Feb 19, 2012

1969: Aoxomoxoa Review


The Grateful Dead is two bands: the band when Pigpen is singing and the band when he isn't. Pigpen sings in a recognizable musical form, the harshness and seediness of which is not fundamental to the Dead. The music behind him and all around him is so tasty (as in "Love Light" where the rhythmic structuring builds in unimaginable waves to melodic insensibility), so rich with quivering energy that Pigpen can almost always be overcome. Pigpen "fits" because the Dead choose to embody a generosity of spirit that won't tolerate throwing him out. But the band is more magical because unnameable, less definable, without him.
Aoxomoxoa is the work of the magical band. Can you hear this music and not see them before your eyes? The music is so much the reality of their physical and spiritual bodies that seeing them is the wonder of seeing music. Phil Lesh's intensity and total dispatch driving his bass surpassingly, threading solidly, commandingly, laying line over line over line into the expanding spectrum of physical sounds that they are illuminating. Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist and sometime vocalist, sounds better every night, looks healthy, is pleasing and unpolished enough to charm you, to put out the extra push of directness that makes you feel welcomed. Mickey Hart, the jubilant percussionist and his partner Bill, less rollicking but cheerful - both dynamic, resonant drummers. Tom Constanten, the keyboard man coming into his own with vibrant riffing and subtly chiming embellishments. And out front of these perfectly interweaving, very together people is Jerry Garcia's luminous guitar stroking.
The singing is mostly Jerry - a dominant and exquisite person emanating serene unconsciousness and tenderness. Trembling, sensual, whimsical tenderness. Jerry is beautiful: not too serious, not too sweet, not too angelic, but not ordinary, not surrendered to a style. Jerry's voice is emotional and musical in the same non-verbal way that flesh is tender and loving real. If you can feel, he can reach you. The gentle choir, the dancing mountain harpsichording, the mystical aura of another consciousness - reflections of rain and sand and sitting mellow in warm sunlight smiling. Elemental and celebratory and they don't need to fool you because they aren't fooling themselves, they don't need to. No other music sustains a life style so delicate and loving and lifelike.

(by Adele Novelli, from Rolling Stone, July 12 1969)


  1. One of the remarkable things about this album review is that it hardly mentions the album at all - referencing only one song, Mountains of the Moon, indirectly. The author instead enthuses about their live show, mentioning Lovelight in particular (which would not be out on record for several more months).

  2. Guess what song Billboard selected as the standout track?

    Billboard's 6/7/69 brief review: "A pillar of the San Francisco sound and a consistent chart maker, the Grateful Dead here have another drifting rock album with the kind of material that has made them popular. 'What's Become of the Baby' is an exceptional extended piece with Eastern musical influences. 'Doin' That Rag' is another good cut."

    This is in Billboard's usual abbreviated style, where every band is popular and every album is headed for the charts, but calling the Dead "consistent chart makers" was a bit much! I doubt there were many reviews at the time calling What's Become of the Baby the most exceptional piece, so this reviewer gets praise for being pretty far-out.
    I'm reminded of the comic "Rate the Record" radio ad where WBotB gets rated 98 for its danceable beat and catchy lyrics!

  3. Another short, positive review:

    "One of the most beautiful and haunting albums this reporter has heard in some time is the new album by The Grateful Dead, 'Aoxomoxoa.' The Dead play a cosmic good-time music, a joyful spiritual message of the new awakening. Their music is full, rich, and imaginative. Their message is that it's good to be alive, good to be where we are now and on the way up. The music from 'Aoxomoxoa' has that Grateful Dead sound. If you have heard either of their previous two albums, especially 'Anthem of the Sun,' you will recognize the heavy organ and percussion sound and the superb flashing guitar work of Jerry Garcia. The music is definitely the Dead's, carried to a farther extreme of their imagination than they've done before. They've got a lot of blues feeling that they combine with their own sense of the mystical evolution of life and sound. [line missing] out of which they create some fantastic memory-making music."
    (Fred Glazer, "Hip Scenes" column, Santa Fe New Mexican 8/31/69)

  4. For whatever reason, I've come across hardly any reviews of Aoxomoxoa, compared to the Dead's other early albums - it seems to have been largely ignored. But here's another review:

    This album is definitely not for everyone. It's not the Dead in their "Turn On Your Lovelight" rockin', jivin' form. It is a quietly condensed version of the Dead at home with their women, children, and pets.
    Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh wrote all the music and somebody named Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics. Jerry has never played better guitar on record, and he infuses beauty and brilliance into "St. Stephen" and "Mountains of the Moon." "Rosemary" has got to be a goddess (Dr. Tim's wife?). "Doin' That Rag" reminds me of the merry-go-round at Pacific Ocean Park. There was a little old man there who took your tickets, and he would always hum this very same melody. "China Cat Sunflower" is fun, the band cooking with some beautiful organ comping and sinuous guitar lines by Jerry. The only cut that irks me is "What's Become of the Baby," a boring excursion in electronic excesses.
    For my money the Dead are San Francisco rock and roll. They continue to grow, even in the face of numerous hassles and setbacks. To be appreciated fully they must be heard live. But "Aoxomoxoa" captures some of their beauty and transcendence.

    (from the "Recorded" album-review column, the Los Angeles Free Press 11/21/69, p.48)

  5. A negative Aoxomoxoa review, from a college newspaper:

    "The Grateful Dead issued their first album in mid-1967. The album was basically good but did not live up to the expectations of those who saw the group live. The album had pretty good blues guitar work but overall the album was a bringdown. The Grateful Dead's second album was altogether different. They dropped their blues work and went into acid rock. Their second album had some blues sounds, acid sounds, bell sounds, and electronic sounds.
    "Aoxomoxoa" is essentially background music for parties. The arrangements are slow-rock walk type. The music is a mixture of voices (many times distorted), unfamiliar instruments, and studio made sound effects. This album is definitely not hard rock.
    "What's Become of the Baby" consists of distorted voices, studio-made sound effects and no musical sounds. Cosmic Charlie has guitar sounds similar to the early Stones, but lacking the accompanying guitar work, rhythm, and good lyrics. These two cuts comprise 80 per cent of the second side of "Aoxomoxoa." The other cuts on the album are all alike and can be graded from poor to fair in musical worth.
    The Grateful Dead do not yet have a cohesive point of view, musically or lyrically. They do not have much to say."

    (R.H., "Grateful Dead," Record Reviews, the Observer, Case Western Reserve University, 9/30/69)