The Grateful Dead
Warner Bros. 1893
Released: October 1970
Chart Peak: #30
Weeks Charted: 19
Certified Platinum: 10/13/86
This is the simplistic folk-rock album Workingman's Dead is supposed to be -- sweeter vocally and more direct instrumentally, with words to match. Robert Hunter is better at parsing American conundrums than at picking American beauties, so too many of the lyrics revolve around love, dreams, etc. But only "Attics of My Life" has nothing upstairs. A-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
It features a couple of slightly above average compositions (including their trademark "Truckin'") and the ambience is fairly rustic/hippie. But the ideas are far from original and the "sound" is purveyed far better by other nonlegendary bands. The singing and musicanship remain vaguely communal. The sound is a marked improvement over prior reproductions, providing a clear, more spacious feel, and some dynamic enhancement -- and some hiss too. C
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The follow-up to Workingman's Dead, American Beauty also managed to convey the band's flued lyricism with somewhat darker undertones. * * * * *
- Joel Selvin, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
The Dead were never better in the studio than on the down-home stoner country of Ameican Beauty. Released just six months after the folkie classic Workingman's Dead, Beauty has some of the band's most beloved songs, including "Box of Rain" and "Friend of the Devil."
American Beauty was chosen as the 258th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Although the late 1960s and early '70s saw leaps in studio technology, some groups, such as The Grateful Dead, seemed to revel in their undisciplined approach to recording. But 1970's Workingman's Dead -- a mature-sounding document that referred to their country/jazz/pop roots -- surprised fans. Follow-up American Beauty, though, would outlast all their other offerings as the definitive album by the group.
It is a joy to listen to: rich in acoustic instrumentation (including pedal steel guitar and mandolin), well-rounded backing vocals, and a subtle electric presence. American Beauty established the group as more than a house band for its charismatic stoner leader, Jerry Garcia. For the first time, the Dead seemed a cohesive unit with a battery of accomplished singer-songwriters, including Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.
Opener "Box Of Rain," penned by Leigh, is the perfect example of the group's new-found enthusiasm for the studio, while Weir delivered one of the record's standout moments on the joyous "Sugar Magnolia." Garcia, though, remains the undisputed heavyweight of the group, delivering an especially strong trilogy of songs to the set: "Candyman," Ripple," and "Friend Of The Devil," and supplying expressive pedal steel playing. The album's closing track, "Truckin'" would also endure as their anthem for generations of Deadheads.
Expertly played, with some gorgeous harmony singing, this is an intricate album. Its influence has resonated in successive generations of musicians, from the West Coast scene to the recent breed of Liverpudlian acts such as The Coral and The Zutons.
- Burhan Wazir, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
There are many portals through which to begin an exploration of the Grateful Dead. You could start at the beginning, with the 1967 self-titled debut, to hear the San Francisco group trying to shake its jug-band roots while serving up suitably weird blues designed to accompany the stored countercultural acid tests.
Or you could start near the end, with In the Dark (1987), the Dead's last studio work of consequence, which yielded the commercial success "Touch of Grey" and other songs lit with the wisdom of grizzled road vets. Some Deadheads would advise that the only reasonable first recorded encounter with the mythic band that rose from San Francisco hippie culture is a live concert recording -- and thanks to an aggressive archive program, there are plenty available.
Sooner or later, though, anyone seeking to understand the Dead needs to hear American Beauty, the crown jewel of the band's studio efforts. Recorded in August and September 1970, this collection documents the Dead before jamming became its raison d'être. The tunes are simple, kindhearted rambles through American folk, country two-step, and appropriations of Appalachian hymns. The performances are reverent, with little soloing and nothing getting in the way of the songs. And what songs: For decades after this release, the presence of its highlights "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," "Box of Rain," or "Friend of the Devil" on a set list was known to send hemp-necklaced Deadheads into rapture. That's partly because the tunes are so life-affirming, and partly because in the years of touring, the songs evolved tremendously -- from disciplined three-minute miniatures into jaw-dropping twenty-minute odysseys.
The Dead wasn't temperamentally suited to the studio. But around the time of this album, the musicians and primary lyricist Robert Hunter were writing at a fever pitch, building a songbook that was revolutionary and patchwork-quilt quaint at the same time. Just as Hunter appropriated the plainspoken language of old folk songs, guitarist Jerry Garcia, who'd played banjo in jug bands, brought that instrument's crisp articulation to the eletric guitar. Everyone else follows that folkloric bent without seeming too worried about details; the performances are sometimes ragged and the vocals stray off-key. Yet somehow the scruffiness becomes part of the chorus, helping to speed the trip back to the sounds and folklore of an earlier time while underscoring the Dead's great alchemy trick -- transforming the rustic into the revelatory.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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