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Review: Lyn Stanley’s Potions and Interludes on Analog Tape

The problem with luxury has nothing to do with the expense. It’s us. Our dirty, sad, undeserving selves. Deep down, many of us just don’t believe we deserve nice things. To see them, to hear them, to wade into them, to have them buoy our spirits and carry us away to a place where we are warm, and comforted, and loved.

To listen to you, most of you don’t deserve it. Because you are bad people. Just terrible. The worst.

If this is you, I have this to say: please go talk to someone. If you’re at a loss as to whom to unburden yourself to, I have a suggestion, but then, I usually do. I’m like that. You’re welcome.

But the point? You do deserve luxury. All of you. Yes, even you dirty, sad and underserving types. And happily, for you, there’s a kind of therapy that you can tap pretty much at any point in your week. My hope is that if you won’t make an appointment with a professional, you’ll at least find the time to sit down, close your eyes, and let Lyn Stanley absolve you of at least some of your sins.

Because that’s what these two albums felt like to me: absolution.

I will admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of jazz vocals. Don’t get me wrong, I love swing and jazz, but “standards” are a more than a little off my traditional path. I’m not interested in another Sinatra or a Fitzgerald — we have them already, and wonder-of-wonders, we have amazing recordings of those superlative beings at the height of their power. No, to “do that thing”, we really want a new thing, and that’s where Lyn Stanley comes in.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her perform, know that this isn’t big-band. Interludes and Potions are pretty much the opposite of that — these two albums are, in fact, almost bare by comparison. And yes, that is a very good thing.

Stanley sent me these two recent albums last fall after another audiophile reviewer sat on them for months, and then I promptly did the exact same thing. Life happens — this past Fall, I lost a job, lost a father-in-law, became a full-time seminarian (yes, really), and generally had a shit-ton (oops, was that out loud?) of work to do at home and for school. But every now and again, I got to sneak away. And … meditate. Well, at least after a fashion. And Stanley was, often enough, my guide.

Stanley’s approach, as I mentioned, is minimalist. The attention is, instead, radically tilted in favor of sound quality. I know, that’s equal parts weird and great, but I can’t stress it enough. These are two of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard. Ever. Even now, I’m delaying sending these back because I want to keep them (oops, was that out loud?).

Potions

10/10

Audio Quality

This is a collection of 1950’s standards sung “in a jazzy style” (thanks, Michael Fremer), and I found them approachable and differentiated enough from the originals to be thoroughly enjoyable on this revisit. I will confess that I am not as familiar with all of the tunes, and I’m pretty sure that makes me a bad person. But — But! I like! The arrangements are elegant and streamlined — think, a piano, a trumpet, a drummer — all playing supporting roles, with Stanley’s vocals unambiguously out in front. “Love Potion #9” was a staple in my childhood and I have absolutely no idea why, but I suspect I had the original 45 in my pile of hand-me-downs that my big brother wouldn’t bother to listen to. Anyway, finding it here was a delight.

8/10

Music

All in all, I suppose we could have asked for a bit more “raw footage” — some of these tunes are heart-rippers, and pathos is just something that’s kinda hard to come by. “The Trill is Gone” is a desperate sort of a tune, and while you can hear Stanley living into the lyrics here in a way that — Lord I apologize — a way that seems to completely elude all of those kids on all of those vocal theatrics reality-TV shows, I still want to hear the exsanguination that a song like this should evoke. “Fly Me To The Moon” had me toe-tappin’ and smilin’, however and I just love how Stanley leans in, as in “Hey There”, where she almost growls her way into the intro. That’s the stuff, right there, and it’s just obvious how much fun she’s having in the studio. As a sophomore album, this one is a real keeper.

The sound quality here is among the very best I’ve heard. I’ve heard a lot of music played back on this system, and this croony-jazzy album invokes effortless imagery in my two-channel stereo system. Fully immersive, fully tactile, fully hair-on-the-back-of-your-arm-raising. That is, downright eerie. This is why “great source material” is so important, and why the vast majority of audio systems just never sound more than “meh” — it’s garbage in, garbage out. This album isn’t Windex for your system, this is an open friggin’ window. Reference quality all the way. And take a look at the credits on the album — Al Schmitt did the high-resolution recording & mixing at Capital Records in LA and Bernie Grundman did the mastering. This is pedigreed stuff — and it sounds like it. And yes, she was using Sinatra’s microphone — how cool is that???

  • Executive Producer: A.T. Music LLC
  • Producer: Kenny Werner
  • Recording Engineer: Al Schmitt, Capitol Records Studio
  • Mixing Engineer: Al Schmitt, Capitol Records Studio
  • Mastered by: Bernie Grundman, Bernie Grundman Mastering
  • Asst. Engineers: Steve Genewick, Akihiro Nishimura
  • Arrangements: Kenny Werner, Steve Rawlins, Bill Cunliffe, Mike Lang and Lyn Stanley
  • Musician Tracks: Capitol Records Studio (Hollywood, CA) and Avatar Recording Studio (New York, NY)
  • Session Conductor: Steve Rawlins
  • Vocal Tracks: Capitol Records Studio (U47-used by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole); LAfx Studios (U47)
  • Producer: Kenny Werner
  • *Original recordings in ProTools 192/32bit at Avatar
  • **Hybrid recording – rhythm section tracking in analog tape; percussion, guitar, Hammond B-3 Organ in ProTools 192/32bit
  • Analog Tape (14-2” reels): RMG International
  • Vinyl pressing plant: RTI
  • Neumann U 47 mic

More details, including availability and ordering, can be found on the website here: http://lynstanley.com/music/potions/.

Interludes

Sound Quality: Eleven — because it’s One Better

I’m not sure it’s fair to take my sliding scale and break it quite so thoroughly, but that’s what Stanley’s third album Interludes does. It’s just better. Said another way, the sound quality on this album is outstanding. And by outstanding, I mean that — our scale goes to 10, with 10 being the best. Like Potions. But this album clearly sounds better than Potions.

Just as clearly, what we had to do was recalibrate in order to accommodate the need to “go to 11” — feel free to call it our “Spinal Tap Award”, because I do. I even had to make up a special logo just to highlight how awesome-sounding this album is. Assuming your source-system is up to the task, this album may well become the most transparent-to-source in your library.

Music: 9/10

Music Quality

As for the music, I’m not sure what happened in this album, but the distance between Potions and Interludes is something approaching an entire career. Look, yes, you have to like the “jazzy standards” approach to revisiting the classics, but assuming you can get there, this particular destination is worth a long visit. In Potions, I might have mentioned that many of the songs just had a little smile tucked into the presentation — that’s not here in Interludes. Nope. Nuh uh. The songs on this album feels like they’re being sung for their original author — with all the pathos that author intended. This sounds like the album of a woman that has lived an entire life, its joys and its sorrows, and finds herself unbowed and unbroken, if not exactly unmoved, by it all. Whew. I’m getting all sweaty over here.

While both albums sonically get the highest marks, these analog mixed and mastered recordings (a purist, Lyn will not make tapes from digitally mastered recordings) are different in their sound. To my ear, Interludes was a just cut above so I asked Lyn about it. She said it was based on a proprietary technique she identified and requested her engineering team to follow through for her. Apparently, they thought it was a good idea too — which is a good thing, because it works!

The arrangements are, again, spare. Not sparse, spare. There are plenty of truly excellent instrumentalists — a drummer, a guitarist, but not much else — but Stanley remains the focus, and quite frankly, there won’t be a moment spent wondering why. Her vocal touch on “Last Tango in Paris is just deft and breathlessly magical. “Whole Lotta Love” was a new-to-me take on the Led Zeppelin tune, and I really dug the swagger — and I bet Plant and Page would, too. I love this album. Did I mention that?

In short, this one is definitely staying. Um, where do I send the check?

  • Executive Producer:  A.T. Music LLC
  • Producer:  Lyn Stanley
  • Associate Producers:  Steve Rawlins, Steve Genewick, Paul TavennerMixing Engineer:  Al Schmitt
  • United Recording Session Engineer:  Al Schmitt (10 tracks)
  • Capitol Recording Session Engineer:  Steve Genewick (4 tracks)
  • Mastering Engineer:  Bernie Grundman, Bernie Grundman Mastering
  • Vocal Recording Engineers:  Steve Genewick, Paul Tavenner, Spencer Guerra
  • Vocals Recorded with Neumann U47s (Frank Sinatra’s microphone courtesy of Capitol Recording Studios)
  • Recording Studios for vocals:  Capitol Recording Studios A & B, Big City Recording Studio and LAFx.
  • This album was mixed from 24 track 2 inch ATR tape by Al Schmitt (except for #14).
  • All songs were mastered from ½” analog tape by Bernie Grundman.

More details, including availability and ordering, can be found on the website at: http://lynstanley.com/music/interludes/.

On Analog Tape

Yes, it’s true — this review was done on a set of analog tapes. 1/4″ 15 ips IEC, to be precise, though NAB is available for those with machines that can support it. There is a religious war to be fought between the NAB and the IEC formats that I don’t feel like exploring other than to note that my UHA Phase 9 tape deck is optimized for IEC, so that’s the route I was relegated to.

My understanding is that both Interludes and Potions was recorded, mixed, and mastered on high-quality 2″ 24-track analog tape (with the notable exception of a single track on Potions, which was done at 32bit/192kHz). I’m not saying that this is why these albums sound so much better — that’s above my pay grade. But I am curious.

The price for these albums — on tape — is $675 each, and I wanted to spend just a moment on that. First, yes, the price — for two reels of tape per album — is “worth it”. I’m not saying that the vinyl is bad — most definitely not — but if you can hear these albums on tape, I cannot recommend the experience highly enough. My vinyl system is valued at well over $35k, but the $9k UHA playback deck just just does the job more convincingly, more eloquently, and more engagingly — assuming that the tapes are actually worth a damn. And when they are … it’s magic. Given that “it’s all about the music”, one can and should argue that the bulk of the value of the entire playback systems is completely wasted when the source material is “meh” — and these tapes are so far past “meh” there should be a special word for it. Anyway, I’m not saying we should all run out and re-buy all of our music on analog tape. Nor am I saying that we should demand all new music to be released solely on analog tape. Not at all. But there is room for ultra-high-quality source material. And dismissing the experience just because you cannot get all of your broken washing machine music in that format is a terrible reason to pass it over. If you are, like me, amused and entertained by the “interactive qualities” of analog playback, then you really ought to treat yourself to an analog tape experience. Trust me, it’s different. And that is most excellent indeed.

Hats off to recording artist, producer, and audiophile champion Lyn Stanley for her outstanding work to-date. I for one am very excited to hear her upcoming albums, The Moonlight Sessions Vol 1 & 2 as soon as they become available.