Music and Recording Features

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Jim Austin  |  Jun 19, 2018  |  44 comments
Photos: Jim Austin

I'm sitting in a rented Nissan just off Highway 61—yes, that Highway 61—looking out at a Shell station through the bug-stained windshield and across a litter-strewn, not-yet-planted cotton field. It's late March, and I've just left Clarksdale, Mississippi, on my way to Memphis. Leaving Clarksdale made me thoughtful, so I've pulled over to jot down a few notes.

Robert Baird  |  May 29, 2018  |  10 comments
Notoriously opinionated and obstinate Steve Albini, a guy ever vigilant and vocal about the wicked ways of the music business, showing up in Austin, Texas, at the annual South by Southwest festival? This I had to see. After a near-miss at his Austin hotel, we spoke the next morning on the phone.

"It was unspeakable on all levels, as bad as I imagined, and in some ways worse."

Any notion that he'd somehow softened, somehow accepted the music biz as it—

Wait. What the hell am I thinking?

Robert Baird  |  May 08, 2018  |  1 comments
Saturday night in hipster Brooklyn . . . yet there could have been actual sawdust on the floor. Inside National Sawdust, a youngish crowd, many clearly ready to party, were shuffling, some were full-blown jitterbugging, while onstage the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a progressive young Cajun band who'd at first seemed a bit awed by their futuristic surroundings, were slugging beers, sawing a fiddle, squeezing an accordion, and generally finding their groove.
Sasha Matson  |  Apr 09, 2018  |  8 comments
There I was, at my son Peter's thirtieth birthday party at Black Flamingo in Brooklyn, staring at a large. floorstanding speaker cabinet. Then it hit me—young people are gathering in groups to listen and dance to high-quality music playback. Just like we used to do!
Robert Baird  |  Mar 27, 2018  |  14 comments
The loudness wars are over. The valiant but hopelessly outnumbered forces that stood against squashing the dynamics and life out of recordings, all in the name of almighty loudness, have been vanquished. Scattered across the smoking battlefield are the lifeless bodies of thousands of disappointed listeners, many so young they will never now know what it's like to hear a natural, uncompressed recording.
Robert Baird  |  Mar 06, 2018  |  4 comments
In her wild ride of a memoir, A Woman Like Me (2012), eclectic soul and R&B singer Bettye LaVette spoke of being hung over a 20th-floor balcony of a Manhattan skyscraper by her pimp boyfriend. She revealed that she'd slept with Ben E. King and Otis Redding, and had even spent a minute dabbling in prostitution. She had dropped acid with George Clinton. Finally, she had her moment of satisfaction when she delivered a knockout performance of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. In the audience, all agog, were Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand, and Aretha Franklin, all more successful than she.
David Lander  |  Feb 27, 2018  |  0 comments
Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan
By Elaine M. Hayes. 419 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017. Hardbound: $27.99. Available in eBook and digital audiobook formats.

This is the second biography of Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990), whose towering vocal talents took her to the top rung of the jazz ladder, beside Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The author, trained as a classical musician, puts far more emphasis on the singer's recordings than Leslie Gourse did in Sassy, her 1993 Vaughan biography. Hayes's grasp of music, and her definitions of the musical terms she uses, make this the better account.

Robert Baird  |  Jan 04, 2018  |  1 comments
Is classical music really on the ropes? Living in New York City, it's easy to think that is a myth cooked up in the provinces.

Recently, at a performance of the Metropolitan Opera's fabulous current production of Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, directed by Bartlett Sher, I experienced Classical Music 2017 up close and personal. In the audience, multicolored sequined jackets and cheetah-print slip-on sneakers mixed with tuxedos. Merrell hiking shoes and Patagonia down jackets crossed with slim-fit outfits from Billy Reid and Hermes bags. Between bravura tenor Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and soprano Erin Morley's absolutely wonderful portrayal of the doll, Olympia (Bravo!!!), it was a performance for the ages. None of the recordings I've heard come close.

Robert Baird  |  Dec 07, 2017  |  8 comments
While it hasn't always made money or hit records, the music business has never been short on ideas. Most are nonsense, but every once in a while—the gramophone, onstage monitors, Les Paul's overdubbing—the biz comes up with a winner.

Many of the craziest ideas I've heard in 30 years of writing about music have been expounded on at the South by Southwest Music Festival, held each year in Austin, Texas. At SXSW, hope springs eternal. Secrets are whispered. Buzz bands gain momentum. Rumors ripple through crowds. Everyone has visions of morphing into a mogul. There's an intoxicating energy to it all.

Robert Baird  |  Oct 24, 2017  |  12 comments
While it may elicit shakes of the head, nasty, distasteful looks, or vociferous yawps about its being nothing more than a load of warmed-over psychedelic pandering, the time may have come to listen again to Their Satanic Majesties Request, the much-maligned 1967 album by the Rolling Stones—and perhaps think of it in a slightly more humane light. Few records from that or any other era have been as widely savaged. It's easy to make the argument that any record with such a pretentious title deserves to be ridiculed. The music itself is scattered and feels unfinished in spots. Then there's that cover image.
Robert Baird  |  Oct 05, 2017  |  0 comments
Seeing your album in a record store's cutout bin meant one thing. Despite the label execs' wide smiles, warm handshakes, and earnest promises to the contrary, once the record jacket had a hole punched in it, or its corner clipped, it meant your record label had lost faith and moved on.

Record collectors felt differently. The prices of cutouts were right—usually, from 99õ to a penny under two bucks. And cutouts were better than digging through crates because the records were still sealed . . . even if the jackets were a bit mangled. The beauty of cutouts was that they were so cheap, you could afford to be lavish, and go home with anything that caught your fancy.

Robert Baird  |  Aug 31, 2017  |  3 comments
Long ago, I stopped associating Act II of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with dancing. Now, every time I hear it, I immediately flash on broken battlements, a black cape, and Béla Lugosi's unmistakable Hungarian accent: "Listen to them—cheelllldreennn of dee night. What muuuusic they make!"

Then there were James Bernard's tense scores for the Hammer films—like Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), starring Christopher Lee—that my parents somehow let me see in a theater when I was seven, as part of an afternoon of bargain monster movies that included all the sourballs and unbuttered popcorn you could wolf down. Scared to death, my life was forever changed.

Kalman Rubinson  |  Jun 29, 2017  |  7 comments
It's been going on for a while now: Despite support for multichannel in audio/video receivers and A/V processors priced from as little as $200 to $30,000, there are still very few offerings that cater to the music listener. They may offer stereo-only streaming features through their USB or Ethernet inputs, but these inputs don't see your multichannel files. To handle such files, they would require you to add a music server with HDMI output. However, I know of no turnkey music servers that will output multichannel audio via HDMI.
Robert Baird  |  Jun 27, 2017  |  2 comments
New Age. Most of it was acoustic. While there were vocals here and there, much of it featured instrumentalists playing solo or in groups. Some of it was meant to alleviate stress. Some of it was marginally connected to a similarly named movement in spirituality. Environmentalism and respect for nature were constant themes. Some New Age artists created moody, ambient sounds that were intended as background music, to promote healing and relaxation.
Robert Baird  |  May 30, 2017  |  1 comments
For fans, of course, he's never been gone, not even for a minute. A jazz pianist who played from the heart and spent a tumultuous life fighting his demons while searching, as singer Tony Bennett has often said, "for truth and beauty," Bill Evans is now the subject of four previously unheard, recently released titles, on LPs, CDs, and downloads, of live recordings of his music. There's also, from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, a new and superlative One-Step Process vinyl reissue of his classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Finally, there's a wonderful new documentary, Bill Evans: Time Remembered, a labor of love by a fan and titled for one of Evans's best-loved tunes. And, unlikely as it sounds, the demand for Evans's music is still strong enough to inspire a controversy over rights and clearances, 37 years after his death, in 1980, at the age of 51.

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