A mere 14 months after 1968’s groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Music from Big Pink, the Band accomplished something remarkable—the group raised the bar even higher with a more cohesive and musically complex follow-up record. Listening to the first side of the quintet’s self-titled sophomore album is like watching a highly skilled basketball team execute a razzle-dazzle of amazing three-pointers, behind-the-back passes, and triple-clutch layups.
Indeed, after years spent touring and rehearsing with the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the Band was road-tested and ready for its closeup. When the collective’s multi-instrumentalists pick up their horns and begin a New Orleans-flavored waltz with Levon Helm’s gut-punching kick drum on the opening “Across the Great Divide,” they set the stage for a bubbling, roots-rock party that doesn’t flag until the final notes of Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ fade into the distance.
Side one’s full-court press of killer singles spotlights each member’s greatest strengths. “Rag Mama Rag” demonstrates why Helm remains considered as one of rock’s most distinctive drummers. His rollicking syncopation and wild-man assault on his vintage wooden-rimmed drum kit place an earthy stamp on the entire album. And while many have tried, no artist has matched the pain and regret Helm’s voice brings to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a Robbie Robertson song that sounds like it was written by someone who lived the history it describes. “Up on Cripple Creek” comes on as a funky carnival ride that threatens to collapse if a single element gets removed. On the song, Rick Danko’s loping bass, Robertson’s twangy guitar, and Hudson’s funky Hohner clavinet form a raft that takes Helm and his mates’ harmonies up the stream and over the waterfall. Side two feels more restrained and begins to wind down with songs primarily sung by Danko and Richard Manuel about subjects like the plight of the working man (“King Harvest”) and growing old (“Rocking Chair”). While the Band’s musicians were inspired by the past, they avoided the pitfalls of pastiche and, as a result, the 1969 album’s appeal and influence are timeless.
For decades, the original lime-green-label Capitol edition mastered by Robert Ludwig served as the holy grail for fans of “the brown album.” Hearing it played back on a good turntable through a decent audio system is something every analog lover should experience—if only to admire the visceral presence of Helm’s drum kit and natural resonance of the acoustic instrumentation. Ludwig’s mix put all comers to shame—until the 2013 release of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster.
Using an un-equalized copy of the master tape, engineer Krieg Wunderlich applied Mobile Fidelity’s Gain 2 Ultra Analog system to create a version that sounds somewhat more balanced across the spectrum than Ludwig’s bass-forward edition. The varied tones and colors of the powerful horn arrangements come through in all their multi-layered glory. While there’s a tad less low-end transparency in the presentation of Helm’s kick drum compared to the “RL” original, Mobile Fidelity’s treatment clearly bests Capitol’s 2015 decent albeit considerably flatter digital remaster. Listeners who can finda rare copy of Ludwig’s version may find it difficult to persuade others that the Mobile Fidelity edition isn’t as good in its own right, especially when you factor in the ultra-flat, dead-quiet pressing.
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