Monday, January 7, 2008

The Grateful Dead-The Grateful Dead

Review By George Starostin:

Most Deadheads pan the band's debut, saying it sounds nothing like their 'classic' sound and they hadn't yet grown into their unique style. This is true, and definitely the main reason for me liking it quite a bit. See, when the Grateful Dead formed out of several different shards and smithereens of their former bands, they weren't exactly driven together by the will to experiment and come up with a radically new type of music. They were nothing but a bunch of cool Californian guys with some playing experience behind their backs - Garcia with more of a folky background; Lesh, if I'm to believe the liner notes, from "electronic music" background, which pretty much makes him the only 'experimental' element back then; and the others from various rock bands. And at this point, the band's musical direction was primarily indicated by Pigpen, with his love for blues and R'n'B and cool Hammond organ tone which is actually more audible on this particular record than Jerry's guitar.And I like it. It is definitely untrue that the album sounds nothing like their further stuff. Well, it definitely sounds nothing like the subsequent two studio albums, where the Dead plunged headlong into lethargic psychedelia. But many of the tunes on here aren't that far removed from their country/folk "retro-fication" on Workingman's Dead and later on; not to mention that more than half of the songs on here made it into the regular Deadshow, and stayed there at least until the passing of Pigpen, and some even further. The crucial difference is they rock, and they rock much more than anything the Dead have created ever since.
The very opening of the record, those distorted electric chords and the slightly fuzzy organ tone of 'The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)', show that pumping up the energy level was by no means a technique unknown to the Dead in those early days. In fact, when two rocking guitars, a rocking organ, and loud, almost "brawny", harmonies all join together, it results in a wall-of-sound effect that is radically opposed to the 'classic' thin, wimpy Deadsound. You can find similar melodies all over their career, but a similar sound? Only on a particularly energetic live night, I guess.
Another thing is that on this record, they're no sworn enemies of fast tempos. 'Beat It On Down The Line' is lively, friendly, and toe-tappy all over, and still rendered quite "Deadly" because of Pigpen's identifiable organ playing. And I totally dig their reworking of 'Sitting On Top Of The World', here turned into a fast, frantic shuffle which makes its point in a breathtakingly short span of two minutes, replete with a nimble solo from Mr Garcia (I presume), shining in all of its Chuck Berry-ish glory. 'Cold Rain And Snow' and 'New New Minglewood Blues' are slightly less involving in terms of power, but more interesting from a melodic point of view, especially the former with its optimistic organ 'interludes' and stuff - no wonder it readily made it back into their concert set when they started moving away from psychedelia.
Of course, the record isn't free of some of that "sterile" approach to the blues that is already rearing its ugly head in the Deadcamp. 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' is much shorter here than it is on any of the band's live records, but actually feels longer than some of the better live versions, because it emphasizes Pigpen strutting his stuff rather than tight interplay between the band members. And their rendition of the folkie ballad 'Morning Dew' I find myself respecting much more than actually falling for - which supposedly means they don't manage to capture the song's tragic essence, even if they try to. Heck, I'll take the Rod Stewart, or even the inventive-as-hell Nazareth version of the song, over the Dead version any day.
That said, the best treat comes at the end in the form of the ten-minute 'Viola Lee Blues'. Now that's a real monster of a jam if there ever was one. Go ahead Deadheads and crucify me, but the Dead never, and I repeat, never did a more murderous instrumental sequence in their entire career than the steam-raising crescendo in the middle of this tune. It doesn't hint at much when it begins, just a standard riff-driven blues-rocker with an occasional "initiation of a rock solo" that quickly dissipates into oblivion, but then somewhere around the fourth minute the Dead are starting to exercise in "math-rock", gradually pushing up the valves and handles and spinning up the dials and blowing up the pistons and increasing the tempo and playing more notes per second and zooping up the bass fretboards and crashing the cymbals and inserting splinters of funky rhythms and suddenly pushing Pigpen's psychedelic organ riffs to the top of everything and then making Garcia solo with even more aggression on top of these riffs and then Pigpen starts rising the volume even higher and then Garcia breaks into an ass-kicking repetitive rock'n'roll phrase and they start hitting higher and higher "stingey" chords and going into trills and barrages of chords and then poof! - it is over. Yeah, believe it or not, I just described (as best as I could) an actual Grateful Dead jam which is not a 'Dark Star' or a 'The Eleven' by any means.
Which leads us to the obvious conclusion - if you hate the Dead more than filling in tax declarations, this is the only album of theirs that can possibly impress you. But if you love the Dead more than the living, you will probably be ready to join the chorus of those who are always ready to point out how it is not a "true" Dead album. In fact, I'm not even sure if they were stoned while recording it. And besides, it's the only Grateful Dead album where you'll find a clean-shaven Jerry Garcia looking at you from the front cover. If that ain't a reason for exchanging your entire collection of dried butterflies for something musically-related, I don't know what is.

The Grateful Dead-The Garteful Dead @320 Artwork Included

1) The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)
2) Beat It On Down The Line
3) Good Morning Little School Girl
4) Cold Rain And Snow
5) Sitting On Top Of The World
6) Cream Puff War
7) Morning Dew
8) New New Minglewood Blues
9) Viola Lee Blues

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