Saturday, June 18, 2016

Album Review: Various - Day of the Dead (2016)

For many of us of a certain generation, for many years, the Grateful Dead have been little more than the convenient butt of many a hippy joke. A band that helped define an era, certainly, but nonetheless a band widely considered to be the complete antithesis of the punk rock and post-punk movements. And therefore, very much fair game to become an object of ridicule (in my insular world, at least). It is, or was, a position many mainstream observers also adopted, to be fair, with derogatory "Dead" references popping up in movies, books, comedy/parody, and various other forms of popular culture in the years since the band's profile peaked in the late Sixties and Seventies.

It probably didn't help that songwriter and guitarist Jerry Garcia bore an uncanny resemblance to (pothead) Tommy Chong of the infamous Cheech and Chong comedy duo. Or that the music of the Grateful Dead was deeply entrenched in what I personally considered to be a barren no man's land – that well traversed four-pronged crossroads where country rock meets classic rock meets folk meets Americana. It was a place I didn't really want to hang out for any length of time, and despite becoming more open minded as I get older (or so I like to think), it still doesn't really excite me all that much. And yes, these prejudices say a lot more about me than they do about the Grateful Dead, sure.

But the Dessner brothers-curated tribute album, Day of the Dead, throws something of a fresh light on the band's music, and while it doesn't really change my position on the Dead, it does offer another perspective – that of the contemporary artist of a distinctly post-millennium vintage, charged with interpreting large chunks of the band’s extensive catalogue. Including some of the biggest “indie” names in the business. It reconfigures our context somewhat, by placing emphasis back on the music, and not the lifestyle.

Tommy or Jerry?
First things first, just for clarity: I picked this up mainly on account of the involvement of Aaron and Bryce Dessner, simply because I'm a big fan of their work with The National. My version of the album – that which is under review here – is the three volume download. The alternatives being the 5-CD set, or limited edition vinyl box set. Either way, it all amounts to some 59 cover versions, and well in excess of five hours’ worth of music. With sale proceeds going to the long-standing Aids charity Red Hot Organization.
The first volume in the download set is sub-titled “Thunder” and it is by some distance the best, or most easily digestible, portion of the release. From the perspective of a Dead sceptic (aka your reviewer), it’s the volume which contains the least meandering, more accessible material. With the exception of the exhausting near 17-minute Terrapin Station (Suite)’ (by assorted and various). Highlights include Courtney Barnett’s take on ‘New Speedway Boogie’, The National’s version of ‘Peggy-O’, and the collaboration between Ed Droste (of Grizzly Bear) and Binki Shapiro on ‘Loser’. This volume also includes contributions by luminaries such as The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Bonnie Prince Billy, Perfume Genuis, Sharon van Etten, Mumford & Sons, Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth), Wilco, and latter day Grateful Dead touring band member Bruce Hornsby. Plus many others.

The second volume – subtitled “Lightning” – was a real struggle for me, mainly on account of so many of the songs being of the more rambling variety. Rambling, as in … on and on and on and … seldom going anywhere particularly satisfying. Certainly this volume adds weight to the old adage that sometimes less is more. The worst offenders here being the work of Nightfall of Diamonds on the track of the same name, plus the Tunde Adebimpe/Lee Ranaldo collab ‘Playing in the Band’. And while Marijuana Deathsquads’ take on ‘Truckin’ is relatively brief by comparison, mercifully brief even, it does tend to bring out all that is most unpalatable about the musical excesses of the Grateful Dead. On the more positive side of the ledger, the second volume features The National’s majestic take on ‘Morning Dew’, and the rather funky Orchestra Baobab with ‘Franklin’s Tower’. Look out too for the soulful contribution of Charles Bradley (and the Menahan Street Band) on ‘Cumberland Blues’.

Volume three, “Sunshine”, also offers up something of a mixed bag, with the highs coming from This Is The Kit on trad tune ‘Jack-A-Roe’, and from The Flaming Lips with ‘Dark Star’. Relatively slim pickings. At the opposite end of the spectrum, again there’s a couple of ten-minute-plus episodes I could well have done without, and I thought Fucked Up’s take on ‘Cream Puff War’ was simply awful. Music befitting the band’s rather unimaginative name. Somewhere in the okay-but-not-overly-great category we find Real Estate with ‘Here Comes Sunshine’, and New Zealand’s own Unknown Mortal Orchestra with ‘Shakedown Street’.

So there it is. Warts and all. Genuine variety from a wide range of bands and artists. Kudos to the Dessner brothers and co-producer Josh Kaufman for bringing so many musicians and diverse styles together in the name of a charity project. Any criticism (or otherwise) of the album should not detract from that monumental effort. There’s some great stuff here, but there’s also some very ordinary stuff, and a few quite woeful tracks. It kind of goes with the territory. The very nature of a project this expansive. There’s so much here it would be unrealistic to expect to enjoy it all, and equally difficult not to find stuff you can enjoy. Even as a non-Deadhead.

There’s no question that in the annals of popular culture the Grateful Dead is a very important band. As much for the era, or the ethos, that the music represents. I guess if you’re not a fan of the Grateful Dead, and therefore unlikely to ever listen to the band’s music, but want to learn a little bit about what all the fuss was about, what helped to build the myth, then this is as good a place to start as any. Worth a look, occasionally worth a listen.

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