Review: The new, new, new Dylan
And the return of the Airplane
By Todd Leopold
Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," now available on a remastered SACD version.
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(CNN) -- I am not an audiophile.
I'm the kind of guy who believes the perfect way to listen to the Stones' "Exile on Main Street" is on a popped-and-scratched LP on a dumpy record player, and I can still hear the skip in my old LP copy of "Yesterday ... and Today," a Beatles album that doesn't even exist on CD. (No need -- it was cobbled together from "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and some singles by Capitol Records weasels anyway.)
So when it came to Bob Dylan, I purchased his work on CD reluctantly. The vinyl had such a warm glow -- why ruin everything with CDs, especially given the slipshod attention Columbia Records has given Dylan's work over the years?
For example, the CD version of my personal Greatest Album of All Time, "Blonde on Blonde" -- though it had the benefit of being two LPs on one disc -- sounded tinny and looked cheap. The CD version of "Blood on the Tracks," though somewhat better, also was poorly packaged.
Was this any way to treat a legend?
Apparently, Columbia wants to right some old wrongs. The label recently released 15 Dylan albums -- pretty much everything from 1962's "Bob Dylan" through 1969's "Nashville Skyline," as well as 1975's "Blood on the Tracks," 1983's "Infidels," 1989's "Oh Mercy," and a handful of others -- on the high-quality Super Audio CD format, packaged with remastered CD audio. The new versions have a sharper, cleaner sound than the old versions and feature original album packaging.
Columbia sent three discs for review -- "Freewheelin'," "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited" -- and I purchased "Blonde on Blonde" because, well, it's The Greatest Album of All Time. (It's also now a double CD and, at $25, double the price of the original.) And, for the most part, the label got it right.
(One note: I listened to all of them in CD format, since I don't own an SACD player.)
"Freewheelin' " comes off best. The 1963 album, which features "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," is the singer's greatest folk work. On the new release, his voice and guitar sound direct and immediate, as if he were performing at a smoky Greenwich Village club just for the listener.
But I was troubled by some of the changes on "Blonde on Blonde." Maybe I'm too close to the original, but the cleaned-up sound seemed to take some of the chaotic edge off "Absolutely Sweet Marie." The organ's a little too quiet on "Visions of Johanna." And though it's nice to be able to hear Dylan's formerly buried barrelhouse piano throughout the record, a little goes a long way.
On the other hand, the drums hit with a raw shock, and some songs -- particularly "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" and "Obviously 5 Believers" -- sound better than ever.
"Back Home" and "Highway 61" fall somewhere between the others. "Back Home," with its mix of spacey folk ("Mr. Tambourine Man") and rumbling rock ("Maggie's Farm"), sounds pure and clean, but so did the original. "Highway 61's" songs, particularly "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Ballad of a Thin Man," seem to sound more ominous, but there's little new here as well.
Worth buying? Well, it's hard to go wrong investing in Bob. But focus on the early stuff and "Blood on the Tracks." Why there's any need for a new version of "Love and Theft" -- what was wrong with the previous one? -- is beyond me.
Airplane flies again
RCA is also mining its vaults, re-releasing the Jefferson Airplane's first four albums on remastered CDs with extra tracks. The results are alternately thrilling and disappointing.
Some of the disappointment comes with the albums themselves. The Airplane was very much a '60s band, and some of the material -- particularly "After Bathing at Baxter's," the group's most overtly psychedelic outing -- sounds dated.
Worse, however, is the fact that no amount of remastering and reformatting can clean up the sloppy production jobs on the group's debut record, "Takes Off," and the landmark "Surrealistic Pillow." Both still sound muddy and distant. (Did RCA staff producer Rick Jarrard borrow the Kingsmen's microphones and mixing board?)
Still, it's good to have versions of "Somebody to Love," "Lather" and others that are (presumably) about as good as they're going to get, and the extra cuts, particularly Jorma Kaukonen's tracks, are a welcome addition.
Now, when are they going to do "Volunteers"?