Saturday, September 8, 2012

September 8: Grateful Dead, "American Beauty"

Artist: Grateful Dead
Album: American Beauty
Year: 1970
Label: Warner Bros.

Throughout the course of music history, there is a small group of bands that are held in such a unique reverence within the overall music culture, that to some extent, it is impossible to mark a "best" point within their career.  Sometimes due to the overall quality of their recorded catalog, and at other times due to the sheer impact they had on culture as a whole, these groups and their music remain rather guarded in a sense by their fans which seem to renew their numbers with each generation.  Furthermore, in at least one case, the studio recordings of such a band are often seen as "secondary" to their live performances, and it is this reality that separates The Grateful Dead apart from every other musical act in history.  For more than four decades, the band set the standard for what would become labeled as "jam band" music, and yet within their songs one can find everything from bluegrass and country to hard rock and reggae.  Their musical diversity knew no bounds, and yet during the early years of the 1970's, the band seemed far more focused on a singular sound than at any other point in their career.  Working deep within the world of folk and country, along with their distinctive psychedelic blend, the band released a pair of flawless albums in 1970, with the latter of the two, American Beauty, rising slightly above the other and in many ways serving as the ideal entry point into the massive musical world of The Grateful Dead.

From the moment that the album begins, any preconceived notions that one might have about The Grateful Dead are instantly destroyed, as "Box Of Rain" provides an intriguing and engaging, yet comparatively simplistic musical arrangement.  Far from the lengthy jams that many associate with the group, it follows a far more traditional musical structure, and this is true of a majority of the songs found on American Beauty.  In fact, the opening track has some of the most perfectly layered guitars in history, courtesy of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and a guest performance from David Nelson.  Yet the true mastery of the band becomes obvious in the fact that each of the musicians on the album follow their own paths in an almost jazz-like approach, and at the same time they move as a single unit.  The basslines from Phil Lesh are some of the finest of his career, as he injects a mellow, often swaying groove into a number of these songs.  It is also the country "twang" found throughout the record that give it a warmer and inviting tone, and it is the way that Mickey Hart works the percussion into the tracks that shows they understanding of how to perfectly capture a mood, yet never sacrifice pace or musicality.  Along with this, one can find everything from piano to pedal steel to mandolin to a wide range of instrumentation that allows American Beauty to remain musically fresh from track to track.

Along with the superb orchestrations, The Grateful Dead also benefit from the fact that they have multiple members capable of handling lead vocal duties.  Though both Lesh and Weir take their turn singing lead on American Beauty, a majority of these portions are handled by the iconic voice of Jerry Garcia.  Much like the music over which he sings, Garcia is able to bring strength and power within his softer, almost delicate vocal approach.  Even when he pushes into a falsetto style, there is never any question that it perfectly matches the mood of the song, and the slight Southern drawl that appears at times only adds to the overall impact of these tracks.  Yet one can also make the case that regardless of who might be signing, it is the words of the songs that carry the most weight, and remain iconic to this day.  This is largely due to the phenomenal talents of Robert Hunter, who takes a co-writing credit on all but one track on American Beauty, and many of the phrases he worked here have become part of culture onto itself.  Behind unforgettable classics like "Friend Of The Devil" and "Sugar Magnolia," sits one of the most heartbreaking songs ever composed, in the form of "Ripple."  With words that seem to echo Biblical passages and and overall tone of loss and longing, it captures a mood of sorrow unlike any other song in history, and is unquestionably one of the most important songs ever recorded.

Strangely enough, it would be the song released as a single that was paired with "Ripple" that may very well be the most memorable song in the entire catalog of The Grateful Dead.  Bringing a unique shuffle and groove like nothing else on the album, "Truckin'" has risen to a status that is unequaled, and is in many ways a piece of Americana.  Filled with tales from their years on the road and working as a traveling band, all four of the bands' primary songwriters worked on the song, and there are few lines from any point in music history that have become as outright iconic as "...what a long, strange trip it's been."  The phrase in itself is a part of world culture, and the fact is that American Beauty is where it finds its origin.  Furthermore, Lesh has stated a number of times that the final verse of "Truckin'" in many ways defines the band, and taking all of this together, one can easily understand why the song remains an integral piece of popular culture.  At the same time, it is the entire album which stands so superb, as each of the single songs work together to form an overall musical experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.  While The Grateful Dead have certainly had their image skewed over the decades, the fact remains that after more than forty years, few albums have equaled the power and presence of their 1970 release, American Beauty.

1 comment:

Katy said...

excellent insight to this album. I heard this album for the first time ever this month and I'm a total convert. I can't wait to get my hands on another dead album. Glad I found your blog!