Friday, December 23, 2016

Grateful Dead 6: American Beauty

To stretch a metaphor, American Beauty is to Workingman’s Dead as Revolver is to Rubber Soul. The Dead were firing on all their creative cylinders, and produced an album that both complemented and built on its predominantly acoustic predecessor.
And talk about a strong opener: “Box Of Rain” is a fully fleshed-out arrangement, with acoustic guitar, Clarence White-flavored leads, harmonies, piano, bass and both drummers in a busy mix, capped by a lead vocal by Phil Lesh. It really is one of their best tracks, especially when heard in context with the two songs that come next. “Friend Of The Devil” is the one all guitar players try to learn, with its descending riff in G, but what we hear now is the high-speed mandolin, contributed by Garcia buddy David Grisman. (We also can’t help singing the first verse of “Kiss Me Deadly” along with that riff. Mostly because we don’t know the rest of “Kiss Me Deadly”.) “Sugar Magnolia”, with Jerry playing pedal steel like nobody else, is just as much of a quintessential Dead tune, and always seems longer than it really is. “Operator” is Pigpen’s contribution to both the album and the genre of songs that take place on a telephone. “Candyman” sounds most like the last album, being another slow sad lope, and loaded with lots of folk song references.
Any Deadhead worth his or her salt will immediately swoon and sway to “Ripple”, and join in the celestial choir finishing the tune with “da da da”s. On the record it’s a quick segue to “Brokedown Palace”, which almost seems like a natural part two, a honky tonk piano adding to the atmosphere. Something of a sore thumb is “Till The Morning Comes”, mostly because we far prefer Neil Young’s shorter song of a similar title from the same year. There’s something a little sinister about declaring “you’re my woman now” and demanding that she make herself easy. “Attics Of My Life” provides a wide palette to prove how much they’d progressed on their harmonies, but just like the last album started and finished strong, so does this with “Truckin’”, which has more drug references to make the kids giggle, and the source of any mention of a long, strange trip.
To continue our Beatles insight above, while that band spent the next three years in the studio, the Dead took the opposite route, and wouldn’t release another studio album of new material for three years. They almost didn’t have to, since they proved themselves so well with both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. This album completes the one-two punch, and belongs in the other side of a Maxell 90 with its brother. (Live versions, most from before the album was released, all needing a lot of work on harmonies, fill up the expanded disc, along with edited single versions of “Truckin’” and “Ripple”.)

Grateful Dead American Beauty (1970)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks

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