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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Music)

By joe, Jul 2, 2014 | |
  1. joe
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    The album that first took my interest in David Chesky's work was The Body Acoustic. A dark, Latin jazz album, the character and depth to the music captured me. The only reason it is no longer a reference for me is that David Chesky, alongside his brother Norm, has exceeded it.

    To backtrack a little, I was just getting into jazz in a big way -- the usual stuff, Davis and Coltrane. Colombia Music's studio was, like the studio used for Chesky's binaural recordings, an old church. It ended up being entirely fitting that they re-mastered Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

    Even more so that David Chesky went about re-creating Davis' In a Silent Way with the album In an Ambient Way. Unlike Davis, who recorded individual musicians and assembled the result afterwards, David Chesky goes back to the purest method: a pair of microphones. However the difference this time is that they are set up in a dummy head for binaural recording connected almost directly to an MSB ADC. Alongside David Chesky's considerable experience, the binaural recording set-up is backed up by extensive research and development. With no, mixing board, over-dubbing or other additions, they are some of the purest recordings available.

    While the recordings are great on speakers, the real magic is with high-end headphones. I have seen industry veterans caught by surprise when I demoed the tracks for them. Alongside David Chesky's ability at assembling great musicians, he has given us a series of magical albums.

    Not only are they great on high-quality headphones and IEMs, but scale as far as you can go, equipment-wise. I had the privilege of listening to these albums through a HiFiMan Shangri La with a Chord DAVE as source, and I kid you not, if you closed your eyes, it truly did sound like the instruments were actually playing outside the headphones.

Macy Gray - Stripped

Gray's Billy Holliday-inspired style is brought to the fore alongside the highly talented musicians Ari Hoenig (drums), Wallace Roney (trumpet), Russell Malone (guitar), and Daryl Johns (bass) in this relaxed jazz album.

The tracks consist of a mix of songs from her early career, such as "I Try", and covers of well known songs, including Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. It culminates with the very cheeky song "Lucy" which was written and recorded on the spot by the musicians. The whole albums shows Gray at her most gloriously raw, without the all the electronics used by studios to fix imperfections.

What is more, the rawness of the instruments reveals their individual characters in a way that adds greatly to the listening pleasure one can get from the album.  The opening notes of the cello and drums on "I Try" had me bobbing my head even before Gray had sung her first notes. With a simple arrangement, the musicians carry Gray's vocals wonderfully as they float and echo off the surrounding hall. You can easily hear her voice move slightly as her body gets into the music while she is singing, while all the fine details of the way the players use their instruments come through.

John McEuen - Made in Brooklyn

The old-school pure nature of the binaural recordings reminds me of a question I have often pondered, which is how players from earlier last century would sound if they were recorded today, with modern technology. The answer came in an unexpected form in this album.

One of the things that had allowed an appreciation of jazz music to grow in me was buying a system and headphones with greater resolution than I had experienced before. Likewise, while roots and bluegrass music is not my thing, John McEuen's assemblage of a group of great musicians, along with David Chesky's recording skill has allowed me to appreciate the music in a way that I couldn't have previously.

The first few songs are standard fare. Steve Martin, for example, takes up his banjo for Warren Zevon's "My Dirty Life and Times" to deliver a track that conjures up images of a country dance. From there on the music takes turns into different directions. "Miner's Night Out" imagines what music might have been played around the gold camps of Colorado during the 1880's gold and silver rushes with hints of Irish, Celtic, folk and classical. Warren Zevon's darkly humourous and gruesome "Excitable Boy" stands out with its disturbing lyrics.

My Favourite Dream was dug up from Del Bryant's collection of his father's demos and had never been recorded. Matt Cartsonis and John McEuen selecting it as what could have been a possible 1940's era standard. The song is split into two parts: An instrumental intro and the main song, the latter of which sounds very much of the era in which it was written and is a fascinating window into the past.

John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash) also adds to the album singing his father's song "I still Miss Someone" alongside with his wife Ana.

This gives us an album with such a variety of music, offering much to fans of bluegrass and folk music.

Alexis Cole - Dazzling Blue
By Amos Barnett (Currawong)

While Paul Simon is most well-known for his Graceland album, as well his work as part of the duo, Simon & Garfunkel, there is a large body of his work less well-known, from which Chesky and Cole selected to record. The title track is the most recent, from his 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What, and is the most pop-sounding. However what captured me the most was Cole's gentle, yet focussed singing of the more emotional tracks, combined with carefully blended backing vocals.

From the 1973 "St. Judy's Comet" and "Something so Right" to the story of a bride running away just before her wedding in "Another Galaxy", from the fast beat of "Everything about It Is A Love Song" captivating opening percussion of "Love" to the closing, yet intense "Quiet", Chesky's selection of musicians express a depth in Paul Simon's tracks down to each individual note.

C.C. Coletti - Bring It On Home
By Amos Barnett (Currawong)

This was an album I entirely expected not to like. To say that I was not thrilled by the idea of a Led Zeppelin cover, especially by a singer I had not heard of before was an understatement.

However this wasn't just any cover, but a concerted effort by C.C. Coletti, who is most well-known for her work with Meatloaf. Though 2 years of experimentation, she worked to bring Led Zeppelin's music back to its blues origins. Like the other albums, no mixing board or other complex equipment is used, and C. C. Coletti's voice, as well the guitar, banjo and other instruments are gloriously raw. Along with the sheer talent of the musicians, this album becomes a spectacular tribute to one of the world's most famous rock bands.

With just a guitar, harmonica alongside Coletti, "When The Levee Breaks" comes through with a strong intensity as the notes bounce around the church. I often use "You Shook Me" to surprise industry veterans with the capability of their own products, the opening notes only giving the slightest hint as to what is coming through with the dynamic range of the recording, as notes, and then the whole tracks jumps out at you.

Chesky Records's 30th Anniversary Collection: Complete Set (1986-2016)
By Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

Spending any appreciable amount of time on Head-Fi - or any other audio, hi-fi or music oriented site for that matter - one simply cannot avoid the Chesky name, it stands as a hallmark that represents a musical, performance, recording, and engineering excellence that spans decades.

And yet, that longevity and breadth of work can be rather daunting to peer into if you are a newcomer to Chesky Records. With well over 200 albums available (213 at last count), acquiring a significant Chesky collection is tantamount to a sizable investment, and even sampling that many albums is a non-trivial amount of time spent.

Fortunately for us, Chesky Records has just released a meticulously-curated compendium with their 30th Anniversary Collection, a four-volume set that contains six dozen tracks from their most well-regarded recordings over the past three decades (1986-2016). Featuring works by C.C. Coletti, Rebecca Pidgeon, Marta Gomez, Wycliffe Gordon, Macy Gray, Sara K., Amber Rubarth, Livingston Taylor, Noah Wall, and dozens of other remarkably talented artists, this new 30th Anniversary Collection is virtually a "greatest hits" assemblage of Chesky recordings.

So if you've never known where to jump into their vast catalog, or have only acquired a smattering of Chesky albums on occasion, this collection is a wonderful place to dive headlong into the pool after having only dipped your toes in the shallow end for years.

Yosi Horikawa - Wandering EP
By Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

Relatively few people have heard of Yosi Horikawa, or heard his work, as he self- releases via Bandcamp, which limits his promotional capability. But if you were to ask fans who have experienced his compositions, they will enthusiastically attest to his creativity and resourcefulness.

Yosi Horikawa fills his days working as a sound designer (with an emphasis on found sounds), composer, and producer - and has developed a reputation for creating music that is unconventional and fresh, yet instantly appealing and infectious. To label it as ear candy would not be too far off the mark, and his four-track Wandering EP reflects that appellation perfectly.

The lead track "Bubbles" cleverly employs a rainfall of ping pong balls amidst a relaxing and melodic backdrop. It's also incredibly spacious sounding, which makes it ideally suited to headphone listening. And the amalgam of the two is the stuff that personal audio eargasms are made of.

You can sample it on YouTube before you buy it... but at a cheap and cheerful £2.50 (around $3 USD), you'll probably want to go ahead and pick up the entire album in short order. Wandering is available as a lossless download, in both .wav and .flac formats, as is Horikawa's entire five-album discography, which is available for only £9.75 (around $12 USD).

The Smiths - Complete
By Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

As a music lover, one of the very best things about getting older is finding a wealth of "greatest hits" compilations that chronicle our favorite artists of yesteryear.

Done right, such a collection will include every song that we've come to love, as well as a decent number of songs that we, frankly, don't love. And if we're lucky, each of those songs will have been re-mastered, without having been brickwalled into oblivion, a casualty of the Loudness Wars. And if we're really lucky, each of those tracks will have been culled from the original masters, before being re-engineered by the artists themselves. Well, as luck would have it, that's what we've got with The Smiths's Complete.

While five other Smiths compilations have come before it, Complete it is by far the most exhaustive and ambitious re-packaging of their discography to date, containing well over a hundred tracks that were re-mastered by Frank Arkwright and Johnny Marr at Metropolis Studios in London. It is, in a word, massive!

To get an idea of how ginormous Complete is, I would invite my fellow Smiths fans to consider some of their favorites: "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours", "Ask", "Asleep", "Back to the Old House", "Bigmouth Strikes Again", "Cemetery Gates", "Frankly, Mr. Shankly", "Girl Afraid", "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Golden Lights", "Half a Person", "Hand in Glove", "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", "How Soon Is Now?", "I Don't Owe You Anything", "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me", "Miserable Lie", "Nowhere Fast", "Oscillate Wildly", "Panic", "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want", "Reel Around the Fountain", "Rubber Ring", "Sheila Take a Bow", "Shoplifters of the World Unite", "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others", "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before", "Stretch Out and Wait", "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore", "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side", "The Headmaster Ritual", "The Queen Is Dead", "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out", "This Charming Man", "This Night Has Opened My Eyes", "Unloveable", "Well I Wonder", "What Difference Does It Make?", "William, It Was Really Nothing", and "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby". With all of that in mind, now consider that the above represents only 40 of the 111 tracks that Complete has to offer. Like I said, massive.

Then, hidden amongst all those singles, alternate versions, live versions, and John Peel sessions, there is the long lost studio version of "The Draize Train". Recorded and mastered to perfection, this vigorous instrumental is utterly brilliant with headphones. In fact, it has served me well and true as an excellent track for critical listening since Complete was released in 2011.

Now before my fellow Smiths fans come at me with verbal pitchforks, I'd like to point out that - technically speaking - Complete isn't. A handful of tracks have been omitted... strewn amidst the broken cobwebs and blanketing sawdust that litter the cutting room floor of Marr's memory. That said, as fanatical as I was about The Smiths, I don't really miss those tracks. I can't speak for my fellow fans, but let me put it this way... if this collection isn't complete enough for you, chances are that you own enough of their albums, bootlegs, singles and B-sides such that Complete doesn't interest you in the slightest.

For the rest of us, Complete certainly qualifies as a definitive treasury of The Smiths's body of work. And unless Morrisey and Marr can bring themselves together for a reunion - one that I'll not hold my breath for - Complete is as good as it's ever going to get.

Petteri Sariola - Through The Eyes Of Others
By Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

A few years ago, and perhaps somewhat inspired by Daft Punk's move back into the acoustic with Random Access Memories, I began my own rediscovery of music that focused more on vocals and instruments rather than samples, algorithms, and effects.

And while most music falls into this category, at the extreme I came across two subgenres that exemplify musicianship more than most: collegiate A cappella; and the one-man band. Setting aside A cappella for now, let's delve into the curious world of one-man, or one-person, bands.

I know what you're thinking - I can sense you rolling your eyes across the differences in space and time between us.

Visions of Vaudeville acts with oddly costumed men, sporting equally odd mustaches, are filling your mind right now... as you picture them flailing about a Rube-Goldberg-like apparatus of instruments strapped around their bodies. Some of you might even be picturing a wind-up toy monkey or two, cymbals in hand, meandering about like primitive Roombas.

Believe me, I can understand the hilarity of what you're envisioning.

But then you see this:

That's Petteri Sariola, and only Petteri Sariola. Aside from his guitar, enhanced with a bank of effects and processing pedals, that's all there is. There are no loops, no backing tracks, no other musicians, and of course no monkeys. It's an astonishing spectacle.

Given that Sariola needs to be seen to be believed, it shouldn't come as surprise that he tours heavily as a performance artist, which has resulted in less time for recording. To date, he has released only three studio albums, with Through The Eyes Of Others being his third and most recent. And as the title implies, it's a collection of covers... though I must admit, they are rather interesting takes on the originals.

You've already heard his light-hearted cover of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" from the video above. From there, Sariola offers us a rollicking and frenetic rendition of Oasis's "Wonderwall", a Persian-influenced translation of Ravel's "Bolero", a Bluesier (or less ballad-like) version of The Commodores's "Easy", and possibly the most novel rendition of Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" that I've come across in quite some time.

With fourteen tracks in all, covering original works from a wide range of artists (and from many a genre), Through The Eyes Of Others seems to offer something for everybody, including a track for Anime aficionados who might enjoy Sariola's take on "Princess Mononoke" (main theme). And while we wouldn't necessarily consider it avant grade or sophisticated, Through The Eyes Of Others is nonetheless quite entertaining, providing us with a fresh and unconventional listening experience.

NOTE: If you'd like to explore even more one-person "bands" in the same vein as Petteri Sariola, check out his US label, CANdYRAT Records. They specialize in solo artists that can do more with less, like Luca Stricagnoli, who has a fantastic cover of AC-DC's Thunderstruck.

The 1975 - i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
By Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

We audiophiles can be a rather pompous lot at times. For example, it seems that a great many of us listen exclusively to Classical and Jazz recordings in quad-DSD, far in excess of what market data would tend to suggest.

Oh well, I suppose it comes with the territory. We're expected to be exceedingly discerning in all things related to audio and music. And so we try to live up to those expectations, even if only in our own minds. That being the case, it follows that none of us should ever listen to the faux pas known as pop music, right? Right?

Here's the thing: I happen to have empirical evidence that a great many of you do, in fact, indulge in pop music - rather liberally I might add, if not furtively - away from the glaring lights of judgment from your audiophile peers. I won't name names, but a staggering number of you revel in the music of Taylor Swift like giddy schoolgirls. Y'all know who you are, don't make me out you. For those of you that still doubt, feel free to contact HDtracks, and inquire as to how well Taylor Swift's 1989 album is selling over there. Like Taylor Swift herself, it's got some legs.

Having said all that, I'd like to submit that pop music is not a betrayal of our audiophile sensibilities, as evidenced clearly - if not clandestinely - by our own listening habits. There is absolutely nothing wrong with well-crafted and well-produced pop music.

So let us all set aside our pretentions for a just a moment. Trust me, you'll be glad that you did, because The 1975's i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is a splendid and deeply satisfying pop album, and the only prerequisite to enjoying the **** out of it is an open mind.

The 1975

Matthew Healy, Ross MacDonald, Adam Hann and George Daniel formed the band that would become The 1975 while still in high school, back in 2002. A half-dozen names and nearly a dozen years later, they released their debut LP, the self-titled The 1975, garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success.

With their sophomore LP, i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, The 1975 has defied the odds and accomplished something that is becoming increasingly rare these days - they've outshone and outclassed their unexpectedly good debut LP. And in doing so, they've surpassed my expectations quite effortlessly. Yes, this sequel is better than the original.

So what is the secret of their success?

Like any other flourishing band, they've managed to arrive at the confluence of talent, hard work and luck. There's certainly that to consider. But if I had to put my finger on a single crucial factor... something unique to The 1975... I'd say their uncanny ability to channel the musical styles of the Eighties - without being trite or resorting to base mimicry - gives them an edge where others have struggled. Exactly how well are they in-tune with the Eighties? Very.

Love Me

Though it's not my favorite cut from the album, "Love Me" is i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it's lead-off single for good reason. It firmly and unabashedly sets the tone for the rest of the album: we're taking a trip back to the Eighties and there's not a damned thing you can do about it - so just sit back and enjoy the ride. "Love Me" seamlessly mashes-up equal parts of Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran, and Peter Gabriel so felicitously that it almost summarizes the bulk of early Eighties radio airplay in less than five minutes.

A Change of Heart

Calming and reflective, "A Change of Heart" is a straightforward electropop ballad crafted in the best traditions of Yazoo, Erasure, OMD and The Listening Pool. Simply put, it's early Eighties comfort music, featuring a sparse melody amidst layered synth work that is reminiscent of Level 42. Top that off with solid production sensibilities worthy of Phil Oakey, and the illusion is now complete: we're having a mini chillax session back in 1982.

As we journey into the heart of i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, there is a brief respite from this epic homage to the Eighties. Suddenly, like Richard Collier discovering an ill-placed penny, we are thrown back into the present. But it is here that we find some of the very best tracks that this album has to offer.

Somebody Else

Poignantly and disturbingly, "Somebody Else" chronicles the denial, confusion, shock and helplessness of being dumped - not just dumped actually, but having been left behind and cast aside for somebody else. The reverberant production of this track, combined with the conflicted vocals, craft a visceral sense of loss and emptiness... exquisitely depicting not only a tumultuous break-up, but the inevitable mental and emotional breakdown that follows. If you've recently had your heart broken, you'll want to be careful here. While the melody is soulful and seductive, the lyrics are like a scab over a massive heart wound... just waiting to be picked at... leaving you helpless and bleeding out... thus completing the string of injury metaphors.

And then we happen upon the album's title track.

i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

For the record, I've traditionally found title tracks to be rather disappointing. Quite often, they're less-than-impressive compositions, containing some kind of hidden meaning that is known only to the artists themselves... some kind of secret that we can't decipher, and thus don't care about at all. In short, title tracks tend to suck something awful.

But with "i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it" that is certainly not the case at all. Instead, we're greeted by a harmonious coterie of sounds that have gathered together for a celebration - a grand knitting party - where they've weaved themselves into a vibrant sonic tapestry. It is, in a word, gorgeous.

Over the course of six and a half minutes, "i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it" takes us on a journey that is not unlike a night's worth of dreams, where the scenes are constantly changing and folding upon themselves. And perhaps that's exactly what this is... one's imagining of another's dreams while they're sleeping... a guess at the delightful visions that must lay within, while gazing upon the beauty that is without. Whatever the case may be, "i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it" is by far my favorite track from i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.

The Sound

Slipping back into the Eighties, "The Sound" is i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it's resident dance anthem. This recipe begins with equal parts of Kool & The Gang and Lionel Richie, blended with a four-to-the-floor beat that is energetic but not overdone. It's then spiked with liberal doses of both Talking Heads and The Tubes to give it some fun, flavor and whimsy. And finally, it's finished off with a pinch of Madness, a dash of Wang Chung, and a splash of Simple Minds. The result may not be the most complex song you've ever heard, compositionally-speaking. And in fact, the video for "The Sound" is a self-deprecating riot that alludes to it being somewhat of a cliche. But as a get-up-and-go dance anthem, it's immediately infectious and instantly energizing.


Generously arpeggiated and blissfully simple, "Paris" harkens us back to 1981, when a Humphreys-era OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) was busy cementing itself as a cornerstone of New Wave, churning out curiously-addictive synthpop arrangements that kept us captivated for years. Lyrically speaking, "Paris" is a bit of a downer as it deals with drugs, dysfunction, and the disappointment that they entail. But melodically, its buoyancy and lightheartedness glosses over the despair and futility within. So spot-on is this homage to OMD, that if John Hughes were still making movies today - movies that would necessarily be grittier and more raw as befitting the times - "Paris" would easily find itself on one of those soundtracks.

Charming from start to finish...

At 17 tracks and 74 minutes in length, there is simply too much to exhaustively cover here. To get a better sense of how beguiling an album this is, you'll simply have to give it a listen for yourself. I'm certainly glad that I did, because I can't remember the last time that I enjoyed a contemporary pop album - from start to finish - as much as I enjoyed this one.

And if you happen to be a child of the Eighties, as I am, then you simply can't afford to pass this up. For us, i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it offers us something truly remarkable. Instead of being a nostalgic trip down memory lane, it's actually a time machine that brings the Eighties forward to the present, in a way that is both familiar and fresh. And in doing so, The 1975 has managed to pull off a pretty neat trick: they've made us feel young again.

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