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    Vinyl review: “Ten Years On” by The New Mastersounds


    2011 - 06.04

    Where do I start with this album?  This review will probably be as much of a broad testament to my affinity for the band and recollections of concert snippets as much as a treatment of the album itself.

    Like any act that has retained my interest over an extended number of years and releases, the Mastersounds are perpetually expanding into a different direction.  Not genre-bustingly or radically, like an artist such as Beck does with each successive disc–but in their own way NMS has probed off into opposing directions while remaining within the contemporary funk vein.  Not just “rooted” in funk like so many bands who are jacks-of-all-trades-but-masters-of-none, but actually remaining IN contemporary funk, as in, this entire album, track-by-track is nothing but funk.

    The second or third time I had seen the Mastersounds I was at the Double Door club in Chicago with my good friend Vincent.  Several songs into their set, the band dropped down into a minimal groove, with Simon Allen settling into a 4-on-the-floor disco beat while the energy simmered on low heat.  Just as the lighting guy engaged the ‘tripped-out’ function, Vincent turned around with a big smile on his face and shouted “They do THIS?!”

    Ten Years on is a bit like that for me.  I remember the first time I heard the tune “The Road to Fuji Rock” was at a live performance, and after the show my buddy Bill asked me what the highlight was.  I answered ‘their new tune that sounded like a Greyboy thing’–and he knew which one I was talking about.  Ten Years On has a number of tracks that are quintessential Mastersounds style (San Frantico, Make Me Proud, Chocolate Chip) but a solid chunk of the album sounds like the band convoluting itself with another favorite act of mine, the Greyboy Allstars.

    What I mean by that is that raw, ripping vintage sound of “102%” has been largely traded in for mellower timbres here, allowing us to check out an equally soulful and virtuosic version of the band in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The compressors and the reverb have been dialed back a couple notches and thus we have an album that could be an ideal soundtrack for a leisurely drive around town on the weekend, or companion to a cold beer at 6pm on a Friday evening with no real plans for the night.  Simultaneously, it remains dance-able with plenty of get-up-n-go.  It’s that rare two-headed monster, like Thievery Corporation’s “Outernational Sound”.

    “Soulshine” is the first hint of where things are going–Simon lays down those skins with bravado while Roberts sports his new, more relaxed approach.  Pete’s bass playing jumps up high for some dashes of clever groove punctuation while remaining rocksteady down low, intertwined transparently with most of Roberts parts as he is for the majority of the time.  From here the association gets more obvious: “Flimsy”, with Joe on the Piano (as opposed to B3 or rhodes) with the whistles and the Nawlins-flavored drumming is overtly reminiscent of “Quantico, VA”.  The aforementioned ‘Fuji Rock’ calls to mind the same type of calm but persistently driving energy of “Happy Friends” from Greyboy’s classic album, A Town Called Earth.  But don’t take that to mean that Ten Years is a knock off of the so-called left-coast boogaloo, or even a consistent tribute–aside from the assertively characteristic NMS flavor on San Frantico and company as previously mentioned, there’s a whole other slew of colored-gels through which to see the band.

    That disco-beat flavor which caught Vincent off guard is in here on “Cielo”, with Roberts working his signature style backed by Tatton with a tapestry of buzzing synthesizers and what sounds like a bit of ring-modulator.  Call it electric-funk disco.  It’s only a small stretch to say NMS dishes out a bit of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s territory on this one.  I’d definitely like to hear more of whatever spawned this composition.

    The following cut “Ooom” features guest avant-sax master Skerik in a decidedly mellow idiom.  Typically I associate this guy with crazy freakouts and wildness-for-the-sake-of-wildness, but instead the Mastersounds have him playing minimal lines with overdubbed harmonies and a slow, deliberate solo, as if each phrase had been obsessively contemplated in advance.  It’s like the got him into the studio and said “okay, now you’re the man and everything… buuuuuuut we-need-you-to-be-more-like-Rob-Lowe-on-102.”  This is a Skerik I could come to love.  His airy, thoughtful delivery is a stark counterpoint to the raucous squawking, and shows his talent sans the avant-insanity, which I can live without.  A gem.

    “Dusty Groove” is a tribute to the Chicago record store which was the first outlet to carry their albums in the USA; a fact I learned through the band’s charmingly extensive between-song banter at one of their shows.  And speaking of those shows, this is one cut that slices hard and thick when thumping out of a live PA.  Roberts glides deftly through those blues-scale riffs and comps with aplomb heavy as anywhere in the catalog.  We also get a delightful taste of Tatton’s funky “ON” setting as Allen lays into his ride.  This is the Joe Tatton I love.  The first time I ever saw the Mastersounds, outdoors at Wicker Park Fest in Chicago, his keys blew me away.  A riff in his solo on their cover of “Six Underground” was my phone ringtone for over a year.

    Since then, I’ve gone back and forth about Tatton on those keys, at times complaining about his demeanor as detached and bored during the live shows, an attitude mirrored with accordingly lazy playing.  Sometimes I feel like Joe is content to simply phone-it-in on those off-nights, of which I have seen a couple.  I was bemoaning this wooden delivery in their first performance at the Bear Creek music festival last year and my friend Bill was having none of it.  In the latter performance at the same festival Tatton was the opposite beast entirely; making lots of eye contact, and getting very tenacious with his riffs.  A few bars before the conclusion of “San Frantico” he slipped in a cascading jab in the space Roberts’ melody left open, so dense and tricky that Bill and I literally both raised one eyebrow high and looked at one another for a split second with the identical expression, speechless really, before looking back to watch the ending, dumbfounded.  It was a priceless moment.  The guy’s clearly got it, at least when he wants to dish it out.  I wish he would display such ambition more often.

    That much said, previous Mastersounds albums have been, for me at least, utterly dominated by the genius of Eddie Roberts guitar playing; his tone, his mastering techniques, his clean articulation and his tasty comping.  If any one man leads the pack in today’s school of contemporary funk guitarists, it’s Eddie Roberts.  Eric Krazno may be a better soloist, and Elgin Park may have the perfect guitar tone (I think it’s that big, curly telephone-style cable he uses to connect to the amp) and Sergio Rios of Orgone may have his own unique thing going, but Eddie Roberts is the only guy who’s got it ALL: The best rhythm playing you could ask for, masterful use of gear for a signature tone, great solos, a pitch-perfect producer, and a goofy, endearing stage presence to boot.  Roberts does on the guitar what George Porter does on the bass–steals the show, even when you’re not supposed to be paying attention to him!

    Given my admiration of Roberts, Ten Years On may be the first NMS album where I’ve felt equally captivated by the creativity of what’s going on in the keyboard parts.  I refer to 102% often, as the prior high-water mark for the band, and it is.  Update: (corrections/additions after chatting with Simon!) On 102% and prior albums, keys were performed by Bob Birch, an avid collector of Hammond equipment.  A good chunk of Plug & Play was vocal-oriented, which didn’t give a lot of room for the kind of instrumental exploration and long-windedness (which is why I sign up for this stuff) like you’ll find on Ten Years.  So thusly, this is Tatton’s first outing with the group where he really get space and license to stretch things out and paint with the full palette of keys.

    A few extra noteworthy details on those keys: Plug & Play was recorded with a Nord Electro, which does sound surprisingly good, as I return to that album for another listen.  That Nord is really quite the excellent keyboard, for what it is.  Not a full B3, but admirably close!  On Ten Years, a variety of B3/leslie combinations were used.  I must say, the tone of the organ sounds great on this disc, to my ears.  The presence of the other keyboard types in here (piano/synths/& a good scoop o’ Rhodes) makes the Ten Years landscape more sonically diverse and gives the able Tatton more voices with which to tell a captivating tale.  (Only thing we’re missing is some clav.)

    A question I’m sure someone reading this has, is how does the vinyl copy sound compared to the CD?  Indeed on the back of the record jacket, it says “Vinyl mastering by Pete Norman at Finyl Tweek.”  Comparing my CD copy I bought a while back with this new vinyl version, the LP sounds brighter, more articulate.  Particularly with the organ, I hear more subtle details of the B3 attack on each note. Now, it may be that what I’m describing here is simply the timbrel characteristics of my turntable.  But for what it’s worth, that’s the difference I hear when doing A/B comparisons between the two masterings, on headphones and a great set of loudspeakers.  For those so inclined, check out a spectral analysis comparison of the first 2 bars of Fuji Rock below.  These graphs show the frequencies present in those 2 bars; not as informative as an actual Frequency Response chart, but it gives you an idea of the difference.  Note the smoother curve on the vinyl version, both down low at 150Hz and again up at about 15kHz.  Click to see it full size if you want to probe deeper.

    I’m happy to see Tatton out front with bombastic solos, playing more keyboard types with a tweaked-up B3 tone.  As much as I adore the all-out assault of full-on Eddie Roberts, it’s a joy to see him kick his feet up and take it nice’n’easy here.  Allen and Shand are as locked-in as ever; so effectively that most of the time I find myself considering the “groove” instead of the bass playing or the drumming.  With Ten Years On, it sounds like the band has hit it’s stride–confident and well-worn with a tightness that belies years of musical camaraderie.  They come out sounding like they’ve got nothing to prove (as indeed they have already proven it!) but they are anything but finished saying something.  Instead, the musical conversation has matured into an exposition of both greater nuance and wider stylistic breadth.  For a band Ten Years into their career, it’s inspiring to see them produce a record like this: expanding into new territory while still retaining the original appeal, writing funk that could be equally appropriate for chillin on the couch with a good brew or sweatin on the dusty dance floor of a music festival in Florida.  While I look forward to seeing what direction the boys take next, intuition tells me this LP will remain my favorite album from my favorite band, for a good stretch of time to come.

     

    A little moment in the sun!


    2011 - 05.04

    Part I: blowin like supernovae

    I’m still buzzing from what went on this weekend!  I spent maybe two or three solid nights last week putting together that SETI infographic and wow, was it ever worthwhile!  (Understatement.)  On a lark, I sent an email to Phil Plait, formerly of the Hubble Telescope project and famous astro-blogger extraordinaire who has a devout following on his site Bad Astronomy, where he writes about all things cosmical and skeptical.  I’m surmising most of you are probably intimately familiar already, but just in case, this whole incident made me notice that I never called out his site on here–I check it nearly every single day and there is always something wonderful there.  If you aren’t familiar, get at it, post-haste!

    Yeah, so Phil liked it, put up the infographic on his site which also linked here, and then posted it to reddit.  Ho-leee bandwidth batman.  Site=crashed.  Blown up.  I was floored.

    This is my first time experiencing something of this magnitude.  Quickly the image was captured and rehosted elsewhere since the site was barely accessible.  I awoke Sunday morning to a whole bunch of email and a rapidly exploding string of comments, especially on reddit.  Reading the wealth of opinions has been fascinating!  Phil sent a message saying I should swap the infographic over to flickr, which I hastily did.  As of this writing it’s at 21,031 views and still climbing almost every time I hit refresh.  The one the redditors used for a mirror is at 3,983 views.  Considering it had almost 12,000 of those in the first 12 hours…  That kinda blows my mind.

    And delights me.  I’m happy that after reading science blogs and surfing sites like digg and reddit for so long I finally made something of interest to give back, something worth looking at.  Reading all the thoughts people have chimed in with has been simply excellent, and, AND!!  There have been some even cooler things that happened!  Let’s go down the list:

    1. People started talking.  Other bloggers chimed in, and Florian Freistetter, a PhD astronomer in Germany even wrote a blog post about it. (tip: use google translate) This thing went around the whole world!  CRA-ZEE

    2. I got to talk with the Bad Astronomer a little.  Phil is a really cool guy!  He was super nice to me, and generally a peach about everything.  I hope that maybe in the future I will come up with something else worth emailing him about (hint: it’s not this post!)

    3. Crossing over into the realm of ridicu-cool: one of the comments on Bad Astromony was from Jill Tarter.  Yeah.  That’s the woman who Jodie Foster’s character is based upon in the movie Contact.  Wow.

    So hey, there you go!  I really should try infographics more often.  I guess having a good idea for one is really the hard part.

    Part Deux: So You’re Here!  Now what?

    Well, I suspect that there is now a new crowd around here, or at the very least, a handful of elite surfers still hanging out.  And you’re probably interested in space.  Okay, space, we can do that! I’ll separate it into two nice categories for you:

    Category Alpha: “I’m one of those brainy types who needs in-depth, thoughtful prose to hold my attention”

    “oh, by the way” (a reminder of just how large the universe really is)

    Putting Things In Perspective: NEAT!

    When I’m Feeling Down, These Are Some Things That Bring Me Back Up (a roundup of inspiring projects)

    Surfing the Nebulae

    Category Beta: “Who are you kidding, this is the internet!  I need short, quick space porn to gawk at between twitterati meltdowns and clicking refresh on gadget blogs”

    Sweet Shuttle Shot

    The Cassini Flyby of Saturn (real life, not CG) – video

    Take a Ride on a Solid Rocket Booster! – video

    Kepler Space Telescope Exoplanets visualized (great video comparing sizes and orbits) – video

    Just Some Awesome View of the Sky

     

    And lastly:

    If you liked imaginary numbers, get a load of these: Imaginary Colors.

    When I’m feelin’ down, these are some things that bring me back up


    2011 - 03.16

    When I started this blog I told myself I would use this space to talk about things that inspire me and highlight the best in human character. I want it to be more about building things up, and talking about what is possible, rather than tearing things down or endless snark, cynicism, pessimism, paranoia, etc. The headlines lately have been dominated by disheartening news, particularly in my home state of Wisconsin, but there have been some awesome things going on, which I want to spend time thinking about.a

    There’s been some great press on the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory lately, including an excellent article in IEEE spectrum.  I had previously blogged about Ice Cube, and it continues to remain in my thoughts, how awesome this thing is. Every time I read dismaying political news or feel despair at the missteps of our society, I remind myself that we’ve got dudes at the south pole tracking cosmic rays, and I feel a little bit better about our species. It’s reassuring–maybe the large majority of people are too caught up in the hustle of daily-life to bother with such existential “big-questions” but there is a tiny group of people working to answer these questions for our behalf. Those people are called heroes.

    Something else which is very, very cool is the STEREO spacecraft. Thanks to these guys, for the first time ever, we have a full 360 degree view of our sun. Sitting in same orbital position as earth, one satellite sped up and one slowed down, so that eventually (read:now!) they are positioned on opposite sides of our star. If I extrapolate correctly from the image above, it looks like from now and until around 2018, we can actually see the whole sun–enabling scientists to track sunspots, and the massive bursts of radiation that periodically spew forth. Although the odds of these radiation bursts and magnetic storms just so happening to align with Earth’s position are low, when it does happen, it directly affects all of our lives, in the form of blackouts, GPS interference, and slowdowns in many global industries affected by this radiation.  The rotating image at right is the first 360 degree composite they made of the sun.  There will be a lot more of these to come!

    The STEREO satellites, to me, represent some small measure of mastery over our cosmic front yard. It’s good to have a window to know what’s happening outside. And it excites me to think that we’re doing it. Not only do we have the technology to do it (the most obvious barrier), but we also have the political willpower to spend them dollas to get up there and DO it (this is the real obstacle to most awesome science). That, my friends, is what you call rad.

    I’ll sandwich in an honorable mention slash eulogy here for the NASA Glory satellite, which recently crashed into the Pacific. It’s a sad thing to think about, but worth mentioning, because hopefully they will try again. Long story short it was intended to monitor a whole slew of climate-related metrics to get us closer in touch with what the Earth is doing. Obviously very important work. This is actually the second satellite of this nature which failed to achieve orbit, so conspiracy theorists unite! (that’s the extent of my negativity here today)

    Another neat thing I read about recently is the All-Sky Fireball Network. In addition to having a maximum ass-kicking name, the project monitors the sky with a nationwide network of smart cameras, with the aim of tracking any meteors burning up in the atmosphere. William Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office states coolly, “nothing will burn up in those skies without me knowing about it!” Sweet!!

    Tracking these meteorites also gives them a vector for both where they should land and where they came from. Thus, if any of the meteorites leave remains that can be retrieved upon impact, the guys can study them, knowing a bit about their origin. Doublesweet. In effect it’s like getting free samples from outer space, without the need to launch costly rockets. Their data will also enable spacecraft designers to learn more about the nature of hole-punching threats that meteors would pose to future vehicles. Triplesweet.

    Learning about something like that is exciting, but I also get the feeling like, geez, this is so great, why didn’t we start doing this like 30 years ago? Again, the technology is nothing new, it’s simply summoning the will to pay for it that holds us back. Every time something like this gets funded, our priorities inch a little closer toward making sense in my mind. It’s reassuring to think about!

    Primo Vino Art: Educated Guess


    2011 - 02.12

    How many times have you bought a certain wine just because the label grabbed you?  If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably uncountable.  I do have certain wines that I keep coming back to, but on the whole, I like to experiment and try new things, see what’s out there.

    In this spirit, there’s a new series in town, and it’s called Primo Vino Art. It’s just basically wine bottles that I think look cool.  We’ll kick it off with this über-nerdy label for a California vintner called Educated Guess.

    Saw it at Whole Foods and just had to try it based on the bottle alone.  Happily, this was one of the more intricate and tasty bottles I’ve had lately, so I think I will be returning to it.  For me, a wine has got to have subtlety and nuance to make it worth giving it a second go-round, and I have already bought my second bottle of this!

    Also, I’ve been trading vintage photoshop tricks with a certain mister Ryan Allen lately, and a picture I took of this bottle got the full treatment, so it seems appropriate to post it here.  For those so interested, there’s vignetting, chromatic aberration added (via ‘lens correction’), a red/green color gradient layer with low opacity (makes the colors look like a faded 80’s photo, a strong light leak coming from the upper right, and a bunch of extras applied in a PS actions file Ryan sent.  In the future, there might be some photoshop tutorials dished on these subjects, but for now, enjoy the retro-goodness:

    Album Review: Mushroom Jazz 7 by DJ Mark Farina


    2010 - 12.29

    As many of you know, I am a big fan of the ongoing Mushroom Jazz series by San Francisco-based DJ mister Mark Farina. We’re currently up to number seven and I have to say, it may be the best yet!

    For the uninitiated, “Mushroom Jazz” is a term that Farina coined as an alternative to “Acid Jazz”. By contrast, Mushroom Jazz is strictly electronic in production, and falls somewhere between triphop, lounge, and downtempo. Farina incorporates a certain amount of hip hop into his compilations as well. The result is a continuous-mix, steady-grooving sound that rarely peaks into what I’d call energetic, but never really dips into mellow territory either. It fits into that narrow range of music that could be appropriate for either a party atmosphere, or just chilling at home by yourself on a Tuesday night. It’s a persistent energy level that rides straight through, great for putting on while you’re getting stuff done, or working on something.

    Rewind to several years ago: I discovered the series shortly after the release of installment #4. Upon learning of it, I went back and listened to all the previous ones, which are all great albums by their own merits. My favorite may have been 3, that is until the release of MJ5, which, in my eyes, dominated the rest of the collection. Five was also the most energetic though, and incorporated slightly harder beats with more hip hop, so you may argue that it was a departure from the formula somewhat.

    Another commonality amoung the series is the use of repeated and/or related samples sprinkled throughout the whole album, tying it all together. These can be hit or miss. I was talking to Tyrell Williams, a house DJ in Chicago whose opinion I respect, and he said he thought MJ2 was the best, because of the subtlety in the sample work. Having listened to all of them many times, I admit, I find the samples in MJ2 to be overly repetitive, and not that great of a sample selection in the first place. We had to agree to disagree.

    The release of six saw me sorely disappointed in Farina. The track selection was just not up to the level he had set in the rest of the entire series. There were maybe two tracks on the whole album that I would say belonged on a MJ record. Disappointing. As my buddy Luke said, “(it) kinda faded into the music collection pretty quick.”

    Mushroom Jazz Seven represents a return to form for Farina, with the interspersion of many samples (awesome ones, about mushrooms!) and a bevy of fresh new tracks that fit neatly into his previous canon, while maintaining an excellent groove. I tend to be overly critical when it comes to vocals, and I’m happy to report that only one track on this CD (“Live Forever”) qualifies as “kind of annoying.” On the flip side of that preference, I actually dig the vocals on “Colorblind” and “Stressin.” “Introduce” brings in a nice helping of that MJ5-esque hip hop flavor, and “Living for the Rush” is a nice diversion into a more atypical beat for the MJ series.

    The ending track is not as solidly chosen as “Bath Music” from MJ4 or “Nic’s Groove” from MJ5, but Farina does deliver a great sample to close it out: “When this program began the question was, were the claims of the mushroom true, or false? Well for those of us who made the journey, the answer is true.” Nice!

    MJ veterans will ask, “but how are the beats?” They are knockin. Probably nothing as hard as MJ5’s “Modern Women’s Short Stories” (the pinnacle of an ‘up’ Mushroom groove, to these ears), but the overall groove on this album is relentless and solid. Those are good adjectives in the context of this series, and although it’s too soon to say for sure, I think this may be the best installment of them all. It’s got great samples, it’s true to the Mushroom Jazz pedigree, there’s a ton of replay value, and the mixing is solid. Track selection is nearly perfect, and the overall atmosphere is right where it should be.

    Shortly after the release of 5, I had the good fortune to catch Farina playing a live Mushroom Jazz set at club Zentra in Chicago. I remember him playing the track “Listen” from MJ4 and I could have sworn at the time that there were added drums to kick it up a notch for the live version. It seemed a lot more energetic and dancable. Upon checking out a bootleg of the show afterward, I compared it to the album and there was nothing added! I would love to hear some of the jams from MJ7 in a live venue. I bet it’d be happenin.

    Score… hmmm, maybe 8.5/10 (ie. it’s awesome, definitely check it out)