For once a truly beautiful album cover is more than matched by the record inside. The dead just refuse to keep within any normal limits, and I hope that it stays that way for a long time. Workingman’s Dead was a lovely album, lush, full, and thoroughly real in musical and lyrical content. American Beauty is a joyous extension of the last album. If possible there is even more care on vocal wok. Everyone in the band sings, and sings well alone and together.
A complete contentment shines through the vocal work on this album. A full contentment. The instrumentation is rich with sound that moves through, under, and into the listener. Damn it all, the album is American beauty, of the best possible kind. The positivity of the Dead just can’t be kept down. Look at the cover. “American Beauty” can also be read as “American Reality,” thanks to Mouse Studios. If more of the American reality were this album, we’d all have a lot more to be thankful for.
“Box of Rain” takes plenty of time, and moves surely. The band isn’t in any great hurry. Layers of music weave in seemingly simple patterns — deceptively simple patterns. Phil Lesh’s singing is just right. The chorus is fine: “A box of rain will ease the pain/And love will see you through.” “Believe it if you need it/If you don’t just pass it on.” Praised be Bob Hunter. Countrified Dead is so nice to listen to.
From “Box of Rain” they zip into “Friend of the Devil,” which is a snappy little country number, with some extremely fine bass and acoustic guitar interplay. Jerry Garcia’s voice now makes him a perfect wobbly cowboy.
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Pigpen drops by with “Operator.” Pigpen songs are always enjoyable, because they’re Pigpen songs. That would be enough, but they are often good too, which is an added bonus, and this one certainly is good. Pigpen growls as ever.
“Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” are coupled by a vocal chorus, a little reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but only in a complimentary sense. The songs meld together and are strongly pretty and sad, as is “Attics of My Life,” which has some very, very nice harmony work.
The two songs that come closest to being rockers on the album are “Till the Morning Comes” and “Truckin.” “Truckin” is just the story of the Dead — going on the road, losing old friends, gaining new ones, trying to keep everybody happy, trying to play some nice music for people, and succeeding on all counts.
The Dead are getting pretty big commercially now, and if ever a band deserved it, it’s them. They have given us all something to treasure with this album. It’s one for now, and one for the kids in 20 years too. American Beauty’s like that, you know.