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10/09/03
Reviewed by -
Grey Cavitt

Bob Dylan
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Released: September 16, 2003
Origination Year: 1963
Time: 50:16
Tracks: 13
Produced by: John Hammond Sr
Style: Studio
Format: SACD
Enhancement: DSD
Label: Columbia/Legacy Records
Website:
N/A

Bob Dylan’s catalog first arrived in the digital age in the mid-eighties, and unlike most compact discs issued in the early days of the format, the Dylan CDs were, for the most part, never upgraded. The discs in the stores when Reagan was in office were the same ones in the store when the current Bush swore the oath. Unfortunately, those initial discs did not live up to the music they contained. The transfer engineers used tapes that were quite far from masters, resulting in dull sound, and the booklets were extremely condensed versions of the original vinyl packages. While this type of treatment was sadly typical of the first generation of CDs, the times have indeed changed, while the Dylan discs have not, until now.

With the advent of domestically created Super Audio Compact Discs and CD hybrids, Columbia launched a reissue of many of Bob Dylan’s albums. It is not only an opportunity to restore the albums to forms resembling (and sounding like) their original releases, but also a chance to make a major display of the quality of the format. Aside from the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival hybrids, these are the first significant sections of a major rock artist’s work to find a home on the new format, and the first such catalog pressed domestically.

I am fully reviewing five of six crowd favorite Bob Dylan albums (omitting Bringing It All Back Home), but briefly, Columbia deserves high praise. They have done a stellar job, lavishing this great music with the care and respect it deserves.

Break out the plastic.

The earliest album in the reissue series is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album of phenomenal importance not only for its creator but also for all of popular music. Yet never has a major talent erupted so calmly. Dylan's debut proved him an above-average folk singer with little impact on the world at large; this, his second album, changed the world and ignited a decade. Sure, excepting "Corrina, Corrina", Dylan simply sang songs accompanied by a guitar and occasional harmonica breaks, but the songs burst into flames.

While young Dylan found nourishment by sinking roots into early blues and country music and, especially, the work of Woody Guthrie, he hotwired his influences, shared by many of his contemporaries in the folk scene, in a way none of his fellow musicians did. This was not simply gentle music with a harsh political agenda. It was often harsh music grated across an intentionally abrasive rasp of a voice, and it was often incredibly personal in an intimate tone seldom heard around Greenwich Village. Of course, these stylistic differences, perhaps only noted at first by true music fanatics, would have never lit the world afire without the primary quality that separated Dylan from his companions. While much of the folk music at the time focused on standards, Bob Dylan’s ability to create new music managed an astonishing quantum leap after his first album. By the time he entered the studios to record Freewheelin’, he was already the greatest songwriter of the twentieth century. His stunning style mated with his peerless compositions elevated this modest collection of quiet songs into an undying masterpiece whose echoes reverberate today.

"Blowin' in the Wind" introduced introspective thoughts that would lead to the culture of the 60s, and "Masters of War" was one of the very best protest songs ever written. These may have excited listeners, but the painfully sad, sweet "Girl from the North Country" made them cry, and the perfect "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" managed to express every emotion involved in lost love in a few simple minutes. Dylan saw a way to make folk songs both political and personal, and his ragged, whispered voice gave the impressions that he was telling the most intimate of secrets. At times, he was also telling the silliest of jokes, a fact often forgotten today.

The CD layer of this release moves the man with that voice from the next room to which the former disc banished him and plants him front and center before your ears. His vocals now again embody both the homespun age he cultivated and the fresh youth of the twenty-two year old he was at the time. His guitar and harmonica have regained the treble they lost on the LP masters the label used to create the original discs. The sound trumps the former release in every sonic aspect.

The SACD layer, however, is a revelation. The increased resolution the format allows brings a presence to this music that is incredibly lifelike. The guitar strings produce round, weighty notes, and the harmonica playing reveals details only previously hinted at. In fact, this SACD is easily one of the very best (perhaps THE very best) in the series.

Additionally, the bonus photos Columbia includes in the booklet are a special treat, showing a young Dylan in the studio. The digipak is a rather faithful recreation of the original vinyl cover.

Oddly, especially considering its subsequent influence, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan never broke the top twenty. A soppy remake of "Blowin’ in the Wind", performed by Peter, Paul, & Mary, nearly topped the pop charts later in the year, and the world started listening. It is no lie to state bluntly that nearly every pop album, and pretty much every folk album, ever since has felt this album’s influence in some way. Freewheelin’ casts such a large shadow that even though Dylan later created entirely new styles and genres of music, even though his most celebrated albums are platters of plugged-in, electric rock, in most people’s minds, this is what Bob Dylan will always sound like, a folk singer with acoustic guitar and harmonica. Freewheelin’s thoughtful, poetic lyrics encouraged the genre, including The Beatles, to grow beyond pretty love ditties, and its inventive song structures helped stretch the musical forms of pop music. Several of its songs are now anthems, indestructible threads sewn into the fabric of our culture. Even the world of politics caught fire from this album’s sparks. It may be amazing for some to believe a simple folk record could lead to everything this album set off, but they have obviously never heard this impossibly literate, touching, and rebellious work before.


Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.
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212 Frech
FC1810

"Even though most of the people I knew in my youth are gone, I still reach out to them..."
Norman Maclean - Paraphrase

"...we should enjoy every sandwich." -- Warren Zevon, 2003

Track Listing
  1. Blowing in the Wind
  2. Girl From North Countries
  3. Masters of War
  4. Down The Highway
  5. Bob Dylan's Blues
  6. A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall
  7. Don't Think Twice, It's Alright
  8. Bob Dylan's Dream
  9. Oxford Town
  10. Talkin' World War III Blues
  11. Corrina, Corrina
  12. Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance
  13. I Shall Be Free