Wednesday, July 28, 2010

College Radio Project - Posters

I've been searching through my own personal archives to see if I still have any interesting curios or artifacts from my college radio days. Stuffed away in a file labeled "Nostalgia," I found a few 8.5" X 11" posters that I had used to promote my radio show. I would typically give names to my radio shows in the tradition of John Peel's "The Perfumed Garden" and other underground radio shows of the past, and put up posters around campus to promote the show. One semester I named my show "666 Minutes" (a nod both to MTV's "120 Minutes" program and the Dark One), other names included "The Crypt Of Terror" and "The Tina Yothers Experience" (in tribute to the Family Ties actress).

I used to hang these up around the campus HUB building, and they would tend to get torn down fairly quickly. It seemed some at the college did not appreciate my way of promoting my radio program. Eventually a rule was passed that anything hung on the walls of the HUB had to first get a stamp of approval from the Director of Residence Life. I never sought the stamp of approval (as I doubt it would have been granted, and I didn't want some official stamp mucking up my posters). So my posters would get torn down even faster than before, and I would see how quickly I could put more up. It became like a game to me.

At one point during my Junior year I was called into a Dean's office to hear complaints from three of college's more socially conservative students about my posters. Someone who was not a fan of my work had kept a file of some of my more lurid promotional efforts. I must admit, the complaining students were actually very nice and extremely sincere in their criticisms. They let me know that they were concerned I was promoting suicide and possibly satanism with these posters. I remember one of them earnestly telling me she was very disturbed to see the number of the beast being used at her college. The Dean was careful to let me know that no one wanted to "censor" me, but that she did want me to hear how what I was doing was making some students feel.

I thanked the students for bringing their concerns to me, then told them in the nicest way I could that I thought they were sheltered and if they bothered to walk five blocks off campus they would see a hundred things more disturbing than my posters. I also told them that part of being an adult was learning to deal with viewpoints different from their own. I remember also telling the Dean that while I appreciated these students concerns, I did not believe they were a representative cross sample of students at the college and represented an extreme minority viewpoint. That was the last I heard about it.

My friend Mike who was then Station Manager (I was Music Director at the time) had been required to attend the meeting with me, though he let me do most of the talking. He told me afterward that he was amazed at my ability to keep my cool and advance rational arguments in my defense without backing down. Frankly, I was a little surprised by my ability to do this myself. I think before the meeting Mike considered me a bit of a goofball, but I earned his respect that day. He had been grooming someone else to become Station Manager when he stepped down because he didn't think I was "serious" enough to do the job. But when he did step down at the end of that semester he insisted that I take over the job.

For the most part, these yellowed-with-age posters look incredibly juvenile to me today. The "666 Minutes" one strikes me as particularly sophomoric, but then I was a sophomore in college when I created it, so I have an excuse. In retrospect, I must admit that I was just as sheltered as my more conservative classmates, albeit perhaps in a different way. Some of the students at my college came from extremely conservative, religious backgrounds and it was hard for me to see these posters through their eyes. It still is. But today I am better able to sympathize with those who see the world differently than me, and respect those who hold beliefs different from my own. I spoke the truth when I told my classmates that part of being an adult was "learning to deal with perspectives different from your own," but it was a lesson I had yet to fully absorb myself. I didn't appreciate having to meet with those students at the time, but in retrospect I consider it an important part of my education, and I think the Dean was quite wise to have called the meeting.

I'm looking to collect recollections and artifacts from others relating to college radio. If you have any artifacts, curios or stories relating to college radio you can send submissions to me at wpbilderback [at]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

College Radio Project - Call For Submissions

A recent story in my College's alumni magazine got me thinking a bit about the time I spent in college radio. The article featured some nice quotes from my friend David Brower, who preceded me as the station's Music Director and has since gone on to become the Program Director at WUNC, a public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Thinking about this made me decide to embark on a modest project for this blog. I'd like to collect and publish some of my readers' memories and anecdotes from their time in college radio.

I'm looking to document peoples' experiences, so you can send me amusing stories about your time as a College Radio DJ, or simply memories of listening to a college radio station. Maybe you want to tell me about the time you got a phone call from a death row inmate who just had to hear "The Rainbow Connection" one more time. Maybe you have a story about the time you were so stoned you didn't notice "Dark Star" had been skipping for an hour and a half. Or maybe you want to tell me about the time you heard a College Radio DJ create a weird sound collage by mixing together bits of "The Rainbow Connection," "Dark Star" and the theme song from The Six Million Dollar Man, or the time you heard They Might Be Giants' "Don't Let's Start" five times in an hour via your local College's airwaves and thought you would go insane.

Did you learn anything from your experience? Can you place your memories in some broader social and/or political context? It doesn't matter to me, so long as you can remember it. I'm interested in stories from any time period, from the present day back to the 60s and beyond. I can publish the stories anonymously (with names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty) or with full attribution depending on what you are comfortable with. All I ask is that the stories be true (or at least based on real memories). So please don't send me your screenplay about the rebel College Radio DJ who fights the power, sticks it to the man and refuses to back down by playing the music of Live Skull and Pussy Galore. Submissions can be as short or as long (within reason) as you like. You can send submissions to me at wpbilderback [at]

To my regular readers, I've installed some magic buttons at the bottom of this post that allow you to share it via email, your own blog, twitter, facebook and even google buzz (yeah, I know). Please consider using one of these methods to help spread this call for submissions beyond the confines my normal loyal readership.

Monday, July 26, 2010

chisel - if you believe in christmas trees

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists have a (relatively) new album called The Brutalist Bricks out on Matador. Leo can be (and has been) accused of repeating himself. He's stuck pretty closely to his power-pop/punk formula over the years. And after twenty some years of music making he has yet to pen a rock opera or record an album with the Brodsky Quartet. What he can't be accused of is failing to make catchy, passionate music, and the Brutalist Bricks is no exception.

Anyway, the new album got me in the mood to revisit the music of Leo's old mod/punk revival band, Chisel.

I have a very vivid memory of seeing Chisel live with Slant 6 and (I think) Blonde Redhead at a club in New York City's meatpacking district called The Cooler. This was probably early spring of 1995, but don't hold me to that because I'm going strictly from memory here. I'm pretty sure The Cooler shut down a long time ago, but during the 90s it was one of the better indie music venues in the city.

The Cooler, as its name implies, was located in what used to be a giant walk-in freezer. This made for a very interesting atmosphere and really crummy acoustics. With walls made of highly reflective aluminum it is a wonder the club sounded as good as it did. Anytime I saw a show at The Cooler I couldn't help but think about the animal carcasses that not so long ago were the venue's primary occupants. Occasionally an image of Frankie Carbone at the end of Goodfellas would pop into my head. The club was always getting busted by the cops for some violation or another, but I don't remember any problems that night.

Leo and his band mates Chris Norborg and John Dugan put on what I remember as a very tight and energetic show that night, although admittedly my memory of the evening has gotten pretty hazy over time. Later that year Leo would prove he had excellent taste in music beyond the relatively limited mod/punk universe by covering Cardinal's "If You Believe In Christmas Trees" and releasing it as the b-side to their "the o.t.s." single on Darla Records.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fables Waveforms

It's been a while since I posted any waveforms here, but with the controversy over the mastering of the 25th Anniversary Edition of R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction, I thought I'd give it another crack.

The first waveform is a screen shot of the track "Cant Get There From Here" taken from my needledrop of the original 1985 LP. (For technical details, see comments).

"Cant Get There From Here" (1985 LP Needledrop)

The next waveform represents the same song taken from the original 1985 IRS/MCA CD.

Some have criticized me in the past for comparing waveforms taken from LP needledrops to those taken from CDs. The argument against doing so is that the manifold noise and distortions inherent to LP playback make any such waveform comparisons invalid. But as you can see below, the needledrop and CD waveforms look remarkably similar. In terms of dynamic range, I found less than 0.5 dB difference between these two tracks, so whatever distortion LP playback adds to the picture here, it is of a low enough order not to have a tremendous impact on the track's dynamic range.

"Cant Get There From Here" (1985 IRS/MCA CD)

That is not to say the two tracks sounded identical. While similar in terms of dynamic range, to my ears the CD track sounded somewhat thin and bright compared to the LP sourced track. This is not to say that the CD sounded bad, but to my ears it lacked the depth and fullness of the needledroped track.

Finally, we come to the remastered 2010 version of "Cant Get There From Here." As expected, the remastered version is louder than the other versions, around 8 dB louder on average. With an average RMS value of approximately -12 dB, this is hardly the most compressed remaster I have seen (that distinction belongs to Iggy Pop's remixed Raw Power, which averages around -4 dB). For a more reasonable point of comparison most tracks on the recent Deluxe Edition of Exile On Main St. average around -10 dB.

"Cant Get There From Here" (2010 Capitol Remaster)

So, how did the remaster sound in comparison to the other tracks? Well, most obviously it was louder. A lot louder. I had to turn my stereo way down when switching to the new remaster. In order to precisely match sound levels I needed the help of my computer. Once I matched levels and compared tracks it seemed the remaster had a slightly hollow sound compared to the other tracks, and tonally I thought it was brighter than either the older CD or the LP. I also noticed that Michael Stipe's vocals seemed to be boosted slightly in relation to the instruments. The remaster did not sound bad, but I did prefer the two earlier versions.

It's been my experience in listening to compressed remasters that the most regrettable consequences of compression only reveal themselves over time, not in quick back-and-forth comparisons. As I have noted before, heavy compression tends to take a sense of excitement out of the music, resulting in albums that do not hold up to repeated listening.

So while the remastering of Fables could have been worse, it also could have been better. A lot better. Ironically, in 2010 if you want to hear a really good sounding digital version of Fables Of The Reconstruction, you'll have to digitize your old LP.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Newsweek Calls Out R.E.M.'s "iPod Ready" Fables Reissue

I was very surprised to see the so-called "loudness war" get a mention in Newsweek, where Seth Colter Walls criticizes the recent 25th Anniversary deluxe reissue of Fables Of the Reconstruction for having been mastered too loud (Shiny Happy Remaster?). Colter Walls rightly points out that the atmospheric Fables is not the sort of album that particularly lends itself to today's pumped up, super-compressed mastering aesthetic.

Having compared the remaster to my original LP, I agree that the remastering was louder than it should have been, and I definitely preferred the sound of the original LP. (I have never heard the original CD, so I can't offer any insight on that). That said, I also thought the differences I heard were more subtle than is often the case with contemporary remasters, and this album is far from the worst remaster I have heard. As I noted in my original post, "I suspect only the very pickiest of audiophiles would seriously object to the sound quality of the remaster." It seems I was wrong about that, as Colter Walls clearly does not consider himself an audiophile but nonetheless had serious issues with the sound quality of the reissue.

There are a couple things I would take issue with in the article. First, I disagree with the author's contention that recently remastered CDs are typically the safest bet when looking for good sound, and Fables represents something of a special case exception. In general, I have found that the more recent the remaster, the more likely it is to sound bad, although there are enough exceptions that I would hesitate to take things on anything other than a case-by-case basis. Second, I'm not so sure that the increasing loudness of CDs can be so tidily pinned on the iPod. After all, the iPod does feature a "sound check" function that normalizes the volume of all songs on it without effecting dynamic range (although I have no idea how many people use it). Beyond that, the movement toward louder CDs predates the iPod, it's just that we've seen a steadily escalating situation.

For what it's worth, here is my take on why we are seeing louder and louder remasters: There is a strong incentive for labels to produce remasters that sound "different" from what has come before. And making a release 6 or 7 dB louder than previous CD issues will give a lot of people an initial "wow" factor if they don't understand the need to carefully match volume levels in order to make a valid comparison. If you compare the exact same track but only turn the volume up, 9 out of 10 people will immediately say the louder version sounds "better" even if there is no difference at all. So a louder remaster can initially "grab" the listener and give him or her a false sense that what they are hearing is "better," when really it is just louder.

With careful work and using the best current analog-to-digital converters and other equipment it is certainly possible for today's mastering engineers to create remastered CDs that surpass the sound quality of CDs produced ten or twenty years ago. However, if the original CD was well done (not a safe assumption) the improvement in sound tends to be subtle, and not the type that will hit you in the face immediately. To hear the improvement you'll need a decent stereo system and have to know what to listen for. But let's face it, that describes a tiny percentage of the possible market for a reissue like this. It's so much easier for a record company to just to make a remaster louder. Most people (music critics included) will hear that difference instantly and assume it is a change for the better.

In other words, you can fool most of the people all of the time, and the the rest will just complain about it endlessly on blogs and internet discussion boards in such an arrogant and dismissive manner that the rest of the world will assume they are the equivalent of coffee connoisseurs who will only partake of coffee beans that have been crapped out by animals.

That's the unfortunate reality, and I don't see any way around it. I try to educate on my site, but I think that can only help at the margins, and maybe help people who already understand these things to make an informed purchasing decision. So it's good to see the problem being addressed by someone outside the confines of blogs and audio discussion boards, and I hope Colter Walls continues to listen carefully and draw attention to this problem.

It has come to the point with CD reissues where I pretty much just ask myself if I am willing to pay the price of admission for the bonus tracks, because I assume in the end I will not like the remastered sound as much as what came before, especially if I have a decent copy on LP already. The 25th Anniversary reissue of Fables of the Reconstruction is hardly the worst offender in the ongoing loudness war, but there is no doubt in my mind that it would have sounded better had the mastering engineer applied less compression than he did. Perhaps with journalists like Seth Colter Walls drawing more attention to the problem we can have reason to hope for a better sounding deluxe reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant.

Friday, July 16, 2010

iTunes Again....

When I posted my iTunes story, I didn't go into too many specifics regarding my interaction with Apple Customer service. This was in part because I wanted to introduce the story within the fictional conceit that the incident involved a brick and mortar record store, but also because I didn't want the post to go on forever.

But there is one specific issue I wanted to share that I think sheds some light on what a sleazy outfit Apple has become. From what I can gather reading other stories from customers whose accounts were hacked this is an entirely typical practice on Apple's part, and I find it both extremely strange and unethical.

Here is a quote from one of the emails I sent to Apple customer service:
"It appears there is an outstanding balance of $36.96 on my iTunes account that my Credit Card company already rejected because they realized that the activity on my account was suspicious. Is it possible to remove this outstanding balance from my account? I understand that charges already made cannot be removed from my account, and have already taken that issue up with my credit card company."
Keep in mind, the $36.96 in question was for an order placed by the person who hacked into my account, but it was never fulfilled because my credit card company rejected the charge after detecting a fraudulent activity pattern on my account. Here is Apple's response:
"Hey Willis,

This is Xxxxx from Apple. You're very welcome. I am glad that I could provide you with some helpful information. Unfortunately, I cannot refund you or do anything with the order until it is paid for. If the item stays delinquent this would prevent you from making any purchases. I would recommend paying for the order. Once the order is paid for, I can refund you for the purchase."
This made absolutely no sense to me. First of all, the customer service rep had already explained to me she could not refund charges already made to my account, and if I wanted the nearly $1,000 already charged to my account back I would have to take it up with my credit card company. Now she was telling me she could refund a transaction, but I had to pay for it first. Notice the language she uses here too: the item was "delinquent" and if not paid for I would no longer be welcome as an iTunes customer. What she didn't mention was that Apple had also frozen my account so that I was unable to access many of my previous music and video purchases.

Needless to say, I was not eager to authorize a fraudulent transaction with no real guarantee Apple would refund it. At the time I didn't want to get into a long, drawn out email exchange on the issue, but I wish now I had asked her more questions to get a full articulation of Apple's policy. Instead, I replied:
"I will have to wait until my credit card provider sends me a new card before I can update the information. Once I get the new card I will update the information, and then contact you again about getting the purchase refunded."
When I received my new credit card I did not immediately update my information with iTunes. Eventually I decided that paying the $36.96 would be worth it to get access to my previous purchases back. Once I provided my new billing information, Apple immediately charged the $36.96 to my credit card. Unfortunately, when I emailed them about refunding the transaction I never received a response. Once again, I was forced to go to my credit card company to get the transaction canceled. Worse, despite paying the "delinquent" charge, my iTunes account remained locked for over a month afterward.

I continue to be shocked at how widespread the iTunes problem appears to be. One guy posted his experience on his blog, and got 258 responses, most of them from readers whose iTunes accounts were also hacked. One reader posted a reply he received from Apple that I found very revealing. (Because this was posted by someone else, I cannot verify the authenticity of this response, but it is entirely consistent in tone and content with my correspondence with Apple, as well as that of other Apple customer correspondence I have seen.)

"Unfortunately I am unable to remove or credit the purchase in question I have tried and there is no way to remove it from the account. You do have two options available to use with I will go over with you below. The first option is to simply enter a valid credit card into the account and pay for the outstanding order. Then I will refund the order back to you so you don’t have to pay for the order in question. This is the simplest way to keep your account active and able to update applications and use the iTunes Store.

The second option if you still refuse to pay for the outstanding order in question is to create a new account with iTunes. You will need to create a new account and provide complete billing information including providing a valid credit card. Then after creating the account you can continue to use the account. Do understand that all CMA, iTunes+ offers and applications updates will not be on this new account. You will need to repurchase the applications for them to update with the new account. Music purchases from the old account will not work with the new account.

So as you can see both choices do choices to make and I would honestly just pay for the outstanding order so you can continue to use the account just like before. You can take all the time you want to decide on what you want to do. I will be looking forward to hearing from you soon."
This is the clearest articulation I have seen of this very simple fact: If your iTunes account is hacked, Apple will be more than happy to hold your previous purchases hostage until you agree to pay them an additional sum. I am reminded of the old Woody Guthrie lyric, "Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen." Today Woody would have to change his fountain pen to a keyboard, which is unfortunately far less poetic. Pretty Boy Floyd where have you gone?

Given how unfriendly U.S. law is to consumers, I have little doubt that what Apple is doing here is totally legal. But, legal or otherwise, I consider it unethical and downright sleazy. Anyway, if you want to continue doing business with Apple's iTunes store, you should be aware of the tough road you have ahead of you if you ever have a problem with your account.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

R.E.M. Fables Of The Reconstruction 25th Anniversary Edition

In his excellent (albeit brief) liner notes to the new edition of Fables Of The Reconstruction, Peter Buck attempts to clear up the misconception that the members of R.E.M. do not actually like the album that was yesterday honored with a 25th Anniversary deluxe reissue:
"Over the years a certain misapprehension about Fables Of The Reconstruction has built up. For some reason, people have the impression the members of R.E.M. don't like the record. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's a doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric. It creates its own strange little world, illogical but compelling. It's a personal favorite, and I'm really proud of how strange it is. Nobody but R.E.M. could have made that record."
Fans of R.E.M. might be forgiven for thinking the band held the album in less than the highest regard given all of the ambivalent to negative comments certain band members have made about the album over the years. But Buck goes on to make the very important point that the way the band feels about the album is inextricably tied to the circumstances surrounding its creation:
"All four of us were completely out of our minds at the time. We had just spent four straight years on the road; we were tense, impoverished, certifiable, and prime candidates for rehab. And it was cold. My main memory of that period is making the hour commute to Wood Green on the Tube and then walking for twenty minutes through invariably inclement weather, usually sleet."
Likewise, how the average R.E.M. fan feels about Fables Of The Reconstruction is no doubt inextricably bound to the circumstances under which they first heard it, and their memories of that time period.

I had just turned 16 when I picked up Fables at my local Sam Goody. I have a memory of listening to the album on my walkman as my Mom drove me home. I can still smell that "new cassette" smell if I concentrate hard enough when listening to the opening chords of "Feeling Gravitys Pull." Personally, Fables is my favorite R.E.M. album. But then it was also the first R.E.M. album I bought, and the strange and compelling "dense and atmospheric" music contained within it opened up a whole new world of music for me.

Soon after I purchased Fables, I picked up R.E.M.'s earlier releases. After that, there was a virtual cascade of intriguing new music finding its way into my walkman. Peter Buck played mandolin on "I Will Dare" by The Replacements, so I picked up Let It Be. He produced The Good Earth by The Feelies, so I got that. I heard Wire and The Soft Boys were an influence on R.E.M., so albums by those bands were soon in my collection as well. Those purchases drove me in a hundred new directions that I am still branching out from today.

But for me, R.E.M.'s Fables Of The Reconstruction is still there at the root of it all. I don't think it is any kind of exaggeration to say that the album changed my life. And I still regard Fables Of The Reconstruction as one of the finest rock albums ever made. I like it as much or more than anything recorded by The Beatles, or anyone else.

The 25th Anniversary edition adds a bonus disc of demos that were recorded in Athens, GA before the band left to record Fables with famed producer Joe Boyd in London. Buck remembers the band as being hard up for new songs after exhausting their stockpile of songs on the first two albums, and feeling "dangerously unprepared" as the band departed to London, a view he was forced to revise upon listening to the demos again. Maybe R.E.M. really were exhausted, drugged-out and low on inspiration at the time, but from the audio evidence available from the demos they sound like a band in complete control of their destiny and bursting with musical ideas. Perhaps they were receiving divine guidance. Most of the arrangements for the songs were already worked out, and I suspect Boyd's role in shaping the album was minimal, more along the lines of helping the band realize the sound they were searching for than providing direction.

R.E.M. would never again record an album remotely like Fables Of The Reconstruction, and for me personally their music would become less compelling over the years as their commercial fortunes expanded. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed much of the music they've created since Fables, it's just that I never again loved it or was fully captivated by it in quite the same way. Perhaps that would have been asking too much, especially considering that their music could never again be new to me in the same way.

The remastered sound of the new CD is yet another example of the trend toward excessive dynamic compression of reissues. The reissue is around 7 to 8 dB louder on average than the original, although it sounded fine to me while listening to it in the noisy environment of my car. However, I'm a little skeptical that the sound quality will hold up as well for me on my home stereo. Perhaps the best part of the beautifully executed box that the remastered set comes in is that there is room in it for a CD-R needledrop of the album.

Update: After listening to the album on the stereo I suspect only the very pickiest of audiophiles would seriously object to the sound quality of the remaster. Despite the fact that it is more compressed than what I would consider ideal, the overall result is still very good.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Tiger Trap - International Pop Underground Vol. 36

Tiger Trap were like a shooting star, they burned brightly, but only very briefly. The band split after releasing one full length album, an EP and a few scattered singles and compilation tracks during 1992 and 1993. I first became aware of the band when they released a 7" single as part of K Records' International Pop Underground series. Two of the songs featured on the single ("Supercrush" and "You And Me") later appeared on their debut album, which is available for download from the usual sources, but a third track, "Hiding" did not.

Tiger Trap encapsulated many of the great things things that were going on in indie music in the early '90s; their sound was "twee" but not so much so as to be cloying, and it was balanced by a love of noise, fast tempos and serious hooks. The band, an all female group, also had a tangential connection to the riot grrrl movement with their inspired amateurism, even if they skipped the agit-prop politics.

Tiger Trap is probably best remembered today because of the involvement of sweet-voiced singer Rose Melberg who would go on to become a member of The Softies, Go Sailor and Gaze, as well as establishing herself as a solo artist. But I wanted to single out drummer Heather Dunn for praise, because I felt that her solid timekeeping was the glue that held the band's sound together. Amateurism in music can be a great, but a drummer who cannot keep time is almost never a good thing, and it's something that I felt held back many similar bands. Heather could keep time for sure, but she could do a lot more than that. I totally lack the technical vocabulary to describe the way Heather plays, but take a listen to the drumming on "Hiding." Heather seems to have an instinctive sense for where to place the beat to both keep the music moving and to develop tension within the song.

I saw Tiger Trap perform twice during their brief existence, and both times my focus ended up on Heather's drumming. I later saw her perform with Lois at a show in Toronto. I understand she also played drums for a re-formed version of The Raincoats.

iTunes Fraud Story in Wall Street Journal

Ben Worthen and Yukari Iwantani Kane highlight the problems iTunes users have experienced after having their accounts compromised in The Wall Street Journal's lead Tech story today.

Ben interviewed me for the story and I am quoted near the end. I talked to Ben several times as he was preparing the article and was very impressed by his intelligence and thoroughness.

You can read about my frustrating iTunes experience here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Mojo (Play It Loud)

I recently picked up Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' new album Mojo on LP. I was curious to see that unlike the Mudcrutch album and most of the other recent Warner Bros. LPs I have bought, Mojo did not come with a bonus CD. Instead it had a coupon for a free download.

What's that you say? "How dare Tom Petty only offer a crummy, lossy compressed MP3 download instead of a 'full resolution' CD?"

Not so fast there mister.

Yes, you can download lossy compressed (and dynamically compressed) 320kps MP3s, but Warners also gives you the option of downloading the album in the Apple Lossless (ALAC) format, and this gives you resolution that is identical to the commercially released CD.

Okay, I hear you now. "Oh great, so I can get the album in CD resolution, but it will still be dynamically compressed just like the commercial CD."

Just a second there Mr. Complainy Pants, I wasn't finished.

While the ALAC version is the same as the dynamically compressed CD, Warners has also made a 24 bit/48 kHz FLAC download available. The FLAC version not only features a higher bit and sampling rate than is possible with CD, it also contains the dynamically uncompressed master that was used to cut the LP (and the BluRay release). In effect, Tom Petty and Warner Bros. are allowing you to download the original album master so you can hear the music just the way the band did in the studio.

"Well that's all fine and well," you say "but why didn't they give us a higher resolution version recorded at 96 or 192 kHz?"

Okay, I have to say, you are really starting to get on my nerves, but the answer to your question is that the album was recorded (totally live in the studio) at 24 bit/48 kHz, so this is the highest resolution available (and it sounds amazing by the way).

I was able to download all three versions of the album (MP3, ALAC & FLAC). I compared the LP to the 24/48 digital files, and they sounded pretty near identical to my ears. I guess that means that my turntable is doing its job pretty well, since the LP was cut from those files. I listened to the MP3 version in my car, and it sounded very good in that environment. While the CD and MP3 versions have been dynamically compressed compared to the LP, BluRay and FLAC files, it should be pointed out that even in that state Mojo still has a large amount of dynamic range relative to other contemporary rock releases.

Of course sound quality wouldn't matter in the least if the album didn't deliver the goods musically, so the really good news is that the music on Mojo is terrific. Petty seems to have been energized by the Mudcrutch reunion, and Mojo was recorded completely live in the studio just as Mudcrutch's "debut" was. The songs lean heavily on the blues, and one track sounds just like prime Led Zeppelin (albeit with Petty, not Plant on vocals). I don't want to give a blow-by-blow account of the album, so suffice to say if you are a fan of Tom Petty, I doubt Mojo will disappoint you. If you are not a fan of Tom Petty, Mojo probably won't be the album to win you over either (for that, go pick up Wildflowers).

Once again, Tom Petty has put together a really nice LP package that shows that he is one of the few contemporary recording artists who both really cares about sound quality and has the clout to deliver great sounding recordings to his fans. So do I have any complaints? Just one. I wish Warner had made the hi-rez, uncompressed FLAC files available to those who purchase the CD as well so they can hear what they are missing out on.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Public Image Ltd. "album"

I've updated Public Image Ltd.'s 1986 album artwork especially for your iPod or other portable player. This seems appropriate since the collection of songs known as "album" on LP, "cassette" on cassette, or "compact disc" on CD is currently available as an mp3 download, but appears to be out-of-print on CD. Rhino recently reissued album on LP and did quite a nice job of it to my ears. Elektra's vinyl tended to be quite noisy toward the end of the LP era, so it is good to finally have a really nice sounding copy of this on LP.

I think this is the only album I own that features Steve Vai on guitar, and I still find it really weird that Lydon played with Ginger Baker, considering that in 1981 NME published an "April fool" announcement that Baker had joined PiL. Despite the strange (one could argue inappropriate) cast of musicians producer Bill Laswell chose to surround Lydon, album holds up. No, it's not as adventurous as Metal Box or Flowers Of Romance, but it is a strong set of songs and nice time capsule of the sound of "alternative rock" circa 1986.

Of course it's well known that John Lydon nicked the concept of a "generic" album from Flipper, whose 1982 debut was called Generic Flipper (or possibly Album or Album Generic Flipper).

Anyway, while Flipper obviously did it first, it should be pointed out that from a design and conceptual standpoint, Lydon did it better. And Flipper did get some measure of revenge by titling a later release Public Flipper Ltd.