Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Day of the Dead: a very short review

The National's Day of the Dead falls into several categories:

  • It's a tribute album, and as such it falls into a LONG list of such tributes, going at least back to 1991's Deadicated

  • It's a fund-raising effort for an organization called Red Hot:
    Red Hot is a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture.

Any project with a mixed mission like that is going to have to bravely take some swings, knowing that there will be some hits, and some misses.

And Day of the Dead indeed has a few of both.

But, overall, it is a fabulous result, in a number of respects.

The musical choices cover the entire multi-decade history of the band, going back to songs from the mid-1960's such as Cream Puff War, Clementine Jam and New Speedway Boogie, making extensive selections from the period of (roughly) 1970-1985, which was surely the Dead's most productive and brilliant time, and including a nice handful of late-period songs, such as Shakedown Street, Touch of Grey, Althea, and even The Jerry Garcia Band's rarely-played Reuben and Cherise

And the contributors, too, are a wide and varied lot, including a number of well-known acts (Mumford and Sons, Vijay Iyer, Bruce Hornsby, Wilco, Courtney Barnett) as well as a lot of folks I bet you've never heard of.

Finally, the production values are high. The recordings are clear and nicely mastered, the packaging and artwork are elegant and well-mannered (no cheap plastic), and the CDs each are nicely marked and contained in nicely-labelled sleeves.

But all these are details. In the end, does it all hold together?

I think: yes. Yes, it does.

There are a few clunkers, places where the result is much more swing-and-miss than base-hit, but overall this is a fine collection of music, MUCH more listenable than your typical tribute album.

Songs in a tribute album fall, I think, into several basic classes:

  • Labors of love and homages, in which the musicians bring energy and enthusiasm to well-known classics, but are reluctant to stray too far from tradition
  • Fresh looks, in which the musicians keep the overall piece within recognizable boundaries, but try to take it in a new direction.
  • Experiments, in which there is a fundamental alteration of the core elements of the piece, in search of something altogether new

Sometimes, experiments bring dramatic breakthroughs; in the Grateful Dead context, the best known such breakthrough is probably the so-called "slow version" of Friend Of The Devil. For a wonderful re-telling of the history of this particular experimental breakthrough, and how it involved Kenny Loggins, Betty Cantor, and the New Riders of The Purple Sage, see Corry Arnold's June 30, 1972: Memorial Auditorium, Kansas City, KS: NRPS/Kenny Loggins (Friend Of The Devil-slow)

Anyway, the point is that experiments are important, and brave, but they also fail much more than they succeed. There are several experiments on Day of the Dead, and I must admit that, were I the compiler, I don't think I would have included them on the final release.

However, I was NOT the compiler, and I must at least salute the intellectual curiosity and musical inventiveness of the choices that did get made.

So, to wrap it all up, let me offer my list of the Thirteen Best Songs on Day of the Dead, together with my list of the Four Worst Songs on Day of the Dead

First, the clunkers:

  1. Lucius, Uncle John's Band. Screaming banshees wail and turn the Dead's friendliest, most approachable song into a howling assault. The funny thing is, I've seen Lucius live and loved them, so I had very high hopes. I think this is the perfect example of an experiment that just didn't work for me.

  2. Tal National, Eyes of the World. Where the original was an effusion of wonder and joy, this attempt to evoke some sort of tribal chant instead becomes a monotony of noise.

  3. Courtney Barnett, New Speedway Boogie. Barnett has a wealth of talent, but I feel like she just wasn't inspired this time. A song which calls for her to find her inner Janis Joplin instead finds her with a whiny screech. What tried to be a fresh look falls quite short, I'm afraid.

  4. Marijuana Death Squads, Truckin'. One of the Dead's signature songs, Truckin's tale of the stresses of touring life requires an approach that delivers energy and excitement, but this version instead becomes rushed, frenzied, and cluttered. They aimed high, but they fell short.

OK, enough of being a drag. What are my absolute favorites (so far at least)?

  1. Orchestra Baobab, Franklin's Tower. These Senegalese (I think) musicians bring an Afro-Jazz approach to one of the Dead's jazziest numbers. It is delightful! It is magnificent!

  2. Ira Kaplan & Friends, Wharf Rat. The best-known version of the original Wharf Rat is the epic nine minute version on 1971's Grateful Dead; it starts slow, filled with pain and horror, then builds through renewal and redemption to a thunderous climax. Kaplan, who is the front man for the wonderful, if not well-known, band Yo La Tengo, choses to focus solely on the quiet resolve and fierce determination of the narrator, and the effect is gorgeous.

  3. Vijay Iyer, King Solomon's Marbles. The spectacularly talented Iyer could play "Chopsticks" and it would probably be a Special Event. But King Solomon's Marbles is certainly not "Chopsticks", and there is no way that you've ever heard the Grateful Dead like this before. It somehow simultaneously brings to mind the best of the Dead, and the best of Keith Jarrett, all at once.

  4. Bryce Dressner, Garcia Counterpoint. This is really unusual. It is, I think, the only original composition in the entire collection. The album notes say:
    'Garcia Counterpoint' was composed using fragments of Jerry Garcia's live guitar solo on "Althea" recorded at Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland on March 15, 1990. Live solo originally transcribed by Stephen Feigenbaum.
    All I know is, when you listen to it, it's like Jerry is back, and he's sitting across the room from you on a comfortable chair, just playing his guitar.

  5. Bela Fleck, Help On The Way. Yes, I know: Bela Fleck is a banjo player, and there wasn't a banjo to be found anywhere close to that most jazziest of Grateful Dead records, Blues for Allah. And I know that this selection is going to be controversial, for I'm sure there are those who hear Bela Fleck's croaking voice and cringe. But Jerry was a banjo player too, and, well, I'm not going to try to explain this to you. Banjo and tabla: it is somehow a more perfect Help On The Way than the original could ever have hoped to have been.

  6. The National, Morning Dew. This song is supposed to be an anthem, but when the Dead played it themselves, it all too often was a soggy slog. The National wake it up and give it the backbone it deserves.

  7. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & Friends, Rubin & Cherise. This is really a Jerry Garcia Band song, and not all that well-known, but Bonnie Billy dresses it up with a delicious guitar hook and a lively presentation that should make this wall flower the new belle of the ball.

  8. Jim James & Friends, Candyman. James, leader of the well-known My Morning Jacket, clearly knew just what song he wanted. Candyman, from the Dead's most approachable album, American Beauty, is an odd-ball of a song about a pusher and a pimp who worms his way into your heart with promises and gifts, only to deliver you into sorrow. One of the first Dead recordings to feature that fascinating combination of pedal steel and organ that would become one of their signature sounds, Candyman is surely not a song for an amateur to perform, but James channels his inner Jerry and delivers a beautiful rendition.

  9. Orchestra Baobab, Clementine Jam. OK, this is an EXTREME rarity. You have to be a very, very faithful Dead Head to know Clementine
    According to setlists.net studio dates, the Dead worked on Clementine several times in the Aoxomoxoa sessions in fall '68. Sadly, none of these outtakes have surfaced, but the Matrix shows make clear that they must have been working on the song around that time, and it appears in the two earlier studio rehearsals we have. Unfortunately, there are no Clementines in the Dead shows that survive from late '68, and they decided not to put it on Aoxomoxoa. Perhaps they felt it was too derivative a song, or Garcia wasn't comfortable with the lyrics, or the arrangement never satisfied them? It seems the song was left unfinished, never finalized...
    Well, Les musiciens de L'Orchestra Baobab can't be said to have finished the unfinished, nor finalized the never finalized, but they certainly bring back thoughts of what it was like, all those 50 years ago, before they were even known as The Grateful Dead.

  10. Hiss Golden Messenger, Brown-Eyed Women. M.C. Taylor, who performs as Hiss Golden Messenger, brings a tight, controlled, perfect-to-the-last-note rendition of one of the best songs that Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia ever composed. The only complaint you could have about this version is that it's just over too soon, too soon.

  11. Kurt Vile and Violators, Box of Rain. The sweetest and warmest Dead song of all has long been a fan favorite, but it can tremble on the edge of sugar and treacle. Vile, a talented young musician (yay for the new generation!) wakes it up and puts just enough pepper and spice in. A fine treatment, and a great example of a labor of love.

  12. The National, Peggy-O. The general consensus is that the Dead took an ancient Scottish folk song named The Bonnie Lass o' Fyvie and re-cast it into their own unique style. Well, The National take it one step further, and it is a strong and well-directed step forward, indeed.

  13. Mumford and Sons, Friend of the Devil. This is the "slow version" (see above), but where the original brought a sort-of devil-may-care lightness to the story, and the True Slow Version turned it into more of a love song, Mumford and Sons find an elegant space in between.

There are nearly 60 songs in this box set, and I've barely touched on most of them.

I'm going to be listening to these songs for years, making my own play-lists of them, revisiting them in different ways and in different moods, just as one does with the original Grateful Dead recordings.

Since it's a fund-raiser, for a worthy cause, I hope many many people find this music, so that the fund-raiser may be as successful as possible.

And since it's a lot of very interesting re-examinations of one of the most fascinating and challenging bands of my time, I hope many people find this music, for the music's sake, too.

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