I waited a while to even contemplate doing a review of the high-resolution download of the first Grateful Dead album (via HDTracks.com) for numerous reasons. One, the album is itself a rushed, hyper-speed, uber-enthusiastic, imperfect debut, complete with all manner of rough edges that the average audiophile might well not care an ounce about. Most audiophiles who like the Grateful Dead want to hear the classic stuff like American Beauty or Workingman's Dead.
Secondly, I really didn't have on hand the one thing I thought would be necessary to do this one comparative justice: a good original pressing.
However, that latter point changed recently when I happened upon aa pristine original stereo pressing of the album (at an estate sale!) so suddenly I had genuine basis for comparison when listening to the HDTracks 24-bit/192-kHz remasters (from Rhino / Warner Brothers Records). I already had the beautiful 180-gram reissue too from 2011 and the 2001 The Golden Road CD box set reissues as well. So I think that now I'm fairly well primed for this!
FYI, I did not even consider including the mono pressings in this review as that is another thing entirely, an entity unto itself.
Anyhow, after giving all these versions a spin, here's the dealio on this one, kidz: They all sound pretty great, all things considered. They do sound very similar, so you're going to have a fairly critical ear -- or be a completist, like me -- to be able to discern differences on these early, almost garage-band-flavored recordings.
I think it's a feather in the cap of the folks at Rhino/Warner and the remastering team working for the Grateful Dead that a 1967 edition feels about the same as the 2011 reissue. They did a nice job on the reissue and in some ways it is perhaps more desirable than an original pressing given the vinyl is dead quiet and perfectly centered. My recent garage sale version is also pretty quiet, but finding a copy like that is a genuine rarity most collectors will not find easily at any sort of reasonable price.
I sense the bass is a bit punchier on the 2011 remaster as well as this high-res version in comparison to the original LP. That could be due to many reasons including the remastering. For the HDTracks version, that perhaps may be a one benefit of the Plangent Processes audio restoration that was employed in those versions (more on that in a bit).
The interesting thing about hearing the HDTracks version is that a lot of the distortion you hear on the record is actually on the original master tape and a part of the sound of the recording. So that isn't necessarily your old LP distorting!
If the album had a hyper speed flavor to begin with, now it's even more apparent just how jacked up the guys in the band were in making this album. All the pacing is much more consistent track-to-track on this new HDTracks download version -- these guys were playing with a fervor that would've made the Ramones proud. This is very apparent on tracks like "Sittin' On Top of the World" and "Cream Puff War" which propels along with amphetamine intensity only hinted at previously.
I can't tell you how many times I've listened to "Viola Lee Blues" and always sort of wondered what they were actually singing about (I admit that I never really bothered to look up the lyrics.... just one of those things). However, playing this HDTracks version, it is really clear and I was amazed how suddenly I could make out pretty much every word they sing ("The judged decreed it..."). Very much one of those "hearing it again for the first time" situations here.
Very, very cool...
So, what is my bottom line take on all this?