Friday, December 18, 2015

Grateful Dead 3: Aoxomoxoa

Advances in technology gave the Dead more confidence to create in the studio, and Aoxomoxoa shows how that worked both for and against them. With full-time lyricist Robert Hunter contributing to every track, there’s more of a focus on songs, but experimentation takes over too. And if you think Jerry Garcia’s voice is the highlight of the Dead, this is the album for you, since he sings every song.
A precise chord progression is played very deliberately to open “St. Stephen”, which soon explodes into a song that incorporates all the players into an FM radio staple. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is an odd bluegrass hodgepodge, with 12-string guitar, banjo, organ and bells fighting for their place in the mix. It sounds underdeveloped, which can’t be said for “Rosemary”, a pretty duet for acoustic guitars over which Jerry’s vocal is put through a Leslie speaker or underwater effect. It’s back to a more conventional Dead sound on “Doin’ That Rag”, which makes “Mountains Of The Moon”, with its harpsichord, all the more unique.
“China Cat Sunflower” is another good jam, particularly with the organ to the fore and all those backup harmonies, but good luck getting through “What’s Become Of The Baby” without lunging for the “next” button. While the lyric itself may be somebody’s idea of art, pairing it to a more extreme underwater echo effect than on “Rosemary”, with no discernable accompaniment, is sure to result in one bad dose. Much better is “Cosmic Charlie”, which would improve in a live setting, but here is a sleepy lope with slide guitar.
Unfortunately for anyone picking up the story in this century, the band remixed Aoxomoxoa a few years after its initial release, and that’s the version of the album that has endured on cassette, CD, box sets and downloads. The original LP does sound different in several places, mostly in some extreme instrument placement across the stereo landscape, but also in the way of some vocal passages and asides that were removed in the remix. Arguably, the remix improved “Rosemary”, and “Mountains Of The Moon” is much prettier without the ethereal choir. The biggest difference is in “What’s Become Of The Baby”, which is just as jarring, but gains more context when you can hear the instrumental backing.
Anyway, the album just makes it above the acceptable threshold, particularly in its expanded incarnation, which adds three jams and one live track. These will be more palatable to new converts, since the focus is on playing instruments and not the mixing board.

The Grateful Dead Aoxomoxoa (1968)—3
2003 CD reissue: “same” as 1968, plus 4 extra tracks

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