Saturday, March 29, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Zombies

Varèse Sarabande will reissue two LPs by one of my favorite British Invasion bands, The Zombies, this Record Store Day. The first, I Love You, is a compilation LP that was originally issued only in Europe and Japan and earns its first U.S. release this Record Store Day. Most interestingly, it will be issued in mono. Personally, I tend to prefer mono mixes from this era as stereo mixing was still largely a hit or miss affair for pop music in those days. The second release is a stereo reissue of their final LP, Odessey And Oracle. I rarely see copies of this much beloved title on vinyl, so this is sure to be a popular choice. 

Varèse Sarabande has a good reputation with its Record Store Day vinyl, and if the quoted prices I'm seeing at sites like Bull Moose Music are accurate, these also look to be relatively affordable. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: Mudhoney - On Top!

This is one Record Store Day release that I can guarantee you I am going to get by any means necessary, up to (and possibly including) felony offenses. Back in July Mudhoney played live on top of the Seattle's famed Space Needle to celebrate legendary indie-label Sub-Pop's 25th anniversary. KEXP recorded it, and now Sub-Pop is making the audio available via a limited edition LP.

You may have questions about this release: "Was the LP cut from an analog source? Did the mastering engineer maintain a 100% pure analog signal throughout the cutting process? Is the LP pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl?" Fortunately, I have an answer for all those questions and more: "Shut up! This is Mudhoney. Live. On the Space Needle. Buy it!"

Mudhoney live on the Space Needle photo by Morgen Schuler.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: OFF! - Learn To Obey

Another fantastic looking release for Record Store Day 2014, hardcore punk rock supergroup OFF! teams up with artist Shepard Fairey for a limited edition 7"single, "Learn To Obey." More than just a case of an artist providing cover art for a release, the artwork and music are said to be "thematically intertwined influenced by one another."

Record Store Day 2014: Grant Hart - Every Everything

Here's another Record Store Day release that caught my eye, it's a DVD/LP package that includes the documentary Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gorman Bechard, along with a solo career spanning compilation LP entitled Some Something that includes several rare and unreleased tracks.
Vinyl and DVD packaged together exclusively for RSD. The DVD is a brand new, bold documentary of Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart soberly analyzing the 1980s while rummaging around in its soul. It all comes out with rare archival and new footage, told by an articulate, alienated and ill-tempered chronicler. The vinyl includes a collection of Grant's finest, with several rare and unreleased tracks. 
TRACK LISTING: Now That You Know Me, Roller Rink, Wheels, California Zephyr, Ballad #19, Charles Hollis Jones, Khalid, Little Nemo, Nobody Rides For Free.
Despite his sporadic (but brilliant) solo output, Hart remains a singularly fascinating and important figure in the rock music world. Bechard received excellent notices for his previous film Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about the Replacements that notably lacked any interviews with (or even footage of) the band. By contrast, it sounds like Every Everything gets up close and personal with its subject (perhaps too close for comfort sometimes). It nevertheless sounds fascinating, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Additionally, Rhino will reissue Hüsker Dü's major label debut, Candy Apple Grey, on grey vinyl. I'm not sure I need to replace my 80s vintage vinyl of this title, but it's essential listening for anyone interested in the way what is known as "alternative rock" sprung from the 80s hardcore punk rock movement. For that matter, it's essential to anyone who enjoys loud, melodic music made by a group of brilliant, iconoclastic and influential artists.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Everly Brothers

Record Store Day is just under a month away and I wanted to share what I think look like some of the more interesting upcoming releases. Two of the first things that struck my eye were these Everly Brothers reissues, 1958's Songs Our Daddy Taught Us from Varese Sarabande, and 1968's Roots from Rhino. 

These are two thematically similar records in which brothers Phil and Don explore their influences, recorded ten years apart at opposite ends of their career together (Roots was in fact the final Everly Brothers album). These albums were "roots" music long before anybody else understood we needed such a thing. These albums are a timely reminder of how great, and simultaneously forward and backward looking, the Everly's could be.

I don't know if the two labels coordinated these releases, but they are perfect counterparts to one another, and an excellent place to start an Everly Brothers collection after moving on from greatest hits collections. Both Rhino and Varese Sarabande have excellent reputations when it comes to pressing vinyl, so these are both heartily recommended. 

The full list of Record Store Day releases is available here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Will PonoMusic Really Sound That Much Better?

I pulled this image from PonoMusic's (Neil Young's long gestating digital music service) kickstarter page. It appears to compare the difference in sound quality between various digital music options, from lossy compressed downloads and streaming music to 192kHz/24bit PCM digital files.

It sure looks like the files Pono's music store will offer are going to sound a lot better than what we're used to. Young describes the difference between ordinary digital files and hi-rez digital files as "surprising and dramatic," he claims they will restore the "soul" to digital music files. From Pono's FAQ:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We're even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They're amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul. 
Unfortunately, the above chart is more than a little misleading. There's no tidy way to show subjective differences in sound quality (i.e. what we actually hear as a music listener). What this chart actually shows is closer to the difference in file size between various digital music options.

There is really no argument that 192kHz/24bit music files will take up more space on your hard drive, and thus have more information in them, than CD quality (44.1kHz/16bit) files. It is likewise true that the CD quality files, even when losslessly compressed, will take up more space than MP3 or other lossy compressed files. If what you want is music files that are really large, the 192kHz/24bit FLAC files that Pono will be selling are definitely a good option.

Whether these files actually sound better than CD resolution files, or even higher bit rate encoded MP3s, is a subject of much more debate. Some listeners swear by so called "hi-rez" digital music, others say they can't hear a difference. Others go further and claim that it is not possible for humans to hear a difference between properly encoded CD quality digital and hi-rez digital, and say they have the science to back them up (I am not going to touch that one).

I never want to be in a position of telling people what they can or cannot hear, but I was curious if I could hear a difference between hi-rez digital files and CD quality files. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to do an apples to apples comparison. Comparing a CD against a hi-rez digital file that was mastered differently does not tell us anything definitive about the virtues of higher sampling rates and greater bit depth.

In order to do a fair comparison, I downloaded the "Audiophile 96kHz/24bit" AIFF version of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions from HDTracks (this corresponds to the resolution of the middle yellow block on the chart above). This is music that I love and know very well, having listened to it in various music formats since the 1970s. I then made a CD resolution copy of my favorite track from the album, "Living For The City," using a high quality resampling program. I dropped both the "hi-rez" and CD quality files into a program called "ABXer" that allows you to do blind ABX comparisons between different music files. To make a long story short, despite my best efforts, I was unable to hear a difference between the two file resolutions. My final results were 5 correct identifications and 5 misidentifications, exactly the results one would expect if the test subject was guessing (which I was).

Despite being a dedicated music lover and someone who cares deeply about the quality of recorded sound (if not an "audiophile"), I don't think Pono is for me. Either my equipment (see details in comments) or my ears are not good enough to hear the difference. I'm not personally sold on the benefits of high-resolution music files for music listeners. I'm willing to keep an open mind about that, what I'm not willing to do is re-buy a lot of music I already own on the basis of misleading charts, nebulous promises about improved sound quality, and marketing hype.