Musicians bring in the backup singer who’s often technically more gifted than the lead singer in the band, and she never gets enough credit.
The canonical example is “The Great Gig in the Sky” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The song wouldn’t exist without Clare Torry’s wordless vocals, and “The members of the band were deeply impressed by Torry’s performance but did not tell her this, and she left the studio, with a standard £30 flat fee, under the impression that her vocals would not make the final cut.” She finally got co-writing credit 32 years later.
Another killer example is the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, where Merry Clayton sings/screams “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!” The decent documentary 20 Feet from Stardom covers her and some other “backup” singers; here are some other songs that wouldn’t be so memorable without the female singer.
Boz Scaggs “Miss Sun”: 2:30 into the song Lisa Dalbello delivers a thrilling “Ooooh, Oh-oh yeah yeah!”, then they hand the song over to her for the last two minutes. So damn good. It turns out Toto recorded the song years earlier as a demo, and Lisa Dalbello sang a similar great part then as well.
ABC “Poison Arrow”. Martin Fry: “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care.” Karen Clayton: “I care enough to know I can never love you.” Then the drum kit gets kicked down the stairs along with Fry’s shattered ego. One of the peaks of Trevor Horn’s gigantic productions.
Heaven 17 “Temptation” Glenn Gregory lets Carol Kenyan take the lead on the choruses, and it builds and builds. When she unleashes “But it’s a million to one shot!” it’s electrifying. Heaven 17 also had Josie James sing great vocals on “Penthouse and Pavement”: “Here comes the daylight, here comes my job / Uptown in the penthouse or downtown with the mob”.
O.C. Smith “Together”: After some lovely unison singing, O.C. Smith asks: “Together we make it go, don’t we baby?” Carol Carmichael answers: “Yes we do”. I thought this was the sexiest Q&A ever on a song until…
The System “Don’t Disturb this Groove”. Mic Murphy: “Ooh, baby just lock the door and turn the phone off / It’s time, it’s time for me and you / Are you ready?” The music drops away for her: “Yeahsss”, then there’s a pause where he can’t believe his luck – THIS IS HAPPENING!. Simply orgasmic. Her line might be spoken by the great B.J. Nelson, who sang incomparable vocals on Scritti Politti tracks like “A Little Knowledge”.
Related: Tears for Fears handing over “Badman’s Song” and “Woman in Chains” to Oleta Adams on The Seeds of Love, although she was never a backup singer.
I’ve been looking for something better than my little Jambox desktop speaker for years (here and here). After reading a glowing review of the KEF LS60 floor-standing active wireless speakers, I realized its baby siblings have the same do-everything connectivity in their Mark II guise (Bluetooth, USB, Google Chromecast, Roon, 3.5 mm aux in, optical in, even HDMI from a TV). The mighty LS50 bookshelf speakers seems amazing (I considered it back in 2017) but weigh 20 kg (44 lbs) a set, a bit much for my desk and $2,800 is a lot for casual listening. The LSX II is lighter (only 7.2 kg/16 lbs a set) and a friend likes them; when I found KEF USA offering a special deal of the LSX II with the Kube8b subwoofer for only $1,750 I pulled the trigger on a snazzy blue pair. The speakers were the same price at Amazon and Crutchfield had the same combo offer., so I ordered direct.
Shipping was free but KEF are too cheap to pay for “signature required” and UPS just left them on my doorstep; I was lucky I was home otherwise someone would have stolen two clearly labeled boxes of valuable electronics! I plugged them and the subwoofer in to power outlets (it would be cool to have a single custom power cord with a tail for each unit), linked the left and right speakers with the supplied and optional Ethernet cable, and found an RCA cable to plug in the subwoofer. The KEF app told me to set up in Google Home, and bam I can Chromecast YouTube music to the system (and Roon recognized it as a endpoint)
It wasn’t quite that simple. When I set up an account at KEF, the confirmation e-mail provided a link to a broken page with nothing but a red ‘X’ and various errors in Firefox, even after I turned off ad blocking; after a few goes in chromium it worked. And neither the LSX II instructions on paper nor the KEF app told me how to connect KEF’s own subwoofer. And I was unable to get Bluetooth in a couple of tries (just as a test, because normally I’ll use my phone to tell Chromecast or Roon to play through the speakers)
Not used to subwoofing
The KEF app in basic mode lets you specify the speakers’ setup: desk mode, distance from the front edge, distance from the walls, how lively and large the room is. The sliders are weird, they don’t show many gradations. You can tell it you have the Kube8b subwoofer, it tells you how to set the subwoofer’s physical knobs, and then there are confusing sliders in the app for speaker-subwoofer balance and subwoofer output.
Apart from various 2.1 computer speaker systems, I’ve never had a subwoofer. I know my door-sized Magneplanar 3.6Rs are light on bass, but how much bass am I supposed to be hearing? Without a separate subwoofer to adjust you don’t worry and the mark of a quality stereo is the absence of tone controls, which I miss about 0.1% of the time; I just enjoy the startling clarity of the Magneplanar sound. But with a system including a subwoofer I now have to guess how prominent the bass should be: how much bass the musicians were assaulted by in the recording studio, adjusted by how much bass I want to hear. To start I dragged the app’s balance towards the subwoofer and set its subwoofer output on maximum. A whole lot of muffled bass sounds going into the floor! It’s OK when I’m in front of the speakers enjoying the treble, but at a distance the treble doesn’t carry and the low bass is too much, so I backed the knobs off. The Kube8b is OK for my desk area, but is probably woefully inadequate for our entire office/kitchen/dining space with Markoff-Fullerton’s beautiful highceiling
So the sound…
I need desk stands (KEF charges a high $200 for aluminum stands but there are cheaper ones on Etsy) and more tweaking, but damn right away the mids and midbass are 😘. 30 seconds into his version of “Tuesday Heartbreak” and I need to make love with Michael McDonald.
Where to point them
The problem is I have four places I could set them up: on my desk as extreme computer speakers, facing my office area, flipped to put sound into the kitchen and dining area, and as TV speakers (since I never did set up a TV multimedia system). For three of those the subwoofer doesn’t have to move, but it’s fiddly to move the speakers around. I knew I would have this problem which is why I spent years hoping to find a single-box solution. One answer would be to buy three more systems…
Imma let you finish, but 6:35 into “Badman’s Song” Pino Palladino unleashes the epic bass fill OF ALL TIME 🤯🔥.
I’ve listened to Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love dozens of times and somehow missed it amongst the piano and drums fireworks (Oleta Adams and Manu Katché 😍), until someone pointed it out in comments on a video about another extraordinary run that Palladino dropped on John Mayer’s “Who Do You Think I Was” (How PINO PALLADINO played the PERFECT bass fill). In my defense, it’s two understated seconds in the mix and overshadowed by all the other sterling musicianship on this big album (“Its lengthy production and scrapped recording sessions cost over £1 million” – Wikipedia). I’m gonna need a bigger woofer 🔊 for this and Jaco Pastorius on “Havona”.
I got a notice from the Department of Internet Money that I risk losing the skierpage domain if I only ski once a season, so despite a poorly elderly dog we drove the (relative) backroads to Kirkwood, a return after 30 years. Past industrial cherry orchards, the smallish Tesla Megapack factory in Lathrop (“expected to produce 40 GWh of battery systems annually” to provide a few hours of power to the grid after the sun goes down or the wind isn’t blowing), vineyards, and the gold rush town of Jackson (where Mel and Faye’s Diner has 5 recent pinball machines in perfect condition).
Kirkwood, the least Vail-like resort in the Epic system
Kirkwood was ridiculously chill, probably less than 200 people on the slopes. Most things were closed including the ski school and the Timber Creek beginner area. The backside (really the side-side) was only open Fri-Sun 😢.
One irritation is we bought 3-day passes at Kirkwood for $306 per adult ($102/day), but an Epic day pass granting one three days at Kirkwood, and 31 other resorts, and bigger discounts on ski rental, was only $223 ($74/day). That’s still a lot for five chairlifts, only one a fast detachable quad.
A lot of snow
I was in Tahoe for 2010-2011’s mammoth snow year (810 inches – 67 feet! – of snow at Squ— uhh, Palisades Tahoe), but this season was still impressive. The US West was one of the few places on Earth that had a cooler than normal winter, and it snowed and snowed. The garage in the picture is below grade but look at how high that snow bank extends: we heard the faint wails of people who have been trapped in the ground floor units for months.
As a result of all the snow, double black-diamond ◆◆ routes like “THE WALL” (normally an intense 8-foot drop-in) were mellow snow fields. Skiing the cream on great all-mountain skis (the Völkl M6 Mantra, the Blizzard Black Pearl for shred Betty) was a pleasurable echo of making turns in powder.
Banked trench madness
We saw an intriguing ‘S’ shape cut into the snow in the distance and skied over to it. It was a ridiculously tight channel with banked walls. I tried skiing it and immediately was out of control, unable to slow down, and had to fly out. A lift operator said it was from a banked slalom contest earlier in the season, but Kirkwood’s Annual Banked Slalom “held in Snow Snake Gully” seems different, way bigger turns in a wide gully lower down that was fun and fairly easy to ski.
I tried to improve my carving. I learned to do true carves by making railroad tracks on the Mountain Run at Palisades Tahoe: “just” pull up on a big toe+little toe pair to put both skis on edge, and hold it as your skis start to turn. You can either wiggle side-to-side or blast into huge radius turns. Fun, but it meant I never got used to being in extreme extension carved position with hip and knuckles dragging in the snow like the Giant Slalom champ and turn genius Ted Ligety (this New York Times video segment is sensational); and I never learned to punch into carved turns on steeper slopes. So I watched a bunch of YouTube videos that purported to teach carving; many were promoting the CARV bluetooth footplates (??!), many went on and on about the position you need to be in without giving any drills to get into that position; many gave useless techno-spiel advice like “straighten the new outside leg to apply pressure early in the turn and keep moving your Center of Mass down the hill.” Arggh. I found a fewdrills that helped a little, and I think I got a little better.
In the old days you would hear “Runaway ski!” with some 204cm missile hurtling down the slope. Now ski brakes pop out to slow down skis that come off, but when shred Betty launches a ski like a javelin down a steep slope in a patented “ass over teakettle” maneuver, it can take a while. Sideslipping down a steep ungroomed slope on one ski is a great drill…
These people are wandering in and around the International Space Station, reaching out to various glowing orbs that show brief immersive videos filmed at that location of the actual astronauts working and talking. The way the VR presents the other patrons as shimmering volumes so you see but don’t see them, and the floating video cameras that suggest where to look are so well-done. Then you watch a spacewalk in VR and it’s genuinely tense and eerie like the movie “Gravity” to watch people working in free-fall around the Earth at 7.66 km/s (17,000 miles per hour): one slip and they’ll drift away beyond rescue. Then in real life you enjoy some immersive middling artworks. The exhibit seems to be on tour, so if you get a chance to see it, GO! I think it would be pretty good to just see it at home alone with a VR headset, moving between each glowing orb with a controller; but the experience of walking around with another disembodied person and “3-2-1 touch” to simultaneously view each VR movie is quite special.
The International Space Station
The ISS is one of the singular achievements of humanity. As Peter Schjeldahl (RIP) wrote in the New Yorker about Richard Serra’s triumphs of metal sculpture, “Serra conserves a battered modernist confidence in the collective genius of experts, a priestly class that confers meaning and direction on society.” In this case, engineers built a technology stack with extraordinary care and dedication (and ~$100 billion) that lofted 420,000 kilograms of stuff into low Earth orbit so a handful of people can live and work 400 km (250 miles) above the Earth. Humanity CAN do great things.
When I bought my Pixel 3 I was happy to spring for Google’s Daydream View headset and controller. I like videogames, I’ve enjoyed most of the VR experiences I’ve seen outside the house. But even though I enjoyed tossing things into a lake and exploring the Taj Mahal, I only ever used it twice. Every time I read about a cool VR artwork or experience I meant to take it off the shelf, recharge the headset and controller, put my phone in the headset and strap it on my head, calibrate it, then enjoy an immersive world. But I didn’t, and of course Google canceled it.
Jimmy Fallon: Welcome welcome to the Tonight Show. Tonight we’re so honored. This season she surpassed the great Lindsey Vonn and the legendary Ingemar Stenmark with EIGHTY-SEVEN World Cup wins to stand alone as the G.O.A.T., the greatest alpine skier of all time, our friend MIKAELA SHIFFRIN!
A group of oiled scantily-clad muscular men and women wearing ski boots raise ski poles to form an archway, through which another group carry a palanquin made out of skis, on which resides Mikaela Shiffrin. They lower it and she steps off as more acolytes toss glittering snow and a couple of goats with cowbells walk around.
Jimmy Fallon: Welcome. What a season. You were overall World Cup champion for the fifth time and you’re the winning-est ever. How are you doing? Have your feet touched the ground or are you carried everywhere?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: When you equaled Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 world cup victories, you said “for me, the biggest dream is to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Swedish legend.” That’s respect. Did you read what he said about you[pulls out card]: “She’s much better than I was… She has everything. She has good physical strength, she has a good technique, strong head.” What does it mean to you, that acknowledgement from your idols?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: And how strong IS your head? Is that a Swedish weightlifting thing? Why do you even wear a helmet?
Jimmy Fallon: It feels weird, but let’s talk about failure. Some say on the biggest stage, the Winter Olympics, you choked: in 2022 you blew a turn in your two favorite events and did not finish, and your best result was 9th place. But! First, you have two gold medals and a silver from previous Olympics, come on! one of the best Olympic records of any American skier, ever! [wild applause and cheering from the audience] Second, you were the 9th best skier in the world at an Olympic event! Hey audience, raise your hand if you’re the 9th best in the world at anything! [Camera pans around audience, very few have their hands raised, camera continues panning to the Roots (the Tonight Show house band); every musician has his hand raised.]
Jimmy Fallon: that’s fair, the Roots are the best band on TV. OK, but I meant in athletic achievement. [Hands go down, but saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith and trumpeter Dave Guy still have their hands raised. Cut to Tonight Show announcer/sidekick Higgins, his hand is also up]
Higgins: three-legged racer with my mother, undefeated in two seasons.
Jimmy Fallon: OK, we have talented staff here… but specifically winter sports? [Camera cuts back to the horn section, they’re now wearing ski racing helmets with sponsor stickers, ski goggles, and padded racing gloves, and their hands are still raised.]
Wow, I had no idea. Ian, Dave, we have to get you on the slopes! My point is, 9th best is pretty damn good for mere mortals. Mikaela, if you had medalled at three Olympics in a row, would your head even fit through the studio doorway?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: Do you need a relative failure like that to stoke your fires, to come back bigger and badder?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: I want to take you into the multiverse for a moment. There’s a world in which you’re still a great skier, you’re beautiful, you train so hard, you’re on the USA ski team… and 9th is your best finish, ever. That’s what it’s like in this world for many of your team mates. Does that even compute? Would you still be skiing and loving it, or would you have to switch to dominating something else like the trumpet, or three-legged racing? [quick cut to Higgins with cheesy gold-painted youth race medals around his neck, furiously shaking his head “NO”]
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: What are your plans now this season is over?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: Of course, next season [Ahhnold Schwarzenneger voice] You’ll Be Back. Do you have particular goals beyond trying to win every. single. damn. time you’re at the top of a race course? Like breaking the records for wins in other events besides your slalom specialty, or finishing a race on one ski like the great Bode Miller (check it out, folks)?
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: Besides your “strong head,” are there still areas you’re working on? If you could improve one thing to achieve unstoppable Terminator Mode, would it be faster, better vision/awareness, more controlled or more explosive speed, endurance, or??
Mikaela Shiffrin: …
Jimmy Fallon: So harder, better, faster, stronger. Harder, better, faster, stronger🎶🎵 [Band kicks in playing the Daft Punk song] Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger. [Jimmy and Mikaela get up to dance, the bare-skinned group who carried Mikaela return…] Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been an honor talking with the greatest alpine skier of all time, Mikaela Shiffrin!
I seriously want to see this interview:
I’m genuinely interested in Ms. Shiffrin’s responses, especially to the “what if you were just really good at skiing but no champion” hypothetical.
Jimmy Fallon and Mikaela Shiffrin already have good rapport, this won’t be a stretch for them.
It will be hella entertaining, and will encourage the public recognition that she needs so that she gets the Time/ESPN/Laurea sports personality of the year award instead of it going to the usual someone who chases a ball.
I’m publishing my own work under the Creative Commons’ “No Rights Reserved” CC0 license below to free it of copyright restrictions around the world. Anyone can take this and do anything with it they want without compensating me or even crediting me, including the Tonight Show writers. Come on, make it happen!
To the extent possible under law,
has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to
“my interview script with the great Mikaela Shiffrin.”
This work is published from:
Joni Mitchell’s Blue on vinyl has a distortion at times behind her voice and piano. Time to buy a digital track and see if it’s still there. What the heck, go big and get the 192 kHZ 24-bit FLAC high-res audio. whatNerd has a list, “The 7 Best Sites to Buy Lossless and Hi-Res Music”:
Bandcamp: it’s a great resource to directly buy music from new musicians without going through a label, but Ms. Mitchell isn’t on it.
Acoustic Sounds. “alas we’ve reached the decision to cease operating our Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez digital downloads service”.
NativeDSD: not available. I’ve blogged that DSD is supposedly an awesome format for a digital master, and some obsessive Roon users re-encode all their music to DSD 512 before sending the bits to their music player, but it seems mostly classical tracks are available to buy in DSD.
7digital: it only has her later Geffen releases, and only in 16-bit 44 kHz FLAC format.
HIGHRESAUDIO: seems to be a UK site, only has The Reprise Albums boxed set and Blue outtakes, unclear what formats it offers but has a badge for the dubious proprietary MQA format, and “due to territorial constraints and also different releases dates in each country you currently can`t purchase this album.”
Qobuz (the high-res streamingit across service also offers a store for downloads): album for only $22.09 , even cheaper at lower resolutions. The big plus is you can buy individual tracks.
So Qobuz it is, $5.18 for “All I Want” and “My Old Man.” This may seem like a lot, but I used to pay more for 45 RPM singles in today’s money (the $1 that a single cost in 1970 is now worth about $7!). Alas Qobuz has a $0.52 fee for paying with PayPal. The two songs are 70 MB each, about 10 times bigger than a quality MP3 encoding. (I remember the breakthrough when Macromedia was able to fit a song onto a floppy disk with MP3 compression.)
OK, get the Roon server audio player working again on my Fedora laptop. It’s a great player for your digital audio files, but Roon’s default setup installs it as the root user😨! Roon expect you to install it on dedicated hardware, while I’m running it on my laptop so I fiddled around to install as a separate roon user with limited rights. Tell Roon to play the digital audio files through my Orchard PecanPi streamer, toggle my monstrous VTL tube power amps to their balanced XLR inputs and listen!
There’s still a bit of soft crackling-but-not-like cellophane behind her voice 😢, though much less behind the piano. What’s going on? I’ve heard this noise on a friend’s high-end stereo too. Is this intermodulation distortion in audio systems or is it inherent in the recording? Otherwise the digital soundstage feels wider: there’s none of the overlap of the left and right channels that you get when two angled walls are pushing a diamond on a thin cantilever from side-to-side in a piece of vinyl. The details are clearer than my vinyl, but it doesn’t have that vinyl warmth… which might just be the rolled-off treble and overlapping stereo channels. Who knows. I just want songs I love to sound amazing without worrying about the details.
Own or stream?
I really should upgrade to Qobuz from YouTube Music (formerly Google Play Music YouTube GoldRedPremium) so I can listen to music in hi-res audio without buying the track, and get a discount if I do buy it; and Qobuz integrates with the Roon audio player. Especially now that YouTube family membership is $23 a month. But then I read comments on YouTube videos about music from all the people complaining about incessant ads. By paying I never see any ads, even on a Roku TV streamer where I can’t run the great uBlock Origin ad-blocker for Firefox.
Digital taste test
I should buy the MP3s of the songs and do a blind test to see if my aging ears can tell the difference. But there are confounding factors: the higher-res audio files might be mastered a fraction of a dB higher because undetectably louder always sounds better (the Beatles on USB did this with the FLAC versions), and it’s unclear if the high-res Blue files are from the remastered album or the original.
Companies treat government-mandated disclosures as a bureaucratic cost to be minimized rather than a chance to help their customers. So I get illegible tax form verbiage on Umpqua Bank’s 1099-SA form, printed on the envelope of my form to save a few pennies. What is this useless illegible 2.5-point font size s**t?! At least print a big legible “Read this stuff at the URL xyz on our web site.”
It’s even stupider than it looks (or would look if you could read this 💩), because Umpqua prints the full disclosure info for 11 different 1098, 1099, and 5498 forms on the envelope, even when it only contains one of the forms. Not helpful! I’m surprised some Americans with Disabilities Act-chasing lawyer hasn’t sued their asses.
A couple of the songs like “Tamalpais High” are so reminiscent of CS&N’s “Guinnevere”. I remember buying So Far because I’d heard some of the hits and for its Joni Mitchell cover, I couldn’t believe how great “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was. I didn’t grasp until now that it’s a compilation album (Wikipedia: “the concoction of a greatest-hits album from two LPs and one non-LP single”); no wonder it’s so great.
David Crosby will probably be remembered as the John the Baptist heralding (and sleeping with) Joni Mitchell, not a bad place to have in history.
I was in a store and heard the song, but wait! it’s Macy Gray. It turns out she recorded her own version of the entire Talking Book album on its 40th anniversary in 2012. While listening to it again, YouTube Music Premium Red Gold Google Play also volunteered Michael McDonald’s version off his second volume of Motown covers, Motown Two.
Both Macy and Michael have stronger bass than Stevie’s Moog bass on the original; both more present in the mix and doing more inventive things. (I can’t figure out who’s the bassist for Macy Gray, sadly there are no details on Wikipedia and Discogs, her web site is taken over, and I can’t get from any archived version of the front page of her web site on the Wayback Machine to any details of the album; Michael McDonald has a ridiculous set of players on his album according to Wikipedia, the bassist could be Nathan East or Abraham Laboriel.) But:
Stevie Wonder’s drumming is incredible. In the chorus it’s pre-proto-disco hi-hat, but it’s an organic whole with his snare. Macy’s drummer (again, no idea who’s the drummer) can’t unlearn disco hi-hat. Michael’s drummer (could be the great Vinnie Colaiuta, or Abe Laboriel Jr., or Nicky Shaw) is just tight; mostly closed hi-hat, tight fills.
Stevie Wonder has phenomenally expressive keyboards. Macy doesn’t even try and pushes her keyboards down in the mix; Michael goes for more keyboard colors (he has all kinds of guest stars on keyboards), but none of them have the intense variations of volume and wah-wah that Stevie has.
Stevie Wonder’s got David Sanborn’s oddly hollow sax (I think this might be Sanborn’s first big break) giving a unique feel, from the unexpected tentative bass sax notes in the intro to the muted wailing in chorus after chorus.
It’s really hard to do a better homage than the original.
And of course, Talking Book has Jeff Beck (24 June 1944 – 10 January 2023)’s lovely, lovely guitar break on “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” 😭.