PBN Montana SP loudspeaker Page 3
The quick and sensitive (90dB) Montanas excel at revealing previously unnoticed nuances. Case in point: the ensemble piece "The Wells Fargo Wagon" from the soundtrack of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (Warner Bros. 1459-2), without question the best bit of Americana ever written. This song has two abrupt level changes where the recording engineer goosed the gain for dramatic effect. I've heard this recording over a wide variety of systems but never paid much attention to these level changes, if I noticed them at all. They were masked by other loudspeakers, not exposed in such stark relief as they are through the SPs, which simply get out of the way and let the recording speak for itself.
The Montanas gave themselves over fully to the infectious rhythm of the French Gypsies' massed guitars in "Tchavolo Swing," on the soundtrack album from Tony Gatlif's marvelous film Latcho Drom (La Bande Son 392492). A distilled quote from my notes: "sheer joy." The delicate instrumentation and deliberate pacing of "If You Were to Wake Up," from Lyle Lovett & His Large Band (MCA MCAD-42263), led me into a reverie of remorse and regret (the details of which I'm packaging for sale to the producers of One Life to Live), underscored by the final sustained bass note that closes Lovett's musing on lost love. Yes! The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.
Likewise Rebecca Pidgeon's beautifully performed and recorded "Auld Lang Syne"/"Bring It On Home to Me" on The New York Girls' Club (Chesky JD141). There is just enough of the room acoustic on this recording to create a believable illusion of being there. In the case of Miss Pidgeon, instead of feeling as if she had just entered the room, I felt as if I had been being taken to where she was. Closing my eyes made it easy to forget I was anywhere else. Thank you, David Chesky. Thank you, PBN.
I like a Gershwin tune, how about you? Especially if the tune is "Summertime." Kathleen Battle soars angelically through a small-voiced treatment of this marvelous classic on Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall (DG 435 440-2), in which the rustling and coughing audience appears beside and behind her, a strange artifact of two-channel recording/playback. The size of the hall is revealed by the reverberant ambient noise, whose decay time indicates the apparent distance to the walls from where Miss Battle is standing. The SPs offered a wide, clear window into this venue; I had the distinct impression of a space with a very high ceiling.
Maureen McGovern gives "Summertime" a jazzy spin on Naughty Baby: Maureen McGovern Sings Gershwin (CBS MK 44995), which I had always assumed was recorded in a cabaret. Wrong. It's a live recording done with a studio audience at New York's Clinton Studios, which may explain why it sounds so good. Again, the SPs let me "see into" the recording venue—McGovern and her exceedingly tight and professional band appeared right there in front of me, McGovern sounding as perky and versatile as a 14-year-old world-class gymnast.
Big Brother and the Holding Company's lovingly restrained and surprisingly well-rehearsed cover of "Summertime" on Cheap Thrills (Columbia CK 9700, footnote 2) would have made George, Ira, and DuBose Heyward happy, I think. The interplay of guitars and voice is extraordinary, and Joplin's raspy, flawlessly phrased, pitch-perfect delivery is the consummate complement to the interwoven instrumentals. The SPs placed drummer Dave Getz at the center-rear of the soundstage, the bassist just left of center, and Joplin front and center between the two guitarists, as they had appeared in real life. The emotional impact of these performances through the Montanas was a knockout.
John Hiatt's voice and piano were rendered in a resonant pseudo-naturalism on "This Friend of Mine," as was his mournful, bass-heavy ballad "Your Love is My Rest," both from Walk On (Capitol CDP 8 33416 2). Hiatt's road-weary vocal is placed solidly in the center in every song in the collection, with the exception of this one: 12 tracks into the album, some wiseguy engineer decides the lone vocalist should be placed all the way to the right. Why? It doesn't make an artistic statement, as it does in Sam Phillips's "Love and Kisses," the opener of her Martinis and Bikinis (Virgin 39438 2); all it does is provoke neurosis in the listener. I was behind my equipment rack in a flash checking uselessly for loose connections until a twist of the balance control showed me what was going on. Grrrrr.
The SP's bass, while not reaching subterranean depths (the bottom end rolls off at 35Hz), was nonetheless tight, punchy, lively, and involving. Rock fans note: a great bass test can be found on Heart's Dreamboat Annie (Capitol D 164175). A synth sweep in "Magic Man," beginning around 4:04, drops smoothly from the lower midrange all the way to the ocean floor by 4:08, and is sustained until about 4:35. A system with good bass response ought to shake your walls, rattle your windows, cause your draperies to flap in the breeze, and produce a marked increase in thoracic pressure. The Montanas did none of this, but within their limitations they produced a quite believable re-creation of several bass instruments. The articulation of detail, excellent pitch definition, and explosive dynamics more than compensated for the modest low-end extension.
My friend Teah Strozer—Zen student, former music teacher, amateur violinist, high-energy jazzhead, and owner of Dahlquist DQ-10s—was knocked out by the SPs' realistic rendering of David Piltch's acoustic bass (and Miss Cole's voice) on the Holly Cole Trio's Don't Smoke in Bed (Manhattan/Capitol CDP 7 81198 2). It's a quality Peter Noerbaek calls "body": the impression that the instruments are there in real space, rather than that their various sounds are simply being reproduced. "Holy shit," Teah remarked, leaping out of her seat. "That bass fiddle sounds real."
Ditto for Some Like It Hot! (Redhot RH 9001) by the Kit McClure Band, whose drummer and bass player relentlessly propel the 17-woman crew through 12 big-band standards. "Damn, these chicks are hot," said Teah. "Their playing is unbelievably tight." With the SPs, the McClure Band's showwomanship was undeniably, unavoidably, right in our smiling faces.
Take me down where the good stuff grows
The SPs offered a phenomenally satisfying sense of pace and rhythm. I put them through the dance-hit obstacle course with all manner of audiophile-disapproved thumpers. My repeated high-volume playing of the B-52's Good Stuff (Reprise 26995-2) must have had my neighbors drawing straws to see who would put the bullet through my head. I further alienated them with several cuts from the Fine Young Cannibals' The Raw and The Cooked (IRS IRSD-6273), as fine a collection of pop tunes as I've ever heard; Madonna's "Causing a Commotion" from the Who's That Girl? soundtrack (Sire 25611-2); and Cyndi Lauper's ode to masturbation, "She Bop" from She's So Unusual (Portrait RK 38930). Yeah, bubba. I've always believed that good hi-fi should be enjoyable not just from a fifth-row-center seat in the imaginary concert hall, but from the very real dance floor as well. I wasn't disappointed: the Montanas' dance factor was clearly top-of-the-chart.
Footnote 2: This album, one of a handful of real gems from San Francisco's psychedelic era, is a must-have for rock fans. It captures one of that time's seminal groups at its absolute peak: a group whose total was far larger than the sum of its parts. Separately, they were merely good musicians; together, they were magic. The rise and fall of Big Brother is a classic tale of corporate greed and meddling: this album launched Janis Joplin into a brief super-stardom with a few short-lived collaborations with industry-recommended musicians, and marked the end of the line for Big Brother. Cheap Thrills made millions for Columbia; legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb received only $600 for the cover.—Barry Willis