Listening #68 Page 2

And let's not overlook what may be the man's greatest talent: his singing—which has evolved over the years from the self-conscious hiccup of the late 1970s to one of the most limber, expressive baritones in all of modern pop.

But the problem is that most of Elvis Costello's albums are unlistenable by the time the ink has dried on the liner notes. They just don't hold up. Three possible reasons for that sad situation come to mind:

Fatty brain deposits: If Bruce Springsteen's problem is that he tries too hard, Costello's is that he thinks way too much—mostly, or so it appears, about other people's great records. Luckily for us, Costello the listener has pretty good taste; unluckily for us, Costello the recording artist makes the most self-conscious, least offhand records of his era. Some of his songs call to mind other pieces of great music—not to mention literature, film, visual arts, or what-have-you. Yet the crafting of an original diamond in the rough such as Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama," The Byrds' "The World Turns All Around Her," David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel," or Beck's "Loser" seems beyond him. The above-mentioned "I Want You" passes the roughness test, but it's also painfully obvious that Costello had the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" at the back of his mind every note of the way.

Wordplay: As with Squeeze, most of Elvis Costello's songs are too clever by half, and the worst thing about the dozens and dozens of tiresome puns that strangle the material on his first four albums alone is that Costello doesn't even sound as if he was trying to be funny: He just sounds as if he couldn't stop himself. Even on an otherwise nice, mature song such as "Our Little Angel," Costello couldn't resist showing off with "You try to love her, but she's so contrary / Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary." Chroist—doesn't he ever get sick of doing that?

Steve Nieve: Blaming Elvis Costello for the chronically stunted taste of keyboardist Steve Nieve is like blaming Bruce Springsteen for Clarence Clemons. (Not a bad idea, now that I think about it.) Still, the dated hipster cheesiness of the arrangements contributes to making the first several Elvis Costello albums completely unlistenable for me in calendar year 2008—and Steve Nieve is arguably more responsible for that sound than anyone else. Also, as with Deke MacManus the lyricist, Steve Nieve the piano player doesn't appear to grasp the notion of editing himself, of roping himself in.

Nope, the majority of Costello's recorded output simply doesn't stand up to repeated listenings. Yet I can put any one of the first four Led Zeppelin albums on the record player, spin it, drop the needle anywhere, and smile a genuine, gut-level smile. And I don't stop to ponder the private jets or the smashed-up hotel rooms or the silly poses or the too-long guitar straps any more than I stop to think about that whole nasty-but-forgivable Ray Charles business when I'm enjoying Costello's own best moments. Great music can transcend almost anything, or anyone.

Rustical graffiti
Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which my growing interest in fin de siècle classical music on the one hand and American string-band music on the other kept me from listening to much rock at all. Then, at Christmas, someone gave me a copy of Raising Sand, by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (CD, Rounder 11661-9075-2). Typical of my relationship with most good pop records, this one began with indifference on the first day, progressed to minor annoyance on the second, then bloomed into lasting adoration from the third day forward. I sealed the deal by buying the LP as well.

Apart from "Please Read the Letter," which Plant cowrote with Jimmy Page, Michael Lee, and Charlie Jones, the songs on Raising Sand are all covers, largely selected by producer T Bone Burnett (who was profiled in the June 2008 Stereophile). Highlights are two wonderful songs by the late Gene Clark—"Polly Come Home" and "Through the Morning, Through the Night"—and a moving version of Doc and Rosa Lee Watson's "Your Long Journey." The latter, which closes the album, is especially remarkable: Though they perform it a bit more slickly than on the original recording (from the 1963 Folkways album The Doc Watson Family), Plant and Krauss approach the song on their own terms, and their deceptively simple vocal deliveries wring from the lyric a complex mix of sorrow and wistful faith. Plant, especially, brings intelligence, taste, and a depth of understanding to this and literally every other song on Raising Sand, without wearing those qualities on his sleeve or telegraphing his cleverness to the listener at every turn.

For her part, Krauss is the consummate pro: an immensely talented musician who has spent the past two decades learning how to translate the joy of playing and singing into a consistent and equally potent joy for the listener. Her vocal harmonies, like her sensibilities as an arranger, are sparingly evident throughout, keeping the record from collapsing under the weight of its many talented contributors—whose number include the one, the only, the great Norman Blake, God bless him.

I have no idea what projects may have been released in 2007 by Elvis Costello or any of the other writers and performers whom the Robert Christgaus and Anthony De Curtises of the world would have me know are important. Sometimes I'm afraid to look, for fear of seeing yet other names in the liner notes—such as Daniel Lanois, or Rufus Wainwright, or, worst of all, Hal Willner. [shudder] Sometimes I'm afraid I'm no longer interested in new pop music—until an act such as Spoon, Jens Lekman, Will Oldham, or Joanna Newsom pulls me back. Right now I'm grateful for Raising Sand, and for the long-cherished pleasure of a new record album that I want to hear every day, one of which I have yet to tire.

In his Christmas note, Phil Brett also confessed (his word) admiration for Robert Plant's new music. Speaking as he was to a record lover who had bought Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights because he was told it's great (it isn't), and who turned up his nose the first time he had a chance to buy Donovan's Open Road on vinyl because he didn't think it was cool (it is), Phil needn't have blushed. God bless him.

Material peroration
I'm torn between two warring drives. On the one hand, I don't want to be encumbered with possessions, partly because materialism is embarrassing and wrong, and partly because the concept of portability—of being able to pack everything I own into one car and move house at a moment's notice, if need be—is something that greatly appeals to me.

On the other hand, because I write about music reproduction for a living, and because I understand and to some extent share the concerns of those readers who think that long-term loans from equipment manufacturers can have an unhealthy influence on the review process, I very much prefer to own, in its entirety, a good playback system: one that is not only a tool, but that is something I can really enjoy and perhaps even love. (Again, extra points given for smallness and portability. Just in case. Come the revolution.)

I'm not there yet, but I'm on the right road. In fact, a number of things have changed since the last time I described my playback system in this space (March 2007), so here's a brief update. Except as noted, I have bought and paid for all of the products described in the following paragraphs. Only a few lingering items in my system or my audio closet were bought at retail; most were bought either second-hand or, the more common case, at an industry-accommodation price that was less than retail, and sometimes markedly so. With one exception, also as noted, none of these products was given for free or in consideration of token payment; eg, $100 for a six-figure loudspeaker. I could spend a great many words trying to convince you of my abiding impartiality, even in the face of such a perk as accommodation pricing—and while I'd be telling the truth, I also know from experience that some folks will persist in believing otherwise, as is their right. So I won't.

As my tastes in playback gear have become more and more defined, and as the costs of certain items have continued to rise, I've begun to slowly but steady sell off the old in order to rake in the new. Thus, over the past year, I've said goodbye to the Naim 132-5 preamp, 110 amp, and Armageddon power supply; the spare Rega RB300 tonearm, the extra Linn LP12 turntable, the extra Mana Sound Shelf; the Audio Note Kit One amp; as well as to a few other old friends, with still others poised to go.

Like John Atkinson, I continue to use the Linn LP12 as a reference turntable, and a damn good one it is. The Linn has its faults, but few of them detract from its altogether superior way with musical fundamentals—in which regard the flaws of its competitors are surely more severe. My LP12 dates from around 1990, and incorporates the then-entry-level Basik power supply, which is as close to nothing as one can buy. I use a Naim Aro tonearm I bought in 1992, fitted with a variety of standard-mount phono cartridges, including a Denon DL 103, Grace F9E, Lyra Helikon Mono, and Miyabi 47. (The last was a gift, again as detailed in the March 2007 issue.) These days I spin most of my vinyl on a refurbished Thorens TD 124, with plinth, armboard, and nonmagnetic replacement platter from Schopper AG. The tonearm is a reissued EMT 997, used with an EMT OFD 25 pickup head for mono records and an Ortofon SPU Synergy A and Shindo SPU for stereo, the latter two on loan.

Every moving-coil cartridge in this house gets loaded with a step-up transformer—even the EMT OFD 25, which has a very high output, but whose coils nonetheless require a much lower load than 47k ohms. Depending on the cartridge, I'll use either an Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 (on loan), EAR MC4 (also on loan), Tamura TKS-83, K&K/Lundahl 9206 kit, or the evidently high-gain Lundahl transformer pair built into my line-plus-phono preamplifier, the amazing Shindo Masseto. Although I own and enjoy other power amplifiers, including Quad II monoblocks and a Fi 2A3 Stereo, my usual choice is the equally amazing Shindo Cortese. The speaker I most enjoy and rely on these days is the Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE (on loan; see Follow-Up in this issue), used with a long pair of Auditorium 23 copper cables. Interconnects are a mix of Shindo silver and Audio Note AN-Vx silver. My digital music source remains an eight-year-old Sony SCD-777 SACD/CD player. Ah, Bartleby...

NB: I still own and thoroughly enjoy my original Quad ESL loudspeakers (rebuilt with Wayne Picquet's treble panels, the best I've heard), and I've built a few different systems around them, in a few different rooms. That approach is on hold right now, but I expect it will have gotten a great deal more attention by the end of this year.