Five Albums of Aural Bliss (Through My New Sweet-Ass Sennheisers)

About a week ago, I made a purchase that will probably change the way I listen to and understand music for the rest of my life: a pair of Sennheiser HD 598 audiophile headphones.

Apprehension. Mistrust. I've been burned before, you see. By other headphones.

“Audiophile headphones”. It sounds a little precious but it’s on the box. Now, I’m not an audiophile– at least not in the strict, soundwave-analyzing, compulsive-top-end-gear-purchasing meaning of the word. I’ve always found comfort in sounds, and find the sound of music through a decent pair of headphones enrapturing. I can’t tell the difference between a 320kbps mp3 and a lossless FLAC file, but I know richness and detail when I hear it.

The search for a good pair of headphones has long been a cause of frustration in my life. Living in Buenos Aires makes it especially difficult, since technology is ridiculously expensive and ordering online is a hassle. I’ve long been bound to the shackles of decent-but-not-good Panasonic HDs and good-but-not-spectacular Sony cans. Only recently, thanks to the combined efforts of my friends Alexandria (who purchased the item online) and Rease (who happened to be in the States and coming back to Buenos Aires) was I able to obtain the first truly high-end pair of headphones I’ve ever owned: the Sennheiser HD 598s.

Truly, you can't possibly understand the expression "sick-ass jam" until you've heard Nels Cline through these babies.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever go back to anything less than this. Holy shitballs. Listening to music is a completely new experience with these things; a thrilling process of re-discovery. I find myself listening back to old favorites and picking out subtle nuances that had flown by unnoticed the first five hundred times I had listened to that song. Small touches in arrangements, little cymbal flourishes, the sound of sliding up and down a fretboard, the sound of the room. It’s like I had been listening to these songs through a plastic container my entire life.

This discovery has also completely heightened my enjoyment of several albums that I already knew and loved, by virtue of how fucking awesome they now sound. Here’s a list of five albums I have been listening to obsessively in the last five days, delighting at the sheer deliciousness of the sound.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog- “Party Intellectuals”

The thrashiest, noodliest, most unabashedly rocking album in the diverse career of avant garde jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, “Party Intellectuals” is an off-the-wall hard rock/jazz fusion smattering of frenzied glory. The fuzzy sound of Ribot wailing like a demented Sonny Sharrock over blasting rock and roll beats is a truly inspiring listen; that is, “inspiring” until you realize you couldn’t ever possibly play like this, and you look down at your own hand on the fretboard in disgust.

Tom Waits- “Blood Money”

One of two Tom Waits albums released in 2002, the other being the feverish nightmare of obsession that is “Alice” (an album I wrote about a while ago). “Blood Money” is a wonderfully off-kilter album of huffing, puffing, steam-powered junkyard orchestra clangings and sweet, tender lullabies seemingly pulled right out of the 1930s. It is also a reminder of everything that makes Tom Waits great. The guy has always been a wiz in the studio, with an incredible ear for microphone placement and production, capturing a crisp, clear performance from his band of very talented musicians as they weave these deranged, barren song landscapes.

Micachu & The Shapes- “Jewellery”

Texture is the word. Micachu creates an album of pop songs by patchwork, that bubble, sizzle, scribble and scratch their way out of the confines of pop music and become mini-standards, authoring their own genre. An intriguing and difficult listen at first, “Jewellery” is sonic bubblegum that’s wildly entertaining and profoundly interesting to listen to; a true challenge to the claim that “avant garde” is a synonym for “boring”.

Pearl Jam- “No Code”

The album that redefined Pearl Jam; the transition from fist-pumping, flannel-clad, ultra-earnest mega rock stars to a more modest, understated and self-consciously quirky garage rock band also happens to be one of the warmest-sounding records I’ve ever heard.  The idiosyncratic polyrhythms of Jack Irons lead the band through a series of songs that challenge everything you thought PJ was about. “No Code” is the sound of the biggest band in the world rediscovering itself, and by virtue of the production, you feel like you’re in the room with them, scratching your head and wondering “is this actually Pearl Jam?” (a question that was probably on their own minds, as well).

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny- “Beyond the Missouri Sky”

The care and dedication put into this amazing album by the two performers– two of the most important names in modern jazz– really shines through when listening through good headphones. The austere production on this odd little piece of work is also warm, vibrant and deep; Pat Metheny’s guitar arpeggios ring out beautifully over the rich, fluid rumble of Charlie Haden’s contrabass. A gorgeous album and great late-night listen. Just the thought of listening to these songs with my old shitty headphones again makes me depressed.

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