Of all the recently-released downloads, this, the second and best album by one of the greatest groups ever, was the one I was most anxious to get my hands on. The Band (the group) had it all: unrivaled musicianship on every instrument, songwriting that has stood the test of time, three terrific vocalists, and a charismatic ringleader in the form of writer-guitarist Robbie Robertson. The Band (the album) is a glorious mix of radio-friendly fare (“Rag Mama Rag”), soon-to-be classics (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek”), and quirky Americana (“Jawbone”). Not every track will grab you at first, but in the end, each song reveals its brilliance.
The 1969, pre-Pro Tools recording is blessedly natural, downplayed in a way that ideally suits the low-key music. Indeed, the original CD is perfectly recommendable. It’s nice and lively, with very little digital grit. Then there’s the Gold Disc remastered by Steve Hoffman which, as is usually the case, is even better. On this version, it’s easier to hear individual instruments and vocal character.
Both SuperHiRez.com and HDtracks have come out with multiple versions, so there’s suddenly a lot of high-res Band out there. I started with the HDtracks 96/24 and found it both louder and brighter than the Gold CD. The pace was decidedly rushed. Some may prefer this version’s more up-front and admittedly clearer presentation, but to me it sounds like someone tried to “modernize” the sound. I say “Yuck” and “No thanks.” HDtracks’ 192/24 more closely resembles the 96/24 than the Gold CD, but it’s a step in the right direction. Pace is more measured—though still not as relaxed as it should be—and there is enough less brightness to take the digital edge off. This version is acceptable, but still not ideal.
SHR also offers The Band in 192/24. I expected it and the HDtracks version at the same resolution to sound similar, if not identical, so I was mightily surprised at how much better the SHR acquitted itself. Here, the pace finally sounds unrushed, and there is real, unforced detail. At times, this version, too, can be a bit bright, but the compensation is a lode of musical and sonic info that’s missing on any CD. Highly recommended.
SHR also very kindly offers a DSD version of this album. Guess what? It sounds almost exactly like the 192/24. I give the latter a very slight edge thanks to a touch more tonal fullness, but you can safely take your pick.