• SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh Laboratory MA252 Integrated Amplifier (November 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Hegel H90 and H190 Integrated Amplifiers (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - How Hegel's SoundEngine Works (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight  - Estelon History and YB and Extreme Loudspeakers (September 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - What Makes Hegel Different? (August 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Estelon Extreme Legacy Edition Loudspeaker (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion Overview and Technologies (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! Insight - Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker (June 2017)
  • SoundStage! Encore - The Cowboy Junkies'
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Anthem's STR Integrated Amplifier (May 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- What's a Tonmeister? (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - AxiomAir N3 Wireless Speaker System (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Gryphon Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Dynaudio History and Driver Technology (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - The Story How Gryphon Began (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Devialet History, ADH Technology, and Expert 1000 Pro (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Devialet's Phantom Loudspeakers (August 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh Home Theater and Streaming Audio (July 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh MC275 Stereo Amplifier (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh History and Autoformer Technology (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - NAD Viso HP50 Headphones (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - GoldenEar Technology's Anechoic Chamber (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - PSB's M4U 4 Earphones (April 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two+ and Three+ Loudspeakers (March 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- KEF's LS50 (February 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio's Platinum II Series (January 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Pryma 0|1 Headphones (December 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF's Blade Two Loudspeaker (November 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- KEF and the Uni-Q (October 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio Acoustics & Aesthetics (August 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- PSB's Imagine T3 Loudspeaker (June 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Hegel's H160 Integrated Amplifier-DAC (April 2015)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- MartinLogan's Neolith Loudspeaker (February 2015)

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Fluteus MaximusWhen I was in college, Herbie Mann was a big part of the music scene. His version of Memphis blues crossed boundaries to successfully mix soul, pop, and jazz, and just about everyone could enjoy it. When I played this new album by flutist Mindy Canter, it popped the cork on a lot of happy memories. Though classically trained, Canter visits the same eclectic mix that Mann pursued. In fact, she plays some tunes closely associated with Mann, such as "Do It Again" and "Watermelon Man." A virtuoso herself, Canter has a backing group that grooves right along with her, heart and soul. Guitarist Denny Geyer stands out, and not just for his rich and vibrant guitar tracks. He proves to be a fine blues singer on "High Heel Sneakers," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Hallelujah," and the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit "16 Tons." The album closes with songs that work but might seem to some like strange bedfellows to the others on the disc -- "Over the Rainbow," featuring a Latin beat, and "Happy Trails," which features a flutist’s idea of a "lonesome wail." To cash in on the funk aspect of the disc, Canter overdubs some amazing Hammond B3 tracks that are perfectly recorded, always audible, and never unduly spotlighted. The other instruments are just as well recorded; Paul Smith’s bass is rich and full, providing terrific impetus to every track. To preserve spontaneity, the group recorded one take of each song in a four-hour session. I’d be up for a second volume and maybe a spin-off disc featuring Geyer as vocalist.

429 Records FTN 17832
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Dedicated When Steve Cropper first heard "Think" by the "5" Royales, he must have thought, "Man, that’s what I want to sound like." The R&B group was at its peak for roughly ten years beginning in 1952, and Lowman Pauling was its guitarist and principal songwriter. His simple, clean, and powerful guitar style was a prime influence on Cropper’s work, and Cropper pays tribute to him and the group on Dedicated. He and producer Jon Tiven get help from a variety of singers, including Steve Winwood, Bettye LaVette, Sharon Jones, and Lucinda Williams. Williams is mannered and overwrought on "Dedicated to the One I Love," but she does a nice, restrained turn on "When I Get Like This." Blues Traveler’s John Popper is excellent on "My Sugar Sugar," but the high points belong to LaVette and Willie Jones on "Don’t Be Ashamed" and Sharon Jones on "Messin’ Up." The band includes Muscle Shoals stalwarts Spooner Oldham and David Hood, and the horn arrangements by Cropper, Tiven, and Neal Sugarman are true to the "5" Royales’ original ’50s sound. Cropper, who’s outstanding throughout, proves that it isn’t how many notes you play; it’s how you play them. Dan Penn, who does a beautiful vocal on "Someone Made You for Me," engineered the recording in his own studio, and the sound is as vintage as digital can get.

Jazzed Media JM1054
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Parallel Lives I can’t begin to count the number of "girl singer" discs that arrive here during a typical month. If it’s not in the dozens, it seems so. Some of them are good, but we have limited space and a disc needs to be quite good to make the cut. Andrea Wolper’s standout set is a disc everyone should hear. She’s got a warm and versatile voice, which on this set carries her all the way from crooning a ballad like "Skylark" to scatting and making exuberant vocal sound effects on "Blue Wind." She’s a terrific arranger, taking new paths rather than expected ones ("Who Will Buy?" from the Broadway musical Oliver becomes a sexy, lazy samba), and she’s a composer as well, contributing three originals to the disc. Moreover, she’s a talented program builder, picking good but not overexposed tunes that range all the way from Joni Mitchell ("Song to a Seagull" and "Be Cool") to Buffy Sainte-Marie ("Maple Sugar Boy"), and she even adds a nod back to Richard Rogers ("Something Good"). Her band is tight, consisting of musicians who can be part of the whole or set out in a blaze of glory on a solo riff. The sound that conveys all of this talent is warm and focused, and it presents a stage that has appealing depth, with the drums sounding behind the piano but no less clear than if they’d been in front. This one’s a winner; don’t let it pass you by.

The Left BankeSundazed LP 5375
Format: LP

Musical Performance *****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

 

When, in 1967, The Left Banke completed its first LP, Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina,the New York quintet had already made a couple of personnel changes. By the time Smash Records released Left Banke Too in 1968, only three of the group’s five original members remained. That instability, along with ego problems and legal complications, shortened what could have been a long and distinguished career in rock’n’roll. Left Banke compilations have drifted in and out of print over the years; Sundazed Records’ reissues of Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina on CD and LP are the first versions available in almost two decades.

September is here, and my soundtrack for celebrating the cooler days ahead has lately consisted of the music of two legends, each of whom has a knack for continuing to produce incredible music; the impressively strong sophomore release of an up-and-coming West Coast band whose sound is a throwback to the 1960s; and a wild-card Norwegian fiddle band who liven things up with a light-hearted, heavily skilled vengeance.

Levon HelmLevon Helm’s Dirt Farmer (2008) won him a Grammy, and that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his involvement with The Band, and was named "Artist of the Year" by the Americana Music Association. The following year, hot on the heels of so much recent acclaim, he recorded a concert that was finally released this spring as Ramble at the Ryman (CD, Levon Helm Records), at Ryman Auditorium, the legendary venue in Nashville, Tennessee, that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. His core band that night was an impressive 12-piece crew that included his talented daughter, Amy Helm, of the folk band Ollabelle, but the guest list is what makes this disc a must-have: Little Sammy Davis, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, and Sheryl Crow. The 15 tracks span Helm’s career, with such favorites as "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Weight," from his days with The Band, to material from Dirt Farmer, to classic covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Carter Family. The recording is warm and spontaneous, and the genuine respect for Helm is palpable, both from the adoring audience and from the heavyweight musicians joining him onstage. Helm’s distinctive voice still has the high-pitched, lonesome quality it did in the 1960s, but age and excellence have since further permeated his singing, like spirits preserved in some ancient oak barrel. Many magical moments were captured during this performance, and while Helm sings about how "You Don’t Know the Shape I’m In," if you ask me, he’s still in top form.

Fuzzy Music PEPCD018
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Movie MusicDrummer Peter Erskine says his record label, Fuzzy Music, is for musicians who "find themselves dipping into rich cultural pools of musical styles, beliefs and realities that do not fit into the large corporate record company way of thought or aesthetics." The label’s emphasis is straight jazz, accurately recorded. This is Erskine’s second collection of standards, and he’s joined on Standards 2 -- Movie Music by pianist Alan Pasqua, tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, and bassist Darek Oles. Erskine says in his liner notes that the songs are standards "in both the jazz and cinematic sense." This quartet finds plenty to chew on in the nine themes presented here, and each of the players gets a shot or two at arranging. Erskine’s take on "Tara’s Theme" (from Gone with the Wind) swings lightly, while Pasqua approaches "Somewhere" as a subtle ballad, giving Mintzer beautiful harmonic support during his solos. Mintzer takes "Night and Day" from bossa nova to bop, with space for a nice feature from Erskine. Oles’s impressionistic arrangement of "Rosemary’s Baby" is a model of restraint, and Pasqua responds to it with a solo that shows a unique understanding of space, allowing a sustained note or chord to carry the moment rather than filling every space. The recording is exemplary. Warm, subtly detailed, and spacious, Standards 2 -- Movie Music is a gift to both you and your hi-fi.

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Zach Williams and the ReformationSouthern rock bands were commonplace 30 years ago, but they’re not so easy to find in 2011. Hailing from Arkansas, Zach Williams and the Reformation might be just the band to bring back this genre, or perhaps to prove that it never really went away. In ZWR’s case, you can tell a lot by scanning some the song titles, which include "Gravy Train," "Mason Jar," "The Fix," "Rock’n’Roll Me," and "Motels and Highways" (naturally about life on the road). Fans have compared ZWR to the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet. You can easily hear clear references to those bands, but I think ZWR has its own style built around one thing: energy. From the driving opener, "Gravy Train," to "Wishing Well," the tenth track, there are pounding rhythms and high energy. Then surprisingly, and perhaps defiantly, the album closes with its only quiet tune, "Sky Full of Treasures." ZWR is heavy on guitars, but Williams has no trouble punching through as lead singer. His voice is strong, and he’s been compared to other Southern-rock greats. But I find that his voice, especially when it’s near breaking, reminds me of Bob Seger. The recording is loud and raucous, with some intended guitar distortion for aural color. Though ZWR might recoil at the thought, I found this album perfect to load on my iPod Nano for the gym. You can find it on iTunes and at Zach Williams and the Reformation’s official website.

Zoho Roots ZM 201105
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

The Mike Eldred TrioYou wouldn’t be surprised to see the photo on the cover of the Mike Eldred Trio’s new disc, 61 and 49, on the door of your local bar advertising an upcoming Saturday night show. Eldred is a California-based guitarist and singer who plays and writes the kind of roots music you’d hear in smoke-filled taverns, back when you could still smoke in them. "She’s a Rocket" is an old-time rocker, with Ike Turner sitting in on a rollicking barrelhouse piano, and "Jake’s Boogie" is a shuffling blues-guitar workout that lets Eldred throw out a lot of quick notes and string bends with little effort and a good deal of feeling. Bassist John Bazz and drummer Jerry Angel both played in the Blasters and know this music cold. "For a Girl" evokes a Stones-like radio friendliness, while "Mr. Newman" hints at a strong storytelling ability that Eldred should develop further. Guitar great Scotty Moore helps out on "Ms. Gayle’s Chicken House," and Cesar Rosas from Los Lobos adds a simple but effective solo to "This Old Train," which also includes a terrific Jordanaires-style backing vocal from The Job’s Quartet. Eldred and Kid Ramos trade licks on "Louise," a great jump blues track, but the most affecting song on the disc might be "Don’t Go Down There," a field holler with Eldred on vocals accompanied by the Emmanuel Church Gospel Choir. You’ve heard the music on this honest, unfussy recording before, but you’ve rarely heard it done this well.

Azuline Music
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

Aimée AllenAimée Allen has law degrees from Columbia University and the Sorbonne in Paris and has pursued a career in music since she was very young. Now she’s a practicing attorney by day and a jazz singer on the New York scene at night. She has a warm, honeyed voice, a singular sense of pitch, and a vivid imagination that lets her see such disparate songs as "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," and "It Could Happen to You" as a good performance pair. On Winters & Mays she sings covers of tunes like "Peel Me a Grape," "Two for the Road," and "Samba em Preludio," alternating between her own compositions and one by her brother, guitarist David Allen. For me, the best original is "That Day," which aptly describes the moment of falling in love as a life-changing experience. "Second Time Around" and "Stardust Reunited" also make for highly enjoyable listening. A lot of the music sways in a gentle bossa nova, with Allen’s backup band showing its mettle. The recording is just close enough and very warm while retaining definition, but when accordionist Victor Prieto first joins the group on "Samba em Preludio," he sounds detached, as if he’s in another audio world. This disconnect is odd because his other two appearances on the disc are well integrated with the other musicians.

Adventure Music AMA1066-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ***1/2
Sound Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Maeve GilchristScottish harpist and singer Maeve Gilchrist writes songs by injecting a healthy dose of jazz into the folk music she heard growing up. She studied classical piano and Celtic harp in Edinburgh before moving to Boston to study jazz and world music at Berklee College of Music. She has such a wide background in so many traditions that she’s comfortable in all of them and able to weave them together without effort. The songs on her second disc, Song of Delight,lean toward the sophisticated pop of singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell. Gilchrist’s voice has a charming hint of Scottish brogue, and her phrasing, as with her songwriting, has the rhythmic playfulness of jazz mixed with pop’s accessibility.