Saturday, June 25, 2016

JVC HA-S160-AA Compact Headphones Review

I was in a jam before a long flight as my headphones had broken and I needed to pick up something cheap so I could listen to my music (and write a few more reviews). So, at the electronics store near my hotel I grabbed a pair of JVC HA-S160-AA compact headphones out of the bargain bin. For 1,360 Yen (about 13 bucks), how could I go wrong?

For starters, the phones came in one of those plastic capsules that in the United States are nearly impossible to get into without a knife. Apparently there are not the same security concerns in Japan, as it was simply folded together instead of being melted together. So, things got off to a good start!

These are compact headphones that fold flat and take up very little space. To make them this flat, they are on-ear headphones, and as such they do not weigh very much, only 66 grams (a little under 2.5 ounces). I did not have any problems with the stainless headband snagging my hair, and there was not much tension so they are comfortable to wear for extended periods. The cord is long enough for portable device use (1.2 meters, or 4 feet), but would not be good for many other applications. It was surprising to see a doubled cord as most everything I see now has a single cord. It has an 1/8-inch jack (3.5mm), and no ¼-inch adapter is included.

With no burn-in period I put these cans to use immediately for a 3 hour train ride and a 10-hour flight. They were used with both my MacBook Pro and an iPod Nano, and with 32 ohms of resistance they were plenty loud enough to overcome all of the vehicle noise that was encountered (spec is 103dB / 1mW). Frequency response is ambitiously listed as 12Hz to 24kHz, and maybe in a sound chamber somewhere they can provide that much bass, but they were sadly lacking when playing the blues and rock music I usually listen to – more on this in a minute. For hip-hop and rap they would most definitely be terrible.

The only problems I encountered with these phone were that they were just not quite tight enough, even on my enormous head. There was a lot of sound leakage, to the point where I was self-conscious that I might disturb other passengers so I kept the volume to a minimum. I think this leakage also contributed to a reduction is bass sound. Other than that, they have a clean sound, with no equalization issues that made my music sound odd. As Krusty the Klown would say: “They are not just good, they are good enough!”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

La Patrie Etude Acoustic Guitar Review

Aloha!

Today we are looking at a nice La Patrie Etude model classical-style acoustic guitar that I picked up at my local flea market. La Patrie is an offshoot of the Godin family of guitars and their instruments are made in LaPatrie Quebec. I think Canada may have more luthiers than lumberjacks. Maybe. I have owned a few of their instruments in the past, and came away mostly impressed with what they have to offer.

When I first picked up this guitar, I was impressed by the sound and, and even more by the seller’s asking price, which was right about as low as you can for any new guitar, and it is certainly more playable than many entry level instruments. The condition was good with no cracks or repairs, no fret wear, and some scratches on the top from exuberant playing. It also came with a hard case, so it had to come home with me!

The Etude is a pleasant-looking guitar, with a solid cedar top, and wild cherry (play that funky music) back and sides, which is probably a laminate. The finish is sort of a semi-gloss lacquer, and the body has a simple binding around the top and back. It is not too big, measuring 11 inches at the upper bout, 15 inches at the lower bout, and it is around 4 inches deep. On the downside, the rosette looks a little cheap and the cedar top is very prone to scratching and dings, but it is what it is.

Mahogany is used for the neck, with a rosewood fretboard and headstock front laminate, and it appears to have the same satin finish as the body. There is a dual-action trussrod in the neck (gasp!), which allows for a little thinner profile, so it is more comfortable to me than other classical guitars, despite the standard 2-inch wide nut. 19 medium frets are sunk into the fretboard, and they are level with nice edges.

For this guitar, Godin specified black and gold lyre tuners that look kind of funny, but are of barely acceptable quality and hold kind of well. They also gave it first-rate Tusq (by Graphtech) synthetic bone nut and bridge saddles, and a rosewood bridge. Oh yes, and It is nice and light, weighing in at around 3 pounds, 9 ounces according to my scale. The seller threw in a hard case that is uglier than sin on the outside, but quite beautiful on the inside. Bonus!

So, in my opinion, this Etude is a nicely made guitar with no weak points thanks to its solid materials and good craftsmanship. It sounds good and plays well with a sweet and balanced tone. It is has of impressive volume when played hard, and has a nice low-end. It is pleasant to play, and would be a great first guitar, which was my intention when I bought it. I usually try to keep a few nice starter guitars around to loan or sell to friends that are looking to get into playing their own music.

When it come to purchasing a La Patrie Etude, used is the only way to go. MSRP on these is a $524, with a street price of about $399 (with no case), but they sell all day long on the used market for $100 to $150, often with a hard case. It is hard to go wrong for that kind of money - if you get the chance, try one out for yourself!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Eliza Neals – Breaking and Entering | Album Review

Eliza Neals – Breaking and Entering | Album Review

Self Release

www.elizaneals.com

12 tracks / 51:08

Sometimes a new album gets misplaced on my desk, and it takes me way too long to get around to reviewing it. This happened with Eliza Neals’ Breaking and Entering, which is a damned shame as this Detroit diva really delivers the goods with this disc of hard-hitting original blues-rock.

Eliza has all the right pieces for success. Her voice which is often compared to Janis Joplin, but I disagree and assert that she has found her own sound and a style that takes the phrase “high energy” to new levels. Her passion and power are so intense that it would be hard for you to find her equal. She is also an incredible songwriter who has managed to earn both the rock and blues songwriting awards from the Detroit Blues Society. Neals wrote eleven of the twelve songs on this release, with co-writing credit for some of the tunes going out to fellow Detroit blues hero Howard Glazer, who brought his axes into the studio for this project.

Eliza kicks off the set with “Detroit Drive” which features Glazer on the Dobro and Erik Maluchnik pounding out the beat on the kick drum. Neals shows a lot of versatility here as she is able to take the vocals from soft to loud at will, while maintaining an edge throughout. This basic acoustic blues provides a cool contrast with the heavy electric blues-rock that is found through much of this record.

This is followed up by the title track, which is the standout song from this disc. “Breaking and Entering” is seven minutes of guitar-fueled awesomeness, and Eliza howls the lyrics with her amazing vocal skills. Paul Randolph on bass and Tim Grogan behind the drum kit hold down the backline on this 1970s AOR epic piece of pychedelia. Glazer and Neals battle it out for who gets to be in the foreground of the sonic stage, and this contest ends up as a draw.

The sole cover is “Sugar Daddy,” a sweet piece of northern soul that was written by fellow Detroiter Barrett Strong. Neals pulls off a more than respectable smooth Motown sound, accompanied by backing vocals from Lizz Kristi, a heavy lead guitar from Shane Visbal, and B3 from Tyrone Smith. This song is completely different than everything else on Breaking and Entering, and it provides for an interesting break.

The album finishes off with a radio edit of “Breaking and Entering” (with a more accessible 4 ½ minute run time), but the real end of the set is “Spinning.” This slowly grinding song uses Glazer’s heavily distorted guitar for the introduction then Eliza tears into the lyrics with a few layers of her distinctive voice. This bare-bones guitar and voice is really the essence of what Neals is all about – in the end it all comes down to the song, doesn't it?

Breaking and Entering is a fabulous effort from Eliza Neals, as it is well-performed and there is not a bad song to be found. She brought a great group of musicians together in the studio (14 in all), and they pulled off a lot of magic with their hard work. Check it out for yourself, and do not make the mistake of misplacing this disc!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ibanez SR500 SR500BM Soundgear Bass Guitar Review

Hiya!

Soundgear basses have been a part of the Ibanez line-up for a long time, and I have always been taken by their appearance, which includes features like the asymmetrical headstock, oval fretboard inlays, and the carved body which its phallic upper horn. But, until now I have never had the chance to spend much time with one. So, here are my thoughts on the SR500 Soundgear bass (model SR500BM), now that I have had the opportunity to take one for an extended test drive.

This Soundgear bass is not an entry level bass, and falls in with the crowd of lower priced basses that have a lot of features for not much dough. The body is made of mahogany, and it is sprayed with clear urethane finish. The five-piece jatoba (huh?) and bubinga neck has a really cool joint at the body that helps it bolt on solidly and still provide good access to the upper frets. Like anybody really plays up there. There are 24 medium frets set into the rosewood fretboard on this 34-inch scale neck, and there is a 12-inch radius and a narrow nut that is a touch under 1.5 inches.

The electronics package is very good for a bass in this price range, featuring a pair of Bartolini MK1 humbuckers and a EQB-IIIS pre-amp. They are wired up through a 3-band EQ with volume and balance knobs, as well as a mid shift switch. Rounding out the specs, the hardware includes a beefy bridge and sealed tuners.

Ibanez had this SR500 built in Indonesia, and the folks there did a great job of putting it together. The neck joint could not be tighter, the finish is even, and the fret work is good with no sharp edges or uneven fret heights. The one I tests was new and straight out of the box, and it only took a ¼ turn of the trussrod to get the string height where I liked it, and intonation was ok, so this was one of the shortest set-ups on record. It came set up with some sort of 0.045 to 0.105 roundwound strings, which are a good match for the tone and touch of this instrument.

This craftsmanship combines with the materials to make for a really good instrument. This one plays very smoothly with a comfortable (and fast) neck and good ergonomics. The electronics package is versatile, and there are a lot of very usable rock, jazz, and metal tones that can be coaxed from it. It can be smooth or growly, and everywhere in between.

Oh, and I left one of the best parts for last – the SR500 will not break your back by any stretch of the imagination. The bass we are looking at here weighs in at 6 pounds, 13 ounces, which is about 4 pounds less than my Les Paul. Not bad!

The Ibanez SR500 Soundgear Bass is a versatile instrument that plays well and sounds good, and it is not super-expensive, either. These basses have a street price of $599.99 with no case (list $799.99), but I see them on closeout fairly often, and used ones do not seem to hold their value terribly well, so you might be better off watching Craigslist and eBay for a deal, as they come up pretty often. Check one out for yourself and see it is your cup of tea – you might be surprised.

Mahalo!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Chad Strentz – Shake-Down

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the January 15, 2015 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

Chad Strentz – Shake-Down | Album Review

Tree House 44 Limited Records

www.chadstrentz.com

www.treehouse44.com

15 tracks / 59:07

Chad Strentz is one of the hardest working frontmen in the British blues scene, and you may be familiar with his work with Paul Lamb and the King Snakes, who has earned numerous British Blues Awards, including UK’s Best Blues Band. He has music deep down in his soul, having started playing guitar and singing in his early teens while taking inspiration from all the right artists: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Big Boy Crudup, and Bo Diddley, to name just a few. After gaining a firm foundation in rockabilly, he dove deep into the blues that he practices each day, both with the King Snakes and his own band, the Chad-illacs.

After decades of touring and recording, it is amazing that Chad had not cut a disc of his own before now. Shake-Down is Strentz’s debut album, and it was recorded in only three days at drummer/producer Mike Thorne’s Rimshot Studios in the English countryside. Chad and Mike were joined by a group of excellent musicians from all over Europe, including Jim Leverton on electric bass, Pete Pritchard on double bass, Christian Rannenberg on piano, and Raphael Wressnig on the Hammond C-3. Jimmy Reiter and Kai Strauss shared electric guitar duties and British acoustic blues guitar giant Danny Kyle sat in on this session as well, which is a real treat!

This disc clicks in at just under an hour, and it includes 15 tracks that are made up of eight Strentz-penned originals and seven really cool covers from some of the artists that have inspired him. Listening to his own songs, it is obvious that Chad is not just a gifted singer, but also a very talented songwriter that has a good feel for American music. The title track kicks things off with up-tempo 1960s soul that has plenty of organ and razor-sharp vocals from Strentz, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album.

After this first song, it is apparent that Shake-Down has a raw and vibrant feel, which is intentional as it was decided to record it live with few (if any) overdubs, and with only tube amplifiers and analog recording equipment. Strentz wanted to honor the music he listened to as a youth by recreating its sound and vibe as genuinely as possible, and it all came together beautifully.

This tribute continues over to his choice of cover songs, as well. These include Ray Charles’ “Hard Times,” “Hey Porter” from Johnny Cash, and the jazz standard “Paper Moon,” complete with boogie-woogie piano and a healthy dose of carnival organ laid over the top of it. On the more obscure side of things are Cowboy Jack Clements’ “It’ll Be Me” and Clarence Carter’s “Someone You Use,” which you may remember from Vonda Shepard’s Ally McBeal soundtrack recording. But the strongest of these is the most pared down: a gorgeous remake of the Miracles’ “Tracks of my Tears.” Chad does an admirable job of living up to Smokey Robinson’s original lyrical style, accompanied solely by Kyle’s subtle acoustic picking.

But Strentz’s originals should not be discounted, as they take the listener on an interesting journey through different American music genres. He throws out a couple of serious shuffles, “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and Street Shuffle,” as well as a little boogie on “Gone for Good” that features killer piano work from Christian Rannenberg. Things really shine when Chad focuses on his influences, such as the rockabilly of “Cardboard Street,” or when he channels his inner Johnny Cash for “So Much Time.”

The set ends with a favorite, “Always on My Mind,” one of the most-covered songs ever (and rightfully so). Though Willie Nelson did a bang-up job with it, the Elvis Presley version defines this song and that is exactly where Chad went with it. The highlight is when Wressnig lays down a sweet Hammond organ break that fits perfectly with the emotional timbre in Strentz’s voice. Please note that if you are patient, after this song ends there is a killer hidden vocal/acoustic howling blues song that should not be missed.

Shake-Down from Chad Strentz is a winner, with 15 solid tracks that are an enjoyable mixtures of blues, soul, and the foundations of rock and roll. His decades of performing and recording have taught him how to do things right in the studio, and it is apparent in this release. Check out a copy for yourself, and see if you agree!

Mahalo!

Friday, June 10, 2016

1980 Yamaha Pulser Bass 600 Review

Aloha!

By now you may know that I have a deep fondness for eccentric Japanese guitars and basses, and today we are looking at yet another lawsuit-era bass: a 1980 Yamaha Pulser Bass 600, a faithful and unabashed copy of a 1970s era Fender Precision Bass.

This bass is in great shape and seems to have been spared the indignity of ill-advised and unnecessary modifications over the years, which is a real bonus for me. Things are only original once, you know.

This one has a contoured P body and it is hard to tell from the grain, but it is probably Sen, an ash-like wood from Asia. It was sprayed with a stunning 3-tone sunburst with a subtle red in it, and a 3-ply faux tortoise shell guard is installed. There was a thumb rest and a couple of pickup / bridge covers installed at one point, but they are long gone.

This Yamaha’s 4-bolt maple neck has a nice thick layer of poly on it, and it is still in excellent shape, front and back. The 20 (king of fat) fat frets are still in great shape, with a little bit of wear. It has the typical 1 5/8” P width nut (plastic), but the neck is not overly chunky. I would call it a medium profile C shape. The truss rod adjusts at the heel, and it still turns easily.

The Pulser Bass headstock shape is an exact copy of one that would be found on a Precision Bass, and their logo even is styled to resemble Fender’s. The small print on this one reads: “Nippon Gakki Co. LTD, Made in Japan, Since 1887”

The hardware is very good for a middle of the price range instrument. The non-reverse machine heads are 4-screw open-gear pieces that look like Fender tuners, and the bridge is a pretty thick copy of a 5-screw Fender unit. The chrome is not flaking on any of these parts (or the knobs), which is unusual for Japanese instruments of this era.

The pickup and electronics are original to the bass. There is not much to say about them except that they are exactly what you would expect – a split coil pickup with volume and tone pots. It sounds very good and beefy, with no untoward noises or humming.

This Pulser Bass is not terrible heavy, coming in a bit over 8 ½ pounds according to my digital scale. It is pretty easy on the back, not to mention the eyes. And it is very attractive -- it is in very good overall condition, particularly when you consider it is 36 years old. The finish does not have very many blemishes and it still shiny – it has not been abused. There only distraction is the blemish on the headstock, which could be a crooked cigarette burn or maybe impact damage. It adds character, I think…

It is a good playing bass with no buzzing and a low action. The pickup has strong output (hotter than its contemporary Fenders, and there is no buzzing or static. I play P basses with the controls dimed, and this one really makes my Genz Shuttle bark (in a good way). I like it a lot, so I might try to keep it around for a while.

By the way, since this bass has the “600” designation, this is an indication of what the original price was, which in this case would be 60,000 Yen. This would have been around $271.50 in 1980 when this bass was built. Hopefully this helps illustrate why these basses were such a threat to Fender – the Pulser Bass was a lot of instrument for the money at the time, and Fenders of that era were simply terrible.

It is hard to place a value on the Yamaha Pulser Basses as there are very few of them in the states, and this is the first one I have ever seen in person (I bought it at a secondhand store in Japan). But, judging from a sample of one, they are reasonable priced and are fantastic instruments. If you get the chance to buy one, jump on it!

Mahalo!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: AC Myles – Reconsider Me

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the January 8, 2015 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com

AC Myles – Reconsider Me | Album Review

Self Release

www.acmyles.com

11 tracks / 41:48

Fresno, California does not get as much publicity as its two big neighbors, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but it is a cool city that helps support one of the largest agricultural areas in the United States. You may not think that there is a lot of blues music going on there, but with half a million people there are plenty of blues enthusiasts to be found. In fact, guitarist and singer AC Myles grew up in Fresno, and he is a fine representative of the town!

AC Myles has a fine pedigree; after touring with his own band as a young man he ended up in San Francisco where he found work as a sideman for killer acts such as Fillmore Slim and Joe Nemeth. This experience honed his performance skills and helped him develop his own brand of blues chops on both guitars and vocals. For his debut album, Reconsider Me, he hooked up with the legendary Kid Andersen, who produced this project as well as recording and mastering it at his Greaseland Records in San Jose, California. Things happened quickly, as they only had to spend two days in the studio, which gives this disc a righteously vibrant feel!

This album is made up of eleven tracks that include four of Myles’ originals and seven special covers. These were not culled from usual list that other artists choose from, as he mostly picked songs that were from some of the artists he has worked with over the years. For this project, AC took on the lead vocals and guitars, and he was joined by Derrick Martin behind the drum kit, Nate Ginsberg on the keyboards, Lisa Andersen with the backing vocals, Endre Tarczy on bass and keys, and Kid Andersen with the rhythm guitar and keyboards.

Things start off with a tight soul tune written by Fenton Robinson, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and one thing is for sure: Myles has a fabulous voice. He stays in tune across his impressive range, and his vocals have an honest inflection and character that bring the words to life. Next up is Rory Gallagher’s “Do You Read Me,” which is an ambitious undertaking as Gallagher was a true guitar hero. AC fills the role well, and this turns into a roaring blues rocker with blazing guitars, a thumping bass line, and awesome organ accents. This is one of the top tracks on the album, without a doubt.

After stirring rock with a little gospel in Elvin Bishop’s “Rock My Soul,” the band takes on the title track from Johnny Adams. “Reconsider Me” features some jaw-dropping falsetto, and extra cool roadhouse piano over the solid foundation of Tarczy’s bass and Martin’s drums. This duo also sets up Roman Carter’s 1965 classic, “Queen Bee,” for Myles’ best James Brown imitation.

The most pure blues tune on Reconsider Me is “Death Bed Blues,” which was penned by Myles. His lead guitar has a super-clean tone in this 12-bar Chicago-style tune, and Andersen backs him up well. The slow tempo creates tension for the classic low-down lyrical themes that are sung with emotion and gusto.

AC laid down two very strong original rockers, “Call ‘em All Baby” and “Three Ways to Fall,” and then the set ends with Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday.” But, this time it a Fillmore Slim arrangement with funky wah-wah rhythm guitar and 1970s-issue electric piano. Myles digs deep (and even wails a bit) for this closer, leaving things on a happy note.

If there were anything that is missing with this release, it would be more of AC’s own material. Myles’ career has advanced to the point where his fans would surely like to hear a more personal take on his music. He is a fantastic singer, guitarist, and arranger, so surely he can perform whatever thoughts he puts down on paper and make them work.

It is true that AC Myles has talent galore, and Reconsider Me proves it on every track. This is a solid album of soulful rhythm and blues that is expressed with his own style thanks to his years of experience. Check it out, and we should all hope that he starts working on a follow-up soon!

Mahalo!