“Someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary.”

I don’t know exactly when I figured out that I was ugly. Certainly I knew it by the time I was twelve or so; kids tend to be mean to each other regardless of looks, but there was an obvious difference in the way adults treated me compared to the way they treated some of my classmates. Thankfully, I wasn’t both ugly and short for very long, which would have been too much.

My particular defects — an alien ratio of massive skull to petite face, a caveman brow but soft cheekbones, barrel chest and monkey arms — were a tremendous source of sorrow to me in my teen and twentysomething years. I would have given anything to be handsome. Scratch that: I would have given anything to just be plain-looking. It frequently occurred to me that the combination of below-average intelligence and above-average looks is a recipe for happiness as surely as the reverse is a prescription for misery.

After lo these many years I’ve come to be grateful for my ugliness. It has stripped me of illusions regarding the world. I never worry that someone is being nice to me just because they like the way I look. If a woman tells me that I’m handsome, I know she is insane and I can plan accordingly. Nobody bothers me on the street. The mere suggestion of unpleasantness on my part is usually enough to get what I want; the only thing worse than having me in your face is having an angry me in your face.

Of course, there are times I’m tempted to blame my appearance for why I haven’t been able to achieve certain goals. This is cowardice and stupidity, made doubly plain by the fellow you see in the video above.

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JBL L100 Classic Loudspeaker

Photo by John Marks

JBL’s L100 Classic loudspeaker has a United States MSRP of $4000/pr. (stands not included)…

(…but wait! Even if you are not in the market for new high-end loudspeakers, John Marks’ new contribution is well worth your time. There’s interesting audio and cultural history, as well as a great 13-album playlist from the era (1970 to 1978) when the iconic JBL L100s were originally in production.

However if you are in the market for some new loudspeakers, you are in luck. A lot of high-end audio gear is price-protected, which means no discounts. But, click over to Music Direct Then, at checkout, enter Promo Code BARUTH to get a $400 discount. This discount code will expire April 8, 2021. I don’t get a dime out of it — I’m just a little thrilled to be involved with this stuff. And, as John Marks himself would say, “in view of the totality of the circumstances,” please do not mention this discount code on social media — jb)

However, if you want to make them sound like the proverbial “a million bucks,” here’s how to do it:

(1) Connect a pair of JBL L100 Classics to your amplifier.

(2) Subscribe to the Qobuz streaming service (they have a risk-free 30-day trial offer). Feed that signal to your Digital to Analog Converter.

(3) Dial up the 24-bit hi-res version of Joel Fredericksen & Ensemble Phoenix’s astonishing feat of creativity and musicianship, the Nick Drake tribute album Requiem for a Pink Moon.

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The Machine Of A New Soul

I never tire of beauty, particularly in women and crafted objects, and I never tire of intelligent solutions to old problems. You won’t find any gorgeous chicks in the above-linked video, but there’s craft and thought aplenty. Tim Sway is a musician and artist who applies modern thinking and machinery to the traditional art of guitar making, and applies it properly. What I mean: Most of the mechanized guitar-building out there is designed to imitate hand processes: Gibson, for example, now uses a CNC to cut the body blanks that were cut by pantograph-style saws in the Seventies and sawn by hand in the Fifties.

Sway, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to replicate human processes with a machine. He creates new processes that work the way the machine works. Here’s an example: Fretboards are traditionally cut with hand saws and chisels, then inlaid with mother-of-pearl or some other material that is cut in a separate process. This is never a perfect process so then you use filler to make it right. Sway uses a CNC end mill to cut out the inlay patterns, then fills the resulting holes with epoxy. This is messy, but running an end mill over the mess levels everything out and creates a perfect inlay.

That’s the craft of it. Here’s the art: On the airplane fretboard, the airplanes are oriented to create single overlapping side dots where a traditional guitar would have a separately inlaid side dot, and oriented to create double overlapping dots at the octave marks. This works because the CNC machine shapes the hardened epoxy precisely the way it shapes the fretboard.

It should be mentioned that the airplane fretboard is destined for a 29.6″ scale bass to be played by my son. That’s not the only piece of original thinking in this particular instrument, and I can’t wait to show it to all of you when it’s done. One interesting part: it’s almost entirely recycled, both in the industrial sense (the fretboard is Richlite, a post-consumer waste product) and in the local-craft sense (the wood is all sourced from existing doors, tables, and recovered flooring). That’s not the way I’d prefer it; I like my Paul Reed Smith Private Stocks with their mammoth inlay and woods that haven’t been legal to harvest for fifty years. But Sway has his own set of ethics that he applies to the process.

My long-time mentor, Edward Tomarken, has often written and spoken about his desire to reconcile the academic division between the arts and the sciences. What Sway is doing here, creating art with a soulless machine, is just the beginning of what can likely be done with such tools. It’s usually the case that the artist doesn’t appear until well after the tool does; the Fender Precision Bass existed for about fifteen years before anyone started to play it near its potential, and another ten before anyone could envision it as a solo instrument. The Avid CNC router hit the scene twelve years ago; think of Sway as its first James Jamerson.

Well, He Was Right About That

Is it a cover if you’re just playing the music again with different people? When MTV used The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” to open the channel in 1981, very few people realized that they were hearing something between a cover and a remake. The original version was written by a trio of British artists and recorded in early 1979. Half a year later, two of the three got back together as “The Buggles” and recorded the definitive variant.

While looking for the lyrics of “Video” today for an Avoidable Contact column, I came across the above live peformance from 2004. Trevor Horn, the bassist and vocalist, is in fine form, as are the original backup signers from 25 years prior. It’s a true pleasure to watch, even if Horn commits one of the few mortal sins in music by playing the electric bass with a pick.

Were The Buggles a one-hit wonder? Possibly — but Trevor Horn was anything but. He produced everything from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” to Seal’s debut album. Along the way, he was executive producer on Jeff Beck’s infamous “Emotion & Commotion”. Oh, and he also was the actual musician behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, playing all the parts himself after the band couldn’t quite make it work in the studio.

It’s easy to see Trevor Horn, the prototype of the inventive and technically flawless musician/producer, as a dying breed. But not only is the idea of the bass-playing producer alive and well (cf. Fiona Apple’s dueling bassist/producers, Jon Brion and Mike Elizondo), Horn is also partially responsible for the changes in music between his performing heyday and today. In the course of producing Poison Arrow by ABC, he learned how to program the Roland TR-808, then learned how to trigger it via MIDI. So in a way, Horn wasn’t just a prophet of video killing the radio star, but also an instrument of digital music killing the analog star. Oh-a, Oh-a!

Like Kryptonite to Funk

Have you ever heard of Ken Griffin? He was a big recording star back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How big? Well, he sold millions of records and there are about two dozen 10″ and 12″ LP records of his released by Columbia, perhaps the biggest label of that era. While Motown has the distinction of scoring two hits with the same song, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, by two different artists, Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, Griffin got to the top of the charts twice using essentially the same recording over again.

Griffin had gone into the recording studio in early 1948 and recorded an instrumental version of You Can’t Be True, Dear,  originally “Du Kannst Nicht Treu Sein,” by composer Hans Otten and lyricist Gerhard Ebeler. The English lyrics and title were by Hal Cotten. Apparently it was a popular song as many musicians and singers recorded it that same year. Griffin’s recording was released by Rondo, an independent label. At some time after the original recording was released, Rondo released a vocal version, with singer Jerry Wayne’s voice dubbed over Griffin’s take, with the organ subdued in the mix. The vocal version went to #1 on Billboard’s Best Sellers chart in April, 1948, staying there for seven weeks. Then Griffin’s original release got to #2. Together the two recordings charted for 23 weeks and sold 3.5 million copies. Continue Reading →

Enter The Squid’s Locker

I’ve spent the last month periodically working on my overstuffed basement and storage units. Much of what I’ve removed has been treated as trash — in theory, all the vintage car and motorcycle magazines and dealer catalogues down there have value, but in practice I’m not going to separate, photograph, and list them all.

The Spaceman pedals, on the other hand… These were valuable when they were new and they’re now approaching unobtanium status. I’m no longer playing anything like a public gig, so I’ve been slowly converting my guitar-centric collection into basses and bass amps for my son, who is at the beginning of his music career rather than the end.

Thus, we have the Reverb store known as The Squid’s Gear Locker. What’s going to be listed there? Well…

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The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away. Continue Reading →

George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road”

The Beatles’ final studio album Abbey Road was released on LP in the United States on September 26, 1969. As will be discussed after the jump, audio-industry maven Philip O’Hanlon pulled together (under the “Magnum Opus Rediscovered” banner) a coast-to-coast Abbey Roadlistening party” for Saturday, September 28, 2019, in which 40 audio dealers will play the remastered album on “fine audio” (or “high end”) equipment, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM (local times).

Which is all fine and good. But I for one wish that the participating audio shops would have extended the duration of their events by not all that much time (32 minutes), and spin what is to my mind, far and away, the best Abbey Road cover album ever, George Benson‘s woefully under-appreciated The Other Side of Abbey Road. Will they, won’t they? Matters not. It’s easy to add this gem to your collection!

Starting only three weeks after Abbey Road‘s US début (October 22-23 & November 4-5, 1969), producer Creed Taylor (who produced this record for Herb Alpert’s label A&M) convened a rather astonishing gathering of participating musicians at engineer Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio. Don Sebesky was in charge of their comings and goings, in that he was the arranger. (Benson sang, as well as playing guitar.)

How’s this for an (incomplete) lineup? Ray Barretto, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws, Idris Muhammad, George Ricci (brother of Ruggiero Ricci), and Emanuel Vardi? More information (and sound samples) after the jump. Continue Reading →