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When you crack open the package holding the Smile Jamaica in-ear headphones from the House of Marley, it’s hard not to like the earbuds. I mean at this price point (Rs 1999 or about $30), I have seen few earphones that look as good as these ones. Image

A nice earpiece made of beech wood (with 8mm moving coil drivers), colourful ear-tips and a fabric-covered cable in the Rasta colours of red, gold and green – if nothing else, these earphones are gorgeous.

The sound, however, is another matter. More on that later in this review.

The earphones were burnt in over a period of about three weeks by playing a wide range of music before I got down to some serious listening.

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The earphones were mainly tested with my Samsung Galaxy S3 with a bunch of MP3s, all ripped at 320 kbps and playing through the Poweramp music player, and with my main music system that has FLACs and high-res files played by a HP ProBook 4530s laptop through a Micromega MyDAC to a Denon PMA 717 amplifier.

And this is where everything seemed to go south. Every musician, from Tony Bennett to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, seemed to be afflicted by a chest cold on these earphones. The music seemed to be behind a veil, overpowered by too much muddy bass, gasping for air and life.

During critical listening late at night on my main rig, I struggled hard to find something redeeming about the Smile Jamaica and usually gave up in frustration.

Even a hi-res FLAC of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” at 24 bit/192 kHz, played back on the laptop through Foobar with WASAPI came across as dull and lifeless.

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Just about the only time the Smile Jamaica sounded good was during my daily commute on Delhi’s Metro, when its strange sound signature helped overcome all ambient noises and the earbuds managed to sound decent. But even then, the highs sounded recessed.

On the plus side, the sound isolation with the ear plugs supplied with the earphones was rather good.

I truly wanted to like the Smile Jamaica – it has its heart in the right place, what with its use of recyclable aluminium and plastic and it has one of the most tangle-free cords I’ve ever come across – but it’s let down by its sound. For about Rs 2,000, there are far too many other better options.

Look ma – my foobar has VU meters!

Much as I love the music flowing from my laptop into my amplifier, I found it hard to bring myself to like the cold, sterile interface of my computer’s audio player. That is until I found a way to add analog VU meters to my foobar2000 music player.

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The meters do not in any way enhance the sonic qualities of the music files being played on the laptop but they certainly look cool and add a nice sort-of-analog touch.

As with everything related to tweaking foobar, adding the VU meters to the player isn’t very straightforward but this page on head-fi.org explains how you can do it. Above all, have patience. The greatest strength of foobar – the capability to tweak it so it looks and sounds exactly the way you want it – is also one of its most frustrating aspects for those like me who are noobs when it comes to tech.

This page on head-fi has additional ways to customise the look of your foobar player. Happy skinning.

Upgrade blues

Having just acquired the deluxe remastered editions of all the albums by Queen, my favourite band of all time, at considerable expense and ripped them to the hard disc of my laptop, I was one happy camper. Little did I know that my happiness wouldn’t last very long. The reason for this has nothing to do with Queen or its music.

You see, just a few days after I had all the Queen albums on my laptop, I read about Jimmy Page’s plans to put out special editions of all the albums by Led Zeppelin (another all-time favourite band) sometime next year. Enough for me to feel like pulling my hair out as I had only recently begun acquiring Led Zeppelin’s albums after waiting for years for Mr Page to remaster and upgrade them.

Obviously, the new Led Zeppelin remasters will sound much better than the CDs currently available. And given the current trends, there could possibly be 24/96 or 24/192 downloads, which means we may have to buy the albums not one more time, but twice.

Putting out new versions of albums isn’t exactly a new trend – it happened even in the days of vinyl. But in that era, it usually happened because an album went OOP (out of print).

It’s only in the CD era and the decline of the album format in the age of downloads that record companies figured they could maximise their returns very easily by putting out remastered and remixed versions of fan favourites.

The first wave of remastered CDs were entirely justified – simply because the CD versions of albums issued in the 1980s were total crap – dull, lifeless and boring, especially when compared to their vinyl versions.

As digital remixing and remastering techniques improved, we got some special and deluxe editions in the 1990s and early 2000s that truly delivered. And then things became unstuck when the same old albums were put out again and again (think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” – available on MFSL, SACD and several deluxe editions) to mark all sorts of anniversaries. Each new version included some unreleased tracks in the hope that fans would double or triple dip (even though some of the tracks were unreleased for a simple reason – they were really bad).

Pink Floyd box set

Pink Floyd immersion edition complete with marbles and scarf!

Some bands obviously do a better job than others in putting out special editions – U2, The Who and Queen are some that come to mind. With others I’m not so sure – I’d love to get the immersion editions of Pink Floyd’s albums but why on earth would I want to pay a fortune for marbles and a scarf (yup, those are part of the box sets though what they have to do with music, I have no clue).

Maybe it’s about time bands begin thinking of compensating fans who already have their albums when they put out the umpteenth remixed and remastered edition – for example, a discount for anyone who walks into the store with an older version of an album.

If someone had told me a computer would be part of my music set-up just two years ago, I’d probably have laughed out loud, told the person he was nuts and politely showed him the door.

For far too long, using a computer for music has meant putting up with the god-awful and lifeless sound of MP3s, a lossy compression format that just sucks the life out of music. Here’s the thing – I have a whole bunch of MP3s on my smartphone to listen to when I’m on the move, and they sound just fine through my headphones.

But play those MP3s through an amplifier and bigger speakers, and they sound like total and unadulterated crap. The treble sizzles, the midrange has no life and the sound just tires my ears after a while.

The change occurred when I got my new laptop (a HP ProBook 4530s), which has an HDMI output, loaded some FLAC files on the hard disc (a mixture of 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks ripped from CDs and high-resolution 24-bit/96KHz tracks) and then hooked up the computer to my Denon A/V receiver. All of a sudden, the laptop has become my favourite platform for playing back music.

The next few weeks were spent trawling through various forums and websites to acquaint myself with the best way of getting the music from my computer to the speakers – or as the technically minded would put it, bit perfect playback.

I finally settled on Foobar as my music player for several reasons. Foobar isn’t exactly user-friendly but it’s eminently suitable for tweaking and it’s available for free. (There are other highly recommended music players out there but I’m really not keen on spending a whole bunch of money on them till I’ve figured out how I intend to integrate a computer into my music set-up.)

The sound? I’m not going to get into a lot of gobbledygook about soundstages and rhapsodise about dynamics but I do know when I hear a good set-up. For some unfathomable reason, some albums ripped to FLACs sound better played back through the computer than the original CDs (though my main CD player is a rather long-in-the-tooth Pioneer DV-S757A universal player) while the 24/96 high-resolution tracks are as good or better than the best vinyl albums in my collection.

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And I can use my smartphone as a remote control with the “foobar2000 controller” app (available for free with pesky advertisements or you could buy the pro version for less than $2 on Google Play). Keep in mind that the app uses your home wireless network to interface with your computer but it’s darned cool to be able to browse through all the music on your computer by categories such as album, artists or genre while bringing up the artwork of the album or track that’s currently playing on your smartphone.

As with using a computer for other tasks, some fundamental rules apply. If you couldn’t be bothered about sound quality and just like the convenience of using your computer to play music, go ahead and fill your hard disc with MP3s and don’t bother to read any further. If you want the finest possible sound, remember the basic rule: Garbage in, garbage out.

Foobar controller on my phone

Foobar controller on my phone

Start by ripping your CDs or vinyl LPs to FLAC files, which take up more space but offer better sound as they’re lossless files. Then download software like MP3Tag (it’s free) so that you can properly tag your files and add album art work – this is important if you want speedy and accurate access to your music library.

If you want the best possible sound, think about investing in a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to squeeze the most out of those 1s and 0s. There’s a wide range of DACs out there, with prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. Read the reviews available on the internet and choose according to your budget. However, it’s would help to get a DAC that accepts at least 24/96 through its USB input (even better if it can accept 24-bit/192KHz files – there are several websites that now offer 24/192 downloads).

Most important of all – backup, backup, backup. Computer files can get corrupted and believe me it’s no fun when that happens. I’m currently backing up all my music files on to blank DVDs and an external hard drive.

That’s brings us to the end of this first blog on integrating a computer into your music system but there will be more in the days to come.

Ever had one of those experiences where life seems to be puttering along just fine when something comes out of nowhere and knocks you completely off the tracks? Mine came a few months ago when a health problem took me to a (rather lousy) doctor, who said it could be a minor problem or possibly something very, very serious.

As I waited for the results of various tests, posting on this blog suddenly didn’t seem to be very important. All of a sudden, other things became much more important. It’s at times like this that you start thinking about all the things you wanted to do or should have done, but somehow never got around to doing.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, things turned out pretty good. I was able to get through a pretty bad patch with a lot of help from my wife. And I consulted a second (and far more professional) doctor who set up the right tests and gave me a clean bill of health.

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for some time but something or the other kept getting in the way. I’ve also been spending a lot of time indulging in my first love – music – and that too kept getting in the way of reviving the blog. In the coming days, I intend to devote equal time to blogging about music and movies. So here goes….

“Ride Lonesome”

“Ride Lonesome” is among the finest of the seven Westerns made by veteran star Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher. By the time the duo got around to this, the sixth in what some refer to as the “Ranown cycle”, they had fine-tuned the formula behind these movies – a protagonist driven by revenge, charming bad guys (sometimes more charming than the hero) and richly drawn characters that overcame all the shortcomings of the miniscule budgets they were working with. 

Ageing bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) is on his way to Santa Cruz with murderous outlaw Billy John (James Best), wanted for shooting several men in the back. Despite knowing that Billy’s elder brother Frank John (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang are pursuing him, Brigade stops at a deserted stagecoach way station to rescue the recently widowed Carrie Lane (Karen Steele). 

Brigade’s group is also joined by amiable outlaws Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Wid (James Coburn in his feature film debut), who want to turn Billy John in themselves so that they can benefit from an amnesty announced by the authorities.

As the group evade a group of Red Indians that has already killed Carrie’s husband and make their way through the desert towards Santa Cruz, it becomes evident that Brigade actually wants Frank John to catch up with them. The two men have a history – it turns out that Brigade is the former sheriff of Santa Cruz whose wife was hanged by Frank John.

Randolph Scott and his campanions repulse an attack by Red Indians in “Ride Lonesome”

Unlike the other Westerns he made with Boetticher, Randolph Scott’s character is up against two villains in “Ride Lonsome” – Lee Van Cleef as the traditional bad guy and Pernell Roberts (probably best known for his turn on TV as “Trapper John MD”) as the charming outlaw who needs Billy John to secure an amnesty so that he can turn his life around.

At times, Sam Boone is more charismatic than Randolph Scott’s “hero”, a taciturn man who seems driven only by the desire to avenge the murder of his wife and even spurns the advances of Carrie. The sparring between Brigade and Boone keeps the audience on tenterhooks, as we don’t know right till the end whether Brigade will deliver on his promise to prevent Boone from taking in Billy John into Santa Cruz to claim the amnesty.

James Coburn in “Ride Lonesome”

Like other movies in the Ranown cycle, “Ride Lonesome” is a small film but the story it tells has the sweep of an epic, thanks largely to a great script from Boetticher’s frequent collaborator Burt Kennedy and the gorgeous cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr.

This was the first of the Ranown Westerns filmed in Cinemascope, which opens up the scale of the movie. The wider screen both captures the grandeur of Boetticher’s favourite locations at Lone Pine in California and emphasises the loneliness of the characters of “Ride Lonesome”.

“Ride Lonesome” is available in a fine transfer in a DVD box set of five of the Westerns made by Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. 

(For more on the backstory of “Ride Lonesome”, go here. Budd Boetticher provided some insights on the making of the film in this interview.)

“Joe Kidd”

At the time Clint Eastwood made “Joe Kidd”, he was one of the hottest movie stars around the world and had already begun putting in place arrangements that would make him a major player in Hollywood for several decades. This was one of a string of Westerns made by Eastwood in the early 1970s but was probably the weakest of the bunch. 

Though based on a screenplay written by the legendary Elmore Leonard, Eastwood has often said that the story didn’t even have an ending when he began filming with director John Sturges (of “The Magnificent Seven” fame). This isn’t A-list Eastwood or Sturges but there could be many worse ways to spend 88 minutes.

Robert Duvall in “Joe Kidd”

We first come across former bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) in prison in Sinola, sleeping off a drunken binge before being brought up before a judge. Kidd’s hearing is disrupted by a group of Mexican-Americans led by the revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxon with a truly horrid Mexican accent), who are protesting the grabbing of their lands by white settlers.

Kidd helps the judge escape while Chama and his group burn the land records and leave town. Soon after, ruthless land owner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) rides into Sinola with his gang and asks Kidd, known for his tracking skills, to help him find Chama.

Kidd turns down Harlan and returns to his ranch, only to find his horses have been stolen and one of his Mexican workers tortured by Chama’s men. Kidd rides back into Sinola and throws in his lot with Harlan. 

As Harlan’s posse makes its way through Chama’s territory, Kidd is sickened by the brutality of Harlan’s men, especially Olin Mingo (James Wainwright) and Lamarr Simms (Don Stroud), who kill several Mexicans in cold blood.

Harlan besieges Chama’s town and threatens to shoot five residents every few hours till the revolutionary turns himself in. He also fires Kidd and locks him up with the townspeople in a church.

By this stage, we know that Kidd will team up with Chama and take on Harlan and it’s all strictly by the numbers.

The plot has huge holes in it and the climax, which features a train ploughing through a saloon, was described by Eastwood himself as a “crazy thing”. John Saxon is never really convincing as the revolutionary and Sturges clearly wasn’t at the top of his game while making this film.

However, the film features solid contributions from several artists who would go on to become regular collaborators with Eastwood. There is a fine jazz-inflected score by Lalo Schifrin and the cinematography by Bruce Surtees soaks up the beauty of locations in Old Tucson and Inyo National Forest. 

“Joe Kidd” is available in a fine anamorphic transfer in the Clint Eastwood Western Icon two-DVD collection that includes “High Plains Drifter” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. Though the film shares a disc with “High Plains Drifter”, the quality of the video is more than adequate.

“Man With The Gun”

“Town-tamer” films were a popular sub-genre of the Westerns in the 1950s, with numerous directors and scriptwriters exploring the dilemma of law-abiding citizens forced to resort to the questionable arrangement of hiring a gunman to clean up their town of outlaws.

“Man With The Gun” (1955) marked the directorial debut of scriptwriter Richard Wilson, who had a long association with Orson Welles in the two previous decades. The film is a fairly by-the-numbers account of gunman Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) cleaning up a town that has for long been under the thumb of powerful land owner Dade Holman (Joe Barry). 

Holman surrounds himself with a bunch of brutal thugs who enforce his law in Sheridan City – we know this because Holman’s henchman Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) cruelly shoots down a boy’s dog merely for barking at him minutes before Tollinger rides into town.

The townspeople are tired of the violence of Holman’s men but aged Marshal Lee Sims (Henry Hull) has no desire to intervene. Blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), who is head of the town council, learns of Tollinger’s reputation and convinces the citizens to hire him to clean up Sheridan City.

As the film progresses, we learn Tollinger has another reason for being in Sheridan City – he came to the town seeking his estranged wife Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), who manages a group of dancing girls, to find out about their daughter.

“Man With The Gun” is burdened with a talky script and stately score by Alex North that is all wrong. One can’t help but get the feeling that there’s just too much dialogue and too much music in some sequences.

Claude Akins thinks he has the drop on Robert Mitchum in “Man With The Gun”

Mitchum, in his first movie as an independent player after ending a stint with RKO Pictures, is not stretched by his role – he exudes an aura of menace even when he’s smiling, and is totally believable as a man who thinks he’s unfit to be anything other than a town-tamer.

There are bit parts for an uncredited Claude Akins and Angie Dickinson and a nice turn by Ted de Corsia as “Frenchy” Lescaux, the Bowie knife-wielding thug who runs Holman’s saloon. Another flaw is that the character of Holman is given only a few minutes on screen without any dialogue though most of the movie is spent priming the audience for the showdown between him and Tollinger.

“Man With The Gun” is available in a great transfer that showcases its black-and-white photography.

“High Plains Drifter” was the first Western directed by Clint Eastwood but he was already showing signs of the revisionism that would shape his finest effort in the genre, “Unforgiven”. What could have been a simple tale of revenge is elevated to a whole other level by Ernest Tidyman’s quirky script and Eastwood’s assured direction.

Eastwood essentially retains his “stranger with no name” persona from the Spaghetti Westerns he made with Sergio Leone but a supernatural element is what sets “High Plains Drifter” apart from those films.

Clint Eastwood’s stranger rides into the town of Lago

A stranger rides into the mining town of Lago, with Dee Barton’s eerie music and the heightened sound effects – the whistling wind and the wheezing of the stranger’s horse – creating a sense of foreboding. In the space of 15 minutes, the stranger shoots dead three gunfighters and has his way with the town floozy Callie Travers (Marianna Hill) in a barn.

The town is located in idyllic surroundings (Eastwood had an entire town built on the beautiful shore of Mono Lake in California) but its residents appear rotten to the core. They all harbour dark secrets and the stranger has a mysterious connection to Lago which becomes apparent through his fevered nightmares of the town’s marshal being brutally whipped to death. 

The killing of the three gunfighters puts the people of Lago in an unusual predicament – they had been hired to protect the town from a trio of outlaws (Geoffrey Lewis, Don Vadis and Anthony James) who harbour a grudge against the town and are due to be freed from prison.

In desperation, the townspeople decide to ask the stranger to protect Lago. He accepts, on the condition that he can have anything he wants.

The stranger appoints the midget Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the new sheriff and mayor of Lago, raises a rag-tag militia comprising the barber, storekeeper and others to defend the town and takes over the hotel after throwing out all the guests. To the consternation of everyone, the stranger then forces the people to paint the whole of Lago red, renames it Hell and forces them to prepare for a picnic on the day the outlaws are due to arrive.

When the outlaws do ride in, the stranger leaves Lago at their mercy. But since this is a Clint Eastwood movie, we know he’ll be back. 

Though “High Plains Drifter” was only Eastwood’s second film as a director, he tackles things like a pro, which isn’t surprising given his long association with Westerns. Eastwood toys with all the conventions of Westerns and it is only the intelligent script by Tidyman (who won an Oscar for writing “The French Connection”) that keeps this from turning into a parody of Eastwood’s “man with no name” persona.

One question most people ask after watching “High Plains Drifter” is who exactly is the character played by Eastwood. The actor-director has said the stranger was originally written as the brother of the dead marshal of Lago. Eastwood even described the film as an extension of “High Noon”, where too the townspeople didn’t back the sheriff, and stranger and makes sure that they live with their guilt. Eastwood also said he played the stranger “more as an apparition” because that would leave some uncertainty for the audience.

“High Plains Drifter” is available in a decent anamorphic transfer on a Region 1 DVD box set that includes the Westerns “Joe Kidd” and “Two Mules For Sister Sara”. The image can appear a little soft at times as “High Plains Drifter” shares space with another movie on one disc of the two DVD set.

“Breakout”

There are days when you think you have everything lined up for a great evening watching a good movie – the film is Charles Bronson’s “Breakout”, made during the 1970s when he churned out a series of fine action flicks, the cast includes Robert Duvall, John Huston, Randy Quaid and Emilio Fernandez and it’s about busting someone out of prison. 

The sure-fire ingredients for a great Charles Bronson actioner, right? Not really. “Breakout” is a confused, muddled mess despite good performances by Bronson and Quaid.

Businessman Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is framed for a murder in Mexico by his ultra-rich grandfather Harris Wagner (John Huston) and given a 28-year sentence to be served in a prison that allows conjugal visits by his wife Ann Wagner (Jill Ireland). 

After an attempt by Jay to bust out of prison by hiding in a coffin nearly ends in disaster, Ann hires Nick Colton (Charles Bronson), the owner of a struggling airline and a minor conman, to get her husband out of the jail. Colton ropes in his business partner Hawk Hawkins (a very young Randy Quaid) and an ex-flame Myrna (a great turn by Sheree North) for a series of harebrained schemes to get Jay Wagner out of the prison run by an oily warden (Emilio Fernandez).

One scheme even has the lanky Randy Quaid trying to pass off as a Mexican hooker (!) calling on Duvall at the prison.

I truly wanted to like this movie but its uneven tone is all wrong. It goes from dead serious to slapstick comedy in the span of a few minutes. We never really learn why Jay Wagner has been framed by his grandfather though there is some mention of the involvement of some CIA types. (Roger Ebert, in his review, says the movie was based on a real life incident. Maybe we would have been better off if the filmmakers had just stuck to that tale.)

Jill Ireland and Robert Duvall in "Breakout"

“Breakout” is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 in a great transfer that shows off Lucien Ballard’s fine cinematography. Recommended only for die-hard Charles Bronson fans.

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