Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sony PS-X5 Turntable

I've been meaning to update my turntable photos here on this kitchen-sink blog. This is my current table, a Sony PS-X5 direct drive from 1977. This beast of a turntable was bought back in January, alongside a PS-X75 which is even more of a beast. But, to be completely honest, I'm having more fun with this one.

Vintage turntables can be found an Ebay, Audiogon, and Craig's List fairly easy, and when kept in pristine order over the years, continue to run circles around the newest models. I picked this one up for $100 on Ebay, and very nearly came away with it for only $10. Now that would have been a spectacular steal. Sony isn't as sought-after as some of the other Japanese turntable brands like Denon or Technics, which makes a PS-X

Oh, and if you're wondering, yes, Sony's videogame consoles are named after their turntables. That says something about these models, which really were the peak of Sony's technical skills.

When one thinks of Japanese direct drives, images of cheap, plastic hunks of junk spring to mind. Cheap, low-grade turntables like those were half the reason the public flocked to Compact Disc in the first place (the other reason: the music industry forced it on us). But this is a cruel irony, because the mid- and high-end Japanese tables are truly spectacular. The PS-X line is the perfect example.

The cartridge I have attached to my PS-X5 is an Ortofon 2M Blue. This is a spectacular Moving Magnet cart that is a perfect match for this tonearm and my stereo system. In fact, it's proving to be a better match than the Dynavector 10x5 I had on my PS-X75, but I'm sure a lot of that was due to the lack of a better phono preamp with the proper loading. Moving Coil carts are definitely higher maintainence, that's for sure.

The bottom line is that I have a spectacular sound system for $400. That's just over the price of an iPod Classic. For that money, I have a killer Marantz 2235b stereo receiver, a pair of speakers, a Sony PS-X5, and an Ortofon 2M Blue. And the music on my system will crush your digital rig to pieces. Guaranteed.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vintage Knob is Alive!!

Yaayy!! The Vintage Knob is alive and well! It appears that it was only down for some maintainence and updating. I'm thrilled, obviously, because this is the best resource for vintage hi-fi audio, and especially Japanese direct-drive turntables of the 1970s and 1980s. I was kicking myself for not salvaging the art assets earlier - I had wanted to add Wikipedia pages to help preserve all the information.

In any event, this is a great audio website and a terrific place to learn about turntables.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Has The Vintage Knob Died?

The Vintage Knob is a fantastic museum site that chronicles the golden age of Japanese hi-fi from the 1970s and '80s. If you're a fan of direct drive turntables, then this site's database is an invaluable resource. Nowhere else have I been able to learn so much about my Sony PS-X5 turntable, and I've come to greatly appreciate just how advanced that table is, even three decades later.

But now it appears as though Vintage Knob is off the air. I noticed this a couple evenings ago. The website and all of its content suddenly went offline, including all of its invaluable photos and illustrations. What happened?!

I do hope the owner simply made a mistake; perhaps he forgot to renew his arrangements with whoever hosts the site. There are so precious few websites devoted to direct drive turntables; losing The Vintage Knob would be a terrible blow.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Your First Turntables

As you might be aware, I'm a great music lover and a member of the turntable club. Because of the revival in vinyl records, usually younger kids who grew up exclusively with CD's and .mp3's, there are a lot of questions for advice on turntables and analog LP's. I've written a short speech or at Vinyl Engine, and I was impressed enough with what I wrote that I decided to share it here with you.

"First Turntable"

When you decide to explore the world of vinyl records, you'll be asking lots of questions about turntables, and you'll likely be swarmed with a million different answers. This may seem overwhelming at first, but it's perfectly normal. Analog music - that's what records are all about - is far more nuanced and tricky than simply popping a CD into the tray and hitting the repeat button. There are many different turntable brands, many different designs, and many different price points. And everybody has their own opinion, which contradicts everybody else.

The great example of this is the "turf war" (I say that jokingly) between Technics and Rega fans. In a broader sense, this is a battle between the defenders of belt-drive turntables and direct-drive turntables. In truth, both designs have their advantages and weaknesses, and great tables can be had on both sides equally. But passions are fierce among the devoted, and it's confusing as hell.

Here is my advice for every one of you. At the end of the day, you need to dive in and just get your hands dirty. A first turntable is like a first car. You don't expect perfection, just a reliable clunker that you can tear apart and destroy as you learn and grow.

Over the past two years, I've gone through half a dozen turntables, starting with a $99 Newmark PT-101 portable to a Pro-Ject Debut III to a Sony PS-X75. My current setup - Sony PS-X5, Ortofon 2M Blue - is the best I've yet heard, and paired with my Marantz stereo receiver, it's a spectacular sound system. But I learned everything the long and hard way, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

In the process of learning, I've become a more skilled listener. I've learned to listen critically, something I never really did before. I've learned much about the science of turntables, of their designs and the various theories of replicating that perfect sound. And I've wrecked my share of parts and ruined my share of records.

If someone wants to discover the world of analog LP's, then I'd recommend searching local rummage sales and want-ads. Get a cheap clunker that costs next to nothing, get a cheap cartridge, and start playing records. Then learn as much as you possibly can about them, so when it comes time to upgrade to the next table, you're on a stronger footing. And hopefully you won't be spending a small fortune in the process.

I think another key goal is to keep costs down as much as possible. More money does not equal better performance. I spent a lot of money to fully upgrade a Pro-Ject Debut III, only to see it smashed to pieces by a 30-year-old Realistic Lab-420 direct drive. My grandfather's old MacDonald 510 idler drive sounded far better than it has any right to. And the Sony PS-X tables are stunning.

So, everyone, my advice is get a great stereo receiver from the 1970s, like one of the Marantz models. A great stereo is the foundation of your sound system. You can find a stereo and a pair of speakers for under $100, easy. Then proceed with the turntable and phono cartridge, and you're ready to experience the bliss of vinyl records. Start with a cheap, used table, then work your way up the chain. Or, you could just copy my current system and skip a few steps. It's all up to you.

For reference, here's my current system, with prices included:

Sony PS-X5 Turntable - $100
Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge - $200
Marantz 2235b Stereo Receiver - $65
RCA Speakers (pair) - $35

Friday, May 22, 2009

Robot Suits

This is the coolest thing ever. If America weren't being run into the ground by monsters, we could actually be inventing things like this.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Babes in Toyland - Nemesisters

And so, we come to the final triumph. Although I had no idea at the time that this would be Babes in Toyland's last stand. That's a damned shame. But what a fantastic album to go out on.

I've reflected on this while writing these posts. To look back on your career, and know that all of your albums are good, that's a rare achievement. No bad albums? No mistakes? No baffling clunkers like Their Satanic Majesties Request or Self-Portrait? Good Lord, even Elvis Presley had his movies to embarrass him. Babes in Toyland have nothing to be embarrassed about. At the end of the day, they did everything they could. If the kids of the '90s couldn't figure it out, screw 'em. The kids of another decade will understand.

Nemesisters is clearly the most evolved form of the band, the most mature, the most complex. This is a band at the peak of its powers. And this is most definitely a band of equals. Kat Bjelland may have had the upper hand in experience at the beginning, but Lori and Maureen are equals in 1995. And you can hear it on these songs. "Sweet '69" is the best Babes in Toyland ever recorded, period.

You can argue for yourselves if Kat was making sex puns or singing about cars on that song, but it always seemed unlikely to me. She certainly had no problem with being blunt or explicit - have you listened to Fontanelle lately? Actually, Kat's lyrics on Nemesisters are loaded to the hilt with cheesy puns. "I will not follow stupid sheep/I will not bow, I will not peep." I always got a chuckle out of that one.

If there was any valid criticism to lay against the Babes, it's that Kat really didn't have much of anything to say aside from aggression. Bad relationships, childhood trauma, rivalries that may or may not involve Courtney Love - this was her lyrical bread and butter. The final album saw an honest attempt to grow out of this, but what exactly is Kat talking about? I honestly don't have a damned clue what half the Nemesisters songs are about, if anything. But I always tuned in for the music, the riffs, the drumming, the aggression. I didn't care.

But somebody really has to nail down Kat Bjelland for answers one of these years.

I think the Nemesisters cover is remarkable, definitely the "statement" cover of the library. I don't know if they're attacking stereotypes of women in general as much as themselves; this was one of the most polarizing rock bands of the 1990's, and their gender had a lot to do about that. There were many successful women in music that decade, but none as aggressive or extreme as Babes in Toyland. The Riot Grrl bands are the closest kin, but none were nearly as successful. This band came as closest as any of their peers to mainstream success.

Now, the waters have long since receeded. Women are back to playing Barbie dolls and models without minds and safe pop singers. Exceptions are rare, and the indie rock world is far too tame and safe. There's still this boundary where girls are not allowed to cross. It's like Baseball vs. Softball. Babes in Toyland came to play baseball and simultaneously rally and shout down all the girls playing softball. And they came the closest to actually succeeding.

I can't wait to see the next generation take the reins and push even further. Where is it written that there couldn't be an all-female answer to Metallica, or Radiohead, or U2? Why is everybody going to Simon Cowell and Paula Abdull for approval in the music game? Paula freaking Abdul? Has anybody actually YouTube'd her lousy pop songs? This is the standard for acceptance?

To hell with that. It's 2009, and I'm waiting for the women in rock to show up with a better album than Nemesisters. It hasn't happened yet, and I'm starting to wonder how many more years we'll have to wait.

Okay, that's it. The five Babes in Toyland studio albums. They were one of the great rock bands of my generation. Now get to work on the music revolution.

Babes in Toyland - Painkillers

Painkillers was Babes in Toyland's 1993 album, an EP comprised of five newly-recorded songs and a live concert from the Fontanelle tour. It was put out to capitalize on the band's short tour with Lollapallooza '93. For many, there's no doubt that it feels a bit thin after the monster album that was Fontanelle, but I've always the songs on Painkillers more. Perhaps it's just the ongoing progression of the band, but these tunes felt more alive to me, more nuanced, a little more vibrant.

It seems to me that these songs are bigger, more faceted. Fontanelle's songs were very blunt, short and focused. But Babes in Toyland worked best with the more dynamic songs. "Laredo" and "Angel Hair" are perfect examples of this. Those are two of the best songs in the Babes' catalog.

Now that I think of it, why weren't there more songs on Painkillers? There's no reason why Kat, Lori and Maureen couldn't bash out at least two or three more songs. There are only four new songs on the first side; "He's My Thing" is a more aggressive retake from Spanking Machine. So that only leaves four tracks. Not a lot to chew on. It's always so easy to beg for more Babes' songs now, after they've long since disappeared from the earth. If only there were a stash of old tapes just stored away in Kat or Lori's attic. If only, if only.

Hmm...was this the first Babes in Toyland album I bought? I honestly can't remember anymore. I bought lots of cassette tapes back in the day. Yeah, you heard me. Cassettes. This might have been my first one. That album cover is just too cool to resist. Knowing how my brain works, Painkillers would have led me to Fontanelle (side two) and Spanking Machine (side one). I think that's the story I'm going with from now on.

Babes in Toyland - Fontanelle

Fontanelle is the most popular and best-known of Babes in Toyland's albums. It was their major-label debut for Warner Brothers in 1992, and became a minor hit thanks to the song, "Bruise Violet." This was really the perfect time for a band like this, after the Seattle grunge explosion and the days when Kurt Cobain ruled the music world. The whole order of things had been turned on its head. What better time for an all-female noise-rock band to make their statement?

Now that I think about, this was most likely the first Babes album I bought, back in 1994. I was certainly late to the party, but living in Duluth, MN kept you out of the loop on virtually everything. It was a cultural wasteland. Thank goodness MTV actually played music videos back then. Music videos by actual, everyday human beings, at that. The network has an ironclad "supermodels only" rule in place today. Does anyone with self-respect even watch MTV anymore?

Anyway, back to Fontanelle. The production values are more polished and "bigger" than Spanking Machine and To Mother, and yet it's also harsher, angrier, and heavier than the band's first two albums. This may be the harshest sounding album of their career. The songs are short and furious and fast; the abrubt editing gives you barely a moment's breath before the next assault.

What else is there to say? I can't think of anything else at the moment, because I'm humoring myself with Keyboard Cat videos.

Babes in Toyland - Spanking Machine

The first album by Minneapolis rock trio Babes in Toyland, Spanking Machine. It's a spectacular album, a fine tribute to the great American music underground that was headed for mainstream success at the turn of the '90s. This album has a terrific groove, a swinging rhythm section, and some almost apocalyptic guitar work. There's a certain tone to the guitars that are unique to this album, as though the volume wasn't cranked to maximum. It's not the full-on metal buzzsaw sound of Fontanelle, and frankly, I think Spanking Machine is all the better for it.

If I remember, this was either the first or second Babes in Toyland album I bought. I loved it to death. It was just spectacular. Like many a late bloomer, I was discovering this whole world of underground music that was becoming so popular. I was just thrilled to discover that kids, real kids, could be in rock bands and become stars. And they were able to top the regime of hair metal? they put michael bolton out of work? Wowwwww....

I'm sure that's part of the appeal to me. I hated the 1980's hair bands. And to think that they could be replaced by an all-girl band that was heavier, louder, and more pissed off than those phony pretty boys could ever hope to be? Wow. Sign me up for life.

It's going to become harder and harder to find Spanking Machine, so get your hands on it while you can, and start making copies and spreading them around as far and wide as you can. We need a seedbed for the next generation of grrl rockers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Babes in Toyland - Band Photos

These are a pair of band photos from Babes in Toyland, the great Minneapolis rock band of the 1990s. The first photo is of the original lineup - Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, and Michelle Leon. This trio released two spectacular underground rock albums that haven't lost a decibel of their power - Spanking Machine (1990) and To Mother (1991). Michelle Leon retired from music after the sudden and tragic death of her boyfriend, Joe Cole. In 1992, Maureen Herman assumed the bass duties, as the Babes signed to Warner Brothers and unleashed their most popular album, Fontanelle (1992). Painkillers (1993) quickly followed their tour on Lollapallooza. And Nemesisters (1995) saw the band at its most ferocious and refined. This second photo comes from the Nemesisters era, and it's really a spectacular photograph.

Babes in Toyland remains one of the great power trios in rock, and there was no wavering or middle ground with their music. You either loved it, or hated it. Me? I loved it. I still say this was the greatest of all the Minneapolis rock groups.

Deep Thought

It's the middle of May. Shouldn't it start to be getting warm by now?

Friday, May 15, 2009

This is Not Going to End Well

Am I the only one who has a serious problem with this? When I was in the Scouts, all we did was learn how to tie knots on camping trips. Now they're being trained as paramilitary units?

This is not going to end well.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Best Rock Album EVER

To Mother, 1990. The second album by Babes in Toyland. This album will knock you on your sorry ass and laugh its head off. I can't tell you how sorely I miss hearing Lori Barbaro playing the drums. What must we do to get her back in the music game?!

I can't remember how I got hooked on Babes in Toyland. Either I got wind of them in Duluth, or saw them on MTV, or heard them on radio in the Twin Cities. In any event, I was hooked bigtime. But that's a loooong story. I haven't listened to the Babes in many years, and just pulled the albums out this week. To my shock and amazement, it sounds better than ever. This really was one of the great rock bands.

And what the hell happened to women in the music business? Everything reverted back to the Barbie dolls with no talent. Looks Are The Only Thing That Count. It's like this nation just reverted in every way imaginable around, oh, I dunno....around the end of 2000? Can we pretend this decade hadn't happened and get our groove back? I'm not willing or ready to grow old.

Gimmie my Babes in Toyland!! This is their best album, although Nemesisters can also make that claim. Thanks to the internet, you can download all 5 studio albums and the John Peel CD in the space of an hour or two. Go ahead and do that now. Your brain will thank you later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Deep Thought

Torture is good.  Torture works.  But you can't see the photos, because that would be bad.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Atari Lynx in Action

Saw this on Flikr, and decided to post it here, since I tossed out a number of Atari Lynx posts recently. Every now and then, I'm tempted as hell to buy a couple from Ebay. Eh, it's not too likely, but we'll see. This is just a really, really cool piece of retro gaming.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Torture Nation

What Digby Said:

I'm sure the usual cynics will harangue me for being a silly old fool as usual for not recognizing what a torturing society this is long before now. And I would have to admit there's a kernel of truth in the fact that this is not something I probably wanted to know. However, this current debate has made it impossible to ignore any longer: the United States of America tortures its own children. It tortures prisoners. It tortures average citizens whom any policeman believes is failing to smartly comply with his orders and it tortures suspected terrorists. We just call it (in true Orwellian fashion) "Tough Love."

Torture, in fact, is one of our defining features. The only really surprising thing, considering its ubiquity, is that the number of people who openly support it isn't larger. I suppose that's some sort of comfort.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Max Headroom Illustrations

This excellent series of illustrations can be found here. The artist is unnamed, but clearly, he or she was a great admirer of the 1987 Max Headroom pirate broadcast. This is where the event becomes burned into legend. No doubt the whole mystery of the event is greatly responsible for that.

I really love these illustrations. Essentially screenshots drawn in ink, they capture the rebelliousness of the mystery pirate, as well as his eerie menace. There's something truly spooky and unnerving with the idea that your television broadcast could be hijacked without warning. Since the signals are beamed into your homes, you feel that your home has been violated. But isn't that what television does normally? And aren't we all hijacked every day by corporate and government propaganda?

Aarrrgh...your love is faaading......

A society in the age of mass media is far less free than it wishes to admit. Perhaps this is one message that Max Headroom wanted to send. After all, that was the same premise of the Max Headroom sci-fi show, right? And we can see this continued today, with V For Vendetta, and the Anonymous online movement. The legend grows.

Movie - The Fog of War

Errol Morris' masterful documentary about the life of Robert McNamara. This is one of the finest documentaries - nay, one of the finest movies - ever made. It was incindary when it was released during the run-up to the Iraq War, and six years later its power has only grown.

Interesting, isn't it, that the only great movies about the Bush/Cheney Iraq War have been documentaries? The fictional dramas have all been disappointments, boring, slightly preachy. The non-fiction films have been extraordinary.

You should have this on DVD. I can't wait for the inevitable Blu-Ray release. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Max Headroom Pirate Broadcast

This is both the coolest and the creepiest thing I've ever seen. I think the VHS fuzz makes Max Headroom look all the more sinister. Add in the electronic distortion to the voice....wooowww.

What amazes me about this act of video piracy is that the actors escaped. They were never caught, and to this day, the identity of "Max Headroom" remains a mystery. Their ultimate motives also remain a mystery. Was this a simple prank? Was it an attack on WGN? An attack on mass media, and modern society? Are there any parallels to the Max Headroom sci-fi show, which dealt with corporate dominace and video piracy?

Nobody knows.

Read about the Max Headroom Pirate Broadcast here.

Photos - Xenophobe

Now this is really fun. Xenophobe arrived on the Atari Lynx in 1990, and it's clearly the best action game on the color handheld. It's arguably the equal to the arcade original, thanks to a better control scheme, a wider cast of goofy characters, and some cooler weapons. Basically you just run around various space stations, zapping aliens and trying not to become lunch.

The best thing about Lynx Xenophobe are the four-player games. Yep, more 4P action! You can either work together to clear out the space stations, or someone can play one of the aliens themselves. Then you get to sneak up on your friends and eat them. is that not fun? A game where I can play a duck, that mad scientist from "Back to the Future, and a giant green alien? Why isn't this on a Nintendo DS or Playstation Portable right now?!

The poor Lynx was starved for action games. Heck, it was starved for any kind of game. What the heck were the Tramiels doing with their days? The original Atari freaks back in the '70s were far more productive with their time, and they were stoned off their asses.

Videogame Classics - Shanghai (1990)

Shanghai was Atari's excellent mahjong puzzler on the Lynx in early 1990. Activision had brought the game to computers in the late '80s, so this was already a well-known hit, and it was a great addition to the Lynx library.

Nintendo's Gameboy was selling like hotcakes on the back of Tetris, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. And Atari desperately needed something similar to compete, but games were too few and far between. You would think puzzle games would be falling from the sky, but no dice. Fortunately, the few puzzlers on the Lynx are quite excellent.

Still, only four puzzle games on the Lynx? Chip's Challenge, Shanghai, Klax, Crystal Mines 2 - that's it. True, the software library was small, downright embarrassing, around 100 titles. But you would think Atari would have released more puzzle games, which had to have been easy to design and develop. The production costs surely were cheaper than the big-name arcade games.

Ah, well. It's impossible to discuss the Atari Lynx without everything becoming shrowded in tragedy. It's the rock star who died young, and died foolishly. If only there were better management, if only the record label wasn't so grossly incompetent. If only Tetris hadn't happened, right there and then. There's nothing you can do but shrug your shoulders and go on living.

Anyway, Shanghai is an excellent tile puzzle game for the Lynx. It might even be the best. Two players can compete against one another, racing to removie the most tiles, I would guess. You have an impressive collection of tile formations to choose from, and they're randomized each game, promising a fresh challenge every time.

If I remember correctly, there was a Shanghai for the Gameboy. The Lynx version just stomped it to pieces. It's quite an embarassing fight, really, and you could imagine Atari taking advantage of the Lynx' sheer power to stomp Nintendo's handheld every step of the way. But that would require competence, some basic understanding of videogames and why they were popular with kids.

The Tramiels never knew what the hell they were doing. All Jack Tramiel and his sons knew was backstabbing, cutthroat politics. But that way of doing business only works when you're on top. Nintendo was on top. Commodore was on top. Atari was at the bottom. They never accepted that simple fact and it cost them dearly.

And so, one of the better Atari Lynx titles becomes a game of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Oh, and I have I mentioned that Shanghai is a really, really good puzzle game?

What else am I supposed to say? You match tiles, they float away, you keep going until you can't match any more or clear the board. The music is catchy, without being too annoying, which is a rare thing with Lynx games. And everything is in full color and looks wonderful. God bless the person who thought to zoom out the tiles so I could actually see what I'm doing.

If you decide to score a Lynx from Ebay (not a bad idea, really), then remember to get Shanghai. You'll have a great time.

P.S. I just remembered that Lynx had a fifth puzzle game, a matching tile puzzler named Ishido. It was almost instantly forgettable, and wouldn't hold your attention for five minutes. We'll just not bother counting it.

True Story

When I was in high school, I very nearly did this exact thing. Even had the boom box in my locker, ready to go. I was going to have the girl in question dance with me on the caffeteria tables. But I wussed out at the very last second. True story.

Bill Maher New Rules - May 1

This is always the highlight of my Saturday - catching up on the last night's Bill Maher.

He does bring up a good point about the Swine Flu. If you don't believe in evolution, how do you deal with this? "Strain-resistant virus?" Is that phrase just ignored? Or do you just pretend this is the latest liberal conspiracy theory? La, la, la, la....I can't hear you! You just don't like me! That's why you won't give me penicilin.....whaaah whaaah' you all hate George Bush!

Ahem. You get the idea.