I spent one wearying day wandering the halls of the illustrious Venetian Resort Hotel at this year’s CES, weaving through the sounds of all the esoteric audio demos, oohing and ahhing over oodles of gear I’ll never be able to afford. At the end of it all, though, I found myself idling down a hallway, looking for one more suite worth visiting before calling it a day, when my ears perked up at the sound of the thunderous drum bursts and orchestra hit from the intro to Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Following the sounds and ignoring the signs above each suite, I was surprised to find myself back in GoldenEar Technology’s demo room for the second time that day, where a surprised Jack Shafton squinted at me and asked, “Didn’t we see you already?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t expect to hear anyone playing 90125 on this floor,” I said. “I was intrigued.”
Jack let out a mischievous chuckle and said, “We call this the ‘Diana Krall-Free Zone.’”
And if you’ve ever spent much time listening to speaker demos, you know exactly what he was talking about. We’re supposed to be in the business of selling fun, not sleep aids, and yet most showoff sessions are accompanied by the most boring, inoffensive cuts of music known to man or Wookiee. If you’ve ever sat an audience down and subjected them to Livingston Taylor’s cover of “Isn’t She Lovely” for the eleventy-third time, I’m pointing my finger directly at you. Don’t be that guy. For goodness’ sake, bring a little fun back to speaker demos. Granted, you might put Diana Krall out of business, but the business you save may be your own.
Heather Christian & The Arbornauts: Cabinets (FLAC download)
Best Track: “Centuries, Centuries”
If you ever wondered what the Psalmist meant by that whole “joyful noise” thing, cue up the penultimate track from this high-res download and get ready to have your hair blown back.Here’s a bit of ammunition to use against anyone that complains about how much popular music sucks these days. Heather Christian and her oddly named band come across as the laid-back lovechild of Joanna Newsom and Ben Folds Five, with heavy emphasis on rocking piano and a voice unlike anything you’ve ever heard. The real kicker, though, is that the album is beautifully recorded in a way that pop so rarely is. If you’ve ever wondered what the Psalmist meant by that whole “joyful noise” thing, cue up the penultimate track from this high-res download and get ready to have your hair blown back (incidentally, the album is also available in pretty much every other digital download format at heatherchristian.com, as well as a limited edition compact disc that comes in a hand-crafted cover). “Centuries, Centuries” starts with a staccato drum rat-a-tat that evokes a peppier, more scaled-back version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll,” then adds in two bars of Christian’s infectious kitty-cat howl before pouring on a full-on rocking jam that smells like it simmered in a Louisiana Crock-Pot for a few days before finally blowing the lid. Bring your best gear for this one, because by the time it all boils over, the song is packed with so much drumming, clapping, finger snapping, bass loping, and dueling guitar sliding that Christian’s inimitable voice gets doubled up and shoved to the extremities of the mix. If you can keep your listeners from dancing around the room, though, they’ll almost certainly want to buy whatever speakers can contain it all.
Josh Groban: Awake Live (Blu-ray)
Best Track: “Kashmir”
On this recording check out violinist Lucia Micarelli, who tears through an instrumental cover of Led Zep’s “Kashmir” with the help of the equally
smoking hot Vanessa Freebairn-Smith on cello.Never in a million years would I have thought I’d find myself typing “Josh Groban” and “fun” on the same page, unless closely separated by the word “not.” Unsurprisingly, Groban doesn’t appear at all on the best track from this concert Blu-ray. Instead it serves as a solo for violinist Lucia Micarelli, who tears through an instrumental cover of Led Zep’s “Kashmir” with the help of the equally smoking hot Vanessa Freebairn-Smith on cello. You can skip the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this one, since it really only muddies up the mix. But make no mistake, even in stereo, there’s nothing subtle about the absolute air assault of Micarelli’s violin tearing through the room and dragging flash-fried oxygen behind it while Freebairn-Smith’s chugga-chug cello rocks along in the background. It’s loud. It’s bombastic. It’s absolute rock and roll. Hell, it’s the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. But man, is it a hoot.
Thao & Mirah: Thao & Mirah (CD)
Best Track: “Hallelujah”
While it may not be the most fun or energetic cut
from the CD, “Hallelujah” is a gorgeous indie folk-pop recording that’s guaranteed to make your speakers shine.I know fully half of you are probably calling shenanigans right now. Yet another cover of Leonard Cohen’s song about fourths and fifths and major lifts? Actually, no, this is an all-new composition from the first album by laid-back songstress Mirah and the ever-manic Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down fame. And while it may not be the most fun or energetic cut from the CD (that honor goes to “Likeable Man”), it’s a gorgeous indie folk-pop recording that’s guaranteed to make your speakers shine without boring your listeners completely to death. The track starts with a lovely finger-picked acoustic guitar duet that absolutely oozes with midrange lusciousness, high-end sparkle, and a delicious stereo mix that thrusts the instruments out into the room in coy defiance of your preferred speaker placement. Then, just before Mirah’s dulcet voice saunters in to dominate the space like some silky smooth celestial something-or-other, the perky plucking of the guitars is punctuated by the sounds of fingers scraping across the strings. It’s the sort of artifact one usually chalks up to a booboo, with entire videos and articles on the interwebs dedicated to avoiding such sliding, scraping sounds. Here, though, it’s used to full effect as an instrument in and of itself–a slippery, stinging sort of percussion that’s pushed to the forefront of the mix and shouldn’t work. Yet it does. It adds such an interesting texture to the recording that your listeners will still be wide awake when Thao’s breathy, chanting huffs kick in late in the song to add yet another interesting texture to an already dense and intriguing mix.
Brian Bromberg: Jaco (CD)
Best Track: “Slang”
Bromberg’s riff on Jaco’s signature bass solo“Slang” is such a rip-roaringly fabulous speaker demo that it’s worth the purchase price of the otherwise snoozeinducing disc.Granted, you might have some listeners who absolutely poopoo pop music and whatever sort of noise it is that Josh Groban makes. If you’ve got a jazz crowd, though, there’s no need to yank out the same old tired audiophile recordings we’ve heard a million times, or the weird one-offs that absolutely no one would ever listen to. Oddly enough, 90.9 percent of this tribute to Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius falls into those categories exactly. But one track in particular–Bromberg’s riff on Jaco’s signature bass solo, “Slang”–is such a rip-roaringly fabulous speaker demo that it’s worth the purchase price of the otherwise snooze-inducing disc. The track is all bass from top to bottom, and by that I don’t mean that its frequency range maxes out at middle C. In fact, tonally speaking, it’s all over the map, running the gamut from deep, gut-punching bellows to poppy high-frequency zings, all of which dance around one another, trying to avoid each other’s toes, like a mash-up of Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” and Primus’ “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver.” All of that melodious cacophony is cobbled together out of a fretted and fretless bass, though, in a deft mix of slapping, plucking, and two-handed tapping that’ll have your feet tapping and your woofers and tweeters gasping for the same air. Say what you will about it, but this definitely isn’t your granddaddy’s jazz.