The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXII: 2009: Year of Discovery
It's another year, and another state for the Vinyl Anachronist. The end of 2009 finds me in Austin, Texas, the "Live Music Capital of the World." For the last couple of years, I've been invited to the legendary South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival to speak about vinyl, but I've had to decline each time due to personal obligations. Plus, as I discovered when I made the move in September, it's over 2000 miles from Washington State to the Heart of Texas. The trip from Portland to Los Angeles to Austin was nearly as long as the first time I drove from Anaheim to the East Coast in 1985. Did you know that El Paso is closer to San Diego than Houston? Texas is a big state.
This year I can just drive into SXSW, or even take the bus since Austin traffic is supposed to be insane that time of year. Best of all, I may finally get to meet PSF editor Jason Gross in person for the first time. I've been writing this column since February 1998, and yet, Jason and I have only communicated through emails during those nearly 12 years. If it wasn't for his Facebook page, I'd have no idea what he looks like. (ED NOTE: it ain't pretty) It would be nice to shake the hand of the first guy who ever published my writing. Yep, I'm looking forward to going to SXSW for the first time.
I have been scoping out the Austin music scene, and it's quite different than I expected. In fact, it's amazing how Austin looks almost exactly like Portland, only much warmer (it still rains a lot in Texas, though). I even wore my KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD T-shirt the last time I hung out on 6th Street and received a lot of knowing nods and classic double takes. The inside joke, of course, is that KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD T-shirts appeared first, and Portland stole the idea. But I have seen plenty of T-shirts that say things like KEEP AUSTIN PRETENTIOUS and KEEP SAN ANTONIO BORING.
When I arrived in Austin, I thought I would be seeing a lot of acts like David Rodriguez, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark. On my first night on the town, however, I was treated to the exotic sounds of Mazda Miata 2012. This band consisted of five or six guys who played with their backs to the audience. They unleashed a wall of sound that was so loud, impenetrable and overwhelming that the entire club cleared out into the street in less than three minutes. The song went on for another ten until the club owner pulled the plug. This was a not a matter of "Marc's getting old and doesn't understand the new stuff the kids are listening to." This was an assault. In retrospect, however, maybe it was cool because it was so ballsy.
My second show in Austin was the Revolting Cocks (who were actually very good). So as you can see, Austin is surprising me. But for some reason, I still miss Portland.
Finally, this is the year that the Vinyl Anachronist has said goodbye to CD's for good. I've worked with my brother, a computer hardware guy, to build a customized music server that we've networked throughout the house. He has over 10,000 CD's (and only 25 LP's, natch), so we've combined our two music collections into one massive library. The results are so fantastic that we may start doing this professionally.
That brings us to the 11th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. This year's list will be a bit abbreviated since I haven't really heard a lot of new and exciting things in the world of turntables. Last year, I suggested that vinyl had really settled into a groove (pun intended) and things haven't really shifted this year. Because of the current recession, there aren't a lot of new developments, although sales in new vinyl are starting to climb. For years, LP sales hovered around the 1 million mark. Don't be surprised if that figure is closer to 3 or 4 times that for 2009.
So, here we go!
Best New Release in the LP Format
Nothing really excited me this year since the biggest news was reissues from Mobile Fidelity, ORG, Cisco and Speakers Corner. There's also the question of how these new LP's are being mastered, since some companies still think it's OK to cut vinyl from digital masters and even CD's. You have to do a little digging to find out which new albums really sound better on LP than CD these days.
Until this issue becomes clearer and all record companies are more forthcoming about their masters, I'll refrain from choosing a winner this year. I've received too many emails from disgruntled LP buyers, and this is hurting LP sales.
Best New Reissue in the LP Format
This one is a no-brainer, because Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs remastered and released my favorite album of all-time, Pixies' Doolittle. When I heard MFSL's first Pixies release, Surfer Rosa, a couple of years ago, I questioned whether Doolittle would be knocked off the top of the Pixies mountain. Surfer Rosa sounded so clear, so authoritative, so "Gigantic" (he he) that I felt like I was listening to it for the first time.
The MFSL Doolittle, however, is equally revelatory. If I could pinpoint the biggest improvement in the remaster, I'd have to say it was the ability to turn up the volume on this puppy without wincing or alienating the neighbors. I always thought the sound quality on the original CD was decent, but the new version is simply smoother, cleaner and more dynamic. Now if MFSL could remaster my second favorite album, Double Nickles on the Dime from Minutemen, I'd be in hog heaven (I'm tryin' to sound like a Texan here).
I'm not going to comment on the Beatles remasters. I love the Beatles, but I hate listening to other people talk about the Beatles. The annoyance level reached an all-time high this year.
Cartridge of the Year
The winner from last year, the Zu Audio DL-103, is still my everyday cartridge, so deep in my heart I still believe it's the Cartridge of the Year. Since I gave the DL-103 the award, however, Zu Audio has released different versions of the cartridges with progressively lower tolerances. I haven't had a chance to compare the $499 Grade 1, the $599 Grade 2 and the $699 Grade 2 Prime with my $399 Standard DL-103, but I've heard very good things about the whole line.
I did have a chance to listen to an old favorite, the Rega Exact, on my current Rega P3-24. I owned this cartridge for about three years in the late ‘90's, where it spent time with both my Rega P3 and P25. I thought it was a good, not great cartridge, and I continued using it more for its extremely high output and ease of installation than anything. Well, the Exact has been quietly improved over the last couple of years, and now I think it's a great value at its $595 price. Plus, it's still incredibly easy to mount on any Rega ‘table. The new Exact is now smoother, cleaner and more dynamic. It also loses some of its slightly aggressive and forward sound. It's the winner this year, although I think it's a toss-up with the Zu at this point.
Turntable of the Year
I'm going to have to go with an oldie-but-goodie this year: the Thorens TD-124. Like the venerable Garrard 301 and 401, this ‘table has been around for decades but can still be tweaked into a world-class performer. I've heard several restored TD-124s over the last year, and every one produced a pleasing and surprisingly modern sound that competes with any ‘table under $2000. Some of these restoration projects are downright impressive with their massive bases made from beautiful wood veneers. You can usually find a solid example of a TD-124 on eBay for less than $1000, but expect to pay more for one that comes with a high-quality arm and cartridge. I might get one just for fun and tweak it myself.
Well, that's it for this year. Drop me a line if you're going to SXSW, and maybe we can meet or compare notes. And if you're already in Austin or San Antonio (which is just an hour away), give me a holler. I'll even bring the Frito Pie!
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