Jun 27, 2018

1970: American Beauty reviews


No group was more synonymous with the Haight-Ashbury love culture a few years ago than the Grateful Dead, official marching and grooving band of all the flower children who were flocking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair and pureness in their hearts.
It was the golden age of psychedelia - light shows, acid rock, and free concerts in the park. And members of the good old Dead were princes.
The Haight-Ashbury scene soured, of course. All of that purity was no match for the sickness that crept in and suddenly the scene was no longer very groovy. But the Grateful Dead, spearheaded by super-guitarist Jerry Garcia, emerged from the shambles, floundered around in search of new direction, and ultimately returned to the bare roots of its music.
The roots are pure country - in terms of Garcia's pre-Dead years, that is. And now the Grateful Dead has found fresh life with this rural sound. It was born with the group's fifth album, "Workingman's Dead," and has taken full bloom on the Dead's latest LP for Warner Bros. Records, "American Beauty."
And the album is far more than merely a new approach for the group. "American Beauty" represents the finest rock interpretation of country music since The Band hit with its "Music from Big Pink." And in many respects, the new Dead is much more palatable than The Band's well calculated, highly efficient rigid style.
On "American Beauty," the Dead comes on strong with a free-flowing, easy manner that is strong on melody and rich in vocal depth. The harmonies are frequently marvelous, and at one point there is even a quality that comes close to (and maybe you aren't ready for this one yet) glee club standards.
This fine performance by the Dead is topped off with a selection of material - all written by the group - that is fine from beginning to end. So choice is the album, in fact, that several of the cuts are prime candidates for the - pardon the expression - top 40 charts.
Psychedelia will never be the same.

(from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 November 1970)

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Like fine wine, the Grateful Dead just keep getting better with age.
And accordingly, the Dead's latest album, American Beauty, is their finest LP yet. It is in Jerry Garcia's words, "an extension of what we started to get into with Workingman's Dead."
The extension being a further delving into a country-rock sound with the emphasis shifting from rock to country.
Workingman's Dead opened new musical dimensions for the Grateful Dead, and American Beauty seems to be the destination to which these dimensions have led. The result is quite pleasing.
The vocal work on this new LP - the bugaboo of the Dead in early albums - is very nice indeed. The opening "Box of Rain" is a fine example of the mellow tones now emerging from this once acid-rock band.
"Friend of the Devil," "Super Magnolia," and "Brokedown Palace" are country enough to please Merle Haggard (maybe even embarrass him) and the subtle intricacies of the Dead's acoustical guitar work laced throughout the album lifts the album to a level of excellent uniqueness.
The high point of the LP for me is the final song, "Truckin." It's a hand clapping, foot stompin' masterpiece which has to be the Dead's autobiography lyrically.
Not only is all of the music on American Beauty superb, but the cover itself is suitable for framing and looks like it already has been. 

(by Pete Barsocchini, from "Pop Corner," the San Mateo Times, 19 December 1970)

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The Grateful Dead in many respects are one of the most "alive" groups on the pop scene today.
Their "Workingmen Dead" outing for Warner Brothers approached the proportions of a semiclassic in the past year. All of this was accomplished without once assaulting the delicate membranes of the inner ear. Using a combination of acoustic and a dash of electricity, the Dead effected their delightful ear music without having to pour ketchup over its bill of fare in order to mask imperfect playing.
So much for "Workingmen Dead." Continuing along, Grateful Dead has cross-pollinated a few music styles to come up with "American Beauty," a rose which is a rose but with a difference.
In this context, ear music means the kind which one listens to rather than is exposed to. The Dead fall under this heading as most certainly do Pentangle, The Band and too few others. What detracts from the total listening job is the inability of the material to meet musicianship on the same level. Sometimes it happens and when it does, it's beautiful. Trouble is however that with each group endeavoring to become its own tunesmith for album dates, it seems to operate an electrified assembly line along which roll clusters of notes. Some quality goods end up inside the packages, but the bland stuff emerges in batches.
Unique thing about the Grateful Dead, however, is that even their mediocre material is endowed with a special dignity through the group's instrumental skill. "American Beauty" has a nice bouquet but there are a few thorns amid the bloom, mainly so-so songs. On the scale of comparison, "Workingmen Dead" is the better of the two LPs, but encores of equal acclaim, as you know are seldom easy to come by. Jerry Garcia, the paterfamilias, has Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Pig Pen (Ron McKernan), Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and songwriter Robert Hunter. For the session the Dead tapped friends to augment the band and cultivate the "American Beauty."
Where the Dead are concerned, instrumental solo is a dirty word. The ensemble playing, which is their style for the most part, is almost a unison thing used to lead, and back up the vocals of Garcia and other members. Here and there, individual instrumentalists make cameo appearances: Pig Pen's frugal harmonica on "Operator," David Grisman's unobtrusive mandolin on "Ripple" and "Friend of the Devil," Garcia's steel guitar on "Candyman," and so on.
The Dead are rich vocally, although not spectacularly so, but sing appropriate to the theme of the music. McKernan's engaging lispiness on "Operator" is a hit all by itself, and throughout the album the four-part harmony conveys a soothing fragility. Some of the more memorable tracks are "Friend of the Devil," moving at a rollicking canter embellished by Garcia's flowing narrative. The voices of the Dead enjoy a smashing session on "Sugar Magnolia" while Kreutzmann's drumming is an object lesson in discretion for all. "Candyman" features snatches of high-register harmonizing. It ain't the Gregorian Chant, but you'll do a lot of hunting before you encounter finer choral work than that heard on "Attics of my Life." This is the album's prime piece.
Whether this is rock or pop or folk or country, who cares? Labels should be used only on soup cans. Meanwhile, let's be grateful to the Dead.

(by Ernie Sanosuosso, from "Sound in the Round," the Boston Globe, 17 January 1971)

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[ . . . ] the latest LP from the Grateful Dead called American Beauty (Warner Bros. WS1893). You may remember the Dead as the first of the West Coast-Hashbury acid-rock phenomenon - but that wouldn't do today. Or you may think that they're the same Grateful Dead who put out Workingman's Dead just last summer - that splendid LP of steel guitar and short, zappy songs. But that's no longer true either.
Today, the Grateful Dead have moved about as far from Frisco as it's possible to get without losing the least bit their original talent for exuding good vibes and harmonious sounds. American Beauty is an especially apt title, too, when so little on this continent seems to earn such praise these days. But the Dead and this new album deserve it all. The recording is good melody, good lyrics, and great music combined, a statement of philosophy and proficiency by a group of truly exceptional talent.
The sound is light - mostly acoustic - but always with a little electric juice coursing through it. For a group with six guys playing, the music is incredibly fine, the work of a band that truly knows itself. In the same way, the four-part vocal harmonies - sometimes reminiscent of old Fifties quartets - finds a new framework for contemporary songs.
And the Dead do it right. There is no schlock from this group, the only one remaining from the original San Francisco contingent that has both lived up to its promise and remained true to the highest ideals of the music.
Side Two of American Beauty is a masterpiece. Beyond the short symphony of songs on the Beatles' Abbey Road, its four songs (most of the tunes are by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter) comprise an emotional journey of rare depth - much like Lennon's last album, only with more good feelings. Ripple, Brokedown Palace, 'Til the Morning Comes, Attics of My Life, and Trucking - the tunes take you on a beautiful journey and leave you standing by the roadside as the Dead go on by.
Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann - they are the Grateful Dead and there's no one like them.

(by Herbert Aronoff, from "Pop Music," the Montreal Gazette, 23 January 1971)

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AMERICAN BEAUTY - The Grateful Dead - (Warner Brothers WS-1893)
With this, its sixth album, the Dead continues the new direction it first struck out on in its predecessor, "Workingman's Dead." This gang, among the progenitors of acid rock and so-called "psychedelic" music, is introducing a country flavor and getting back to musical basics. There's less electrified sound, more use of acoustic, unamplified instruments, more emphasis on vocals, and more use of tight vocal harmonies. Readers of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" are well aware of this group's early, fun-loving, drug-filled capers, and the group's personnel is still pretty much the same. But they haven't neglected their musical development. They're singing more, moving away from those long, spun-out instrumental solos, and communicating better musically. As evidence of the country touch, leader Jerry Garcia has even taken up pedal steel guitar, and handles it nicely. His work on "Sugar Magnolia" goes a long way toward making the nicest track offered here. This is still a hard-rock group, but without the affected solemnity and dissonant convolutions that mar so much rock music. "Candyman" almost isn't rock at all, but it's a fine, low-key effort. There's a new introspective side of the Dead emerging here, and it seems promising. Much of the credit belongs to the group's songwriter, Bob Hunter, who's credited as a full-fledged member even though he doesn't perform. The other offerings are titled "Box of Rain," "Friend of the Devil," "Operator," "Ripple," "Brokedown Palace," "Till the Morning Comes," another outstanding offering, "Attics of My Life," and "Truckin."

(by Rick Makin, from "Record Previews," the Asbury Park Press (NJ), 14 February 1971)

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If any group represented the aural extremity of the hippie flowering of 1967, it was the Grateful Dead.
It was the shaggy Dead who were interviewed in Haight-Ashbury for every hippie and drug documentary shown on Sydney television.
They were also the band who accompanied the Acid Tests documented by Tom Wolfe.
Jefferson Airplane might have been the first, but the Dead, earlier called the Warlocks, were the wildest.
Although they did make it to the studio to record "The Grateful Dead," "Anthem of the Sun," and "Aoxomoxoa," naturally enough they were so psychedelic they failed to lay a great track.
But the best bands, if they stick together, move on.
The Grateful Dead now lead more sedate lives and apparently have paid off considerable debts.
And their music has done a somersault. They are now the quietest band in town.
Acid-rock took popular music to its limits, and when you reach the end, there is only one way to go: backwards.
A recent release, "Workingman's Dead," took the band into acoustic country rock.
The latest effort, "American Beauty," has consolidated the move.
Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Pig Pen and friends play acoustic guitar with a dash of electric and sing three-part harmonies which seem to have been practised around the fire.
The style is similar to that of another mature group, The Band, but they still sound like the Grateful Dead.
If your spirit needs soothing, take "American Beauty."

(by Michael Symons, from "Pop Scene," the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), 17 April 1971)

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It is fast becoming apparent that the Grateful Dead are really a talented bunch of musicians. They have released four albums in rapid succession, and each was a fine release in its own right.
"American Beauty" is the latest Dead product. This soft, flawless masterpiece concerns itself mainly with acoustical instrumentation and beautiful vocal work. The opening song, "Box of Rain" is probably the prettiest, most moving song the Dead have ever recorded. It is a magnificent tune. The rest cover a wide range of topics and tempos, but all have a common denominator: each is well-executed with the accent on the music. The Dead are not going to political you to death or sing filthy lyrics that will offend your favorite honey – they will simply entertain you. They are without question the U.S.'s top rock band today, and if "American Beauty" is any indication, they should be there for a good long while.

(by Dan & Chris Cook, from the Observer (Case Western Reserve U), 9 February 1971)

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AMERICAN BEAUTY, The Grateful Dead
(Warner Bros. WS1893)

Jerry Garcia recently revealed that The Dead’s new sound emerged from a close contact with C,S,N&Y, which is a fact we should all be thankful for.
This album’s performances are as beautiful as Workingman’s Dead, and the material is better. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young may have inspired The Dead, but their barbershop harmonies are put to shame by The Dead’s intricate, exotic vocalizing.
American Beauty is so good, in fact, that it almost justifies the fantastically beautiful cover, which was designed by the fantastically beautiful Stanley Mouse.

(by David Adcock, from the “Records” column, the Kudzu (Jackson, MS), 1 March 1971)

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