The 50th Anniversary package celebrating the landmark 1968 debut album by the immensely influential group known simply as "The Band" -- called Music From Big Pink -- is a fabulous collection, simple its execution yet exquisite in its ability to take your breath away. The set includes a two LP version of a brand new mix of the original album spinning at 45 RPM, pressed on 180-gram black vinyl. You also get a Blu-ray Disc which not only includes the new Stereo mix but also a fine new 5.1 Surround Sound presentation of the music as created by the great Bob Clearmountain. The mastering was done by Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering Studios. Additionally you get a CD with all these tracks, a reproduction of the first 45 RPM single issued back in the day, a nice album-sized booklet plus incredible period photographs by Elliot Landy.
Before we head into Music From Big Pink, I do have to qualify all of my comments here with some personal perspective: I've always loved the music on Music From Big Pink but I've never particularly liked the sound of the original album as present on vinyl pressings I've owned over the years (the way I have heard this music over the years, not on CD). The original 1968 pressing on Capital Records ("rainbow" label) always sounded a bit boxed in to my ear. Of course, that kind of goes counter to logic as the album was recorded in some terrific studios in New York and Los Angeles by a top producer of many albums that helped define the sound of pop music in the late 1960s, John Simon (Janis Joplin/Big Brother, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, etc.).
All I can surmise from hearing how much bigger this new version sounds is that someone in the production food chain back in 1968 erred on the side of caution by reigning-in this fairly cinemascopic recording. Perhaps it was to address the limitations of the average teenage record player of the day. In 1968, the audiophile movement was still something of a cult (if you will) but bigger sounding recordings from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles were no doubt inspiring young adults to step up their listening enjoyment with better quality stereo systems (that could track and do justice to more dynamic recordings) which were steadily becoming more affordable to the masses. Or perhaps it was simply a stylistic choice influenced by the still prevalent AM radio of the day. Or perhaps it was a side effect of the type of vinyl used. Or perhaps it was none of that at all and is simply the way the music sounded to my ear!
That said, I'm super happy to report that this new version of Music From Big Pink delivers in high resolution Stereo and Surround Sound mixes that are as detailed and rich as one might hope a pioneering 1968 album of roots-oriented Americana rock could be. I can't underscore it enough just how many details I'm hearing for the first time it seems. Its all the more remarkable now that I've learned this album was recorded on a four-track recorder! These new mixes shine new light on the music and are a wonderful complement to the 1968 original as produced by John Simon, not a replacement (as with many classic recordings, the original version will remain the definitive).
About a year ago I picked up a reissue of this album on vinyl from a remaster that dated back to about 2015 if I am not mistaken. Generally, it sounded really good, so much so that I got rid of my aforementioned original 1968 pressing. So, comparing that reissue vinyl to the new two disc version was an interesting exercise. I'm happy to report that the 45 RPM version does sound like an improvement, portraying the music in richer and less constrained fashion.
Spinning at 45 RPM, there is a bright clarity yet a strong sense of warmth coming through the speakers here. This is especially apparent on the drums and the electric guitars: I can now hear some studio resonance around the drums and get a better sense of the guitar amplifier's tones they were capturing in those studios.
Since the album has been spread out across two discs, the music is presented in a remarkably uncompressed form so I am not hearing that sort of claustrophobic sensibility here, especially as the stylus tracks closer to the center of the disc. With a maximum of three songs per side, the music has lots of room to breathe! Its particularly notable for me on tracks like the rocking "To Kingdom Come" and the legendary hit "The Weight." "This Wheel's On Fire" and "Chest Fever" also sound more wide open.
When I go back to my still relatively "new" 180-gram vinyl pressing the music sounds a bit compromised: the vocals are even a bit distorted at points. And as that disc is a bit off center, the music wavers too much at certain points (a problem with my old 1968 pressing as well!). In contrast, on the new well-centered vinyl spinning at 45 RPM Music From Big Pink sounds big and full. Levon Helm's snare drum rolls sound especially natural. The acoustic guitar strums feel thicker.
My only nit: unfortunately, my copy of Music From Big Pink had some minor non-fill issues on "I Shall Be Released" which is a shame. They are not deal breakers for me (they were very short and not really loud) and I haven't read anything online of others having this issue so hopefully mine is a one-off error. Plus, I am very happy with the Blu-ray version of this mix which is immune to that issue (I'll discuss it a bit in the next section). But I know non-fill is an issue for some of you out there so I had to bring it up. Hopefully it has been rectified on subsequent pressings.
High Resolution Blu-ray Disc (96 kHz, 24-bit)
Like the vinyl, the 96/24 version of the new Stereo remix of Music From Big Pink rose to my harshest test: playing it loudly. The music doesn't fall apart or get harsh even at loud volume and in fact it sounds real enjoyable cranked up to 11. Yes, it is a brighter and different mix, but everything still sounds full bodied. I love Garth Hudson's ethereal organ swells supporting "I Shall Be Released" propelled along by Rick Danko's punctuating round bass lines. Lots of little details like that which emerge with each listen.
High Resolution Tidal Streaming
So you say you don't want to mess with physical media and messy vinyl records anymore? Well, Dear Streamers, rest easy because a couple versions of Music From Big Pink are up there for the listening (if you have a subscription, that is). Presented in 96 kHz, 24-bit MQA format, the latest version of the album there (with the bonus tracks) sounds overall pretty close to the new vinyl and Blu-ray versions. However, it does sounds a bit different to my ear -- not necessarily bad -- and I am not sure why. Perhaps it is not my preferred sound? Its almost like there is a bit of that crumbly crunchy stuff you find on a Dutch Apple Pie scattered around the edges of the vocals. It is still tasty in a way, but that remains not my favorite kind of pie. This grittiness is not apparent on the 2.0 PCM version on the Blu-ray Disc in the set. And I'm not sure, but I think the separation is more distinct on the Blu-ray Disc, but that may just be the difference between how my Oppo Universal Player is handling the music vs. MQA stream as decoded by a Mytek Brooklyn DAC (via Comcast, my ISP at present).
"Tears of Rage" and "This Wheel's On Fire" sounded pretty good on Tidal but "To Kingdom Come" felt a bit harsher. Is that a problem with Tidal or the quality of the digital files they were provided or an ill effect of the streaming audio signal getting pushed around by my ISP? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Whatever the case, your streaming experience may vary!!
There are two versions of Music From Big Pink, streaming up on Tidal. One is just the basic original album (click here for that) and in this regard that version sounds nicer than the newer mix you'll also find up there (click here for that). The good news is both options exist so if you aren't planning on springing for the boxed set in the first place, you can choose which ever one you like better.
All in all, this deluxe edition Music From Big Pink is a wonderful reinvention, an exploration revealing music that has been locked in one form basically for 50 years. In some ways, this new set might offer a curious sense of closure for long time fans who have been waiting to experience their favorite album anew. And it might well deliver this hopeful music to a new generation of listener in a punchier form they can better appreciate.
What can be more timeless than making a good thing better?
Well, a Surround Sound remix could and some choice bonus tracks might add to the experience! We'll explore those elements of this new boxed set in Part Two of this review which you will hopefully see soon here on Audiophile Review.