Jul 21, 2012

1970: American Beauty Reviews


The Grateful Dead is the best rock band in America. They have put out more good albums, played more exciting concerts, written more good music, and inspired more musicians than anyone else. And besides all this, they continue to grow and to put out great albums five years after their formation.
American Beauty is the second Dead album in their new countryish sound. Workingman's Dead preceded American Beauty and though it was a great album, there were still faults with the Dead's new sound. All the problems that were evident on Workingman's Dead, however, have been ironed out, for this album shows no faults at all.
The Dead never was a vocal group. Before they turned countryish in fact, they rarely used harmonies [sic] and their lead singing was kept to a minimum to allow more time for the classic Dead instrumentals. Now, however, they develop vocal lines, let the instruments take a back seat for awhile and sing out. Crosby and Nash helped them with the vocals and their influence is apparent, from the progression chords to the "do-dos" that Stills has used so often. And amazingly enough, some of the Dead's members have turned out to be good vocalists. Jerry Garcia especially captures the ranch and drive of country music. [sic]
Even though the Dead is now highlighting their vocals, there is no reason to worry about their instrumental talent. When they break loose of the vocal lines, they still play harder and faster and stronger than anyone. Of course, the music now has country overtones, pedal steel guitar and all, but under the twang is the basis of the Dead sound - the driving bass of Phil Lesh and the excellent drum work of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Besides there is still Pigpen on organ to liven things up.
Prior to the Dead's country sound, their songs were not songs. They were merely jumping off points for the improvisational talents of the Dead. Now however, you can always tell that they are playing by the notes, leading to something particular. This has hampered them somewhat; but since the songs are so good, something has been added in return. I especially like "Candyman" and "Ripple," on this album.
The Dead may change, but they are still the Dead. Even when they are countrified, they are still San Francisco freaks, mixing sunshine and acid. If such a concoction appeals to you, the Dead are it.

(from the Maroon, December 11 1970)

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For once a truly beautiful album cover is more than matched by the record inside. The Dead just refuse to keep within any normal limits, and I hope that it stays that way for a long time. Workingman's Dead was a lovely album, lush, full, and thoroughly real in musical and lyrical content. American Beauty is a joyous extension of the last album. If possible there is even more care on vocal work. Everyone in the band sings, and sings well alone and together.
A complete contentment shines through the vocal work on this album. A full contentment. The instrumentation is rich with sound that moves through, under, and into the listener. Damn it all, the album is American beauty, of the best possible kind. The positivity of the Dead just can't be kept down. Look at the cover. "American Beauty" can also be read as "American Reality," thanks to Mouse Studios. If more of the American reality were this album, we'd all have a lot more to be thankful for.
"Box of Rain" takes plenty of time, and moves surely. The band isn't in any great hurry. Layers of music weave in seemingly simple patterns - deceptively simple patterns. Phil Lesh's singing is just right. The chorus is fine: "A box of rain will ease the pain / And love will see you through." "Believe it if you need it / If you don't just pass it on." Praised be Bob Hunter. Countrified Dead is so nice to listen to.
From "Box of Rain" they zip into "Friend of the Devil," which is a snappy little country number, with some extremely fine bass and acoustic guitar interplay. Jerry Garcia's voice now makes him a perfect wobbly cowboy.
Pigpen drops by with "Operator." Pigpen songs are always enjoyable, because they're Pigpen songs. That would be enough, but they are often good too, which is an added bonus, and this one certainly is good. Pigpen growls as ever.
"Ripple" and "Brokedown Palace" are coupled by a vocal chorus, a little reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but only in a complimentary sense. The songs meld together and are strongly pretty and sad, as is "Attics of My Life," which has some very, very nice harmony work.
The two songs that come closest to being rockers on the album are "Till the Morning Comes" and "Truckin." "Truckin" is just the story of the Dead - going on the road, losing old friends, gaining new ones, trying to keep everybody happy, trying to play some nice music for people, and succeeding on all counts.
The Dead are getting pretty big commercially now, and if ever a band deserved it, it's them. They have given us all something to treasure with this album. It's one for now, and one for the kids in 20 years too. American Beauty's like that, you know.

(by Andy Zwerling, from Rolling Stone, December 24 1970)

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It's all right there in front of you...

The main differences between the new Dead LP and the superficially similar Workingman's Dead are: 1) the quality of the vocals, and especially the harmonies, has risen substantially, and 2) the album as a whole has a more cohesive feel to it. American Beauty seems to have been sculpted from the same piece of rock, in contrast to the seemingly grafted and less painstakingly crafted last album. Along with Live Dead, the new album presents the most accurate - and easily the most satisfying - picture of the Grateful Dead at their best.
Even more significant is the album's accessibility. It's all right there in front of you, which isn't to say that it's shallow. But you won't have to work hard to get into it, as you likely did with all of the earlier work, including Workingman's Dead, which projected its very own kind of obstacles.
"Ripple" is simply beautiful, with a melody that seems to flow of its own accord - an organism, more than a mere song. The particular kind of sensitivity with which it's sung and played has never been matched by the Dead before. Sheer serenity, and it spreads its mantle over other songs.
At the other end of the emotive spectrum (and at the other end of the side) is "Truckin'," a bit of open, unsullied exuberance. Both exuberance and serenity are valuable wherever you can find them; when they overlap, you know that something special is happening. Call it oriental country and Western - call it anything you want - but hear it.

(from Rock, January 11 1971)

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The Grateful Dead, while long one of the finest rock and roll bands, have never had as big a following as they have recently.
I can see two reasons other than the excellence of their music, for this increase in popularity:
First, they were written about in Tom Wolfe's book about Ken Kesey, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which was recently released in paperback.
Secondly, they have released two exemplary albums in the past year or so. LIVE DEAD (possibly the finest recording of their performance) and WORKINGMAN'S DEAD, a new approach to country-blues.
They should be enshrined after the release of their newest album, AMERICAN BEAUTY (Warner Bros. 1893). It goes beyond the country music and the rock of before to become a new Dead combining the best of the old and the new.
The Dead obviously have put a lot of rehearsal time into their new music. The harmonies are clear and pure. The arrangements are tight and precise. The music is all distinctive, lively Dead.
"Friend of the Devil" is a sprightly lament about an outlaw on the run. Jerry Garcia has the perfect quaking yet sure voice for country-western singing and he shows it on this song and on others such as "Box of Rain" [sic] and "Candyman."
Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist who occasionally alternates lead with Garcia, sounds like the perfect troubled teen-age cowboy with his shining tenor on "Sugar Magnolia."
Ron (Pigpen) McKernan is the gutsiest of the bunch, wailing like no one else on "Operator."
But the finest music in the album lies in two songs: "Till the Morning Comes" and "Attics of My Life."
"Till the Morning Comes" is energetic, happy and really moving. It's the most likely candidate to be pulled off the album as a single. Somebody should tell the Top 40 radio people about it.
The album is superb. There's no other word for it.

Marshall Fine is a student in journalism at the University of Minnesota.

(by Marshall Fine, from the Minneapolis Star, January 12 1971)

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The best adjective I can think of to describe the Grateful Dead is "disarming." They're beautiful because, unlike so many bands, they never overwhelm you.
Their method is to creep up on you and steal your head through a combination of musicality and sheer enjoyment. Like I said, disarming.
American Beauty is their sixth official album (seventh if you count the early live cuts just released in the States), and it shows off perhaps the most attractive side of their collective personality: the low-key, harmony singalong side with pretty, old-timey songs set to light acoustic backings. Listening to it, you won't believe that these songs were written this century; yet they were all penned by members of the band, plus lyricist Robert Hunter, whose craft equals that of Robbie Robertson. The playing is brilliantly unassuming, just a few really excellent musicians sitting down to play, and the singing is rough but affecting, the harmonies straining ever so slightly but always, always gelling. This is where they beat CSN&Y: the Dead sound human, never manufactured. They're helped along by a few friends, like the members of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, their spin-off group, and Howard Wales, who plays lovely piano on the sad, lazy ballad 'Brokendown Palace'. If you prefer the hard, jamming, electric side of the band, I'd recommend a listen to 'Sugar Magnolia' or 'Till The Morning Comes', which contains the repeated line: "Make yourself easy." That's what this album is all about; I never suspected they'd outshine Workingman's Dead, but they've done it, and here it is. Buy it.

(by Richard Williams, from Melody Maker, January 30 1971)

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The pepsi-generation, nurtured on coke, has provided the time, place, and setting for a mutant species of an unknown, but common, origin to develop. With a bit of imagination one could call the rock culture the American Beauty.
American Beauty is the title of the Grateful Dead's most recent mouse production. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, so I'm told, Jerry Garcia was quoted as saying that this album is a more or less continuation of Workingman's Dead. It is more than less!
Since their conception the Dead have been primarily been a band to experience alive, and recorded attempts until the two most recent albums have always lacked the electricity that the band generates in person. In the beginning their albums were products of the West Coast music boom, during which record companies dragged every band they could lay their hands on in off the streets, handed them a contract, and attempted to have the live free bands of those early days record for profit. The [lack] of studio experience shows in a good many of the early Frisco-groups albums. (Catch Big Brother's first.)
So, we have the Grateful Dead, an always popular (to certain cross-sections of the American Breed) live band producing primarily so-so studio attempts until Workingman's Dead and now American Beauty.

It should be obvious that what follows is what it is and couldn't be anything else. Nonetheless it isn't what you may think...
Daydreams can open the door to another world...a world of fantasies...so can acid-dreams. The cartoons of the mind are strange, very strange indeed...and maybe to your ears the tale of a band would also be strange indeed.
In a box of rain can be found sweet voices joined in the celestial harmony that has confounded mystics for centuries. It isn't quite the country you're in as much as the Garcia-guitar which shines through the splintered sunlight and while I don't know who put it there, if you don't find enjoyment you can merely, or if you do find enjoyment, you can merrily, pass it on.
Can you believe that there can be beauty in a friend of the devil? Lesh innovations can transfigure more than you might believe, but with the guru of so many pointing out the direction, who could go wrong! Unburdening his mind our friend tells us that if I get with troubles on his mind, like sweet Maria, or a sheriff following, you can understand what I'm saying.
Alimony, matrimony, and the first one says she's got my child, but he don't look like me. The music to accompany this tale would have to be moving, but not raunchy or prickly like a cactus, right? And only a mandolin could deceive you.
In how many ways can a person find love...could Hermine or Maria fulfill your needs...where is love like a groupie...we can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside...in a sunshine daydream?
Sugar Magnolia moves in a myriad of alluring ways, all which invoke differing spirits, as varied in their make-up as the book of changes. Bob Weir sang it in Cleveland and you could find him for yourself if you only had the desire.
Have you ever made a phone call to an operator and found that she knew something you didn't know, but wanted to, and she wouldn't tell you?
Operator has to be a working model of Pig Pen's mind. He wrote this chapter and adds harp and a bit of his country mind.
Only in a Tom Wolfe journey could you find a candyman and could you get caught up in the rhythm of a ride, a bus ride maybe.
Jerry Garcia sings a song to you and will you listen to his steel guitar? The benignly he-ell is too much. Organ riffs found their way into the end of act one and as the curtain falls you feel like just laying motionless and allowing your mind to flow into a thousand melodic patterns, but you know that there will come a time to rise and go up, over, up, record, over, back, and down to await act two.

Let there be songs to fill the air and if the mandolin finds your heart, roll with it. Join Jerry Garcia as he leaves nothing unsung and wanders over a path where your steps alone may tread and if I knew the way, I would take you home. There is a road, no simple highway...ripple!
On my hands and knees I found a brokendown palace and in a bed by the waterside, I'll lay my head, to listen to the river sing sweet songs and my head will rest soundly beneath a weeping willow. You could only describe these things if you have been there, right?...so be there...fare ye well, I love you more than words can tell...
...And I'll stay with you till the morning comes, showin' you the way in, leavin' no doubts, and the way back out.
Throughout the night and the changes, it takes a driving beat to ward off the fears of the oncoming day. With a guide, you can push worries aside, and it is after all your choice.
If you found a house you would explore it, correct? If you found your mind, would you explore it? The mysterious softness beckons to you to taste the tastes no tongue can know and to find the cloudy dreams unreal, all in the attics of my life, where all the pages are my days.
...when there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me...what more can be said.
End of act two with advice to us all...a typical city involved in a typical daydream...busted...they just won't let you be...just keep truckin'!

Note: this collage was assembled by Gary Thornbloom. The media was American Beauty.

(by Gary Thornbloom, from the Nittany Cub, 21 January 1971)

1 comment:

  1. I added a sixth review here, from the "If You Would Just Take The Time To" column of the Penn State Erie - Behrend College student newspaper.
    Thornbloom had reviewed the Dead's 10/17/70 show in Cleveland (which I just posted). Needless to say he was a big fan - he was familiar with Tom Wolfe's book, and loved Workingman's Dead.
    This is a very idiosyncratic piece, not so much a review as a lyric collage, and an evocation of "acid dreams" while listening to the album. Not the kind of writing I like, but I included it since it shows how a lot of young people would have responded to the album at the time (and perhaps since). In cultural terms, there's a straight line from the impressions of this writer to the high-school girl's reaction to the album in Freaks & Geeks.

    As an aside, this article was badly printed with some typos and misprints (like "mouse productions" and "benignly he-ell"), and maybe parts of sentences missing. Perhaps due to the hasty attempt to type up an acid dream!