how many channels must one man have?

The mono releases of Bob Dylan’s first eight albums are due out Tuesday.

That collection, along with the old/new Witmark Demos and an armful of books about the man, are this season’s Dylan treasures. From the outside it looks like a cottage industry busy recycling ideas for the faithful, but I believe that since the current revival began several years ago, the attention paid to Dylan has just gotten better and finer and more on point. Somewhere in there is an acknowledgment that we don’t have Dylan forever, and should think hard about him while he’s still around.

A key idea in the back part of Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan In America is that Dylan is moving freely through time, musically speaking, turning over old songs and assembling a story about America that is out of view these days, obstructed by ‘virtual reality.’

It’s one of those ideas that sounds like it belongs in a pamphlet you find in an uncle’s desk drawer after he dies and you discover he was a Rosicrucian. But Dylan is not dogmatic, nor conspiratorial, at least not in the dangerously crazy way.

His story is the side long glance, the stuff that’s in plain sight but not easily seen. It’s what Greil Marcus called ‘the old, weird America’ and when I listen to late Dylan or read about him now I think it’s a guerrilla war between the iPods and netbooks on the one hand and the general store with the rack full of paperbacks on the other, and even though it would seem a lopsided fight I’m not betting against the old knowledge – and you shouldn’t either.

Which brings us to the mono recordings. I got an early copy of the 15 track ‘best of’ and am startled (again) at how good mono sounded when it was the primary way of mixing music. Dylan’s more or less greatest hits of the 60s sound like they’re being broadcast directly from then to now.

How is that? In a word, amazing. Technically, the highs seem less harsh and Dylan’s vocals are different, in a way I can’t quite find words for yet. It’s as if I can clearly hear not just Bob Dylan circa 1964, but the hint of all the other Bob Dylans he would be. Talk about time out of mind.

Anyway, it’s not a gimmick. It’s a gift.

***

Speaking of channels, my current speakers are a set of small full range speakers purchased a few years ago. They’re the JB3s from the boutique ‘JohnBlue’ line and make for an interesting listen.

Because they’re full range – meaning one speaker in each unit, so no crossover – they’re predictably light on bass. (Full range speaker designers go to great lengths to design around this problem, adding ports and vents and such to enhance the bass sound. It’s a little like people who come up with ways to do various otherwise forbidden things on Passover – you’re preserving purity while living in the ‘real’ world.)

But when they’re allowed to run for an extended period of time, (I probably have 20 hours in on them now), they do ‘break in,’ which means the amount of apparent bass seems to increase. Dylan in mono sounded absolutely dead on, but so – strangely – did the very, very modern and layered and compressed soundtrack to Black Hawk Down, which I watched on dvd.

I can see why the movie won an Oscar for sound design – it’s maybe the richest movie I have ever listened to – and while I thought the JohnBlues would subtract from the experience, the exact opposite happened. They effortlessly pulled me in to the sound, even though by rights I should be using big, bass heavy speakers to get the full effect. Instead, I thought three more of them would make great surround sound.

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