The Grateful Dead - American Beauty
Wrapping up our final day of painting my brother's apartment, my dad finally took some initiative in selecting what music we would be enjoying as we touched up door frames and vacuumed blinds. Rather than apathetically settle for the hideously mediocre 2007 Steve Earle album that happened to be in the CD player (which I endured twice this past week, let me tell you) or have to sit through my picks from the iTunes library (Alice Cooper - Killer, Nilsson Schmilsson, disc one of Nuggets, Rumours for the umpteenth time, multiple Steely Dan recordings), the man took some initiative and selected some old dad favorites from the plentiful CD shelf.
First up was Blood On The Tracks by Boobs Dylan, an album that my dad owns an LP copy of and is unlistenable dreck of the lowest order. Next in the queue was the Grateful Dead's American Beauty. The same CD issue of the album that he has owned for the past 15 years, at that. So I suppose that adds an extra layer to the sense of familiarity.
Let me tell you about the Grateful Dead. They are an easy to dismiss musical group. I'm not going to go on and on about just why so many discerning music listeners feel that committing themselves to the cult and oeuvre of the Dead is not a task worth pursuing. I will say, however, that a major reason for said dismissal is the jams and the very idea that anyone could ever give a shit about singling out which one of fifty live versions of "Dark Star" truly takes the cake. Especially when the jams aren't even much to write home about, anyway. They don't possess the fluid elegance demanded by the most engaging jazz music. They're not heavy. They're not noisy. They're not "hypnotic." The grooves... fuck 'em. Listen to Miles Davis or Crazy Horse or microhouse or something. Not this mindlessly meandering b.s.!
But, oh, I love the jams. I understand the Dead's motivations there. Give me a guitar and I'll just go, go, go with some endless modal one-chord faux jazz crap soloing. It's a blast. You can't blame Jerbear & Friends for constructing a musical empire that allows them to step out in public and effortlessly dick around for hours... hell, years, really. And the survivors are still going at it while their dipshit fans are still too stoned to realize how boring it all is.
Regardless of how much investment I truly have in the opinions expressed thus far (I enjoy the Live/Dead recording and a Dick's Picks release or two, no lies), they at least give you some idea of the sort of vitriol that gets commonly spewed at this band and everything they've ever stood for. And so we set out to find a release of theirs that challenges our preconceptions, perhaps an album that captures the Dead focusing their songwriting in such a way that their compositional skills don't get lost in a web of the very most unbearable "experimental tendencies"?
American Beauty is not that album.
"Friend of The Devil," "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'"... these are the radio classics. And they've earned that reputation by being catchy little devils. The rest? Not so much. You see, the thing about the Dead is that the playing just isn't particularly interesting or anything more than the most by-numbers folk rock. The other thing is that aside from Jerry Garcia's feel good vocal tones, they were all terrible fucking singers with the ugliest of voices (play Music From Big Pink and then follow that up with anything Bob Weir ever sang... embarrassing, to say the least.) They can't harmonize with the folky grace of Crosby, Stills & Nash, nor do they have the humility or pop ambitions to overcome their own incompetence like the Guess Who did. The other thing is that Seb Hunter's rambling overly "poetic" lyrics sound particularly awkward being forced out of the mouths of these awful singers (including the somewhat not awful Jerry himself) and into their coma inducing shit songs. Which brings me to the inarguable fact that their songs pretty much suck. The opening lines of "Box of Rain" feel classic, sure, but the rest of the song goes nowhere and does nothing while going there. "Brokedown Palace" sounds like Wilco at their very worst. "Attics of My Life." So much slow garbage here. These songs are four, five, six minutes long. No excuse for that at all!
I started this review 24 hours ago and blew a whole day putting off finishing it. I have a headache that's lasted since late afternoon and really just need to go to sleep. I don't care about this album or "exposing the Dead's bullshit once and for all!" and wish I hadn't written so many paragraphs before getting to that last one where I ended up not really having much to say. This music is boring and this band, even when the songs are somewhat decent, always manages to fuck up at least one crucial aspect that reminds you that they were really just a miserable travesty all along. And not a very entertaining one. Not on this album, anyway.