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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, December 20, 2010


I've been sent a really interesting response to the Mono Box Set - see first comment below - from someone who has written about Dylan in the past but no longer generally does; more important, in this context, is that he has been comparing these mono CDs to, among other things, his old mono vinyl, so it's a careful, unrushed assessment. It strikes me as fair but not entirely positive. See what you think.

But also, see if you can find the long, fascinating interview that Roger Ford conducted in ISIS no.153 (November-December 2010) with the main men who put the box set together, Steve Berowitz and Mark Wilder - which shows just how very much effort they put into trying to get it all as correct as possible, how scrupulous they were and how many difficulties stood in their way. (In the same issue there's Roger Ford's own appraisal of the albums too.)

All feedback gratefully received.


Anonymous Gavin Selerie said...

The Mono Box was a great idea and as an object it is beautifully realized. I have some reservations about the sound achieved and it would be interesting to hear other views on this.

I bought the set primarily for the Brandeis bonus disc, which, among various highlights, contains a ‘Masters Of War’ which is more subtle than the literally acidic Freewheelin’ take.

I had not, on the whole, replaced my vinyl copies of these early albums, so the box offered a chance to re-engage through the handier CD format. My overall impression is that the urge to do justice to both vocals and instruments has resulted in a middle-ground effect.

Somewhat surprisingly, the album which sounds best is Another Side, possibly because the technology had developed precision and clarity without offering riskier complexities. The mono CD, from a spontaneous all-night session, is warm and immediate. With the second and third albums I tried switching in mid-track between mono vinyl and the new CDs. The digital sound seems squeezed, with less resonance, an effect particularly evident on ‘North Country Blues’. For Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde I have more points of comparison. With the former I’ve long enjoyed the opportunity of listening either to the vinyl mono or vinyl stereo, which almost constitute two different records. The mono CD has quite a pleasing definition of sound, whereby the various elements are given equality of weight. With Blonde On Blonde, in addition to vinyl, I have the bootleg ‘Mono Edition’ CD, which I presume is a direct transfer, with no editorial input. I confess I was happy to use the latter as a supplement to the excellent ‘Gold’ stereo Columbia Legacy CD. There is a detectable improvement on the Mono Box ‘Just Like A Woman’ but perhaps some loss of singular pulse on the up-tempo tracks. For John Wesley Harding my reference points are the stereo vinyl and the ‘360 Sound’ Stereo re-release on CD, which reduced the rich timbre of Dylan’s voice. The new mono restores the latter, with some diminution of the bass guitar effect. Perhaps the small combo benefits from a wholeness of sound but I feel more comfortable with the moderate separation of the old stereo in this instance.

Finally, a word on ‘Positively 4th Street’ which is available as a download [and in the Best-Of-Box CD: MG] but should, I think, have been included as a CD single here. The original had never been re-released in satisfactory form.

It is fascinating to build up a layered experience of Dylan’s recordings through different mixes and formats.

It is in this spirit that the Mono Box should be taken, rather than as a definitive entity.

7:01 pm  
Anonymous Marco said...

There is much to discuss when it comes to how Dylan is produced if you’re talking about where exactly everything (especially his voice) is in the mix and so on, but when it comes to the essential quality of sound on a Dylan record I can’t see any point in the kind of comments that Gavin Selerie makes here. Provided a recorded Dylan performance satisfies basic criteria of acceptability, it’s impossible that its effect on me could be altered by its being pared back into mono or digitally buffed till it sparkles. The guts and sinews of a song, of his performance of it, are what matters. To talk about such things as ‘loss of singular pulse’ or what is ‘squeezed’ or what has ‘less resonance’ is not far off meaningless and has nothing to do with what is thrilling, moving, and endlessly fascinating about Dylan and his art.

10:24 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

Being a second-generation fan, i.e. someone who got into Dylan not in the sixties but in the mid-seventies through Blood on the Tracks and then starting to buy the back-catalouge, me (and my music loving friends at that time) never even thought about buying something old-fashioned and, as was the common believe at the time, less good as mono-LPs. We had our first and expensive stereo hifi-sets, listened to the music we loved all day (and night) long and … yes, some of us became die-hard Dylan-fans. Later is was cassettes with live-recordings, bootlegs, then the first CD-editions, more bootlegs on CD, much later the remastered CDs and even mp3s of last night’s concert. And all the time it was the song, the singing, the performance we wanted to hear and what we loved. And now we are getting old and so is Dylan. No more new albums that really and for more than just a few weeks after their release make us – in whatever format – listen in awe, no more performances we know from the first time we hear them we will listen to – in whatever format – again and again and again never losing the fascination. And here comes the industry: Offering something we KNOW is great in another format, in beautifully made replica-covers and giving us the possibility to once again actually buy Freewheelin’ and Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde – in MONO. So we all buy them and play these old, pure, vintage, like-they-were-supposed-to-be heard … ah, digital tracks on our super-digital-stereo-hifi-sets. I mean, really …

10:59 am  
Anonymous David Meinzer said...

How does it feel? In fact my main reaction to mono Bob was emotional flashback.

I've listened to Blonde on Blonde for decades on stereo vinyl and CD and enjoyed it greatly. But when I was given a copy of the mono sampler CD the versions of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "I Want You" took me back in a way the stereo versions never really had. Suddenly I was back in my grade school lunch period, spring of 66, listening to 45s that a classmate, Victor, had brought in. I had no Dylan records myself and he wasn't heavily played on local radio, so the experience of hearing "Rainy Day..." in rotation with a handful of other records for several weeks was memorable. As I recall, we weren't even sure we really liked the record at first but we kept putting it on.

I haven't compared the recordings side-by-side but I suspect the main difference, and the reason for my reaction, is the general balance between the vocal and the musical backing. The mono versions of at least those songs put a kind of focus on the vocal that may not even be possible in a stereo mix. As others have noted, the mono mixes were intended to sound good on the small transistor radios of the day, so that focus on the vocal was important - and a large reason why vintage 45s (of anybody) are usually so much fun to listen to.

3:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first eight albums simply sound better in mono – more bass, heavier, more powerful and rocking. The stereo mixes sound a bit "thin" in comparison. And the emphasis on the separation of the instruments (to highlight what was then a relatively new format: stereo) with drums on one side, vocals on the other side etc. often makes the individual elements get in the way of the songs. I always preferred the mono versions, and no, not out of nostalgic reasons. I wasn't even born yet when they were originally released on mono vinyl.
The 2010 mono CDs perfectly capture the sound of the original mono vinyl editions. Berkowitz/Wilder/Columbia/Sony did a great job!

@ Rainer: The fact that Bob's new albums do not move you like the old albums perhaps says more about you than about Bob's new music. You have to be in a certain frame of mind to let music touch you deep inside. I think at a certain age some people settle into a certain picture they have of themselves and of what they like, and new influences, new music gets shut out. And I think that says more about your frame of mind than about the quality of the music.
All I can say is that while I like Bob's '60s work a lot, NOTHING he did in the 1960s touches ME the way songs like "Man In The Long Black Coat" (1989), "Series Of Dreams" (1991), "Love Sick" (1997), "Things Have Changed" (2000), "'Cross The Green Mountain" (2993), "Ain't Talkin'" (2006) and "Forgetful Heart" (2009) have touched me. Those songs have changed my life and to me they have a power that I do not feel in the 1960s work. A single line like "I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain" from "Forgetful Heart" means more to me than everything Bob did in the 1960s. Because it CUTS DEEP INTO THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. Everything about it – the words, the music and the voice. I'm sorry, but that's just the way I feel about it.

2:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Anonymous.


12:52 pm  
Anonymous Rainer said...

Really? More than 'Visions of Johanna', 'Love Minus Zero' or 'Simple Twist of Fate'? But what I wanted to say was, that 1) all that fuss about the sound seems, to me, to distract from the fact, that these songs grapped and touched us once with whatever sound they came, 2) that what Sony is selling to us as ‘the real thing’ are still just digital files (also used for the vinyl!) and no-one of us, except maybe a few, still owns adaequat old-fashioned equipment for the vintage 60ies mono-experience anyway, and 3) that it’s at least to a certain degree simply nostalgia that makes us buy these box(es). And, uh, yes, of course I bought it ;-))
Happy X-Mas to everyone!

12:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Rainer:

You are wrong about digital files having been used for the new mono vinyl!!!!

In the recent "ISIS"-interview Berkowitz and Wilder, who produced the mono box (CD and vinyl) described the production of the CDs and the vinyl in detail. Both the CDs and the vinyl were mastered from ANALOGUE tapes!!!! So the new mono vinyl box is an ALL-ANALOGUE production!

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I agree with Rainer, especially about the imbuilt-nostalgia these re-releases inspire. Dylan's not dead, but he's being re-packaged ad nauseum to milk the teat of what he achieved in the sixties.

I agree also that the sixties music was superior to his later work, but I wouldn't hold this against him. His sixties work is superior to every songwriter who works in the same field. His late period stuff is still brilliant in parts, though he threads water a lot now, twanging out the memories somewhat lazily and cynically, perhaps.

I'd prefer if he'd cease touring and look hard at what he still has left to say in his writing, rather than put his name to ridiculously overpriced box-sets which do little to promote his late, great work. He's busy fossilising his own work, which is a pity, because some of us still have faith that he can still make great new work, like he did with TOOM and L&T...

7:39 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

My son kindly gave me the box set for Christmas, and I have really enjoyed listened to all the albums. I think the early ones particularly benefit from being restored to mono. I remember being astonished a few years back at the stereo mix of the first album: the guitar came out of one speaker and Dylan’s voice out of the other, giving the impression of the little man having these incredibly long arms and playing the guitar as far away from his body as possible! The mono box set might be a clever marketing / repackaging ploy, but I for one am glad.

Dylan’s sixties output is astonishing, but I have to agree with Anonymous’ comments about Dylan’s later work. It’s different from his earlier, but the best of it (including three or four tracks on Time Out of Mind) stands comparison with anything he did in the sixties or seventies.

What is remarkable is that he has done what no other singer/songwriter has ever done and what very few poets have managed to achieve (Yeats and Wordsworth, to an extent, spring to mind): he has chronicled, in song, the experience of growing up and growing old. To listen to the Dylan canon is to be given an insight into youthful idealism, chaotic stardom, contented and then discontented family and marital life, the empty years of mid-life crisis, the growing old, the increasing sense of disconnectedness with the world around one, the closing in of darkness. [And incidentally I do not share your view, Michael, of Together Through Life, in which voice and theme and perfectly matched and which seems to me to contain the kinds of reflections appropriate to a man in his late sixties.]

Dylan’s sixties work is great – the songs of the 1960s and the songs of sexagenarian Bob!

12:44 pm  

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