I’ve been meaning to write up a bunch of Bob Dylan Best Pressing Shootouts… and here’s the first! Get ready for more in the next little while on Self Portrait, Blood on the Tracks, and “Love and Theft.”
When Rough and Rowdy Ways first came out, I was in a bit of a Bobby lull — not actively obsessed. Also, I thought the cover was ugly and the title seemed lame — which I must admit I still do. So I didn’t buy it when it came out.
But eventually, I got re-obsessed with Bobby’s work; indeed, probably more obsessed than I’ve ever been with Bobbby or anyone — I read like 10 books about him in the span of a couple of months! And then I discovered that, whatever my feelings about the cover and title, Rough and Rowdy Ways was a very fine record, up there with his latter-period best. So I needed a copy.
When the time came to purchase it, the album had been out for a while, and there were lots of strong feelings on Discogs about which pressing was best. Most claimed that the US pressings were junk — noisy and warped — whereas the EU pressings by MPO well-made and dynamic-sounding.
Another question was widely debated: were the coloured pressings (yellow, gold, green) better than the black ones? The consensus seemed to be that it didn’t make a huge difference, but that those who had listened to them all thought the yellow EU pressing was the best.
So that’s the one I got.
However — although mine sounded pretty good and was centred and non-warped when it arrived… it had an annoying “swish swish” sound in the right channel that no amount of cleaning could get rid of. So I wondered about those other pressings…
More recently, some time spent listening to the shockingly amazing-sounding standards albums (Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, Triplicate) got me wondering some more. What if the other pressings were better than the “pretty good” of the yellow EU Rough and Rowdy? Might they be shockingly amazing too?
So I got my hands on some other pressings…
Here are the contenders.
First, my yellow EU pressing (this one on Discogs). Very pretty, but frustratingly “swishy” on the left channel, on all four sides. It’s manufactured by MPO, and has their logo in the dead wax.
Next up is the black vinyl equivalent. Like the above, it’s manufactured in France by MPO, and has their logo in the dead wax. (On Discogs, this is called the US version, but it’s definitely EU-pressed by MPO).
And, finally, the US black vinyl version. This one has “US” in the dead wax and lacks the MPO stamp. Strangely, Discogs has no entry for this version — they only have the equivalent US coloured vinyl version, whose markings exactly match this. (I’m not sure who pressed these domestically-manufacturer US versions.) Note the smaller central ring in this US version, too — the MPO one goes through part of the D and y in the script “Dylan,” whereas this one barely catches the tail of the y.
Alas, there is no absolutely clear answer in this case.
Although they all sound pretty good (about B+/A- in my own little scoring system), the black MPO pressing is probably the worst of the bunch: it comes across as soft, lacking in definition, and muted in the treble.
The black US pressing is more defined, much sharper and crisper in the treble — but lacking in bass heft, a little “chalky,” and overall a bit harsh. (The concerns about the manufacturing of the US copies is justified here: my copy is pretty warped.)
The yellow MPO is the goldilocks pressing: good definition, plenty of bass, sharp but not grating. But there is, of course, the vexing matter of the “swish, swish”…
None of these pressings is in the same league as a disc like Shadows in the Night — which is a true audiophile delight. Perhaps some day another pressing will come along to put all these to shame… But maybe this disc just wasn’t as well-recorded.
So I’ll be keeping the yellow MPO — and maybe I’ll try to get my hands on another of those at some point, one without any “swish swish”!
Current setup: LP12-esque turntable (externalized Lingo 4 PSU, Karousel bearing, modified Mober aluminum plinth, Stack Audio Serene baseplate, Tiger Paw Khan top plate, Mober subchassis, Supatrac Blackbird tonearm, Linn Troika cartridge rebuilt by Goldring), Paradise phono stage, fully Ryan Sound Labs-ified Naim 32.5 preamp, 2 x mono-iced Naim 110 amplifiers into custom crossovers handling mids and highs, Lab.gruppen IPD-1200 active bass amplification, Yamaha NS-1000M speakers.
All discs washed with Spin Clean and Kirmuss ultrasonic cleaner.
“Murder Most Foul”
Black MPO. A bit warped. A tiny bit of surface noise. Sounds very good. Terrific texture on bowed bass — you feel it in your belly. Voice is sharp and present. Very deep bass on bass drum. Like an A- or so?
Black US. Also slightly warped. A little bit of surface noise. You don’t feel the texture on the bowed bass as clearly, nor do you feel it in your belly. But the vocals are sharped, brighter, with better presence. In general the balance here is brighter, sharper, but a but chalky, missing that deep feel-it-in-your-bones. Also about an A-, but I’d take it over the MPO for that vocal sharpness.
Yellow MPO. Disc is flat. A fair bit of “swooshing” noise. Nice mix of the two: the richness of the texture of the bowed bass from the black MPO, but with improved vocal clarity and presence (best of all three here). The only issue is the swishing on the outer grooves, which is genuinely annoying, but the sound quality here is the best of the three, A.
“Crossing the Rubicon”
Yellow MPO. Same annoying swishing in the right channel as always. Nice solid low end — kick drum is terrific. Snare is sharp and detailed. Holographic vocals — it tingles with the nice distortion and reverb Bob put on his vocals here. A.
Black US. No surface noise I can hear. Same sonic profile as on “MMF”: sharp, detailed, but a bit chalky. The kick drum is vague here, thumpy, compared with the warmth and precision of the yellow MPO. Snare really nice and sharp here though. Vocals are also very nicely sharp, grainy in a good way, though you don’t feel the reverb or the distortion as clearly as on the yellow MPO.
Black MPO. Clearer, richer bass — more muted, distant vocals — the trends hold here. This is my least favourite of the three, though it’s still very good. Yellow MPO is def my favourite… but that surface noise!