded Norton the luxury of two assistant recording engineers plus two second assistants onto the project; a far cry from Albini's modest methods.


I compared this MoFi reissue with the original 'Made in England' MPO (Moulages et Plastiques de l'Ouest) pressing on 4AD; I did not have the original U.S. Elektra pressing as an extra counterpoint. While I often find some minor differences in hues, in this case both front covers were color-matched to near-perfection with the 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' trademarked-copper band, perfectly integrating in a symbiotic way on the original's top copper background, thus maintaining all of the latter's graphic dimensions - kudos. The back cover is close also but slightly less saturated and a bit shrunken to adapt to MFSL's default 'framework'. The artistic department at Mobile Fidelity went out of their way to present as complete a reissue as can be by creating a true gatefold jacket when none existed at the time and inserting - in the 'left hand' opening - a beautiful high quality 16-page 'album size' booklet containing seven sepia-toned pictures plus lyrics, that was only available in limited edition at the very beginning of its initial sortie. Inside the gatefold, a reprint of the back cover credits, over an artistic-appropriate background, is tastefully presented on rigid slightly-glossed cardboard. All this providing long term protection, satisfaction and great value for the true record collector; visually very impressive.

The original PMO-pressed vinyl weighs approximately 150 gram, looks fairly standard and is housed in a semi-rigid black, grey and off-white unlamented linen-effect textured paper, displaying the identical but smaller art-pics of the above mentioned booklet.

Turning our attention to the reissue: inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'.In addition, a folded light carton with 12 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was quite flat, black and shiny. A few small 'non-threatening' scratches on track-2 of side B was the only quibble on an otherwise perfect pressing. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case 4AD) but instead is plain black with silver writing.



The JA etched in the 'dead wax' of the original lacquer most probably indicates 'cut' by engineer Jack Adams. The 4AD PMO pressing used only 2 3/4 inches of lateral modulation on side A leaving close to 1 inch of 'dead wax' and 3 1/4 inches on side B choosing to stay rather far away from the smaller radius of the inner-groove. This will in theory reduce high frequency distortion but consequently limits the lower frequencies amplitude and reach, which are intrinsically related to cutter-head displacement. With roughly 18 min./side A and 21 min./side B, the latter is pushing it a bit for sufficient bandwidth or cutting level for the chosen speed. This, equating to roughly 6.5 min./inch on both sides.

Mastering and cutting engineer Rob LoVerde went the other way, choosing a groove-spacing travel of just over 3 inches on side A and just over 3 1/4 inches on side B (leaving barely over 1/4 inch of 'dead wax'); equivalent to 6 min./inch and close to 6.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. This favors better bass but is 'playing with fire' for the other end of the spectrum regarding the last track. Luckily, MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting and typical lower cutting level will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove. It will be interesting to compare these two opposite 'cutting' approaches, notwithstanding the differences stemming from mastering EQ's choices.


To start the 'match', I cued up the ol' 4AD to refresh my memory. As expected "Debaser" came out sounding pretty darn well for a recording of that era - remember we are talking 1989 and not 1959 DuNann/Contemporary 'perfection'. What stands out immediately is the punchy kick and groovy bass working in tandem, paired with a good helping of fine treble detail manifested in the tambourine. There is some compression present but it is quite tolerable and overall the tonal balance is quite satisfying. Switching over to MoFi brought out a smidgen more bottom supporting more the fundamentals rather than the harmonics in the kick and bass forming the rhythmic drive. A slight reduction in treble and top octave - a dB or two - lessened the tambourine in the mix and subjectively added a faint veil or lack of transparency in that region. Both masterings sounded good but on this track I hesitantly lean towards the 4AD.

"Tame" is in an even tighter race. The 4AD again displayed punchy kick drum and bass coupled with good dynamic shifts between the smoother drum and bass parts and the more aggressive guitar-driven riffs of which had nice lively 'edge'. The MoFi showed a bit more bottom but less attack on the beater, similar - to a small degree - to stuffing a pillow inside the kick drum; deadening the harmonics and shortening the resonant decay. Thankfully the aggressive part of the song remained about exact. So here it is a very 'close call' and I have to say it is more of a tossup than anything else; either one is equal and excellent in music and sonics.

"Wave of Mutilation" is more compressed than the first two tracks. The 4AD is weak in the bass and quite aggressive in the treble. MoFi is a hair less compressed, still hard in the treble but a tad more balanced; this time getting the nod for this admittedly below average track in sound as well as composition.

Fortunately "I Bleed" returns the prior higher quality on both levels. A slower tempo'ed song with militaryesque snare and strangely delivered vocals between Francis and bassist Kim Deal. The 4AD delivers very good punch, is tonally well balanced and has certain compression; nevertheless there are interesting dynamic swings in the kick drum at specific places. MoFi's version adds a bit more emphasis on the deep bottom and a bit clearer in the hi-hat, producing a wider 'wall' soundstage, making the former narrower or more 'mono-ish'. Advantage: MoFi.

"Here Comes Your Man" is much lighter in style and dare I say it 'commercial'; a true pop song in writing and execution. Written by Francis when he was a young lad of fifteen or so, it was decided head on that it would be better not to include it on 'Pilgrim not to clash with the more 'punkish-abrasive' direction of the mini-LP. In fact the song could easily pass for a Tom Petty tune or a latterday Velvet Underground track a la "Sweet Jane" from 1970's Loaded [Cotillon]. The 4AD is compressed - which increases with time - with lots of detail accentuation in the guitar strumming, to the point of starting to distort. Also the lack of bottom contributes to a thinner, ascending balance. MoFi turns the table around completely with what seems the best sounding track of side A. Engineer Rob LoVerde astounded me by rectifying the 4AD's above sins. Here we are rewarded with a very impressive deep-sounding 'big' kick drum, excellent tonal balance and good treble detail highlighting the acoustic guitar strumming. Compression rears its ugly head towards the coda also, but it seems less bothersome overall. Bottom line, the MoFi trounces the 4AD.

"Dead" showcases strange song structure sporting 'artistically'-distorted vocals with aggressive dissonant guitars preparing us for the noise rock movement just around the corner by the likes of The Jesus Lizard and the 1990s Chicago scene of Albini, Shellac and company. The 4AD has lots of attack on the kick but is a bit thin on the bottom and compressed in the mids and highs. The MoFi beats the craps out of the former with impressively deep and powerful bass drum; the whole much more listenable. Definitely one of the strong tracks.

The environmentally inspired, slow tempo "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is another of their most accessible songs. It was released as the first single of the album and features two cellists and violinists as guest musicians. The 4AD had no bottom as if a high enough 'low-cut' was engaged at all times. Lots of attack on kick and detail on tambourine leading to a clearer, less veiled sound. More edge on guitar but being the last side-song, sibilance rears its ugly head. The MoFi modulates a bit lower than its previous track - typical cutting trick - to help keep high frequency distortion at bay due to the smaller groove radius. Some compression and bandwidth limitations are also apparent but to a lesser degree thus favoring the reissue.


"Mr. Grieves" politely greets us with a short ska-ish intro, this soon transforming itself in an uptempo raucous drive of clean twangy guitars while alternating with a slower raunchy blues; quite an interesting musical 'ménage à trois'. The 4AD has punchy bass, a superb tonal balance and good startling dynamics between the opposing mentioned styles, making it one of the best sounding tracks of the album. The MoFi's intro is a touch cleaner because of the blacker background of the superbly silent RTI pressing - the percussive conga comes out a bit clearer also. Unfortunately there is less punch in the 60 to 100 Hz region - centering primarily on the kick drum - while the guitars and treble are softer sounding, robbing some of the natural rawness, edge and vitality of a 'rock' band; mirroring some of my perceptions on the opening track of side A. Advantage: 4AD.

If one were to base his or her opinion on only one Pixie song, the barely minute and a half fast-paced "Crackity Jones" could be excused for passing them for a hardcore band. This would have fitted well on 'Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa.On the 4AD, well-leveled aggressive guitars are juxtaposed with excellent punchy and snappy double-kick; sonics are almost on par with the previous track. MoFi's version is not as punchy, lacks a bit of grip with a softer sound, losing some of the dramatic inner-tension. We can speculate that the 5dB lower cutting level (even though manually compensated for during my 'A/B shootout' every time) can soften things a bit, just as a higher 'hot' cutting level will harden things by pushing the 3rd and odd-order harmonics of the cutter head. Finding the 'sweet spot' is difficult and sometimes key in zeroing in on the perfect yin yang of fiery drama and 'organic' relaxation. The previously mentioned shallow scratches were not audible.

"La La Love You" is a very original mid-tempo composition. The 4AD shows lots of emphasis on the 'snap' part of the kick while snare, cymbals and guitar strumming are clearly defined in the balanced mix. Nitpicking, some minute fuzz or dirt around the 8 kHz is hinted at. All in all, equal to the previous track, maintaining a high quality level. The MoFi displays superb deep lows and good kick articulation. Add to this; refined guitar strumming at the other end of the spectrum surpassing the 4AD in the top octave and absolutely perfect tonal balance leading to the second, if not the best sounding track of the LP.

"No. 13 Baby" is a slow tempo, mostly instrumental track alternating between loud electric guitar and a smoother acoustic side. Both versions were good with the 4AD offering a punchier kick intro and the MoFi, a more refined top end benefitting the acoustic string-strumming. Take your pick.

"There Goes My Gun" is to my taste the least inspiring song of the album. The original 4AD has a thin sound as if a lo-cut was applied, is compressed with an ascending tonal balance making it the worse sounding track of an otherwise well engineered project. Strangely it tends to coincide with side A's "Here Comes Your Man" in physical position vinyl-wise as well as sharing similar sonic aesthetics. The MoFi improves things a bit by going lower in the bass and surprise, better kick. Generally much cleaner and compression seems lessened. Advantage: MoFi.

The original 4AD's "Hey" is very dynamic, with great punch and deep lows. The treble and hi-hat are pretty much well balanced with just a hint of dirt and distortion, warming things up like a subtle tube flavoring; making it hard to beat. The MoFi does just that; with superb deep lows; a wider soundstage; a clean ride cymbal; incredible dynamic swing on snare; many short crescendo bursts and a perfect, creamy-smooth balance. Impressive enough to merit a - rare - perfect score and finding it the best sounding track of the album. Both masterings appeared cut at a slightly averaged lower level.

The only song penned by Fancis and Deal, "Silver" is quite original in style, standing out as a pair of white snickers would, at a royal wedding. With its big thumping bass drum setting the slow pace and dissonant twangy guitars bringing a hill country blues imprint to the track. The 4AD possesses good bass slam and places it front and center. The guitars are distorted to a degree and some minor inner groove distortion overlays the treble. Even so, the sheer bass 'whacks' let you forget or pass over the small irritants. The MoFi has a much wider soundstage, cleaner panned guitars and the bass slam veers more towards the lowest foundation rumbling than the higher punch. Almost too close to call on this one, but forced to choose: the MoFi by a sliver.

"Gouge Away" closes Doolittle with a more conventional 'compo'. The 4AD, as is often the case, is punchier in the bass and kick drum. The top end is veiled, lacking detail - remember we are close to the 21-minute mark - this reduces the stage width, sounding more mono-ish. Distortion increases a bit as we approach the coda. The MoFi has clean, panned electric guitars in the beginning and during the softer parts while the louder parts show the inner groove distortion creeping up, slightly more apparent than on the 4AD. I hypothesize this is mainly due to the 'modulated groove' terminating closer to the label, thus confirming my initial visual worry of 'cutting up' to such a small radius.

Summing up, contrary to KC and the Sunshine Band [MOFI 1-012] and The Cars Shake It Up [MFSL 1-325]where the reissues trounced the original from start to finish, producing a clear-cut winner; this second Pixie reissue by Mobile Fidelity while excellent, does not produce such a 'slam-dunk' outcome. That should not come as such a surprise, because the original import on 4AD (can't vouch for the Elektra distributed U.S. copy) simply was not 'messed up' like so many other 1980s releases; in fact it already held up pretty well. What MoFi has done is improved the visual and tactile aspects over any previous version in a substantial way and with RTI's expertise, provided a superior, thicker, noise-free pressing. Regarding Rob LeVorde remastering; although I preferred certain tracks or EQ choices on the 4AD (mainly for the accentuated punch and drive); by and large he significantly improved the bottom end on most tracks and with the half-speed mastering/cutting method, brought a refinement in the top end that did not exist prior to this reissue. In all fairness, during my evaluation I took several notes and rated every track of both issues individually on a scale of one to ten, added up the total and finally divided by fifteen to get the album average. For those interested: out of a maximum of 150, the 4AD gathered a total of 114, while the MoFi got 119, each roughly averaging 7.5 and 8.0 on 10 respectively. In that respect, the Mofi slightly comes out on top. Ratings varied between a low of 6.0 and a high of 10.

Final thoughts; if you are thinking of getting only one Pixies LP, go for MoFi's Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296]; with Albini at the helm and the superb remastering MoFi did, you cannot go wrong. If 'two is in the bag' and you are hesitating between which Doolittle to go with; the deluxe packaging alone would sway me towards the MoFi [MFSL 1-309]. Better yet, try to find a decent second-hand 4AD copy and add it to the above duo and make it a threesome, it's so much more fun.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

PIXIES - SURFER ROSA

Originally released on 4AD (1988, March)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MFSL 1-296

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 9.5/ A

Category: Alternative / Garage Rock / Power Pop
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
 
  
. Black Francis - Vocals, guitar
. Kim Deal - Bass guitar, backing vocals (credited as Mrs. John Murphy on "Gigantic")
. Joey Santiago - Lead guitar
. David Lovering - Drums


. 'Produced' and Recorded December 1987 at Q-Division in Boston, Massachusetts by Steve Albini
. Mastered and lacquer cutted at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopole, CA by engineer Shawn Britton on the "Gain 2 System"
. Pressed at RTI in California
Sleeve Art Direction and Design - Vaughan Olivier at 23 Envelope
. Photography - Simon Larbalestier



This review is best viewed as the first of a two-part; the second being the complementary follow-up Doolittle [MFSL 1-309]; although never putting out a bad album, both of these Pixies releases are generally regarded as their finest work.


The Boston quartet made its first appearance on the scene with the 1987 mini-LP Come On Pilgrim [4AD MAD 709], produced by Gary Smith.


Sandwiched, so to speak, between the U.K. Alternative sounds of the 1980s and the soon-to-be Seattle Grunge sound of the 1990s, the band's unique style ushered in a welcomed return to the high energy acoustic power pop of The Knack and wild zaniness of The B-52's but with the added rawness of hardcore punk; thus paving the way for Nirvana, Nevermind and 'company'. 


Throughout music history, the pendulum has swung back and forth between states, countries and oceans. Thus it was inevitable that after the better part of the British-dominated 1980s with bands as diverse as The Cure, The Smiths, The Sisters of Mercy and Bauhauss on one side and The electronified Human League, Depeche Mode, The The and New Order on the other; the commercialized 'spandexed' glam or hair metal coming out from L.A. and N.Y.C. in the corresponding decade was in dire need of a no-nonsense creative 'shake-up'. Pixies - along with noisier contemporaries Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. - would serve that bridge and 'wake-up call' well.


Although both Serfer Rosa and Doolittle reissues would have made perfect sense coming out on the more eclectic Silver Label series from MoFi; at least we have the added benefit of a heavier vinyl pressing which does not automatically guarantee a superior sound but all else being equal should diminish warpage concerns and increase perceived value. 




Not having the original pressing of Serfer Rosa, I limited my evaluation to this reissue. MFSL have done a superb job artistic wise; like many of their reissues, they created a gatefold jacket where one was not offered on the original at the time. MoFi's 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' signature top band, this time in copper is particularly well chosen in hue to match the sepia-tone framed pictures on the front and back cover; the beautiful white background enhancing even more so, the contrast effect.


By reprinting the original inner sleeve inside the sturdy heavy carton, it provides long term protection and adds great value and tactile satisfaction. 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, black and shiny with nice groove etchings representing the different dynamic shadings. A small but deep scratch at the very end of track-2 on side A was the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect pressing. The words ''Zoink!'' on side A and ''Oh my golly'' on the flip side along with SRB can be seen inscribed in the 'dead wax' lead-out groove. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case 4AD) but instead is plain black with silver writing.

Mastering and cutting engineer Shawn R. Britton chose a groove spacing travel of just over 3 1/8 inches on side A and 3 1/4 inches on side B; equivalent to 4.8 min./inch and 5.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. With roughly 15 min./side A and 18 min./side B, there should be no problem regarding bandwidth and cutting level for the chosen speed. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies while extending them also, by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove.

Loyal readers know that I am often critical of post-1980 recordings but MoFi's reissue of The Cars' 1981 Shake It Up [MFSL 1-325] along with a few other exceptions nearing the late 1980s renewed hope that not all is lost from that period. Then again, none of the above were released 'smack dab in the middle' of that decade when everything seemed to unravel. Of course it also helps when production and engineering duties are credited to ex-Big Black and - at the time - future Shellac leader Steve Albini, who basically repudiated the de facto working procedures of the times; i.e. overdubbing, overproduction and all things digital.


In fact 'production' credits on the jacket are somewhat misleading whenever Albini is hired; for his studio approach is more akin to an 'audio-high rez, high contrast-photographer' than a 'creative painter'. And 'hired' is indeed the correct wording here; for contrary to many in the business, he refuses on principle from taking any royalties from future sales, charging a flat daily fee only. Somewhat unorthodox, but then again Steve Albini has always been an unorthodox player - in all its senses - as member of a band or when dealing in the music biz. Interestingly the Nirvana-esque link I alluded to higher up is solidified by Albini's presence, for the latter was responsible in part for the change in direction and rawer sound of the Washington trio's 1993 In Utero [Geffen DGC 24607].


He recorded the tracks at 2-Division in their hometown. As customary with MoFi 'post-Anadisc' output, this was 'cut' rather low in level.

So it came as no surprise that from the get-go, the drum intro on "Bone Machine" had all the hallmarks of Albini's positive thumbprint possessing an all too rare hint of the Real Thing resonating in a semi-reverberant acoustic field instead of an - all too common - isolated plexiglas booth. Good deep thumping got my woofers fully energized. Realistic non-distorted vocals captured with a rawness rarely heard on record; this rawness or 'nakedness' refreshingly permeated throughout the recording, 'disrobing' the instruments and players of studio gimmickry. If one were to judge a book by its cover, this promised for a good read; file it in category true-life portrait.

"Break My Body" sounded a bit compressed although knowing that Albini does not use compression on guitars nor the 'main mix' - only 3 or 4 dB on the bass player - so it is probably a question of less dynamics in the actual live playing. That said this is still a fairly good sounding, interesting track. A few repeated 'vinyl ticks' could be heard due to the previously noted scratch in the last bars of the song right up to the first notes of the following track.

"Something Against You" sported incredible drum impact; natural sound. Guitars and the rest were loud and static in level.

"Broken Face" is rather hardcore, quite abrasive and linear in style.

"Gigantic" opens with solo electric bass recorded with such rare natural tone it reminded me of an actual bass player playing in the same room proving that not only does Albini know how to mike a drumkit but that bass-guitar does not have to play second fiddle. Even though credited to 'Mrs. John Murphy', in reality it is co-written by bassist and singer Kim Deal - panned right of center and natural - on what became their first single and one of their biggest hits. Nice dynamic shifts bring contrast to the mix. Great punchy kick drum. Only minor let down is, this is one very repetitive ending.

Side A comes to a close with "River Euphrates". Good 'live sounding' drums. Singer and guitarist Black Francis is left of center. The B-52's influence - especially a la "Rock Lobster" from their 1979 debut [Warner Brothers or MOFI 1-004] - can be heard in Francis' vocal delivery. Some very slight surface noise could be detected during lower passages and the coda. If side B maintains the same high level of quality this will be one very interesting reissue.

Flipping sides and things are certainly off to a great start with "Where is My Mind?" Superb acoustic guitar, extremely natural sounding 'dry' drumkit with impressive rendering of kick, snare and hi-hat. Same goes for the vocals, which following Albini's winning recipe, are usually the only tracks to be individually compressed and later overdubbed to the live instrumental playing direct to tape. Lovely top octave detail, clean yet warm. Panned electric guitar with natural 'crunch' like in real life and indicative of superior harmonic content due in part to MoFi's proprietary 'Gain 2 System' half-speed cutting. This track was even superior sonic-wise to any one on side A.

"Cactus" has to my knowledge the most outstanding and realistic 'rock' drum sound ever put on record displaying clean natural tone impact on snare and all toms, floor included with deep felt lows. Electric guitar excellently captured and rendered. This is one of the best tracks of the album. Definitely 'Demo' worthy.

"Tony's Theme" is very 'B-52ish' in vocals and guitar a la "Private Idaho" from 1980's Wild Planet [Warner brothers or MOFI 1-014]. Great punchy, warm kick and electric bass plus crisp close-miked vocals. On par withthe first track on this particular side.

"Oh My Golly!" sums up pretty much my reaction to once again outstanding true to life sounding drums; dynamic and powerful with uncanny hi-hat and drum impact. Surprisingly this is countered by top end finesse in acoustic guitar. Another 'whopper' track!

"Vamos" starts out with a minute or so of rough language uttering again and again 'You fuckin' die' with a rare frankness in timbre. This is followed by incredibly dynamic kick drum impact and a versimilitude in distorted electric guitar. Boasting an accelerando 2/4 'looped' beat; panned psychedelic-like reverbed distortion; outstanding top end; very refined, delicate, low level mixed, acoustic guitar. Add a rudimentary 'shouty' vocal and you've got one heck of a tune; also 'in nomination' for best track of the album.

"I'm Amazed" keeps on amazing me as the drums keep getting more and more impressive in their dynamics, making me jump out of my seat! Such a rare breed indeed.

Last but not least, "Brick Is Red" will have me sounding like a broken record but yes this also could be the best 'rock' drum sound ever put on tape and MoFi gets it right on record. Impressive and surprisingly detailed acoustic guitar strumming and on top of that, on the - unfavorably situated - last track nonetheless; now that is what I call mighty fine groove cutting.

In the end, not once did I experience any listener fatigue, clearly refreshing after hearing so many modern fare provoking just the opposite and validating one more time, that heavy compression plus hard limiting is the main culprit in deteriorating music recordings. Albini knows it, Bob Weston reaffirms it and many producers and engineers should follow or at least take a page out of his tried and true recipe book; their 'plat de résistance' would maybe not come out as dull and tasteless. Sure there still remains and probably always will be, differences between the live experience and a 'rock' recording be it on vinyl, CD or hi-rez digital formats and in some instances that is not detrimental to musical enjoyment; in fact it can even be better balanced and certainly less dangerous for our delicate eardrums than trying to reproduce 110 dB or more of blasting Pearls, Zildjians and Marshalls with total accuracy. And there lies the fine art of capturing the essence of a live band while cleverly 'molding the clay' to a reproducible near-facsimile of the real thing. Such is the case with Albini's Serfer Rosa and with Shawn R. Britton's ever so slightly warm remastering; everything is spot on. If you are looking for even more rawness, then any one of Shellac's four LPs is your ticket to audio nirvana.

Summing up, this first Pixie reissue by Mobile Fidelity makes a convincing argument that when using the Original Master Tape, recorded by an original 'master' engineer the likes of Steve Albini or studio partner - and Shellac bassist - Bob Weston, that MoFi's half-speed mastering/cutting method even at 33 1/3 rpm gives a run for the money to competing 45 rpm releases cut in real time. You owe it to yourself to possess at least one 'rock' recording that many (unfortunately) tend to qualify as lo-fi when in reality this is more hi-fi than 99% of what's out there or ever was.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THE BUDOS BAND - THE BUDOS BAND III

Daptone Records Dap-020 (Aug. 2010)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
 
Rating: 5.7/ A 

Category: Afrobeat + Afro-soul
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k)

Musicians: 
    
- Baritone Saxophone: Jared Tankel
- Bass Guitar: Daniel Foder
- Bongos, Congas: Rob Lombardo
- Congas: John Carbonella Jr.
- Cowbell, Claves, Tambourine: Dame Rodriguez
- Drums: Brian Profilo
- Electric Guitar: Mike Deller, Thomas Brenneck
- Flute: Daisy Sugarman
- Shekere, Tambourine, Cowbel: Vincent Balestrino
- Trumpet: Andrew Greene, David Guy
   
Produced by Bosco Mann aka Gabriel Roth and Tommy 'TNT' Brenneck
Executive Producer: Gabriel Roth, Neil Sugarman       
Recorded at Daptone Studio's "House of Soul"
Engineered [chief] and Mixed by Gabriel Roth
Recorded by [Chief Tape Operator] Wayne Gordon
Mastered by Steve Berson
Design [Sleeve]: Ann Coombs, Daniel Foder
Layout: Sri Radveed
Photography [Back Cover]: John Carbonella



Since the mid-1990s, there has been a slow but definite resurgence in, for lack of a better term, 'organic music' or what the ol' timers once called 'Soul Food'. It is a bit ironic but not really surprising that after years of aseptic digital and Auto-Tune 'perfection', we humans - or at least an ever growing minority, strive to re-appropriate the vitality and raw energy of the past, warts and all. After a 'dearth' of earthy acoustic output beginning in the mid-1970s and intensifying in the following decades; soul, funk and afrobeat are making a strong comeback in our ever expanding musical universe, thanks in no small part to the powers of the unbounded web, international music festivals and some dedicated and talented artists. Extrapolating we can even make a parallel with the return of tubes in general, SETs in particular and the wider spread of the vinyl LP's comeback; coincidentally or not within the same time period.
 
Fusing the strengths of West African highlife and Yoruba music with American funk and jazz; afrobeat rose to prominence in the late 1960s only to fall out of favor - at least on this continent - with the rise of disco of which the latter drew inspiration via Camaroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's visionary "Soul Makossa" [1972, Fiesta].


But the socio-politico polyrhythms continued flourishing in their native land by way of pioneer Fela Kuti while later passing the torch to his son Femi.


Just as James Brown was pivotal in the development of funk and used his black power to - at times - transmit political messages, so was Kuti through afrobeat. More recently this flame has kept on burning by groups like Brooklyn's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Montreal's Afrodizz and Berkeley's Albino!


Such is also the case with Staten Island New York's The Budos Band, a twelve member unit bringing back the sunny sounds of afrobeat with a sprinkling ray of soul thrown in for good measure - which explains their preference for the term 'afro-soul'. This is in fact their fourth release on Daptone Records (not counting a few 7" singles). 


Brooklyn-based Daptone - formerly Desco - is one of the leading conduits of this 'organic renewal'. Since 2002, through means of an indie label and all-analog studio, house engineer Gabriel Roth and partner/musician Neal Sugarman have poured heart, mind and savings in this 'family-oriented' approach to making music.


Indeed this last point is what makes Daptone truly stand out among the two opposing directions the music business has taken since the turn of this century. Nowadays either you are signed to a major and they provide state of the art 72-track analog and 'near infinite'-track '24/192 digital' with all the famous mikes at your disposal or... you keep your independence taking the DIY route with your trusty '58 and all the free plug-ins in the world dumping it on your portable workstation in your basement. As with anything in life, your mileage may vary. Daptone kind of takes the middle ground or rather the 'retro way'; bearing some resemblance to the way Stax-Volt and others were doing things circa 1967-70.



Like the music that inspired them and continues to vibrate in the old 'House of Soul' in the Bushwick neighbourhood, the musicians and singers are captured 'live' with little overdub in a minimalist - though not audiophile purist - way with a mike or two per instrument; nothing esoteric but an assortment of old dynamics and a few newer condensers to experiment with. Tracking is either done on an 8-track half-inch Otari, late 1960s solid state 8-track Ampex or 16-track Tascam tape deck.


The Trident 24-track input mixing desk is then bounced and sent to either a restored 3M or an old Otari quarter-inch 2-track. Modern outboard tube compressors and EQs mixed in with some vintage Altec plus Orban spring reverbs share processing duties.


Many of their recordings are released both on vinyl and CD.

Not having the vinyl, I'll limit my evaluation to the CD version. The modest gatefold cardboard jacket is mostly two-toned with credits listed on the front inside. The CD underside displays twenty of the artist's album covers signed to the label. The back side cover lists the eleven songs.

Recorded to 16-track analog by chief engineer Gabriel Roth with chief tape operator Wayne Gordon and mastered by Steve Berson.

Musically things get off to a good start with "Rite of the Ancients" opening the album in an early 1970s style. Such is not automatically the case sonic-wise. Indeed the sound is compressed leaving the horns thin sounding, lacking 'grunt' in the low-mids around 250 to 600 Hz. Compounding the problem, the whole horn section but especially Jared Tankel's baritone sax is recorded way too far with too much reverb producing a distant emasculated sound for such a powerful 'barking' blattiness in real life. For this type of music and most jazz and funk, the baritone or tenor sax are the foundation of the horn section and because of the ears natural lower sensitivity in that region compared to the upper-mid 'presence' region - where the alto, soprano, trumpet and flute shine through - it is preferable to mike the former up close and 'dry' and backed-up by the bass and drum. Speaking of which, the latter two are on the anemic side also. On a more positive note the percussion sounds and Thomas Brenneck's guitar are fairly clean and tastefully balanced in the mix. All this aside, it remains a solid opener.

Bass, guitar and Mike Deller's electric organ leads a psychedelic intro into "Black Venom". This follows with a mix of drums, congas and shekere establishing a tribal-esque groove underlying tight Middle Eastern-influenced horns, making a nice blend of brass and woodwinds. Still lacking 'grunt', they are slightly less compressed yet still too much. Trumpet 'blowing' turns funkier. About halfway into the piece, the low end suddenly appears - as if 'punched in' on the board - bringing a better tonal balance; too bad it was not present since the beginning of the track or the album for that matter. Equally as excellent music-wise as the opening track.

"River Serpentine" captures the attention with superb majestical cymbal-leading chord changes in the intro. Persuing with slightly panned horns; better 'grunt' in baritone sax. Percussive sounds are clearer also; Vincent Balestrino and Dame Rodriguez add 'color' to the rhythmic groove pattern on shekere and clave, respectively. Deller's melodic organ playing delights over a smooth vibe reminiscent of MFSB's "Love is the Message" (1973, Philadelphia International) and other Gamble-Huff / Vincent Montana, Jr. collaborations. A bit of improvement in the bottom octave but barely. How unfortunate the piece fades out just when the melodic structure was taking a new interesting direction. As if a 'Part-2' was awaiting us on the B-side of a seven-inch single; strange.

"Unbroken, Unshaven" has Thomas Brenneck on guitar up front plus a groovy rhythm section backing him from the get-go. Rodriguez's tambourine is on the left bringing a mid-1970s 'Sunshine' disco sound. The horns come in a bit saturated and 'squashed' on the tape producing mild but distinct distortion. At the other end of the spectrum, bottom is not bad. Structurally, organ soloes first, followed second by Tankel's exciting baritone sax blowing - a shame that he's almost 'lost' in the mix because of recording engineer Gabriel Roth emphasizing reverb over proximity, intimacy and boldness - with organ 'comping'. Once again, superb groove but just when 'getting into it', premature fadeout makes it sound like a 'CD sampler'.

"Nature's Wrath" changes the pace and ambience with an intro presenting a 'crescendo-reverbed' trumpet trill in left field shortly joined by baritone sax on the right. Drum, bass and tremolo-augmented guitar establish a slow tempo 6/8 blues. At last, kick, snare and hi-hat come out stronger in the mix; still a bit veiled and muted in harmonics though well balanced for the meditative mood. Middle Eastern-influenced horn playing, at times majestic, at times 'punchy', eventually ceding spotlight to Daisy Sugarman's flute solo. Before long, horns gradually make a 'crescendoed'-comeback taking over anew. As the piece progresses, the main 'looped' bass/guitar riff becomes hypnotic, having a calming effect. The coda has the trumpet reverberate towards centre-left field. While not outstanding, this is probably the most dynamic, less squashed and saturated track of the album; thus the best sounding one.

"Golden Dunes" sets the pace with a faster 4/4 'feel'. Four-bar intro comprising bass, guitar+tremolo and metronomic cowbell are followed by Arabic tinged horn riffs and 1960s-styled trebly organ, both flirting with dissonance. The rhythm is almost disco. Too bad the horns and organ are quite compressed.

"Budos Dirge" has panned horns with trumpet occupying center-left while baritone sax takes center-right. Snare hit initiates rhythm; drums, congas and bass make for an instantly captivating hook recalling some percussive-oriented disco around 1977. There is some brief intense dissonant brass 'punches'. Sound is more compressed than other tracks, producing a thinner more fatiguing balance. Another premature fadeout unfortunately.

Solo bass plus guitar greet "Raja Haje" soon to be accompanied by clave, shekere and horns in this mildly-fast 3/4 tempo.

"Crimson Skies" repeats the above pattern in structure and instrumentation augmented by the organ. Horns play in unison. Repetitive but interspersed with brief R&B punchy drum fills. Horns a bit too compressed.

"Mark of the Unamed" is more middy and compressed. The backbone rhythm is a cross between the Bar-Kays, The Meters and Booker T. & the M.G's. Midway there is an interesting change of direction. The first run has the bass, guitar, conga, shekere and later baritone sax grooving all along. On the second run, the organ rules 'til the horns make a strong punchy comeback. Saturating a bit in the mix because of the heavy compression, they induce listener fatigue in the end. This is probably the worse sounding track of the album.

"Reppirt Yad" is you guessed it: The Beatles' "Day Tripper" inverted. Taken at a slower pace and darker mood with a bit of 'ghostly' vocals and tambourine like the original featured. Although not bad, it seems a bit 'filler-up' material. I would have left it off the album, instead reducing the numerous unnecessary fadeouts. The compositional skills of the band are impressive enough to keep it an 'all-original' album.

Finally I examined the shape of the waveform from start to finish and based on the numerous amplitude gradations and the overall medium loudness level, it seems that mastering engineer Steve Berson did not use or 'abuse' the limiter or level maximizer like the norm these days. So the compression and harshness noted in the horns must emanate from earlier in the chain, either at the tracking or mixing stage or a combination of both. I then performed a spectrum analysis on every track to give further insight into the problem and my sound perceptions were confirmed by an excess of energy in the upper mids / lower treble roughly spanning the 2 kHz to 6 kHz plus a lack of energy at the other end of the bandwidth under 60 Hz.

Summing up,

in an interview he gave to SOS (Sound On Sound) in 2008, Daptone's recording engineer Gabriel Roth says that he often cuts some bass around 80Hz to 100Hz before printing it on tape so he can get the upper range of the sound to saturate and distort, for which the low frequencies' higher amplitude energy would hinder "the benefit" he's seeking for. He later adds back some low end in the mix "if necessary".

This goes on a long way explaining why this musically awesome album unnecessarily suffers from some important sound compromises. There is this trend lately that certain producers and engineers want to give a 'vintage sound' to a mix, often by rolling off both the low and high end and squashing the life out of a band. To add insult to injury - but surely with good intent - they embrace the advantages of everything analog. Don't get me wrong I love Analog! and have always defended it, even when most everybody was ready to put it to the grave. But I saw this happen in a big way with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and see it happen all too often. And it is really sad.

Listen to some classic Manu Dibango from the 1970s on Fiesta or Isaac Hayes' Theme From Shaft Soundtrack on Stax/Enterprise or The J.B.'s on People or James Brown's "Body Heat" or Monk's Brilliant Corners or Monk's Music on Riverside or Sonny Rollins' Way Out West on Contemporary and you will hear how a baritone sax, how a tenor, how horns can sound so raw, so powerful, so beautiful and how Analog can be incredible WHEN you use the right mikes and vision.

The Budos Band merit all the praise they can get and it must be great to experience them live but on CD - and the vinyl can't be that far off - they are a bit 'shortchanged'. I'm sure the gang at Daptone have their heart at the right place and you cannot feel but admiration, for people who put their talents and hard earned cash in a 'return to the days when real musicians played on real instruments' and on top of that, support analog and vinyl. Like Booker T. and "Green Onions", let's hope they tinker with the ingredients and perfect the recipe.
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