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)

  6. More album reviews -

    “The Grateful Dead made their reputation in the same San Francisco explosion that produced several other groups in the Acid Rock genre. They’re probably the last major group from that period to get LP exposure, which they do on W-7’s “Aoxomoxoa”. I’m not sure that a broad market for their type of material exists – or that the Grateful Dead care. Where other groups have broadened their outlook and their popularity base, the Dead stick to their wry, low-pressure, do-your-own-thing style.
    Some of their selections are danceable, such as “China Cat Sunflower”, “Cosmic Charlie”, and “Doin’ That Rag”. Others, like “What’s Become of the Baby”, put the emphasis on the words and seem more apt to go over big at the free-concert sort of thing that made them famous. While the performances are competent within the limits of their genre, the market for this one is likely to be a bit limited.”
    (Allen Macaulay, “Record Roundup,” The Record (Hackensack, NJ) 7/27/69)

    “The Grateful Dead’s first album was generally good, though a bit low-keyed in spots. On the other hand, their second, Anthem of the Sun, wallowed in psychedelic mush. With their third album, Aoxomoxoa (Warner Brothers 1790), the Dead tries again, with mild success.
    Their latest release is clean-sounding with enough instrumental variation to be interesting, though the whole thing sounds ponderous at first, especially in the tempo of the songs and in the hyped-up bass lines of Phil Lesh.
    Though the style is also interesting, vacillating between Crown of Creation lyricism and Big Pink raunchiness, what is needed on Aoxomoxoa is more life, some of the mythical magnetism apparently present in live performances by the group.
    One thing I really didn’t like was the longest (eight minutes, 17 seconds) track on the record, What’s Become of the Baby. A disjointed piece of pseudodelic drivel made up of vocal and quasi-electronic backing, this cut is musically dull, uninteresting, and anachronistic, except maybe to some suburbanites throwing their first pot party.
    Aside from that it is fairly listenable.”
    (Michael Quigley, “Dead’s Mild Success,” The Province (Vancouver, BC) 7/4/69)

  7. “Aoxomoxoa – the Grateful Dead (Warner Brothers WS 1790): The apotheosis of SF groups, communal-living, casual, often giving free concerts.
    Typical in their music, too. Great concern for the texture of the music, eager to have the guitars and rhythm and voices blend into a thick sound.
    Their live performances reputedly have been scorchers, featuring long improvisational explorations. (We may have a chance to see, if the Grande Ballroom’s tentative booking for Sunday brings them to Detroit.)
    Only problem: Often their material hasn’t supported their musical aspirations.
    This album isn’t a graveyard-howler, for once. Their roots in country and jug band music give a gentler and somewhat folky flavor here, but the general [SF] characteristics still apply.”
    (John Laycock, “Pop” (excerpt), Windsor Star (Ontario) 7/5/69)

    “The Grateful Dead is the least known and the poorest in bread of any of the first generation Frisco rock groups. Whereas the Airplane, Big Brother, Country Joe have had hit singles (Piece of My Heart, Martha Lorraine, Somebody to Love) the Dead haven’t. While time and success have diminished creativity in many of these groups (e.g. Country Joe’s atrocious last album) the Dead have held their own. “Aoxomoxoa” is their best recording effort to date. It captures the life style and mood of a scene which long since has dissipated. With technical precision and unity the Dead deliver an excellent two sides of music. Strong cuts include St. Stephen and a piece with harpsichord called Mountains of the Moon (the only weakness on the whole record is an experimental piece – What’s Become of the Baby). Jerry (Captin Trips) Garcia may be singled out for his distinctive guitar technique and vocals but then again so may Phil Lesh’s bass lines, Tom Constanten on keyboards, or Pigpen who acts as his own instrument. Ken Kesey’s mystical house band is still outside the grasp of the masses but they’re reaching.”
    ("Albums," Redbrick, date unknown)

    “Meditating on the pronunciation and the meaning of the word which is the title is something which you can do while listening to the Grateful Dead’s newest... Best part: the keyboard work of Tom Constanten. Weakest: Singing and effects. Overall rating: Fairly poor.”
    (Kansas City Star 6/22/69)