Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dylan recording in modern times

So yesterday I picked up Dylan's(*) latest CD, the one that has been getting rave reviews and even topped the charts in the US.

My reaction? First -- the sound is every bit as bad as Dylan complains ("Atrocious... these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em.") Except that he blames it on modern recording technology and, in particular, on CDs, which he says "are small. There's no stature to it."

No, the medium is not the problem. I have a few hundred CDs and most of them, whether originally recorded in the '30s or the '00s, sound excellent -- as does a lot of live audio (in particular, the soundboard recordings) that you can pick up from places like The problem in Dylan's case seems to be an excess of reverb and echo (it sounds a bit like Phil Spector's disasters from the 1970s) combined with a "flattening" of the dynamic range, so that all the instruments, and Dylan's own voice, have roughly the same volume. As a result it all sounds indistinct and muddy -- or, in Dylan's words, "no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static." Dylan should get himself some new sound engineers.

Musically the band is competent. It seems extreme of Dylan to call them "the best band he's ever had" (what about The Band?) but they do their job well. And the words? Mostly they're reworkings of old folk and blues tunes (and I don't see why Dylan can claim music-writing credit for "Rollin' and Tumblin'", but maybe he figured that nearly all twelve-bar blues songs have the same tune anyway).

And the lyrics are disappointing. First, I find it hard to follow them by listening, and second, even if I "read along" (on the web -- my CD booklet did not contain lyrics) they don't seem to mean anything. "Visions of Johanna" didn't seem to mean anything either, but it seemed to speak directly and insistently to its listener. Not these songs. Taken as poetry, they're pretty bad, and the messages seem pretty naive too. ("There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak / Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory / It's a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad"). While it doesn't plumb depths such as 1983's "License to kill" ("Oh, man has invented his doom / First step was touching the moon") or his late-1970s born-again music, it doesn't soar to any particular heights either.

Comparisons are odious, so I'll be odious. The other elderly poet-singer enjoying a renewed burst of activity is Leonard Cohen, who released his last album ("Dear Heather") in 2004, and followed it up this year with a book of poetry ("Book of longing") and an album where he doesn't sing or perform but contributes lyrics (Anjani's "Blue Alert"). Most of "Blue Alert", and much of "Dear Heather", really is poetry set to music, and in songs like "Undertow" and the title song from Dear Heather he says more in a stanza than Dylan does in ten.

Cohen tells a story of how he and Dylan were sitting talking in a cafe in Paris; at that time Cohen had been impressed by Dylan's "I and I" (in fact he's an outspoken admirer of Dylan), while Dylan had been performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in concert. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write "Hallelujah", and Cohen said two years. Then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write "I and I", and Dylan said 15 minutes.

On this occasion I wish Dylan had taken a bit longer over his lyrics.

All the same, this is probably his best album since "Desire" thirty years ago.

(*)update - I mean Bob, of course


Martijn said...

Good engineers record songs at a low volumes and that is not only because we like to 'contol' the albums we buy. Mixing at low volumes forces the engineer to be more secure and lay the tracks right. Sounds blend more easily and disappear when they get overruled.

It sounds more sophisticated but it are also the sly velocity changes we like to determine and

Greets Martijn

Rahul said...

Thanks for the comment.

Indeed, one hears lots of myths about digital recording, such as you should record loud because you have only 16 bits of resolution. In fact even if you never cross half-maximum volume, you still have 15 bits, and if you never cross 1/16 of the maximum volume, you still have a resolution of 12 bits (which is plenty, really -- it means the "steps" are in units 1/4096 or 0.00024).

Ideally, soft instruments should be soft and loud instruments should be loud. The CD has enough dynamic range for all. I think the flattening is done for the ipod generation (and, earlier, the walkman generation), to prevent them going deaf.

tabula rasa said...

drat, i was planning a review too but you beat me to it. never mind, my review (when it comes) will have a very different flavor ;-)

Rahul said...

Look forward to reading yours. Will you rate it higher than I did, or will you disagree that it's the best since Desire? (Actually, after I wrote that I'm having second thoughts... "Time out of mind" may have the edge.)

I'm also intrigued by all the plagiarism accusations, both against this album and against its (appropriately titled?) predecessor.

In academia, if you quote and cite your sources, it's good scholarship. If you don't (and Dylan didn't), it's plagiarism. Granted he's not an academic, but shouldn't he be held to a higher standard than Kaavya?

tabula rasa said...

i read somewhere recently, in an article about this instance of "plagiarism", that given that so much of popular music is borrowed and built upon, a good criterion for judging plagiarism is whether the copy improves upon the original in any way. i think these dylan works do that since (a) they're not exact copies and (b) they blend the originals (japanese gangster and american civil war contexts!) in with dylan's own peculiar space. kaavya did not do either.

about the "quality" of the album, i only heard it once so i'm not sure.

Rahul said...

The point isn't whether he's entitled to use this imagery but whether he is entitled to do so without credit.

When U2 open a song with a few seconds of Hendrix (Star-spangled banner -> Bullet the blue sky), or Dire Straits open with a few seconds of Rogers & Hammerstein (Carousel Waltz -> Tunnel of love), or Floyd end with a few seconds of R & H (Fearless -> You'll never walk alone), they all take care to credit those few seconds to the composers (and the publishers and what's more, I believe they pay royalties -- they'll get jumped on if they don't).

I don't know what the law is about quoting a few textual lines -- it certainly depends on the quantum of borrowing. And Dylan borrowed a much bigger quantum than the above people did -- their borrowings contributed nothing to the "main body" of the song -- and even if royalties are not required in Dylan's case, it's just nicer to cite your sources.

Rahul said...

But I guess my bigger question is -- he stole from the "confederate poet laureate", why are his lyrics so bad?