Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Link Wray - s/t album

Although Link Wray is mostly know for his hit 'Rumble', in the early 70s he left behind the greased back hair rockabilly Dick Dale sounds of the 50s to make the first of what are now known as the 'Three Track Shack' recordings. This recording and the two that followed - Beans & Fatback and Mordecai Jones - bear little resemblance to what you would expect from Link. Instead your ears are greeted with a rootsy Americana blues sound. Imagine the Rolling Stones mixed with old country and bluegrass - throw in some piano, fiddle, mandolin and you might get some idea of what this sounds like. The album Link Wray has an honest sound that is only accentuated by the use of a primitive three track. In fact the studio was a converted chicken coop studio on his Maryland farm!

The lyrics are raw - touching on concepts of poverty, racism and even a bit of salvation. And the words he sings ring true because Link lived and knew poverty from his own Shawnee background. The album captures a darker side of an impoverished America that once was - rusted out trucks, clapboard houses, hopelessness and despair. A world that has been hidden by a modern avalanche of computers, fast food and LCD TVs.

Review: The Who - Tommy - Classics re-issue

Tommy is a double LP and the fourth full album from The Who. It loosely tells the story of a blind, dumb and blind child who plays pinball and goes on to lead a religious movement. Confused? Well for all its strangeness, Tommy is unique in being the first rock opera (this is debatable) and the music is also extremely worthwhile. The 1969 record easily surpasses the later movie soundtrack for listening pleasure which segues into my review of the 140g vinyl Classic Records re-issue.

For comparison, I borrowed a German Polydor original version from a friend.

The packaging on the Classic Records version is extraordinary. The fold out tri-panel sleeve is replicated almost perfectly. The booklet also matches the original to the tee. In these days of quick-n-dirty vinyl releases, this is an amazing accomplishment. One downside is the generic paper inner sleeves. For the price of the re-issue, it sure would be nice to have some HDPE sleeves.

Vinyl quality is a touch subpar. I found a few hairs, a fingerprint and lots of mold release material. A quick clean on the KAB EV-1 improved the situation, but on quiet parts one could hear some noise. The records were relatively flat and punched on center.

In terms of sound quality, the mastering is extremely good. No gritty or dirty midrange caused by inferior electronics. Bass went down a hair deeper than the original, while detail retrieval was even better. In comparison to the original, the treble seemed goosed up a bit. This led to a touch of splash in the vocals and made for a more slightly aggressive sound overall. Soundstaging and depth is where I hear the biggest differences. The original has presence outside the edges of the speakers and the drums 'sit behind' the vocals, adding immensely to the stereo experience. The re-issue sounds flatter as if all the musicians exist on the same plane. The original also has a more organic 'whole' sound which is worth the price if you can find one to buy!

I don't want to come off like I'm bashing the Classic Record re-issue as it does a great job capturing most of the magic of the original pressing. It certainly surpasses the MCA copies I've heard and unlike the originals, is affordable.

preamp: Threshold FET-10/HL
phono preamp: Audio Sector Phono Stage
amplifier: Threshold S/500
analog: VPI HW19 MkIII - Rega RB300 with Incognito wiring - Denon DL-103R modified
speakers: Magnepan 1.6/QR
speaker cable: Kimber 4PR/8PR Bi-wire with banana jacks
Interconnects: Cardas Cross and Cardas Quadlink 5C

Friday, October 21, 2011

Next Book Update - At Shiloh - is going to the Editor

The very last of the Jack Blackwood series is finally done and is going off to the editor.  I originally wrote this short novel some three or four years ago without ever finishing it.  At the time I was flush with a new idea, which eventually became Murder at Zero Hour.  So this older work sat on the shelf, waiting patiently to be completed.  The end result is a little different than the other Blackwood books, since it is more of a straight adventure than a gruesome little mystery.  But nonetheless, readers of the previous books will still enjoy the indomitable duo of Jack and Ezra as they once again ride to triumph.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Free First Chapter - At Bull Run


     Gaining consciousness, Lieutenant James Folks awoke to darkness.  Groggily, he reached around to find that his hands were tied behind his back.  Stretching his numb hands as far as they could go, he could just feel the stomach of the girl lying next to him on the bed.  He mumbled frantically through the gag wrapped around his mouth, but she did not respond.  Her stomach was wet, but from what, he could not tell.  He suspected she was dead since he could not hear her breathe.  Trying to roll off the bed, he discovered that his feet had also been trussed tightly.
     The last thing he remembered was entering her small home and finding the front door ajar.  He thought that she must have been expecting him.  He had walked in feeling elated.  She was a beautiful girl and had taught him pleasures that he had never known even existed.  He remembered walking into the room and seeing her tied up, looking at him with pleading eyes.  After that, there had been a blow to the back of his head, and he fell into darkness.
     James was forced back into the present by hearing approaching footsteps.  He pulled desperately on his bonds again but still could not free his hands.  He heard a man’s heavy breathing and the presence of someone standing over him.  A match suddenly flared in the dark, and an oil lamp next to the bed was lit.  James blinked hard in the sudden glare of light.  He could see a man wearing a black hangman’s hood.  Two slits were cut out for eyes, but in the shadows he could see no sign of them.  Seized with terror, James pulled harder on the ropes and tried to twist away.  He managed to turn his body towards the girl, and his eyes widened with terror as he saw that she was nude and covered in blood.
     The man laughed as he saw James’ struggles.  He pulled out a long cavalry sword and said, “You shall be good sport for my sword, Lieutenant.  Don’t bother to cry out or struggle.  No one can hear you now.”
The blade rose and cut cruelly across the lieutenant’s chest.  He screamed as loud as he could through his gag.  It came out as a muffled grunt, and he arched his body up as the sword was raised again.  The cords bit tightly into his wrists.  The red fires of pain swirled in front of his eyes.
    “Now feel my punishment,” the hooded man whispered.

Chapter 1

    With his arm lying loosely over his eyes, Jack Blackwood desperately tried to sleep on his sweat-stained bed.  The morning summer sunlight glared through his worn, moth-holed curtains and shined directly into his eyes.  He groaned and turned away from the window and drew the dirty covers over his head.  He felt like hell.  Swallowing hard, the back of his throat felt dusty and unbelievably dry.  Summer had been hot this year, and it drove many men to drink.  He was honest with himself and realized that he was one of those men.  He had spent the night at the local saloon and had drunk whiskey until he could drink no more.  He had come home, though he couldn’t be certain what route he’d taken to get there, and fallen into his bed before passing out.
     The faint smell of fried food reached his nostrils.  Jack’s stomach growled as he thought of hot eggs and bacon.  After a brief battle between sleep and hunger, his stomach won.  Jack crawled out of bed.  He clumsily opened the door and staggered, still half-drunk, in the direction of the kitchen.
     Ezra looked up from his breakfast and frowned as Jack entered, holding himself up against the wall.  “You look terrible,” Ezra commented blandly.  Ezra was Jack’s business partner of many years and by now wasn’t surprised to see him still drunk in the morning.
     Jack felt ill and noticed that his hands were shaking.  The pounding in his head was getting worse, and he grabbed the kitchen chair with one hand.  He rubbed his grizzled chin before replying, “I feel like hell, Ezra.  Is there any food left?”
     “I was hoping you would find the strength and crawl out of that bed of yours.  I made some extra food just in case you took a chance and decided to face the day.”
     “I thank you,” Jack replied graciously as he could manage.
     “Go ahead and sit down,” Ezra said as he rose.  He grabbed a chipped mug and poured out some coffee for Jack.  “I’ll go and make a plate for you.”
     “Coffee would be good - plenty of coffee.”
     Ezra nodded and placed a full mug in front of Jack who began to cautiously sip at the hot drink.  Ezra scooped some eggs and bacon out for Jack and put it before him.
     Jack put his coffee cup down and studied the plate of food before him.  His stomach churned uncomfortably.  “I’m not sure if I can even eat right now.  It looks good, mind you, but my stomach says otherwise.”
     “Take it easy and have a few bites.  Then you’ll find out if you’re hungry or not.  There’s plenty of time to find out.”
     Jack ate slowly at first and then began to eat greedily until the plate was empty.  He crudely wiped his chin with his sleeve and drank two more cups of coffee.  He began to feel better and was sure after some further sleep he could manage to blink without hurt.
     Ezra watched in silence while smoking a cigarette.
     After Jack finished, he pushed the plate away and leaned back in his chair.  He patted his heavy stomach in appreciation.  “I guess I was hungrier than I thought.”  His voice had a trace of embarrassment for he knew that Ezra was never a hard drinker.
     “I hope you are feeling better now,” Ezra remarked.  “It’s time you forget that girl and move on with your life.”
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jack said lamely.  Last spring he had taken a case concerning the missing son of a retired congressman.  He had become romantically involved with the congressman’s daughter but was forced to break off the relationship.  It had been hard to leave her but he had no choice in the matter.
     “Don’t lie to me,” Ezra snapped.  “You’ve been moping around here and drinking yourself sick every night.  The money is getting low, and I don’t look forward to living in the gutter again.”
     “Oh, we aren’t doing that bad,” Jack lied.  His nervous stomach began to churn violently and he gulped nervously.  He knew that Ezra was right but did not want to admit it.
     Ezra handed over a cigarette and lit it for Jack with a single swipe of the match.  “Have you looked into our account books lately?  With your constant drinking, we’re getting near to being broke again.  I’m not sure if we can even make next month’s rent.”
     Jack stood up quickly, his face flushed with anger.  “Damn it, Ezra!  You’re worse than an old woman.  Now leave me be.”
     “I’m not your servant.  I’m just telling you what I’m seeing.  And right now I’m seeing a drunk who is feeling sorry for himself.”
     “Something is bound to turn up.  It always does sooner or later.”  Jack felt dizzy and sat down again, the room spinning.  He puffed hard on the cigarette, trying to gain his composure back.
     “Something already has turned up for us,” Ezra said in a low voice.  “I just hope you can handle it right now.  While you were sleeping it off this morning, Henry Garrett stopped by to see if you were around.”
     “What did Henry want of me?”  Jack asked.  Garrett was an old friend who was in command of the City Watch, and Jack hadn’t seen him since the last case he had done.  Perhaps Henry was still angry that Jack had let a murderer go free.
     “Oh, Henry told me a little about it.  It looks like another case of disappearance.  You know it seems that Washington isn’t becoming safe for anyone these days.  I told Henry we would be there as soon as possible.”
     “You could have woken me up.”
     Ezra snorted derisively and said, “Henry was a little worried when I told him that you were still sleeping.  He guessed soon enough that you were out late last night getting drunk.  He knows you as well as I do.”
     Jack felt angry hearing of the two of them talking behind his back like that.  “That old fool worries about me as much as you do.  Why don’t the both of you stay out of my business?” 
     “Henry may be an old man, but you aren’t much younger.  I’ll make it my business if I want to get paid anytime soon.”
     Jack stubbed out his cigarette and studied Ezra’s face but didn’t say anything.
     Ezra looked him in the eyes, his face softening.  “I know you’re hurting something bad inside.  Some men put a brave face on their heartache.  Other men just try to kill the pain inside with whiskey.  I know you’ll eventually come around or die trying.”  Ezra no longer met Jack’s gaze and fiddled with his matches instead.  He lit another cigarette for himself and began gathering up the dishes on the table.
     Jack smiled, suddenly feeling less dizzy.  “Those are some pretty words my friend.  I’m not sure I can even believe a single word of it.”
    Ezra returned his gaze and almost imperceptibly shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t care what you think, Jack.  I just want to keep a roof over my head and keep on eating.  We’re partners in this business and I can’t make any money without you doing your part of the job.”
     Jack reflected to himself that Ezra was right: It must be near impossible for an ex-slave to get work as a detective.  “You really are a heartless bastard when you get down to it.  I’ll go clean up first and get ready to visit Henry.”  Jack steadily got up on his feet and made his way back to his bedroom.  He still felt bad inside, but felt he could function enough to make it over to see Henry.  He also knew that Ezra was right about the girl, but he didn’t care either way.
     With a smile, Ezra began washing the plates.

The rest of the book is available from Smashwords or Amazon for only 99 cents.

Monday, October 17, 2011

At Bull Run is now available via Smashwords

This book is loosely based around the Battle of Bull Run, providing an exciting backdrop to a series of murders that occur to a regiment stationed inside of Washington DC.  Available from Smashwords for now, it will eventually be available on Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Diesel, Amazon, etc etc.  Note that this is the second of the 'Jack Blackwood' books, set during the Civil War.
Jack Blackwood is a widower and a drunk. Ezra Miller is an ex-slave in a white man's world. Together, they run a detective agency in Washington DC. As the Civil War starts, they are involved in their hardest case yet. Members of a newly-formed cavalry regiment are being murdered by a mysterious killer. In order to find the truth, Jack and Ezra put their very lives on the line, braving murder and battle alike.
 Please take the time to check it out!  As always, I welcome comments and criticism.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tom Waits - The Heart of Saturday Night LP - German Pressing review

I own three copies of Tom Wait's The Heart of Saturday Night.  The first copy I bought was an early-1980s Asylum pressing made here in the old U.S. of A.  The second pressing I bought was for 'family' listening - it was the 180g Rhino re-issue.  The latest copy I bought is a 1990s pressing from Germany.  How different do these three version sound?

First, a little note on the actual album - The Heart of Saturday Night is Wait's second.  Lacking some of the beauty and emotional melodies of his first album, Closing Time, Heart has a gruffer, rougher sound.  While Closing Time is nostalgic memories, Heart has more of a beatnik growl.  There are signs of the future, darker Waits here - for example, check out the classic song Diamonds on my Windshield.  Anyways, there are plenty of reviews out there of this album, so check 'em out - but be sure to not miss out on this great record.

The 1980s Asylum pressing has a very organic sound that is rich and inviting.  My only gripe is the overall sound is a little 'dirty' - like a faint dirty wash over the entire soundscape.  It's like a slightly out-of-focus lense that obscures detail and treble extension.  But this really wasn't noticeable until I heard something better.

The recent 180g re-issue from Rhino was a big disappointment.  I bought this copy to use in a second stereo system, so I really wasn't expecting it to best my original.  Why is that?  I've had some problems with a number of recent re-issues.  Vinyl and mastering quality is subpar compared to the glory days when records were the medium of choice.  But the mastering on the Rhino is just plain awful - the treble is just gone, sounding like a wet blanket has been placed over my speakers.  Supposedly this has been addressed with a re-re-issue, but I haven't heard it yet.

Finally we come to the 90s German re-issue.  Since my U.S. copy is in VG+ condition, I wanted something a little better.  I found a nice German copy for about the same price I would throw down for an original U.S. pressing, so why not give it a try?  I've had some good luck with German vinyl in the past, and I was not disappointed.  The quality of the vinyl is absolutely fantastic, almost meeting the standards of the Japanese for quietness and flatness. And the overall sound is really where this record shines - the detail and focus is really that much better than the U.S. copy I have.  It doesn't "sound like a different record", but I can hear more detail, a great treble extension, and the 'soundscape' has more coherence.  The qualities I'm hearing come from good mastering practices, excellent electronics, and an attention to quality that is often lacking these days.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Update on my latest science-fiction book

 I've finished the first pass of my latest book.  Of course it isn't done yet - not by any stretch of the imagination - but the main plot and framework is there.  Now it will be a few months of re-writes to add the added detail and life to the story I have created.  So stay tuned!

On an unrelated note, my book At Bull Run is still in the editor's hands.  Some other time commitments has delayed publication, but this will be finished soon.

Moose - unheard and unappreciated music

Born in the 1990s shoe-gaze movement, Moose made several albums but never reached the acclaim that they richly deserved.  Starting from a stripped-down psychedelic sound and ending with a full-born blitz of shiny pop, Moose were always filled with an underlying layer of sunshine and brightness.

Formed by Russel Yates and Keviin McKillop in early 1990, Moose was immediately signed to Hut Records (home of Smashing Pumpkins and the Verve) where they released three EPs in 1991.  1992 was their first full-length ...XYZ which sold poorly, causing them to be dropped by their label.  From there, Moose signed with Play It Again Sam Records where they released their second album Honey Bee in 1993.  Again sales were miniscule, but the band soldiered on with their 1996 release Live a Little, Love a Lot.  Sadly, this also fell by the wayside.

Most other musicians would have thrown in the towel, but Moose gave it one more chance with their 2000 release of High Ball Me! on the Nickle and Dimes label.  This last album was the peak of their creativity, highlighting brilliant pop intertwined with a Lee Hazlewood twang.  The music soars and bends like the wind, reminding the listener of lonely country roads, desert plains, and fields of wildflowers.  Or something like that.

All of their material is difficult to get with the exception of High Ball Me! which is still in print.  Other than that, buyers are left scouring Ebay, Gemm, MusicStack or searching for Youtube videos.  CDs are the most common format.  Vinyl does exist but is exceedingly rare. Again, everything is highly recommended!

Moose - Little Bird

Moose - The Only Man In Town

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Review: Duran Duran - All You Need Is Now

Duran Duran came out with their 13th studio album All You Need Is Now just last year.  Featuring the original members, with the exception of Andy Taylor, this album is a return to their early roots.  Though lacking the catchiness of Rio or even their self-titled debut, All You Need Is Now is still recognizable as old-school Duran Duran. Simon Le Bon's vocals soar with that old familiar tone, but several guest artists make their presence known, which can be a bit annoying unless you are a fan of these musicians - I know I'm not.

After several listens to All You Need Is Now, I found that no particular song stuck in my craw.  Most of the tracks are throwaways or B-side fodder; lacking the urgency and appeal of their earlier material.  But still, if you're a Duran Duran fan, perhaps you will find something here to like. Available as a MP3 download, CD, and even a double LP.  So recommended, but with caveats - for major Duran Duran fans only.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: Detachments - s/t

The Detachments are part of a small UK synth-based revival.  Harking back to the great late-1970s and early 1980s, the Detachments use all analog synthesizers in their self-titled debut album.  Listeners will be reminded of OMD, early Ultravox (with John Foxx), and Gary Numan.  Compared to the Mirrors, the Detachments have a darker minimal-wave sound that eschews pop for a grittier landscape.

Several strong tracks on here - Audio Video, I Don't Want to Play and Art of Viewing are infectious dance numbers, while Holiday Romance sounds like a coldwave outtake from the early 80s.  After these early songs, the album takes a darker turn.  Available on CD, MP3, and even vinyl (if you search around).  Highly recommended for fans of this genre.