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This review is from: American Beauty (Audio CD)
"American Beauty" is a testament to what the Grateful Dead were capable of if they put their minds to making great music.
The Garcia-Hunter songwriting team hits its stride with this album. Over about a three-year period from 1969-72, those two fellows wrote most of (not "all" as I'd written previously) the songs on this album, "Workingman's Dead" (which includes "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," and "Cumberland Blues") the non-covers on the live "Grateful Dead" (i.e. "Bertha," "Wharf Rat") and "Europe '72 (i.e. "He's Gone," "Tennessee Jed," "Ramble On Rose," "Brown-eyed Woman."), songs for Jerry Garcia's first solo album ("Sugaree," "The Wheel," "Bird Song" "The Deal" among others) and "Wake of the Flood" ("Here Comes Sunshine," "Mississippi Half Step Toodle-ooo"). That's quite an output! After that, they slowed down considerably, and the band made itself a lengthy career performing sets all over the world for 20 more years, sets that largely consisted of songs from this period.
This album is the best of them all, because the Dead put their heart into making this recording. It is a close, intimate record, with only one real rock song, lots of acoustic guitar, Garcia's magnificent pedal steel, and David Grisman mandolin, and harmony singing that is fully the equal of CSNY, the Band or Simon & Garfunkel on songs like "Attics of My Life" and "Brokedown Palace." Phil Lesh is brilliant on this album; he is the glue that gives this album its subtle swing and sonic thickness.
We can't ask our favorite artists to always be peaking. Not every album can be "Pet Sounds" or "Sticky Fingers," not even if their creators are geniuses. So it goes--the Dead never equalled "American Beauty," and it's hard to understand why not. But at least we have this, and it's a musical miracle that will always sound fresh.