Tag Archives: Bonnie Prince Billy

Day of the Dead, Disc Four – some thoughts

It seems unfair – not in the right spirit – to attack a band for choosing to rearrange a Grateful Dead song and do something different with it musically. I can’t even say for sure that the Dead never played this particular song in a Dylan-does-barroom-reggae style themselves. I can only say that I hate the Walkmen’s version of Ripple that begins Disc Four of Day of the Dead. It sounds lazy and self-satisfied to me, in a way that nothing else on the compilation does. Even when I don’t like what an artist has done with a tune, I don’t doubt their good faith. The Walkmen sound like they’re snickering behind their hands. Seriously, fuck these guys.

Marijuana Deathsquads (great name, by the way) completely transform Truckin’. I’m not even sure what you’d call the end result. There’s free-jazz saxophone, synth bass, warped vocals, isolated drum hits, and a double-time electronic thrashcore wig-out at the end. It’s bizarre, but it’s pretty great (and shows up the Walkmen’s half-assed hack job even more).

I can see the thinking that led to the Flaming Lips being approached for Day of the Dead, but they don’t actually manage to do anything interesting with Dark Star. They replace the iconic riff with a bass groove and drum loop, feed Wayne Coyne’s voice through the inevitable oscillators and modulators, and pair the chorus melody with mock-grandiose tympani and Mellotron chords. The problem is that the whole thing is so inert. The essence of Dark Star is the real-time interaction between the instrumentalists. Which, in all fairness to the Flaming Lips, isn’t their thing. Having constructed a framework, they layer some sound effects on top, but the thing never really goes anywhere. It starts and, six minutes later, it ends.

Local Natives’ take on Stella Blue seems to have used some of the song’s spookier chord change as inspiration, at least for the first half of the song, which is built over a half-time, vaguely dubstep drum loop. Once the band start joining in, the influence of their producer – inevitably a Dessner, in this case Adam – becomes plainer, and while frankly the arrangement becomes less musically interesting at that point, the vocal harmonies are very cool. So in Siskel & Ebert fashion, it’s a thumbs up from me.

Shakedown Street is the oft-reviled Lowell George-produced Dead-go-disco track from 1977. Unknown Mortal Orchestra remake it essentially note for note. It’s fine, but it needn’t detain us long.

Franklin’s Tower is a much denser text than it first appears, at least if we grant primacy to Robert Hunter’s explicatory essay (DH Lawrence’s maxim to trust the tale, not the teller would counsel us not to give Hunter the last word on the song simply because he wrote it). What is certain is that the song changes drastically for an Anglophone audience when it’s placed in the hands of Orchestra Baobab and its original lyric is abandoned. The muscular precision and simultaneous playfulness of the music becomes the main thing, and what a thing it is.

Tal National’s Eyes of the World is similarly exuberant. Tal National are from Niger (indeed, they are apparently Niger’s most popular band) and while they retain Robert Hunter’s lyric and pretty much stick to the vocal melody Garcia sang on the Dead’s version, they reconfigure the song at its rhythmic base. Eyes of the World was recorded when Mickey Hart was on sabbatical from the band and Bill Kreutzmann was its only drummer. Kreutzmann’s style for the studio version was straightforward two-and-four rock, but live, with Hart also in attendance, the song could get more polyrhythmic. Whether Tal National heard any of these versions, I couldn’t say, but their interpretation of the song begins where the most expansive Dead versions leave off. Drummer Omar practically bursts out the speakers.

Béla Fleck is a name I’ve heard many times over the years, but I must confess to having spent most of my life in avoidance of banjos, so I’d not actually heard any of his music. It was actually a huge pleasure to get acquainted with Fleck’s playing through his cover of Help on the Way (like Franklin’s Tower, a track from 1975’s Blues for Allah). Fleck plays in a bewildering array of styles – bluegrass, jazz, contemporary classical, rock, folk and more besides – so he perhaps stands greater comparison to Jerry Garcia than any other musician involved in this project. There are amazing musicians on these discs, but none whose virtuosity extends through so many styles of music. The passage from 4.20-5.30 of the track has about the most impressive section of soloing on all five discs, and the support from Edgar Meyer on double bass (bowed and pizz) and Zaakir Hussein on tabla is first rate.

Terry Riley has a link with the Dead going back to the band’s beginnings. Before joining the Dead, Phil Lesh and keyboard player Tom Constanten had been in an improvisational group with Steve Reich – the same group that premiered Riley’s In C, widely cited as the first minimalist composition. Riley, along with his song Gyan (the pair are credited as the Rileys), reinterpret Bob Weir’s Estimated Prophet as a raga-like instrumental piece, dominated by Gyan’s guitar, played with heavy delay, and chanted vocals from Terry. While it dispenses with John Perry Barlow’s lyric (inspired by the element within the Dead’s audience who, having taken too much dope, would get messianic and hang around backstage to try to deliver their sermons), the Rileys’ take on Estimated Prophet does capture its heaviness and religiosity.

stargaze’s What’s Become of the Baby is pretty damn well fantastic, replacing Garcia’s heavily filtered and effect-laden voice on the original (how did they do it?) with doom-laden bowed double bass and spooky woodwinds. It’s by turns gorgeous and unbearably tense.

King Solomon’s Marbles, from Blues for Allah, is a showcase for Mickey Hart’s north African percussion and Garcia’s fluid soloing (with sterling support as ever from Lesh on bass). On Day of the Dead, pianist Vijay Iyer’s imaginative exploration of the tune incorporates Hart’s busy drumming patterns before going off on fast scalar and arpeggiated explorations of Garcia’s melody, occasionally slamming down powerful bass chords.

After a disc that’s dedicated mainly to the Dead’s experimental side – the Hart/Lesh axis, if you will – it’s something of a surprise to finish on Bonnie Prince Billy’s reading of If I Had the World to Give. The recording is spare (much sparser the Dead’s Shakedown Street recording), just Josh Kaufman’s piano and Will Oldham’s voice. In this setting, with Oldham’s tremulous voice, the song sounds much frailer and less McCartney-esque. It’s pretty, but it’s perhaps a little too on the nose as an ending, goes a little clumsily for the heartstrings.

My keepers from Disc Four are Truckin’, Stella Blue, Franklin’s Tower, Help on the Way and What’s Become of the Baby.

Some recent music to stream or download (pay what you want):

 

 

 

 

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Day of the Dead, Disc Two – some thoughts

Disc Two begins with Kurt Vile & the Violators, with J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, taking on Box of Rain. Vile goes for faithful recreation rather than reinvention, and mostly gets away with it. Rob Laakso on bass evidently knows Phil Lesh’s part inside out, but Kyle Spence on drums is disappointing, two- and four-ing his way through the song in perfunctory fashion, with hardly a fill as evidence of enthusiasm. Still, it’s a success, in no small part due to Mascis’s guitar and unmistakable backing vocals.

Rubin and Cherise, from Garcia solo record Cats under the Stars, is tackled by Bonnie Prince Billy, who does a great job with a long story song built on a tricky foundation. He sounds completely in control of and engaged by the material, and the band do an impressive job. A definite highlight. The Lone Bellow do the same workmanlike job on Me and My Uncle they did on Dire Wolf. Moses Sumney’s peppy reading of Cassidy with Jenny Lewis is very nice; he puts himself so much at the service of the song that the recording doesn’t give much of a hint of what his voice can do. Nevertheless, it’s nicely done and I admire his egoless performance.

Lucius, a 5-piece indie pop band from Brooklyn, have the unenviable task of covering Uncle John’s Band, one of the most beloved songs from one of the Dead’s most beloved albums. They make the song totally their own, basing it mainly around a synth bass and the two singers’ harmonies, before unexpectedly taking the song to the disco after the first chorus. It’s a brave reimagining, and one of my favourite things on any of the five discs.

Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo was a Grateful Dead fan before it was cool, so it’s good he’s here. My only regret is that his 12-string take on Mountains of the Moon, from Aoxomoxoa, didn’t allow him a chance to go deep into Jerry territory on his Jazzmaster. At any road, by going back to the Dead’s most psychedelically creative period, it serves as an effective curtain-raiser for what follows.

The centrepiece of disc two is Dark Star by Cass McCombs and Joe Russo. It’s a fittingly chilly, spooky reading that segues into Nightfall of Diamonds – the traditional Dark Star jam, here titled after a lyric from the song’s chorus and played by the same musicians. If there are places where the project’s house band (sundry Devendorfs and Dessners in various combinations, supplemented by a few others) seem a bit conservative compared to the Dead, on Nightfall of Diamonds they play more primally and really channel the spirit of the band. Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds is one of the best things on the whole album.

Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald, a piece by Tim Hecker, may need a bit of explaining. John Oswald is a Canadian composer who developed a style he called plunderphonics:

A plunderphone is a recognizable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded. Whistling a bar of “Density 21.5” is a traditional musical quote. Taking Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” and rerecording it backwards or slower is plunderphonics, as long as you can reasonably recognize the source.

The plunderphonic style was designed to be mischievous, though it can be somewhat sinister, since the results are often so abstract and unlike pop music. In 1994, Phil Lesh contacted Oswald and asked him to apply plunderphonics to the Grateful Dead’s music. Oswald went into the Dead’s vaults, and began arranging and juxtaposing snippets from live performances of Dark Star from different concerts, different decades even, into two hour-long pieces of music: Transitive Axis and Mirror Ashes. The amazing thing about them is how Oswald dropped the prankster aspect of his work: although not a fan going into the project, he treats the group’s source material with respect, reverence even, and put together something that, amazingly, sounds like a plausible real time event for huge stretches.

If Oswald was a non-fan, Hecker is an avowed Dead sceptic; a hater, even. Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald is what it says it is – a piece of music made under the influence of and out of respect to John Oswald, rather than the Grateful Dead. It’s diverting enough, but it doesn’t seem to really belong here. It’s here because Hecker is friends with Bryce Dessner, and this was a way of allowing Hecker to be involved.

I had high hopes for TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe taking on Playing in the Band with Lee Ranaldo on guitar, and while it’s not quite what I hoped it would be, the jam section does have some really cool sheets of guitar noise at the back of the mix that I like a lot.

Brokedown Palace by the Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry with Iowa-born singer-songwriter Little Scream and, more intriguingly, The Band’s multi-instrumentalist genius Garth Hudson illustrates what is for me the key problem with many of the less successful readings on Day of the Dead – the addiction to sonic bigness.

I’ve hammered away on this nail many times over the years and probably you’re all bored now, but modern production as subscribed to by the majority of contemporary bands (and the National are wholehearted followers of contemporary engineering and mixing fashion) squashes instruments flat, particularly drums, with heavy compression in order to make the mix as loud as possible. This means that when arrangements get dense, as Brokedown Palace does at the end, with all the extra voices, there’s nowhere for the music to go, in much the same way as if I stand with my face up against a window, and you push me from behind, there’s nowhere for my face to go – instead, my features distort. You can have a big sound or a big arrangement, but in the zero-sum game of digital audio, you can’t have both.

It’s a disappointing end to the disc, but about half of it is very good indeed. My picks from Disc Two: Dark Star/Nightfall of Diamonds, Uncle John’s Band, Rubin and Cherise, Box of Rain.

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At some point, Phil Lesh stopped playing cool bass guitars. This one, though, this was cool