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Best Album
American Beauty—9
 
Released: November 1970

1) Box of Rain 2) Friend of the Devil 3) Sugar Magnolia 4) Operator 5) Candyman  6) Ripple 7) Brokedown Palace 8) Till The Morning Comes 9) Attics of My Life 10) Truckin

 

This, unsurprisingly, has a similar feel to “Workingman’s Dead.”  Unsurprising, because it was released only 5 months later.  So “American Beauty” could easily be known as “Workingman’s Dead—Part II.”  But unlike most sequels, this is better than the first!  Here the Dead manage to keep the slow ballads to a minimum and change tempos so much, they keep you from getting bored.       

 

Again, the music and lyrics on this album are so American… the title is absolutely perfect.  Almost all the lyrics are courtesy Robert Hunter (the main lyricist of the Grateful Dead), and as usual for this period, they are top notch.  Hunter is one of the most underrated writers in music; with the simplest of phrases he is able to turn clichés on their heads and make you think about common thoughts inside out.  The music here too is very pleasing with some of the most agreeable songs the Dead ever wrote.  Friend of the Devil” is so easy to like.  The descending guitars and mandolins in the intro set the stage for the Dead’s own version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” or Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Mind.”  Although lyrically close to these two blues numbers, “Friend of the Devil” is in a sing-along country/folk style and actually turns out to be one of the Dead’s all time best songs. 

 

“Sugar Magnolia” is also an excellent song.  With its bluegrass approach and catchy guitar riff, this is understandably a concert staple.  Ripple” is another great song, although fairly slow.  Jerry’s slide guitar is so poignant as is the “Hey Jude”-type sing-along at the end, you find yourself humming this tune while relaxing in a hammock (or something like that).  And of course the album ends with the classic “Truckin.”  It rocks harder than any song here (well…rocks in a country/folksy type way).  This song deserves every accolade it has received and is very easy to understand its “classic” status.  It also includes the Dead’s most famous line: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”  But, more importantly, it namedrops virtually every major city in America within its lyric: New York, Chicago, Detroit…In fact this whole album mentions American cities throughout many of the songs.  It seems that while “Workingman’s Dead” presented characters in each song we could relate to (Uncle John, Casey Jones, etc…), “American Beauty” supplies us with places we are familiar with.

 

“Operator” is a change of pace, with Pigpen (the drunken piano player and fan favorite) taking lead vocals.  This is harmless fun and helps to keep the album flowing.  Candyman” is an overlong, slow-paced, electric folk tune, but it again changes the regularity of the album, and has some heavenly steel pedal work in the middle.  Brokendown Palace” is similar in style, and is thus a somewhat pleasing, long folk song substituting the steel pedal from “Candyman” with some good piano work.                                              

 

There are some misses as well.  Attics of My Life,” while displaying excellent three-part harmony is a treacherous listening experience.  This is absolutely five minutes of pointless AND tuneless crap.  But it does have very innocent and heartfelt lyrics.  To a lesser extent “Till The Morning Comes,” also misses the mark.  While there is nothing really wrong with it and it is fast paced, it sounds a lot like substandard Byrds and just doesn’t do much for me.  Box of Rain” has a lot happening in it, with many different guitars layered on one another and its lyrics, written by Hunter upon request from Phil Lesh as something he could sing to his dying father, are moving.  However, despite being an enormously popular song among Deadheads and non-Deadheads alike, the song just doesn't move me the way it seems to everyone else.   

 

With those minor mishaps noted, this album is where you should start if you are new to the Dead.  There are no long space jam sessions, the filler is (save for “Attics of My Life”) still entertaining, the production (by the Dead themselves) is perfect, and the harmonies and melodies are a high point in the Grateful Dead’s rather large catalog.

 

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