Sundazed's John Wesley Harding Mono Reissue Confounds Our Correspondent

How long have I been waiting for a good-sounding version of this mysterious and magical music? Since way back before I knew anything about Good Sound as we formally know it, that's for sure!

The well-known stereo mix of this music has a very peculiar early-Beatles-style mix, with a really extreme and unnatural stereo split-up of the instruments. Now, I'm not such a mono purist that I can't enjoy the modestly 'stereo' mixes of solo and near-solo records like The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; and I have no problem with the odd-in-places-but-they're-learning stereo mix of A Hard Day's Night, for example. But when I first bought this album, at the height of my first phase of Dylan-obsession in the mid-to-late 70s, I was not only puzzled by the mix, but I was vaguely aware that albums from 1968 didn't usually still have this sort of 'silly' stereo. (I know some people would use that term for stuff like Axis Bold as Love; but I love psychedelic stereo effects done for good reason!) While the sound of this reissue doesn't make the words “mind-blowingly gorgeous” spring to mind, it is quite serviceable, and stays out of the way of the music. Speaking of which…

I'm not going to treat this as “one of those classics that everbody knows,” as MF occasionally does with things like Tommy or the Beatles. The reason is that a surprising number of Dylan-fan friends of mine who aren't out-and-out fanatics don't know this record, or they own it and never play it. That's understandable: this isn't a wild rocker like Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61, nor is it an album of beautiful acoustic balladry like Freewheelin' or, later, Blood on the Tracks. This is sparse, very stripped-down acoustic rock, brown, dusty and unadorned as the picture on the cover. (George Harrison famously gave praise to drummer Kenny Buttrey back in the day, and then said it must've been a months-long bitch to record and mix, to get that wonderful simplicity. Buttrey replied, “About six hours total,” blowing George's mind.) There aren't many actual choruses, there's no electric guitar, few obvious hooks. But it is riveting when you're in the right mood: there's something timeless and Biblical here, in a much subtler way than on the later gospel albums. There's out-and-out weirdness, the strange lyrics upfront that are hyper-audible for the first time since they got really strange; and in that sense the songs share something with the marvelous “Basement Tapes,” recorded the year before but not released until years later. But the basement tapes are FRIENDLY-weird. They sound a bit like an extension of the mad party occurring in “Rainy Day Women” from Blonde On Blonde where the madness brings a laugh. Here it brings a shiver.

It just did so to me on song #5, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” the only long piece on the album, and one that lopes along with a strange, un-funky, mid-tempo bounce; kind of like “We Know Funk And We Defy It,” as some of The Band's stuff does. This seems like the right place to comment on drummer Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy, who helped Dylan create the hip, versatile grooves for Blonde on Blonde and who are equally facile and ingenious filling around Dylan's front-man-with-a-rhythm-guitar anchor on “JWH.” (I started to add the word “acoustic” to “rhythm;” then I reminded myself that it wasn't necessary since “rhythm” guitar isn't necessarily electric; and then I began to wish that Dylan HAD slipped in a little electric on a song or two, such as the brisk little rocker “Drifter's Escape” that was just playing. Ah, but that would've ripped the “sonic concept” asunder.

Ah, but said monotone “sonic concept” is one of the reasons people don't discover this album quite as readily in 2005… and Dylan, remember, was in part reacting to Sgt. Pepper… and i>Pet Sounds and Are You Experienced?. And in that context, it must've made quite an impact with its understatement. I wasn't there… any comments, Fremer?)

Said front man's got a harmonica too, as usual, and here in these sparse surroundings more than ever, one wishes someone had convinced him to run it through a small tube amp, a Fender Champ or a Princeton, and then maybe slap on a little tube reverb. Everybody from Little Walter to Mick Jagger knew that was how to record it; but we get Bob's harp in all its shrill glory. I know we're all sort of used to it this way, but honestly… for any rock or blues harp work, but ESPECIALLY for Dylan's manic intensity and often-uncertain pitch on the instrument, a little lovely musical fog would've really been great. More exciting, less grating. I know, how dare I… but it's true!

So, McCoy and Buttrey. McCoy's bass work would constitute overplaying in many more conventional rock-band settings, but here it's great. It's busy in a good way; and more in the Entwistle than the McCartney way, in that he mostly sort of outlines the chord structures, and provides a solid moving platform for Dylan's vocals.

On “As I Went Out One Morning,” though, he gets riffy, and indulges himself in some delightful lead bass. And Buttrey's drums are crisp, lively and workmanlike. When you listen closely, they're actually not as simple as they sound: he's doing a lot, dancing on his snare and bouncing with his foot, but again, it's so darn disciplined that it never juts out. It's that veteran pro thing. The thing is, the guy can go nuts: listen to “Absolutely Sweet Marie” from Blonde… where the ass-kicking Motown beat in the straight parts yields here and there to orgasmic Keith Moon explosions just when you thought he couldn't top himself. It's different on this album; and again, probably appropriately so.

So Dylan rides these guys' too-cool groove, preaching his mad parables, painting his ancient-sounding worry scape, producing a dark and heavy feeling with a masterfully light touch. There are plenty of moments of comedy, but they're in the service of a broody feel. I remember someone (maybe MF) describing the Stones' Between the Buttons as a “thick dark brew.” This album is that exactly, in mood if not always in sound. And in sound too, in this version: the mono mix is extremely heavy on the bass, as it is on Sundazed's mono Blonde On Blonde. And I have something to say about this…

I know that this release is supposed to be true to the originals, and that the original mono mixes (at least in the case of Blonde…) were done more painstakingly, with Dylan's participation, etc. etc. But if Classic Records can fine-tune the original RCA Living Stereo issues “because the originals were EQ'd and had bass roll-off,” I kinda wish someone at Sundazed had looked at things from an aesthetic as well as a historic point of view, and rolled off, say, 15% of that bass, here as well as on Blonde…. It would still kick, but it wouldn't overwhelm. And you could turn it up louder, with pleasure. I can't listen to this reissue at quite my preferred volume, or bass is all there is. And I know there's bass-overdrive distortion on the master tape (it's in the same places in the same songs on every copy I've ever heard, especially on the driving “I Am a Lonesome Hobo”), but that's not what I mean. I mean the non-stop overbearing CLEAN bass is much more prominent than it needs to be for good full power.

When the instruments on a recording like this get all smushed together in the center, it assures “big powerful bass,” which everyone always speaks of as a positive; but it's not an easy positive like chocolate cake, it's a positive like driving a Ferrari on a rainy night. Be careful how you use it. It's easy to crowd out the lower-mid instruments, which totally changes the music. And again, it's NOT as simple as saying “this is the way it was on the original mix,” or “this is the way Dylan wanted it.” First, few stereos in '68 could reproduce all that bass, so loading it up was harmless, just gave it a warm Motownish suggestion of low-end balls. Second, artists aren't the best judges of their own work, and relatively few of the '60's greats produced themselves without help, and Dylan was, er, in his own mental place all the time anyway: better for creativity than for editing (write in storm, revise in calm). Dylan in particular notoriously loved to spring surprises on his musicians, to do everything in one take, no rehearsals, no overdubs etc.: all the more reason to give him and his players great natural sound, to capture a very “natural” process. Write in heat, revise (and mix, and master!) in cool.

And then there's Dylan's voice. When the Sundazed album was over, I wanted more; and more “JWH” if possible, but from a different perspective. While I no longer have the old stereo “JWH” (traded it in, in my first flush of enthusiasm for the Sundazed release), I most certainly could never part with Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume II, for it boasts several superb songs unavailable elsewhere, including the underrated Dylan-Happy Traum versions of “I Shall Be Released,” “You Ain't Goin' Nowhere” and “Down In the Flood.” More to the point, it also has “All Along the Watchtower” and “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight,” from “JWH.” Time for a second opinion.

Oh wow. “Watchtower”-- Dylan is in the room. This is a nothing-special, orangey-red mid-'70's Columbia pressing, and Dylan's somber warnings are scarier, his cryptic insights are riveting on a base-of-the-spine gut level. Something was missing from the Sundazed, something in the area of vocal presence and immediacy. (You know, I've noticed they never actually say they're analog-mastered in their literature: they say “mastered from the original analog master tapes,” which isn't quite the same thing … I could be wrong, but there does seem to be a maybe-digital distance on the two Sundazed Dylan records I've heard. Then again, it might just be a mastering that's not 100% to my taste, and/or aged master tapes.)

And (continuing with the Greatest Hits mix here) the weird super-split stereo (bass left, drums right) actually WORKS on “Watchtower” - the “lead” instruments (bass and drums here) are given their featured space, while “drummer” Dylan is in the middle with his steadily-thrumming acoustic guitar. But on this stereo “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the spell is broken - the weirdness of the mix intrudes. Sigh. Back to the mono…

John Wesley Harding in any version is probably not the ideal Dylan 101 in the first place. But if you like Dylan and vinyl and you don't already own this album, you might pick up the Sundazed, depending on whether my subtle sound caveats have filled you with alarm, or you have no idea what I'm talking about! My reservations on vocal presence and bass level could be considered mild compared to (A) the importance of the album, (B) the overall better logic of the mono mix, (C) the silent excellence of the vinyl itself, and (D) Sundazed's great prices: I think the thing cost about $17, cheap for a quality reissue. Heck, you'll pay anywhere from five to twenty bucks for the stereo original I keep mentioning, and IT'S not a perfect mix either, and it might not play great when you get it home; and a mono original (which I admit I'd love to hear) is almost impossible to find. Sundazed made a valiant effort here, they got some things right; and Dylan is ready to haunt your dreams.

But I just put on the “Basement Tapes,” and it's raggedy-ass sloppily-recorded all-analog on a cheap orangey mid-70s Columbia with thin vinyl, and I keep turning it up… magic is an unpredictable thing.

MF adds his 33 1/3 cents:

Over the years I have found that as my stereo got better, the bass on this record (mono or stereo) actually became less intrusive and obnoxious even as my system gained greater bass extension.

I have an original mono pressing of this and compared it to Sundazed's reissue using a mono Lyra Titan/Graham Phantom combo mounted on the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn (okay that's really over the top! A $100,000+ turntable/arm combo!). But, the bass is actually very much under control on either the original Columbia and Sundazed's reissue-and that's through the Wilson MAXX2 speakers, which have no trouble with 20Hz flat in my room.

No doubt the area where the bass is centered is troublesome to many loudspeakers that are “bumped” in the mid-bass to produce the illusion of deep bass, and to many turntables and arm/cartridge combos. So what I'm saying is that the problem is not in the recording or the mastering of either the original or reissue. When I compared the two with the original stereo issue, I found that the top end of the mono mix seemed to be a bit harder and almost slightly brittle compared to the stereo edition, but I also felt the Sundazed mono reissue was ever so slightly “bumped” in the bass compared to the original. However Sundazed's reissue is otherwise very close to the original.

If Sundazed's Bob Irwin says the label's Dylan reissues are mastered from the original tapes and tells me that means they are cut using the original analog tapes, which he does, then I believe him, but like MM I do wonder why the label is somewhat ambiguous about that in its literature. That said, I prefer the mono mix to the stereo for this record and good luck finding an original. Why bother when the reissue is so damn good and so damn cheap?

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williamme's picture

The mono release is going to be interesting. Nothing can be compared to the whole music they are making. - Gregory J. Daniels DDS