|Music of the Year
In Roadrunner, Jonathan Richman sings (using the term charitably) "I'm in love with the modern world" while extolling the virtues of driving to the neighborhood Stop & Shop with the radio on. At one point, Robert Quine was the guitarist in Jonathan Richman's band, The Modern Lovers. This past year Robert Quine, a brooding, moody but wonderful and versatile guitarist, committed suicide several months after finding his wife's body in the bathtub of their Soho/NYC loft.
I often ran into Robert Quine at Matt Umanov's guitar store on Bleecker Street in the Village. He was a regular there but not particularly approachable or talkative. Quine was the nephew of one of the most influential analytic philosophers of the last half of the 20th Century, Willard van Orman Quine. I knew his uncle and Robert knew that. He held it against me no doubt, but not so much that he wouldn't engage me in conversation from time to time.
|In one of our conversations, I asked him if his uncle had ever attended one of his performances. Indeed, he had. Quine the elder attended a concert in which Robert was performing with John Zorn. Quine the younger had arranged good seats for his uncle, which unfortunately meant that he could see his uncle from the stage. I asked Robert if his uncle, an extremely cantankerous fellow, liked the concert. He replied, "Nah; it was obviously too painful for him; he checked out early".
So too did Robert Quine. I didn't know him well, but I knew him well enough to miss him; and more than that, to understand the pain of his last few months. If you want a taste of what Quine was capable of as a guitarist, you can find him playing with the likes of Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers; Lou Reed with whom he often feuded; Matthew Sweet and John Zorn. That's range. His guitar work on Sweet's Girlfriend album remains among my favorites.
So here's to Robert Quine. There will be a 2005 neither for him nor his wife but he was one of the best of 2004 - at least in my book. Rest in Peace, Mr.Quine. The pain is gone and the agony over. What remains is our loss.
I picked up so much incredible music -- new and old -- this year that I don't know where to begin. The big surprise for me was how much I enjoyed listening to a handful of discs on DVD-A - and in some cases the music wasn't half bad either. For the rest of this section on music of the year, however, I want to mention only two LPs because they are blasts from the past and represent vital work of two groups with an R&B soul neither of which achieved the recognition I wish they had.
Was (Not Was), What up Dog? [Chrysalis 41664, LP, 1986]
Was (Not Was) was but now they ain't - though Don Was still is but these days almost exclusively as a producer. But when Was (Not Was) was, they was wonderful if idiosyncratic. This album is their best and it exploits great R&B singing by Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens who had previously fronted the O-Jays. The album is replete with odd ball lyrics ("woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks"; "Hi Dad/I'm in jail") and open sentimentality ("they've got a mouthful of much obliged/and a handful of gimme/and the love for each other/of Shadow and Jimmy"). The net effect is a musical landscape that is at once charming and disarming. It will make you laugh, cry and dance.
Graham Parker and the Rumour, Live at the Marble Arch [quasi-official bootleg album, released by Phonogram Ltd 1976]
First, there was the Ian Gomm band; then the Brinsley Schwarz band (Mr.Schwarz being the former lead guitarist with Ian Gomm), then the Rumour; then Graham Parker and the Rumour; and then the Rumour; and then Graham Parker on his solo projects. But there was never anything quite like Graham Parker and the Rumour: the one band Bruce Springsteen declared he would pay to see. Every once in a while, and not just during Presidential campaigns, Bruce Springsteen gets it right.
|This set catches GP and the Rumour in a showcase performance prior to landing on Mercury Records. The sides display the band's penchant for R&B highlights including a rough but immediate cover of "Chain of Fools", my favorite version of "You Can't Hurry Love" and "Kansas City" as well as originals that would become staples in their live performances, including "Soul Shoes", "White Honey", "Back Door Love" and a totally smoking Reggae version of "Don't Ask Me Questions" that all by itself is worth the price of admission. "Hey Lord, don't ask me questions/ain't no answers in me."
GP and the Rumour were at their peak during the period that also brought us Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (with Rockpile and the great Dave Edmunds). During this period, Elvis displayed a largely new wave rock sensibility; Nick Lowe (in part because of Edmunds's roots as a flatpicker) had a bit of a country heart; and GP was more about the blues and especially R&B. Catch them on this LP when they were hungry, angry and could really let it rip.
Products of the Year
Like Jonathan Richman, I too am in love with the modern world - except when it comes to audio. That's not quite true. I adore modern equipment as much as the next person. What I find less attractive is an inadequate regard for our collective past. A couple of years ago, Stereophile magazine offered their view of the most important products of the past 40 years in audio. Among those receiving this accolade was Dennis Had's Cary 805 SET amplifier, which was celebrated for its reintroduction of the SET amplifier into the popular audiophile culture.
The 805 amp represents a milestone in the popular audiophile consumer culture. Still, it would be untrue to history to let the matter stand without a few minor but important additions to the narrative history of how the SET amplifier came to be part of the audio mainstream. Nor does it diminish Mr. Had's substantial contribution in any way to correct the story or at least to fill it out a bit. The SET amplifier may well have had to be rediscovered in the US but it was never lost in Japan. Indeed, there has been a vibrant SET audiophile culture in Japan since the 1960s, sparked by a number of influential essays among DIY enthusiasts. By the 1970s, Kondo and Shindo among others had commercial designs in production.
Largely absent from the scene in Western Europe, SET amplification was reintroduced into the audiophile culture in the 1980s by Jean Hiraga in France and Keith Aschenbrunner in Germany. In the US, the person who deserves more recognition than he has received for reintroducing the SET into audiophile culture is Arthur Loesch. Loesch is best known among audiophiles for his famous Loesch phono stage versions which are incorporated in quite a few high-end preamplifiers. But Loesch was clearly a mentor and teacher to the first group of US designers rediscovering what their Japanese cohorts had never lost.
This group congregated at Don Garber's Fi shop on Watt Street in New York's Soho district. Garber has since gone on to do some nice work of his own. Mr. Garber and Mr. Had have played important roles in bringing the SET amplifier into the audiophile mainstream in the United States. Through his Fi amps, Garber has allowed folks with modest budgets to get a taste of what magic lies in the SET; and Mr. Had has infused the SET into the consciousness of the audiophile mainstream. While we should celebrate the contributions of Messrs. Garber and Had and others as well including Komuro, JC Morrison, Gordon Rankin and Herb Reichert, we would do well to recall their debt and ours to the likes of Hiraga, Aschenbrunner, Kondo, Shindo and Loesch among others. When dolling out awards for tube electronics in particular, there is no looking forward without at least a glance over one's shoulder.
|Shindo Laboratory WE 300B Ltd: Amplifier for a Lifetime
Shindo Laboratory opened its doors to commercial production in 1977. Ken Shindo's first official product was an amplifier based on the original Western Electric 300B tube. While Shindo Laboratory has grown to the point of being a full-function audiophile center designing everything from turntables to speakers, Shindo's first offering has remained pretty much in constant production. This is a production run that is altogether unheard of in the modern audio world. Now in its 4th
|iteration, it is called the WE300B Ltd. monoblock. Sight unseen, I bought the first American pair of the new iteration three months ago. I spent several years with hornspeakers and one would think that I would have developed a love affair with SET amplifiers. In fact I had not. I had my share of them, of course: 2A3 amps, 300B amps, whatever. And they all had their virtues, but I was never really won over. In part that is because I never fell in love with a speaker for such an amplifier and believe me, I heard and owned my share of speakers that offered themselves up as a "perfect" match for SET amplifiers.
All this changed with the WE amplifier. It sounds like no other 300B amplifier I have ever heard. While it does have the depth and dimensionality that amplifiers based on this tube typically do, the WE 300B shines where other amplifiers like it tend to fall short resolution and extension on top, authority, grip and extension down below. Its powerful nature belies its 8-watt rating. This is not a vintage sounding tube amplifier. This is not a modern sounding tube amplifier either. This is simply an amplifier you listen to music with: you don't evaluate it; you experience it. Quite simply, this is the best amplifier I have owned [no review].
Brinkmann Balance Turntable: Turntable of the Year
In a recent correspondence, Michael Fremer shared his view that we live in wonderful times for analog lovers. I couldn't agree more. This year alone I had three very different but wonderful turntables in for review: the Well Tempered Reference, the Redpoint Testa Rossa XS and the Brinkmann Balance.
|The Well Tempered sets the baseline for high-end turntables. It's so good in so many ways and puts many other higher priced spreads to shame that it should be the default choice for every person|
|considering an investment in a high-end table - especially one that doesn't sound like it was modeled after digital playback.
The Redpoint Testa Rossa XS is a new design from the capable hands of Peter Clark, one of the original conspirators in the Teres project. The design has evolved over a very short period of time, so much so that it has quickly earned the right to be mentioned along with much more established high-mass suspension less designs that have long been admired by an adoring public, e.g. Yorke and Walker.
Brinkmann have been designing and manufacturing turntables for three decades. Audio journals on the continent regard the less expensive Brinkmann LaGrange as being in the same exalted class as the legendary Verdier tables. The Balance takes the Brinkmann approach to new heights. A high-mass, suspension less design, the Brinkmann is a work of art, a tribute to extraordinary engineering and displays a sonic soul that encourages hours and hours of listening pleasure. And did I mention the way-cool tube power supply? [Review forthcoming.]
DeVore Fidelity Silverback Reference: Dynamic Loudspeaker of the Year
With the small floorstanding two-way Gibbon 8, John DeVore quickly established himself as a speaker designer to be reckoned with. Here we are just a few short years later and DeVore has produced a true reference quality loudspeaker that far exceeds the expectations created by his early designs to insure his place among the very best speaker designers of our times.
Standing about 45" tall, the Silverback is a three-way dynamic speaker with opposed twin side-firing woofers. Extremely versatile, it is equally at home with both 8-watt tube amplifiers and 250-watt solid-state behemoths. It is the most accurate, resolving and musically coherent dynamic loudspeaker under $20K I have heard. It lets the music flow with virtually no discernible imprint of its own but for a touch of refinement, elegance and ease. This is a speaker that never loses its composure.
Other very good and much better-known speakers including the Wilson Sophia, B&W 800 Nautilus Series and various Audio Physics designs have more than met their match. There is no dynamic speaker I have owned or listened to for an extended period that I would prefer to keep company with for my music. ([Review forthcoming.]
|Hørning Agathon Ultimate Hybrid: Hornspeaker of the Year
I have owned and lived with a number of horn loudspeakers. Some of these were backloaded; some were front-loaded; some full-range, others mated to dynamic woofers (as in the original Oris 200). I gave up on horns and their SET partners a few years ago and vowed never to return. As they say, never say never. Certainly Madonna never has.
The Hørnings employ a Lowther DX-4 driver as a midrange only, eliminating the whizzer cone and with it just about all of the notorious Lowther peak. They mate this centerpiece to a wonderful cone tweeter and twin 12" rear-firing Bymer woofers. All drivers have separate chambers that feed into a common down-firing horn. The sound comes from both the drivers and the horn. This is an incredibly complicated design that has to be admired as much for its engineering wizardry as for its sonics. But it is the sound that won me over.
The Hørning is immediate, full-range, transparent to the source and extremely dynamic. The speaker is surprisingly unfussy about placement and works extremely with low-powered tube amps and low-powered solid-state as well. The integration of the drivers is quite good and the overall coherence is superior to all horn/hybrid designs with which I am familiar. A bargain to boot. [See review.]
|HRS M1R Equipment Rack: Resonance Control Component of the Year [See review.]
Skepticism about resonance control abounds, and part of the reason no doubt is that many equipment racks are mere furniture and do nothing to control resonance. Indeed many just make it worse. But the very best in this field - established companies like Finite Elemente and Grand Prix Audio, and newer ones like HRS - work and nothing (and I mean nothing) can improve the overall performance of your system like an equipment rack that controls structure borne vibrations.
If you have any doubts about the science of resonance control and its impact on the sonics of your components, head on over to Buffalo/NY and have a discussion with Mike Latvis of HRS. There is real science here, not mumbo jumbo and you can hear its impact on your system - an impact that is observable, repeatable and ear-opening. I implore all skeptics to abandon the flat-earth philosophy and embrace the Enlightenment in all its dimensions! I promise it won't hurt. For the sake of your system, pay attention to resonance control. Please. No, that's an order.
The HRS rack is my Personal Component of the Year, so good that I bought two.