It now seems hard to believe that Bringing It All Back Home was only Bob Dylan’s fifth album, and that it was immediately preceded by Another Side of Bob Dylan. The latter, itself a bold move at the time, now seems of a piece with the folk-singer part of his career. Bringing It All Back Home had electric guitars and rock’n’roll energy -- even the acoustic songs seemed to be moving Dylan in a new direction. The electric guitars in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” were a blast of defiance against any limitations folk music might have imposed, Dylan’s voice said that even rock’n’roll singing was going to be redefined, and the lyrics helped solidify the counterculture.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s vinyl reissue of Bringing It All Back Home (MFSL 2-380) is on two discs cut at 45rpm. It’s one of several Dylan titles MoFi has presented in this format, including The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Another Side. They’ve also pressed a 45rpm version of Blonde on Blonde on three discs. Dylan’s MoFi listings on Music Direct’s website show more titles forthcoming that will get the same treatment.
I have three copies of Bringing It All Back Home on vinyl, as well as the SACD/CD released by Columbia/Legacy in 2003. My copy of the stereo LP, probably pressed in the early ’70s, conveys the energy of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but details get lost, the guitars sound tired, and the piano in the right channel is far in the background. Switching back and forth between that pressing and the SACD, I noticed that the latter is louder by far; lowering the volume focused the sound and gave it more depth. Since the older stereo LP is so bland, it made more sense to compare the MoFi vinyl with the SACD (my other vinyl copies are mono).
There’s a striking amount of detail in the SACD version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but on the MoFi pressing it’s easier to distinguish among the three electric guitars and Dylan’s acoustic guitar. The double-bass lines are also more defined, and I can follow them more easily. The MoFi pressing has a more three-dimensional sound, and gives a better sense of the instruments playing behind Dylan.
Bobby Gregg’s hi-hat and drums in “She Belongs to Me” resonate more naturally on the MoFi than on the SACD, where they ring too sharply by comparison. The guitar tones sound more tonally correct on the vinyl and, again, the bass lines are easier to follow. Dylan’s voice is focused and out in front on the MoFi -- after hearing that, it sounds too emphatic on the SACD. Dylan’s harmonica on the MoFi is so much smoother and more natural, less harsh and more accurate.
Throughout the MoFi edition, Dylan’s voice has just a hint of reverb; it’s carefully set off and forward from the instruments, but not overemphasized. The remastering, by Krieg Wunderlich, presents the texture of Dylan’s voice without pushing it too far forward, and brings details of each instrument into relief while providing a sense of space. The light snare-drum taps in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” have just enough body, and the ride cymbal is clearly placed just behind Dylan and over his shoulder.
In the SACD version of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Dylan’s acoustic guitar sounds clear and sharp, and his voice is out front and aggressive. The guitar sound on the MoFi is much richer, capturing the resonance of the instrument’s sound hole, and I can hear the harmonic structure of each chord. Dylan’s voice is still powerful, but it’s not as insistent, and the LP lets his guitar and voice share the soundstage. On the SACD, they fight each other for space.
It’s natural, I think, to wonder if at this point it makes sense to buy yet another copy of Bringing It All Back Home. I still find things to like on my mono copies, one an original Columbia 360, the other a recent Sundazed pressing that’s very close to the original. The bass in both mono copies has more authority than I’ve heard on previous stereo copies, and the kick drum moves more air. Mobile Fidelity’s pressing, however, has a level of detail, space, and realism that make it the definitive way to hear this great music.
Ten years after Dylan took on rock’n’roll, he recorded Blood on the Tracks, a mostly acoustic album that also transcended genre. He had completed a version of the album with Eric Weissberg and Deliverance, as well as other session players, then recut some tracks in Minneapolis just before the album was scheduled to be released. The record, which critics and fans have long assumed was inspired by events in Dylan’s personal life, was an enormous hit, and ranks with his very best work.
I compared Mobile Fidelity’s 33rpm, single-LP edition (MFSL 1-381) with an early Columbia LP pressing (my copy has Pete Hamill’s liner notes in black print) and the SACD release. The vinyl on the original was surprisingly quiet after all these years, and it still sounds good to me. The instruments are well arranged behind Dylan on “Tangled Up in Blue,” and the 12-string guitar in the right channel is clear and appropriately bright. The SACD has more bass, and the instruments are more forward, but not irritatingly so. The major difference on the SACD is the occasional sibilance in Dylan’s voice.
The MoFi pressing at first sounds very reserved, but in time it reveals a deeper soundstage than the original LP and as much bass as the SACD, but in greater detail. Dylan’s voice sounds smoother overall, with more body than in the other two editions. The guitars in “Simple Twist of Fate” are rounder-toned and fuller on the MoFi, and are arrayed more explicitly behind and around Dylan in “You’re a Big Girl Now.” There’s more midrange detail overall, which brings out more of the natural sounds of the instruments.
In many cases, the remastering on the MoFi is a clear improvement. The electric organ that occasionally threatens to overpower Dylan in the original pressing of “Idiot Wind” is now behind him and better integrated into the mix, without sacrificing its importance in the arrangement. If you have an original pressing, however, you might miss the bite of Dylan’s singing on many of the tracks, which underlines the often bitter lyrics. I like many of the sonic qualities of the MoFi pressing, but I miss some of the drive and power in the original pressing and the SACD.
When Dylan toured the US in 1965, and the rest of the world the following year, he hired the Hawks to back him. In 1967 he and the Hawks recorded what would become known and widely bootlegged as the Basement Tapes. The following year, the Hawks became the Band and recorded their first album, Music from Big Pink, a well-received record notable for its emphasis on American roots music, from country and blues to rock’n’roll. The group broke through with its eponymous second LP, which was also roots-heavy and heartfelt.
Mobile Fidelity’s pressing of The Band (MFSL 1-419) is very good, comparable in many ways to Bob Ludwig’s mastering for the original pressing in 1969. The 2000 remastering on CD is fine, but lacks the immediacy of the Ludwig master, which I’ll use for comparison here. Those copies of The Band have Ludwig’s initials, “RL,” etched in the dead wax on each side.
One of the most impressive sounds in rock history is Levon Helm’s kick drum as he enters “Across the Great Divide.” Ludwig gave it a majestic Whomp! that helps set the atmosphere of the song, and Levon’s kick drum throughout the pressing is full and wondrous -- it’s the driving force of the record. Rick Danko was one of rock’s premier bassists, and Ludwig gave his rolling, melodic lines plenty of detail and presence throughout The Band.
Krieg Wunderlich’s remastering for Mobile Fidelity is more spacious than Ludwig’s, but Helm and Danko lose nothing in this pressing. Helm’s kick drums and snare have the same force, but his cymbals have more shimmer. Overall, the MoFi strikes a slightly better balance. Voices at first sounded less striking than on Ludwig’s master, but they’re somewhat better integrated into the overall sound, and, as a result, instruments come forward more. Robbie Robertson’s guitar arpeggios in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are cleaner, and the reeds and harmonica that accompany the voicing are easier to pick out.
When evaluating a record, I often have a clear preference for an original pressing over a reissue. In some cases I like the sound of the remaster, but my memories of the original are so strong that I can’t let them go. For now, the original pressing of Blood on the Tracks still captures the spirit of the music in a way that transports me to the mid-’70s, but in time I may come to prefer the MoFi. With The Band, I find myself liking both the MoFi and Bob Ludwig’s original. “Jemima Surrender” has more impact overall in the original, but Robertson’s guitar lines are easier to pick out in the MoFi, whose sound is more balanced.
I marveled repeatedly at Danko’s bass lines in the MoFi, which are tighter than on the original. Robertson’s guitar throughout is clearer, and horn sections are set off better. Individual touches, such as John Simon’s tuba in “Across the Great Divide,” are easier to pick out. But Bob Ludwig’s master captures the music’s majestic sweep and profundity. It’s not a bad thing to have two good versions of a North American masterpiece.
Ludwig did the mastering for my early copy of the Band’s Rock of Ages, recorded live in the last days of 1971, and again, I find things to like in both it and the new MoFi pressing (MFSL 2-348). The care Wunderlich took in the mastering is audible in the applause that opens the first track, which is deep and wide and puts me in the middle of the crowd at New York’s Academy of Music. Danko’s bass has more punch in the original, and Helms’s drums have the same impressive heft as in The Band. In the MoFi, it’s easier to pull keyboards and, especially, horns out of the mix.
Richard Manuel’s piano in the left channel of “Don’t Do It” is just as easy to hear in the new pressing, but it now sounds fuller and less aggressively bright. Danko’s voice is more forward in the original, but instrumental details around him fall into place more clearly in the MoFi. I paid particular attention to Robertson’s solo in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” It’s one of my favorite guitar solos, and it loses some of its top-end sting in the MoFi, but there’s a more pleasing tube-amp warmth to it, and the horn section during the closing lines is more detailed.
Like many labels in the ’70s, Capitol was pressing on recycled vinyl, so the MoFi also benefits from higher quality standards. Still, even Ron McMaster’s mastering for the expanded 2001 CD edition of Rock of Ages didn’t improve much on what was a blandly recorded live performance. Wunderlich has done an amazing job of giving the record more life and an unexpectedly deep sound. Garth Hudson’s bass pedals in “The Genetic Method” shake the floor -- repeatedly, I felt I was getting a true sense of the dimensions of the Academy of Music. In this case, despite the things I like about Bob Ludwig’s original master, I will turn to the MoFi pressing when I want to hear Rock of Ages.
All the MoFi LPs mentioned here were pressed at RTI on absolutely quiet 180gm vinyl. I’m always impressed by the small things RTI gets right, such as the smooth edge on a record’s rim, and the solidity and cleanness of the lead-in grooves. The quiet backgrounds give the music more space and let me savor transients, such as crash cymbals, and the music is more transparent overall. These improvements are especially apparent on the Band’s records, since Capitol’s pressing were often poor.
As usual with MoFi, the packaging, from the hefty cardboard stock of the covers to the static-free inner sleeves, is first rate. The reproduction of colors and photos is excellent, and for The Band they’ve duplicated the textured, flat finish of the original. They didn’t follow through with Blood on the Tracks or Rock of Ages, which have a medium-glossy finish, but they did retain the latter’s triple-gatefold cover. Pete Hamill’s liner notes for Blood on the Tracks are in white on a burgundy background, and the gatefold includes photos that were also in the SACD/CD booklet. Bringing It All Back Home also includes photos from the original sessions.
Thirty-five years ago, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab introduced Americans to the notion that music could be carefully mastered and pressed on high-quality vinyl. In that era of recycled vinyl, listening to a MoFi LP was a revelation. Companies that issue audiophile vinyl editions today follow the standards Mobile Fidelity set; these four releases show that MoFi remains true to those standards.
. . . Joseph Taylor