|Grateful Dead - American Beauty|
|Music Disc Reviews DualDisc|
|Written by Jeff Fish|
|Tuesday, 30 November 2004|
How do you review an album that’s 35 years old (really?!?), has worldwide appeal and is generally thought of as the best studio album by one of rock’s greatest acts? Well, I’m about to do it …
American Beauty by The Grateful Dead was first released to the world in November, 1970. This has become one of the most classic albums in rock history and certainly one of the many highlights in that long strange trip known as The Grateful Dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to this album in the past, but it became one of my personal favorites right away. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was impossible not to be influenced by The Grateful Dead. Over the past couple of years, The Dead have gone back and re-mastered their entire back catalog. In fact, they just released their second box set, Beyond Description 1973 – 1989 (The Arista Years). So when Audio Video Revolution asked me to review American Beauty, my answer was an instantaneous, “Yes, and can I have the disc now?!”
1970 was a very good year for The Grateful Dead. In June, they released Working Man’s Dead and a mere five months later, they released American Beauty. In between, they went on the Festival Express (I reviewed the DVD in December 2004). So why these days does it take bands two years to do a mediocre album? But I digress. American Beauty is chock full of favorites, both for the radio and concert hall. “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple” and “Truckin” are just a few of them. In 2003, The Dead released their first batch of re-mastered studio albums, the Warner Bros. years, for lack of a better term. On all those releases, except for Live Dead, they included extra tracks from either the road or singles. Well, this release is different, as the disc is dual-sided. One side is a standard CD, which should play in all CD players (but doesn’t – more on that later), and the other side is a DVD-A 5.1 surround mix. The only thing I like better about the 2003 re-mastered releases than the originals is that the new versions included all those extra tracks, which I’m surprised weren’t on the CD side of this disc (Rhino Records did both of the releases). But this is really a small matter; my main complaint is that the CD doesn’t play on all players.
If you can get the disc to play, it really sounds great, with the Advanced Resolution 5.1 surround side being a true joy for all Dead fans. And if that wasn’t enough, on “Candyman,” there is another minute of the song that wasn’t even on the initial release back in 1970. Mickey Hart remarks about this in the interview, basically saying that if it sounded good, they were going to leave it in. This is when The Grateful Dead were in full bloom, even though they were about to lose one of the early key contributors, Ron McKernan, or as we all know him, “Pigpen.” This was an album where The Dead were making their own rules as well. There are no screaming Jerry Garcia solos; in fact, the first song on the album has Phil Lesh singing lead on “Box of Rain.” 1970 was also the year that The Grateful Dead really learned how to write songs. Just listen to some of the songs released in 1970: “Uncle John’s Band,” “Cumberland Blues” and “Casey Jones” are just three from “Working Man’s Dead,” and then you have the entire American Beauty album.
The 5.1 mix invites you into the studio with the band, just a beautiful mix: Garcia’s pedal steel, sounding as if it was right next to you, Weir’s guitar filling spaces that you didn’t realize existed, commingling with the acoustic guitar. Can you imagine David Grisman’s mandolin not being part of “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple”? I think not. And Lesh’s bass lines, which on this album represent some of his best work and, for my money, are some of the best bass lines you’ll ever hear in rock. In fact there are very few solos on this record at all; the few that are here mostly consist of Garcia’s pedal steel. These songs hearken back to a simpler time, with melody and emotion being the key. I just love to listen to “Working Man’s Dead” and “American Beauty” back to back, especially when my day has been tense. These are songs that bring you in and invite to relax with The Dead. These songs and this album are why The Grateful Dead will live for a very long time in the American consciousness and the American musical lexicon.
My real complaint with this release is that the CD side doesn’t want to play on every CD player all the time, although it does periodically. I listened to both sides of this release on my home system, no problem (with the 5.1 mix sounding incredible). Then I listened to the CD side in my car – again, no problem. Then I tried to listen to the CD once on my boom box, with only periodic success (just like with Queensryche’s Tribe, also reviewed this month). After playing it a couple of times, my boom box won’t even recognize the disc. I find this to be very annoying, since I’m not always going to be able to listen through topnotch gear. I don’t know if this is simply a problem with my boom box, but since every other disc I own plays in it just fine, I think it may be something else. This will be an issue for manufacturers of dual-sided discs, as the idea of a release like this makes so much sense. If these discs are going to be that sensitive, they won’t be the success that they should.
If you’re new to The Grateful Dead, this is an excellent introduction. If The Dead is an old friend, this release (especially in 5.1) brings you into the studio with them and you get to hear some old friends and favorites for the first time again. This is an excellent addition for anybody with an open mind, who is willing to take a long strange trip.