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Ray LaMontagne – Ouroboros

I missed this one when it came out last year (2016).  I really liked LaMontagne’s first album, Trouble, when it came out in 2004.  But for some reason I have not followed his career.

I got turned on to this album when a song (“Part Two – In My Own Way”) was featured on an episode of The Blacklist (S3 · E16 · The Caretaker). The song had a Pink Floyd feel and I had no idea who it was.  I Googled the episode and determined the song was by Ray LaMontagne from his 2016 album Ouroboros.  I listened to the whole album on Spotify and loved it.  I did a little research and learned that this was a joint venture with My Morning Jacket (MMJ)- with MMJ’s Jim James producing.

This album has a wonderful trippy vibe.  If you like Dark Side Of The Moon/Wish You Were Here era Pink Floyd you will like this album.  LaMontagne was clearly going for a pre-digital retro feel.  For example, the songs are deliberately sequenced as side one/side two (although LaMontagne names them Part One and Part Two).  Part One is the heavy rock side and Part Two is the mellower side.

The sonics of the album have a warm analog feel.  I don’t know what the CD or high resolution digital file/stream sounds like, but my vinyl edition sounds fat and airy.   The album cover has a sticker making the bold statement: “The definitive version of Ray LaMontagne’s OUROBOROS featuring exclusive vinyl mastering listening experience.”  It is a gorgeous sounding pressing (and visually pleasing too: brown marble vinyl). I have nothing to compare it with (a Spotify stream is not even a fair fight), but it stands on its own as audio perfection.

Although the backup band is MMJ, they don’t hijack the gig.  It doesn’t sound overtly like a MMJ album with LaMontagne as the vocalist – they have given LaMontagne his own sound. I am now intrigued to check out LaMontagne’s last album which was produced by Dan Auerbach (Black Keys).  But I have a feeling that Ouroboros is something special.

LaMontagne has great pipes as I recall from Trouble, but on Ouroboros his voice is restrained – almost a whisper.  That really works – it enhances the David Gilmour Pink Floyd sound.  A big soulful voice wouldn’t really work in this context.

If I had heard this album in 2016 it would have been on my best of list.

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Bob Mould – Live at Turf Club (St. Paul Mn 4/18/17) & Catchgroove’s Hall of Fame: Sugar – File Under Easy Listening 

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I am not a punk guy, but I am a Minneapolis guy.  I am a music head, therefore I am a Bob Mould fan. It necessarily follows.

The other night I saw Bob Mould, solo electric live at the Turf Club.  I loved the simplicity of the Mould’s solo electric concept: he walks on stage with his guitar case, whips out his guitar, plugs in, greets the crowd as old friends, plays his ass off for 90 minutes, says goodbye, sets his guitar down, waits a minute, spits out an encore, packs up his equipment and exits the stage.  A working musician.

I saw Mould in a similar situation a year ago for a mini concert at the same venue. That show was shorter and thus rushed.  It was also the day Prince died – so it had a weird vibe.  I enjoyed the more relaxed pace of this show.

Mould often plays in a trio format, but even in a trio, it is pretty much solo Bob Mould – his guitar and voice dominate.  He has a distinctive noisy guitar sound and the perfect voice to cut through his buzz-saw guitar storm.  It is nice to hear Mould’s beautiful noise with no distractions.  It is refreshing to witness such a no-nonsense show. But this would not work if Mould did not have great songs – Mould has great songs.

The highlight of the show was the closer; the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around.”  Mould has been covering this song since his days in Hüsker Dü.  Mould plays it without irony and with the same intensity as anything in his catalog.  A true gift to the Twin Cities audience.

After the show I went over to the merch stand and was delighted to see they had an autographed vinyl copy of Sugar’s File Under Easy Listening – my second favorite Mould album after Workbook.  A pretty fine souvenir from the show.

File Under Easy Listening (F.U.E.L. for short) is perfect pop punk.   Mould’s gift is writing gorgeous pop ditties disguised in punk grime. F.U.E.L. lets the pop shine through more than anything else in Mould’s catalog. When this came out in the fall of 1994 I played it to death. It never got old and it sounds as fresh today as it did 20 plus years ago.   Many of these songs are staples of Mould’s live shows to this day. As a bonus it is one of my favorite pieces of album art – what a gem to let this beauty out of the jewel box after all these years.

F.U.E.L. takes the classic Mould sound and gives it a little jangle and a little shine. There are outstanding harmonies. The songs have huge hooks.  Throughout the album Mould unleashes some of the greatest guitar solos of his career.   “Believe What You’re Saying” is my favorite Mould song of all time.   It should have been a huge hit.

The icing on the cake is the sonic production – this is a beautiful sounding record.   The LP is cut from the 2012 remix of the album.  Per the linear notes, Mould was never happy with the original mix.  Doing an A/B comparison between the 1994 CD and the 2012 remastered LP, the LP sounds 10 times better (and I always thought the original sounded good).  The remastered LP is much more alive and spacious.  The 2012 remaster has a ton of bonus material too (on the CD or the download – not on the LP).

Margo Price at First Avenue (Minneapolis) 4/8/17

A little over a year ago, Margo Price’s solo debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter came out. Coincidentally, the family was getting ready for a trip to Nashville, so I was in a country music state of mind, that is I was receptive.  I bought the album right away and Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson were my Nashville soundtrack during that trip.  Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of my favorite albums of the last year and it continues to be in regular rotation.

When I reviewed Midwest Farmer’s Daughter I said: “With a voice somewhere between Emmy Lou and Dolly and with the pen of Loretta Lynn, Margo Price storms out of a Memphis studio in a Nashville state of mind.”   She happened to be doing an in store appearance at Third Man Records in Nashville the week I was there, but it was sold out. Her Minnesota debut sold out before I even knew about it.  I was disappointed to miss both those shows so I was determined to make this show and did.

Margo did not disappoint.  Live she added Janis Joplin to her list of influences.  The lady rocked.  She was backed by an extraordinary band.  Her set list included most of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.  The highlight for me was when she left the stage to let her band jam and came back solo to cover Bob Dylan’s “Hazel.”   It is an obscure song from Dylan’s catalog (it is from his one non-Columbia studio LP 1974’s Planet Waves – with The Band as the band) so it was pretty cool she picked it for the Minnestoa audience.

She is an engaging performer with a big voice that can cut through a noisy nightclub and rocking country band.  I am glad I did not see her last year because I assume the last year of touring and success has given her extra confidence and performance skills.  She worked the room like a pro.  A lot of singer songwriters don’t know how to entertain – Margo knows how to entertain! I am looking forward to a new album later this year (please record and release “Hazel”) and more Margo shows.

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Live from the Fox Oakland

This “big band” (12 pieces) has been cooking for a while now.   They are tight, yet spontaneous. The first Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB) album (2011’s Revelator) was special.  Every subsequent release, whether studio or live, has moved the concept forward and upwards.  This is blues rock, but the improvisation and horns gives it a jazz feel. Derek Trucks’ guitar has never sounded better, Susan Tedeschi’s vocals are Janis Joplin level brilliant and the band is an entity on its own.  The beauty of this album is that it shreds, rocks and swings.  It has to be damn expensive to tour with 12 top-notch musicians – so the fact that this well oiled big band even exists and tours is pretty special too.  I have listened to all he TTB albums and this feels like a capstone on their career (hopefully not – they should have a lot more gas in the tank to spit out a few more masterpieces).  Of course, the main event is Derek Trucks’ guitar.  I love his solos, but I love his tone even more – it is like chewing a good caramel.

The recording captures one night’s show from their last tour.   The set includes covers (Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Derek and the Dominoes, Bobby Blue Bland, Sleepy John Estes, Miles Davis and a dash of Santana) and a batch of TTB originals (mostly from last year’s Let Me Get By).  The deluxe CD edition includes a DVD/Blu-Ray film of that show.

Disk One

The album opens with “Don’t Know What It Means” from the TTB’s 2016’s Let Me Get By.  If you are not familiar with the band, this is a pretty good calling card: hot guitars, Earth Wind & Fire quality horns, Susan’s bluesy vocals, great harmonies, soulful keys and a boiling rhythm section as the foundation (gotta love a band with two drummers). The song ends with a scorching sax solo.

The band immediately rolls into the Derek and the Dominoes classic “Keep On Growing.” A perfect song for this SkyDog inspired band.

Next is a gospel inspired version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On The Wire.”  My introduction to Cohen was Jennifer Warnes 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat.  “Bird On The Wire” was a highlight of that album and it is a highlight of this album.

The brilliant covers keep coming with George Harrison’s “With You, Without You.”  Trucks shows off his sitar inspired slide work.

“Just As Strange” is from Let Me Get By.  The song opens with Trucks’ thick slide.   The song has a nice repetitive groove that allows you to focus on Derek’s guitar and Susan’s vocals.

“Crying Over You” is from Let Me Get By. It features TTB other lead vocalist: Mike Mattison and the horn section.  Mattison is a Minneapolis native (my home town) and Harvard grad (not many guys in a rock band can claim that). Mattison has a nice soulful sandpaper voice.

“These Walls” is from the TTB debut Revelator.  This version features Alam Kahn (son of the legendary sarode maestro Ali Akbar Khan) on sarode .  The sarode and the slide guitar are twins from different mothers.

“Anyhow” is from Let Me Get By.  It is a great piece to show off the magnificence of Susan Tedeschi’s voice.  The horns really rip on this number. Great vocal harmonies too.  And just when you think it is all over, Trucks unleashes a ginormous solo.

Disk Two 

“Right On Time” is from Let Me Get By. It is the most unusual song on the album.  It has a theatrical Tin Pan Alley feel.  Mike Mattison takes a prominent role on the song with a deep bass voice. He beautifully weaves his voice with Tedeschi’s.

“Leavin’ Trunk”  is Sleepy John Estes song popularized by Taj Mahal and features TTB’s  Mike Mattison on vocals.  The song has a nice Zeppelin vibe to it.

“Don’t Drift Away”  is from Made Up Mind.  This is about as close to a pop song as TTB gets.

“I Want More (Soul Sacrifice Outro)” is from Let Me Get By.  It is pure joy and it features the band at full power. Play it LOUD! It slows down and there is an amazing dialogue between Trucks’ guitar and Kofi Burbridge’s flute. As a bonus the song morphs into a Santana tune to close out this fourteen minute jam.

“I Pity The Fool” is a Bobby Bland song that was also covered on Let Me Get By.  The song is a great vessel for Susan to let her vocals shred. Pure Beale Street blues. Susan testifies.

The most blatantly jazz song on the album is naturally a cover of a Miles Davis song.  “Ali” first appeared on the The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions – a bit of an obscurity. The band plays with the riff and naturally the trumpeter gets to work it over good (along with the required drums solo).

That drum solo morphs into “Let Me Get By” the titular song from Let Me Get By. This is the grand finale, that like the opening number, highlights everything that is great about this band. If you happened to miss the band’s secret weapon over the course of this fine set – keyboardist Kofi Burbridge – you won’t miss him on this finale.

The film that accompanies the deluxe CD is well done.  Most of the same songs as the CDs.  For completeist there are songs on the CDs that are not in the film and songs in the film that are not on the CDs.  The film is crystal clear (I have the Blu-Ray which I assume is cleaner than the DVD), great lighting,  great close-ups and it sounds great.  Every few songs there are some narrative transitions – some based on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview Trucks.  I hope it is not BS, but the band seems like a team that gets a long. It is definitely worth the extra few bucks to get the deluxe version with the film.

This band has matured to a very nice place.  I liked their last studio album Let Me Get By, but this album, which features many of the songs from that album, puts that album in an even more positive light. This is like watching a very good sports team – a perennial favorite – having that championship year.  One final note: I love the live mix – just enough crowd noise to feel the heat of the room.

TIDAL Masters (MQA)

It has been a couple of years, but I finally made it back to an Audio Society of Minnesota meeting. The topic of the meeting was HRA (High Resolution Audio) streaming. The master of ceremonies was Oliver Masciarotte who is the most knowledgeable guy I know regarding digital music.

Oliver’s focus was TIDAL’s new Masters product.  TIDAL (a streaming service) has teamed with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) to provide a “better than CD quality” streaming service.  When TIDAL first hit the market their shtick was that they had CD quality streaming (at a premium) vs. the MP3 quality of Spotify.  Then they became famous for becoming Jay Z’s artist friendly streaming service.  Now they are doubling down on high-resolution.  They have two tiers of service:  a Spotify quality service ($10) and a Hi Fi service ($20).  The Hi Fi service has been enhanced from just CD quality to include an MQA option on some recordings.  MQA is currently only available on the desktop (at some point it will be available on mobile devices too).

MQA is not just another audio codec like MP3, FLAC or ALAC.  It is a codec, but it is also a music product: guaranteed master-quality recordings directly from the master source using the master’s same resolution.

To get the most out of MQA you need a MQA enabled DAC.  But you can get at least 24 bit/96 kHz quality via the TIDAL desktop application without any special software or device.  A  24 bit/96 kHz recording has an audio resolution 250 times that of CD quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz ) and takes up about three times the space.  However don’t expect to notice that much of a difference.  I have DVD Audio and Super Audio CDs (SACD) that are at this quality and they sound great – but they are only slightly better than CDs (to my ears – true golden ears say it is profoundly better).  MQA has lovers and haters.  The lovers say this is what we have been waiting for: high-resolution on demand with access to a large catalog for twenty bucks a month.  The haters note that MQA has created a monopoly and licensing scam on every link in the music distribution and reproduction chain (the labels are paying, the streamer is paying the equipment manufactures are paying, thus the consumer is paying).  As usual reality is somewhere in between.

I have had a couple dalliances with TIDAL.  The first was when it came on the market and I concluded the Hi Fi service was not worth it.   The second time was recently due to the exclusivity of some of its artists.  Once some of these artists decided to also make themselves available on Spotify I dumped TIDAL again. Well this MQA concept has got me thinking of giving TIDAL a third chance (they have a 30 day free test drive period).

Oliver demoed the service at the Audio Society of Minnesota meeting.  Frankly, it was tough to A/B compare (unfamiliar stereo and unfamiliar reference material). On certain sample material it was noticeably better, but not the kind of difference you would hear between a low quality MP3 and a CD.  Keep in mind in this situation “low quality” is CD quality.

Expect an update post in a few months on TIDAL Masters after I have had a chance to give the service a serious test drive. I would love this concept to work.  But I am prepared for disappointment: it won’t be that amazing, the number of MQA tracks will be too few, an additional (costly) device will be necessary to truly appreciate, etc. I hope this is the future.  I worry that there is not  a consumer mass market for audiophile streaming.  Without a mass market this concept will become expensive, or worse, it won’t exist at all.  It is going to have to become easier – there needs to be a killer delivery system that will be easy to use and sounds great for both the casual listener and the audiophile.  Today, this kind of thing takes too much effort for anyone but a hobbiest-audiophile.

RIP Chuck Berry

Of all the founding fathers of rock & roll, Chuck Berry, is in my mind, the greatest.  He wrote the music and lyrics, he was a guitar slinger, he had a great voice, he had the look and he had the moves.

His 1982 compilation The Great Twenty Eight opened my mind to the foundations of rock. Without Chuck there would be no Beatles or Stones.  He was a true original.  I had the good fortune of seeing him live when he was still a pretty spry guy in his late 50s.  The term legend gets overused, but Chuck was a legend. So long brown eyed handsome man, RIP.

My favorite Chuck song is “Memphis.”  Pure rock & roll poetry.

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wallHelp me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

 

Movie Review – The Invitation 

Followers of this blog know I don’t do many movie reviews. Most of the movies I see are pretty mainstream.  I am a big fan of the Bret Easton Ellis podcast.  In several episodes he has raved that The Invitation is his favorite movie of the last couple years. This is high praise since Ellis is a serious movie buff.

The Invitation is a slow burning thriller that is worth your patience.  For most of the movie it is an adult psychological drama, with just enough hints that you know something is going to go very wrong.

What I liked about the movie was that it had great acting, quirky, but real characters  and a highly original plot. It was suspenseful in a slow and deliberate way.  It was totally unique, I can’t really compare it to any other movie. The simple categorization would be a thriller.  If you like mysteries, thrillers or horror films you will dig this movie.

The film premiered in 2015 at the SXSW film festival and hit general (although limited) release a year later. It was directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The film stars a bunch of unknown actors (to me).

It is the best movie I have seen in quite a while.  The fact that I am motivated to blog about it is a big endorsement.  Just a warning, as much as I think of my taste in movies is conventional, my wife would say I like weird movies. This is a weird movie, but it is a good movie.  It is available on Netflix.