Aural Robert #1

Please let me explain. Because I've never been especially adept at making lifelong commitments and irrevocable decisions, when it came to naming this new column, Managing Editor Debbie Starr and I decided that we would gather the passionate (and supremely efficient) minds of the Stereophile production staff, add a near–life-threatening amount of margaritas, and put the question to them.

A number of contenders emerged from this entertaining evening: "Tracks, Cracks, and Wax" (too gross); "Gorillas in the Mist" (too hairy); "Smell the Glove" (too Spinal Tap); "No Tongues" (too Madeline Kahn); "Groovy Stuff & Flooby Dust" (too drug-induced); and "Baird's Den" (need I explain?). The two finalists were "Hear and Now" and the other, shall we say, more flamboyant choice that now graces this page. The evocative, edgy "Aural Robert" was a joint creation of art czarina Natalie Brown and production manager Phil Baca. Instead of skipping a stone across the top of the water, we decided to drop a boulder straight in and let the ripples spread. I'm sure this title will generate a certain amount of outrage, but rest assured that I mean this in only the most humorous and prismatically twisted way.

To be serious for a moment, I am very excited to be the new music editor of Stereophile. Before I launch into my plans for the future, there are a few things from the past that need to be acknowledged. Richard Lehnert, who created not only this position, but also the entire music section of the magazine, deserves an immense amount of credit for a job well done. Happily, Richard remains a part of the organization, having returned to what he loves best: copy-editing.

When it comes to Wes Phillips's excellent and slyly opinionated "Quarter Notes" column, WP will continue to review audiophile issues and reissues, although certain discs may be important enough to review in both "Quarter Notes" and the regular Record Reviews section. I am elated to announce that I have successfully lobbied (more like shamelessly flattered) Wes into becoming a regular contributor to Stereophile's Record Reviews. About two weeks into my tenure here, I suddenly realized (after reading a "Quarter Notes") that I had one of the best music writers I know laboring one floor below me. It's a pleasure to have a writer of Wes's taste and talent in my section. Someday I may even coerce the inquisitive, inspiring, and entirely inimitable John Atkinson to squeeze a record review into the eight and a half miles of copy he miraculously produces for each issue.

Many of you know that I joined Stereophile following a stint as editor-in-chief of CD Review. I plan to implement some of the same changes here that I brought to that magazine, beginning with: a five-star rating system for reviews, new writing voices, a wider variety of music covered, a more appealing design, and this column. In coming months, the very popular "Building a Library" department will expand to cover jazz, world, rock, and other kinds of music. The music section will also become more timely. While it's true that some discs need time to percolate into the brain, there will not be reviews of discs that were released 12 months ago.

My theory on good and bad reviews is simple: The majority of Stereophile's record reviews will be positive, focusing on the best in music of all genres. We will also, however, print negative reviews. If a major artist releases a stinker, for example, we will call it as we hear it. When it comes to independent labels—a particular favorite of mine and most of the other musically obsessed souls I know—we will review as much as possible, focusing again on the positive rather than the less-than-inspiring. When it comes to indies—from John Marks Records to Hightone to Sundazed—I have neither the space nor the desire to disparage their risks, whether they succeed or not.

One of the main reasons I moved to Santa Fe to join the staff of what is easily the world's best high-end hardware magazine is its "Letters" section. Stereophile readers care deeply about their systems and what they play on them. I'm hoping that the music section will soon ignite some of the same kind of fanatical praise and damnation that the equipment reports—not to mention Wes's infamous "Car Tunes" column—now inspire. Please tell me how I'm doing—either by normal mail (which is hauled up to Santa Fe by wheezy burros) or via my much quicker e-mail address. Until next month, good listening.

This is a good place to discuss my own personal musical tastes. Overall, there isn't a genre of music that I don't know and in most cases, enjoy. In adulthood, if that's what you can call my present state, my musical tastes have become omnivorous. My favorites? Off the top of my head: Opera of all kinds; genuine jazz; big, lush German Romanticism; the Haggard, Cash, and Jones school of country music; the No Depression trend in countrified guitar bands; jump blues; New Orleans R&B, and acid jazz to name a few. What are my dislikes? I find "lite jazz" about as appealing as leprosy. A lot of mainstream pop/country leaves me cold. I find it difficult to listen to anything where the message is overtly murderous or macabre.

Three life experiences had an enormous effect on my attitude and abilities as a music editor. First, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful father (now passed) who taught me, among other things, that Ellington, Basie, and Armstrong—as opposed to Miller, Dorsey, and Shaw—were the true essence of jazz. And at 18, I accidentally sunk a straight-blade hunting knife into my left hand and so ended any dreams of being a serious piano player. Lastly, for a short time in the 1980s I worked in marketing and publicity for a symphony orchestra. Being in the trenches infected me with a permanent case of zealot's fever to keep classical music from disappearing.