08/05/2013

American Beauty

Grateful Dead
1970

So, what do I know about Grateful Dead? Not much. They were going for ages (still are, in some incarnations); they played extended, heavily improvised rock; they were best live; and they were one of the world's biggest cult bands ("a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac"). So far, so hoopy, and therefore, armed with my minimal knowledge, I wasn't expecting this: a hokey, countrified, ballad-heavy album, with gentle, mostly acoustic instrumentation and camp-fire harmonies.

My first impressions of this album were that it was a poor copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash's first album (from 1968); the harmonies aren't quite as precise, the playing a little more sloppy. This is thrown into even more sharp contrast by side-by-side listens with CSNY's far superior 1970 album Déjà Vu. It's just not as accomplished.

Perhaps that's an unfair comparison. Déjà Vu is a timeless classic, whereas American Beauty sits very much in the late-sixties, combining a "hello clouds, hello sky" kind of hippy-ness with a bluegrass feel that I guess was becoming very current, what with the Byrds and Gram Parsons. This could be a bit wearing but thankfully it has plenty of pleasant tunes, and after a few plays they've started becoming memorable. Opener "Box Of Rain" has a slow, plaintive melody and keening guitar that reminds me a little of that in Richard & Linda Thompson's wonderful "When I Get To The Border". "Operator" reminds me of a Monkees song, unexpectedly, although I can't place which one right now. "Sugar Magnolia sounds a bit like Little Feat.

All of these things I'm reminded of are, for me, better than this. I'm a bit lukewarm about American Beauty. Another album whose place in the list of "greatest" is not justified, in my opinion.

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