We receive a goodly number of queries via email at Como Audio and although we have a small staff, we endeavor to respond promptly, often within a few hours if not sooner. As you might imagine, we answer a lot of the same questions over and over again. That was the genesis behind my first Tech Rap: Ask Como Audio, covering more than twenty frequently asked questions from our customers. Now, here comes another in our series of Ask Como Audio Tech Raps, with yet more burning questions you have been meaning to ask but never got around to it, in no particular order.
1. Why does the Como Audio Bluetooth Turntable come supplied with two belts, and is a 45 RPM adapter included?
The flat sided belt is the belt to use when setting up the CA Turntable. The round sided belt is only for use with 78 RPM records. The stylus must also be changed out to a special stylus that supports 78 RPM records which can be special ordered through us. The rounded belt was literally added at the last minute, thus it is not listed in the Quick Start Guide included with the Turntable. However, it is referenced in the Turntable’s complete user manual on our website under “Support”. And yes, a 45 RPM adapter is included!
2.Are the Como Audio Bluetooth & Analog Turntables automatic?
The Como Audio Turntables are fully manual. The tone arm will not automatically move to play the record or lift up after playing one side. Integrating those features would have added significant cost to already expensive models, but more critically, would have added complexity resulting in mechanical failures. We invested in high quality parts rather than automatic features, thereby keeping the mechanics simple and reliable with excellent sound for a reasonable price (and 2 year warranty). Besides, there is nothing quite like the experience of gently placing the needle onto a record!
3.Will the Como Audio Bluetooth Turntable work with a non-Como Audio product and provide a noticeable improvement over my current turntable?
Our Turntable will work with stand-alone Bluetooth speakers as well as music systems having Bluetooth, an Auxiliary input, or a dedicated moving magnet Phono input. In terms of a sound upgrade, sound quality is subjective. Only you can listen with your own music and decide whether our model sounds better to your ears with your music. The main advantage with our model is the included high quality Ortofon OM10 cartridge, providing balanced and distortion-free playback of your favorite records. We also use a solid MDF plinth (not a plastic housing), a sub-platter and heavy steel platter, and an ultra-precision frequency DC-driven AC generator for speed stability. It is also nice to have a turntable that compliments the real wood finish of your Como Audio model, making them look like the family system they are.
4. What is the spade (“fork”) connector used for on the audio cable that comes with the Turntable?
Our Turntable models include an external ground screw on the back near the outputs. If you are connecting the Turntable via the included audio cable to a non-Como Audio system that also has a ground connection, such as a stereo receiver, connect one spade on the cable to the Turntable’s ground and the other to the ground connection on your other component. If you are connecting the Turntable to a Como Audio model you do not use the spade connectors.
5. What are all the other accessories used for that come with the Turntable? Where can I get more information?
The included tools are only necessary should you need to adjust the counterweight at the end of the tonearm or replace the Ortofon cartridge. In most cases you will never need to use the tools.
The user manual section of our website includes the complete multi-language manuals for our Turntable models.
6. Can I use Bluetooth headphones with my Como Audio Bluetooth Turntable or music system?
Yes. Our Bluetooth Turntable will transmit the sound to Bluetooth headphones, speakers, or Como Audio music systems.
To use Bluetooth headphones with your Como Audio system, connect an outboard Bluetooth transmitter (not included) to the headphone output and you are in business. This blog article contains more details: Kind of Blue(tooth).
7. For the Como Audio Turntable or just in general, is it best to use an audio cable or Bluetooth?
Connecting via an audio cable will provide the best sound, but the convenience of wireless Bluetooth is hard to beat and still sounds very good. If using a cable is not an option for whatever reason, such as the Turntable being located too far from the main unit, Bluetooth provides an excellent alternative and it is easy to pair and connect.
8. Do your models support iHeart radio stations?
We would love to include all iHeart stations in the station data base but iHeart does not share its owned stations with Internet station aggregators, thus, their stations are not in our data base (or anyone else’s). This is not something Como Audio or station aggregators have any control over. Those iHeart stations were in the station data base prior to them being purchased by iHeart, but we were required to remove them once iHeart acquired them. iHeart requires you to use their own proprietary app, be exposed to adverts, and possibly upgrade to a premium paid iHeart subscription.
However, there are workarounds which you can read about in a separate blog article about iHeart.
9. Does Musica show CD artwork?
Musica does not support CD artwork. This requires an application to fetch the artwork and other details about the CD from a third-party provider such as Gracenote. This kind of music recognition feature is mainly available in automobile CD head units and some high-end DVD players. The service is not free to us and would require both hardware and software changes, plus a licensing fee and/or per unit royalty paid to the provider by us.
10. The power cord to my Musica doesn’t go in all the way. Did I get the wrong cord?
A limited number of Musicas used a slightly smaller than normal sized rear power inlet, making the cord a very tight fit. The power cord packed with the unit is actually correct. If the cord does not feel like it is seated properly and/or your Musica randomlt turns off and on, your cord may not be inside the power inlet all the way. If you push the cord in with a lot of force it will seat properly and Musica will operate fine. You won’t break anything.
11.Must I pay for a premium Spotify subscription to play it on my Como Audio music system?
No. The free version of Spotify works with the integrated Spotify Connect feature. Just be sure your Como Audio system has the latest software since this support was included in a software update: System settings > Software update > Check now.
12. Why does the Spotify app not show my Como Audio model under “Devices”?
Sometimes your Como Audio system may not show in the list of devices when launching the Spotify app. We do not know why this happens but likely has to do with your Wi-Fi network since it does not happen to all users at the same time. Usually if you simply reboot your router and do a System reboot (in System settings) of your Como Audio model it takes care of the issue. If not, Spotify recommends uninstalling the Spotify app and reinstalling it. This Tech Rap: Streaming Presets blog article has more information about issues with Spotify and Internet radio.
13. Must I register my new Como Audio purchase for warranty coverage?
No. There is no registration. Your purchase invoice verifies your warranty status and will be requested should you ever need warranty service, so please retain it. Please also keep the original box and packaging, as shipping damage is not covered under the warranty.
14. What are “B goods”?
A “B good” is a model that was returned and re-certified by us, or an overstocked item, that we sell at a discount. We cannot specify why a particular model was returned. It may not necessarily have been due to a fault. Regardless, all B goods come with the same features and accessories, full two-year warranty, and free lifetime support as new product. B goods might have a slight cosmetic issue but nothing judged to be serious.
15. Where are your models made?
Our Turntables are manufactured in the Czech Republic. Our Carry On 1 Amico travel case is made in Texas, USA. Our Platform is made in Indiana. Our music systems are made in China. Our design and engineering is done in Boston, MA and Como, Italy. Our goal is to start some manufacturing in Braintree, MA. We have the space, have designed an assembly floor layout, and drawn up a list of needed equipment. Now we need to secure funding.
16. Must I always use the free portal to save Internet radio stations to My Favorites?
No. Once you register your device(s) on the portal you can tune an Internet station (or Podcast) and briefly press the Play/Pause key on the remote control to instantly save it to My Favorites…no need to log into the portal to find the station and save it each time.
17. Why must I change the clock each time for Daylight Savings?
Devices such as computers and smartphones adjust for DST automatically thanks to custom software. As a small startup with very limited resources, we did not have that luxury during development. However, we provide a manual adjustment in the menu that allows you to set the time one hour ahead or one hour back: System settings > Time/Date > Adjust to DST > Select +1 to be ahead one hour or -1 to go back one hour. We email reminders a day or two beforehand to all of our customers, so be sure you are signed up to our email list (you will also get important notices and sale announcements). You can sign up on our homepage.
18.The clock on my Como Audio music system randomly shows 12 o’clock and/or my alarm activates by itself. What’s going on?
First, be sure your model has the latest software: System settings > Software update > Check now.
Second, perform a System reboot also found in System settings and also reboot your router/modem. Even if other devices are fine this often cures gremlins. A Factory reset in System settings should be your last resort since it will require repeating the setup and re-saving presets.
If these steps don’t resolve it or the problem keeps coming back, keep in mind your Como Audio model depends on your Wi-Fi network to maintain accurate time. If the Wi-Fi signal is lost, the unit can no longer keep track of the time (or date), thus defaulting to 12 o’clock. If the alarm activates by itself, this is meant as an audible warning that the Wi-Fi signal has been lost. Look at the Wi-Fi signal meter in the right corner of the display. If it has 2 bars or less, that is weak. Wi-Fi strength varies throughout the day, so it might be strong at one point and weak at another. The solution is to get your router closer to your music system. In the case of the Musica, its rear Ethernet connection should offer improvement. If your router is an older model, that could also be the culprit. Consult with your Wi-Fi service provider about newer equipment options.
It’s also possible you pressed the alarm key on the remote control in error which will set the alarm to activate at the default time, 12 midnight. If you see 12:00 at the bottom of the display in tiny digits, this means the alarm is set to activate at 12:00. Toggle the remote’s alarm key until no times are shown at the bottom of the display.
If you have too many devices connected to your network (computer, smartphone, TV service, security system, smart appliances, etc.), that can also cause a problem, including grouping multiple Como Audio systems. Perform a test on your router with a site like this one: https://www.att.com/support/speedtest/. If your Jitter is 15 or above, your network is probably congested and you should try to reduce the number of devices connected to your network.
19. Why does the Como Control app show “[Empty]” presets when I know for certain I have stations stored to those presets?
Our app is based on a slightly different platform than our units which is why not all features in the unit’s menu are supported in the app and vice versa. In the case of presets, the app does not see presets independently like our models do. What this means is when you are in a source and using the app, you will only see presets saved for that particular source. For instance, if you have Internet radio stations set to presets 1, 2, and 3, and FM stations set to presets 4, 5, and 6, when you are in Internet radio mode, in the app you will only see presets 1-3. Presets 4-6 will show as “[Empty]”. Likewise, when you are in FM mode, presets 1-3 will show as “[Empty]” in the app while presets 4-6 will show your stored FM stations.
20. How can I access my presets via the remote control?
The Solo/Duetto/Amico remote does not include preset keys. Our top of the line model, Musica, includes a different model remote control with dedicated preset keys which will work with our other models. You can buy Musica’s remote separately from our website. You can also access presets using the free Como Control app, but see query #19 above.
21. Bonus FAQ: If I unplug my Como Audio system or lose power, do I lose my presets and all my settings?
No. Your presets, network name and password, My Favorites, and other settings are stored in non-volatile memory. The only thing lost is the time/date which will auto set in under 60 seconds once power is restored and the unit re-acquires your Wi-Fi network. Note the unit will power back on in the last state used, so if it was playing an Internet station, it will resume playing at the same volume when the power is restored. The only time presets and other settings are lost and setup is required again is after performing a Factory reset in the System settings menu. On very rare occasions presets may be lost or performing the setup is required again after a major software update, but we will alert you about this via email as much in advance as possible. Please be sure you are signed up to our email list to receive such notifications along with other news and promotions.
22. Bonus FAQ: How can I improve the FM reception?
Most FM stations can be accessed through Internet radio without having to worry about reception or noise. In most instances you will also see station logos and programming meta data. If you can only receive the station through FM and the signal is weak or the RDS meta data is corrupted, you can change out the external FM antenna if you prefer. You can purchase the custom plastic wrench used to remove the stock antenna and then attach the FM wire antenna included with the wrench, or attach your own external FM antenna. This article has more details: Tech Rap: Tricking out your FM.
23. Bonus FAQ: Why can I not get my Como Audio system to connect to the Wi-Fi network in my apartment building/office/dorm room?
This is due to the network’s firewall. Please contact the IT person in charge and have them add the MAC address from your Como Audio model to permit connection to the network. To find the MAC address: System settings > Network > View settings. Also, if a VPN is used, please turn it off, connect your Como audio system, and then turn the VPN back on.
Our website has many great resources to help you setup and use your Como Audio music system…basic how-to videos, a 50+ page comprehensive manual, a detailed listing of all software updates by model, and these blog articles. Tech Rap: FAQs Parts 1 & 2 cover the majority of questions we are asked all the time, but if you ever have any questions or comments (or suggestions for a future Tech Rap article), please get in touch at email@example.com. We love hearing from our customers, good or bad, and your valuable feedback helps us help you enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the continuation of Tech Rap: Recommended CDs Part One. There will be a link at the end of this article to Part 1 if you have not read it yet. Part 1 examined five fun CDs to enjoy on your Como Audio Musica (or other CD player). In Part 2 we review five more Tech Rap Recommended CDs to add to your collection. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Links to purchase the CDs are provided at the end.
Alan R. Tripp and Marvin Weisbord: Senior Song Book; Ventura Innovations
At 102 years old and living in a retirement home, Alan R. Tripp is about the most unlikely pop star there could be. It all started with a poem he wrote three years ago, “Best Old Friends”, that got published in his local newspaper. His then 88-year old friend and accomplished jazz pianist, Marvin Weisbord, set the poem to music as a surprise gift for Tripp’s 100th Birthday the following year. Unbeknownst to Weisbord, Tripp had a few other poems in his back pocket and was inspired by Weisbord’s thoughtful gift to write more. Before the duo knew it, they had amassed an album’s worth of material. Weisbord took the next step and went into Pennsylvania’s Morning Star Studios with his Wynlyn Jazz Ensemble in tow and laid down the tracks for what would become Senior Song Book. Tripp himself does not sing any of his songs, leaving that to the professionals, but he did read aloud the first verse of Best Old Friends, the song, um, poem, that started it all.
Senior Song Book was released in November of last year and immediately sold out. As of this writing it is sold out again on Amazon where the CD is rated 4 out of 5 stars. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes. If you cannot wait for the CD to come back in stock, the album is available as a digital download, which until recently, Tripp did not know was technologically possible. The songs have an intentional 1940’s flair with contemporary lyrics that reflect on the art of aging, occasionally poking fun at, shall we say, less graceful moments. On the lead track, I Just Can’t Remember Your Name, Tripp’s lyrics confess, “I know I’m mad about you / And all but lost without you / And great affection for you I proclaim / I’m ready now to kiss you / But baby there’s an issue / I just can’t remember your name.” Evident on the recording, lead singer Mark Hollern could not get through the line without the hint of a chuckle.
Of all the tracks, I Just Can’t Remember Your Name has received the most attention, but personally, I am partial to Wonder Woman. The song is not an ode to a vintage comic book super-heroine, but rather, a love note set to music: “You can eat a box of chocolates but don’t gain weight / You can drive a car in traffic and you’re never late / Seems there isn’t anything, my friend, that you can’t do / Do you wonder, woman, why I love you?” It sounds like the anonymous female in question could give the “real” Wonder Woman a run for her money.
Even at an advanced age, love is not all kisses and chocolates. In Goodbye, Goodbye Forever, you would be forgiven if you thought the lyrics were written by a jilted Gen Y lover: “Don’t come and go if you can’t stay / If you can’t stay, then go away! / Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, forever / I think you’ll never understand / that love must be a real endeavor / not just a one-night stand!” I am a little less than half of Tripp’s age and my love life is not nearly as dramatic.
With his newfound songwriting success, I was curious about Tripp’s favorite all-time songwriter. “Cole Porter”, he replied. “He wrote both music and lyrics. He could write in any musical mode. His lyrics were both witty and memorable, and his melodic lines were both “sing-able” and challenging. What other composer can you say that about?”
To be clear, Senior Song Book is not strictly intended for those on Medicare or Geritol. Read some of the comments fans have written on the Senior Song Book website and it is evident music lovers of all ages will get something out of it. “I am sending this email to thank you for the beautiful CD that was done by you and others”, began a post by Tanisha Grant. “I am 39 and enjoy the great sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington…this CD is in the mind frame of the greats themselves. Great job…” Through his PR Agency, Randex Communications, I asked Tripp what feedback he liked the most. “It won’t save civilization, but it’s a step in the right direction”, he wrote me.
Tripp has accomplished more than I ever hope to with however much sand remains in my hourglass, and his resume puts mine to shame: ad executive, author, veteran, inventor (he invented the Endless Pool amongst other things), radio broadcaster, TV producer, and commercial jingle writer. Now he can add successful song writer to the list. I asked Tripp if songwriting proved more challenging than writing jingles. “Writing a good popular song is much harder than penning a singing commercial — the former has to get into somebody’s heart; the latter only has to penetrate somebody’s head.” Indeed, the songs on Senior Song Book will easily find their way into your heart, or pacemaker, as the case may be.
“To be clear, Senior Song Book is not strictly intended for those on Medicare or Geritol.“
I asked Tripp what he felt music lovers should take away from his album. “There’s an important message in one of the album’s titles: It’s Never Too Late for Love. The final verse of that song declares: “I’m too young to give up and cash out / Too old for takin’ the trash out / Just whistle, baby, and you’ll see me dash out / It’s never too late for love!” Considering I seem to be a magnet for WMD’s (Women of Mass Destruction), I guess there is still hope for me yet. Maybe I should dust off some of those poems I wrote when I was a student at Emerson College…
After a long career and now a hit record, Tripp will surrender his free time to bingo and basket weaving, right? Not a chance. He is writing a mystery novel and developing a cabaret show based on the music from Senior Song Book. To paraphrase something Tripp espoused in several interviews, retirement is not about retiring from something, but retiring to something.
The music from Senior Song Book is truly special. It demonstrates that love and enjoying life does not stop at age 102. The CD will have you tapping your feet and the lyrics will make you think about what you have done with your life and what you will do with the rest of it.
Since we have been talking poetry, it strikes me to conclude this segment with a short original poem:
I’m alone in my home
No one to phone
Listening to my Musica
Feeling like I’m in a cell
Like a prisoner in Attica
Awaiting the dinner bell
Social distancing is getting old
All my plans are put on hold
So, my many CDs I play
Not much else for me to do
I just daydream all day
About a Senior Song Book: Volume Two
Trivia: Tripp wrote the snappy “Choo-Choo Charlie” jingle for Good & Plenty candy: “Once upon a time there was an engineer/ Choo-Choo Charlie was his name we hear / He had an engine and he sure had fun / He used Good & Plenty Candy to make his train run.”
2. Peter White: Music for Starlux Airlines; Lobster Music
This CD is a soundtrack, but not a soundtrack to a film. Rather, it is a soundtrack to an airline. Allow me to explain. STARLUX is a new Taiwanese-based, luxury airline that began flying in January of this year. The airline is not luxurious in name only. Business class features a 15.6” 1080p touchscreen entertainment system, the “retro futuristic” custom uniforms for the flight crew were created by a local fashion designer, and there is even a proprietary cabin scent of florals, wood, and leather. With such high standards and attention to detail, it is understandable why STARLUX would commission the iconic Peter White to write an album’s worth of original instrumental music to play on their fleet of brand-new Airbus A321neo and A350-1000 planes. You know the kind of thing…a little something to soothe you as you settle in the cabin (which was designed by BMW’s Designworks Studio), and to get you in the mood upon arrival. Part of the reason I write Tech Rap Recommended CDs is to shine a light on unique titles, and Music for STARLUX AIRLINES is one of the most unique CDs I have encountered in recent years.
If you are like me and you love contemporary jazz, then you are already intimately familiar with multi-instrumentalist Peter White (best known for his guitar work). The UK-born White has recorded many hit songs since his first solo album way back in 1990…Good Day, Perfect Moment, Mister Magic, Bright, Here We Go, Head Over Heels, Groovin’…with so many fabulous tunes to his name, it is hard for me to pick my favorite White song, but I would say Smile is tops for me. White also has almost 165,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Music for STARLUX AIRLINES is his 16th album.
If White’s name does not ring a bell, you have likely heard of some of the big-name artists he has performed with…Basia, David Sanborn, Dave Koz, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Jeff Golub, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum, Boney James, Mindi Abair, and Euge Groove. I will also bet you know the Al Stewart hits Time Passages and Year of the Cat. Time Passages was co-written by White, and he played keyboards on Year of the Cat. His collaboration with Stewart went on for twenty years.
Let us be honest with each other- smooth jazz (also called contemporary jazz) sometimes gets a bad rap for being elevator-type music. I recently saw a TV commercial where a guy opened the passenger door of his car for his date to get in. As the door opened, generic smooth jazz blared from the car’s cockpit. “You listen to smooth jazz?!”, his date exclaimed sarcastically. Visibly embarrassed, the man denied it, offering some feeble excuse. Smooth jazz is not just Kenny G, not that there is necessarily anything wrong with Kenny G. If you have never heard Peter White then please do not judge this genre until you hear his music. His music is substantive and consistently uplifting. Even his song titles are positive. I consider White the Ambassador of smooth jazz. His music serves as a fitting introduction to the genre.
In the liner notes for Music for STARLUX AIRLINES, White said his goal was to “convey a sense of travel, escape, and adventure…” This goal was hampered by the fact that STARLUX did not want the usual three to four-minute songs that typically populate most albums and that radio stations prefer playing. As White stated in the press release, “the airline wanted songs that were over 7 minutes long which posed a new challenge – how to make a song interesting and easy to listen to yet complex enough from beginning to end to hold a listener’s attention.”
White rose to the challenge. The lead track, Flying High, peaked at #22 on the US Jazz Charts. It sets the perfect mood for a comfortable excursion in the stratosphere. Island Getaway and Fun in the Sun both have very convincing tropical vibes, making this listener feel like I am sitting at beach with the ocean waves gently lapping at my feet. When the evening comes, let yourself doze off in a comfortable hammock under the stars with the cool night breeze as your companion. Peaceful will put you there. As fun and exciting as traveling is, it is always nice to come home, and Homeward Bound gently prepares you for the return. I was unable to find a public comment from the airline about the music so I asked them for a statement for my article: “STARLUX is a Taiwan luxury boutique airline which values every detail of each journey, aiming to satisfy passengers with every aspect of its services. It is a great honor to invite the legendary Jazz artist, Mr. Peter White, to compose six pieces of Smooth Jazz. The tailor-made boarding and landing music convey the feeling of the travel and adventure, also to bring the soothing relaxation to the passengers.” They say if you hold a shell to your ear you can hear the ocean. Close your eyes while you play Music for STARLUX AIRLINES on your Musica and you will not only hear the ocean in your mind, you will swear you can taste the salt air and feel the warm sun on your face.
Though there are only six tracks total, about half of what one would expect on a CD, the running time of each song exceeds seven minutes, so the disc times out at just over forty-four minutes. White wrote, produced, and mixed Music for STARLUX AIRLINES, and played all of the instruments (guitar, keyboards, harmonica, and accordion), save the viola on Homeward Bound, played by his daughter, Charlotte. The CD is currently highly rated at 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
Late last year I had the great honor of meeting White after one of his super-band Christmas concerts, “A Peter White Christmas”. Call me crazy, but I flew down to Clearwater, FL from Boston just to see him perform live. In my defense, he was not playing any New England gigs, so I could not see him locally. Besides, it was a good excuse to meet my 87-year old father, a Florida snow bird, for dinner before the concert. White dedicated a good 10-15 minutes of his time chatting with me about his music and his tour schedule. He was charming and a true gentleman in every sense, precisely the way you imagine all celebrities to be, though in reality, you know not all of them are. True to his nature, he personally responded to my written questions for this article:
PS: Did you have any specific places in mind when you wrote this music or did the songs just flow naturally?
PW: “I come up with musical ideas all the time and I just picked the ones which seemed calm and relaxing for this CD specifically for airline passengers to listen to. You need all the relaxation you can get when you are flying!”
PS: Do you have a favorite track?
PW: “My favorite track is probably Peaceful which I particularly enjoy playing on stage. It reminds me of sitting on the beach, watching the waves rolling in and out. You can even hear the waves if you listen carefully!”
PS: What is the most exotic place you have ever been to?
PW: “The most exotic place I have ever been to is the island of Palau which is part of Micronesia in the W. Pacific. I felt that I was at the farthest place in the world from England, which is where I grew up. A great place to relax, swim and snorkel and it’s probably the only place I’ve been to in the last 20 years where I wasn’t playing a show!”
PS: If you could travel anywhere in the world where you have never been before, where would you go?
PW: “I’d like to go to Iceland and probably will one day.”
PS: Prior to COVID-19, how frequently did you travel on average?
PW: “Usually I am traveling every weekend year-round. Sometimes it’s in California where I live, but very often it is further afield, East Coast or International which means I go to the airport on Thursday or Friday and come home Sunday or Monday, sometimes the following week!”
PS: What is the best part for you about being in a different state or country?
PW: “I just love meeting people from all around the world; how we are different and how we are the same fascinates me!”
“…play Music for STARLUX AIRLINES on your Musica and you will not only hear the ocean in your mind, you will swear you can taste the salt air and feel the warm sun on your face.“
With the sacrifices we have all been making over the last couple three months because of the coronavirus, we are all entitled to a relaxing get away. For many of us, Music for STARLUX AIRLINES is about as close as we will get to one any time soon, and it is a lot less expensive than round-trip airfare to some exotic locale. Close your eyes as you play this CD on your Musica and imagine yourself as a passenger on a luxury airline destined for wherever you have always wanted to go. Put your tray table up, your seat in the upright position, and buckle your seat belt. A little musical escapism never hurt anyone. And please do not tamper with the smoke detector in the bathroom.
Trivia: White’s parents bought him his first acoustic guitar when he was eight. When he heard Jimi Hendrix’s ”Purple Haze” in 1967, he switched to the electric guitar until it was burned in a fire set accidentally by his brother, Danny.
3. Johnny Mathis: The Island; Real Gone Music RGM-0965
I became familiar with this Johnny Mathis CD through a newsletter and was intrigued by the fact that it had never been released independently in any format until now, 31 years after it was recorded and summarily shelved by Mathis’ long-time label, Columbia Records. The Island was included as part of Mathis’ 68 CD box set, The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection, but this is the first time it has ever been issued as a standalone release. Mathis fell in love with Brazil and that was the inspiration behind this album. As Mathis stated in the CD booklet, “I loved the country itself. The people were so generous, happy, wonderful, and so kind to me…I’d always wanted to honor my friendship with the wonderful people there…”
In March’s Tech Rap I recommended a Sergio Mendes record. Coincidentally, this CD title I am recommending was produced by Mendes. Three tracks- Like A Lover,So Many Stars, and Flower of Bahia were all recorded by Mendes previously. As Mathis recalled in the booklet, “I’ve seen Sergio two or three occasions [since The Island] and we have great memories of this something that we’ve done together. It was one of the golden moments of my career to work with Sergio…”
My favorite tracks include the very romantic title track which has been previously covered by stars like Barbara Streisand and Patti Austin: “On a little island / Not a soul can see us / Show me how to love you / Teach me how to please you / Lay your dreams beside me.”So Many Stars, Your Smile, and Who’s Counting Heartaches (a duet with Mathis’ long-time friend, Dionne Warwick) are also standouts. Of Warwick, Mathis commented in the booklet, “I can’t tell you how meaningful a relationship like hers has been to me over the years. Her singing is so extraordinary and she’s so gifted in so many ways.”
It annoys me to no end when a booklet included with a CD is not worth the paper it is printed on. Happily, the 15-page booklet that comes with The Island is packed with interesting information and pictures. Always on the hunt for more details, I decided to go straight to the master himself. Sorry, not Johnny Mathis, but the Mastering Engineer (mastering is the final step before music is released commercially) at Sony’s Battery Studios who re-mastered The Island, Mike Piacentini. He also re-mastered all 68 CDs in Mathis’ The Voice of Romance. More recently, he re-mastered a new Andy Williams rare tracks compilation CD, Emperor of Easy. Piacentini took time out of his schedule to address my written questions:
PS: During the remastering, did you encounter anything out of the ordinary or did it present any unique challenges? Did you use the first-generation master tape? Do you feel a little more responsibility or pressure when remastering a legend like Johnny Mathis?
MP: “For this particular project we did utilize first generation tapes whenever they were available. Myself and Didier (the producer) spent about a month going through and transferring sources for the box set at 24/192k – The Island was part of this effort and the [Real Gone Music] standalone [release] uses the mastering from the complete box set. If I remember correctly The Island was either a first generation or first-generation tape copy. For The Island in particular I don’t believe we ran into any issues out of the ordinary for a remastering effort. I definitely feel a bit of pressure when touching anyone’s back catalog, Johnny’s included. I wouldn’t necessarily say there was more or less pressure during this box set, but there was certainly a concerted effort to “get it right” if you will.”
PS: Were there any songs not included on the CD or any unfinished songs on the master? Were there any memorable exchanges caught on tape, like between Mathis and Warwick?
MP: “First off, apologies for referring to the box set so much during these questions – all of the albums were remastered during the same time period, and so most of my memories for remastering the catalog blend together as one effort. For the box set we didn’t leave any stone unturned if it was part of the Columbia offerings. If there were bonus tracks/extras they were included on the odds and ends CD. There weren’t any bonus tracks or outtakes for this release. We were working from the master 2-track tapes for this project and by the time that master tape gets created during the production process, all of the studio chatter and irregularities have been spliced out of the tape leaving only the intended takes/sequence for the record. We did call in the multi-tracks to see if there were bonus tracks notated, but for this record, being unreleased, I believe that everything that was on the 2-track masters were the complete studio output for this record.”
PS: Is anything lost when analog audio (tape) is converted into the digital domain (i.e. isn’t digital harsher/less forgiving)?
MP: “There are certainly differences between digital and analog mediums for storing audio. The dynamic range of a digital recording at 24 bit exceeds the capacity of analog tape (~70db vs 144 db), so no dynamic range gets lost in translation. Since the audio was originally stored on tape, much of the signal to noise ratio is retained as well, however, you are introducing quantization distortion to an inaudible extent when converting from analog to digital (all digital audio is represented on a grid no matter the sampling rate). We transfer everything at an extremely high sampling rate to minimize any distortions and sampling at 192k far exceeds the frequency response of what a consumer would receive on a vinyl pressing.”
PS: I know you have remastered other Mathis albums. Do you have any special connection with Johnny Mathis or his music? You seem like you would have been very young (or not born yet) when Mathis was at his peak.
MP: “This is certainly true – I was definitely not born during Johnny’s peak! To be quite honest, before mastering his catalog I did not have much of a connection to his music. During this massive undertaking though, I really gained an appreciation for him as an artist and songwriter, and a lot of his tracks are definitely in rotation for me now. It’s odd to say – but I believe that I’ve mastered more records for Johnny now than any other artist.”
PS: If an analog recording re-issue is going to be released on vinyl, CD, and as a digital download, do you have to re-master for each format?
MP: “Yes. While there are certain things I do not readjust between vinyl and digital releases, some of my processing chain will be altered to allow for the individual medium to be better represented. In most cases, the CD and digital releases are identical, save for down-sampling to 16/44.1k for CD. For vinyl though, there are certain particularities of the medium where the mastering should be fine-tuned to better suit the release.”
“…I really gained an appreciation for him as an artist and songwriter, and a lot of his tracks are definitely in rotation for me now.“
When I think of Johnny Mathis, I think of his classic hits It’s Not for Me to Say, Maria, Chances Are, Misty, and the holiday perennial, It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, which is unfair to his complete body of work. The Island really opened up my mind to the genius of Johnny. Did you know he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame three times, given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2014, inducted into the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame?
At 85, Mathis does not do a lot of touring, so I count myself lucky to have a ticket to see him perform live at the Chevalier Theater in Medford, MA. I regret never having seen Frank Sinatra live; I was not about to make the same mistake with Johnny Mathis. So, you can imagine my disappointment when Mathis cancelled his concert due to the pandemic. At any rate, I recommend you pack your mental bags, fire up your Musica, and take a trip to The Island as soon as possible. Our minds could all use a little tropical escape right about now.
Trivia: Johnny Mathis had five albums on the Billboard charts simultaneously. Only two other singers can claim that same achievement: Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow.
4. Neil Young: Colorado, Reprise Records
In March’s Tech Rap I recommended Neil Young’s beautiful Storytone double album set from 2014. Young shows up again in this month’s article with something new, Colorado, released in late October of last year. This album reunites the rock legend with Crazy Horse, sans retired guitarist Frank Sampedro. The great Nils Lofgren from the E Street Band, whom Young had played with in the past, assumed the position alongside Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums. Frankly, I have come to look upon band reunions as a bipolar experience. On the one hand, I feel elated the band got back together again to make some new music. On the other, the end result is frequently a downer to say the least. Not so with Colorado.
Young’s messages on Colorado are ones he has been communicating for decades…the environment, love, friendship, politics, and self-reflection. From all-out rockers to tender ballads, Young mounts and rides Crazy Horse like they had not been together for seven minutes, not seven years.
Young dedicated his album to his Manager of over 50 years, Elliot Roberts, who passed away a year ago next month at the age of 76. Roberts also managed Tom Petty, and until 1985, Joni Mitchell. Young presumably channeled that profound personal loss in the poignant Older Days: “Where did all the people go? / Why did they fade away from me? / They meant so much to me and now I know / That they’re here to stay / In my heart”.
Like the album’s title, the production was straight forward without many bells and whistles. The band performed together in the same room using a PA system with analog equipment and recording to tape just like the old days. Think of Colorado as a professional audition or a one-time, private performance. Young acknowledges this on the simple, lullaby-like closing track, “I Do”: Thanks for making all this happen again / We’re gonna do it just like we did back then.” By the by, the song includes a glass harmonica, a unique instrument originally invented by Benjamin Franklin. But these special sessions were not captured only on audio tape…
“Mountaintop” is a documentary directed by Young (aka Bernard Shakey) about the album. “I want it up as loud as it can go without feeding…I want to hear the f****** thing”, Young growls at the sound engineer in the movie trailer. “Turn this f****** thing off! If this is all you can do, I don’t f****** need it!” At 73 (when the songs were recorded), Young remains as passionate as ever about his music. He even gets crotchety with his band, forgetting the old adage- Never look a gift Crazy Horse in the mouth. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate his image on the CD cover is of a dark, almost menacing figure, like the Creeper from “Jeepers Creepers”. The film is described as “a raw and extremely unfiltered look at the process of Neil Young with Crazy Horse…Witness the laughter, tensions, crusty attitudes and love of a rock & roll band that’s been together for 50 years as they share their passion, first and foremost… for the music.”
Colorado was recorded at Studio in the Clouds, so it is possible the altitude contributed to the attitude. Oxygen canisters were reportedly at the ready for the band to take hits from in between takes. Why that studio? One possible reason- it is just outside of Telluride, CO where Young resides with his bride, Daryl Hannah. Another reason could be its eco-friendliness, an important factor to Young. The studio, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, boats a solar greenhouse that heats the entire facility, 96 solar panels supplying 40% more energy than needed, and all sitting on 90 breathtaking acres of pastureland and forest. It even has five bedrooms and an aquatic garden. The only thing missing is a day spa and an outdoor hot tub heated by a wood stove. All in all, not a bad place to hunker down for eleven days with your mates while recording an album. FYI- in the music industry, eleven days to record an entire album is equivalent to the Starship Enterprise traveling at warp factor ten.
No new Neil Young album would be complete without a little political commentary, especially considering Young became a US Citizen this past January (in addition to his Canadian citizenship). In Rainbow of Colors, Young takes a not so subtle jab at this country’s immigration policy as he sees it: “Now I know some might tell me / That there’s not room for all / And they should just go back / To the places and stay far / Where their lives lie there broken / There’s no chance left at all / And the leaders have spoken / On that side of the wall.”
Eternity is my favorite track on Colorado. Unfortunately, it is also the shortest. In it, Young takes inventory of his blessings: “Woke up this morning in a house of love / The birds were singing in the sky above / The dogs were barking and the deer were free.” Those “clickity clack” percussive effects are tap dancing courtesy of Lofgren. After Colorado was released, Lofgren told app.com, “It took me 50 years to get a tap dancing credit on a Neil Young record, but it was worth the wait and it was a great laugh.”
“Frankly, I have come to look upon band reunions as a bipolar experience.“
In She Showed Me Love, which spans 13 1/2 minutes, Young fancies himself “an old white guy” and sings, “you might say I’m a few bricks short of a load.” He goes on to make you ponder that statement by repeatedly singing “she showed me love” more than seventy times to guitar jamming. There are mantras and then there are Neil Young mantras.
Help Me Lose My Mind sheds a few more bricks from the load: “I gotta find a new television / Got to find a new display system / To make the sky look like the Earth is flattened / I gotta get someone to sort this out.” Sounds like a job for the Geek Squad.
The state of Colorado’s motto, roughly translated, is “Nothing without Providence”. In a way, that is the unspoken theme of this album named after the State. For without Providence there would be no nature, no love, no friendship, no life, and no death. Colorado is indeed about the state. No, not the state of Colorado, but the state of Neil Young. That state is best described as healthier, wealthier, and wiser. If you felt Young’s more recent works were a bit stifling, you will find Colorado refreshingly accessible, and it will not require supplemental oxygen to enjoy it. In one “The Big Interview” episode on cable channel AXS TV, Dan Rather asked Young why, at his age and with his money, he still bothered to make music. Young turned the question back on Rather, asking him why, at his age and with his money, Rather still bothered to do interviews. The answer is it brings Young much joy. Lucky for us, Colorado brings us much joy as well.
Trivia: Legend has it Young was a studio session guitarist for some 1968 recordings by The Monkees which were included on their Head and Instant Replay records.
5. Tony Joe White: Bad Mouthin’, Yep Roc Records 2593
Our excellent Como Audio dealer in Iceland, a long-time personal friend of mine, recently suggested I check out singer/guitarist Tony Joe White. White is the number one selling artist in his store. “He [is] just sensational”, shop owner Steini Danielsson wrote me in an email. “…He has such a number of great songs; one of my favorite guitar player[s].” I am not partial to “swamp rock” myself (honestly, I had never even heard of the term until White was brought to my attention), however, White’s Bad Mouthin’ CD I am recommending is blues-centric. For this release, White went back to basics: “When and where I grew up, blues was just about the only music I heard and loved,” White stated in a press release. “I thought it was time to make a blues album that sounds the way I always loved the music.”
It is amazing White is not better known considering his songs have been covered by Elvis, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, and George Benson (and that is the short list). In the 1970’s he toured with acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf, and Ann Murray. More recently in the 1990’s he toured with Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. He scored a top ten hit with his song Polk Salad Annie. Since I wondered, I figured you would, too…polk is a cooked greens dish made from wild pokeweed. In 2014 White performed on The Late Show with David Letterman along with the Foo Fighters, prompting Letterman to comment afterwards as only Letterman could: “Holy Cow! If I was this guy you could all kiss my ass.”
Bad Mouthin’ was recorded, of all places, in two former horse stalls in White’s Tennessee barn with his own gear and was produced by his son, Jody. It features White, his 1965 Fender Stratocaster and a harmonica, performing his own songs alongside covers of classic blues standards by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters. This is not an album of scorching blues that will fry your Musica. The songs come across very personal, as if White was singing on a bale of hay at arm’s length just for you. There are times when things get a bit too intimate, meaning White sings so low and slow it can be difficult to decipher his words, but somehow it just makes the songs all that more endearing. Sundown Blues, Big Boss Man, and Stockholm Blues are my personal picks.
“Holy Cow! If I was this guy you could all kiss my ass. “
Sadly, White died from a heart attack at the age of 75 in October of 2018, about a month after this album came out. If blues is not your thing, do not get depressed. White has almost thirty albums to his name, leaving you plenty of others to choose from.
Trivia: Tony Joe White wrote “Rainy Night in Georgia” which reached number four on the charts in 1970 for Brook Benton.
So, there you have it…five more nifty Tech Rap Recommended CDs to entertain yourself for hours on end on your Como Audio Musica while you continue to hunker down at home. Talk about a stimulus package! Keep Calm and Musica On. Hint: Couple the Como Audio Musica with anyone of these CDs (or any CDs from Part 1) for a very thoughtful graduation, wedding, house warming, Birthday, Father’s Day, or belated Mother’s Day gift. With many stuck at home, giving the gift of music will be especially appreciated. Take a break from watching CNN (Coronavirus News Network) and enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his won blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
Last year I wrote my first Tech Rap recommending some standout CDs for our Como Audio Musica owners (or anyone with a CD player). That one article received more positive feedback than any I have written to date. Having made some exciting new discoveries since then, I figured a follow-up was in order. Here are five CDs of varying genres, some having been released a few months ago, others several years ago. Be on the lookout for Part 2 which recommends five additional titles. The numbered ranking does not start with the best, or the newest, or even alphabetically. It has more to do with how quickly I can complete the written recommendation for that CD after getting responses to my interview questions. As far as I am concerned, these CDs are all number one. I am confident you will enjoy reading about these titles along with the related interviews, but I know you will enjoy listening to them on your Musica even more. If you own more than one Como Audio system, or plan to, you can group the units together and hear the CDs you play on Musica throughout your home. I have included links to purchase these CDs at the end.
1. The Flat Five: It’s a World of Love and Hope; Bloodshot Records BS 711
Back in the 1960’s there existed a music format called “Sunshine Pop”. A couple of examples of this distinctive sound include The Association’s Cherish, Windy, and Never My Love, and The Fifth Dimension’s Aquarius and Up– Up and Away. The genre was as harmless as whole milk and equally fattening, but alas, it did not enjoy the same staying power. The Chicago-based vocal throw-back group, The Flat Five (Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall), are about as close as you will get today to Sunshine Pop. I heartily applaud them for taking a defibrillator to this special kind of music and giving it new life.
The Flat Five have been impressing audiences with their vocal charms for the last decade-plus, mostly as Chicago’s clean little secret. So much so they could have called themselves Goody Ten Shoes. Despite the group’s longevity, It’s A World of Love and Hope is their first and only full-length album (as of this writing), and it shows The Flat Five are anything but flat. In fact, they will tickle your musical fancy until your fancy can be tickled no longer.
The band’s makeup is a fragmentation of very busy members of other established groups that unite when schedules align to produce their unique music. Kelly Hogan has a couple of solo records under her belt and Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough are both members of the current NRBQ line up. However, The Flat Five are not NRBQ-light.
All the lyrics on It’s A World of Loveand Hope were written by Chris Ligon, older brother of band member Scott Ligon, and he recorded several of them himself over ten years ago on his Look at the Birdie album. His lyrics have a child-like playfulness to them. Birmingham serves as a good example of what you can expect as you audibly unpack the twelve tracks: “We pulled off the road so I could pee / And you stood guard so no one else could see / I know it was wrong to hit your mother / But she had it coming all the way.” They had me at “pee”. Florida and Almond Grove are very close behind. Buglight is simply the bee’s knees: “My girl likes to stay home at night just to watch the bugs pop on her bug light.” Sounds like my kind of gal. Fun, thy name is The Flat Five. This is Your Night is the standout and like most of the tracks, sounds like something you would have heard on AM radio in the late 1960’s: “Slip into an Irish Spring / Rub-a- dub-dub you dirty thing.” Hmmm…unintentional musical product placement? Why there is even a song for all of you fashionistas out there, I Could Fall In Love With You: “As long as you don’t wear yellow / As long as you don’t wear blue / As long as you don’t wear orange / I could fall in love with you.” Truth be told, there is not a bad track on the whole CD. I wish they had included a little booklet of printed lyrics with whimsical illustrations, but that is the only criticism I can manage. The only other thing that could have made this CD even better is if the cover had been made out of crispy bacon.
“In fact, they will tickle your musical fancy until your fancy can be tickled no longer.“
The group’s record label, Bloodshot Records, put me in touch with The Flat Five’s Kelly Hogan for a quick Q&A:
PS: What is it about the blending of human voices that makes us go weak in the knees?
KH: “It’s physical. Vibrations. It’s a perfect feeling. The first time I ever sang harmony (around age 11) it felt like flying. With a choir it’s like being part of a starling murmuration. Incredible. And with the folks in the Flat Five, we found that we had a natural effortless blend — and when you find folks you blend with vocally, you handcuff them to you and swallow the key.”
PS: Do the quirky lyrics require you to approach the songs in a certain way or do you treat them like any other songs?
KH: “We don’t ever sing “with a wink and a nod” — we treat a song with quirky lyrics the same as any Hal David trophy-winner. It’s like having a friend with a weird sense of humor. It’s refreshing. You just gotta go with it.”
PS: Any particular story behind the album cover?
KH: “We just wanted to be bringing something beautiful to folks. And all the flowers were from Nora’s backyard :-)”
PS: Are The Flat Five planning on releasing any new music this year?
KH: “Most certainly. I’m listening to a final mix as I answer your questions. We have a whole (as yet untitled) album almost in the can. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to get it out with the current state of world affairs, but we’ll figure out a way. It should be out in some form in the next few months.”
PS: Any plans for a US tour after the virus settles down?
KH: “Nope. It’s a bummer — but because all of us are committed in part to other bands (and our drummer/engineer Alex Hall to running his Chicago studio, Reliable Recorders) — The Flat Five is not really a touring band. We do some Midwest regional touring, and with a herculean effort (including nine months of saving our gig money to afford it) we made it out to the Pacific Northwest for our last record, but that was about it. And touring is not a profitable enterprise for a peanut-sized band like us. It’s not will you lose money on tour, it’s ‘how much.'”
PS: Lyrically, what’s the strangest song you’ve ever sung?
KH: “Personally, “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee (written by Leiber/Stoller, I think) — and in the Flat Five, hmmm…I sang lead on “Busy Doing Nothing” when we performed the entire Friends album by the Beach Boys. That song is essentially Brian Wilson giving you directions to his house. It was so hard to learn and sing, but I loved it.”
Because their flamboyant music does not exactly conform to most popular commercial radio formats, you are not likely to hear The Flat Five on your favorite station. That alone should be reason enough to add this quirky quintet to your Musica CD collection. One listen and The Flat Five will have you convinced it really is a world of love and hope. Just be sure you have plenty of Fun Insurance in place because you will have to file a claim afterwards. At last count the CD was rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon. As hard as I have tried, I fear my article does not do The Flat Five’s music justice, so allow me to conclude by categorically stating It’s A World of Love and Hope is one CD you have to have. And do be sure to get the CD version because you will no doubt wear out the vinyl record in pretty short order. Now, I am stepping outside to watch my bug light…
Trivia (supplied by Hogan): Which mild-mannered member of the Flat Five, with less than 24 hours-notice and absolutely no rehearsal, went on tour to sing lead (!) in Brian Wilson’s band for their Pet Sounds tour for two weeks in April of 2017?
Unscramble for the answer: SYCEA HOGMUCNDO
2. Lindsey Webster: A Woman Like Me; Shanachie Records 5475
I first heard Lindsey Webster while listening to a smooth jazz Internet radio station on a Como Audio Duetto about three years ago. The song was Fool Me Once. I was hooked, but at the same time, I was paranoid she would be a one-hit wonder and I would be unable to feed my addiction. I would quickly come to realize my concerns were unfounded. Move over Sade, Lindsey Webster is here to stay. Webster quickly became my favorite female contemporary jazz vocalist along with Maysa. I pre-ordered Webster’s latest CD, A Woman Like Me, and it has been giving my Musica a cardio workout since I received it in the mail a month ago. The timing was apropos considering last month was Jazz Appreciation Month (“JAM”).
Webster is a native of Woodstock, NY…not exactly a hot bed for jazz. Her parents, whom she has called “responsible hippies”, listened mostly to rock music…The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the like. She took up the cello in elementary school and loved singing Maria Carey and Whitney Houston songs. As a young adult she took her talent public to an extent by singing karaoke at local pub. As it so happened, it was that very pub where she met Keith Slattery in 2009, whom eventually became her song writing partner, keyboardist, and later, her husband. The two have since divorced but remain close and continue to collaborate.
In addition to playing keyboards/piano and co-writing every song on A Woman Like Me (except the last track), Slattery also produced and engineered the album. As Webster stated in her press release: “I could not have done this album with anyone else. Keith is an amazing example of understanding and compassion. First and foremost, Keith and I were friends before anything. Then we became musical partners. Then we became romantically involved. We spent all those years creating something amazing together. I can say that with Keith’s guidance and wisdom, I have become a better person.” To Slattery’s credit, the recordings are polished without going over the top, something some contemporary jazz albums easily fall victim to. As a side bar, Slattery has been busy putting the finishing touches on his own album. More on that in the interview portion.
Webster has enjoyed a good deal of success and has worked hard for it. She toured the US, Europe, and the UK, and has had multiple hit songs including A Love Before, Back to Your Heart, A Love Inside, Where Do You Want to Go, Open Up,It’s Not You, It’s Me, Next to Me, and as I mentioned, Fool Me Once. Fool Me Once from 2015 was the first #1 “vocal driven” song on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart since Sade’s Soldier of Love from 2010. Webster was also Billboard Magazine’s artist of the year in 2016 & 2017. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Her fans and supporters helped launch her first three CDs through crowdfunding on Kickstarter, raising nearly $48,000 combined. For this, her fifth studio album, she stayed the more traditional route, continuing with her label, Shanachie Entertainment. She joins other jazz greats who call Shanachie home, like David Benoit, Vincent Ingala, Najee, Euge Groove, and Rick Braun. Webster and Slattery are joined by regulars Mike Demicco, Chris Harris, and Tommy DePaolo on guitar, bassist Fred Doumbe, Isaac Civitello on drums, and saxophonist Ken Gioffre. Special guests include drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Nathan East, and Luis Conte on percussion.
With her band of heavy hitters behind her, Webster comes out swinging (pun intended), with the first four tracks being the strongest of the eleven. The first single off of the album, Feels Like Forever, peaked at #14 on Billboard. Equally chart-worthy are Close to You (no, not The Carpenters’ song), the biting Running Around, and the uplifting One Step Forward: “Steady climbing / Going to find my way / Because there is no denying / Gotta seize the day.” A Woman Like Me debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart and #1 on iTunes. The CD is currently rated 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon.
I see A Woman Like Me as Webster’s coming of age album. In comparing her current CD cover to the cover shots from her previous titles, she looks older and more confident. Her CDs have turned into a kind of unintentional time lapse photography. Again, from her press release: “I’ve been through a lot of changes in my personal life. I joke and say that I had to finally become an adult when I turned 30.” Her song Perspective perhaps best expresses this: “I have found a chance for me to get to know myself / Beautiful / Is the person that I am above all else / All because I’m changing my perspective.”
The album closes out just as strong as it started with a cover of the classic Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an audience favorite during Webster’s live performances dating back to 2009. Her rendition is enough to melt the Tin Man’s heart. “If a song doesn’t make me smile, think, or cry,” she said in her press release, “I don’t really care to hear it. I am not interested in hearing about the other night in the club. I want to continue to keep people in touch with the music, emotionally.”
“With her band of heavy hitters behind her, Webster comes out swinging (pun intended)…“
Like other artists, all of Webster’s scheduled live performances got postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, so starting mid-last month, she and Slattery have been showcasing weekly, live, hour-long performances for fans via Facebook. Unapologetically, I do not do Facebook, and I admit I am very old school when it comes to music and concerts, so the whole Facebook concerts thing was uncharted territory for me. It was strange to this viewer to watch artists, as if on cue, immediately reach for their smartphones for comments, questions, and requests at the end of each song. The audio is Wi-Fi not hi-fi, when it is not dropping out that is. Even with the video setting maxed out at 720p (“HD”), the quality looks like a paint by numbers picture by someone incapable of staying within the lines. However, Webster has invested in a better camera, so the quality should improve going forward. Expecting but not hearing deserving applause after each song was slightly jarring, like a funny TV sitcom without an audience laughing. You will hear a lot of inconsequential talk between songs, interspersed with some questionable jokes, taco eating, and no pressure appeals to donate if you wish (yes, I made a donation to Webster’s PayPal: firstname.lastname@example.org).
That said, it is very special to see Webster and Slattery performing as a duo. Slattery is often a figure in black, sometimes donning dark sunglasses, perched in front of his Yamaha Montage keyboard, while Webster is nicely attired, mid-riff exposed, and barefoot. Slattery’s dog, Sheba, even made some impromptu cameos. The other major plus to these kinds of performances is it allows artists to let their hair down (or hair extensions, as the case may be) and perform little musical gems you might not have heard from them before. In Webster’s case, killer covers like Besame Mucho (sung in Spanish), Fleetwood Mac’s Song Bird, Chaka Kahn’s Ain’t Nobody, Aretha Franklin’s Until You Come Back to Me, Bill Withers’ Lean on Me, the latter having become a coronavirus anthem of sorts.
Since the performances are live and unscripted, you never know what is going to happen. At the end of her second concert, before shutting the camera off, Webster ordered pizzas using her personal cell phone and came dangerously close to giving out her number to her entire Facebook audience, stopping herself after the first three digits. Since I was taking notes for my article, I already had pen and paper at the ready. I am sure she would have taken my call. Ahem.
These kinds of events also prove equally therapeutic for the artists. As Webster said toward the end of her second streaming gig, “I love this. Honestly, everyone who is watching right now, doing this, being able to see your comments, it’s obviously not as good as doing a live show, but it has made me feel the closest thing to normal since all of this happened.” After five studio recordings it is time for Webster to consider a live concert CD with her full band, whenever live concerts are allowed to resume. Her live performances are far too good to be relegated to Facebook.
At the end of last year, I had the great thrill of meeting Webster and Slattery. If fame and fortune go straight to one’s head, Webster never got the memo. A lot of people who find fame end up with an ego the size of your grandfather’s Buick, yet she struck me just as her music does…beautiful, approachable, and relatable. She and Slattery made some time in between preparing for their Facebook concerts to address my questions:
PS: What drew you to jazz?
LW: “My influences include jazz singers, pop artists, classical musicians, and classic rock bands. Keith grew up playing classical and loves jazz and R&B, as well. While I wouldn’t call our music jazz, I think that our music reflects the very many influences we have had over the years.”
PS:What goes into creating a hit song?
LW: “I think witty and unique lyrics have a lot to do with song success. We have never had any formula, per se, to writing. A song like “Fool Me Once”, that was our first single to make it to #1, came of a simple idea on the Wurlitzer and a creative lyric. I think people are drawn to things that sound new and different, while also maintaining a sound.”
PS: You picked a very difficult career that became a lot harder thanks to the coronavirus. What keeps you going?
LW: “The ability to stream these live performances has been a Godsend. It helps me feel connected to all the people that we don’t get to see at shows anymore.”
PS: How was it doing your first “virtual concert”?
LW: “It was great. Getting to hear from all sorts of people via the comment section was a lot of fun! It lifted me out of my seclusion depression for sure.”
PS: Keith, was working on this record bitter sweet for you or was it just like any other?
KS: “It was not bittersweet at all! Lindsey and I continued doing what we do best together, which is create music. If anything, it was a healing experience.”
PS: Keith, can you share any tidbits about your first solo record?
KS: “My album is a mixture of classical and jazz fusion. It features some amazing musicians, like Vinnie Caliouta, Nathan East, Luis Conte, Mike DeMicco, and more. We have a lot of downtime now and it is perfect for being able to focus on it. It will hopefully be released in September!”
I can just picture Webster in LA’s United Recording studio with the lights down low, clutching her headphones as she sings, and slowly grooving. You will find yourself doing the same as you listen. If Lindsey Webster is not yet a household name, this latest release should just about do it. You could pick any one of her CDs to play on your Musica and not go wrong, but I would strongly suggest starting with A Woman Like Me. You will be glad you did, and you will thoroughly enjoy discovering why Webster is the woman she is.
Trivia (supplied by Webster):Before Webster and Slattery met in 2009, she was studying Cell & Molecular Biology in college, thinking her career would be in the medical and research field.
Photo from Lindsey Webster’s Facebook page.
3. Jake Shimabukuro: Trio; Music Theories Recordings MTR 76012
Let us address the elephant in the room. The ukulele has long been considered by some as the offspring of guitar inbreeding, with no place in “serious” music. The mere mention of the diminutive instrument conjures up visions of Tiny Tim making a spectacle of himself. The poor little ukulele must suffer from guitar envy. After all, when it comes to stringed instruments, size matters, right?
Yet the ukulele seems to have come into its own and has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Without even being conscious of it, there is a very good chance you have heard it in TV commercials (Otezla, the psoriatic arthritis drug, for one). Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s classic take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow has been featured in commercials for Axe and Rice Krispies, in movies such as K-PAX and 50 First Dates, and TV shows like ER and Lost. Mainstream artists are integrating the instrument into their pop songs. George Harrison and Tom Petty played the ukulele, as does Paul McCartney and Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes. Amanda Palmer released a mostly-ukulele record. And the uke featured prominently in Train’s hit Hey, Soul Sister and Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours.
Long before this revival, ukulele extraordinaire Jake Shimabukuro was flying under most people’s radar, at least until a YouTube video of him covering George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps went viral. The Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. He has collaborated with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, and Bela Fleck, and made appearances on Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and The Today Show.
I was intrigued to say the least and had to see for myself if all the hype was true. Earlier this year I trekked all the way up to Beverly, MA on the North Shore to see Shimabukuro perform live at the historic Cabot Cinema, celebrating its 100th year in operation. This was well before the pandemic shut down all concert venues. Shimabukuro opened his set with an incredible cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the song that catapulted him into the spotlight. He gradually integrated the other members of his trio, Dave Preston on guitar and Jackson Waldhoff on electric bass (filling in for Nolan Verner), as if carefully adding the ingredients to make a decadent dessert. The music was primarily instrumental and was all over the place, and I mean that in a good way…originals, compositions based on traditional Hawaiian and Japanese songs, and rock covers, too. Shimabukuro did a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. I will pause while you giggle…Pink Floyd via ukulele? Trust me, he nailed it, as he did with his tender treatment of The Beatles Elenore Rigby. He closed his show with a playful audience sing-a-long to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I think my favorite was not a cover song at all, or a Shimabukuro-penned song, but the lovely instrumental Summer Rain, composed by Shimabukuro’s guitarist.
Shimabukuro’s enthusiasm and passion lit up the stage as if he was trying to compete with the spotlights. We do not just listen to music to hear it, we listen to music to feel it, and Shimabukuro filled the Cabot with so much positive energy they could have shut the power off and saved on the electric bill. I hesitate to call the evening magical because that word has become such a cliché, but I cannot think of a more accurate description. Call me crazy, but I think the constant pain from my sciatica temporarily vanished during his performance.
Like all musical innovators, Shimabukuro pushes the limits of his instrument. He uses pedal effects with his ukulele that heretofore had been reserved the for electric guitar. He bangs on it for percussive effects. He somehow manages to convincingly transform it into a thirteen-string Japanese Harp when he plays his Japanese-inspired songs. Dare I say it, Shimabukuro has brought new respect to the ukulele and rightfully earned himself a dedicated and loyal following in the process. I count myself as one of the converts.
Shimabukuro does another innovative thing: He sells professional digital recordings of his live concerts on his website made by his sound technician. You can buy a recording of the very concert you attended just 72 hours earlier. How cool is that for a souvenir?
Before his Queen encore, Shimabukuro humbly thanked the Cinema staff by name along with all the volunteers and security. Students part of a “ukulele orchestra” from Cutler Elementary School were in the balcony and his message to them specifically was to pursue whatever their passion was, study hard, and stay away from drugs. He had met with all of them before the show to give them some lessons. He set up his own charity to help students in Hawaii. What a rare and inspiring role model for kids and anyone wanting to learn music. I bought a ukulele about three years ago with the intention of taking lessons, but I did not have the spare time to give it the dedication it required. I ended up selling it. Now I feel guilty.
“The Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.“
Several of the songs I mentioned can be found on Shimabukuro’s wonderful new album Trio, produced by the legendary Alan Parsons, who engineered records for Pink Floyd and The Beatles in addition to many recordings by his own successful group, The Alan Parsons Project. Trio is rated 5 out 5 of stars on Amazon.
In the end, did he live up the hype? You bet your sweet bippy. Make no mistake, this not Don Ho on acid. Throw away whatever preconceived notions you might have about ukulele music. From twelve rows away I sat in amazement as I watched Shimabukuro’s fingers fly across the strings with lightning speed. Four strings, no waiting. I felt privileged to be able to meet him after his show and personally thank him for such an amazing, uplifting performance.
I took the liberty of emailing Shimabukuro’s PR agency, Jensen Communications, to toss a few quick questions in his direction:
PS: Why did you decide to take up the ukulele as opposed to some other instrument?
JS: “My mom played the ukulele and started teaching me basic chords and songs when I was four years old.”
PS: What is the most challenging aspect of playing the ukulele?
JS: “Playing the ukulele doesn’t “feel” challenging. It’s just fun. Pure joy!”
PS: Is it difficult to arrange an existing pop or rock song for the ukulele?
JS: “Arranging songs can be very simple, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Of course, you can always add more complexity, but usually a pop song in its most basic form isn’t very difficult. A lot of familiar tunes don’t require more than 2 or 3 chords.”
PS: How do you determine whether you will perform a song solo or with other musicians?
JS: “I always try to arrange songs as if I’m going to perform them solo. That way I’ll have a better understanding of the song as a whole. Then, when an opportunity to play the song with someone else comes up, I can always trim away and simplify what I’m doing to make room for the other instrument.”
Returning to the Jimi Hendrix analogy, Shimabukuro did not play his ukulele with his teeth or set it on fire at the end of his performance, but I got the distinct feeling I was experiencing greatness right before my very eyes and ears. If the virus retreats long enough for you to see one concert this year, make it Jake Shimabukuro. You can also catch him live from Hawaii on his Facebook page. Either way, savor his Trio CD on your Musica hi-fi system right now.
Trivia (supplied by Shimabukuro): Jake Shimabukuro’s childhood hero was Bruce Lee.
4. Bandits on the Run: Live at the Power Station; Self-released
Bandits on the Run are my newest favorite band. In fact, I am unilaterally anointing myself “the fourth Bandit”, and in the true tradition of the Bandits, assigning myself an alias. Henceforth, I shall be known as Johnny Smallpox. Now that I have dispensed with the formalities, this cohesive, Manhattan-based trio earned their chops deep in the bowels of New York City’s Underground (read: subway), playing to the swiftly moving masses between the din of trains cycling in and out. Not exactly tumbleweeds and the wild west, but a very challenging environment nonetheless. Their music is difficult to roundup, but I would describe it as a young, acoustic, folks-y/country/Indie sound, with a buckshot of retro.
The three outlaws that comprise this musical posse are Sydney Torin Shepherd (cello, glockenspiel), Adrian Blake Enscoe (guitar, suitcase drum, piano), and Regina Strayhorn (melodica, xylophone, tambourine, percussion, glockenspiel, and accordion). Shepherd and Strayhorn began writing songs together in college, while Shepherd met Enscoe by chance, where else, in the subway. All three have been playing instruments for years, though Strayhorn only picked up the accordion 18 months ago. Having been coerced by my father to take accordion lessons for a year as a teenager, something I am still in psychotherapy for, I can personally attest to the difficulty in taming this beast with bellows.
The Bandit’s first and only (so far) full-length album is 2017’s The Criminal Record, launched by a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $16,000. I reckon many a new group would give their left spur to raise half that amount. I like the tracks Paris and Loser, but by far, my favorite song from the album is Blue Heaven. It is a catchy tune about love that will linger on your lips like a Muleskinner long after the first listen: “Yesterday I lost someone I love / And this keeps happenin’ to everyone I know / Losin’ your heart / The wreckage of the road.” The group’s sumptuous three-part harmony, combined with their clever lyrics, are a gold rush for the ears.
Love has been the inspiration behind many a great song, and it is a common theme that runs through a lot of Bandits tunes. I blame it on their youth. Unfortunately, my hormones stopped raging against the machine decades ago. In March, coinciding with their six-year anniversary, the Bandits celebrated the release of their new single, Love in the Underground. The title sounds deliciously seedy, but it is actually a very sweet love song concerning Shepherd and Enscoe, the Bonnie and Clyde of the group: “I don’t know how / What a strange and sudden sound / We’re not strangers now / Finally found love in the underground.” The trio actually recorded two versions of the song, the second being more forlorn. The Bandits will tell you the song contains a broader meaning…an expression of their collective love for New York and its people.
Although only an EP, I’m recommending Live at the Power Station which the group feels best represents their sound in the underground. For this recording, the group slipped into the Power Station’s iconic Studio A literally under the cover of darkness. That is the very same NYC studio used by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen. All four tracks, including an Amy Winehouse cover, are great, but Sweet Thing and Potted Plant really shine like a rhinestone cowboy.
The Bandits might challenge me to pistols at dawn for saying this, but some of their best musical heists are not on CD or digital download at all. Head on over to YouTube (after you finish this article, of course) and there you shall rustle up unexpected and arresting “stolen” (as the Bandits would say) versions of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, Etta James’ At Last, Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet, and The Beatles’ In My Life, to name a few. Welcome to flavor country. The Bandits make each cover their own whilst paying their respects to the original- not an easy accomplishment. A couple of traits you will find in just about every Bandits video…miles of beautiful smiles and endless enthusiasm, making the band as contagious as, well, a certain virus. My personal request…I would love to hear these scalawags apply their unlawful talents to The Chordettes’ Mr. Sandman (in return for my suggestion, I will expect an unpaid cameo appearance in the music video).
“The group’s sumptuous three-part harmony, combined with their original lyrics, are a gold rush for the ears.“
In March, the Bandits released their latest entry to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk contest (they had one of the top entries in last year’s competition), We Battle Giants, a song written for Shepherd’s Birthday last year. To further bolster their submission, they kicked things up a notch by inviting New York’s Urban Choir Project to sing in the video. You can judge the results for yourself, but I think they have a winner. Coincidentally, “Giants” is a fitting song for what we all have been going through with the pandemic over the last few months. As the band wrote on their Facebook page: “…the song has taken on a far greater meaning than we could have ever imagined. It’s a reminder of our collective desire to make the world better, an acknowledgement that there are forces among us that will not only take a whole village, but a whole world, to fight. We hope this song urges you to join forces with your loved ones to battle the giants big and small — and even microscopic — that we all face today. And it’s our sincerest wish that when you watch this video, (filmed before social distancing was a household name,) that you feel empowered. You are not alone, Times are hard. There’s a lot that needs to change. Stay hopeful. We battle giants together.”
When the group’s March road trip was cancelled (including a gig at the prestigious Kennedy Center) due to the coronavirus, the trio took advantage of the down time to write new material and practice new covers. They were one of the first bands to pioneer streaming free live performances via social media. The Bandits have been putting on a series of hour-long, live performances (“musical stickups”, they would say) via Facebook and Instagram from such diverse locales as an Airbnb cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains (back when you could still book Airbnb), outside on Shepherd’s Mother’s deck, and inside a groovy Dodge conversion van. Playing a mix of fan favorites, covers (check out their super version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams), new songs, and a select few requests, I guess you could call it cyber busking or a virtual Bandits-palooza. For those musicians’ part of the gig economy, performing live is their bread and butter, so when that primary revenue stream dried up due to the virus, it created a serious financial strain. If you are in a position to do so, consider becoming a financial first responder to your favorite band(s) during this difficult time by repeatedly streaming their songs from a music service, buying their “merch” (the Bandits bandanas are quite fashionable and serve a purpose), or contributing to a relief fund (a virtual tip jar if you will) as I did with this one for the Bandits.
Eager to learn more about my new musical discovery, I sent some written questions to the Bandits’ alter egos via Pony Express:
PS: Is a van the strangest place the Bandits ever played?
Bonanza Jellyfish: “We’re pretty acclimated to playing strange locations, in fact we sorta prefer it 😉 We’ve played in elevators, barns, motorcycle garages, rooftops in the south of France, on a boat, on a gondola landing platform at 59th St., on a train, on a bus in London, on the boardwalk at Coney Island, in front of a police station, and of course any public transportation platforms and/or streets in any city we encounter :).”
PS: How is it determined who takes the lead vocal on a song?
Clarissa: “Well, we are a band of 3 songwriters, and our general rule of thumb is that the main writer of the song sings the lead vocal. So, the main writer, or “captain” will sort of take the reins on a song, but we all contribute to each other’s writing processes and help to add and edit and arrange things.”
PS: What’s the biggest haul the Bandits ever made from busking?
Roy Dodger: “People don’t only give us money, sometimes we get showered with gifts! One night while busking on the subway platform we made at least $200, and people gave us a bottle of wine, a case of beer, and some costume jewelry! We had quite a lil’ party afterwards that night. We’ve also been gifted marijuana from a man we came to know as “the weed fairy” — but we won’t tell you what we did with it ;).”
PS: What’s the strangest encounter the band had while performing in the subway?
Bonanza Jellyfish: “One evening we were playing on the platform of the G train at Metropolitan Ave, and a tall, dark and handsome stranger approached us and asked us if he could play along. He was holding a recorder. Like those little plastic ones you play Hot Cross Buns on in elementary school. Obviously, we said yes. We began playing and he joined in with a beautiful melody. As he was playing, he reached into his coat and pulled out ANOTHER recorder and began playing them at the same time, harmonizing with himself. THEN he pulled out a THIRD recorder and was playing ALL THREE at the SAME TIME harmonizing three different melody lines. It was so beautiful. We made friends with him after that. His name is Martin. He’s great.”
PS: Can you tell me a bit about Swept Away?
Roy Dodger: “Heck Yeah. Swept Away is this nifty little project that I’m attached to that’s a stage adaptation of the songs of the Avett Brothers. It’s not about them, per se (it takes place on a stranded whaling ship in the 1880s) but John Logan’s script beautifully ties their music in using these epic themes of life, passion, brotherhood, and sacrifice that pervade all of the Avetts’ tunes. Before the coronavirus struck, the show was slated to premier this summer at Berkeley Rep in a production directed by Michael Mayer (of Spring Awakening). Needless to say, it’s been pushed back for now but we’re still all stoked about it. The Avetts are personal heroes of ours since their journey as a band that pulled itself up by its own bootstraps is one that we humble bandits really identify with. (If you want a great recap of their history, go watch May It Last, the documentary Judd Apatow made about them a few years back).”
Occasionally, the Bandits stray a tad off the wagon trail, such as their Tiger King composition (“Let me know your will / I’m happy to kill”), inspired by the Netflix docuseries of the same name, or when they use a mini bullhorn as a microphone. Then again, blazing your own trail is precisely how you make your mark, not by following the easier, well worm path made by others.
Hopefully, when Bandits on the Run finally get out of Dodge (the van, not the city), they will perform a musical stick up or two here in our great Commonwealth. When they do, they are welcome to hide out at my homestead. Take it from me, Johnny Smallpox- play their CDs on your Musica and party like it is 1899. Giddyup!
Trivia (supplied by the Bandits):Which Bandit speaks Russian? Which Bandit is a champion four leaf clover discoverer? Which Bandit is afraid of mushrooms? Roy Dodger (Adrian) speaks Russian; Bonanza Jellyfish (Sydney) is the clover champion; and Clarissa (Regina) has Mycophobia.
5. Zazi: Siren Song; Red Line Music 22 242405
In early March (well before virus travel restrictions were put in place) I was in the Netherlands for meetings with our logistics partner and to review some of their procedures. As I stood alone in the hotel lobby one cold morning waiting for my taxi, listening to a local music station, I heard an unfamiliar but most appealing song come over the Bosch ceiling speakers. I quickly whipped out my smartphone and launched my Shazam app. I have extolled the virtues of this amazing free app before. Within seconds, Shazam identified the song as Turn Me On and the group as Zazi, which meant nothing to me, but Zazi! Went the strings of my heart. As soon as I had some free time at the end of the day, I Googled them and checked them out on YouTube. I was captivated by their vocal prowess, impossible supermodel looks, and diverse mix of instruments all of which they play themselves: piano, ukulele, banjo, guitar, accordion, omnicord, percussion, bass, mandolin, and cello. Whew! With its plaintive wail, I always considered the cello to be the most somber of musical instruments, but if the cello was indeed born with severe, chronic depression, Zazi is its Prozac.
If Bandits on the Run as a group had a doppelgänger it would have to be Zazi. Okay, Zazi hails from Amsterdam, not New York, and they are three girls instead of two girls and a guy, but cut me some slack. I could easily imagine the Bandits “stealing” Zazi’s Afraid, Pretty Fly, or Red Yellow Blue (I will expect a cameo in one of those videos as well).
Sabien Bosselaar, Margriet Planting, and Dafne Holtland formed Zazi in 2009 and are best known in Holland, but have performed in the USA and Europe. They sing in at least five different languages including English. Turn Me On from their Siren Song CD was a minor hit and the easy, breezy video is about as much fun as three beautiful young women can have without doing something illegal. Their CDs are few and far between, are not cheap, and are not easily found in the USA. I bought mine on eBay from a seller in the Netherlands and paid more for the shipping than the CD cost, but it was well worth it.
Without a doubt, Siren Song is a feel-good kind of CD that will immediately put you in a good space. Think of it as Febreze for the ears. If some of the songs do not have you up on your feet you should probably check your pulse. I am sure the ladies had a lot of fun creating this recording and that sensation rubs off with every listen. On the face of it, Turn Me On is a song about listening to songs from a radio, but just underneath, it is flirtatiously fun: “I can whistle, I can sing for you / I can listen, listen to / Every night until the morning dawn / You just have to turn, turn me on.” Basically, Turn Me On is a big, wet, musical lipstick kiss from Zazi. All You Need and Black Irish are also fine tunes. One unexpected surprise is Zazi’s cover of Harry Chapin’s classic Cat’s in the Cradle, though it is sung in their native language. Even so, not all is lost in translation. Tour De France is sung entirely in French but is as satisfying as a fresh baguette and a glass of chilled white wine, as is Porque Te Vas sung in Spanish. But fret not. Music is a universal language which your Como Audio Musica speaks fluently.
“Without a doubt, Siren Song is a feel-good kind of CD that will immediately put you in a good space.“
I emailed Zazi a few questions by way of their press contact and Margriet Planting graciously responded on behalf of the group (they have not been together due to social distancing):
PS: How did the three of you meet and form the group?
MP: “Sabien and Dafne were in the same class, so they knew each other from school (age 12-13). When [I] lived in a fairy tale-like house in the woods, one day Victor (a mutual friend) introduced us to each other after he fell in love with [me]. A few years later when [we] were all in Paris at the same time, we sang a medieval French drinking song on the stairs of the Sacre Coeur. That was an epic moment in time, which would to be continued in 2009, when we won a contest for French Music. This was the official start of our career …”
PS: From where did the band’s name, “Zazi”, come from?
MP: “Zazí comes from ‘Zazie dans le Metro’. We saw the name on a poster (it’s a French Film inspired on the book). It’s actually a girl’s name, but apparently in South-Korea it means penis (LOL), so we had a big hit over there with our song ‘Turn Me On’ – You’ll understand why ;-)”
PS: How would you describe your music?
MP: “Our Music is best described as multi-instrumentalist Pop-Folk.”
PS: How old are each of you?
MP: “Isn’t this a question you should never ask ladies…? We were born in 1982, 1987 and 1988… Now you may guess ;-)”
PS: English is not your native language. Is it more difficult to master a song in English?
MP: “The three of us all happen to be blessed with good learning skills. Good education makes it quite easy for us “Dutchies” to sing in English. For example, German and French are also taught very well at school. Spanish or Norwegian are a little more difficult, but still very fun to sing in! It makes our repertoire for sure very unique and Pan-European.”
PS: Are you working on any new Zazi music for this year?
MP: “Unfortunately, not at this moment… We do still perform at private events such as weddings and business gatherings and conferences, and for sure we hope after this Corona epidemic, we will be able to perform again.”
PS: Do you think you will perform somewhere in the USA later this year?
“Again, not this year for sure… But to be honest, touring in the USA was one of our absolute highlights. We would love to come back to the West-Coast and play, for example, at the Joshua Tree Music Festival again…”
It amazes me to think if I had not been in that precise place at that precise time, I would never have discovered this great girl group. If you are unable to source their Siren Song CD, you can listen to Zazi on your Musica via Spotify. They are very easy on the ears and even easier on the eyes.
This concludes Part One of Tech Rap Recommended CDs. Part Two brings you five more excellent titles to consider.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
With more folks staying at home due to the coronavirus, we at Como Audio thought you would appreciate an article detailing one of the features you might wish to explore now that you have more time to spend with your music system. More time at home means more music.
Thanks to a free software update, all of our models are now certified to support the free version of Spotify Connect. Our customers were always able to stream the free version to our models via Bluetooth, but now free Spotify is compatible with the integrated Spotify Connect feature in our models. This means you will be able to see album art and metadata on your Como Audio model’s display which you would not when streaming free Spotify via Bluetooth. The free version includes adverts and offers fewer playback options than the premium service, like limited track skips and not being able to play any song you want, but those are the compromises for getting the service for free. Of course, all of our models continue to support the premium (paid) version of Spotify. If you are not currently a Spotify user and do not plan to become one, I would still encourage you to continue reading to learn about newly added coronavirus news sources as well as the “Buffer Zone” paragraph for some important tips on how to optimize your network reception to get the best performance from your audio system.
Saving Spotify to a Preset
You might know all of that already, but you might not know you can save your favorite Spotify playlist to one of your Como Audio music system’s preset keys in addition to Internet and FM stations, and input sources like Bluetooth and Auxiliary. Just play the Spotify playlist through your music system and press and hold the desired preset key until you see the message on the display confirming it was saved. From then on you can press that preset (even when the unit is in standby) and listen to that playlist. At any point while the music is playing you can repeatedly press the “i” (information) key on the Como Audio remote control to see any available meta data. If you have multiple Como Audio systems grouped, you can play the playlist simultaneously on all of the grouped units to enjoy it throughout your home. There is one important caveat to this preset feature: If the playlist is too lengthy, it cannot be saved. Spotify does not define what “too lengthy” is, but if you press and hold a preset button to save a Spotify playlist and nothing happens, that is confirmation the playlist is too long and you should choose a shorter list.
Additionally, you can save a podcast from Spotify (or podcasts from the Internet radio menu on your Como Audio system) to a preset key. However, the podcast episode cannot automatically update when a new episode becomes available.
Speaking of podcasts, Spotify has coronavirus-related podcasts by CNN, BBC, ABC News, and NPR. Spotify even has coronavirus-inspired Playlists to help keep you entertained while you are stuck at home, featuring appropriately named songs such as Don’t Stand So Close To Me by The Police. As an aside, our Internet station aggregator recently added a new podcast category to our models specifically for the coronavirus to make it easier to get information on the pandemic. The category will show automatically in countries that have confirmed cases. To access these podcasts on your Como Audio system: Station list > Podcasts> COVID-19.
It is also worth pointing out when in Spotify Connect mode, be it the free or paid version, our models take the music, artwork, and meta data directly from Spotify’s servers, not from the Spotify app. This allows you to have your smartphone elsewhere or even switched off and still have the music play, conserving your phone’s battery power. Even without your phone you can execute basic control during Spotify playback using the remote for Track Back/Forward, Play/Pause, Volume/Mute, and even Shuffle and Repeat.
Occasionally, customers run into issues with Spotify, such as the Spotify app being unable to find their Como Audio system. We are not exactly sure why this happens, but since it is random (not happening to all users simultaneously), it is likely linked to the user’s Wi-Fi network. In such cases we suggest you reboot your router/modem, restart your smartphone, and reboot your Como Audio model (System settings > System reboot). Failing that, deleting and uninstalling the Spotify app and reinstalling it should resolve the issue and is what is recommended by Spotify.
Another issue users’ sometimes experience is buffering or other playback anomalies during Spotify and other premium music service playback (Amazon Music, Tidal, etc.). This can also occur when playing high-quality Internet radio stations. Spotify (and the other premium services) streams at very high quality (320 kbps for Spotify) and monopolizes a large amount of bandwidth from your Wi-Fi network. If you have multiple Como Audio units grouped together, grouping requires even more bandwidth, thus taxing your network further, increasing buffering. If you delete the group, unplug all units except for one, and experience little or no buffering, this further confirms there is a network bandwidth problem. Often a simple router/modem reboot (unplug for ten seconds then plug back in) and System reboot (in the System settings menu) of your Como Audio system quickly resolves the issue. If you use a dual band router you could connect your unit to whichever band it is not using. For example, if it is currently connected to your router’s 5G band, try connecting it to the 2.4GHz band. The lesser-used band just might provide them with the extra bandwidth they need. If you use the Como Control app, be sure to also switch your smartphone over to the same band so the app will “see” your Como Audio system(s). Locating your router closer to your Como Audio host unit, or vice versa, should also help. Using my laptop as an example, if I am on my living room sofa with my laptop, my network download speed clocks in at 242.8 Mbps and my upload speed is 425.1 Mbps. Yet if I move my laptop to the dining room table which has a large, solid wooden post between it and the router, my download speed drops by more than half to 91.4 Mbps while the upload speed sinks to 49.6. Jitter is a more practical measurement of your Wi-Fi network’s capability. If your network’s Jitter measures above 15-20ms, your network could be congested (too many devices connected), causing your streaming issues. You should also be sure your software is up to date on all of your Como Audio models by going into the System settings menu> Software update > Check now. This is important because the updates sometimes include improvements by Spotify. One effective experiment to try: If you have multiple Como Audio models grouped, unplug all but one. If the lone unit operates mostly fine, this is a sign your network cannot handle group streaming. If you own a Musica, connect it using an Ethernet cable via its rear port from your router for a more reliable signal. Once connected, remember to go into the System settings menu and change the setting from Wireless to Wired: System settings > Network > Manual settings. A reminder that this method is only available with Musica.
If you continue to experience buffering issues after trying all of these tips, observe the Wi-Fi signal in the lower right corner of your Como Audio system’s display. If you see only one or two “bars”, that is weak. As a last resort, contact your Internet provider and investigate the cost to upgrade your router and/or service. Outdated hardware or an inadequate network plan can play a major role in network performance. I should also like to point out that with more and more people working from home in unprecedented numbers due to the coronavirus, this has put a serious strain on some providers’ networks.
If I may be allowed to stray slightly off topic just for a moment, I am often asked why these issues arise when they are not experienced while using other devices like smartphones or computers that are connected to the same network. First off, smartphones and computers employ multiple internal Wi-Fi antennas, whereas most products like ours do not. Secondly, those devices cannot be grouped together like ours can, and as I remarked earlier, grouping increases the stress on a network. Finally, the Wi-Fi antenna in our models is embedded in a module that includes other competing wireless receivers, all housed inside a beautiful but thick wood box, which is not the case with a mobile phone or a computer. Under most conditions, Wi-Fi reception with our models is quite good, but a weak network makes reception more challenging. Think of it as shutting down two lanes of a four-lane highway during rush hour in the middle of a snow storm with an accident in one of the open lanes.
For the benefit of those who have never used Spotify, here is a basic primer. Spotify is one of the most popular music streaming services and is the most-used premium streaming service amongst our customers. According to a 2018 Forbes article, Spotify has 170 million users, about half of which are paying subscribers. It is supported in nearly eighty countries. Spotify’s premium version costs $9.99 a month, though students can get it for $4.99 a month. There is also a family plan for $14.99 per month that covers up to six users. Occasionally, Spotify runs promotions allowing new users to enjoy three months of premium for free. Of course, there is also the free version as described earlier in this article.
To join in the fun and start using Spotify Connect with your Como Audio music system, begin by downloading the free Spotify app from the Google Play Store (for Android devices) or the App Store (for iOS devices) to your smartphone, tablet, and/or computer.
Once the music is playing you can control playback (Play/Pause, Track Back/Next) using the Spotify app, the free Como Control app (which also allows Volume control, Shuffle, and Repeat), or the Como Audio remote control included with your unit. It is at this point you can save the playlist to a preset key. You can move about with your smartphone or even completely turn it off, yet still have the music play on your Como Audio system. Note you may need to set the volume level differently for Spotify than the level you use for other sources on your music system. You can have the Spotify app on more than one device, but you can only connect and play to one Spotify compatible device at a time. However, if you own more than one Como Audio model you can group them together in the Como Control app and they will all play Spotify without any latency (audio delay). If the above written guide is a little hard to follow, here is a link to my basic Spotify “how-to” video.
Other Spotify Features
Spotify allows you to share whatever music you are playing with others via social media. If you use Spotify on your desktop, the sidebar will display what your friends are listening to, and you can create a collaborative playlist they can add to. In these times of social distancing, this is a welcomed feature.
(Right image) Pressing the icon circled in red above and then selecting your social media app notifies your friends of what you are listening to. In the screenshot above: #ListeningTo Sunset Blvd. – Nils (City Groove) on #ComoControl
Our Social Media Manager and Spotify subscriber, PJ Vecchiarelli, adds, “Spotify also has a lot of great artist and discovery content. They have vertical videos and exclusive Spotify singles – a lot of my favorite artists have recorded acoustic covers that are available only on the Spotify platform. In terms of discovering music, they have a ton of great playlists and update certain ones to your taste, like “Discover” – that makes it easy to find new music. For a new Spotify user, I would suggest “following” your favorite artists and adding your essential tracks to your library so that Spotify can immediately start to understand your taste and improve their recommendations.”
Our Senior Customer Support Rep, Bryce Dort, also weighed in: “One fun thing I always look forward to is “Spotify Wrapped”, which is a year in review they can send you that shows fun stats, like how many hours of listening and what your favorite artists/genres at different times of the year [were]. Then they make a huge playlist out of all your favorites and some new artists they think you’ll like. Very cool and interesting to see, and you get a custom playlist out of it.”
That said, you do not have to immerse yourself in all the features to enjoy Spotify. I am a perfect example of that because I just want to listen to the music and I really have no need for all the accoutrements. All I do is punch up a smooth jazz playlist and let it play through the Musica on my desk. I subscribe to the premium version mainly because I can do without the commercial interruptions. The sound quality is superb, as is the mix of songs, and I can skip over a song I do not like or easily change to a different playlist at any time.
The More the Merrier
The preset feature is not limited just to Spotify, Internet radio, FM, Bluetooth, Aux and Optical in, and CD (Musica only). If you own the Como Audio Musica, you can save the other integrated premium music services (Amazon Music, Deezer, and Napster) to a preset key as well, provided you are a paying member of those services. The big difference there vs. Spotify is you cannot use the corresponding apps for those services, but instead log in via the interface on the Musica’s display and use the Musica’s remote or the Como Control app to control playback. Like Spotify, these services play at very high quality and require a lot of network bandwidth, so if you encounter buffering or other playback issues, please refer to the earlier “Buffer Zone” paragraph.
As always, should you have any questions about using your Como Audio system as it relates to these services, or anything else for that matter, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be glad to help. A big virtual hug to those staying at home to help slow the spread of the pandemic. Until next month, please stay safe and healthy, and enjoy the (Spotify) music.
Next month’s Tech Rap: Recommended CDs
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
Thomas Edison was awarded US Patent # 200,521 for his Phonograph 142 years ago last month. Although Edison’s original Phonograph bears little resemblance to the turntables and record players we use today, this singular invention forever changed the way we listened to music at home. The original Edison Phonograph used delicate tin foil-wrapped cylinders to record on and playback from. These later changed to more durable wax cylinders, with celluloid cylinders being the final iteration before their demise. This article is about records, but if you are interested in listening to some of those cylinder recordings, you can hear many for free through the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Audio Archive.
Eventually, 78 RPM shellac-based discs were introduced for playback on “gramophone” machines. Jump ahead to 1948 when Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 RPM monophonic “long play” vinyl record, followed by RCA’s 45 RPM format nine months later. Stereo records did not start to take hold in the consumer market until the mid-1960’s.
Over the last several years, records have enjoyed a resurgence. According to the latest Neilson report, record sales grew from $16.5 million in 2018 to $18.8 million last year, a 14.5% increase. This has spawned some interesting products and services. Have you wanted to put your music files on vinyl records? Or, if you’re a musician, did you ever want to make your own records? A Swiss-based company, Phonocut is developing a consumer record-cutting machine projected to debut at the end of this year. The machine is compatible with Phonocut’s proprietary ten-inch diameter blank discs. Or, you can go to a company like Vinyl Pressing that will lovingly press your music onto a custom record just for you, for a price of course:
This brings to mind the amazing Voice-O-Graph (“like talking on the phone…but a thousand times more thrilling!”). The Voice-O-Graph was a little larger than a phone booth and was basically a coin-operated recording booth. There was just enough room for you and a friend, or you and a guitar. For thirty-five cents you had 65 seconds to sing or speak your peace, and whatever came out of your mouth was etched directly onto a 45 RPM record for you to take home and do with as you please. The record came with an envelope in case you wanted to mail it to a friend, family member, or your sweetheart (or ex-sweetheart). The machines were popular from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. The most famous Voice-O-Graph was the one at the top of the Empire State Building. Very few of these machines survived, and the ones that remain today are typically found in recording studios, record stores, and held by private collectors. However, you can find records made by the Voice-O-Graph on eBay.
Trivia: What do artists like Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic, and Weezer all have in common? They each recorded songs in a vintage Voice-O-Graph booth.
Things have come a long way since those tin foil cylinder days. Regardless of whether you own an older turntable (not an Edison version) or a newer model like the Como Audio Bluetooth Turntable, you can connect it to your Como Audio music system. Some music enthusiasts believe connecting via an audio cable provides better sound than Bluetooth. Bluetooth may not be perfect, but it sounds quite good to the average ear, and if you do not have the option to locate your Como Audio Turntable close enough to your music system to use a cable, Bluetooth is a very reasonable alternative. If you need more information about connecting a turntable you can refer to my Viva La Vinyl article.
Feed Your Turntable Here are ten “new” records, or at least new to me, I would like to share with you that I have enjoyed on my Como Audio Turntable. Most were discovered in an indirect way, and at least one by mistake. Even if some of the music is not to your liking, the backstories should make for interesting reading. I will start with the newer releases and transition to some really old stuff.
Trivia: What’s the highest price ever paid for a commercially-released record? Ringo Starr’s personal copy of “The Beatles” (# 0000001) sold for $790,000 at auction in 2015.
1.James Taylor: American Standard; Fantasy FAN000675
Willie Nelson has done it. Rod Stewart, too. Heck, even Tony Danza did it. I am referring to pop artists who recorded American Songbook-type albums. So, why not James Taylor? Actually, the question is not why not James Taylor, but why did James Taylor wait so long? With American Standard, Taylor covers 14 classic songs one would not normally associate with the famous folk singer with the warm, lullaby voice. In a promotional video shot in his recording studio in Washington, MA, where he also makes his home, Taylor said of the songs, “I’ve always had songs that I grew up with, that I remember really well, that were part of the family record collection. I know most of these songs from the original cast recordings of the famous Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals that a lot of them came from. In terms of how they were performed before, no, we’re interested in doing something new and in bringing something new to it; we’ve reinterpreted the songs. That’s what makes it worth doing.” I, for one, am glad he did it.
My first exposure to James Taylor was his 1968 self-titled debut album on The Beatles’ Apple Records label which I bought used about fifteen years after it came out. The album included Carolina in My Mind with Paul McCartney on bass and George Harrison on backing vocals. It was produced by Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame, who went on to manage Taylor and produce records for Diana Ross, Cher, 10,000 Maniacs, Neil Diamond, and Linda Ronstadt among others. The record did not sell well despite generally favorable reviews. Taylor never recorded for Apple Records again, and I never bought another James Taylor record again. Until now.
American Standard is Taylor’s 20th studio album and was literally released less than two weeks ago. I pre-ordered my copy from his website in order to get the special 180-gram black and gold marbled vinyl edition not available elsewhere. American Standard is also available as a two-record set that plays back at 45 RPM speed, theoretically yielding better sound quality, but requiring more record side flips.
Whenever an artist deviates from the norm, be it music or whatever, it makes many people uncomfortable. On American Standard, Taylor does not stray so far with his arrangements to make this listener nervous. He seems quite at home tackling these storied songs, and you will feel the same listening to them. He is accompanied by a capable band of ten, but keeps the spotlight firmly on himself and fellow master guitarist John Pizzarelli. All the tracks are very enjoyable, but You’ve Got to Be Taught Carefully, Pennies From Heaven, and It’s Only A Paper Moon, all from Side 2, are the standouts for me.
As Taylor did in his promotional video, toss another log in the wood stove, sit back, and consume these classics. They will go down as smooth as a glass of warm milk on a chilly night, and feel just as good.
Trivia: It took Taylor 47 years and 17 studio albums until he had a record that reached number one on the US charts, 2015’s Before This World, recorded in the same barn in Western MA as American Standard. Also- Boston-born Taylor turns 72 on March 12. Happy Birthday sweet baby James.
2.Pulsallama: Pulsallama; Modern Harmonic MH8216
My vinyl copies of Pulsallama including a “confetti” vinyl version limited to 200 pressings and signed by drummer Jean Caffeine.Photo by Peter Skiera.
When I write articles recommending music or Internet radio stations, I try to make selections you are probably not aware of, but ones I think you would appreciate reading about, if not listening to. This serves as a good introduction to Pulsallama. For the uninitiated, Pulsallama was an early 1980’s post-punk/New Wave band comprised of thirteen (eventually dwindling down to seven by the time this recording was made) beautiful women in their twenties from New York donning cocktail dresses and big wigs. I think if John Waters had started a rock band, Pulsallama would have been it. The group essentially started as a gag for a party, but the joke was on them because they gained a large enough following to where they started getting paid bookings at notable venues, recorded songs, toured the UK, and even opened for The Clash. The group featured no guitars (other than occasional foam mock-ups), two bass players, cowbells (and just about anything else they could bang on for music), and healthy doses of camp and kitsch.
Kudos to Modern Harmonic for bringing out this, Pulsallma’s first full-length album, containing unheard versions of their songs almost 40 years after the fact. The album is scheduled for release this May on pink-colored vinyl with a foil jacket, exactly the kind of flashy treatment the band deserves. Rough Trade released an extremely limited “confetti” colored vinyl version. The label describes the music on the record as ”jungle-style rhythms, dual basses, and an all-out assault of percussive perfection” with “infectious melodies, driving rhythms, and a pulsating beat.” With such an enticing description, how on earth could anyone resist listening to it?!”
I do not know whether or not it comes through, but I actually put a lot of time and effort into these articles. I do a lot of research and try to weave in stories, interviews, and photos. Pulsallama created a challenge for me because there was not a lot of information on this short-lived group. I decided to go straight to the source and reach out to some of the band members directly. This recording featured seven members: April Palmieri, Lori Montana, Staceyjoy Elkin, Kimberly Davis, Jean Caffeine, Min Thometz, and Wendy Wild. Tragically, Wild passed away in 1996 at the age of 40 from breast cancer. I was fortunate enough to connect via email with members Jean Caffeine and Staceyjoy Elkin.
Regarding the new album, Elkin wrote me, “I was astonished that we found a recording of the set. I forgot it existed. We’re really, really, happy with the whole thing.” Elkin handmade some of the dresses she and some of the girls wore and has remained involved in textile design and knit development. You can see some of her designs here.
I asked Jean Caffeine to sift through the cobwebs and recount some of her memories for me:
JC: “Pulsallama shows were always fun probably because the band wasn’t like a regular rock band…we were much more theatrical. The shows were like a party and our songs had silly and in-jokey themes. Our first shows were more like ‘happenings”. At Pulsallama’s inception, thirteen women dressed in togas banged and chanted. The venue, Club 57, was decorated with meat hanging from the ceiling. The band was one aspect of a Rite’s of Spring Bacchanal and I remember there was some faux male sacrifice.
“The band consisted of drums, percussion, and bass and vocals, no guitars and there was steel drum, later replaced by glockenspiel (featured on the forthcoming record). All the folks in the band had big unique personalities which were highlighted in various songs. Wendy Wild (R.I.P.), one of our front women, had a huge voice and giant onstage persona which contrasted with her tiny frame. Several visual artists were in the band so there was a big visual component. We would dress up to a theme, sometimes in cocktail-wear, other times to another theme. Our bass player/percussionist Stacey [Elkin] designed dresses. She wore her own creations and sometimes she made dresses for us. (If you’ve seen the cover shot for the album, she made at least three of the dresses we are wearing.) We made and decorated guitars out of foam core that got destroyed during our song, “Rock Fest in the Meadowlands”. Stacey screen printed our logo onto shirts and occasionally on walls, keeping company with the Graffiti artists of the day.
“Probably the highlight for all of us, certainly for me, was opening for the Clash for three nights at Asbury Park in NJ. On the first night the very bridge and tunnel audience threw stuff at us; the singers got pelted. The second night the audience threw less stuff. The third night the audience sang along. After the third night, the Clash threw a party in the indoor part of the amusement park and we all rode around in bumper cars. That was a blast.
“Playing in London at the Venue was also a blast. I remember the guys from Funboy Three, enthusiastically shaking my hand after the show.“
“…the Clash threw a party in the indoor part of the amusement park and we all rode around in bumper cars. That was a blast.“
I was very curious what happened to the group in the end, as I was unable to uncover any information about that. Perhaps anticipating my question, Caffeine wrote:
“We had done a studio recording in the 80’s for a full album. It was sounding really good, but the guy from the label with the money said he’d run out of money and we didn’t get to finish it and it kind of killed the band. It was a big disappointment that we didn’t bounce back from.”
PS: Do you recall anything funny or interesting during the shooting of The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body video?
JC: I just remember the video shoot for “Devil” being a hoot! Lots of fun. I’m a very small part of the video but I was trying to style myself after Andrea Martin’s character, Edith Prickley, on SCTV.
PS: Do you remember what inspired the writing of that song? I read the video actually got some brief airplay on MTV.
JC: I think Dany or Kim had seen an article in a pulp magazine with that title “Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body”…As the drummer, my contributions to the songs were more on the arrangement side of things. I rarely brought in lyrics…. maybe a bit towards the end. The single had some momentum on LIR and KROQ stations that had started to play more new waves stuff. The line in the song about Tourette’s syndrome (which we didn’t have a lot of personal experience with) brought some blowback that killed the momentum.
PS: What do you think Wendy Wild would have thought of the new record?
JC: Hard to speak about someone that isn’t myself. Wendy loved the limelight and loved playing in bands so I think she would have been happy. I could imagine Wendy still playing in bands if she was still alive.
Caffeine is still involved in the music scene. You can check out her website or Facebook. Her latest offering, an EP called Love. What is it?, is available from Bandcamp. She also wrote a fun song about being in various all-girl bands, the video of which includes some Pulsallama pictures.
Still thirsting for information, I contacted Jay Millar, project co-producer at Modern Harmonic/Sundazed Records, to ask him a few questions about this new release.
PS: How did the idea originate to release this Pulsallama record?
JM: We’ve long been fans of the band’s two singles and initially approached them about reissuing them and inquired if they had any unissued material that could round things out to an LP. Eventually they presented us with this live studio recording and we were floored by the quality, the fun variations on the known songs, and the awe of unheard cuts like “Rhythm Method.”
PS: Where did you obtain the master tapes and whom is doing/did the remastering?
JM: We hate the term remastering, as everything should be mastered, and in this case, Joe Lizzi was the first/only person to master this tape. The lacquer was cut by the fine folks at Third Man. It’s such a loaded term, as some mastering is great and some is awful. But like all things in music, it’s subjective. The tape was in the band’s possession.
PS: The music on the record has remained unheard outside of a French radio broadcast?
JM: Correct. It was recorded in a NY studio at the request of a French radio station for broadcast in 1983.
PS: Were any of the original Pulsallama band members involved in this release?
JM: Yes, we worked closely with all the band members or estates of the band members who were on this recording.
PS: Any other comments?
JM: We’re just really excited to be making this available. It’s rare that something this good just sits on a shelf for almost 40 years. And it sounds like the indie rock of today; we think it’s a special record and we can’t stop spinning it in the office.
The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body is probably the group’s best-known song on the record, but all seven tracks make for an instant party to which your ears are invited. I never thought a 12” record could hold so much fun. Unfortunately, my favorite Pulsallama songs, Gross Me Out and Foghorn, are not included. I can only hope another tape (live concert?) will be discovered and there will be a volume two.
At any rate, if you only have space for one more record in your wooden record crate, make it this one. You can thank me later, or throw your spare change at me, as the case may be.
A super-huge thank you to Jean Caffeine, Stacey Elkin, and Jay Millar for their time with me on this article.
Trivia:Pulsallama’s song, “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body” included a politically incorrect mention of Tourette’s Syndrome which led it to be pulled from many radio stations’ play lists.
3.Macy Gray: Stripped; Chesky Records LP389
One article I read described Macy Gray’s voice as a mix of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. It is a raspy type of voice, the kind you either like or not. There is not much gray area when it comes to Gray’s unique voice. Count me in the former category, and I am an especially big fan of her jazzy Stripped album. Russell Malone (guitar), Daryl Johns (bass), Wallace Roney (trumpet), and Ari Hoenig (drums) back Gray on eight songs (ten on the CD and digital download) that are a mix of originals and remakes of her own songs including her big hit I Try. That song, along with Annabelle, Slowly, First Time, and Redemption Song are my favs. Lucy is another standout track, but it is not included on the vinyl version.
“One article I read described Macy Gray’s voice as a mix of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. It is a raspy type of voice, the kind you either like or not.“
Although the album’s title presumably refers to the stripped-down sound, Gray’s hushed, flirtatious voice, paired with her tight jazz quartet, create an atmosphere so intimate it gives “Stripped” a bluer meaning. When I listen, I cannot help but hear a Viagra commercial play in my mind: “Ask your Doctor if your heart is healthy enough to listen to this record…” It is ironic this sexy album was recorded inside a former Brooklyn church.
Stripped was recorded using a single microphone for Chesky Records’ Binaural + Series, which the label describes as capturing “…even more spatial realism for the home audiophile market, bringing you one step closer to the actual event. You will hear some of the most natural and pure cool music ever recorded.” How did Chesky achieve “spatial realism” and “natural and pure cool music” from just one microphone? The answer: They employed Princeton University Physics Professor Edgar Choueiri’s 3D Audio process. To quote from Princeton’s website: “An avid audiophile, acoustician and classical music recordist, [Choueiri’s] decades-long passion for perfecting the realism of music reproduction has led him to work on the difficult fundamental problem of designing advanced digital filters that allow the natural 3D audio to be extracted from stereo sound played through two loudspeakers, without adding any spectral coloration to the sound (i.e. without changing its tonal character). He was able to solve this problem mathematically by applying analytical and mathematical tools he uses in his plasma physics research.” That said, you do not need to be a Physics major to enjoy the sound, nor does it require any special equipment to decode it. Do not confuse 3D Audio with surround sound, as it was designed specifically for two-channel stereo. Further contributing to the sound quality was Senior Mastering Engineer Ryan Smith of Sterling Sound, who’s other mastering masterpieces include albums by Adele, Coldplay, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Beyonce.
I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to meet Gray in person a few days ago following her fantastic performance at the City Winery Boston. She was so friendly, for a moment I almost forgot she was a star. In fact, at one point she invited one of the members of the audience (no, not me) on stage who was celebrating his Birthday and got the audience to sing “Happy Birthday”. Now that is a Birthday to remember. She was on stage for almost two hours and I could have stayed for two more. She had the audience on their feet clapping and dancing. She ended with a few nice surprises, like Thank You for Being a Friend, California Dreamin’, and a reggae-flavored Somewhere Over the Rainbow. If you have the chance to see Gray live, do not pass it up. And if your heart is healthy enough and your stylus can handle it, get Stripped.
Trivia: Gray tried to convince her record company not to release her song “I Try” as a single, believing it would not be a hit. Epic Records released it as a single over her protests and the song ended up reaching to number five in the US charts.
4.Neil Young: Storytone; Reprise; 546I05-I
Neil Young is a rocker. A hard rocker. Even at age 74 he can still rock with the best of them. Yet he has never shown any hesitation to deviate from his hard rocking reputation to tackle different genres like he did with his Trans,Everybody’s Rockin, Old Ways, and This Note’s for You albums. In 2014, the same year he announced he was divorcing his wife of 36 years, Young pulled another musical 180 with Storytone. For this release, he was backed by a full 92-piece orchestra. Yes, you read right- Neil Young performing with an orchestra (the first LP contains the same songs but with Young solo). He also fronts three big band performances. I bet nobody saw that one coming.
At first blush, this paradoxical relationship might strike you as a musical train wreck, but Young keeps the train gliding smoothly down the track. His ten original songs focus on the three subjects dearest to Young’s heart…love, the environment, and his electric hybrid-converted 1959 Lincoln Continental (not necessarily in that order). From a romantic standpoint, When I Watch You Sleeping and I’m Glad I Found You and are on par with Harvest Moon, and were presumably written with then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah in mind (whom he went on to marry).
“…this paradoxical relationship might strike you as a musical train wreck, but Young keeps the train gliding smoothly down the track.“
The front and rear album covers as well as the inside gatefold feature paintings by Young. The cover itself has a kind of rough, canvas-like feel, as if you had bought a painting with records inside. The soft pastel water colors hint at what acoustically awaits within. The gatefold holds one more pleasant surprise: a large, twenty-five-page color lyric book with pictures and details of the musicians performing on each track. It is a tangible reminder of what is lost with digital downloads and CDs. Between the music spread across the two records, the paintings, and the book, Storytone tells a beautiful story both musically and visually.
FYI-If you are interested in learning about Young’s efforts to save high-quality audio, check out his new book “To Feel the Music” (Ben Bella Books), co-written with his long-time technical collaborator, Phil Baker.
Trivia: What was Neil Young’s first musical instrument? He was given a plastic ukulele as a Christmas gift when he was thirteen.
5. Prince: Xpectation and Madhouse; Paisley Park
I was listening to Slow Jams Radio, a smooth R&B/Soul Internet radio station I recommended in last month’s blog article. I caught the tail end of a song that the meta data identified as “Prince”. I did not know it at the time, but the artist was really Prince Djae, yet the meta data only showed “Prince” for some reason. Although it did not sound like The Purple One singing, I was intrigued and began searching on the web for Prince/Jazz. I am a casual Prince fan at best and profess to know little about his music, so I was very surprised to discover he recorded several Jazz-related albums. Considering his mother was a jazz singer and his father a jazz pianist and song writer (his father’s stage name was Prince Rogers), it makes sense Prince would eventually experiment with jazz since it was in his DNA.
Prince’s last jazz album was Xpectation: New Directions in Music (NPR Records, 2003), an instrumental-only recording. It is available as a digital download only and was never released to the public at large in any physical format. I include it here as part of the backstory to a couple of other Prince albums I will discuss presently. Xpectation featured Prince on keyboards and electric guitar, Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer, Canadian Rhonda Smith on bass guitar, Thai violinist (and Olympic skier) Vanessa Mae, and John Blackwell on drums. Having always regarded Prince as a mega pop star, I was pleasantly surprised with his jazz fusion compositions. Xhalation is a beautiful, dream-like song, while Xotica made me think I was listening to a top contemporary jazz saxophonist’s album.
Xpectation may have been his last jazz fusion album, but it was not Prince’s only foray into the genre. A full sixteen years before Xpectation, he recorded two jazz-fusion records simply titled “8” (Paisley Park, 9 25545-1) and “16” (Paisley Park, 9 25658-1) under the pseudonym “Madhouse” (nowhere on either record is Prince identified by name despite playing most of the instruments himself). Both albums can be purchased on the Internet, but not inexpensively. I sourced my “8” LP from a seller in The Netherlands and my “16” album on eBay. Prince recorded a third album in the trilogy titled, you guessed it, “24”, but it was never released and is presumably collecting purple dust in the purple music vaults at Paisley Park. To illustrate how much these album’s fly under the radar, cable channel AXS TV profiled Prince on one of its hour-long “Rock Legends” episodes and never once mentioned Madhouse or Xpectation.
My unplanned investigation into Prince’s music left me with a much deeper respect and appreciation for his work. I found hidden jazzy gems in several of his albums, like the song Strollin’ off of 1991’s Diamonds And Pearls, which would fit in nicely on any contemporary jazz record today.
Next month will mark the fourth anniversary of Prince’s death at the age of 57. On April 17, almost four years to the day he died, his estate will re-issue four legacy albums from 2001-2002 on vinyl for the very first time: The Rainbow Children, One Night Alone…, One Night Alone…Live!, and One Night Alone: The After Show…It Ain’t Over! All four releases will be issued on colored vinyl.
Trivia: Who did Prince originally ask to write the lyrics to Purple Rain? Stevie Nicks. She refused, declaring the song too “overwhelming”.
6. Sideways; Silva Screen Records SILLP1174
My version of Sideways is pressed on “red wine-colored vinyl” (the film is set in Santa Barbara wine country), limited to 500 copies.
Rolfe Kent has quite a long resume when it comes to film soundtracks. I first became familiar with his music from About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson. Some of Kent’s other soundtrack work include Legally Blonde, Slums of Beverly Hills, Kate & Leopold, Freaky Friday, and the theme to Showtime’s Dexter. However, I am recommending his instrumental jazz score for 2004’s Academy Award-winning Sideways, which earned the composer a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score.
Honestly speaking, I have never seen this critically-acclaimed film, but that does not preclude one from enjoying the soundtrack. In fact, I think not seeing the film makes the soundtrack all that more enjoyable since you will not be prompted to re-play segments of the film in your mind as you listen. And with fifteen tracks, there is plenty to enjoy here. In the liner notes for Sideways, Director Alexander Payne said of Kent: “It is from the Italians, and from Rolfe, that I find what I most value in film music- unusual arrangements, the constant presence of melody, the expression of emotion without sentimentality, and a great deal of wit.” I especially like Drive and Wine Safari; the latter sounding like it came straight out of the 1960’s.
Trivia: Sonoma State University conducted a study in 2009 concluding the movie Sideways caused a spike in Pinot Noir sales and prices, while slowing Merlot sales and reducing its prices.
7. Maniac; WaxWork Records / Uncut Gems; Warp Records
Continuing with the soundtrack theme, if you like New Age/minimalist type music, be sure to look into the soundtracks for Maniac and Uncut Gems. Maniac was a limited Netflix Series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill with music by Dan Romer. A soundtrack was recently issued as a limited edition, two record, neon yellow and pink colored vinyl set by Waxwork Records. The music is described as “cerebral, emotionally provoking, and hypnotic.”
Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler and has received almost universal rave reviews. The synth-heavy soundtrack is by Daniel Lopatin, an experimental musician who deliberately aimed for a laid-back sound to contrast the film’s non-stop, high-stress atmosphere. If you are into meditation, yoga, or just have a need to de-stress on occasion (who does not?), either of these records should fit the bill nicely.
Trivia: The F word is used a total of 408 times throughout the Uncut Gems film, which averages out to about one F bomb every three minutes.
8.Henry Mancini: More Music from Peter Gun; RCA Victor LPM-2040
I am a dedicated viewer and fan of the Peter Gunn black and white TV series which ran from 1958-1961. Thank goodness for the DVR because the MeTV Network airs back-to-back episodes starting at 4am. Half of me watches for the story while the other half tunes in for the cool jazz soundtrack by Henry Mancini. Murder and jazz make a delicious combination. The Peter Gunn Theme was a number one hit and has been covered by several bands, so it is probably burned into your brain even if you are not acquainted with the TV show. In 1959, Mancini released two different Peter Gunn TV soundtracks on the RCA Victor label: The first was the Grammy Award-winning The Music from Peter Gunn (LSP-1956), followed by More Music from Peter Gunn (LSP-2040). Both albums featured top-notch jazz musicians including John Williams on piano (yes, that John Williams). Mancini would go on to record other very successful soundtracks like The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“Murder and jazz make a delicious combination.“
In 1967, almost six years after the TV series ended, Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards tried to revive the franchise with a full-length feature film titled “Gunn…Number One!” directed and co-written by Edwards and starring the original TV Peter Gunn, Craig Stevens. The rest of the TV series regulars were re-cast for the movie, like Edward Asner as Lt. Jacoby and Helen Traubel as “Mother”, the nightclub owner. I have an “unofficial” DVD of the movie which was never commercially released to the public in any format. A sequel was intended but never materialized, perhaps because five James Bond films had been made by that point, and as great as Peter Gunn he was no competition for 007.
I also have the Gunn movie soundtrack which was released to the public on vinyl (RCA Victor, LSP-3840), and thirty-two years later on CD (RCA, 74321 66499 2). This soundtrack features a more “mod” version of the Peter Gunn Theme along with a curious version featuring lyrics sung by a chorus which closed the film. John Williams does not perform, but other big guns (no pun intended) are featured such as Ray Brown on bass, Shelly Manne on drums, and Plas Johnson and Bud Shank on saxophone.
Incidentally, Lola Albright, the beautiful blonde who played Edie Hart, the smoky nightclub singer and Peter Gunn’s love interest in the TV series, released two solo albums of her own: 1957’s Lola Wants You (Kem Records, 101), and 1959’s Dreamsville (Columbia, CS 8133). For the latter, like the two Peter Gunn instrumental records released the same year, she was backed by Henry Mancini. Musically, Dreamsville is the better of the two in my opinion, but Lola Wants You has a far superior (and seductive) album cover. A word of warning- “Wants You” will set you back a couple of hundred dollars for the original red vinyl pressing.
Trivia: In 1982, Henry Mancini wrote the theme song to Bob Newhart’s “Newhart” TV show on CBS.
A couple of months ago I happened upon Dead Ringer on Turner Classic Movies, a classic black and white murder mystery from 1964 starring Bette Davis in both lead roles (she played twin sisters). One sister operates a little cocktail bar below her modest apartment. In one scene in the club, an organist and drummer play a really hip jazz tune. Using the vernacular of the day, I dug the crazy music and was determined to find out who the duo was. Turning to the Internet, I discovered the organist was Perri (sometimes spelled “Perry”) Lee Blackwell. The Dead Ringer soundtrack includes that hip jazz song played in the cocktail bar, Figueroa (named after the street where the fictional cocktail bar was located), written by Andre Previn. The rest of the album contains dark murder mystery music, so I bought the lone track as a single music download rather than the entire record.
Blackwell was a classically trained pianist and self-taught organist. Five years before Dead Ringer, Blackwell performed a few songs in the Rock Hudson/Doris Day film Pillow Talk, including a duet with Day. She released three jazz albums of her own, all of which are hard to come by. I sourced my copy of one of her records, Miss Perri Lee at the Parisian Room (Dot, LPM 3221), from a seller in Australia.
Trivia: The script for Dead Ringer was written in 1944, but was not green-lighted for production by Warner Brothers until nineteen years later.Trivia: The script for Dead Ringer was written in 1944, but was not green-lighted for production by Warner Brothers until nineteen years later.
10. Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66; A&M SP-4116
While much of the music world was preoccupied experimenting with psychedelic sounds in 1966, Sergio Mendes came out of nowhere and singlehandedly blew everyone’s mind with his English/Portuguese hybrid album, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 (Herb Alpert does not actually perform on the record). As for how Alpert came into the picture, he noted on the record’s back cover: “One afternoon recently, a friend of mine called to ask if I wanted to hear a new group. From the first note I was grinning like a kid who’d just found a new toy. The group is headed by an amazingly talented piano-playing arranger…Sergio Mendes.”
The album’s liner notes were penned by famous rock publicist Derek Taylor who promoted The Bryds, the Beach Boys, and the Mamas & the Papas, but was most famously known as the Press Officer for The Beatles. Taylor described the music as “a delicately-mixed blend of pianistic jazz, subtle Latin nuances, Lennon-McCartney-isms, some Mancini, here and there a touch of Bacharach, cool, minor chords, danceable up-beat, gentle laughter and a little sex.” As a card-carrying bachelor, I am not averse to a little sex in my music. Remember, you cannot spell “Brasil” without “bra”.
“…Sergio Mendes came out of nowhere and single-handedly blew everyone’s mind with his English/Portuguese hybrid album…“
One-part jazz and three parts Bossa nova, Mendes applied his musical magic to ten songs ranging from his hit cover of Mas Que Nada (you would recognize the tune even if you do not recognize the title), to The Beatles’ Day Tripper, to Henry Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind. Brasil ’66 ranked number two on Billboard’s Best Jazz Albums and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
For me, the female vocals combined with the Bossa nova rhythm conjures up visions of skimpy bikinis on Brazil’s sun-drenched beaches. Brasil ’66 is indeed a mind trip without the drugs. If you would like to see Mendes live, he is currently on tour in the US with stops in PA, NJ, NY, and right here in MA.
Trivia: In 2006 Mendes recorded a second cover of Mas Que Nada with The Black Eyed Peas.
Basic Record Care That concludes my record recommendations this time around. Before signing off, I should like to pass on some basic record care tips to get the most out of your vinyl.
Rock, Paper, Scissors: One of the easiest and relatively inexpensive upgrades is to throw away those rough paper inner sleeves that scratch the surface of your records each time you pull them out or slide them back in, almost like very fine sandpaper. The paper sleeves with the big hole in the middle revealing the record label are worse because the large opening allows debris to get inside the sleeve and scratch the record even more. A pack of polypropylene inner sleeves will allow you to praise you records like you should. Get the type with the paper on the outside since it adds a little stiffness, making it easier to slide records in and out.
Outer Sleeves Keeping your albums in 3 mil thick, heavy weight, clear poly outer sleeves will further help prevent debris from getting at records and protect album covers at the same time.
I have been hiding a deep, dark secret for decades. I am about to admit something that will make serious record collectors everywhere projectile vomit: I use warm tap water and a soft sponge with a dab of Dawn dish soap to clean my records. There, I said it. I will be on Jerry Springer next week. This method is cheap, quick, and does a decent job of cleaning records, though not as thoroughly as some commercial record cleaning fluids might. GrooveWasher G2 enjoys a good reputation for cleaning records. If you have a large record collection or very expensive records, you might consider going the “professional” route and investing in a record cleaning machine. Many models run into the hundreds of dollars or more, so be sure your collection justifies the expense.
Other record etiquette you might know about but is worth repeating…do not leave your records lying around naked and afraid outside of their covers, dust your records as necessary with a soft cloth or soft record brush (I use a can of compressed air), do not keep records close to anything warm enough to make them warp, handle them by the edges, keep the dust cover closed on your turntable when playing a record, be sure your turntable is not in a place where it is subject to enough vibration to cause the stylus to jump and scratch the record, and perhaps most important of all, if your turntable’s stylus has seen more holidays than the calendar, consider replacing it. Unlike a CD, every time you play a record you degrade it, and a well-worn stylus aids and abets this enemy.
“I have been hiding a deep, dark secret for decades. I am about to admit something that will make record collectors everywhere projectile vomit…“
Trivia: According to a booklet from 1954 on the subject, a 33 1/3 RPM record has about 225 grooves per inch, with each groove measuring approximately one-half the width of a human hair. The grooves on a 12 inch, 33 1/3 RPM record, if stretched out in a straight line, would extend over one-half mile in length.
Discovering new music is very gratifying. On the other hand, it is overwhelming to think of the amount of music out there, old and new, we have yet to and might never discover. Keep your records clean and your Como Audio Turntable spinning, and I will keep exploring and will let you know when I make interesting discoveries so you can continue to enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his won blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Every once and a while I devote a Tech Rap article to some great and unique Internet radio stations for your listening consideration. It is very time consuming searching our data base to seek out and audition worthy stations, so I do not task myself with this undertaking very often. But based on past comments I have received, I know highlighting stations is appreciated by our customers. So, here are ten standout Internet radio stations (in no particular order) I have uncovered from my latest data base deep dive, organized by genre, and supplemented with interviews which I think you will find very interesting.
1. The Great American Songbook (128 kbps/MP3; The Netherlands)
It is ironic that a station dedicated to the great American songbook hails from The Netherlands. The Great American Songbook (“GAS”) is a non-commercial station specializing in easy listening and American vocal jazz stretching back to the 1950’s. A small sampling of the legendary artists I took note of during my lengthy listening sessions include Dean Martin, Shirley Horn, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Paul Anka, Julie London, Sammy Davis Jr., Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Johnny Mathis. I could go on, but with more than 14,500 songs in their library, you get the idea. This classic music falls just as easily on the ears today as it did fifty-plus decades ago, perhaps more so. Further cementing the retro vibe are vintage radio jingles and commercials like Muriel Cigars (“pick one up and smoke it sometime”) and Bulova watches (“it’s Bulova time”). Once in a great while, this vintage vibe takes a brief detour when a contemporary artist like Dave Koz or Michael Franks is slipped in. GAS’s playlist skews heavily toward Frank Sinatra, but there is no such thing as too much of ol’ blue eyes. As you have probably discovered, stations with this kind of format are rapidly becoming extinct on traditional AM/FM radio. Mercifully, Internet radio and The Great American Songbook intervene to keep this endangered music alive. Play this station at your office, play it during dinner, play it for a romantic evening at home, or set your Como Audio music system’s Sleep timer to it when you go to bed, but just play it.
“As you have probably discovered, stations with this kind of format are rapidly becoming extinct on traditional AM/FM radio.“
The station’s co-founder, Rene Dussen, like myself, worked in the radio broadcast industry and has personally interviewed such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, George Shearing, Les Paul, and Diane Schuur (the complete list is far too long to reproduce). I emailed Dussen with a few questions and took the liberty of editing his written responses due to a slight language barrier.
PS: Why did you start The Great American Songbook?
RD: “The Great American Songbook Radio Station is ‘just’ a hobby (the whole business plan is my personal wallet). Its existence and format are the result of my professional radio life back in the day. I started [in] radio as a hobby (hospital radio), became a professional producer on public radio for many years (eighties & nineties), but these days it’s a hobby again…We simply carry the torch for this type of music since it’s the cradle of vocal jazz, adult contemporary, [and] easy listening, which shouldn’t be forgotten.”
PS: Why does your playlist tend to be Sinatra-heavy?
RD: “I’m originally a pop music guy, but Sinatra really changed my life. I even quit my steady job due to his existence. My friend was, and still is, a big Sinatra fan and I decided to help him produce a format since he didn’t know where to start. After six years of producing, we started on public radio with a radio documentary, “Sinatra”, which became a huge hit. Then they asked us, what more can you do? And then we started a three-year radio series every Sunday called “The Great American Songbook”. The focus was on the songwriters of ‘GAS’ music.”
PS: Your station has good sound quality.
RD: “If you ever listened to it yourself, aside from its special format, the audio quality is at a higher level than most other competitors…SiriusXM for instance, for which listeners have to pay. However, the stream quality is the secret of this [recipe].”
PS: The station is Netherlands-based, but you give it a USA “feel”?
RD: “Yes, you’re right…The whole format/concept, US voices only, real-time Manhattan temperatures every hour, the timeframe of the ‘on the hour jingles’, vintage US radio commercials, and last but not least, the music, gives the idea that it’s based in Manhattan. Worldwide listeners reactions always prove that and I love that.”
2. Slow Jams Radio (128 kbps/MP3; USA)
Slow Jams Radio already has a well-worn spot in “My Favorites” even though I just I uncovered it. It sets a mellow tone just as its name implies. R&B and Soul is the soul (pun intended) of this Internet station. The station’s Creator, whom identifies himself as DJ Musizman, explained in an email to me that his station is one of “a vibe of connection…to keep the listener coming back for more…to touch the listener…to inspire the listener…I started Slow Jams Radio along with Jazz Vibe Radio and All Underground Hip Hop Radio back in 2015 because of the love for the genres and love for ‘good music’…it’s a great way to connect with people everywhere…I’ve always loved music since a child and I wanted to share that love…”. Some of the artists I heard I did not recognize, but others I was very familiar with, like Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, Simply Red, Al Green, Keith Sweat, Natalie Cole, Otis Redding, Luther Vandross, and Earth, Wind & Fire. I even heard The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, and the Bee Gees as part of the rotation. Musizman told me he determines the music he plays based on “what I would listen to and what I consider to be ‘good music’ that any generation would connect with and listen to…growing up in Detroit, MI…my favorite radio DJ was the Electrifying Mojo…and he would play what ‘he’ liked…not what the radio stations wanted him to play…that made him very popular with the listeners in Detroit…he was different…that’s what I strive to be…different…not like everyone else…”. This broad playlist is artfully blended to create an intoxicating cocktail for the ears. Even Musizman’s soft voice, heard briefly when he identifies the station and invites you to sit back and enjoy the sounds, mates perfectly with the music. Musizman streams three other internet stations, including Purple Sounds Radio (a Prince tribute station), but I like Slow Jams Radio the best.
“This broad playlist is artfully blended to create an intoxicating cocktail for the ears.“
Unlike most of the other stations on my list, SJR airs adverts, and hearing Sprint and Home Depot commercials sandwiched between two slow jam songs disrupts the vibe Musizman works so hard at creating. But if that is what it takes for the station to exist, then so be it. Thankfully (for us, not for them), the adverts are few and far between. Turn-down the lights, tune Slow Jams Radio on your Como Audio music system, and let it soothe your soul.
3. WFMU Rock ‘n’ Soul (128 kbps/MP3; New Jersey)
Granted, so-called “Oldies” stations are as plentiful as Progressive Insurance commercials (there are literally hundreds of stations listed in our data base’s “Oldies” Genre). So why include WFMU Rock ‘n’ Soul Ichiban Radio in my list of discoveries? Because this station specializes in obscure rock bands from the 1950’s and 60’s, interspersed with vintage radio commercials for good measure. During my listen I can honestly say I had never heard of a single group or artist the station played (Pussycats, Sherlock, Sammy Taylor, The Dubs, Jackie Lowell, O.V. Wright, The Quests, Andy & The Islanders), yet without exception, every song was thoroughly enjoyable. “I started the Ichiban stream 10 years ago with my own 45s, LPs, CDs and compilations from friends. I wanted other music freaks to know that there were other versions of these obscure songs out there”, wrote Program Director Debbie Daughtry in her reply to my email. WFMU operates one FM station and three Internet-only stations out of Jersey City, all of which are listener-supported.
“…I can honestly say I had never heard of a single group or artist the station played, yet without exception, every song was thoroughly enjoyable.“
WFMU’s Rock ‘n’ Soul is akin to the neighborhood diner’s bottomless cup of coffee…just when you think you have reached the bottom you get a free refill of more great music. The station’s name used to include the Japanese word “Ichiban”, which roughly translates to “number one” or “the best” in English. An interesting word choice considering the station plays none of the hits, none of the time. That word was later removed from the station’s title without explanation.
If you want a break from those tired, repetitive “golden oldies”, Rock ‘n’ Soul is definitely deserving of a prolonged listen.
4. JIB on the Web (128 kbps/MP3; MA)
WJIB-FM was a long-standing, powerhouse beautiful music station in Massachusetts. It adopted the format in 1967 and remained loyal to it until 1990 when the station underwent the first of what would be numerous format changes, never again to revisit its easy listening roots. I have mentioned this station before but never included an interview with the Founder. Warren Schroeger, an Emerson College alum like myself, was hired as a part time DJ at WJIB-FM in 1968 and remained in their employ for thirteen years. “A well-run facility, and well-paying”, as he recalled to me. He started JIB on the Web (“Beautiful Music Done Right”) as a recreation of and tribute to the original WJIB-FM. Indeed, the all-volunteer staff is comprised of former WJIB-FM announcers. Schroeger is the primary voice of the station and still has great “pipes” as we say in the radio business.
A listener-supported station, Como Audio sponsored JIB on the Web for a good portion of last year as “the official Internet radio of JIB on the Web”. Like the original WJIB-FM, you will hear music by Andy Williams, Floyd Cramer, Living Voices, Herb Alpert, 101 Strings, Michael Legrand, and Nelson Riddle, with a modest sprinkling of vintage commercials. There are also brief “Artist Spotlights”; informative audio vignette’s on different artists the station plays.
I reached out to Schroeger via email to ask him some questions about JIB on the Web (not be confused with MA non-Internet station WJIB-AM).
PS: Besides the buoy bell and seagull sound effects, how authentic is JIB on the Web’s format compared to the original WJIB-FM?
WS: “That’s no ordinary bell! That’s the AUTHENTIC bell of the USS Constitution heard on the top of every hour on JIB on the Web, just as it played for 23 years on the original radio station. A priceless, readily identifiable brand signature. The seagulls came from a record album by Frank Chacksfield.
“Beyond that, the JIB on the Web recreation is identical to the former WJIB-FM, except for: no commercials, no hourly newscasts, and no public affairs program. With only minor modifications, the presentation is exactly as heard forty and fifty years ago. The music mix reflects a composite sound of the station over its lifespan. That mix evolved over the years on the original station as new music was introduced and older material was phased out. JIB on the Web blends them all in carefully arranged sequences that keep each hour properly balanced for consistency 24 hours a day.”
PS: What’s the best thing about JIB on the Web?
WS: “With its beautiful music format (also known as easy listening), it is providing a truly authentic re-creation of an extraordinarily popular radio station of the past that would not be viable on AM/FM radio today. It brings to those listeners disenfranchised by terrestrial radio, a realm of recorded music they would be hard-pressed to recreate otherwise.”
PS: Is it a lot of work running your own Internet station?
WS: “Doing it RIGHT is a lot of work. It would be much easier to let certain things slide. Careful attention to detail was a hallmark of the original radio station and that concept has been carried over to JIB on the Web and can be accomplished successfully only by those who are familiar with and sensitive to the nuances of the beautiful music format.”
5. Seeburg 1000 Background Music (128 kbps/MP3; CA)
I briefly mentioned this wild Internet station in my December blog article and it is definitely deserving of a spot on my list. The Seeburg 1000 was essentially a record player for businesses that played stacks of proprietary 9” mono records, mostly instrumentals. Each album side contained 20 songs, which translated to roughly 40 minutes of music per side. How could they achieve this with a record 3” smaller in diameter than an LP and a massive 2” spindle hole in the middle? Simple: The records played at half the normal speed of an LP…16 2/3 R.P.M. Keep in mind, this was intended as background music, not for critical listening. Each record was numbered so as to let the operator know what order to stack them in the machine. Records were shipped to businesses every quarter with instructions to return the old records to Seeburg under penalty of death (this is only a slight exaggeration). The Seeburg music catalog was divided into three formats: Basic (medium tempo), Mood (medium-slow tempo), and Industrial (medium-fast tempo). Seeburg even issued their own Christmas music. The music was designed to keep workers working and shoppers shopping. Did it work? Considering the machines were in use for close to thirty years, they must have had some kind of an impact.
The Seeburg 1000 playback machine itself held twenty-five records and resembled an industrial strength microwave oven, with a small lighted window in the door to reveal the vertical rotisserie of records. The machine was capable of playing its stack of records indefinitely. Think of it as a rudimentary version of music streaming. The machine’s unique cartridge had two styli; one on the bottom and a duplicate on top, negating the need to manually “flip” the records. Seeburg had been a major manufacturer of jukeboxes for years, so they knew what they were doing.
Seeburg 1000 Background Music’s playlist covers late 1950’s through the late 1980’s. The station plays digital files of original Seeburg recordings as well as records played from actual restored, working Seeburg machines. A lot of effort has been poured into this station and it shows. The station successfully transports you back to a simpler time when people went to actual department stores to do their shopping and worked side by side with their coworkers, not isolated in cubicles staring at computer monitors.
Station co-founder Denny Hankla is about the nicest guy I never met. I contacted him by email to help me unpack his most unique station:
PS: The proprietary records for the Seeburg 1000 machine were supposed to be destroyed after they were returned by businesses, so where did you find the music you play?
DH: “We found the records at Antique Coin Op shows, former Seeburg distributors and operators, and eBay.”
PS: How did your Internet station originally come about?
DH: “Many, many years ago, we started collecting the records and machines and basically rescued the library from extinction. The public did not know about it, only operators, and they didn’t care. The machines and records were hauled to the dump regularly. I heard stories over and over about this. Thankfully, not all of them met that fate…then internet radio stations starting sprouting up everywhere and we started our station. The entire project is a labor of love for all involved.”
PS: You have some famous listeners, like the drummer for the band KISS?
DH: “Yes, Eric Singer is one of my best friends for over 30 years and we’re neighbors. He really does listen to the station, and records promos for us. There are others, but he is our “celebrity spokesperson”. We have listeners worldwide.”
PS: Why do you think this type of music appeals to people so many decades later?
DH: “Many folks have commented how they remember hearing this music when they were young. Shopping with their parents in a mall, or hearing background music while standing in line at a grocery store, bank, etc., etc. We receive email regularly from listeners telling their stories and thanking us for keeping the music alive.”
6. Mi Generation Radio (128 kbps/AAC; Columbia)
With winter upon us, heat up the cold days with Mi Generation Radio, a recent addition to our ever-growing radio station data base. Export your ears down to South America for some authentic Salsa (the music, not the sauce). This station broadcasts in Spanish, but that just adds to the authenticity. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, so spice up yours with a dash of Salsa from Columbia.
You never know who you will pick up on the Internet radio highway.
1. Payphone Radio Network (128 kbps/MP3; New York)
Last month I celebrated a Birthday (I won’t tell you what year). I only mention this because I am old enough to remember using rotary dial public payphones and phone booths with thick telephone books dangling from a chain. Coincidentally, I purchased a refurbished black 1950’s Western Electric Model 302 rotary dial telephone last month from a seller on eBay who restores antique telephones. Right now, it is just a display piece, but I had it retro-fitted with a modular jack so I could actually use it one day.
Returning to the topic at hand: According to a 2018 CNN “Money” article, payphone revenue topped $286 million in 2015. As of 2018 there were 100,000 payphones remaining in the USA (down from 2 million in 1999). Given the fact that 1/5 of those are in New York, it follows that Payphone Radio Network is based in NY. The station’s founder, Mark Thomas, who is also a classical music pianist/composer, randomly calls in to a recording device from various payphones memorializing certain aspects of his life. Think of it as a spoken private journal, broadcast for the entire world to eavesdrop on. Some of these one-way calls are rather pedestrian, such as how his day went at work and tossing his baseball cards. Other calls are more remarkable, like the call in which he recounts the 9/11 terrorist attack (one of the jets flew over his head that morning), recollections of his time working at CNN, and apologizing to his parents for making a painful decision he knows will hurt them. These “confessions” quickly become addictive, like a kind of one-man telephone reality show, and a part of me felt guilty for listening in. The meta data shows the phone number of each payphone he calls from along with a summary of each call (e.g. “Rockefeller Center Rambles”). I wondered when the calls I was listening to were made, but unfortunately, Thomas does not include date information because he feels Internet-savvy listeners are too preoccupied with what is “new”.
Thomas is well spoken, has a pleasant voice, and speaks in a monotone, occasionally letting loose with an unexpected expletive or two. His down-to-earth, unscripted calls make you feel like you are really listening to a call from him. Oftentimes I find myself wanting to talk back. Call quality varies from remarkably clean to just audible, and often abruptly ends with the classic loud noise of the receiver being hung up. His spoken entries are occasionally interrupted by a recorded message from the female operator prompting him to deposit another twenty-five cents. Perhaps she is Alexa or Siri’s grandmother.
“These ‘confessions’ quickly become addictive, like a kind of one-man telephone reality show, and a part of me felt guilty for listening in.“
I emailed Thomas a barrage of questions in order to help me fill-in the blanks, which he readily answered. Although he started Payphone Radio in 2010, amassing thousands of calls over nine+ years, Thomas only airs calls dating back to April 2018, as he feels the older calls would be a turn-off to listeners. Perhaps it is just me, but after randomly tuning in over the course of a few weeks, I found myself wanting to hear those older calls. That aside, Thomas estimates the period he airs his calls from accounts for over 600 calls. Some calls never see the fiber-optic light of day because they were inaudible, failed to record, or had some other issue. Such are the inherent risks when relying on public payphones. Thomas says the majority of calls cost him 0.25 cents, but some cost 0.50 cents, especially the live performance recording calls. More on that in a minute. In the meantime, please deposit another twenty-five cents.
The most burning question I had for Thomas was why he bothers to even do this at all:“Since college and even high school I had wanted some kind place on the airwaves, but discovered that neither the professional nor “alternative” world of broadcast radio in the 1990s (after I finished college) had any place for me, even though everybody I talked to in the business seemed to think I did. I had no ambition of being the next Casey Kasem. I rather wanted some small but unique place on the broadcast spectrum, preferably at the far-left end of the AM or FM dial. When no opportunity on the terrestrial radio seemed ever to await, and as the cost of streaming media made Internet radio more financially realistic (and artistically unrestricted), I turned to that format instead. My first Shoutcast stream was about 20 years ago, if I remember right.
“I started Payphone Radio thinking I should be like Joe Frank. It didn’t take long to discover that that’s not possible. There will never be another Joe Frank, and in time I felt like a fool trying to imitate him, or any of my other radio heroes. I decided I should be my own radio star, carve out my own niche, just like Joe! You mention “confessionals”. Only in the past few months has it dawned on me that Payphone Radio is inhabited by spirits from the old Apology Line, a telephone confessional I discovered in 1991 and which utterly captivated me for years. Listening back to some of my more confessional calls from Payphone Radio I realized, consciously or not, I was recreating an echo of, or rather a tribute to that Apology soundworld: the grey, monochrome sound of the landline, filled with mostly lonely voices — or in the case of Payphone Radio, one lonely voice — baring our souls from a safe, discrete distance.”
Thomas explains on his website that he was also inspired in part by David Letterman’s skits of calling payphones in close proximity to The Ed Sullivan Theater “live” on TV and talking with whomever answered, sometimes inviting the person to walk over to the studio and be on his show.
Presumably, to prevent his non-commercial station from sounding like one long, continuous phone call, Thomas augments his calls with primitive recordings of musicians performing live in New York City subways (the subway location and name of the musician is displayed when known), using the closest available payphone handset as the microphone! Ergo, the sound quality is hardly high fidelity, but Thomas maintains “the coarseness of the sound quality gives it an impromptu, unexpected feel. As you would expect,” he explained, “it depends mostly how close the phone was to the action, or how loud the band played…I don’t mind the haunting, far-off quality of the latter calls but you might be amazed how good some of those close-up calls can sound. I have a weakness for music that makes itself difficult, or even just a little hard to hear. I have “Musical Ear Syndrome” so I hear music everywhere, or I almost do, if you know what I mean. I hear Coltrane and Dr. John coming out of air filters and window fans, and Boccherini in the sound of shower water circling the drain. Listening to the payphone buskers is reminiscent of that sensation.”
As for how long he can keep this going, Thomas says “the inevitable reality is that I’ll not be able to do this forever by sticking to the payphone-only conduit. I’ve broken protocol by making a small number of cellphone calls, probably less than 10 total all these years, but as payphones continue to dwindle, I expect to evolve into just using a home studio format. In fact, my next update may include just such a recording. I will never use those stupid LinkNYC kiosks for this.”
2. Radio Free Brooklyn (192 kbps/MP3; New York)
In the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and now for something completely different. Also based in the Big Apple, this non-profit had its modest beginnings four years ago in the basement of a bicycle shop. Today, Radio Free Brooklyn broadcasts over 75 original shows from a state-of-the-art studio. The format is Freeform, meaning the hosts are “not restricted by traditional programming formats or commercial concerns when they are developing their content and playlists.” The station’s website goes on to boldly state “management will never dictate what our hosts can or cannot say and/or play on the network.” This artistic freedom results in some pretty off-the-wall programming, such as “Badass Babes”, “Queer State of Mind”, “Dr. Lisa Gives a Sh**”, “Fallen Woman”, and “Famous Dead People”, where the host interviews dead celebrities played by local actors and comedians. I asked Executive Director Tom Tenney what the most popular programs were. “I’d say the two original shows that seem to be the most popular with listeners around the world are Crime Talk BK (Saturdays at 11am ET), which is a weekly live talk show that explores crime and criminal justice in Brooklyn. The other, a music show, is Aural Medication (Friday 11am ET), which is a freeform music show featuring lots of R&B, blues, and singer-songwriters. It’s hosted by radio veteran Rina Kofman. Brooklyn Bandstand (all local music) and Democracy Now! (syndicated) do really well also. Those two shows air 5 days a week, while most of our other shows are weekly.”
Within seconds of tuning in for the very first time, I heard the “F” and “P” words in the same sentence! Since the station broadcasts over the Internet and not over the public airwaves, it is not subject to the same FCC regulations. Do not misunderstand me- RFB is not a talk radio version of a freak show. As Tenney mentioned, there are some solid public affairs and music programs. I especially enjoyed “Mood Indigo”, devoted to melancholy blues, soul, and R&B.
“Do not misunderstand me- RFB is not a talk radio version of a freak show.“
The Freeform format is certainly nothing new, having first appeared on FM radio in the late 1960’s. You will find an extensive list of Freeform stations from around the globe by searching under Freeform-Eclectic under Genre in the Stations menu of your Como Audio music system, but none are quite like RFB. I recommend at least sampling RFB if not for the sheer novelty of it. Notwithstanding my years in radio broadcasting, I have never heard anything quite like this station before. Radio Free Brooklyn gives both music and the First Amendment a vigorous workout, so keep your water bottle and sweatband at arm’s length when you tune in.
3. Radio Broadgreen 2 (133 kbps/AAC; UK)
I never took the time to count, but I would conservatively estimate I worked at more than a dozen radio stations during my 6+ years in that field. At one point in my career when I was unable to find full time work in radio, I worked part time for three different radio stations. The industry had an affectionate label for such people…“radio whore”, a badge I wore with great pride. Point being, I am very familiar with the radio business, yet with the exception of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Seacrest Studios (started from a gift by the Ryan Seacrest Foundation) and a few other Children’s Hospitals in the USA, I have never heard of a hospital-based radio station.
RBG 2 is situated in Liverpool, England, and offers a full-time eclectic mix of music, old-time radio programs, live concerts, and comedy. When I first tuned in, I caught the tail-end of a comedy song by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, followed by a broadcast of a Faulty Towers TV episode. According to what Station Manager Paul Watters wrote to me, “Radio Broadgreen 2 is intended for hospital patients as an alternative to our main music entertainment/information service, Radio Broadgreen. As we broadcast to some gerontology wards and to patients suffering with dementia/Alzheimer’s, it was decided to see if a service with Old Time Radio shows and some specific programs made for elderly patients (music and news items through the years) would help with their recovery. Music can stimulate and act as a trigger for some patients. One example was the day a patient suffering with dementia was visited by our team and as we chatted, she suddenly seemed to awake from her daze and said the song she would like to hear. She then immediately started to sing it. The nursing staff were taken aback as she had been quite non-responsive all morning. The power of song!” Having one elderly parent of my own with Alzheimer’s, I can attest to that.
“The industry had an affectionate label for such people…“radio whore”, a badge I wore with great pride.“
RBG 2, along with two others (Radio Broadgreen and RBG Sport), is overseen by the Liverpool Hospital Broadcast Service, a charitable organization, and is funded through donations. Although the station itself is non-commercial, you might hear an ad or two after the station loads and connects, which emanates from the streaming service provider, not the radio station. RBG 2 is currently evaluating other provider options. I found the streaming quality sometimes fluctuated, reaching as high as 143 kbps and as low as 97 kbps, which is still excellent quality in the AAC audio codec.
As Watters mentioned, the station broadcasts some enjoyable music programs like the syndicated “A to Z of Pop Special! with Richard Smith” and “Ray Oxley’s Golden Years”, described as “sixty minutes of pure nostalgia”. Thanks to the miracle of Internet radio, you do not need to be a patient at Broadgreen Hospital to enjoy this station. RBG 2’s comedy programming will keep you in stitches (excuse the pun), and if laughter is the best medicine, it also just might help keep you out of the dreaded waiting room.
Classic Book Radio (97 kbps/MP3; MS)
I confess I am not a bookworm, which will surely come as a surprise to those who know me. Following considerable self-therapy, I have determined this literary aversion stems from the emotional trauma I suffered from profoundly boring high school reading assignments and dry (not to mention outrageously expensive) college textbooks that were required reading for four seemingly endless years. Being permanently saddled with eye glasses that served as the blueprint for the Hubble Telescope does not help. Enter non-profit Classic Book Radio out of Mississippi. From classic books, to short stories, to poems, CBR has a lot to offer. The genres cover Fiction, Westerns, History, and Mystery. Last month included readings of The Count of Monte Cristo, Anne of Green Gables, and Lincoln. As Executive Director Chris Howard explained to me, “We broadcast mainly public domain works from the free audio books internet site Librivox.org. We have done a bit of our own recording also. Getting broadcast rights to works still under copyright is a challenge.” CBR’s website succinctly states their format: “No rap music, no country western, no Rush Limbaugh, just people reading.” The station is funded through listener donations and underwriting.
The next time you think about curling up with a good book, try curling up next to your Como Audio smart speaker while you enjoy listening to Classic Book Radio.
As it so happens, John Figliozzi, a proud Como Audio Solo owner, is also the author of The Worldwide Listening Guide. This comprehensive publication organizes radio stations and programs to make it easier to find programming you might enjoy. The listings are organized by UTC time, station, days of broadcast, the type of program, and their frequencies and web addresses. Additionally, there are 37 special Classified Listings to help find programs by subject such as such as Arts & Culture; History; News & Documentary; Science & Technology; Current Affairs; Music; Sports, etc.
Toward the back of his book, Figliozzi offers some of his own Internet radio program recommendations, including jazz/pop station FIP (128 kbps/MP3; France), world music station WOOC (64 kbps/MP3; NY), and Monocle 24 (128 kbps/MP3; London). The parent company of the latter is actually a UK print magazine of the same name selling over 84,000 copies per month. Their Monocle 24 radio station strikes me as somewhat of an extension of their publication, delivering global news and shows on current affairs, business, culture, design, and food.
Figliozzi owns more than one Internet radio, but of his Como Audio Solo he opines, “it has brought a whole new dimension to the concept of radio. The options it offers are almost limitless, whether it’s the 30,000+ stations it can access or the voluminous music library it gives through Spotify. And the sound it produces? Just magnificent, that’s all!”
Another effective method to discover Internet radio stations is to dedicate some time exploring your Como Audio music system’s Stations menu. Reading these blog articles hopefully also provides you some good direction. Whether you discover new stations through deliberate searching or by happy accident, Internet radio is your safe gateway drug to a stash of entertaining, informative, and unique programming you would never find on AM/FM commercial radio.
Your Support Counts!
Ordinarily, I try not to turn any part of my articles into a commercial. None of the fine people I interview in connection with this article asked me to say this, but even with all-volunteer staff, listener-supported Internet radio stations have overhead such as music royalties (if they play music), utility bills, and maintaining and replacing equipment. If you enjoy listening to any of these (or other) listener-supported stations, consider making a donation, and/or a purchase from their website, to help keep your favorites on the air so you can continue to enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also wites for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
One advantage of our Como Audio models is the ability to receive free software updates over Wi-Fi. This allows us to keep your model up to date with bugs fixes and new features. Software updates are not automatic. However, you will see a message on the display when an update is available. You will be able to perform the update at that time or decline it and update your unit at a date and time of your choosing. If you think you might have missed an update or just want to verify your model has the latest software, go to System settings > Software update > Check now. You can also go to the “Support” section of our website to “Software updates” to check the details of every software update by model.
If the update is of a major nature, it could come with a tradeoff such as erasing your presets or requiring you to perform a Factory reset following the update. This has only happened once or twice in all of the updates we have issued. We do our best to communicate such issues with you via email, social media, and posting a notice on our website as much in advance as possible. If you are not signed up to our email list or do not update us when your email addresses changes, we have no way of notifying you of these important changes. Please consider signing up to keep abreast of all things Como (note we do not sell our email list to other companies).
A Little Preset Context Over a decade ago, our Founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, designed his first Internet radio, cleverly named “NetWorks”. There were a handful of other such devices on the market back then, but none looked as elegant, sounded as good, or were as easy to setup. During development (I was the Senior Product Manager at that time), Tom had the novel idea to store thoughtfully chosen Internet radio stations to the preset buttons of all NetWorks. The purpose being, after the user completed the setup process, he/she could simply push any preset button and instantly start listening to music. The stations were not chosen at random, but rather, curated by Tom based on his own listening.
When Tom started Como Audio he carried on this tradition, except he made it even better by adding three new features to his Como creations: First, the presets are not limited to Internet or FM radio stations only; you can also save most sources to the preset keys such as Bluetooth, Optical, Spotify, and Auxiliary.
Secondly, the presets are independent of the playing source. Say you have an Internet radio station saved to preset one. You can be listening to FM or some other source, press preset one, and the unit will switch to Internet radio and play that station…no need to change the source and press the preset.
Last but not least is the convenient one-touch feature: press any preset button while your Como Audio music system is in standby, the unit will power on, tune that station, and start playing music at the last volume setting.
After you setup your Como Audio model for the first time, or after performing a Factory reset, our default preset stations will fill your preset buttons automatically. Of course, you are free to save whatever stations and/or sources you wish to any or all of the presets. Below I detailed each station preset in your Como Audio system.
“When Tom started Como Audio he carried on this tradition, except he made it even better by adding three new features to his Como creations…”
A Little Preset History
According to a 2017 article on Hagerty.com, in 1936 Motorola (“Motor” + “Victrola”) was the first to introduce a (AM) radio for automobiles that featured preset buttons. One interesting piece of useless anecdotal trivia I should like to pass on: I vividly recall speaking to a former Alpine salesman a few years ago at a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Alpine still exists today, but if you are of a certain age, you know they were a big-name player during the custom car audio craze. This salesman told me someone at Alpine got the brilliant idea to make the preset buttons out of slightly green tinted plastic with a soft backlight, lending them a glass-like appearance. He told me Alpine’s sales went absolutely through the roof based on that one simple change.
Como Audio’s Default Preset Internet Stations
Preset 1: Radio Swiss Jazz (97 kbps, AAC, Switzerland)
Radio Swiss Jazz is the number one listened-to Internet radio station by Como Audio customers, and it is our go-to station whenever we perform a demonstration. The station is licensed by the Schweizerische Radio- und Fernsehgesellschaft SRG SSR (remember that name because there will be a quiz later), otherwise known as the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The only thing better than its excellent playlist (the website says it is “the ideal non-stop mix for any time of day or night”) is the sound quality. Some of the talented artists you will hear include John Lee Hooker, Ben Webster, Manhattan Transfer, Jeff Hamilton Trio, Art Tatum, and Jack DeJohnette. RSJ has been broadcasting for more than 20 years, and as of last year, could boast over 57,000 listeners in Switzerland alone. 57,000 Swiss cannot be wrong! If you love traditional jazz, this station will not disappoint.
With the help of a translator, I corresponded with Daniel Buser in Listener Services to get a little more information about RSJ:
PS: Why does RSJ play a lot of music performed by Swiss musicians?
DB: “Like all the other programs of SRG SSR, Radio Swiss Jazz is given the assignment to promote Swiss music. We do so by making sure that 50% of the titles in our program are in some way connected to Switzerland performer[s], author[s], label[s].”
PS: How far back do you play music from?
DB: “As it says on our website, we mainly play “swinging standards from the Great American Songbook as well as gems of innovative bebop instrumentalists, supplemented with Black and World Music”. The oldest titles are estimated to date from the 1930’s. However, as a radio station that broadcasts on digital standards, we play almost no historic recordings made in those times due to their sound quality.”
PS: How is Radio Swiss Jazz funded?
DB: “Each Swiss household has to pay an annual fee for the reception of radio, television and internet. In addition to the financing of the programs/stations (including the private ones), with this money, author’s rights compensation (royalties) is paid, too. This annual fee is flat-rate, as in Switzerland one does not pay specifically for a particular station/program. The annual fee amounts to CHF 365 (about $363 USD) per household a year. The total income produced by it is allocated to the several radio and television programs on the base of a distribution formula.”
Preset 2: BBC Radio 6 Music (97 kbps, AAC, London)
BBC Radio 6 does not broadcast on traditional FM, but does broadcast on DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) which is not supported in North America. However, thanks to Internet radio, we in the good old USA, and anywhere else, get to enjoy it. Besides the sound quality, the cool things about this station are the hefty helping of music you have never heard before and the amazing diversity. In the course of about 20 minutes of listening I heard The Pogues, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, and Tom Waits. To quote from their website: “Alongside classic tracks from the last four decades, we play new music, and the station also has a strong commitment to live music, with new session tracks as well as classic sessions from the BBC archive.” As they go on to say, there is not a lot they will not play. Each weekday they play tracks from an album they choose to spotlight. The “Album of the Day” as it is called, might be a classic, a new release, or something in between. If you need to add some variety to your daily listening diet, BBC Radio 6 Music might be what the Music Doctor ordered. Footnote: I emailed BBC 6 Radio several times for my article but they never responded. They are a large, very busy organization, and I am not The New York Times, so I get it.
Preset 3: WCRB Classical (192 kbps, MP3, Boston)
WCRB has a colorful history. The station began as a commercial AM station and switched to FM in 1950, at which time it changed its format to classical music. WRCB was quite innovative back in the day. It was the first FM station in the country to have a two-channel stereo broadcast studio. H.H. Scott, a popular hi-fi equipment manufacturer at the time, was involved in that innovation. The station’s engineers helped develop the RIAA record frequency response curve. In 2005 WCRB was sold and changed to a country music format. Due to FCC limits on ownership within a market, the new owners were forced to sell off another of their radio stations. Accordingly, in 2006, the owners sold off one of their other stations and the new buyer turned that station into WCRB, thus restoring the all-classical station. Almost exactly ten years ago the station was sold again, this time being purchased by MA public radio and TV station WGBH, whom retained the 24/7 classical format, but converted the commercial station to listener-supported, consistent with WGBH’s other public stations. Today, WCRB is marketed as “Classical Radio Boston”, whose mission is “…to bring the joy and beauty of classical music to as many people as possible.” The station also broadcasts live performances of The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, the Handel and Haydn Society, and more. I tuned in about three weeks ago to hear the Boston Pops Annual Holiday Concert broadcast live on WCRB from Symphony Hall in Boston. Laura Carlo is the morning drive host and has been with the station for two decades, almost unheard of in the radio industry. I contacted Laura through WCRB’s website and asked her what she enjoys most about her job, but never received a response. I guess she is just as busy as the BBC. Classical music had to be represented in one of our preset stations and WCRB is one of the best ambassadors of the genre.
Full disclosure: Our Founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, is a member of WGBH’s Board of Overseers.
Preset 4: BBC World Service (56 kbps, MP3, London)
With the lack of response to my queries to BBC Radio 6, I knew I had even less of a chance of getting a response from BBC World Service, so I did not even try. But just about anyone not living under a rock has at least heard of BBC World Service. The Service can trace its roots all the way back to 1932. It was and remains to this day the gold standard for impartial, in-depth global news reporting. Partly funded by the UK government, its numerous outlets reach over 200 million people each week in over 40 languages. If you are a news junkie, or just want to know what is happening around the globe, you can rely on BBC World Service.
Preset 5: WMVY Radio (97 kbps, AAC, Martha’s Vineyard)
WMVY started out life as a commercial FM station, became one of the first stations in the US to stream on the Internet, and more recently, transitioned over to a listener-supported model. The station has about 40,000 listeners, which is quite impressive for a small station on a small island (Martha’s Vineyard). Trivia: WMVY chose the blue lobster as its logo because, like the rare blue crustacean, ‘MVY is unique. The music is a tasteful balance of older and newer artists (Chris Isaak, Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Petty, The Beatles, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett); a tricky format made more difficult if you want it to sound cohesive.
I emailed WMVY’s Executive Director and long-time employee, Paul Finn (“PJ”, as he is known), whom also doubles as the mid-day host, to get more background. I started by asking PJ about the genesis behind their listener-supported status.
PJ: Here’s a brief synopsis of how we became non-profit. In 2012 Aritaur was winding down its business. They had sold off their other radio stations. They needed to sell ‘MVY, but wanted the long-running station to survive. The plan was that they sold the FM signal license (92.7FM) to a Boston-based station, and donated all the rest of the assets (equipment, archives, etc.) to a trust. The staff of the station raised $600,000 in 60 days to support the station for a year. The station became internet only and a nonprofit Board was formed. 15 months later, a new FM signal was purchased. Joe Gallagher had always believed that the station would be better organized as a nonprofit, but making the switch from commercial to nonprofit would have been a huge financial disruption for Aritaur (and it was for us!). However, the situation forced our hand, and it turned out to be a successful move.
PS: Why did the station change to a listener-supported model six years ago? Doesn’t it make things more challenging financially?
PJ: “WMVY is located on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, which is just south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Vineyard has about 17,000 year round residents, but in the summer the population grows 10 fold. The same is true for Cape Cod. Local businesses basically live or die on an 8-week summer season. And as a commercial station, WMVY’s fortunes were reliant on whether or not local businesses had a strong enough summer season to spend money on advertising with the station. In the wake of the recession starting in 2008, our commercial support plummeted.
“But our audience held steady, and even grew. So why rely on whether or not local businesses had support, when we can turn directly to our “customers” for support? Particularly because the station is in a beloved summer community, we have a strong online listening audience. In fact, according to a recent audience survey we did, 55% of the station’s listeners do not live within the FM broadcast range of the station. Listeners tune in because the Vineyard or Cape Cod is their “special place” and by listening to WMVY they can go there virtually, hearing local weather forecasts, the ferry report, fishing news, etc.
“Within 4 years of becoming a nonprofit, our yearly revenue exceeded WMVY’s best year as a commercial station. And the station sounds better too. Without traditional commercials, there is a better flow of music with fewer interruptions and no screaming car ads. Fundraisers are challenging, but we try to make them fun. And listeners do become invested in our hitting the goal. It is really part of the long-term health of the station.”
PS: How would you describe WMVY’s format?
PJ: “Within the industry our format is known as Triple A, or Adult Album Alternative. Aimed at the over-35 crowd, the station focuses on acclaimed songwriters and musicians who may not have a home on current, traditional commercial radio. You’ll hear deeper cuts from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, balanced with complimentary contemporary artists like Wilco and The Highwomen. And what’s between the records is important too. We have real live, down-to-earth DJs who speak knowledgeably and authentically about the music we play. With the exception of the syndicated program The Putumayo World Music Hour which airs for one hour per week, we originate ALL of our own programming, 24/7.”
Full disclosure: Our Founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, is a member of WMVY’s Board of Directors.
Preset 6: Radio Italia (128 kbps, MP3)
The Como Audio name was derived from beautiful Lake Como in Italy, so it makes perfect sense that one of our default preset stations should hail from Italy. Beyond that, this station is one example of the wide range of programming that Internet radio has to offer. It is amazing to think you can sit on your couch at home and tune stations from all around the world with your Como Audio music system and have them sound as if the stations’ transmitters were right down the street. For a rich musical taste of Italy, tune in Radio Italia.
2, 4, 6, 8…Presets We Appreciate
Our very popular top-of-the-line music system, Musica (pictured above in walnut), adds two extra preset buttons for a total of 8 presets instead of six as found on our other models. During development of this model, Tom DeVesto allowed me the privilege of selecting the default Internet stations for Musica’s two extra presets. Given that there are more than 55,000 stations in the data base, this was no easy task. After extensive listening, I settled on two very enjoyable Internet radio stations: SomaFM Left Coast 70’s and Hi On-line Radio Jazz. Regardless of whether your model has 6 or 8 presets, you can still enjoy these two stations just the same.
Preset 7: Soma FM Left Coast 70’s (130 kbps, AAC, San Francisco)
Broadcasting from a converted warehouse in San Francisco, SomaFM streams over thirty-five different Internet stations under their umbrella. Left Coast has been broadcasting over the Internet for the last 19 years, averaging over 6,000 listeners monthly. This, and all of SomaFM’s stations, broadcast in superior sound quality and are proudly listener-supported (read: no commercials). Most 70’s stations focus on serving up reheated disco leftovers or over-exposed Jurassic rock songs. By contrast, Left Coast concentrates on music by major name artists (Dave Mason, ACE, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, Traffic, Little River Band) that did not necessarily enjoy a lot of air time when originally released in the 70’s, and can be much better appreciated decades later. This station is definitely on the laid-back end of the scale, which is precisely what I love about it. I find the music the perfect work soundtrack and often keep the Musica on my desk tuned to Left Coast. It has just the right mix. I know that is a tired cliché, but in this case it is apropos.
I went straight to the top and contacted SomaFM Left Coast’s Founder, GM, & Program Director, Rusty Hodge, to find out more about his very unique classic rock recipe.
PS: What’s the best thing about SomaFM Left Coast (i.e. why should people listen vs. tune some other 70’s station)?
RH: “Deeper cuts, not the tracks you’d normally hear on a Classic Rock station. The mellow vibe.”
PS: What is the criterion for a song to be on the Left Coast playlist?
RH: “In the late 70s and very early 80s, when the mood was mellow, and the vibe was softer, many rock artists started creating slower, thoughtfully-produced tracks. Drawing lyrical influences from the folk singers before them, and bringing together some of the best session players of the day, these artists stepped outside their comfort zones to create some of the best mellow rock ever made, a sound that blossomed out of Los Angeles and spread up and down the west coast.
“Good production, good instrumentation, good song writing. Often songs that feature a Fender Rhodes piano in addition to guitars, but that’s not a hard requirement. We also have quite a few great albums that never made it to CDs or digital where we had to track down the original vinyl releases.”
Preset 8: Hi On-line Radio Jazz (320 kbps, MP3, Netherlands)
As with my futile efforts to communicate with the BBC, repeated attempts to contact Hi On-Line Radio went unanswered, which I found puzzling, but I will not hold it against them. With such great sound and music (John Coltrane, Cassandra Wilson, Keiko Matsui, Charlie Hayden, Miles Davis, Soul Ballet), how could I? Founded by Paul Hattink in 2011, Hi On-Line operates eight different Internet radios stations, all with superb sound quality. Like Como Audio’s CEO, Tom DeVesto, Hattink has been in the audio business for over forty years. As to why Hattink does what he does, his website states: “The music genre that moves your body and stirs your soul is comprised of Global grooves and organic world rhythms…We PLAY the music because we LOVE the music. We provide the PLATFORM because we have the AUDIENCE. Hi On Line Radio offers a unique blend for listeners who are looking for something different from their radio experience…” The website goes on to boldly predict that all terrestrial FM stations will cease to exist 10-15 years from now, having been replaced by Internet radio. I do not know if that will come to pass, but luckily, we do not need to wait that long because Hi On-Line Radio Jazz is available to us today.
Getting Our Preset Stations
If you have your own stations stored to your presets but would like to audition any of the above, with your unit on and in Internet radio mode, press and hold the remote’s Play/Pause key, select Station list > Stations > Search stations > Enter the station name and select “OK” on the right. Hint: You should find using the remote control’s navigation keys to enter the station’s name easier than using the front panel knob. Once tuned and playing, you can then save the station to a preset if you wish. If you would like to restore all of our default preset stations to the preset keys on your Como Audio model (assuming your model has the latest software), perform a Factory reset in the System settings menu on your unit and repeat the setup process. After the setup is complete, our preset stations will automatically populate the preset keys. You can override them anytime by storing different stations or sources to the preset keys.
As a side bar, if you want the convenience of accessing presets from the remote control and you do not own a Musica, you can buy a Musica remote control separately which has dedicated preset keys that will work with our non-Musica models.
The Software Update That Keeps on Giving
With so many stations and sources, you can easily run out of preset buttons. Enter My Favorites which opens up almost unlimited storage of Internet stations. This feature was also courtesy of a recent free update. You can quickly save a tuned Internet radio stations to My Favorites with a brief press of the remote’s Play/Pause key. You must register on the portal and link your Como Audio system(s) for this feature to be enabled, but once you do that, from that point on you can easily add a Favorite station to the My Favorites list with the remote’s Play/Pause key without the need to keep going back in the portal.
A “splash screen” (above) will confirm the station was successfully saved. This message will show even if you do not register units to the portal, but the station will only appear in My Favorites if you have set your units up in the portal. You will be able to access all of your Favorites from all of your Como Audio systems (be sure to enable “Share” in the portal next to each device). After you save a station, to access the My Favorites list on your unit, go to Station list and select My Favorites. Note you will need to use the portal to remove any station from the Favorites list, as that cannot be done using the remote. If you need written instructions on how to register on and use the portal, which is free to do, please follow this link.
Free Spotify Connect
If you are a Spotify devotee, the recent software enabled the ability to use the free version of Spotify Connect, no longer requiring a paid, premium subscription to enjoy this very popular streaming service on our models. Moreover, you can save Spotify to one of the presets, provided the Spotify Playlist is not too long. Spotify does not define what “too long” is, so you might need to experiment.
Works with Alexa
WORKS WITH ALEXA
Works with Alexa was added to our entire product line during another major free software update at considerable time and expense. In case you are unfamiliar with WWA, it allows you to use an outboard Alexa device (not included) such as a Dot or Echo to control our models hands-free and access Internet radio and Amazon Music by voice (Amazon Prime membership not included) and have it play through your Como Audio music system. Furthermore, once successfully setup, you will be able to speak basic commands to your Alexa device to wirelessly control your Como Audio system, such as turning it on and off, playing music, turning the volume up (or down), stop playing, switching sources to Bluetooth, Aux, etc. For those of you outside the USA, the Nuvola skill that enables this feature can only be downloaded from Amazon UK, Germany, Australia, and the US (i.e. you must have a registered Amazon account in one of those countries). Then once installed, Works with Alexa will function in the UK, Germany, Australia, US, Italy, France, and Spain.
If the setup for WWA is too daunting, you can simply connect an audio cable from your Alexa device to your Como Audio model’s Aux in, or connect your Alexa device via Bluetooth. You will lose the voice control but gain a much easier setup and be able to access many more sources by voice than WWA permits.
Trivia: It has been widely reported that the number one request of Smart Speaker Assistants is to play music.
Works with Alexa should not be confused with Amazon Prime Music, which is integrated only in our Musica model due to the expense involved to integrate it with our other models. Although these software updates are free to you, developing and porting the features cost us a small fortune, and as a small startup with limited resources, we have to decide the best way to implement them.
If you do not own a Musica (or even if you do), with Works with Alexa you can access Amazon Music by voice and have the music play through our models with this software update in conjunction with an Alexa device. In all candor, the Works with Alexa setup is involved, so you should check out my how-to videos and written guides (links are provided at the conclusion of my article). The beauty of the way we have implemented this feature is if you do not want to use it, you are not forced to. There are no microphones built into our models, so if you perform the update but do not setup an outboard Alexa device, you will notice no difference with your Como Audio system in terms of Amazon Alexa. Even if you have no intention of using the Works with Alexa feature, I strongly recommend you perform the update if you have yet to do so in order to take advantage of the other important updates I described earlier in this article. Note Works with Alexa requires a lot of bandwidth from your network, so if you experience issues, they are probably network-related, especially if you do not experience them when not using Amazon Music.
New Sounds, New Year
Forty-five percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and twenty-five percent of us have abandoned ours by now. Why not make a realistic New Year’s resolution this time around? Vow to expose yourself to new sounds by exploring different Internet radio stations and music sources outside of your usual comfort zone. Take your ears on a musical vacation somewhere they have never been before. Check out our default preset stations and search out others on your own. If you find a station you like, save it to a preset, or to My Favorites. Happy New Year from us to you. May it be a safe and healthy one. We hope our software updates help you discover more ways to enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is regrettable whenever a local business closes, but it can be especially impactful when the business has been an important part of the community for more than 58 years. Such is the case with Skippy White’s Record Store in Roxbury, MA, which will soon shut its door for good. Fred LeBlanc, better known to his friends, customers, and radio audience as “Skippy White”, started selling records in 1961, a few years before this writer was born. Now, at the age of 83, due to declining sales, Skippy has decided to close up shop and focus on his R&B and gospel radio programs and finish an autobiography he began writing two years ago.
Last week I swung by Skippy White’s unannounced to interview the local legend. Approaching the entrance, I was greeted by an old outdoor loudspeaker blaring classic R&B music. As one might imagine with a very small record store, it was a bit overwhelming upon first entering; records were everywhere, both used and new, along with CDs, tapes, and DVDs. A few remaining T-shirts hung from the ceiling like championship banners and various paraphernalia from year’s past hung on the walls.
Bright sunlight penetrated the small store through two large front windows, one of which had a rusted steel security “shutter” deployed half way down. I felt a chill in the air so I kept my bulky winter jacket on as I gingerly navigated my way around the obstacle course of record bins. I approached a tall counter that extended nearly the entire depth of the store and whose surface was as congested as I93 during a weekday morning. Stacks of concert flyers, CDs, and 45 RPM singles were everywhere, exposing nary a whisper of bare countertop. Behind the counter were walls of sound…a myriad of CDs and cassette tapes on tall shelves that stopped just a few feet short of the ceiling. Skippy was perched in front of his lap top speaking to a customer on the phone. While I waited, without knowing I was there to interview him, almost every person who walked in spontaneously praised Skippy. “He’s the man!”, one customer exclaimed. “Anything I need, Skippy has”, another said, as he picked up a CD he had special ordered two weeks prior. It was immediately clear to me how the closing of this store was going to affect Skippy’s loyal customers, most of whom he knew by name.
Having visited many a record store with downright miserable shop owners (I assumed this was a qualification), I was bracing myself for what lied ahead. To my great relief, Skippy had a very friendly demeanor and he seemed genuinely interested in my questions. Perhaps it was that genial personality that contributed to Skippy White’s Store being named “Best of Boston” in 2017 for “Best Neighborhood Shopping”, and “Boston’s Best Record Store” by the Improper Bostonian two years before that. Or, maybe it was his ability to identify songs on the spot. Printed on the large sign above the entrance were the words “Just hum it”. Customers wanting to buy a record without knowing the name of the song would sometimes sing a few bars in hopes Skippy could ascertain the name of the song for them. Much of the time, he could. Skippy was the human Shazam way before the app existed.
As for that nickname, he acquired it while working at 1,000watt Boston R&B radio station WILD 1090 AM in 1961. To illustrate how times have changed, in its present form, WILD AM is an all-Chinese language station. Skippy’s friends told him he needed a catchier radio name than Fred LeBlanc. Somebody (Skippy does not remember whom) came up with the name “Skippy”, and since his French last name meant “white” in English, the “Skippy White” name was complete. The new name stuck like, well, Skippy peanut butter, although he admits he was never too keen on the “Skippy” part of the name.
Skippy’s accomplishments go far beyond that of a successful record store owner and popular local DJ. He also produced a roster of local R&B artists and released their music on his own small record labels. Some of the singles he produced have since gone on to become quite collectible, often fetching over one or two hundred times what they originally retailed for.
“Having visited many a record store with downright miserable shop owners (I assumed this was a qualification), I was bracing myself for what lied ahead.“
Skippy cautioned me to expect frequent interruptions during our interview as he rang up customer purchases and answered the phone, and he was right. Word had definitely spread about the closing. No matter. The interruptions afforded me the opportunity to watch the master in action. What follows is an edited transcript of my recorded interview.
PS: First of all, why are you closing?
SW: Well, you know, business has gone down over the last, actually several years. It’s kind of eroded somewhat. I mean, at one time, we used to sell a lot of new music, particularly R&B and soul, along with gospel and some blues. Over the last several years, a lot of that has just dissipated. People don’t but the new music like they used to. We used to do tonnage. Even when a new rap release came out, I remember we used to order 120 pieces of a CD. That completely eroded. A lot of the new music went down. Also, the blues we used to sell…we used to sell a lot of blues…probably the only record store in town, maybe the only record store in New England, that sold blues the way we did…Even the gospel has slowed up a lot from what it used to be. In other words, with the downloading, people don’t buy CDs like they used to. Now, it’s true that the vinyl has come back, and that we’re selling more vinyl then we did a few years ago. The younger people are coming in for the vinyl.
PS: Did you ever think you’d still be selling records 58 years after you started?
SW: I’ll tell you a little story, a little funny story. When I got ready to leave my prior employer, who was Smiling Jack’s College Music Shop- they had a record store on Mass Avenue- 338 Mass Avenue by the way; Circle 79026 in case you want to call him. But he’s been gone for sixty years. When I got ready to open the store, I really didn’t have much money at all. I had been going around to some record stores, one of which was Smiling Jack’s College Music, and selling records wholesale. I used to go to warehouses and pick up records cheap, like for fifteen cents or so…these are 45’s…and then sell them for forty or fifty cents, and they would turn around and sell them for a dollar. At any rate, I had some records at the house, leftover from going around to all these record stores, about a dozen or so, and once I got the job at Smiling Jack’s, I really didn’t have the time to run around to all these other stores, which I guess Jack was happy about. But I didn’t have money to go into opening my own store. But once I made the decision I wanted to do that, I went to a couple of people that had previously worked at Smiling Jack’s. One was named Bob, the other was named Big John. We used to call him Big John because he was kind of a hefty guy. They both had pretty good jobs and were making a lot more money than I was. I asked them if they wanted to be partners; throw in some money and the three of us will go in and we can do pretty well. Well, they both turned me down. Not only did they turn me down, but they both said “you won’t make it, you’ll be out of business in six months”. Here it is, fifty-nine years later (laughs). So that’s the story of a partnership that might have been, that wasn’t, but somehow, I survived with the little bit of money that I had, which wasn’t much, but we did pretty well.
PS: How much did records cost when you first got started?
SW: See, back in the days when I opened, and for many years, the 45’s were ninety-eight cents. That was it. In those days you bought from record distributors at somewhere around the sixty to sixty-five cent level. So, if you bought from one stop you probably paid 65 cents for a record and sold it for ninety-eight cents. If you bought it from a distributor you might have got it as cheap as sixty cents. But over the years we were able to do even better than that because I started selling records in pretty good-sized quantity. What happened was, I was also on the air at WILD. Not only was I on the air with my own show, but I was picking out the music for the rest of the DJ’s at the station, so essentially, I was the Music, slash, Program Director. That meant when customers came in the store and asked about a record they heard on WILD…I knew what they were going to ask for, probably before they opened their mouth, because I was programming the station. I knew what was the hot records at that time. We started buying out of state, from places like Essex Record Distributors in New Jersey and some other out of state distributors. They were selling me records really cheap, way below the sixty-cent level. As a matter of fact, I was buying records at one time for about thirty-eight cents each. So, we started selling them not only in the store, but we started selling wholesale to other record stores. Now, all the record stores were coming to me (laughs). They were buying wholesale. I’d sell them for sixty-cents and buy for thirty-eight! Hey, I was making money both ways, and of course, selling in the store. That’s really how the store started to gain popularity and started doing very well in the early years.
“Not only did they turn me down, but they both said you won’t make it; you’ll be out of business in six months. Here it is, fifty-nine years later.“
PS: Did you rub shoulders with a lot of big names back in the day?
SW: Oh, absolutely. Many, many of them. The first location that we had was at 1820 Washington Street, and that was near Northampton Street. We were located half-way between two very active clubs; Louie’s Lounge and Basin Street South. Louie’s Lounge would have people like Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Otis Redding, James Brown, folks like that. Basin Street South would have a little bit different…sometimes a little bit more the direction of jazz, although they would have a lot of the bigger Motown acts like The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. So, I was half-way between these two clubs. It was a very active scene in those days. As a matter of fact, right across the street there was another club, a smaller one, called The Shanty Lounge. And the Shanty Lounge, because it was a smaller club, would have smaller acts, but they had people like Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford, when they had their big hit “I Need Your Lovin”. They had the Jimmy Smith Trio, some jazz acts like that. That area was a bee hive of activity.
PS: Give me a memory, or a story, or something that stands out…something interesting or funny that stands out that you remember that happened over the years…something unusual…whatever pops into your brain.
SW: Yeah, I’ll give you one. I don’t know if you’d call it funny, but I guess it would be considered funny especially after all these years. This would have been probably in the first store, the 1820 Washington Street store. To put a year on it, I’d have to guess and say about 1964 or 5, somewhere around there. I’m not sure of the exact year. I had two young ladies working for me behind the counter in that store at the time…we were always busy. In walks this young gentleman, he was a teenager, and he came in with his girlfriend, who was also a teenager. They came in and he wanted me to find records for him, and you know, play records, and basically that’s what I did for a lot of people. I did that for Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. They would be looking for material to do on their next album and they would come in, especially Peter Wolf, and I would play records for him until he found material that he wanted to re-record. Well, this young fella came in and he was looking for stuff, you know, stuff out of my head, that I could play for him that he would like, and he was busy with me. His young lady kind of stood off to the side, and she said she didn’t feel too good. So, she said to one of the young ladies that was working for me, “I don’t feel too good, where’s the bathroom?” They pointed out where it was and she went to the bathroom. The bathroom was only a little commode in back of a curtain. It was down through the back of the store; it was only a little shoe box store. It was down back to the left, and like I said, it was just a little hole in the wall bathroom in back of a curtain. So anyway, she went back there (phone rings). Oh, boy, the interruptions are gonna be fast and furious today. So, she went back there and after a while, she started, I don’t know if she was screaming or crying. So, I sent one of the girls back there to see what was wrong with her. The other girl goes back, that was working for me, goes back and she hears- the two of them are in the little bathroom- and the next thing I hear, a baby crying. She had a baby right there in the bathroom! Right there in the store. Upon hearing that (chuckles), I got on the phone, called an ambulance, they came, took her to the hospital, which was not very far away, and that was it.
PS: Did they name the baby “Skippy”? (laughs)
SW: No, I don’t think they named the baby “Skippy”, but the baby came out alright and the mother was doing fine, and they both were fine afterwards.
PS: Are you still on the radio?
SW: I’m still on the radio, been on the radio since 1961 when I started at WILD, and now…I do two programs on-line…one is called “The Time Tunnel”, on Saturday mornings from 8 to 11. That’s an oldies program, and it has little sections in it, like we’ll do a spotlight on an artist or maybe even a record label, or even a city, or some special aspect of the music business. You know, like I’ve done Motown, I’ve done Stax, I’ve done labels like that, as well as artists and groups. I also do a little segment that’s called “The Chitlin Circuit”, mostly blues, blues from the south. And I do another segment called “The Doo-wop Corner”, obviously it’s Doo-wop. That’s the Saturday program. Sunday, I do a program from 7-10, also three hours, and that’s called “The Gospel Train”. Obviously, I’m playing gospel music. Then, I’ve just added a second radio station. I’m on 102.9FM. You can get it in the local area here. You know, you’re not going to get it too much in the suburbs, but you can get it in Boston. I’m on Sunday evening from 6-7, and that’s also “The Gospel Train”, that’s another edition of “The Gospel Train”. The reason I decided to do a separate program on that station is because we were previously on 1410AM and 98.1FM on the other station that I did both “The Time Tunnel” and “The Gospel Train”. The people that owned both licenses, the AM and the FM, decided to pull the plug because they felt like they weren’t being paid enough money, or maybe it’s because the ownership of the station wasn’t paying them, or paying them on time. Whatever. So, they pulled the plug, so that’s why we’re only on-line on that station. Because of that, a lot of, particularly the senior citizens, the older audience listening to “The Gospel Train”, they can’t get it at all. They don’t have a computer, they don’t have a smart phone, so they can’t get it. So, I decided to do this one hour “Gospel Train” on 102.9FM so they could get at least an hour of gospel. That’s why I do it.
PS: Do you have a final closing date yet?
SW: Well, a lot of people ask me that. Basically, we’re going to be here ‘til the first of the year, ‘til, you know, after the holidays are over, get into January, and then we’re going to decide, first of all, how much inventory do we have left? What do we have and how do we dispose of it? I do have some people coming from other states; a record store down in Baltimore is interested, a record store up in Maine is interested. They’re going to come and take a look at what we have left after the sale is over and make me an offer. So, whoever comes up with the right offer I guess will hopefully buy the rest of the inventory and then we’ll know when we’re going to close for good. Right now, I don’t know.
“…the next thing I hear…a baby crying. She had a baby right there in the bathroom! Right there in the store.“
PS: What are your plans after you close?
SW: Write the book (laughs). I started on the book about three years ago, and what happened was, you know, there’s just never enough time to sit and write the book. I’m working every day in the store. I’m doing, well, now, three radio shows. By the time you do all that, you just don’t have time to sit down and write more in the book. I mean, I’ve written some, but it’s been a while and I just don’t get a chance to do enough of it. So, I think when I’m not tied down to the store every day, then I’ll get a chance to sit down at the computer and finish the book.
One question I did not have time to ask Skippy was what he was going to miss the most about his job. Although I was only in his shop for an hour, I knew how he would have answered: his customers. Damn skippy.
You can listen to Skippy’s R&B oldie’s radio show, “The Time Tunnel”, as I did while I was writing this article, Saturdays from 8-11am ET on “98.1 The Urban Heat” (128 kbps, MP3), an Internet-only radio station. His gospel show, “The Gospel Train”, airs Sundays from 7-10am ET, also on “The Urban Heat”, and Sundays 6-7pm on 102.9FM if you are listening in the Boston area and prefer FM. To listen on your Como Audio music system, in Internet radio mode press and hold the remote’s Play/Pause key, go to Station list> Stations > Search stations> enter “WZBR” and select “OK” to the right.
I did not buy anything during my brief visit, though I did ring him up a few days later and offered to buy a piece of memorabilia from him. He hesitated. “I’ll have to think about that”, Skippy said. “Call me again after the New Year.”
Skippy White’s Record Store is located at 1971 Columbus Avenue in Roxbury, MA. It will remain open at least through the end of January 2020. After that, check with Skippy.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
My recipe for a Merry Kitschmas is comprised of three main ingredients: Lots of great vintage holiday music, a vintage aluminum Christmas tree, and a book about vintage aluminum Christmas trees. Let us begin with the music.
1. The Music
I purchased several “retro” Holiday CDs to get my Como Audio Musica in the holiday spirit. What would a kitsch Christmas in Massachusetts (or anywhere else for that matter) be without Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops? Pops Christmas Party, recorded in RCA’s hi-fi “Living Stereo”, includes 21 classic Christmas tunes, Fiedler-style. Originally released in record form back in 1959, this CD adds additional holiday music and has great sound to boot. To quote the liner notes: “…the original multi-track work parts were painstakingly restored to eliminate problems caused by oxide flaking, defective rewinds, and other forms of material fatigue. Because the original recordings were made on multi-track machines with tube-type amplifiers, these machines were restored and used to play back the work parts. Rudimentary equalization was employed only to smooth out frequency response over manual edit points in the original work part. No external processing (e.g. computerized noise reduction) was used in order to preserve the full frequency spectrum and dynamic range of the original source…The result is a pure copy of the original recorded performance…” Since the title might be misleading to some, I should like to point out these are studio recordings, not a compilation of the annual “Holiday Pops” live performances.
Without a doubt, no kitsch Christmas would be even semi-authentic without a little Esquivel! No, that is not a Mexican adult beverage. I speak of the band leader, pianist, composer, and international man of mystery known as “The King of Space Age Pop”. Some called his music ground-breaking, as in dig a big hole in your backyard and bury his records. Considering he opened for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas many a time, he deserves more respect than that. Merry Xmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad(BMG DRC1-1363) has long been out of print, but thankfully, the CD can be had on eBay, which is where I scored my used copy. It is a curious title considering, as legend has it, Esquivel was married six times. He married for the last time in 2001 at the age of 82 (his bride was 25). Not surprisingly, he died a short time later. Be that as it may, this CD preserves 12 crazy Christmas cocktail lounge sounds originally recorded between 1959-1962. Be a hep cat and play this far out CD on your Musica while you nurse a dry martini, you dig? It is the living end.
Twelve Songs for Christmas(Seeburg Music Library, B00AB7J8MS) could have come out of an early 1960’s time capsule (if they had CDs back then). For your edification, Seeburg was a juke box company that also manufactured the Seeburg 1000, a background music machine from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s used by businesses like cafes, offices, factories, and department stores. The machine played 9” proprietary vinyl records, mostly instrumentals, supplied by Seeburg. The purpose of this background music was to make workers more productive and consumers more relaxed (presumably to spend more). Seeburg was not the only game in town when it came to this type of thing, but they were one of the better-known companies. The remastered audio on this disc makes it sound like each record had just been slid out of its paper sleeve slumber for the first time. You can actually listen to this original music yourself for free, including holiday songs, on your Como Audio music system by tuning Internet radio station “Seeburg 1000” (128 kbps, MP3) out of Los Angeles. In Internet radio mode, go to Station list > Stations > Search stations > Type in “SEEBU” > Select the station.
Jingle Bell Swing has been re-released more times than Santa has had to let out his red suit. Originally released on vinyl as Jingle Bell Jazz in 1962, this various-artists mainstream jazz compilation is sure to put a swing in your stocking. I am not sure what that means but it sounds good. I recall playing tracks off of Jingle Bell Jazz 31 years ago when I was a jazz DJ at WERS-FM (we still played vinyl records back then) as I peered out the back-bay studio’s expansive picture window onto Beacon Street as the snow gently fell. But I digress. My favorite track is Blue Xmas featuring Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, with Bob Dorough (Schoolhouse Rock) handling vocals and sounding rather like Dave Frishberg (the two would record an album together decades later).
If your taste in holiday tunes is more twisted, there is always A John Waters Christmas (New Line Records) from 2004, and Rhino Records’ 1989 Bummed Out Christmas (Rhino, R2 70912). The Waters’ disc has some well-known retro recordings like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer performed by Tiny Tim and Sleigh Ride by Alvin & The Chipmunks, mixed in with politically incorrect nuggets you are not likely to hear on your favorite holiday radio station including Fat Daddy,Santa Claus Is A Black Man, and Here Comes Fatty Claus. Would you expect anything less from The Prince of Puke? Note the “Parental Advisory” sticker on the cover and be sure not to play this CD until after the curtain climbers have gone to bed.
Another twisted CD for you holiday collection- The track list on Rhino’s Bummed Outreads like an April fool’s joke, but it was a real commercial CD (now long out of print, but available on eBay). With various artists performing such holiday classics as Santa Got a DWI,Christmas in Jail, Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas, Santa Came Home Drunk, Somebody Stole My Santa, and Christmas in Vietnam, this CD should have come with a coupon for a free bottle of Prozac.
A Very Vinyl Christmas
Taking care to avoid the tired holiday “chestnuts” we have all committed to memory since we were five, below are my recommendations to play on your Como Audio Turntable (did you know vinyl goes great with aluminum trees?).
Don Patterson:Holiday Soul (Prestige 7415), 1964
George Winston:December (WH-1025), 1982
Bella Fleck & The Flecktones:Jingle All the Way (Rounder CR 00148), 2008 (but issued on vinyl for the 1st time last year exclusively by Barnes & Noble).
Bobby Timmons:Holiday Soul (Prestige 7414), 1964 (not the same music as Don Patterson’s LP)
Various:The Stash Christmas Album (Stash Records ST 125), Mono, 1985
Sharon Jones:Holiday Soul Party (DAP-037, Barnes & Noble green vinyl), 2016 (Unfortunately, Jones passed away in 2016)
Booker T. & the MG’s:In the Spirit of Christmas (Stax S713), 1966
Most of the songs in the above album list originally date back to the 1960’s, but there have been some very good recent releases worthy of a spin: JD McPherson’s Socks(New West Records, NW5273) came out just last year, but the 12 original songs have a distinct 1950’s vintage vibe. The title track, as well as Hey Skinny Santa and Ugly Sweater Blues, are especially fun, as are the animated music videos. A limited edition “coal in the stocking”-colored vinyl edition was released about two weeks ago in addition to the more festive green colored vinyl. It also came with a large lyric booklet with wonderful illustrations consistent with the album cover.
Along similar lines but different is Joel Paterson’s Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar (Bloodshot Records BS 978) from 2017. This is just Paterson, Alex Hall on drums, Beau Sample on bass, and 14 of their closest Christmas songs. Sometimes less is more, if you know what I mean, and the simplicity of this album is a gift all its own. With Guitar’s great retro-looking cover (it even has imitation “wear” at the top and bottom), I was more than willing to shell out a few extra bucks to get the autographed record instead of the less expensive CD. I enjoyed Paterson’s music so much, I recently bought three of his CDs on his home-grown Ventrella Records label, which Paterson describes on his website as a “go-broke-slow scheme”.
“I recall playing tracks off of this record 31 years ago when I was a jazz DJ at WERS-FM (we still played vinyl records back then) as I peered out the Back Bay studio’s expansive picture window onto Beacon Street as the snow gently fell.“
Another of my recent eBay finds was Christmas Holidays at Radio City Music Hall from 1958 (RCA, LSO 1010) and The Three Suns A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas (RCA, LSP 2054) circa 1959. The former is a perfect example of what we lose when we download digital album files. Open the gatefold cover and you are presented with an impressive, 12” x 12”, 9-page color booklet printed on thick paper stock, containing lots of photographs and some fascinating information about Radio City Music Hall and the preparation involved to put on this holiday extravaganza. To quote from the booklet (bearing in mind this was written in 1959): “With its more than 25,000 light bulbs, the Hall consumes electricity equivalent to that required to supply a town of 10,000. The master control board for all this accumulated wattage contains over 4,000 handles, switches, buttons, and dials, yet it can be manipulated by one electrician.” I even loved the “Important Notice” sticker inside the gatefold: “This is a TRUE STEREOPHONIC RECORD specifically designed to be played only on phonographs equipped for stereophonic reproduction.” Back in 1959, two channel stereo was still a relatively new thing, so the notice was warranted.
As for Ding Dong(excuse my abbreviation), if you prefer to dip your toes into the Christmas lounge experience rather than jump in head first, this album would make a good introduction. It is nowhere near as far out as Esquivel, but these 14 instrumentals will certainly set the holiday lounge mood. Featured prominently are such hipster instruments as the accordion, harmonica, tuba, bells, xylophone, and electric organ. The liner notes define this album as “…a collection of melodic Christmas songs with a real crazy rhythm. The beat is Cha-cha, Merengue, and Rock n’ Roll, all wrapped up in one.” As it turns out, this album enjoys its own little cult following and was even re-issued on CD with new liner notes. Tech the Halls: The original inner paper sleeve the record came in provided a great primer on stereo records, which was a new thing in 1959: “Each groove in the stereo record has two sound tracks containing both lateral and vertical modulation. In order to pick up the two sound tracks, a stereophonic cartridge equipped with a small diameter stylus has been developed to move both laterally and vertically simultaneously. This stylus reproduces the lateral and vertical modulation contained in each groove wall and channels the information to the proper amplifier and speaker. The information contained in the inner groove wall is fed to the right-hand speaker whereas the information in the outer groove wall is fed to the left-hand speaker. The net of it is an overlapping and blending which gives music a more natural, more dimensional sound…in short, enveloped in solid sound, you will hear music in a truer perspective.”
One trivial but very cool element missing from my used copy was RCA’s “Miracle Surface” hype sticker on the cover:
To this day, no one is exactly sure what “317X” was, but you must admit, it was a cool space age designation.
An Internet Radio Christmas
When you are not spinning Xmas vinyl or CDs, here are ten Santa-approved Internet radio stations (in no particular order) from around the globe that honor Christmas in their hearts and keep it all year. I have indicated the broadcast country of origin, a sampling of artists each station plays, and the data transfer rate (which can fluctuate based on your network’s capability). Generally speaking, the higher the kilobits per second (kbps), the better the sound, although a station streaming in the AAC audio codec with a lower kbps should sound better than a station streaming at higher kbps in the MP3 codec since AAC usually sounds better. Got all that? To learn the kbps of a given tuned Internet radio station, repeatedly press the “i” key on the Como remote control (this function is not available in the Como Control app). Psst: If you own a Musica and experience frequent station buffering, consider using the rear Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi and change the setting to Wired: System settings > Network > Manual settings > Wired.
SomaFM Jolly Ol’ Soul, San Francisco (128 kbps, MP3): The Impressions, The Drifters, The Skyliners.
Calm Radio Classical Christmas, Toronto (128 kbps, MP3).
Cleansing Music Christmas, USA (130 kbps, AAC): Rod Stewart, Janis Ian, Bing Crosby, Jackson 5, Burl Ives
A.M. America OTR Christmas Channel, Chicago (40 kbps MP3): Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, Broadway Is My Beat, Family Theatre, etc.
SomaFM Christmas Lounge, San Francisco (256 kbps, MP3): Sunday People, Neurobic, Montesco.
181.FM, USA (128 kbps, MP3): Choose from 18different Christmas streams including diverse genres like Swing, Soundtracks, Rock, Kids, Gospel, Smooth Jazz, R&B, and Oldies.
Digital Impulse Radio Christmas, Croatia (320 kbps, MP3): Amy Grant, Bruce Springsteen, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley, Rihanna, Dolly Parton, Air Supply, Jim Reeves, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson.
To tune any of the above stations with your Como Audio music system, go to Station list > Stations > Search stations > Enter the station name. Or got to Station list > Stations > Genre > Seasonal-Holiday > All Stations > Scroll down and make your selection from the list.
A Spotify Christmas
2. The Tree
When I was a child during Christmas time, I well remember visiting our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Holmes, one of the nicest people I ever knew, and marveling at the glimmering aluminum Christmas tree in her compact living room. Mind you, this was during the mid-1970’s, after the aluminum tree fad had faded. Other than pictures, I had never seen a real “live” aluminum tree before, so it was intoxicating to see that shimmering, space age silver tree. Mrs. Holmes had the tree loaded with silver tinsel and decorated with tasteful ornaments. After having contemplated it for many years, this Christmas I was determined to display my own authentic, vintage aluminum Christmas tree. If an aluminum tree was good enough for Martha Stewart, gosh darn it, then it was good enough for me. I spent a month scouring eBay for trees early in the year, hoping they would cost less if I bought “out of season”. Some of them indeed sell for a small fortune, but I was determined not to have to take out a second mortgage to buy a 50+ year old Christmas tree.
I eventually settled on a made in the USA, 6.5’ “Pom-Pom” tree in okay used condition. The aluminum Pom-Pom tree, so-called due to the pom-pom-like formation at the tip of its branches, gave it even more of a space age look, like plumes emerging from a just-launched, shiny metal rocket. Other brands referred to this type of tree less accurately as ”The Sparkler” or “The Fountain”.
“I was determined not to have to take out a second mortgage to buy a 50+ year old Christmas tree.”
The seller, who was not the original owner, told me she still had the original carton, but the carton was too deteriorated to hold its contents and would be tossed. I asked her if she could salvage any information from the carton about the tree and include it since I am an information junkie. When I opened the box, I found a white bubble envelope containing the original bill of sale slapped to a piece of the carton. I could make out a date of 11/9, but unfortunately, no year was indicated. The description was “al. tree, 91 branches (the higher the branch count, the “fuller” the tree will look), 6 1/2 ft tall, #691”. I could also see the buyer (“Robinson”) paid an astronomical $7.45 after a 20% discount! The store responsible for this bargain was Gimbels of Philadelphia. Being vaguely familiar with that name from Miracle on 34th Street, I did a Wikipedia search and hit pay dirt. Gimbels operated from 1887 to 1987 and at one point was the largest department store corporation in the world, racking up almost $3 billion in sales in today’s money. It was Gimbels that first came up with the department store-sponsored parade, the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade, in 1920, four years before Macys. In 1925 they opened a “higher-end” store you may have heard of…Saks Fifth Avenue. According to Wikipedia, “Gimbels principles and merchandise sought to reflect the ideals of middle-class America. Their principles consisted of ‘courtesy, reliability, good value, and enlightened management’. By using middle class values Gimbels attracted shoppers to a store that also could fit their budgets.”
Since I purchased it more than a month after the New Year holiday, my newly acquired tree sat in its substitute cardboard box in my basement until a few days ago when I unpacked it and set it up for the first time. I know there are some who put out their Christmas decorations for Thanksgiving, but when I was growing up, my mother (now 84) never allowed putting out any decorations before December 1st. As a child during the holidays, that was nothing short of torture. As an adult without children, I do not follow my mother’s golden rule, but I do wait until the day after Thanksgiving to decorate. The tree setup was time consuming and tedious, having to insert each branch by hand, one by one, into small holes in the silver painted wooden “trunk”, taking care not to crush the pom poms. I did not need to buy a tree stand because the tree included a convenient aluminum (what else?) fold-out tripod stand.
Since string lights pose an electric shock hazard with aluminum trees, the option back in the day was to use a large rotating color projector to light up the tree. I wanted more color options than a color wheel offered, and I did not want a big, clunky machine grinding away every night, so I came up with the ingenious (if I may say so myself) idea of buying an inexpensive 30watt multi-colored LED flood light on Amazon. It does a perfect job of bathing the tree in 16 vibrant colors, the super-bright LEDs do not get hot, it does not use a lot of electricity, and it is remote controlled! I hung glittery white Christmas ornaments so they would also reflect the different colors of the flood light.
According to the American Christmas Tree Association, 77% of American households are expected to display a Christmas Tree this year, and 82% of them will be artificial. Now if your plan calls for a live tree this Christmas, you should know that NBC News recently reported a significant shortage of live Christmas Trees, a result of continued poor weather conditions in tree growing regions. Retail prices have been increasing and are up as much as 10% this year. Inventory is at historic lows and it is estimated it will take 2 to 3 more years until the inventory normalizes. Perhaps this Christmas you will say it with silver (aluminum, actually).
3. The Book
To complete the Kitschmas triad, some appropriate kitsch reading material was in order. “The Evergleam Book 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” by Theron Georges is like an illustrated hardcover catalog of Evergleam aluminum trees. Based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Aluminum Specialty employed hundreds of people and was the largest manufacturer of aluminum trees, producing over 1 million trees by 1969. Detailed in the book are 120 models including rare specimens like the Peacock and Pink. According to Wikipedia, a 7’ all-pink aluminum tree sold for $3,600 in 2005. All the folks who tossed their aluminum tress ages ago are probably kicking themselves now.
Did you know Evergleam even made an aluminum tree for use outdoors, and a tree with bright red bows affixed to the end of each branch? The latter model was called, appropriately, the “Bow Tip”, and the bows were made by machine from red “Sasheen” ribbon from 3M. In the book you will also learn the top 3 selling models as well as the rarest Evergleam of them all. Georges’ book, an expanded edition of his first book, “The Wonderful World of Evergleam”, is chock full of great color photos, vintage adverts, user manuals, newspaper clippings, information about Evergleam color wheels, and more, all printed on high quality coated art paper. Why there is even a section with tips on how to buy and maintain an authentic Evergleam of your very own. I reached out to Georges, who works full time as a corporate pilot, to ask him a few questions:
PS: What is one popular misconception about aluminum trees?
TG: The biggest misconception by far is that aluminum Christmas trees are a 50’s phenomenon. Actually, they are 60s’. As you know, they were first commercially debuted for Christmas 1959, but they were most popular during the Space Age of the early 1960s.
PS: After all these decades, why are people still fascinated with these trees?
TG: This is a complicated question to answer. For me, it is threefold. At the root of it all is pure nostalgia — the cherished memories of my childhood in San Antonio, TX spent celebrating with my parents’ original tree from the 60s, even when they were already considered passe. I am captivated by their architecture and perfection of form, the math, the angles, the style…all of it makes aluminum Christmas trees captivate my imagination. And still, they speak to me from another time. They are a window into our past and conjure up images of Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Gagarin, Van Cliburn. I especially love to appreciate them in their social and political context.
PS: I understand you own quite the collection of aluminum Christmas trees?
TG: I do have a collection of trees. In fact, the entire collecting community is very active and there are some outstanding trees held by private individuals. Mine is not the largest, but it is unique among Evergleams in that I have at least one example of every known type ever produced by Aluminum Specialty, except for the Burgundy-Blue (which was loaned to me for the book). And, the Silver Spruce…if it even exists. There are no known specimens anywhere.
PS: What is your favorite Evergleam tree model?
TG: It is nigh impossible to say which is my very favorite. Each is unique and has its own personality and idiosyncrasies. But if you’re going to press me, I would say that the Peacock Tree is near the top of the list. Essentially for all of the reasons above. And I finally got to meet its creator, Wes Martin, out in LA. So, that makes it even better!
Alas, the used aluminum tree I bought off of eBay ten months ago was not an Evergleam. According to the seller, it was manufactured by Star Band out of VA. I am not an Evergleam expert, but after reading Georges’ book, I could spot some differences between the two. For one thing, the “trunk” of an Evergleam tree is wrapped in foil, whereas my tree’s trunk was painted silver. The floor stands that came with Evergleam trees had floor protectors at the end of the feet, but mine did not. Nevertheless, I am very pleased with the overall visual impact the tree makes, and it transports me back to Mrs. Holmes’ living room in Pawtucket, Rhode Island 40+ Christmases ago.
“I am captivated by their architecture and perfection of form, the math, the angles, the style…all of it makes aluminum Christmas trees captivate my imagination.“
A Como Audio Christmas
Music is an important component of any celebration, especially the holiday kind. Whether you prefer CDs, records, or Internet radio, or listen to all three, be sure to make music a part of your plans this season. Remember- if you are entertaining this holiday, you can group multiple Como Audio music systems and really make your home sing. From all of us at Como Audio to all of you, Merry Kitschmas! We hope you enjoy the (holiday) music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Twenty-seven years ago this month, Sony introduced the MiniDisc (not to be confused with the 3” CD single) to North America and Europe, having debuted the technology a month prior in Japan. Perhaps some of you are too young to know what the MiniDisc was, or you have (understandably) forgotten about this unique music storage format. In honor of the anniversary, I am going to look back on this interesting invention.
Think of the MiniDisc as a smaller, cuter version of the Compact Disc. Invented in 1992, Sony originally intended its MiniDisc to replace the cassette tape, going so far as to label one input on all of their receivers as “MD/Tape”. Like a tape, the MiniDisc could be recorded over and over again, up to one million times claimed Sony. Each blank MiniDisc was capable of storing between 60-80 minutes of audio. Fitting as much music as a standard CD, but on a physically smaller disc, was made possible by Sony’s proprietary lossy compression called ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding). A small plastic tab could be positioned to prevent re-recording over a recording you wanted to keep, akin to breaking off the plastic tabs on a tape. In addition to being able to purchase blanks for recording, one could also buy pre-recorded commercial music titles (primarily drawn from Sony’s music catalog). You needed to have a MiniDisc player to play them back, as the discs would not work in a standard CD player. MD home decks, portables, and car head units were manufactured by several different brands including Sony, Pioneer, Onkyo, Sharp, Panasonic, and JVC. Unlike cassettes, editing recorded material was relatively easy, making the MiniDisc popular among musicians, news reporters, and music lovers who liked to make their own custom “mix tapes”. Even a few radio stations used MiniDiscs to play music. Metadata like artist, album, and song information was visible on the player’s display, another nice feature lacking from analog tapes.
The discs themselves came permanently housed in plastic cases. The playing surface was never exposed until the disc was being read in a machine, thus keeping the surface free from scratches and debris at all times. Commercial music titles were packaged in their own clear plastic jewel case and each included a small booklet. Brand new and used MiniDisc titles can still be found on eBay today, with rare titles fetching beaucoup bucks.
Without a doubt, the strangest release was UK electronic music band Gescom’s MiniDisc (that was the name of the album) from 1998. It was the only title to be issued on MiniDisc exclusively until it was re-released on standard CD eight years later. It contained a whopping 88 tracks (the cover states “45 tracks”), but the majority of them lasted only a few seconds each. It was essentially an experimental recording designed to take advantage of the MiniDisc’s zero lag time between tracks in Shuffle mode. The listener was to set his/her player in Shuffle mode during each listen to hear a different mix each time. I bought my rare original, pictured above, from an MD enthusiast in France for $50. My first MiniDisc hardware purchase was the Sony MZ-1 MD Walkman. I purchased it when I worked for Cambridge SoundWorks at one of their big annual “Friends and Family” warehouse sales. It had all the controls conveniently placed on the top along with a basic two-line scrolling display, and a very cool motorized load/eject door on the front. Unfortunately, the smooth aluminum case made it very slippery. I recall losing my grip and dropping it on a concrete floor after successfully smuggling it in to a Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon concert one cold October evening in 1997 at Foxboro Stadium. The drop resulted in a dimple in one corner of the aluminum shell and it never worked correctly after that. My homemade Stones’ bootleg recording came out so faint it was unlistenable. I could just barely make out Mick Jagger yelling “Hello, Foxboro!” after bounding on stage. In all candor, I am not that huge of a Rolling Stones fan, but at the time I reasoned I should see the legendary rock band live before they retired. Little did I know they would still be touring 22 years later.
Later, I purchased another Sony portable, the MZ-R700. This model was less than half the size of the MZ-1 with the added ability to record in mono and at slower speeds (called “MDLP”) to maximize recording time (albeit at the sacrifice of sound quality). It still had that darn slippery aluminum shell, but came with a pouch to carry it in. I also bought a used Sony MDS-JE480 home deck on eBay to connect to my Como Audio Musica’s optical input.
Toward the end of the MiniDisc’s life span, Sony rolled out “Hi-MD”, their “audiophile” alternative to ATRAC. It offered uncompressed, CD-quality recording and playback. Few players/recorders adopted the new format, perhaps sensing the MiniDiscs’ days were numbered. Sony shipped the last MD home decks in 2013, having ceased making their portable models two years earlier.
So what made Sony’s MiniDisc go the way of Betamax? The advent of the portable MP3 player (i.e. Apple iPod) was likely the largest contributing factor. MiniDiscs were also never really taken seriously by the audiophile community who preferred the superior sound of CDs (yet at the same time maintaining the CD was inferior to vinyl records). Fast forward to September 2019 when young British rocker Sam Fender released his new album, Hypersonic Missiles. Fender issued it in multiple formats including vinyl, cassette tape, and an extremely limited-edition MiniDisc, making it the first new commercial MiniDisc title in almost a decade (Sony was still manufacturing blank MiniDiscs as recently as 4 years ago). I actually tried to order one of Fender’s MiniDiscs when it was available, but alas, his website would not sell them outside of the UK. Rumor has it only 100 were made.
I am certain I will continue to enjoy my MiniDisc recordings and albums for a long time to come, regardless of how audio history judges the format. Besides reminding me of my younger days, it was a fun format that served its purpose, and the fact that not everyone owned one made it that much more special to enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com