REVIEW: Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa
Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa [reissue] [Warner 1969/Rhino 2003]
Three words? tossing and turning
I love the title of this album. "Aoxomoxoa." The swanky liner-notes tell me it "derives from the palindromic preoccupations of Rick Griffin, the brilliant artist who designed the cover." And it is indeed a palindrome. I can read it backwards, and forwards, and backwards again. When I read the word Aoxomoxoa, I imagine Egypt, and rites, and faith, and death. I imagine powerful things.
I've had a lot of time to think, you see, because listening to Aoxomoxoa doesn't really take a lot out of you. It opens with a few lonely guitar notes on "St. Stephen," and for a moment it sounds like an old Songs:Ohia record... inevitably, however, the Garcia/Weir/Lesh vocals jump in, and it's an awkward back-porch jam. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be happy or sad, poignant or silly. "Ladyfinger dipped in moonlight," Garcia sings half-way through, accompanied by bells, and for a moment I feel like I'm trapped in a prog rock song. I'm not - it's merely an indulgent, uninteresting Grateful Dead track. I relax, and stare at that cool palindrome again.
"Dupree's Diamond Blues" is like a bad country song spoof on The Muppet Show, while "Cosmic Charlie" picks up on the cartoony feel and adds a whole lot of pedal steel. If this was just silly faux-folk music, that would be one thing, but Aoxomoxoa is fatally schizophrenic. While "Doin' That Rag" is boringly conventional, "China Cat Sunflower" and "What's Become of the Baby" are altogether avant garde. The former lets different currents of jazzy melody and harmony nudge through one-another, the vocals congealing disparate instrumental tracks; the latter is a weird, echoing, dirge, like Aphex Twin remixing The Beatles' "Across the Universe." The penchant for experimentation sinks "Rosemary," whose effects-laden vox muddy what might have been a beautiful, Iron & Wine style folksong. The bonus material redeems nothing: three of the live tracks are jazz-fusion wanks, while "Clementine Jam" is an abhorrent jazz-fusion wank.
I wanted to like this. The album title was cool, remember. I even liked those first few chords. But the Grateful Dead must have been too high to hear how confused this record is, how it lurches from cliche to failed experiment, leaving the listener marooned, without any conception of how any of this should make him feel.