REVIEW: Grateful Dead: American Beauty
Grateful Dead: American Beauty [reissue] [Warner 1970/Rhino 2003]
Three words? Indeed a beauty.
With American Beauty, the Grateful Dead succeeded in recording a genuine album: it's got good songs, less good ones, beautiful odds and silly ends. It doesn't canoodle its way into the ground, nor bore the listener into the desire for a high. It's a return to acoustic instruments, a love of melody, twang mixed with sweet harmony, rural rainbows.
"Box of Rain" is as sweet as CSNY's "Our House," as pretty as The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming." "Friend of the Devil," believe it or not, summons the rollicking spirit of Simon & Garfunkel - a smiling trip down the street, David Grisman's mandolin plucking, guitars calling up the stars. If the Phish comparisons are going to happen, they're going to refer to the lovely songs of Billy Breathes - there is a sincere committment to songs, here; jams have been dismissed, solos pruned. "Sugar Magnolia" positively sparkles at the vocal harmonies, hinting at the Guess Who on its chorus - and in a good way. Though "Operator" smells strongly of Ringo Starr (if you know what I mean) and "Candyman" is boring as hell, "Ripple" makes for a warm campfire ballad, "Attics of My Life" is a potent, slow-burning elegy.
A couple more songs don't crackle my soul ("Brokedown Palace," the canonical "Truckin'"), but the bonus live versions of "Friend of the Devil" and "Attics of My Life" make good on the originals. A late-afternoon melancholy seeps into the former, the vocals carrying a new ache; "Attics of My Life" is broken-hearted and soft.
American Beauty shows a committment to songs that lets the Grateful Dead's talents - their familiarity as musicians, their intimacy - blossom into a handful of truly beautiful tracks. This reissue sounds gorgeous, looks beautiful, and is a testament to the Grateful Dead's importance as musicians, as creative (and heartfelt) artists.