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Jenny Lewis – On the Line

Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager is one of my favorite albums of this decade. It has taken five years for the sequel to arrive and I have been looking forward to it.

On the Line is clearly Jenny Lewis, but not The Voyager II despite similar torso branding on the cover. It’s something all together different – not radically different, but its own thing.

Here is the short review: it lives up to The Voyager.  Just to make sure I wasn’t suffering from amnesia, I re-listened to The Voyager – it was a high bar to clear and On The Line easily reaches The Voyager’s height.

The Voyager was Jenny’s Court And Spark – a California Laurel Canyon pop folk rock masterpiece. Super accessible, yet uncompromising. On the Line is edgier. It is a rock record, lest we forget Lewis’s origin as an indie-rocker.

I preordered the deluxe vinyl because it’s kind of epic:

We recently saw Lewis live (at The Palace in St Paul) and this new material translates well live and weaves nicely with her back catalog. Seeing her live was a great reminder of what a great set of pipes she has. She has such an effortless vocal delivery, it is easy to forget what a great and powerful voice she has.

Lewis’ music is fun, yet biting; humorous, yet solemn; light, yet deep. Overall, it has a complexity without being fussy or pretentious. On The Line is another masterpiece in Lewis’ catalog.

P.S. If you are interested in where an amazing artist like Jenny Lewis comes from, check out this article.

Here is a playlist of Jenny’s recent show in St. Paul MN:

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Tidal Masters for iPhone and AudioQuest Dragonfly Black

I am streaming a lot of music these days. I wanted to try MQA in the least expensive way, so I picked up an AudioQuest Dragonfly Black ($100) to play MQA tracks on Tidal.

MQA is a controversial digital music format and I’m not going to try to explain or argue it is a legitimate hi-rez digital format. Google MQA and you will find passionate lovers and haters.

I will say that for twenty bucks a month, Tidal is damn convenient and a hell of a value. It’s a music streaming subscription with CD quality (at minimum) and often better than CD quality streaming (Tidal HiFi) from a deep catalog. The MQA tracks (called Masters) sound great. Do the MQA tracks sound as good as similar resolution lossless tracks? I don’t know, but they sound better than CDs and Spotify MP3 tracks by far. And given you can stream them, they can’t be beat.

The difference between audio hi-rez and CDs is not as profound as video’s VHS to Blu-Ray, but hi-rez audio is better than standard digital: more detail and a more open soundstage. In general, a more natural sound.

And it it just got better, because Tidal Masters are now available on your iPhone or iPad (previously MQA tracks were only available on the desktop application and Android). However, you can’t take advantage of this new feature on your iOS device without a DAC (don’t get haughty Android fans, neither can you). See this post for more details. For me, the DAC of choice is an AudioQuest Dragonfly Black.

The Dragonfly is a DAC, preamplifier and headphone amplifier that looks like a USB stick. The Dragonfly has processing capabilities to 24-bit/96kHz resolution, it has MQA capabilities and best of all it is only a hundred bucks.

If you want portability and don’t have an audiophile or record collector’s budget, yet you care about great sound, this combo is recommended:

  • Tidal streaming
  • A smartphone or tablet
  • An MQA compatible DAC
  • A good pair of headphones or stereo rig you can aux cord into

The Dragonfly works great with a desktop or laptop computer too.

Better sound takes some extra effort and some additional cost, but it is worth it.  With services like Tidal and products like the Dragonfly Black, the barrier to entry for great sound has never been easier or cheaper.

Massdrop Sennheiser HD 6XX Headphones

I was in the market for some audiophile headphones with a $500 budget. I got turned on to the Sennheiser HD 650 by the Needle Doctor when they lent me an original pair to test drive as a way of gaging my taste.  Based on what I thought of the cans would help them in their consulting. The HD 650s sounded extraordinary and were the most comfortable cans I had ever worn. They are no longer being manufactured. Used ones are available for $250 and the current version, the HD 660 S, are $500 new.  The HD 660 S were within my $500 budget, so I  did not feel the need to research any further – these would be the ones.

Then I noticed a Facebook ad for a Sennheiser HD 6XX headphones for $200. That did not seem right – were they counterfeits?  Turns out it is a legit deal from a legit company.  The company is Massdrop that works with manufacturers to reissue, at liquidation retail prices, in exchange for a massive wholesale order. They also do some crowd funding for new products.  Companies like Sennheiser are willing to cannibalize sales of their current products in order to move 72,000 units of a discontinued model (that is how successful the Sennheiser “drop” has been over the last few years). Hard to pass that up as a manufacture of boutique products I guess – that is gross retail sales of $14.5 million! That is a lot of headphones, but that is still a rounding error in Sennheiser’s annual sales – so it is still a baffling move by an audio giant. Perhaps they assume that these are sales (to budget minded audiophiles like me) that never would have happened.

I returned the borrowed cans to the Needle Doctor and told them about the Massdrop deal and they told me to snap them up – that is a confident retailer. Kudos to the Needle Doctor for putting their customer’s best interest first.  I ended up buying the Massdrop Sennheisers and I am thrilled with the product. I did come back a week later to the Needle Doctor and spent my headphone budget savings on a Dragonfly Black DAC and an Audioquest aux-cord – so it all worked out.

These Sennheiser HD 6xx sound magnificent. The best sounding headphones I have ever owned. A very natural sound – no additional color: not too bright and no pounding bass. They just sound right, close to listening to good speakers in a good room. The comfort on the ears is a bonus.

Per Massdrop:

If you know audio gear, you know the Sennheiser HD 650. The company’s flagship from 2003 to 2009, this open-back headphone has shown serious staying power. Praised for its richly detailed, effortlessly enjoyable sound, it remains one of the most talked-about products on Head-Fi today—and is still widely considered among the best headphones under $1,000.

The only complaint is that they let in a lot of ambient noise (and anyone in close proximity will be well aware of what you are listening to), but that is also why they sound so good. You just need a quiet place to listen with them. Sennheiser is the open-back headphone originator/innovator (they first introduced the concept in 1968). Open-back headphones sound less like music trapped in your head and more like music in a room. In other words, more realistic and natural.

I highly recommend these headphones for audiophiles who have a quiet place to listen. They are a great value at $200 – according to reviews comparable cans can cost five times their price. They are comfortable enough to wear for several hours. They don’t need a lot of power (some high end headphones do) so you can play them through your smartphone. Most importantly they sound great.

Bob Mould – Sunshine Rock

For most Minneapolis rock fans of my age, Bob Mould means Hüsker Dü. But I came to Bob Mould post Hüsker Dü – specifically his brilliant solo debut Workbook from 1989. I followed him into Sugar and then backtracked to Hüsker Dü. What I learned, is that despite all the guitar noise, Mould is bubble gum: sweet, melodic and hooky as hell.

As far as I am concerned, Bob Mould has never made a bad album, but some of them resonate with me more than others. Sunshine Rock is a resonator.

It is a classic Bob Mould power trio, occasionally augmented (perfectly) with strings and keys. It is a difficult time for rock, having fallen out of fashion. But Mould has pulled off a miracle 40 years into his career: a perfect pop punk album – authentic and enthusiastic.

One of my favorite Bob Mould album is File Under: Easy Listening with his band Sugar. Sunshine Rock has a similar beauty. The buzz saw guitar is as melodic as ever. The speed is mostly breakneck (although there is one gorgeous reflective slow song – “Final Years.”). The most endearing quality of the LP is how joyful this noise is. There is not a dud on the LP.

There is a reason that Bob Mould is a legend and important influence: he is a punk founding father who has never faltered in 40 years. Bob Mould has managed to make the most accessible album of his career with out a drop of sellout. This album is a capstone on an already great career.

Thanks Bob! Looking forward to celebrating 40 years of your cacophony at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis and the Palace in St. Paul Minnesota later this month!

Gary Clark Jr. – This Land

Gary Clark Jr. has got it all: Texas guitar gunslinger, great voice, songwriter, musician, performer, the look, married to a super model and a nice little career on the edge of the star making machine beholden to no one. Thus, he guiltlessly spills out genres: blues, rock, soul, reggae and hip hop. He refuses to be pigeonholed as a guitar god or submit to the blues police. Each of his studio LPs tends to be a wonderful hot mess – driving the blues purists crazy and keeping it interesting for the rest of us.

This Land continues Clark’s tradition of the brilliant hodgepodge. Like Hendrix, at his core, Clark is a bluesman. Again like Jimi, he refuses to be a slave to the blues. The blues are merely a point of reference for their genre bending explorations.

This may be my favorite Gary Clark Jr. album. This LP is all over the map: classic rock, the blues, R&B, punk, reggae, Prince and hip hop infused neo-soul. Despite the stylistic chaos there is cohesion. That cohesion is the total persona of Gary Clark Jr. He has become a rock star. No simple accomplishment in these times.

The coolest thing Clark does is that he’s an old school rock star with a complete and total understanding of hip hop. A man of his times, this is a serious artistic statement. A dude on top of his game.  This Land has the similar ambition as D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

Clark gets political at times, but what do you expect from an African-American rock star?  Silence would be inappropriate.

Oh and the guitar playing, it is superb as expected. The innovation is that the guitar playing is in total support of the song. The guitar never overpowers – save that shit for the live show. The production is pretty solid too. Clark’s secret ingredient is his singing voice. He is an extremely gifted vocalist with a wide range of textures. It is easy to forget the voice, given the guitar, but it is just as big of a deal.

This is going to be a top-ten 2019 album for me.  Can’t wait to see this new stuff live when he visits my town (Surly Brewing Festival Field Minneapolis/St.Paul) on a hot August Friday night.

Secret Machines – Now Here Is Nowhere

This is one of my favorite albums of the 00s. I got to see Secret Machines live twice. Once when they warmed up and seriously upstaged the Kings Of Leon at First Avenue. The second time was at the same venue where they headlined and performed “in the round.” Both were amazing shows.

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Now Here Is Nowhere was issued in 2004 on CD and reissued as a limited release LP (vinyl) in 2017 on Run Out Groove (a vinyl-only reissue subsidiary of Warner Music Group).  I recently found a new copy at the Electric Fetus.

Secret Machines sounds like the bastard love child of Pink Floyd and The Clash. It has Floyd’s spacey sound, but with a garage rock/punk vibe. It is a full sounding trio (in the way that Rush is a full sounding trio). The band self describes their sound/style as space rock.

Although, the band did not do well commercially, this album and its follow-up were critically acclaimed and they counted David Bowie as a fan.

I like the big guitars, whooshing keyboards, artful use of stereo channels (why don’t more recording artist take advantage of stereo more?) and gorgeous clear vocals. As the Run Out Groove website states:

Anyone interested in Pink Floyd, NEU, Ride, Spacemen 3, Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, U2, Super Furry Animals, Sparklehorse & Broken Social Scene should have this album in their collection.

The vinyl edition was mastered for vinyl from the original master recordings with edits removed. The vinyl edition is not significantly different from the CD version, other than the typical organic feel of wax. The soundstage on the vinyl is a bit more open and airy. Overall, the vinyl is easier on the ears. But at forty bucks for the wax, you better be a pretty serious fan (the album is on streaming services and a used CD can be found for cheap – under two bucks per Discogs). The visual presentation of the packaging is pretty spectacular.

The Nude Party – The Nude Party

I missed this release when it came out 2018. I recently heard “Chevrolet Van” on The Current and it grabbed me, I was an instant fan. The song pokes fun at being a young rocker:

Got some free advice the other day

From an older relative of mine

He said, I dig what you do

But I think you’re wasting your time

Cause driving around, getting drunk with your friends in a van every night

Sounds like a lotta fun, but you need a plan B, cause it ain’t gonna last long past twenty-one

I dialed up the album on Spotify and was blown away – the whole album is great. It is pure joyous garage rock. It is the perfect hybrid of The Velvet Underground, Television, The Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons and a dash of Quentin Tarantino.

The LP is a quality pressing in orange vinyl with a bonus 45.

If I had discovered this LP in 2018, it would have placed on the upper end of my best of 2018.

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