January 2012

GiftsAnother holiday season rolled around and we joyfully gave gifts to everyone in sight, all the while hoping for that one little audiophile or videophile sparkler. Did your family choose another tie or pair of socks instead of that nifty new Krell Evolution preamp and amp ($90,000) that you really wanted? I thought I’d propose a few things that should make even the most omnivorous audio/videophile deliriously happy. Now, while I’d love to go ahead and recommend the Krell Evolutions, and maybe even add some Magico Q5 speakers, etc., unfortunately the economy still sucks, so I’ll keep these purchases under $500 -- and for most of them, way under.

Over the last four decades, it’s become de rigueur for audio critics to place hand over heart and swear fealty to live music. But this year, I’ve derived more joy from solitary musical pursuits than ever before. Don’t get me wrong -- I heard some great concerts in 2011. The transcendent tone of Anne Akiko Meyers performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 on her 1697 "Molitor" Stradivarius made me float off into a reverie. And hearing Harry Allen’s oh-so-smooth tenor sax swinging along with the great Freddie Cole in the acoustic ambience of Feinstein’s in New York City was as good as contemporary jazz gets.

So when I say I’ve been spending a lot of time listening through headphones, give me a break. A sleep problem that has so far proven idiopathic (doctorspeak for "we don’t got no clue") has had me awake at hours when no one else would appreciate +100dB music, whether it was Mephistopheles, Count Basie, or the Young American Primitives. So I’ve been trying out headphones, but none of those in-ear things. I own a very nice pair of Etymotic ER-4-50s that I’m happy to use on airplanes for their sound-blocking powers, but they never sound as good as over-the-ear ’phones. Plus, I dislike stuffing something into my ear canal. A nurse once told me to never put anything in my ear smaller than my elbow. Ever since, I’ve tried to live by those words.

I’m also a believer in never using a piece of gear whose quality is way above the ability of anything else in the chain to pass it along. While I occasionally violate that rule, it just seems to me that when I’m driving the ’phones with an iPod, no matter if the file is a 320kbps MP3 or a FLAC -- er, uh, excuse me, Apple Lossless -- the limiting device is the iPod. And though I’m sure I could get much better sound through the Wadia DAC/Dock or something like it, I can’t fit the Wadia in my shirt pocket and walk around. So here are the best headphones I found in my nonexhaustive and unscientific search. I unconditionally recommend them all. In order of ascending price, they are:

The Koss PortaPros ($50 USD) are headphones built for the gym or running. Simply amazing sound for the price. Sony’s MDR-V6s ($110) has been in production for almost 30 years -- you’ll find them in almost every recording studio and radio station on earth because they sound nearly perfect, and are remarkably comfortable and sturdy. I bought my pair in 1987 and they’re still in perfect working condition. These are the ’phones I use in my own recording studio.

UltrasoneThe headphones I ended up using most often during my sleepless nights were Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50s ($200), so you’d think that would mean they get my highest recommendation. The A-Ts’ bass was just a touch richer than the Sonys’, and their earpieces are more enveloping. In the end, the finest headphones I tried were Ultrasone’s HFI-680 ($250). The Ultrasones’ sound wasn’t dramatically better than the Audio-Technicas’, but the fit was, and keeping those cans snug to your ears makes for superior sound. I could happily live with any of the last three ’phones and a well-filled iPod. I’d miss my main system at full roar, but at least I’d know I was hearing pretty accurate sound. And don’t forget -- with headphones, there are no interference effects from your listening room.

For the videophile who didn’t get everything, try a Roku 2 XS ($99). The more I use my Roku 2 XD ($80), the happier I am with it. It adds an incredible dimension of entertainment. The only reason I recommend the higher-priced Roku 2 XS is that it can be hardwired to your network, something I think is always worthwhile. That said, I’ve never had a dropout, a pause, or a hiccup with the wireless Roku 2 XD.

I’ve just finished watching all 178 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation ($237 on DVD, or free from Amazon Prime or Netflix via a Roku or other streaming device). I’d long had the sneaking suspicion that this might be the greatest TV series in history, so in my insomniac nights I watched it from stem to stern. What makes the show great is that it tries to address many of the deeper questions about the meaning of life, what it means to be a human, and the importance of having values. I admit that most of the bad guys are just plain silly looking. Is there any good reason that most of the villains should be bipeds who look like someone spilled cornstarch on them? Perhaps series creator Gene Roddenberry just liked that look? Do the turtle-headed Klingons scare you? Do those Ferengi ears keep you up at night? How about the lizard-skinned Cardassians? Granted, the Borg are pretty scary, but most of the bad guys are just men in makeup. Still, the questions they raise -- and, often, answer -- lie at the very core of humanity’s search for meaning. Focus on any show featuring Q or Data as the central character and you know you’re in for a ride.

battlestar GalaticaYou’ll have to fork out good cash for the other TV series I think is worth owning in its entirety. The 2004-2009 edition of Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series ($182) digs deep into the values of friendship and courage and the meaning of honor. It also has tough, heroic women (like Mary McDonnell as the President and Katee Sackhoff as ace pilot Starbuck) to counterbalance the superhot Cylon Number Six, Tricia Helfer, and the later appearance of Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, as D’Anna Biers. One of the creators called the show "a drama for grown-ups in a science-fiction setting"; that’s a perfect description, but it’s like calling John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy (see below) a good drama set outdoors. There’s a lot more going on. For 75 shows, the folks at Battlestar Galactica faced religious persecution, terrorism, and the worst forms of sabotage. Nor is their courage ever of the cheap, stupid "Charge!" variety; it’s always thoughtful and appropriately fearful. The Blu-ray set is a great gift to give yourself.

Since you’ve probably by now decided that I’m into speculative fiction and nothing else (most definitely not true, though the genre does allow for some interesting dilemmas), let me reinforce that misperception with more ideas for things we should have gotten for Christmas. Some of you probably bought or received Star Wars: The Complete Saga ($80), and I’m happy for you. But I never "got" Star Wars. I know -- that automatically bans me from the Sci-Fi Dorks’ Club. But if any adults reading this would like to treat themselves to a major piece of speculative filmmaking that goes way beyond normal social taboos to cogitate about the power of a genuinely awkward love, check out the small indie film Another World ($15). This is what science fiction should be doing: expanding our conceptions of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I get goose-bumps just thinking about it.

Finally, every film collection in the world should own a copy of The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Edition. Amazon offers the Blu-ray for $8.50; if you don’t have it, gift yourself immediately!

John WayneNow to more serious movies. You don’t have to look far to find film critics who consider John Ford to be the greatest director who ever lived. Count me in. Every Ford film contains everything mentioned above: searching for the meaning of life, friendship, honor, courage, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation. What makes Ford great is that he never makes you aware that he’s delving into these things. A child can watch the films and notice only the action, though the stories will leave their residue. Plus, Ford’s ability to raise and lower the tension throughout a film is today mostly unmatched. A great place to start is John Wayne: John Ford Film Collection ($20), which includes three of the duo’s greatest accomplishments -- The Searchers and two of the Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon -- as well as some minor Ford that would be major works from any other director: They Were Expendable, 3 Godfathers, and The Wings of Eagles. To fully understand why Ford’s films with Wayne are so highly prized, you’d still need the third part of the Trilogy, Rio Grande, as well as Stage Coach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Quiet Man. So for about $50, you could gift yourself with a good chunk of the best of American film.

Of course, Ford made great films with many other actors, chief among them Henry Fonda. Ford at Fox: The Collection ($180) covers Ford’s career from a time when he had no control over his films or cast to when he had won Oscars and had full control. This monumental box is a work of art that is sure to go out of print and immediately rise in price, if only for the luxurious book that accompanies the films. And what great films: My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley, Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and many more. This plus John Wayne: John Ford Film Collection would provide innumerable hours of pleasure, all for less than the cost of gizmos that raise your wires off the floor.

For those who like to delve into more obscure fare, I highly recommend the Wong Kar Wai Collection ($100), which includes five of the director’s best films: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, and Happy Together. Having them in the box is nice, but these are DVDs, and the individual Blu-rays are cheaper. Plus, the box omits my three favorite Wong Kar Wai films: Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. What makes him such an intriguing director are his constant but gentle push of mores and his brilliant sense of style.

John CassavetesLovers of indie films should latch on to the godfather of the whole concept. John Cassavetes was far more financially successful as an actor and far more artistically successful as a director, and so used the first to fund the second. His stock company included his wife, Gena Rowlands, and his buddies Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, both then better known as TV actors. Cassavetes’s films were like post-rock bands attempting to destabilize any handy custom, in this case with jiggly, out-of-focus cameras shooting powerfully uncomfortable up-close looks at raw emotions. The boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films ($109) contains his masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence, as well as Shadows, Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night, omitting only my favorite, Husbands. This Criterion Collection set is expensive, but the quality is well worth it. And, of course, if you bought yourself a Roku 2 and added Hulu + ($8 a month) you’d get almost the entire Criterion catalogue as streaming video -- including the extras.

Speaking of the Criterion Collection, my favorite of all of their films is The Complete Monterey Pop Festival ($39). I sat through this film ten times in its first week of release and I’ve never since lost interest. It is the best rock’n’roll film there is. You deserve it. Another film you deserve, whether or not you’re a fan, is The Grateful Dead Movie ($22). If you’re a fan, you get it; if you aren’t, it will help you understand or drive you screaming from the room. Jerry Garcia slaved over the film for a couple of years -- everyone thought it was a document of their final tour. Of course, they later reunited to play their asses off for most of another two decades.

But this leads me to music, and the most expensive gift on the list. If you love the Dead, you must know already that the band has released their complete 1972 European tour on 72 CDs. Grateful Dead Europe ’72 costs $450, but these shows are legendary. They’ve circulated for years as bootlegs, but the Dead’s production team has the knack of making decades-old music sound as if it were recorded today, and the band was at its absolute peak. If, unlike me, you actually have the money for this luxurious purchase, don’t let it get away. It’s in limited release; the Dead are very good about stopping products and letting their aftermarket value go up up up.

Two other big boxes have come out that we all deserve. Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz ($149) is a ten-CD import that’s already getting hard to find in the US (Verve will release only a four-CD version here). If you ever wondered why Louis (not Louie, never Louie) Armstrong was considered America’s single greatest musical gift, this box should convince you. As Tony Bennett said, "The bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? We contributed Louis Armstrong." Miles Davis said, "You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played." The bottom line is this: Of the dozen or so boxed sets of Armstrong’s music, this is the best. Get it while you can.

The Beach BoysThe other boxed set is the Beach Boys’ The SMiLE Sessions ($140). I listened through this whole thing and can only imagine that if the Beatles had ever heard it, it would have scared the shit out of them. It’s psychedelic in a completely different way, but then everyone had different trips. Brian Wilson obviously had mellow, sweet-hearted trips that included really wacked-out music. Throw in the influence of Van Dyke Parks, who knew his classic comparative English lit as a lyricist, and, as a composer in his own right also knew how to write parts for instruments like the cor anglais and a conical-bore euphonium. Imagine the other Beach Boys coming back from a tour in Japan, singing "The Sloop John B" in their identical candy-striped shirts, and Brian hands them his new composition, "Do You Like Worms?" The response of the other Beach Boys was so negative that it finally drove Brian over the psychological cliff. SMiLE was canned. I now have a better understanding of why this music so freaked them out. But jeez, after Brian had led them through so many hits, you’d think they’d give him a chance. Anyway, we can finally hear it, and the mastering is so good I could swear it was a contemporary recording.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to some women who changed my life in 2011. If you’re looking for some smaller, less expensive gifts for yourself, you might find these intriguing. The most popular is an album by Jessie Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, Marble Son. Sykes’s voice is like a muted trumpet, all plaintive and sounding lost -- until there’s a powerful bleat to remind you that she’s alive and potent. Her secret weapon is guitarist Phil Wandscher, who plays in an orchestral manner that’s crystal-clear even when eardrum-blowing loud. The New York Times called this group’s music neo-psychedelia, which is a good place to start. It sounds to me like a cross between the Cowboy Junkies and Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Powerful and soothing.

Mara CarlyleI somewhere read a review of Mara Carlyle’s Floreat, and it sounded like off-kilter fun -- like an early Roches album, or something from, say, Juana Molina. And indeed, there’s a sparkle of fun in everything Carlyle does -- her main instruments are ukulele and saw, which should give you some idea. So imagine my surprise when I’m listening nonchalantly, writing a piece about white Burgundy wines, and I hear this incredibly beautiful piece that stops me in my tracks. All I can do is get lost in it. It starts like a bruised 78rpm disc of a distantly recorded pump organ. Then, slowly, strings arrive. Quietly strummed balalaikas add air. A stroked bass provides some rhythm. The volume builds. More instruments enter. Strings develop a counterpoint melody to the bass. A moody, reverb’d electric guitar is barely there in the background. The volume drops and it’s just the pump organ again. It fades to a stop. I’m wondering if my wife will be upset that I’ve fallen in love with Mara Carlyle. The title of the song? "How It Felt (To Kiss You)."

If you’ve ever heard of a band called Lamb, you’ve heard their singer, Lou Rhodes. But you haven’t really heard Lou Rhodes until you hear her solo albums, particularly One Good Thing. This is an album of words about crashing through walls, whether of miscommunications in love or craziness in religious wars. Yet it’s set to the most gentle, easy-to-swallow music, with big ideas for fingerpicked guitars and strings. So nice on the ears, so good for the mind.

We finish with another Rhodes, one completely unrelated to Lou. Kimmie Rhodes’s CD The Wonderful Sound is one big wash of love, care, and empathy. Her voice is angelic to begin with, but the songs are all about taking care of you, coddling you through painful moments, cheering you up when you’ve lost your best friend. The Wonderful Sound is like a hymn to the light in all of our lives. And isn’t that a nice gift to give yourself.

I hope these ideas have inspired you to give yourself a nice little surprise and enjoy it. You deserve it.

. . . Wes Marshall