What a long strange trip…
You know what? I’m not going to throw down that hoary old quote like it’s some beatific mantra that distills the essence of life into seven simple words. It’s a petty and banal way to start a review and I won’t stand for own laziness. Especially as this is, indeed, my first review after a two-year break.
And, of course, I decide to review the Grateful Dead for some reason. And not only a Grateful Dead album: but one that has no recognizable songs and is, instead, edited together as one long continuous suite of keyboard noise, bass thumps, drum paradiddles and guitar scrapes.
What a way to reintroduce myself to the reviewing world! Indeed, what a long strange trip…
It’s been so long since I reviewed anything that my fans are likely unaware that I went and did something incredibly stupid and ill-advised: I became a Grateful Dead fan.
It started out small: just a single live album, “Live/Dead.” Then some MP3’s. Then all the studio albums… right now, as I type, I’m plotting how to afford the next massive multi-concert box set they’re sure to release soon. After all, who doesn’t need 17,000 variations of “Sugaree”?
How did this happen?
The Grateful Dead have a way of working their way into your mind and your musical sphere. Their songs are pleasant, melodic, harmonious, well-played and varied. They have pretty good lyrics. Sometimes their songs are excellent. They’re almost always good.
But then you listen to a live album. And it clicks: Jerry starts soloing, Phil starts zooming, Bob starts chicka-chicking, whichever soon-to-be-dead keyboard player they had was tinkling and the double drummers were thumping.
And off you went, on some musical adventure! Sometimes it really sucked, but it was usually listenable. Sometimes it was transcendent.
Jazz in a rock format.
Not jazz rock. Not fusion. But rock (and roots music) played as if it was jazz. Nothing quite like it.
Another reason the band is so addicting is due to what I call the “Walt Whitman” effect: so much of them, and all so luscious. Because the band was constantly up to…something. There was always some kind of music they were working on or a side band with which they were jamming.
Simply put, they released a ton of studio albums (better than most people think), recorded almost all their shows and had baffling solo careers that veered from Grateful Dead stylization straight up into funk, jazz and even mainstream AOR.
Jerry probably did the best: his literally all-solo self-titled album is a winner and one that that mixed folk songs with avant-guard noise. He also had a collection of standards with an orchestra, helped invent modern bluegrass and toured with his own band (imaginatively titled “The Jerry Garcia Band”) when the Dead wasn’t.
And Weir released a handful of solo albums (including the classic “Ace”) and was in half a dozen different bands that often released only one album before he got bored and wandered away. The best of these is probably “RatDog” which takes the Dead jam aesthetic and slams it into Weir’s surprisingly complex songwriting.
However, no record produced in the band’s camp (be it a Dead release or a solo album) was as strange as “Infrared Roses,” beyond, perhaps John Oswald’s legendary Plunderphonic “Gray Folded.” But that’s a topic for a different time.
“Infrared Roses” is a collection of the “space” and “drum” sections that started appearing in the band’s concerts in the 80’s and 90’s. These sections took the place of the standard “Dark Star” sonic explorations in the 60’s and 70’s, popped up at any time during a concert and were easily the most “out there” moments of the band’s decline.
For some reason (I’m not near my copy and am not willing to look it up for religious reasons), the band decided they would edit some of the best sections together and release it as an album. The producer (again, blanking on his name) skillfully slapped together weird jams and noise making and made it sound like…weird jams and noise making. For about an hour.
Such a description is, likely, very uninviting. In fact, this was the second Grateful Dead album I ever owned and it was quite a shock to hear what often sounded like harsh industrial synthesizers droning into a near Amon Duul II-type soundscape. Where the hell was “Uncle John’s Band”?
Probably playing to the time in a different dimension.
After the initial terror of the album wears off, it becomes surprisingly listenable and even diverse. Sometimes, it’s just Billy and Mickey locked into some interminable drum groove.
Other moments, it’s Jerry soloing dissonantly while Phil lets his bass feedback.
Occasionally, Michael McDonald look and soundalike Brett Myland runs his hands across the keyboard aimlessly while Bob Weir screws around with ridiculous midi sounds.
After awhile, the mind starts focusing in on the little details. That’s the secret of Grateful Dead jams: they go on so long that your brain starts focusing on the small things, picking apart weird little details and entertaining itself with moments it might not have noticed otherwise.
It’s very intuitive and, at its finest, something like meditation: that is, focusing your attention on something so fully that you grasp its essence intuitively.
Or maybe it’s just a bunch of noises. Could go either way. And don’t get your hopes up for a big epic solo or crescendo. After an hour, ust kind of ends after what seems like an eternity spent listening to the band make goofy noises for an hour.
But hey, it’s a journey that beats Journey, a long strange trip that beats “Strange Brew” and a noise rock experiment from a band that was square enough to regularly cover (the sublime) Marty Robbins.
So, it’s pretty epic.
Here’s one for the record books: perhaps the strangest, most banal and nut crushingly odd album from the pen of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Yes, even stranger than the universally beloved/loathed “Love You.” Even stranger than those mid-period albums they made before Love took over. Which, of course, makes it one of the maddest albums ever made yet never released (and don’t let the shoddy recording quality fool you, this was a completed album).
Which is saying something, as the Beach Boys have roughly…50 insane unreleased albums. And it’s weird enough to be entry three in the “Inexplicable Albums” series!
This proposed follow up to “Love You” was supposed to continue the whole “Brian is Back!” marketing campaign that had resulted in one “meh” album “15 Big Ones” as well as the delightfully odd (obvious solo album wannabe) “Love You.”
What makes this album odd is that it mixes the big cheese Broadway arrangement style from “20 Big Ones” with the childish (not childlike) songwriting of Wilson to create…well…the weirdest fucking Broadway ditties you’ve ever heard in your life.
A great example would be opening track “Life is for the Living.” It starts out with Brian trying to establish a smooth vocal smooth with a slightly off-key “liiiife! Is for the liiving!” as horns honk out a “finger popping” (I hate that term) Broadway riff.
Then Brian sings the following line which should tell you all you need to know about the lyrics on this album: “don’t sit on your ass, smoking some grass, that stuff went out a long time ago.”
Wow! And as always with Brian, I have absolutely no doubt he meant those lyrics in a completely heart felt manner: the guy always bled sincerity in a good and bad way.
Which is then exemplified (again) on the follow up track, “Hey Little Tom Boy.” This song is a…well, it features a band of weird, drugged up bearded 30 something’s chanting “hey little, hey little, hey little Tom boy! Time to turn into a girl!” as well as a creepy middle section where they “make her over” to be a “girl.”
Amazingly, this song made it onto the rushed replacement for this album “MIU” but without the creepy “hey put your hair down baby!” middle section.
I won’t go over every track here: that would require somebody trained in psychology to unravel Brian’s insanity at the time. Instead, I’ll discuss a few of the covers he tries to pull off: “Deep Purple” which is no better or worse than a million other versions of the song (and probably worse) and “On Broadway” which is…Al singing “On Broadway” backed up by a fully arranged cheese orchestra.
So far, so good: again, I don’t doubt Brian’s sincerity with these recordings. I believe he fully loved these songs and tried to do them the best justice he could at the time. And they aren’t bad: just banal.
The best cover is the insane “Shortnin’ Bread” cover which Brian had developed an insane obsession with around that time (climaxing with the infamous Alice Cooper/Ozzy Ozbourne/Whoever hour long singalong of the song led by Brian). It’s the exact same version (I think) featured on the later “LA (Light Album}” which should indicate how far the band was stretching during this period.
Better are the original songs like “H.E.L.P. Is on the Way” which is indescribable. It sounds a bit like a more arranged “Love You” outtake but with lyrics centered on getting into shape (with the HELP of the H.E.L.P. Health food store. Get it?!) or “Games Two Can Play” which is actually catchy as HELL but CREEPY AS FUCK as Brian wants to “play games that two can play.” One assumes in the bedroom.
As with everything Brian, the ballads are where he truly shines. They are the typically heart felt confessions that all his ballads turn into but with banal atmospheres and arrangements instead of his head spinning genius. “It’s Over Now” gets by on the melody alone as well as Brian’s resigned, “seat of death” vocal melody.
Perhaps the one song on the album that truly lives up to the Brian Wilson name (all the songs here are well written and catchy in their idiom but marked by banal arrangements, insane lyrics and lunatic atmospheres). It has an absolutely classy piano and vocal arrangement with minimal orchestral intrusions and a very well developed and winding melody. It’s appropriate it comes at the end of the album as it makes a solid capstone for the whole experience.
This album is something that can seem so utterly crappy and uninteresting the first few times you listen to it but which becomes interesting the more you learn about the band. After giving Brian full reign for a few albums, he must have had the confidence to do things his own away completely again.
Unfortunately, Brian was completely insane by the time this album came out and probably needed a bit of focus and prodding to create a great album. It’s probably why the songs were generally arranged by…somebody else (I forget the name, I think it’s a Sinatra arranger though).
I basically find it mostly interesting as a historical artifact and a priceless piece of information in the Great Brian Wilson/Beach Boys puzzle. It illustrates how truly fucked the band were at this point in their career: sure, Brian was Back but what good was that if he was chucking out albums as weird and hard to sell as this?!
It actually puts Love’s ascension on albums like “MIU” and LA (Light Album)” in a better light: with Carl never being a creative genius (solid, but no genius), Dennis trapped in a drug haze, Brian worthless and Jardine and Johnston seemingly along for the ride, SOMEBODY had to take control of the band and lead it into the future.
Sadly, it was the least creatively gifted member of the group who had to take control. And yes, he led them through the enjoyable but hardly essential “MIU” and “LA (Light Album)” albums but he also lead them into their abysmal “Stamos” years and “Kokomo” which makes this album seem like a lost masterpiece instead of a rightly rejected turd.
Songs to Youtube:
“Life is For the Living” as nothing can compare to this odd combination of trademark Wilson melody, jazz rock arrangements and trademark “WTF?” Wilson lyric.
“Still I Dream Of It” for evidence Brian still had IT but simply couldn’t get IT up at will any more.
(I’d like to thank the commentator who pointed a few jarringly obvious and embarrassing mistakes that I, as a lifelong Beach Boys fan, should never have made. However, since his comment contained personal attacks, I trashed it and won’t share his name. I invite criticism and corrections, but personal attacks about me or any of the writers who contribute to this site will not be tolerated.)