Album review: It’s a mixed bag, but covers album breathes new life into songs by The Grateful Dead
Day of the Dead
Aaron and Bryce Dessner, two of the five members of indie rock band The National, have assembled this five-and-a-half-hour, 59 track paean to The Grateful Dead, in which a cast consisting mostly of contemporary indie bands try their hands at emulating and advancing the music of Jerry Garcia and friends.
The Dead are an integral part of American counterculture, both for their erudite, iconoclastic acid rock – which, in early albums Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa combined free jazz, improvisation and psychedelia – and for the cultural phenomenon that came with the endless live performances, the obsessive tape collectors and the sheer gargantuanism of a group that performed more than two thousand concerts and released 22 albums.
This album focuses mainly on the Dead’s output from the mid-1970s, when the tide of psychedelia receded and the band began to produce disarmingly conventional but very competent country and folk classics.
Tracks such as Franklin’s Tower, St Stephen, If I Had the World to Give, Peggy-O and Shakedown Street are a natural fit for Days of the Dead’s indie bands. That’s why Mumford and Sons attempt Friend of the Devil, which in their hands could be the soundtrack to a mobile phone advert.
Indie folk soloist The Tallest Man on Earth performs a competent but straight cover of Ship of Fools, while Brooklyn indie-pop piece Lucius offer a Chromatics-ish take on Uncle John’s Band.
The National’s own covers are disappointingly po-faced and dutiful versions of songs that the Dead constantly experimented with.
More interesting are Bela Fleck’s version of Help on the Way, in which banjo is paired with tabla and cello, in a sideways nod to Garcia’s bluegrass output.
Orchestra Baobab’s rumba-inflected take on Franklin’s Tower is a treat, while Marijuana Deathsquad’s take on Truckin is anarchic and imaginative.
The Flaming Lips cover Dark Star, the Dead’s science-fiction fantasia, producing a space-rock track with computerised choir, timpanis and a lot of distorted, electronic pedal notes.
Stargaze’s What’s Become of the Baby provides a glacial shoegaze reinterpretation of one of the Dead’s most psychedelic tracks, which featured George Harrison singing in a style that Animal Collective would eventually rip off.
Few of the these bands are animated by anything close to Garcia’s genius, and they mostly ignore the spontaneity and the experimentation that are central to the Dead’s appeal – but Day of the Dead does at least highlight quite how many good songs the Dead wrote.