Matt Bianco: Gravity

It’s only been 7 months since Mark Fisher’s death, and we already have new Matt Bianco album. I didn’t know what to think about that. For me, Matt Bianco meant Mark Fisher’s catchy keyboard harmonies and Mark Reilly’s characteristic voice (I know, there was a different Matt Bianco with Danny and Basia, but that never did it for me). My favourite MB tunes were all Fisher/Reilly collaborations, so with him gone it was difficult for me to imagine what a Fisherless MB album would sound like.

While Fisher was ill, Reilly already collaborated with the dutch alternative jazzers New Cool Collective. I quite liked what they came up with: the album had some cracking tunes and I liked the New Cool Collectives idiosyncratic melange of brass and rhythm. So for the next Matt Bianco album Reilly again switched musicians: out are long time collaborators and studio heroes such as Tony Remy, Andrew Ross, Nick Cohen, Simon Finch, in are Graham Harvey (him of Incognito), Magnus Lindgren (Scandinavian Sax wunderkind), Dave O’Higgins (ditto, just not Scandinavian and already on Gran Via’s ‘Victim of Love’) , Geoff Gascoyne (British jazz bass legend) and Martin Shaw (Trumpeter extraordinaire). Elizabeth Troy – who got the background vocals job after Hazel Sim left) was allowed to stay.

So, all new personnel, new sound? Definitely, yesyes.

Out are the sequencers, the drum computers and electronic percussion. No more layered synthesizer harmonies, appregiatos and funky rhythm guitars. This is Reilly accompanied by classic acoustic jazz band, doing a Kurt Elling impersonation. This is not meant as a slight, as it works really well. A longstanding joke between the three remaining Matt Bianco fans is that you usually get two or three cracking songs per album (that’s ten pound per song if you order the Japanes import), and Reilly and his collaborators don’t disappoint: ‘Heart in chains’ and ‘Before it’s too late’ are excellent, and up there with the best of 30 years of Matt Bianco.

The album has been on heavy rotation at Chez Fordiebianco’s for 6 weeks now (tolerated by the best girlfriend ever – some sort of compliment, I’m sure) and I am still enjoying it. If you think about it, becoming more jazzy was always on the cards as Fisher and Reilly became more mature. HiFi Bossanova was already halfway there, so it feels natural that Reilly and the Jamie Cullen Band (which is what his marry men apparently are) have just progressed to where they should be.

This is a beautiful album that is beautifully produced and as such deserves a first class hifi system.

Nice one, Mark.

China delivers. Again.


The tubification of the household continues. After the introduction of one of Aric Audio‘s pre-amplifiers to the livingroom’s audio chain I was on a roll: what I needed now was similar tubey, valvey goodness for the man cave upstairs. I already had a lovely little pre-amplifier from the nice man at BTE-Design and another chunky Marantz SM-80 to drive the rather power hungry KEF LS-50s, but what was missing was a DAC that could deliver tubey, valvey goodness and decode the bits and bytes coming from the computers in the man cave.  Many audio forums were scrutinised, hours were spend on ebay, and in the end the Xiang Sheng DAC 01-A, a tube DAC and headphone amp was chosen. Recently updated with a new XMOS-U8 USB interface supporting DSD64 and 128, this was future proof for more high res music and backwards compatible enough to play my old 128k MP3s from 2001. Doukmall from Ebay again delivered on time and on budget and for £150 there was really not that much risk.

As promised, ten days later a package from China arrived, direct from the manufacturer,  XiangSheng Electronic Co in Hefei. DHL get around, don’t they?

Well packaged, with a moderately readable instruction booklet its compact and has loads of inputs:

USB, optical, coax and two analog inputs. The outputs are straight analog or tube enhanced.

Sorry, didn’t have a banana at hand.

If you want to, you can open it up and switch the jumpers to turn it into a pre-amp instead, rendering the headphone amp obsolete. Xiang Shen’s custumer service was quick to help with any questions and the unit has been working faultlessly ever since it arrived. To play higher resolution tracks via the USB 2.0 interface, you’ll have to download XMOS’s driver which is ubiquitous on the net and which works well on Windows 10.  It sounds brillant, with significant improvement to my last DAC, even though that was significantly more expensive. Another win for China MidFi. I certainly bow to our new Chinese MidFi Overlords.



Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp

Quite the title, innit? This is the official (well, the seller’s) title of the newest piece in my one of my audio chains. Do I have more than one? Embarassingly, yes. I know. The best girlfriend ever fortunately has never been able to identify the small black boxes that appear and disappear on the IKEA shelf next to the TV and usually doesn’t notice when there’s one more or less. At present there’s one more. The “Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp”. Which it, I can reassure you, it is what it says on the tin. I wasn’t aware that there were class A preamps (with tubes no less) but a quick Google search confirmed that this wasn’t a marketing gag. On the other hand, I have seen catchier pre-amp names. Saga or Lync come to mind.

Anyway, the above mentioned piece of kit has been available for on ebay and various retailers of Chinese Hi-Fi and for £54 is not so expensive that when it explodes it leaves a particular bitter taste in your mouth (apart from the chemicals and the small glass tube pieces in your chin) but dear enough to be moderately reassuring. Douk Audio is one of the  brands of Shenzhen Cavins Technology ( Nobsound [yes, really] being the other one), and they seem to be flooding the market with affordable tube gear for tube-curious . Read the classic audio geek/nerd/anorak sites like DIYaudio or Audiokarma , and you get the impression that these things are walking, er, delivered death traps, full of unsafe soldiering, incomplete grounding, dodgy contacts. Well, this one didn’t have point to point soldering but – as far as I can see – comes on a PCB board. Delivery took reasonable 5 days and after unboxing, this was what I found in the little package:


…which, after a bit more unpacking, revealed this (sorry, didn’t have a banana available):



The tubes are 2 small 6J1 (apparently not the bee’s knees in the audio world).  p1030928

Putting the little pre-amp together and hooking it up between my turntable and my amplifier (the lovely Musical Paradise MP-301 MkIII) suddenly gave me an all tube audio chain.

First impressions: it works. And it’s silent. Having had issues with noisy tubes before, the little preamp was completely quiet, and even turning the amp up to max didn’t reveal any extra noisiness. So far so good.

Second impression: listening to my vinyl test panel (ABC: Show Me; Matt Bianco: Summer Song; Donald Fagen: Century’s End) it turns out they are bit bright. Not in an unpleasant way, but you can definitely tell they favour the upper frequencies. This improved after a few hours (and with higher volume) but according to the lore web one is supposed to exchange them with some higher quality tubes which I will do. For the moment the thing works and I have no qualms about the purchase and the best girlfriend is happy because she likes tubes (she likes the glow).






UK Soul Karaoke

Beverley Knight is a talented singer from Wolverhampton who has had considerable success over the years and is probably at this point in time the UK’s most successful female soul artist. Recently freed from the shackles of her label and now an independent, she decided to record a retrospective of the most influential soul tracks of the last 30 years emanating from the UK. A worthy project, you might think. And indeed, she chooses some absolute crackers for ‘Soul UK‘ and, united with some of the artists she covered on the album, gave a rather good account on why she chose to rerecord these ‘golden oldies’ in The Guardian.

So far, so dandy.

Today I got the album from iTunes and was pleased to see a digital booklet and some live cuts added to the covers. The tunes -as mentioned above- are indeed great. There is just no way that you can ruin ‘Southern Freez’, ‘Cuddly Toy’, ‘Round and Around’, ‘Mama used to say’ or ‘Say are your Number One’.


She doesn’t ruin them. Not as such. Her arranger does indeed does a good job taking some of these elektrofunk classic and re-gig them for classic soul sextet (plus strings). But by doing this, he sucks their manic energy completely out of them. As I am unfortunately old enough to remember all of these tracks being released, I remember being excited by how new and cool they then sounded, especially the electrofunk tracks by Freeez, Junior and (Stock, Aitken Waterman’s) Princess (yes, really). Now that they got the elegant winebar treatment, they completely lost their sparkle. Add to that Ms Knight’s vocal acrobatics and uncalled for ad-libs, this album grates quickly.

I am nevertheless sure that it will do well. You will hear it blasting out the Chelsea Tractors, out of posh wine bars, and I am sure Ms Knight will be invited to loads of corporate gigs, where she will be able to play these songs to the marketing team of private banks and will be able to crown the top-grossing broker of the year at the next CIB annual general meeting.

For the rest of us, dig out the crackly vinyl and listen to the original (or download the original from iTunes).

Honestly. What was the point?

Mezzoforte Live in Reykjavik

I have always had a soft spot for that most impossible of outfits, a fusion/jazz-funk quartet from Reykjavik called Mezzoforte. Since their first (and pretty much only) hit ‘Garden Party’ back in 1980 they have been hovering in this strange twilight zone between obscurity and the ‘oh, I think I have heard of them’ remarks. This of course proves my friend C’s point that I have a penchant for what he calls ‘elevator music’. Mezzoforte made some cracking albums in the eighties, full of impressive bass slapping, ‘oooo deee aaahing’ background vocals by barely post pubescent men from Iceland and some great melodies. Then there was a lull and they returned with some more albums that still had some bass slapping but less catchy melodies and more ‘adult’ jazzy bits (with other words, it wasn’t as good anymore). Because they’ve been around for a good thirty years now, they produced a 2 – cd live album (Live In Reykjavik) with the ‘deluxe’ version sporting an extra DVD, catching it all on video.

So far so dandy. Of course I had to have it, so when triple pack of digital goodness arrived I whacked the first CD into the player and was waiting for some good old sweaty musicianship with plenty of crowd noises and ‘Good evening Luton, er, Reykjavik’ shouts. Instead I heard what I thought was the studio versions. Checked the CD: nope, says ‘live’.  Popped the DVD in: yes, there they were, a bunch of middle aged men, nodding their heads, swaying gently, but not much else, surrounded by a couple of dozen appreciative listeners. But it still sounded like the studio versions of their songs, with the slight minute aberration from the original. Just not quite as good.

Bottomline: If you fancy Mezzoforte, buy the remastered versions of ‘Surprise Surprise’ and ‘Observations’. Stay clear of this rather luke warm collection that’s neither offering a live atmosphere nor the energy of the originals.