Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)
Welcome back to Your Dad’s Car Stereo! This week we’re tackling a band that has split opinions for the past four-and-a-half decades. People either love ‘em or hate ‘em; the Grateful Dead. The album of choice will be one of the Dead’s most successful albums, American Beauty. As the second album released by the Grateful Dead in 1970, American Beauty was a continuation of many of the themes found on their earlier album Workingman’s Dead and places the band in the center of what can be described as their “Americana” phase that would continue until the release of From the Mars Hotel in 1974. Much of the album centers around classic American folk, blues, bluegrass, rock, and country sounds mixed with quintessential Grateful Dead vocal harmonies and stellar musicianship.
American Beauty was the last studio album released by the Dead for the next three years. During this period, the band spent much of their time touring and released a handful of live albums before returning to the studio. This was also the last album to feature drummer Mickey Hart before his return on From the Mars Hotel, a vacancy that was filled by Bill Kreutzmann while on tour. American Beauty is best enjoyed when relaxing. This isn’t an album that you’re going to want to listen to while you’re at the gym. Sit back and try to pick out how complex the instrumental pieces are and let your mind wander to the music. When I listened to the album, the classic Americana sound immediately conjured images of big blue skies and road trips through the Western United States. Enjoy the album!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Box of Rain: The opening track on the album jumps in to a classic Grateful Dead sound with a soft, folksy instrumentals and soothing vocal harmonies. This isn’t the strongest song on the album (I’ll reserve that for the next two songs), but it is a classic Dead song. Listen to how the song slowly swells towards the end and how the instruments seem to finish each other’s riffs, in particular, the piano and lead guitar. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Friend of the Devil: This was a staple of Grateful Dead concerts for years for a very good reason, this is an infectious little song that will play on repeat in your head after you hear it. Friend of the Devil has a stronger bluegrass influence than Box of Rain, particularly in the beginning, before launching into a strongly folk-influenced song. I particularly enjoy the solo in the bridge and the addition of a syncopated drum to mark that section off. It’s a welcome touch that reminds you that you’re listening to musicians who really know their craft. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Sugar Magnolia: Sugar Magnolia moves away from the folk influence of the first songs to a soft, classic rock sound that is characteristic of the California Rock sound of the 1970s (think Eagles, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, etc.). Grateful Dead still manages to differentiate themselves from the sounds of the others with this song with their musicality. The way the play is starkly different and more refined and deliberate in my opinion. Listen to the Eagles self-titled debut album from 1972 (I know they were released 2 years apart, but they both exemplify the California Rock scene of the 1970s) and you’ll see how the Grateful Dead place every note exactly where they want. Excellent musicianship! Dad’s Rating 8/10
Operator: Operator is a transition in the album towards a more country sound than the folk heard on the front three songs on the album. What stands out about this song though is that it’s more than a simple country song; the drums drive the song in a way that wasn’t often heard in country music but in more of a rock setting. This is an interesting crossover song and worth the listen at just over two minutes in length. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Candyman: At first, I was going to rate this song lower than I did. Candyman didn’t initially stand out against the other tracks on the album. It’s got a classic, drug-fueled Dead sound but I think Box of Rain is a better example of that. The saving grace for this song is Jerry Garcia’s steel pedal guitar solo in the middle of the song. It’s chilling to listen to and almost makes the song sound other-worldly (granted, some of the people listening to the song on initial debut were on another planet and the band might have been too when they wrote it…). Dad’s Rating 6/10
Ripple: This is one of my favorite songs on the album. Ripple is a stripped-back folk song that really lets Garcia’s voice come through on Robert Hunter’s lyrics and swells towards a choir singing along with the band towards the end. Garcia singing Hunter’s lyrics is the central point of the song. Essays have been written about the meaning behind the lyrics of this song, but briefly, Hunter and Garcia explore whether words written by one person and sung by another carry the same weight and meaning as the original writer intended. These musings are punctuated at the end of each stanza with an interpretation of a biblical verse. You’ll get something new out of this song every time you listen to it. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Brokedown Palace: Brokedown Palace doesn’t quite hold up to me after Ripple. The two songs flow from one into another quite nicely, but my problem with it is that this feels like a second, less deep, less polished part of Ripple. If you were just listening to the music and ignoring the lyrics it’s very possible that someone could come to this conclusion too. Stick to Box of Rain or Attics of My Life. Dad’s Rating 6/10
Till the Morning Comes: The Dead picked up the pace where it mattered. Up to this point the only up-tempo song on the album was Friend of the Devil and the album was about to start dragging. Country rock comes back in full-force with those Grateful Dead vocal harmonies. It doesn’t stand out amongst other country rock tracks or cuts from the album but it’s still a good song that’s worth a listen!Dad’s Rating 7/10
Attics of My Life: Aaaaaaand as quickly as we got an up-tempo song we went back to drug-fueled Grateful Dead. This is what most people think of when they think of the Dead, slowed down music with lyrics that sound like they’re straight off of a Jefferson Airplane album. Now, having said that, I think this is a great song. Sometimes these deep cuts on Dead albums drag on and it’s difficult to focus on the musicianship of the band, but this track actually shows how all of the band can play together and create a beautiful, unified sound. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Truckin’: Truckin’… This is one of the band’s most popular songs and was released as one of the singles for the album. I’m actually going to say that I don’t think this song holds up particularly well against some of the other songs on the album. It’s a good song, and it’s a distinguishable Grateful Dead sound that would be easy to play on the radio, but if you truck through the album and listen to everything, I believe there are other songs that were more lyrically and musically interesting to listen to. Dad’s Rating 7/10
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