After my last piece on the Grateful Dead’s Europe 72 Part 2 release and the comparison/contrast between HDCD and DVD-Audio, the good folks at Rhino Records offered me the opportunity to check out the new vinyl reissues of the band’s first five Warner Bros. releases (all studio albums). I jumped at the opportunity, of course! Even though I have (what I consider, at least to-date) the definitive incarnations of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead on DVD-Audio , the first three studio albums in my collection were in less than pristine condition, so I was curious to hear how they would sound paired against brand spanking new 180-gram audiophile vinyl pressings.
Overall I will say that the new pressings are outstanding for many reasons:
— Original mixes appear to have been used throughout (as opposed to the CD issues, which in some instances didn’t)
— They are much quieter than the original pressings
— Cover art is beautifully reproduced on thick, stiff cardboard (nothing flimsy here)
— Each album comes in a protective plastic (probably static free) pinkish colored inner sleeve
— And yes, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead do sound great on the new LPs too, but that is not the focus here.
Here are my reflections from listening to the first three reissues:
Aoxomoxoa, arguably my favorite Grateful Dead album, is really the point where the band began to blend their acoustic folk bluegrass roots with the more eclectic psychedelic experiments. It’s a very organic album with many twists, turns, and surprises and many classic songs that became staples in the Dead’s live performances (“China Cat Sunflower,” “St. Stephen”). You may not be aware of it, but in the early ’70s this album was remixed, adding reverb and other tweaks that (in my humble opinion) were unnecessary. The original recording sounded more like the band, live in your living room. Obviously, someone else felt the got it right to begin with, too, and the new LP reissue restores the original mix. A very quiet surface on the vinyl benefits the dynamic music here well — my fairly good condition original pressing sounds good, but certainly bears the wounds of frequent playback on some stoned hippy’s AR or Dual turntable back in the day. Not sure if it’s my imagination, but perhaps the ages have taken some toll on the tapes, giving the original pressings an ever-so-slight edge in terms of high end sonics, but it’s mighty close. And given the quiet vinyl, I’m more than happy to make this my go-to version. Curiously, the CD from the box set seems to have some added hiss on the recording — I am wondering if that was due to the ’70s remix/remaster or simply the quality of the tape used to master that CD. The original LP and the new 180 gram LP reissue have less hiss and sound more natural, especially on Phil’s bass, which sounds much fuller. Cool trivia alert: if the wikipedia is accurate, a 5-year-old Courtney Love can be seen in the iconic group photo on the back cover!
Anthem of the Sun is one of those albums you either love or hate. You either get it or don’t. I got it pretty early on — 1968 in fact, when my older brother came home from a summer at Boy Scout camp armed with a cassette of this album he’d been given by a friend. This was the Dead’s attempt to produce themselves as they wanted to be heard and it is accordingly a wonderful mess — the sound of young aspiring artists embracing the studio as an instrument and exploring its boundaries (probably enhanced by various controlled substances).
At the end of the day, the band aborted making it an entirely studio album and created a collage/montage of live and studio takes. Forty years on, it is remarkable how well it works as the band flows from goofy jug band kazoo romps like “Alligator” into the seething tribal stomp known as “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks).” In short, the new LP is probably the definitive article for now, as it is way quieter than my original LP pressing (which sounds pretty good, all things considered, but not nearly so clean). The LP is better than the CD too. No surprise there. FYI, this is another album that was remixed in the early ’70s, but this LP appears to be from the original 1968 master. Collectors, of course, will rejoice that Rhino did not use the first stamper that had “”The faster we go, the rounder we get” etched in the run out groove. So there is still something to collect there (in fact, I need to get one of those myself, as well as the weird late ’70s “white” cover version that briefly appeared on store shelves).
Captain Trips — the unofficial title some Dead Heads have given this album, a reference to a nickname of Jerry Garcia’s at the time — sounds arguably better than my original gold-label pressing, with crisp clear highs, deep full bass, and a noticeably quieter noise floor from the high quality vinyl used on these pressings. This sounds fabulous! And while tracks like “Sitting on Top of the World” are longer on the CD (coupled with the bonus tracks), making the CD essential to own, if you really want to hear what this album sounds like, you need to hear it on vinyl. And if you are really hardcore, you should seek out the very limited “Record Store Day” issue of the mono pressing of this album. I didn’t buy it at the time, since I have a nice original mono copy (Canadian pressing, on a blue Warner Brothers label!) but who knows, maybe someday I’ll pick up a copy if I can find it around.
Anyhow, be prepared to twirl a lot when listening to these albums as you hear the good old Grateful Dead make the journey from psychedelic dance band pioneers to acoustic harmonic folk rock masters.