|Posted on April 20, 2010 at 4:47 PM|
While cotton *may* be the fabric of our lives, music is definitely the soundtrack of mine. From the moment I wake up, there is a near steady stream of music filling my day. My first move out of the Tempur Pedic cocoon is towards whatever housewide audio system is currently in residence (Russound’s unique audio-over-powerline Collage at present). I fire it up, select a Rhapsody channel, and enjoy some tunes while I shower and dress for work. It’s the iPod in the car on the way in to work, and then some computer supplied audio all day. (Streaming Yael Naim’s eponymous album from Napster at the moment—if you are thinking of buying this album because you loved “New Soul,” you will
probably be disappointed). (I thought I’d interject about my computer speakers for a moment. These speakers are truly heinous. As in H-Anus. Sonically they aren’t *terrible*, in the same way that a McDonald's hamburger isn't "terrible," but they are from a company called “Micro Innovations” and they are SO sensitive to RF interference that if ANYONE in the back office has any activity on their cell phone – a phone call, text message, updating to a new tower, new e-mail alert, whatever – my speakers emit this *horrible* BA-BA-BAAAP! BA-BA-BAAAP! sound that is about 3-times louder than the actual music playing.) When I make it back home, it’s TV off and stereo on, as I play “chase” with Lauryn before dinner (a game where we just run around in circles, chasing each other through the pathway created between living/breakfast/kitchen/hallway). Then, some light jazz or classical during dinner and then after I’ve put Lauryn to bed, as I continue on my journey to read the entire Bible this year (I’m up to Ezra by the way), I take a quiet 45 minutes or so to read and *really* enjoy some truly stellar 2-channel audio.
Recently, a couple of events have come together to form a (sadly) temporary Perfect Storm of audio in my living room that I thought would share. First, I’m just wrapping up my review of the Olive 4HD music server. (You can check their Website here.) While a lot of things make the Olive special – you’ll have to wait for the review to appear in S+V’s summer issue! – two of the biggest deals are a giant hard drive (2 Terabytes!) and audiophile-grade 24-bit/192kHz Burr Brown DACs. That makes the Olive uniquely capable as a music server in that it can store and play back super high-resolution audio files -- we're talking SACD quality -- delivered in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format. (I know of no other server that currently offers this, though I believe another manufacturer is on the verge, and I’m scheduled to review their product once it’s available.) For many people, enjoying these high-res files has either been A) impossible or B) required some computer rejiggering to allow for higher end audio cards to output the digital signal to an outboard system. Since I like to keep my computer the hell away from my audio system, my life will once again return to listening option A when the Olive goes merrily on its way.
The second element required for enjoying audio perfection is a way of GETTING high-res files to actually listen to. While the Olive came pre-loaded with roughly a dozen tracks, these quickly grew old. When it comes to itching your high-rez Jones, downloading is the only way to go, and there are some great services like hdtracks.com. They were actually kind enough to comp me a 24-bit download of a terrific albums, Rebecca Pidgeon’s “The Raven.” But after just a single listen, I quickly discovered two things: 1) I REALLY liked the way these high-rez files sounded. So open and airy and detailed. 2) Continuing to download a steady diet of 24-bit music would get expensive.
Then I received a CD in the mail from Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) new Society of Sound. The disc was a special edition of Peter Gabriel’s new “Scratch My Back,” described as “an intense album of unique cover versions.” The *really* Special (or Deluxe as they list it at Amazon.com) thing about this edition was that it includes a code to download a 24-bit high rez version of the album AND it comes with a 3 month trial membership to B&W’s Society of Sound. (A regular 6 month membership runs $39.95 or $59.95 for a full year.) This means that you have access to (currently) 20 additional albums, many of them in 24-bit resolution. You can freely download as many or all of these albums during your 3 months, and they’re yours to keep at the end of the trial. (If you want to enjoy this service, be sure to purchase the correct version of Gabriel’s CD; here is a link to it at Amazon.) While a lot of the music available isn’t to my taste, I have stumbled on some interesting stuff, all of it infinitely more enjoyable due to the fact that the recordings and sound quality is so righteous. The standouts so far have been Peter Gregson’s cello work on “Terminal”, a compilation of movements from the London Symphony Orchestra and Gwyneth Herbert’s “Ten Lives.”
But make no mistake, Peter Gabriel’s album is the clear star of the show, and, frankly, there probably wouldn’t BE a Society of Sound if he wasn’t one of the forces (Fellows) behind it. I’ve probably already passed the dozen listen mark with this disc, and I’m always taken by how these songs have such a different feel and emotion when heard through Gabriel’s interpretation. Nothing on here is “Sledgehammer," don't expect to hear any monkeys being shocked, and this is definitely not an album you take to the gym to get fired-up for a workout. Rather "Scratch" is something you sit and contemplate while drinking a 30-year old port in a softly lit room. Many of the songs have a deep, profound, aching quality, with the lyrics taking center stage and often taking on whole new meanings. There is just such *depth* to the high-rez recordings, and this world of space living around each of his lyrics, that you clearly feel every subtle vocal inflection and intonation. The album opens with Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song I absolutely love. (I’m particularly fond of the Wallflower’s redo for the celluloid disaster which was Godzilla but this version could NOT be any more different.) Gabriel’s “Heroes” is more desperate and panicked than inspirational. This is followed by a morose version of Paul Simon’s bouncy “The Boy in the Bubble,” with the lyric “the bomb in the baby carriage is wired to the radio” being especially poignant, and coming across like the perfect commentary on modern times. Another track that comes across with scary up-to-the-minuteness is "Listening Wind." While I've heard this song dozens of times from the Talking Heads "Remain in Light," I've never really listened to it. (That is the power of the stripped down recordings on this disc.) And the lyrics were so timely, I actually had to check Byrne's original to make sure that Gabriel hadn't changed it. (He hadn't.)
If music means more to you than something that just happens in the background, then I highly recommend giving this disc a spin and embracing the Society of Sound. To quote Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”