Top critical review
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Not so glorious
on February 25, 2014
The rating isn't for the music. I could go on at length about that, but I won't bother. Suffice it to say, I first heard this album a long time ago when it came out on vinyl, and then listened to it over and over on long car trips, playing it on a cassette player. I hadn't listened to it in years and no longer had a copy, so, when I found myself singing "Easy Wind" and "New Speedway Boogie" in my head, I came to Amazon and read the glowing reviews of the newly mastered version, "Remastered in Glorious HDCD." Gee, sounded great, and so many reviewers said so. How could I go wrong?
By buying the newly remastered version, that's how.
What is it with you music fans who can't get enough of miserably remastered music? "Oh, it's new -- it has to be better! Technology has advanced so much since it was first recorded!"
No, it doesn't necessarily have to be better. It can be worse -- much worse.
You'll see a lot of reviews here praising the remastering. Typically, the reviewer marvels at how you can hear every instrument so distinctly. True. And that's the problem.
Recording a song successfully is like cooking a recipe successfully. A good chef knows how to blend separate flavors to create a new and different flavor. The new dish has an identity all its own. Similarly, a good record producer (or a composer or a conductor, for that matter) knows how to arrange sounds so the result is a blend that's a coherent whole, a new entity that's different from and greater than the sum of its parts.
Too many producers of remastered digital recordings think they're doing us a favor by surgically separating the component sounds in a composition; but they're not helping. They abstract the individual instruments and voices and spread them out so they don't properly blend. It reminds me of how Huck Finn described the difference between eating a good stew and eating things served separately:
"When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them, -- that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better."
Too often, what these remastering producers give us is an unsavory collection of discrete ingredients with no juice.
Instead of trying to faithfully recreate the original identity of the song by replicating the original blend of its component parts, these second-hand producers seem to treat the task as if the point is to make every separate component equally clear and distinct. But that's not what a good producer does, any more than a good chef puts in equal parts of all the different ingredients seeking to maintain each ingredient's separate identity. Instead of each song being a blended stew with its own identity, these remasters give us tracks that are collections of separate ingredients that don't mix. It's like eating the carrots, the peas, the potatoes, the meat, and the spices separately and drinking the broth by itself. You're getting the same ingredients, but they're not properly cooked together and you're not getting the flavor of the whole.
And that's how this remastered recording of "Workingman's Dead" tastes to me. It weakens the arrangements by isolating the component elements to the point that the original balanced relationship between them is lost. It's as if a surgeon had dissected a body and spread the separate organs on the operating table. It's no longer a living, breathing entity with an identity -- it's an anatomy lesson. The organs no longer function together as a whole. If you've ever wondered why audiophiles rave about the superiority of old vinyl recordings, that's why. The songs on the original vinyl are warm, breathing, vital, coherent entities with unique identities.
In sum, this is a nice collection of songs and arguably the best collection the Dead ever produced, but the quality is much-diminished by this wrongheaded attempt to improve it. The patient was perfectly healthy till the surgeon got his hands on him, and now he's dead.
Luckily, I went to a used music store in my neighborhood tonight and scored a copy of the original CD release. It doesn't have any of the bonus material, but it's much, much, much better than this diluted, punchless, juiceless, bland remaster. It's the album that was released in 1970. The vocals are much more intimate, up-front and alive, the harmonies don't sound like they were recorded in somebody's living room, and unlike with the vapid remaster, the rock music does what it did back in 1970 -- it rocks. Whereas the Glorious Remaster has been emasculated, the original CD master still has the balls of the original vinyl.
And why would you want a remaster that was done years after Jerry Garcia died in 1995? The liner notes to the older CD I picked up tonight read: "Mastering approved by the Grateful Dead." The entire band (minus Pigpen, of course), including the preeminent founding member, approved the original master of the CD. Why would anybody want less? Okay, so you get a bunch of "bonus material" along with a miserably misbegotten remaster of the songs on the original album. So what? Do yourself a big favor, if you like these songs. Get them in the original vinyl version or the CD master approved by Jerry Garcia, who composed the music for six of the eight original tracks. Those are the songs the way he wanted them to be heard. That's the record that people liked in 1970, and it beats the crap out of this remaster. This new mess is not what the album sounded like when the Dead recorded it. Less, in this case, is a lot more.