Bringing It All Back Home
Highway 61 Revisited
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New technologies always redraw the lines of battle. The rise of stereo recording technology and digital reproduction of music via compact discs has all but massacred the market for 33-rpm LPs, let alone the 78-rpm discs that were forgotten long ago. There is the majority who hail the ease and convenience of new technologies—CDs don’t scratch as easily, they are easier to store, you can skip between tracks instantly, CD players are portable, the sound quality is crisper and more defined. There are, however, holdouts. Many artists still release albums on LP as well as CD and cassette, among them Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and countless independent label artists. These are the ones who have not lost their love for large gatefold sleeves and warm analog sounds. Once cutting edge technology, vinyl has now become a repository for romantic nostalgia.
Nowhere is this impulse more clear than in the recent Bob Dylan reissues by the small New York-based Sundazed Records. Two of Dylan’s seminal mid-sixties masterpieces, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, are being re-released in their original mono LP format. All of the original artwork and liner notes have been restored. The aim is nothing short of time travel—the need to experience Dylan as he was experienced back in 1965. Throw all the technology out the window—we want “authenticity”.
Granted, the records sound great. A quick comparison between the stereo CD version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and the original mono LP version yields startling differences. The stereo version has a sheen and crackle that is missing from the LP version. On record, the track is heavy and thick, each sound establishing its own space and timbre—on CD the sounds seem condensed and squished, streamlined and sanitized.
But are these records better than their now omnipresent CD imposters? In terms of packaging, there is no question—LPs will always blow CDs away on their sleeves alone. But aside from that, the lines get blurry. You could say this mono sound was the true sound Dylan was after (in his famous words, a sound like “thin, wild mercury”), but that would be biased and uninformed. If stereo had been around then, he surely would’ve recorded in it, and he may love that his music has been transferred over to CD. Older and less convenient is not always better.
The Best of Classic Years in Digital Stereo, on the other hand, erases the pops and crackles of our collective vinyl past and presents them in clean, crisp digital glory. This collection takes selections from the back catalogue of Nimbus Records, including classic tracks by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby, and cleans them up in transferring them from the original 78-rpm masters onto CD. The sound achieved is spectacular. The music is rich and resonant, the voices warm and sonorous, recreating live performance in ways that Satchmo surely would’ve marveled at. Conveniently, the last two tracks of the 24-track collection compare side by side a recording by Al Jolson before and after digital remastering. The original is barely audible, thin and grating, while the new recording sounds as rich and vibrant as if Jolson were brought back to life and recorded on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
But again, purists will surely grumble that these remasterings take away from the charm and piquancy of older recordings. Some will no doubt feel that Louis Armstrong should only be heard through the hiss and pop of vinyl. Again we run into the wall of the artist’s original intentions—do you think Armstrong wanted his recordings to sound like that? Wouldn’t he try his hardest to recreate the bounce and intimacy of live jazz performance? When creativity is tied so intimately to technology, questions like these are inevitable. Like anything in life, extremism isn’t it. It is fine for Pearl Jam to inscribe “Viva Vinyl” on all their 45-rpm singles, but they are by no means advocating death to everything digital. Must we really decide between Dylan on vinyl and Satchmo on CD?
What is necessary is an understanding that music and sounds must be malleable and flexible to deal with rapidly changing and expanding technologies. To limit Dylan to vinyl or Satchmo to CD is to limit Dylan and Satchmo—whatever format this great music takes, it will survive. At bottom, these issues are of little importance. LPs and CDs are technology and that is all—they are tools to bring music into your home. As long as Armstrong’s got that low grumble or Dylan that lazy whine, then all else is quibbling.