|10-17-2008, 05:14 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Sep 2008
Location: The Psychedelic Underground
Library of Sound vol. 1: The Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel
Welcome to the first installment of "The Library of Sound". Our focal point for the inaugural edition is a band I've appreciated for many years. More than two decades ago, I was introduced to the works of the Grateful Dead. The first album I had the opportunity to hear from them was "Aoxomoxoa"; while that indeed left a lasting impression on me, it was the second recording I ran across that inspired me the most. Released on June 27th of 1974, "The Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel" is an extraordinary summation of the Dead's greatest capability: to draw their listeners into a relaxed atmosphere filled with subtle skill and palpable charisma.
While many successes came for the band when they were still on Warner Bros. records, it was the formation of their own Grateful Dead label that gave them freedom to fully explore their sound. Only four albums were originally released on the label before the group moved to Arista, but all four of those albums held their own unique merit and each one played a very important role in shaping the Dead's rich legacy. "From the Mars Hotel" isn't merely my favorite platter from this all-too-brief era, it's a sparkling jewel that should have been far more influential than it was. Regardless of the changing tides American music went through in the mid-seventies, "From the Mars Hotel" ensured the band's post-psychedelic/post-roots movement popularity by becoming their highest charting album at that point (reaching #16 on Billboard).
One thing you could always count on from a Grateful Dead studio release was its opening number. Without fail, they chose a piece that could reel their listeners in and hook them for the duration of the album, despite the material that followed. "U.S. Blues" continues that trend with its lively, almost animated bass riff and Keith Godchaux's punctuated keyboards that sound like muted video game effects. When you spread that out beneath the lazily winding lead guitar and Jerry Garcia's mellow vocals, it creates a dizzying ensemble that's amplified during the chorus by the boisterous vocal harmonizing. The mom and pop, apple pie-sounding lyrics of the track imbue "U.S. Blues" with a distinctive feeling of national pride, even though the words themselves betray a mild hostility to some of the political principles being practiced in the era.
Some of the best Dead songs are the ones which explore the depths of solitude, pain and skewed redemption (see "Black Peter" and "Stella Blue"). "China Doll" has long been one of my favorite examples of this practice. Robert Hunter's despondent lyrics blend seductively with Garcia's eerie, will-o'-the-wisp backdrops as we are presented with a morality play involving a suicidal focal point and the ultimate afterlife contemplation bestowed upon the self-inflicted victim. That's the offering found in "China Doll" amidst the perfection of its spine-chilling acoustic reverie.
Much of the music encased on "From the Mars Hotel" has an ethereal quality more prominent than any prior Grateful Dead album. "Unbroken Chain" is a major contributor to this dreamlike state with its beautifully trembling bass opening and its marginally off-kilter lead vocals from Phil Lesh. While Lesh has never been one of my favorite vocalists, his subdued warbling suitably captures the connective mood of the piece. There's also a fascinating instrumental bridge sequence that divides the ebb and flow of the track with an oasis of clear, jazzy repose. Even at its near seven minute length, it's hard not to love the timeless effluence of "Unbroken Chain". It truly amazes me that this piece wasn't performed live by the Dead until well into the nineties.
Lyrically, it may sound like a typical song about a man involved with the wrong kind of woman; however there's nothing typical in the way the Dead present the tune. The playful exuberance of "U.S. Blues" returns in a slightly less memorable format with Bill Kreutzmann's jubilant percussion and a bouncy interweaving of guitar riffs and bass lines. Garcia also offers up strong lead vocals for the piece, easily proving himself to be a highly underrated vocalist with all of his performances on "Mars Hotel". The jump-up backing vocals are simply one more delight on the laundry list of reasons why "Loose Lucy" works considerably well.
You can tempt fate all you want to, but if you're expecting a different result...you're expecting too much. Eventually you're going to realize that temptation is nothing more than an illusion that can be passed upon without regret. That's the underlying message buried within the beautifully articulate side two (vinyl's the only way to go) opening number. I've heard other performers volunteer their own versions of "Scarlet Begonias", and while good, they can't match the buoyant, rhythmic template the Dead provide. The mutualistic landscape of sound crafted by Phil's shuffling bass and Jerry's flexuous guitar is heaven to the ears.
PRIDE OF CUCAMONGA
After all the wonderful music we've encountered previously, we come to a double shot of lesser material that hinders the overall effect "Mars Hotel" was producing. "Pride of Cucamonga" is an indulgent, unbearably gritty country/western-tinged romp that features adequate lyrics mired by a bog of unrelentingly useless instrumental tonality. I've never been a fan of country music even its most abridged form, and "Pride of Cucamonga" falls into that rank. Nine out of ten times, I'll skip over this song completely (something I very rarely do with any other Dead recording).
While it's nowhere near as bad as "Pride of Cucamonga", "Money Money" (Bob Weir's only contribution to "Mars Hotel") is too passionless and too quotidian to be associated with the rest of the recording. When you're wading through a sea of the extraordinary, it's hard to make these little island stop-offs into banality. "Money Money" and its predecessor keep this 1974 endeavor from becoming the perfect gem it so rightfully deserved to be.
SHIP OF FOOLS
After the fall-off of the previous two songs, the group recapture the glorious intensity and originality that made the first five songs so mesmerizing. "Ship of Fools" is by far my favorite song from the band's venerable catalog. Who else could fashion an undeniably gorgeous denouncement of governmental redundancy? While there are a number of significant meanings that could be attached to this song, its political ties intrigue me the most (especially when conjoined with the album's opening number). The ship is a symbol of nationalism whose foolish leaders blindly run it aground every time they're left unchecked. Particularly poignant after suffering through eight years of the George W. regime, "Ship of Fools" is not only a lyrical masterwork, but a musically poetic gift as well. A wealth of smooth string instrumentation, restrained percussion and penetrating piano surround Garcia's tender vocals. In my eyes, "Ship of Fools" was the height of the Dead's artistic expression.
Overall, "From the Mars Hotel" is an astounding representation of the Grateful Dead at a crucial junction in their career. This album is a separation of the innocent and the weary, the frail hind edge of their classic period meeting the crumbling precipice of their slow decline. Surely the music remained integral in the hearts of the loyal Deadheads who followed the band's work (myself included), but the days of grand staples and monumental victories were certainly waning. I give "From the Mars Hotel" ****1/2 out of ***** stars. I strongly urge those interested in acquiring a copy of this record to seek out the superior vinyl format. The average price for this album at reputable dealers runs around twelve dollars. I hope all of you enjoyed this column and will keep a look out for volume two of the "Library" which will feature Creedence Clearwater Revival. Until then, keep rockin'!