And so we come to the last disc of Day of the Dead. Making myself familar with over five hours of music has been a pretty big undertaking, and I’m looking forward to getting back to smaller one-off posts for a while. Hopefully within a day or two.
The first three songs on Day of the Dead’s fifth disc all feature the house band backing solo artists: Phosphorescent, the Tallest Man on Earth and Bonnie Prince Billy.
Standing on the Moon is a highlight of Built to Last, the Dead’s ill-favoured 1989 studio swansong. Garcia’s lyric is one of his sweetest, and the line “Standing on the moon but I’d rather be with you” obviously connected hard with Garcia, who often stretched the coda out so he could repeat the line over and over again in live performance. Phosphorescent & Friends (ie Phosphorescent & the National) do a creditable job with one of this late Dead highpoint, but where Garcia’s tremulous vocal spoke of wisdom and awe, Matthew Houck’s tremulous vocal speaks mainly of tremulousness.
The Tallest Man on Earth’s early music was so beholden to early Dylan vocally that it was very hard to take seriously. Thankfully he’s dropped the worst of those excesses over time, but even so, it’s amazing how much better Will Oldham sounds coming after him and Houck. Whether you like his vocal tone or not, Oldham is his own man; he sounds fully formed.
Brown-Eyed Women is one of those songs, like Jack Straw and He’s Gone, that was a highlight of the dazzling Europe ’72 live album yet was never recorded in the studio; it would have been nigh-on impossible to better the versions from the live record. Hiss Golden Messenger capture something of the fleetness of the Dead’s version instrumentally (they sure sound light on their feet after three consecutive tracks of the National’s rhythm section) and the gang vocals in the chorus are a nice touch. A hit.
Here Comes Sunshine by Real Estate is appropriately sunny and pretty. Six minutes of it is about a minute and a half more than I needed, though full marks to Alex Bleeker for giving one of the most convincing Phil Lesh impressions of any bass player involved in this project.
Charles Bradley and the Menahem Street Band give an Electric Mud treatment to Cumberland Blues. The groove the band cooks up is compelling and Bradley’s souldful rasp is committed. However, Cumberland Blues does lose a lot by being slowed down and having its rhythms and harmonies simplifed. I’m not sure about this one. I like it well enough, I suppose, but I love Cumberland Blues as the Dead play it, especially the magnificent version on Europe ’72. In comparison, Bradley’s is all a bit simple and I wonder whether I’d get much from it if I didn’t know the lyric inside out.
Next, a couple of real outliers. Man Forever is the experimental-percussion project of Kid Millions, drummer from Oneida. Sõ Percussion, who we met back on Disc Three’s Terrapion Station, are a percussion troupe usually performing work by Steve Reich. On Drums/Space, several minutes of slack-tuned toms and marimbas are followed by some chintzy electronic noises of the sort that will gladden the heart of any Mickey Hart fans. Out of nowhere, a couple of uber-distorted guitars crash the party, paying no heed to each other (it sounds like Saturday afternoon in a guitar shop), before the track finishes with a couple of minutes of alternately rumbling and squalling feedback.
Cream Puff War is possibly the Grateful Dead’s most garagey track, at least during its verses, with Garcia’s voice unrecognisable to anyone who might have got into the band later and worked backwards; he hollers his way through the track and sounds more like Bob Weir than himself as we usually knew him. Not many Dead tracks would be a natural fit for Canadian punk band Fucked Up, but Cream Puff War pretty much makes sense. Jonah Falco on drums makes the straight 4/4 beat groove nicely (the dynamics of the hi-hats, I think), and the band handle the sudden switches to 3/4 well. There is something a little absurd about this vocal style being deployed on a Grateful Dead song, but in this case the vocal comes over to me as exuberant rather than aggressive, and actually works pretty well.
Mina Tindle (stage name of singer Pauline de Lassus Saint-Geniès) has what Mel and I, in our less patient moments, describe as an old-lady voice, the female version of the white dude in the old man hat voice. Not that an old-lady-voiced singer couldn’t make great music, but I’m personally not a fan of that kind of voice, and I think the music would have to be spectacular to overcome my irritation with the singing. Mina Tindle, then, starts with a huge disadvantage, even given that she’s got a beautiful song to work with. The Dessners do interesting things with synth and Mellotron – there’s a piercing, needling harmony line played on the Mellotron’s flute setting that is by far the best thing about the track – but Tindle’s vocal sinks this for me.
Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear play High Time so much faster than the Dead that their version clocks in 58 seconds shorter without trimming away any of the text. They also replace Bill Kreutzmann’s waltz-time sidesticks with a rather intrusive tom- and cymbal-based drum track. Rossen’s vocal is fine, but the tempo and the music swamps him. The great thing about High Time on Workingman’s Dead is the space the band give to Garcia to deliver the twists and turns of Robert Hunter’s lyric. Here, some of that is lost. I’d have loved to hear Rossen sing it solo, slowly.
I saw Luluc a couple of years ago supporting J Mascis and found them rather inert and one-paced. Here they team up with Xylouris White (Giorgios Xylouris, singer and Cretan lute player and drummer Jim White) to take on Til the Morning Comes, from American Beauty. Zoë Randall’s voice is calm teetering on affectless, but the outro jam between Xylouris and White is really good. White is an objectively really good drummer whose playing I don’t often like that much (too busy? too echoey? Something of both, I guess), but given the general echoey sound picture, his favoured reverby drum sound makes sense, and his busy style meshes well with Xylouris.
Next up, something of a shock. Winston Marshall, banjo player from Mumford & Sons, in collaboration with Kodiak Blue and Shura, does a fine job with Althea. Marshall’s American accent is a bit of a joke, but the music – tinkling marimba-like synths like raindrops on a pavement late at night – more than makes up for it. I think I’d like the track more if Shura sang all of it, but credit where it’s due: I am extremely dubious of all things Mumford, but this is actually very creditable.
Attics of My Life is one of Hunter and Garcia’s very finest songs and the track above all others where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary about Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Phil Lesh took in their work on that song was clear. Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you can hear that the guys are pushing themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.
Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. So Angel Olsen taking a different approach to the vocal harmony arrangement is not of itself a problem. But it doesn’t work for me. Olsen’s voice floats above the male voices and the never blends with them, with becomes needling and annoying over the course of the song’s running time, even as it’s 90 seconds shorter than the Dead’s American Beauty take. Then there’s the cavernous reverb. I’m just so over it. Angel Olsen has almost universal critical cred, but I fear her just isn’t my thing.
We haven’t talked much about Bob Weir over the course of these five discs. Let me say then how big a fan I am. I really like his voice and think he’s an overlooked guitar player; his rhythm playing is great and you don’t get to spend an entire life in the Grateful Dead without being able to take a solo or two. Weir is the only official member to appear on this album (as we noted about a month ago when we took on Disc One, Bruce Hornsby played over a hundred gigs with the Dead, but was never a full-time member), appearing on the final two cuts, both recorded live: St Stephen with Wilco, and I Know You Rider with the National.
Guitarist Nels Cline is suprisingly rocker-dude on St Stephen – lots of sextuplets, not much lyricism – but it’s likeable nonetheless. I Know You Rider sees the National playing faster than I’ve ever heard them (I associate them purely with slow- to mid-tempo). Weir gets to dominate the vocal on this one (Tweedy sings much of St Stephen) and the band works up a head of steam – the Devendorfs audibly excited to be on stage with a hero. It’s a fine end to the project, and they and the Dessners deserve a huge amount of credit for all their work on this thing. They had to record an ungodly amount of music to make it happen.
This is definitely the least essential disc for me, but my keepers are Bird Song, Brown-Eyed Women, Cream Puff War and Althea (I know. I’m still trying to get my round the latter).
Some recent free-to-download music