Jun 27, 2013

April 1967: Album Review


A good album, like those long lasting cold remedies, is filled with tiny time capsules which burst open at their own speed. Cuts that astound at first fade as subtle ballads emerge. Great blasts of noise vanish as haunting melodies appear. A line suddenly hits home...a phrase...a shade of meaning, and the whole album becomes something else again.
The shape of a good album changes constantly. A review can never be anything more than a synthesis of moments. When technical trickery wears thin, and novelty loses its appeal is the time to evaluate a piece of work. The test of time doesn't mean very much; repetition is all. The good albums stick; the great ones transmigrate.
The Grateful Dead, San Francisco's most highly touted tock band, have released an album which is a perfect illustration of this time-gap principle. It is straight, decent rhythm and blues - some of it so civil it passes for dull. Certainly, this is no "psychedelic" music. It doesn't fuzz, except in spots. It doesn't squeal inside your head like a dentist's drill. It isn't even in a minor key.
In fact, on first hearing the Grateful Dead is the Butterfield Blues Band in Merry Prankster drag. "The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion" turns out to be plain old rock with vocal harmonies that remind you of the Mamas and the Papas, of all things. "Beat It on Down the Line" is the kind of putty R and B Barry Goldberg stretches into a 20-minute magnum opus. "Good Morning Little School Girl" has a raunchy, funky sound. Lines like "I wanna put a tiger, baby, in your sweet little tank" fulfill all criteria for blue eyed soul, a la Eric Burdon. Further on, there is "Sitting on Top of the World," a snazzy touch of bluegrass, "Cream Puff War," with a modified Young Rascals vocal, "Morning Dew," with instrumental lines right off the Jefferson Airplane album (listen to "Today" alongside this cut) and a 10-minute blues excursion which breaks no rules, stretches no boundaries, and won't even rankle your middle ear. Ten minutes that don't deafen is just not psychedelic, man. And a lust-song with implications - baby, what ever happened to acid passivity?
I don't think this album has much of a future with the underground. It dispels utterly the treasured myth that the psychedelic experience automatically turns a musician to specific forms of expression - like atonality, baroque harmonics, or raga. The Grateful Dead give the lie to most technical embellishments which have become psychedelic symbols in our music. The people who first decided that any musician worth his head has to wreak electronic havoc were businessmen. Straight or stone, a rock band is a rock band.
The Grateful Dead play music with an optimistic simplicity that is the San Francisco sound. All the prototechnics of the recording studio are forsaken for a straight, "live" effect. It feels spontaneous; it sounds honest. The Dead are in utter interaction on this album. Theirs is the kind of leaderless co-operation you seldom find in rock 'n' roll, and the tightness in their music shows it. The Grateful Dead are a musical community.
Listen to this album a third and fourth time. You will begin to sense some of the subtle restraint with which this group approaches a song. In "The Golden Road" for instance, a single note of dissonance at the end provides a brilliant cap to the song. "Good Morning" contains a barely notable change in rhythm on the final word of the refrain "Can't yuh hear me crying?" But it is poignant in its sparcity. "Cold Rain" has a fine contrapuntal bridge thoroughly integrated in the body of the song. "Cream Puff War" juxtaposes the discontinuity of two distinct rhythms, and is therefore hard to take. Finally, there is "Viola Lee Blues," the extended popsong. It opens with a dissonant chord - short and disciplined - but then it settles into the basic blues pattern. There are some dull stretches in this cut. The musical bridge is so long it becomes a separate composition. But the intensity builds up very gradually to an impressive peak. This is no rave-up, where the decibels start high and end in a barrage of white noise. There is concise improvisation here, which stops before it bores (it takes an artist to know where to stop a bridge these days). "Viola Lee Blues" never really ends; it just fades away in an irrelevant drumroll.
The Grateful Dead will let you down if you're expecting some of the unbearable auditory torture that goes by the name of revelation these days. But, at the first sign of hi-fi headache, cabaret intestinal distress, or malaise-of-the-scene, I intend to slip this disc on my meagre phonograph and relax while the time capsules flower.

(by Richard Goldstein, from the "Pop Eye" column, Village Voice, April 13 1967)

(See also a later Goldstein column here: http://deadsources.blogspot.com/2013/05/june-1967-new-york-city.html?showComment=1372387011993#c1440862511594759602 )

1 comment:

  1. A favorable review. Where some early reviewers complained that the Dead's first album did not capture their live sound, Goldstein compliments them for not indulging in studio trickery, and for their "subtle restraint" and "concise improvisation." He's even pleased that they're not noisy & psychedelic, just "straight, decent rhythm & blues."
    My guess is he did not react to Anthem so favorably!

    When he writes that "it feels spontaneous, it sounds honest," and it's played just like a live show, that's exactly what Garcia said of the album when it was released. Only, for the Dead, that was a disappointment, and they wanted to indulge more in studio trickery and "electronic havoc"!

    It's funny that he says Morning Dew lifts guitar lines from Jefferson Airplane's song Today - not knowing that Garcia actually played the lead guitar on Today...

    Goldstein reviewed the Velvet Underground's first album in the same issue, same column. I can't resist:

    "The Velvet Underground is not an easy group to like. Some of the cuts on their album are blatant copies: I refer specifically to the progression lifted from the Rolling Stones "Hitchhike" to "There She Goes Again." The lead vocal on other songs sounds distressingly like early Dylan. Some of the material is dull and repetitive. And the last two cuts, "Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son" are pretentious to the point of misery.
    But the Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover. "I'm Waiting for the Man" is an impressively understated vignette about scoring in Harlem. "Venus In Furs" is fine electronic mood-manifesting. "Femme Fatale" is an unearthly ballad, subtly fuzzed-up to drive you mad fiddling with bass and treble switches. Nico's voice is harrowing in its pallor, but chic, very chic.
    Most important is the recorded version of "Heroin," which is more compressed, more restrained than live performances I have seen. But it's also more a realized work. The tempo fluctuates wildly and finally breaks into a series of utterly terrifying squeals, like the death rattle of a suffocating violin. "Heroin" is seven minutes of genuine 12-tone rock 'n' roll."