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Sound Advice

10 CDs to put your mobile system through its paces

Be it cross country or simply across town, if you want to ensure that reaching all of life's destinations will indeed be half the fun, chances are you are looking for some quality travellin' tuneage. The following suggestions are recommended to not only accent your present car audio gear, but also help you decide how best to tweak and otherwise tweeze the most out of the often inhospitable and always unpredictable acoustic environs when goin' mobile. Here's some sound advice on a few CD titles guaranteed to make all of your journeys at the very least, sonically stimulating.

King Crimson, The Power To Believe (2003)
Sanctuary/DGM 06076-84585-2

King Crimson, Power To BelieveThis 21st Century schizoid band ain't your big brother's trippy prog rock combo. After over 30 years of consistently reinventing their own highly ingenious wheel, King Crimson — Adrian Belew (guitar/vocoder/vocals/lyrics), Robert Fripp (guitar), Trey Gunn (Warr guitar/fretless Warr guitar) and Pat Mastelotto (percussion) — have moved into an industrial park whose musical aggressions are more akin to Rammstein and Tool than Pink Floyd or the Moody Blues. The band worked with producer Machine — whose other notable clientele includes post-grunge heavies White Zombie and Pitchshifter — to create a raw, bare-knuckled and definitely in-your-face experience. If you are itching to test the sonic boundaries of your power amp or perhaps determining whether you might need to replace those cardboard cones that came with your auto's factory system, the Power To Believe can be an essential tool in gauging the parameters of your current set-up. Whether you crave the melodic thrash of tracks such as "Level Five" and "Elektrik", the alternately delicate and Beatle-esque balladry of "Eyes Wide Open" or the a capella "Power To Believe" haikus, this disc yields proof that there is positively life beyond dinosaur rock.

Muddy Waters, Folk Singer (1964)
Chess 1483/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 593

Few recordings have stood the test of time as faithfully as this epic. Not only is Folk Singer a primer for all enthusiasts of Chicago-style blues, but also because Muddy returns to his acoustic Delta roots. Even after nearly four decades, the audio on Folk Singer quite literally bursts forth thanks to the animated and distinct ambience of the Windy City's Tel Mar Recording Studio. For that reason alone, if you are wanting to analyze the intimacy and timbre of your automotive sound system, this is definitely a CD to consider. Joining the late great Muddy (guitar/vocals) is a cast of Chess Blues all stars, including Buddy Guy (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass), Clifton James (drums) and Otis Spann (piano). On cuts such as "Long Distance" and "My Home Is The Delta", Folk Singer will take your amplification system to the limit. Muddy's sublimely understated and lonesome vocals as well as the tangible warmth of Dixon's upright bass are exquisitely captured with immense clarity and detailed precision on this seminal blues recording.

Vesica Pisces, Halfway To Naked (2003)
Big 3 Records 049 836 752-2

This quartet adds a fresh and much needed blast of originality to the current Americana music scene. Their vibe lies somewhere between the sultry blues of Bonnie Raitt and the pure pop power of Sheryl Crow. Kelly Fitzgerald's (vocals) remarkable versatility and warmth provides a focal point for Vesica Pisces light and airy brand of Adult Contemporary rock. Legendary producer Jack Douglas — who has crafted the sound of everyone from John Lennon and Aerosmith to Patti Smith and the New York Dolls — emphasizes the band's clean and punchy presence. Highlights include the cover of Wayne Kramer's "No Easy Way Out", revealing their earthy acoustic side as it incinerates into an equally passionate full-throttle rocker. Vesica Pisces' originals offer a wide sonic pallet ranging from the tight, clean and crisp title track, "Halfway To Naked", to the darker and comparatively languid "Love Again." The bright and high-energy production will bring out the very best in even the most modest of automotive audio gear. However, a properly powered component speaker system will fully reveal this disc's true sonic range.

Frank Zappa, FZ OZ (2002)
Vaulternative Records VR 2002-1

This is the first of two vintage live sets on our list. In addition to the profound performance by the final line-up of the Mothers Of Invention, this two-disc archival release from January 20, 1976 features an austere and otherwise uncluttered stereo soundboard recording that will quite literally put you in the driver's seat. The wide stereo soundscape accurately replicates the warm ambiance of the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney, Australia with stunning accuracy. Joining Zappa (guitar/vocals) in this ultimate version of the Mothers are Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax/vocals), André Lewis (keyboards/vocals), original Mother Roy Estrada (bass/vocals) and Terry Bozzio (drums/vocal). This concert features a healthy sampling of sides from practically every era of the band. These range from the Freak Out! (1966) trilogy "How Could I Be Such A Fool", "I Ain't Got No Heart" and "I'm Not Satisfied" to a healthy sampling of concurrently new material, including the technically astounding instrumentals "Black Napkins" and "Zoot Allures". All the more remarkable to experience in the comfy confines of your car is Bozzio's 360° percussive assault at the conclusion of the quarter-hour long "Chunga's Revenge." You are there!

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Catch A Fire (Deluxe Edition) (2001)
Island/Tuff Gong 314 548 635-2

This double-disc set includes both the previously unissued "Jamaican" as well as the more familiar "released" version of Bob Marley & The Wailers major label debut. Without question, Catch A Fire effectively introduced the West to the wonderful world of reggae. These Rasta vibrations range from the viscous and undulating bass of Aston 'Family Man' Barrett to the sublime and angelic backing vocals by Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths. By comparison, the "Jamaican" sides are much more organic and reveal a decidedly subtle and earthy quality especially notable on the classics "Stir It Up", "Slave Driver" and "Stop That Train". Also included on the "Jamaican" Catch A Fire are the affective and lilting "High Tide Or Low Tide" as well as the laidback and easy-skankin' "All Day All Night" — neither of which were featured on the "released" album. The raw and unrefined sound of the Marley produced "Jamaican" disc, as well as the decidedly clean and instrumentally augmented "original" will give your speakers a thorough workout — as it alternately captures the warmth of the former as well as the crisp detail and sonic complexity of the latter. Of particular note is Barrett's bass, which will unquestionably reveal the best that your subwoofers have to offer.

Jacques Loussier Trio, Plays Debussy (2000)
Telarc CD-83511

No third stream jazz enthusiast should be without a handful of Jacque Loussier recordings in their collection. His sophisticated arrangements of works by Bach, Satie and Ravel have been lauded by classical as well as jazz enthusiasts. Loussier (piano) is joined by Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac (bass) and André Arpino (drums) on eight unique interpretations of music by Claude Debussy. The solemn intimacy of "Prelude a l'Apres-Midi d'Un Faune" as well as the hard swinging post-bop mastery fused into "L' isle Joyeuse", display not only Loussier's remarkable breadth and scope, but also his equally immense invention and wholly captivating elucidations of these timeless and lyrical compositions. This purely digital recording provides a flawless soundstage balancing a sonically supreme stereoscape with persuasive satiny smooth highs, uncannily realistic mid-range and palpitation-inducing subsonic lows. This is arguably the most audiophile-friendly title on our list and should be considered a vital entry when probing the limits and capabilities of any sound system — on or off the road.

Grateful Dead, Dick's Picks 28 (2003)
Grateful Dead Records GDCD 4048

This archival concert release is chosen for its realistic sonic presence as well as stellar musicianship. Ask most any Grateful Deadhead and they'll undoubtedly concur that the mid-1970s was an epic epoch for the band. Highlights from a pair of early 1973 performances — February 26th and 28th, respectively — have been culled for this outstanding four-disc volume. Audiences at the time were being concurrently treated to large doses of primal classics as well as new material. The instrumental infusion of Keith Godchaux (piano) — who effectively replaced the ailing Ron "Pigpen" McKernan — provided the Grateful Dead with a strong jazz-flavored synergy. Nowhere is this more evident than the simultaneously free-form and aggressive interaction on the well-jammed-out "Playing In The Band" or the nearly hour-long continuum featuring a medley connecting "Dark Star," "Eyes Of The World," and "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo." Of particular note are the engineering and mastering efforts of Jeffrey Norman. He claims the overwhelmingly accurate stereo image and authentic venue acoustics are due in part to maintaining a clean audio chain linking vintage playback gear to HDCD analog-to-digital signal conversion. The end results yield audible evidence that newer isn't always better when it comes to aural accuracy. If you ever wondered what it was like to hear the Grateful Dead during their prime from the front row, now you can easily find out.

Jane's Addiction, Nothing's Shocking (1988)
Warner Bros. 25727-2

You certainly don't have to be a Goth rocker or into alternative metal to benefit from the power and majesty of this landmark release. Rock and roll fans of every dimension and leaning rave about the album's eclectic spectrum of moods and textures. Nothing Shocking is nothing short of a psychologically schizophrenic roller coaster ride. The trek commences across the pulsating noir of the primarily instrumental opener "Up The Beach," through the lethargic terror of "Ted, Just Admit It" and the sensual psychedelia of "Summertime Rolls". Along the way is the Dadaist diversion "Thank You Boys" as well as the straight ahead angst-ridden rockers "Pigs In Zen" and "Ocean Size". Enthusiasts who can brave the band's 'take no prisoners' full-frontal sonic assail are treated to one of the best-produced albums of the past two decades. When Perry Farrell screams in your face — you can almost smell what he had for lunch. A well-tuned system will enhance the experience of the various sonic scenarios and with the implementation of adequate amplification, your speakers will be guaranteed accurate reproduction of the instantaneous contrasts in both timbre and decibel level.

Art Blakey/Thelonious Monk, Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (1958)
Atlantic SD-1278

With over four decades since these recordings were made, it is amazing what an animated presence they still retain. One primary reason this specific title was chosen here is the extensive array of well defined instrumentation. The juxtaposition of Johnny Griffin's (tenor sax) robust reed work to Thelonious Monk's (piano) emphatic interjections — especially during "In Walked Bud" or "Rhythm-A-Ning" — can be precisely deciphered by keen-eared listeners whose passions are fueled by a meticulous soundstage and accurate reproduction. Couple that with the environmental challenges inherent in listening to anything at 60 mph and the almost compulsory need for a component speaker system is immediately evident. The same can be said for the incorporation of either an outboard or your amplifier's own built-in crossover — which will allow for the precision frequency separation needed to fully appreciate the subtle, yet sonically significant overtones and instrumental interplay.

Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Cooking Vinyl/SpinART SPART 126

String master and guitar wunderkind Richard Thompson (guitars/mandolin/accordion/dulcimer/harmonium) heads up a trio featuring the respective talents of Danny Thompson (double bass) and Michael Jerome (percussion/drums/backing vocals). What appears to be a skeletal crew copiously orchestrate the dozen sides which are aptly depicted on the rear cover as "Unguents. Fig Leaves and Tourniquets For The Soul." Indeed, Thompson is able to reach into his Old Kit Bag of musical tricks and recapture the spirit and verve of his most endearing works. The acoustic instrumentation and traditional Gaelic influence of "One Door Opens" hearkens back to his days as a founding member of Fairport Convention. The soulful and languid blues "I've Got No Right To Have It All" further demonstrates Thompson's versatility as an interpretive instrumentalist as well as bandleader. Like the personnel, the production on this disc is both sparse and direct. The contrast between the acoustic introspection of tracks such as "A Love You Can't Survive" and the amped up "She Said It Was Destiny" or "Pearly Jim" will likewise provide an ample variety of textures to evaluate and assess your current setup.

Seeing as how you know better than anyone the tunes that will most inspire you, a final suggestion is to take your own compilation to the streets. Be creative and surprise yourself as well as your fellow passengers with blasts from the past, recent releases from friends — old and new — as well as live recordings of your favorite artists. Every road trip can become a personal sonic sojourn if you've got the proper travellin' tunes.

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