Wretches & Jabberers

In support of National Autism Awareness Month, McIntosh Laboratory and songwriter/producer J. Ralph have come together to create a spectacular new album, the original motion picture soundtrack to Academy Award winning director Gerardine Wurzburg’s Wretches & Jabberers. The feature-length documentary, in theaters now, follows the paths of two men with autism, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, as they travel around the world determined to increase autism awareness and refine our ideas of intelligence.

From the film’s dedicated web site:

Growing up, Thresher and Bissonnette were presumed “retarded” and excluded from normal schooling. With limited speech, they both faced lives of social isolation in mental institutions or adult disability centers. When they learned as adults to communicate by typing, their lives changed dramatically. Their world tour message is that the same possibility exists for others like themselves.

Yesterday evening, I met with composer J. Ralph and McIntosh’s Global VP of Sales and Marketing, Linda Passaro, for an intimate listening session. Held in the gorgeous theater of J. Ralph’s Rumor Mill Records, the session featured an impressive all-Mac system, unmistakable front panels setting the incredible space in soft blue glow: MCD 1100 SACD/CD player, MT10 turntable, MC1201 monoblock power amplifiers, C1000 tube preamplifier, C1000 controller, C1000 solid-state preamplifier, MPC1500 power conditioner, MEN220 room correction system, and XRT28 loudspeakers. Before sitting down to listen, we stood around a table full of wine and cheese, below shimmering chandeliers and surrounded by years of memories and the echoes of musicians, near the theater’s large stage—rows of vintage guitars and amplifiers, drums, a piano, and more, waiting patiently to be played—talking of hi-fi, music, and love.

Passaro spoke enthusiastically about the need to emphasize the passion and romance of our hobby, the need to build beautiful objects that will be cherished as much for how they look and feel as for how they sound and function, the need to share our passions with family and friends, the need to open hi-fi to a wider and more varied audience. Meanwhile, J. Ralph expressed gratitude and joy over the opportunity to work with McIntosh on such a worthwhile project. A longtime Mac enthusiast, J. Ralph admits that the company feels like a part of his family. The same McIntosh gear used to demo the album was used for critical listening during the mixing of the album, a project which J. Ralph sees as an effort to promote human rights, his role in it an absolute honor.

With a small group of journalists, including Stereophile’s senior contributing editor Michael Fremer, situated around the impressive system, J. Ralph provided details on the music’s creation and played a few tracks from an early pressing of the vinyl edition. He explained that his goal was to match each of his songs with an artist who could best communicate its emotional core. However, just as Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher journeyed to discover their voices, the singers would discover the songs while recording them. To that end, the recordings were made as naturally as the situation would allow, with as little as possible separating the artist from the chosen instrument—guitars were finger-picked, drums were played with the palms of the hand, voices were captured in brilliant detail—in few takes and with little or no rehearsal beforehand.

The songs are brilliant. J. Ralph did a remarkable job of matching his pretty words to voices capable of bringing them to breathing, pulsing life. There is not a weak song in the collection, the playing simultaneously innocent and expert, each voice distinct and distinctly moving. The songs:

J. Ralph: “The Reasons Why”
Norah Jones: “Change is Gonna Come”
Carly Simon: “The Letter”
Ben Harper: “More Like You”
Antony: “Killingly Hard”
Vashti Bunyan: “Flower & the Lion”
Ben Taylor: “Given to Us”
Bob Weir: “Breaking the Hold”
Devendra Banhart: “Lying down Statues”
Judy Collins: “Birdsong”
Stephen Stills: “Low Barefoot Tolerance”
Scarlett Johannson: “One Whole Hour”
Vincent Gallo: “No Regard”
David Garza: “Four Brave Souls”
Bonnie Bramlett: “Breakers & the Wind”
Nic Jones: “Pretty Words Lie”
Martin Carthy: “Fighters & Factitioners”
Paul Brady: “Hello For The First Time (Four Words)”
Lila Downs: “Entenderse”
Leah Siegel: “Birdsong (Reprise)”

It would be difficult to choose favorites—each voice is so strong and emotionally compelling—but highlights for me include Ben Harper performing “More Like You”; Vashti Bunyan performing “Flower & the Lion;” Vincent Gallo sounding enchanting on “No Regard”; David Garza crying to the heavens with “Four Brave Souls”; “Killingly Hard,” in which Antony confesses, “It’s killingly hard to say how I feel”; and Nic Jones, committing his voice to tape for the first time in nearly 30 years, singing, wonderfully, “Pretty Words Lie.”

Wretches & Jabberers was produced, engineered, and mixed by J. Ralph with help from some friends: Gary Wagner, Arthur Pingrey, Brian Binsack, Gary Morris, Chris Halac, and Guy Rabinowitz. The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig, and the beautiful, 180gm vinyl edition was cut by Bernie Grundman and pressed at RTI. Sarah Strayer is responsible for the lovely cover art and design. From the press release:

In keeping with McIntosh’s longtime commitment to a quality listening experience and the emotional rewards available to consumers who want to share their passion for music with family and friends, the company supported the pressing of the album on high-quality vinyl.

It really is a pretty thing, one to have and to hold. I would recommend purchasing the vinyl edition even if you play only compact discs: a CD is included with the vinyl package. A portion of all proceeds will benefit the Autism Society of America and the Wretches & Jabberers Fund of the Institute on Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University.

It was sort of funny: As we sat listening to J. Ralph’s Wretches & Jabberers, an album centered around the power of the human voice, we were each struck suddenly silent by its magnificence. When it was done, we were able only to shake our heads and talk of beauty and love. What better topics are there to discuss? McIntosh and J. Ralph have good reason to be proud.

Bill Leebens's picture

...by both you and McIntosh, Stephen.

It's interesting to see certified/certifiable hardcore audiophile Vinny Gallo in that group. It's been a long time since his back-to-mono contributions in Sound Practices.

swimkinney2's picture

I have been searching the internet for this on vinyl for 20 minutes now, where in the world can i buy this?

Stephen Mejias's picture
You can try Music Direct.