Music in Mind

by Paul Bolin | August 10, 2010

hen you write about audio equipment, the time eventually comes when you have to write about the music. What is the point of all that fancy hardware unless it's capable of transporting you into a virtual experience of hearing music and the sense of time and place it invariably summons? So, in no particular order, here are LPs and CDs that have preoccupied me. Some of them have been life-changing, and some have merely been favorites for more years than I care to 'fess up to. But it is all music I come back to year after year, component after component, for no reason other than it continues to resonate deeply with me. Such is the irresistible gravity of great recordings. Like any music-obsessive, I own multiple versions of many recordings, and I note here the ones that sound best.

In a few short months, you can bet there will be other LPs and CDs that I'll be bursting to tell you about.

gil_evans_cool_lp.jpg (10200 bytes)Gil Evans • Out of the Cool
LP: Impulse AS-4

Stupefying, brilliantly original large-group jazz in sound that has to be heard to be believed. In all seriousness, this is an LP worth running into a collapsing building to save and may be better than anything else on this list. Find a clean original LP, grit your teeth, and pay the price (it will likely be a stiff one -- jazz collectors and audiophiles both seem to know how great this LP is), because it is well and truly worth it.

Led Zeppelin • IV (aka ZOSO, aka "Four Symbols")
British LP: Atlantic K50008, American LP: Atlantic/Classic Records SD7008

Everyone knows "Stairway to Heaven" and completely forgets how magnificent this album’s other songs are, and how great it all sounds, especially the explosive dynamics ("Black Dog" and John "Bonzo" Bonham’s brutal seismosaurus stomp on "When The Levee Breaks") and the incredibly varied palette of guitar sounds Jimmy Page seemed capable of conjuring at will. And nobody seems to remember the sheer beauty of "The Battle of Evermore," Robert Plant’s stunning duet with the late, great Sandy Denny, with its backdrop of Page’s multiple overdubbed mandolins. This is the song that shoved me down the track of now owning some 40+ Fairport Convention albums, at first for no reason other than Sandy’s witchily gorgeous voice.

Whatever happened to the days when major bands were this adventurous and fearless? Sorry, kids, but the 1970s really was a great era for rock music, and Led Zeppelin bestrode the decade like a colossus.

The Weavers • Reunion at Carnegie Hall
LP: Vanguard VSD 2150

This LP is an audiophile cliché, but for a very good reason. It is everything Harry Pearson ever said about it and then some. Pete Seeger was and still is a national treasure, one of the greatest living Americans, and the true artistic heir of the great Woody Guthrie. Scrounge hard (think "American Pickers" on the History Channel) and you just might find it for a handful of bucks. My original "fancy" foldout-cover version cost me about seven bucks, but also a couple of hours of crawling around on my hands and knees in a long-defunct Minneapolis record store. Thrift shops still don’t know what it is, but it remains one of the sonic and cultural monuments of 20th-century Americana.

The Beatles • Abbey Road
British LP: Apple PCS 7088, American LP: Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-023

If you don’t know this music, I cannot understand how you wound up at this website. The singular and overpowering genius of the Beatles’ music is summed up here in one final boggling 40-minute trip -- Abbey Road is chronologically the last Beatles album. The sonic team was (Sir) George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Alan Parsons (in an early role as the rookie assistant engineer). Need more be said? Triple-distilled wit, amazing ingenuity and creativity, brilliant songs and general wonderfulness, musically and sonically. There were once giants roaming the earth, and they were known as the Beatles.

breakfast_at_tiffanys.jpg (12868 bytes)Henry Mancini • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
LP: RCA LSP-2362, "black dog"

Once upon a time movies were elegant, smart and stylish. No one said "Duuuuuuude," and pretty girls, even if of occasionally questionable background and pursuits, were romantic and sophisticated heroines -- especially if they were the immortal, impossibly beautiful Audrey Hepburn in this wonderful film. Mancini’s soundtrack is a smooth and chic blend of a deathlessly fabulous title song ("Moon River") and smart, snarky and graceful interstitial music that plays out with a singular intelligence befitting the film. The sound is ear-poppingly 3-D, primarily thanks to the efforts of engineer Al Schmitt (you still hear his brilliant work on Diana Krall’s albums and much of the best-recorded jazz from the last few years). The music is the essence of JFK-era cool, and the album is worth owning for nothing more than the front-cover picture of Audrey.

Miles Davis • Sketches of Spain
CD: Columbia/Legacy CK 65142

I return here to Gil Evans, this time in close collaboration with the greatest trumpet player of the second half of the 20th century. Evans’ adaptation of Rodrigo’s "Concierto de Aranjuez" remains brilliant and fascinating, even when one has heard the finest versions of the guitar-based original. Sonics are astonishingly lifelike and will spread out into your room, as few recordings are capable. If you were to argue for the heresy that the most masterful part of Miles Davis was Gil Evans, this album and the duo’s equally great Porgy and Bess would be pretty convincing evidence for the "yea's."

pink_floyd_meddle.jpg (8771 bytes)Pink Floyd • Meddle
British LP: Harvest SHVL 795, American LP: Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-190

Pink Floyd • The Wall
Japanese LP: Columbia/Sony ADAP 1750-1

There is no reasonable way I can separate these LPs in my mind, so I have put them together. Meddle was the essence of early Pink Floyd, all variegated instrumental textures, shifting ambiences and a spacey, almost theologically uplifting grace in the recapitulation of "Echoes." The Wall was all about Roger Waters’ upbringing and his insoluble problems with his father’s senseless death in Italy in WW2. It combines a touching emotional vulnerability with a self-indulgent whine fest, but is all wrapped up in amazing music, mostly thanks to the Floyd’s brilliant lead guitarist, David Gilmour, and Richard Wright’s plush keyboard textures.

There is no way to even pretend that these recordings do not stand at the state of the art for their times and remain deeply rewarding. Their sound only benefits from being played on the finest modern high-end sound systems. Soundstages are monstrously deep and wide, and vocals, often intentionally processed, have a tingly reality. These remain classics for many enduring reasons.

future_sound_london_translations_cd.jpg (12507 bytes)Future Sound of London • The Papua New Guinea Translations
British CD: Jumpin’ and Pumpin’ CD TOT 52

FSOL has spent most of the last fifteen years setting the curve for trippy, highly sophisticated and impeccably progressive electronica. This CD takes the band's debut single and subjects it to eight "translations" that blend, bend, and cross nearly every genre of modern popular music -- and a few genres entirely FSOL’s own. Sound is par for the FSOL course -- the best there is at what they do, and that’s saying something.

Maurice Ravel • The Complete Orchestral Music
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski/Minnesota Orchestra
Four-LP set: VoxBox QSVBX 5133

These were some of the first recordings made in my hometown’s magnificent concert hall after its 1973 opening. Skrowaczewski’s touch was (and remains -– he still conducts on occasion as Conductor Emeritus) light and supple, if not that of Charles Munch or Pierre Boulez, and the Marc Aubort-engineered sonics capture the bracing, naturally balanced clarity of Orchestra Hall’s splendid Cyril Harris acoustics. If you love Ravel as I do -– he was one of my gateways to orchestral music -– this set is essential. One caution must be stated: the vinyl of the original mid-1970s pressings is a reminder of the era’s oil shortages and the accompanying "vinyl crisis": highly variable, sometimes miserable. I have collected four copies to get two fairly solid sets. Bits and pieces have been reissued on CD over the years and are well worth seeking out.

Fotheringay • Fotheringay
LP: A&M SP 4269

I briefly discussed Sandy Denny in the context of Led Zeppelin IV. In her all-too-brief career, there were many high points. She departed Fairport Convention after the seminal Liege and Lief and formed this band with Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist Trevor Lucas (later her husband), American super-guitarist Jerry Donahue, most recently of Hellecasters fame, and the crack rhythm section of bassist Pat Donaldson and drummer Gerry Conway. The resulting (and only) album appeared in 1970 and featured several of Denny’s finest songs and a magnificent Denny/Lucas duet on Gordon Lightfoot’s "The Way I Feel," where Donahue somehow manages to steal the show. The best is saved for last: Denny’s timeless version of "The Banks of the Nile," a ballad dating back to the time of the Napoleonic wars. She somehow managed to sound younger than spring and older than time. How could anyone sing with this kind of supreme control, expression and interpretive subtlety at the age of 23? Sonics are provided courtesy of the incomparable team of producer Joe Boyd and engineer Jerry Boys -– rich, luscious yet clear, with seemingly nothing interposed between microphone and tape head.

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