Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)

The stigma surrounding the Grateful Dead is hard to overcome. I’ve always associated the band and their spawn (Phish et al) with trust fund hippies in Birkenstocks looking for an excuse to take drugs and listen to 45 minutes of aimless improvisational circle-jerking. I never actually gave the music a chance, but in my defense when you grow up identifying with punk, hating on hippies just came with the territory. However, recently the Dead have surfaced on my radar in ways that have caused me to rethink my outlook. For one, Animal Collective and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth have all cited the Dead as influences. Then there was the series finale of the short-lived but brilliant Freaks and Geeks which framed the Dead perfectly in the milieu of high school in the early 80s. And so when I landed on American Beauty as my random album of 1970, I embraced the opportunity to finally set aside my own cultural and social baggage and discover the band behind all that dancing bear merchandise and pot smoke.

With that being said, I’m not going to pretend that I’ll understand what the Grateful Dead were about from just one studio album. By most accounts, the essence of the Dead was found in their live sets. Also, seeing as how there are literally volumes of material culled from live shows, a wise woman once said, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Regardless, on American Beauty I hthat the Grateful Dead could write some pretty poignant melodic songs. The album is a bohemian-meets-hillbilly take on traditional country, bluegrass, blues, and folk with a laid-back San Francisco vibe.  It’s far removed from the band’s earlier shambolic psychedelic experiments (which I took a brief listen to and they sound like a completely different band). I feel like after the radicalism of the 60s the Grateful Dead along with artists like The Byrds, CSNY, Bob Dylan, and others turned to their Americana roots for inspiration.

 

 

I still can’t shake the feeling that American Beauty sounds like a bunch of hippies playing dress-up in country folk plainclothes.

 

 

 

At first, I hated the tuneless reedy vocals, but they took on their own weird charm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I feel that one of the main themes of this album is dealing with death. There’s this existential melancholy that hangs over the album. Jerry Garcia had lost his mother and Phil Lesh’s father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But I don’t only mean death in the literal sense,  but also in that by the turn of the decade, the hippie dream had died. Haight-Ashbury had become overrun and commercialized. In that context, American Beauty feels like a retreat into simpler times, a romanticized mythology of America.

Oddly enough, if I had to pick an overarching theme to the album, it’s dealing about dealing with death.

There’s an existential melancholy that haunts the album. It feels like the morning after the excesses of the 60s, a retreat into a romanticized mythology of America. In the months leading up to its

 

 

“Box of Rain” in particular takes on a deeper significance when you find out the song was written for bassist Phil Lesh’s father who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lesh would drive to the hospital every day and sing the song to his father. For a song that’s basically about human transience and the absurdity of meaning, it’s strangely comforting. Earth is nothing but a box of rain, a rock surrounded by nitrogen and oxygen. “Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.” The song was co-written by Robert Hunter who contributes heavily on American Beauty. As the band’s  main lyricist and official non-performing member, Hunter gives the songs here a poetic quality.

One of my favorite songs has to be “Friend of the Devil”. It’s your classic outlaw on the run story, the lyrics not that far removed from the pathos of a gangsta rap song. The jaunty bluegrass-influenced guitar and bright mandolin give the song a brisk urgency as the narrator is relentlessly pursued by the sheriff across Nevada.

“Sugar Magnolia” is a hippie love song of sorts, but I’m not sure whether the object of affection is an actual woman or drugs personified as one. The song closely associates nature with a rose-colored femininity, evoking blooming flowers, sunshine and trees. The summery upbeat vocal harmonies and lilting pedal steel guitar capture a feeling of carefree bliss that makes you want to skip hand-in-hand through a meadow with a beautiful girl (drugs not included).

Both “Operator” and “Candyman” borrow heavily from tropes used in blues and other early 20th century African American musics, referencing songs like Lightning Hopkins’ “Give Me Central 209 (Hello Central)” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman Blues” respectively. The slinky insouciant swagger of “Candyman” sketches the portrait of a gambling, hard drinking womanizer. At six minutes, the song drags but half way through there’s a beautiful pedal steel guitar solo from Jerry Garcia.

“Ripple” is a zen koan wrapped up in a campfire folk song. Touches of mandolin flutter prettily beneath philosophical musings like “There is a road, no simple highway. Between the dawn and the dark of night. And if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”

Written shortly after the death of Garcia’s mother, the gospel-influenced “Brokedown Palace” is a soothing meditation on death as homecoming. The vocal harmonies wordlessly hang in the background and join in on verses offering support to Garcia’s world-weary lyrics.

“Til The Morning Comes” is probably my least favorite song.

“Attics of My LIfe” is hymn-like, putting the vocal harmonies front and center, while sparse drums and bass are faint.

“Truckin” is a rollicking ode to life on the road.

Hunter – surreal, dreams, Eastern spirituality

 

 

 

 

The band had been hanging out around Crosby, Stills, and Nash a lot during this time and you can definitely hear their influence in the layered vocals.

A year ago, Jerry Garcia had picked up pedal steel guitar and he uses it here to color the songs.

  • Result of a prolific songwriting partnership between Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.
  • The album was recorded at Wally Heider studio and Phil Lesh talks about how a lot of the best musicians were hanging out there at the time: Crosby Stills and Nash, Santana, Neil Young, etc.

 

The cover was designed by Kelly-Mouse Studios which I’m pretty sure I learned about in my art history class. They borrowed heavily from Art Nouveau to create the 1960s psychedelic aesthetic. The lettering on the cover is actually an ambigram that can be read as American Beauty or American Reality.  “American Beauty” is actually the nickname given to a particular rose cultivar that was very popular in the United States during the early 1900s. The back cover photograph was by George Conger and it looks like an odd assemblage of statues, framed images, and various plants.

 

 

The Jayhawks – Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces

 

If you have not heard “Blue” by The Jayhawks, stop reading and click here right now. And when you’re done tell me “Blue” isn’t one of the most perfectly realized pop songs ever with its gorgeous country-rock harmonies and bittersweet melody. Every time I listen to that song it still makes my heart hurt in a good way. Seriously though, I originally sat down to review this new song, but ended up just listening to “Blue” on repeat for about fifteen times thinking wistfully about past relationships and shit. “Blue” is from the 1995 album, Tomorrow The Green Grass, which is a benchmark of 90s Americana combining the melodic hooks of Big Star and the plaintive country-rock of The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s the only Jayhawks album I’ve listened to and while I’ve mainly focused on “Blue” for the entirety of this introduction , the entire LP is fantastic.

The group just released their ninth studio album entitled Paging Mr. Proust since they formed in 1985. Unfortunately, a band staying relevant and exciting for thirty years can be difficult. And there’s nothing worse than a once great band clinging on desperately only to suffer a slow ignominious decline. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces” is the opening track on the new album and I have to say The Jayhawks have aged gracefully. The song reminds me of R.E.M. which makes sense since Peter Buck helped produce it. The rhythmic folk guitar strums combined with the shimmering guitars trace out an aching melody. The layered vocals are absolutely beautiful, the harmonizing “oohs” in the background adding a rich resonance.

According to frontman Gary Louris, the lyrics are about “finding a spot where you can be introspective, away from the noise, and get your head together.” And it’s a spot that I’ll be returning to regularly.

 

4 out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeparchive – A Wounded Worker

 

A big part of what has always attracted me to techno is its anonymity. The faceless shadows behind the decks had no race, gender, religion, or creed. Where rock and hip-hop were weighed down with cultural baggage and notions of authenticity, techno offered a blank futurist space onto which I could project myself and insert myself into its narrative. The music was austere and clinical, stripped of all the unnecessary embellishments of human identity. To be perfectly clear, not all techno is like this, but I’ve always gravitated towards artists who embraced the coldness of the machine aesthetic, who subsumed their identity into a technological anonymity, whose music embodied the clean lines of modernist form and function. Sleeparchive inhabits many of these qualities that I like. I know very little about the man behind Sleeparchive aside from his name (Roger Semsroth) and that he’s from Berlin.[1] The name, Sleeparchive, reminds me of some secret research facility and his records, released in nondescript cardboard gray sleeves, feel like enigmatic missives.

“A Wounded Worker” is the A-Side of his latest release. It’s a tense listen driven by a cavernous kick drum and a paranoid arpeggiating synth that never resolves itself. The sub-bass underneath the track provides an ominous undertow while clipped industrial percussive elements provide accents to the relentless forward momentum. It could soundtrack an endless chase down a flickering corridor, the synth mimicking the panicked mind state of the prey. It’s a well-constructed track, especially in how it constantly ramps up the tension using subtle shifts.

4 out of 5

(1) He works at the famous Hard Wax record store in Berlin  which I am hoping to visit in 2017.

Death Grips – More Than The Fairy

 

In the past few days, Bottomless Pit, the latest album from Death Grips, has quickly become one of my favorite albums of 2016. A cacophonous overload of raw punk fury, hip-hop, and abrasive noise pushed into the red, the album is an assault on the senses, unafraid to get right up to your face and diss you. When I listen to Death Grips, I regress to this animalistic primal state where I just want to lose my goddamned mind amidst a sea of writhing bodies and flailing limbs. I want to punch a wall until the rush of adrenaline dulls the pain.  MC Ride aka Stefan Burnett sounds like a cross between a doomsday prophet and a drill sergeant – his lyrics read like profane bathroom stall poetry and cut-up Burroughs junkie fever dreams. It’s death drive machismo turned up to eleven. I don’t know why it took me so long to really connect with Death Grips given my propensity towards angry, violent music but something finally clicked. Maybe it’s because we live in a reality where Donald Trump may actually become president and right now the only thing that makes sense is Death Grips.

“More Than The Fairy” featuring Les Claypool (Primus) is a single that was released hot on the heels of Bottomless Pit. The song is this ugly jarring schizophrenic mess and I mean that in the best way possible. The song wildly careens from frenzied drum and bass sprints to crushing riffs, from spastic glitchy textures to bass drones. The song’s structure plays with the perception of time, using drawn-out reverb to suspend the listener before plunging them back into the hyperkinetic bass and drums. Stefan’s voice is pitch shifted and warped for effect and it sounds like there’s three different personalities on the song.  It reminds me of the relentless thrash of Lightning Bolt mixed in with the heavy dread of Kevin Martin’s work. Anyways, it’s another fantastic entry into the Death Grips oeuvre and I’m looking forward to exploring their older albums.

 

4 out of 5

 

 

 

Lethal Bizzle – Box

Like most Americans, I was introduced to grime in 2003 when Dizzee Rascal dropped Boy In Da Corner. I still remember how much of a visceral thrill it was listening to tracks like “I Luv U” and “Cut ‘Em Off“. It was influenced by hip-hop, but it was a completely different mutant strain spawned in East London: a cytoplasmic soup of UK garage and jungle, incubating in the pirate radio underground. It felt like the second-coming of Wu Tang ’93 – hyper-masculine collectives rolling nine or ten deep in hooded sweatshirts who didn’t give a fuck about your car or your chain. In the thirteen years that followed, I moved onto other things (dubstep, UK funky, footwork etc) but didn’t really keep close tabs on the grime scene. I’d occasionally listen to a mixtape when it drifted across my radar, but I wasn’t actively listening to Rinse FM or anything.

Recently though, I’ve been getting excited about grime again. Artists like Visionist and Rabit have been taking instrumental grime into new directions. I also really enjoyed the new Skepta album released this year. Lethal Bizzle is a name that I came across often when I first started exploring the genre. He’s one of the veterans of the grime scene. His 2004 track, “Pow (Forward)” still stands as a seminal grime anthem – an unrelenting barrage of aggression that was actually banned from clubs for purportedly inciting violence.

Before its release, Lethal Bizzle hyped up “Box” as the “Pow” of 2016, but for me the track doesn’t reach those heights.  It features JME (Skepta’s younger brother) and Face. The song’s conceit is simple: if you talk shit, you will get punched in the mouth. Not sure if the song is directed at anyone in particular or just a general preemptive warning. Unfortunately for me, the lyrics, delivery, and the beat fail to uphold this premise convincingly. On his verse, Lethal Bizzle rhymes “Hadouken” with “talking” which I’m still on the fence as to whether it’s cringe-worthy or actually clever. JME lets us know that “Nobody wants a punch in the face. That’s why more time I give man a slap.” Wait, what? Personally, I feel like if you’re going to hit someone, you had better commit to knocking that person out as quickly as possible. The beat is serviceable, featuring distorted bass jabs and skittering percussion, but the song never quite gels together for me.

 

2 out of 5

 

OK Go – Upside Down & Inside Out

 

OK Go looks like a band that you could bring home to your mother and she would shimmy along to their songs while driving around in her Kia. (Note to self: coin the term mom-rock) And listen, I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult – I would totally kick it with these guys and I feel like we would have some awesome backyard barbecues. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve had very little interest in exploring OK Go’s music beyond the singles that have crossed my radar. The singles that I have heard (“Here It Goes Again“, “Get Over It“) were nondescript power-pop tunes, neither good nor bad enough to elicit a strong reaction. Like I could see those songs playing in some fun montage from a rom-com and I wouldn’t think twice about it. (Except to ask why I was watching a rom-com in the first place)

Upside Down & Inside Out“, from 2014’s album Hungry Ghosts, documents the turbulent dissolution of a relationship.  Compared to their previous work, this song incorporates a more bombastic synth-driven sound and pronounced electronic influence especially in the vocal effects. There are definitely parts of this song that I enjoy: the glitchy processed vocals and when the guitars drop away on the bridge leaving the swirling synths in its place. As far as loud brash pop songs go, you could do worse and you have to commend the band for trying new things.

Definitely check out the video though which uses parabolic flight to achieve brief moments of weightlessness. These moments were then edited together to create a seamless choreographed video in which bodies and objects float and tumble through space.

3 out of 5

 

 

 

Ladyhawke – A Love Song

 

There’s this Ani DiFranco lyric where she goes, “I found religion in the greeting card aisle, now I know Hallmark was right. And every pop song on the radio is suddenly speaking to me.” For some reason, that lyric has stuck with me years later as a pretty apt summary of how I feel about love songs in general. Which is to say, when you’re “in love” somehow even the most generic pop love songs feels like an epiphany. Of course years later, I now know that love is merely a chain of chemical reactions in which your neurons fire off dopamine, the brain and adrenal glands release norepinephrine, and the amygdala (the part of your brain which controls judgement, read: music taste) shuts down. But that would be a long ass title for a song.

Which brings me to Ladyhawke who now joins the ranks of the thousands of artists who have named a love song, well “Love Song“.  This is my first time listening to New Zealand singer-songwriter Ladyhawke (née Phillipa Margaret Brown) but this single reminded me of that Ani DiFranco lyric because of how the song seems to acknowledge its own existence as a cliche. The chorus goes, “You’ve opened my eyes to the oldest tale of time, this is what a love song sounds like,” but at the same time it awkwardly but unabashedly embraces its neon 80s synth-pop roots.

The song itself is fairly a paint-by-numbers affair with its shimmering synths and pulsating bassline. And like all the best pop love songs, there’s a bright catchy hook. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this all before and maybe that’s the point. I’ll have to revisit the song after my amygdala has had a couple of drinks.

 

2 out of 5