Breaking The Sound Barrier – Again:

Side two of the Sarah Jarosz album Build Me Up From Bones (Sugar Hill CR00380) opens with a beautiful but unusual cover of Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, the lyric sung over a pizzicato Cello accompaniment. It’s a surprisingly difficult track to nail, demanding superb musical articulation if the winsome vocal with its elongated phrases and syllables is going to lock step with the slightly awkward plucked cello lines. All too often it sounds flat and flaccid, the lyric lacking focus and energy, the cello sounding clumsy and disconnected – one of those inspired creative ideas that never quite makes it in practice. But played with the Blackbird, the musical connection, both between the players and to the listener, is immediate, direct and powerful. The stark simplicity of the arrangement creates the space that allows the musicians to breathe and work, the temporal, spatial and dynamic clarity of the arm brings their chemistry vividly to life. It was listening to this track that made me move the Supatrac arm from the VPI to the Monaco much earlier than I intended. It’s not that the Blackbird didn’t sound good on the VPI: it sounded great. But, rather like the 17 year-old wunderkind who gets thrust into a Premiership first team, suddenly it seemed imperative to discover just how great it could sound – hence the shift to the more ambitious platform.

Given the Supatrac’s relatively modest price, you might expect to find it out of its depth in such august company. The Monaco might be small but it is also musically powerful and seriously under-rated in the wider market – which either doesn’t compare it to or doesn’t believe that it can embarrass the ostentatiously over-sized, overweight and over-priced competition: But the little ‘table that could’, might just have found its kindred spirit in the stealthy, angular shape of the Blackbird.

Getting the FUN-dementals right…

The Monaco’s unforced sense of organizational clarity and startling dynamic range combines with the Blackbird’s fluid, expressive and engaging sound like hand and glove. The musical connection between that vocal and that cello is breathtakingly intimate, a connected quality that embraces other recordings too and in turn connects them directly to the listener. ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’ (Shawn Colvin, Steady On, CBS 466142 1) is a long-time favourite, but even here the Supatrac brings something new. I’d expect the intimate vocal, guitars and mandolin, the surging dynamics and shifting density to play to the Blackbird’s strengths. What I wasn’t ready for was the metronomic, trip-hammer beat that put the mechanical into the drum machine, the insistent and irresistible nature of the rhythm adding a whole new dimension to the song and the sense of the song. But what makes that repetitive beat so impressive is that far from indicating a chopped or mechanical tendency, it’s indicative of the arm’s rhythmic articulation. Just as it reveals the character and qualities possible from a perfectly applied drum machine, it’s just as adept when it comes to revealing a well-played drum kit. There’s a joy in appreciating Stephen Irvine’s languid, off-beat tempo as it perfectly underpins Lloyd Cole’s ‘This One’s From The Hip’ (Mainstream, Polydor LCLP3) contrasting sharply with the insistent percussion and sudden, explosive and propulsive patterns that drive the headlong rush of ‘Jennifer She Said’. The pummeling cascade of drum beats, so beloved of New Wave bands from The Attractions through to The Cure, from Stewart Copeland through to Clem Burke, take on new shape and impact, a new precision to the gaps between one beat and the arrival of the next. It’s perhaps the clearest indication of the Blackbird’s complete temporal security and the way that it anchors rhythms and places notes. It’s also the quality on which its sense of organization and clarity are built.