GOLD: 50 Years of The Grateful Dead

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The Grateful Dead – The Grateful Dead

Released March 17th, 1967 on Warner Bros. Records

Originally, the blitzed-out script at the top of the album cover read “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead.”  It’s a piece of a much longer quote from the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and it’s not where the band got their name from. Jerry Garcia was playing a game involving a dictionary; it fell open to a certain place and the word divide across the crack read “grateful dead”.  It’s a much less mystical origin story but the band was always a lot less mystical than anyone seems to want to mythologize.  The old acidheads can argue on about the magic power of togetherness and the importance of drug culture; the Dead wanted to have a good time, and that was their great power.  They wanted to have a good time and therefore so did you.  As such, their debut reflects this desire. “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” sounds really mystical and sublime, but the song is a party song through and through, right down to the directives in the second verse and the “hey heys” that mark out the chorus.  “Beat It On Down The Line” is definitive proof that the Dead are at their heart a dance band, and the inclusion of strutting blues standard “Good Morning Little School Girl” doesn’t do anything to dispel this notion.  The entire album is a hint to the sort of chooglin boogie the Dead would trade in throughout their career, underneath all of the tie-dye, patchouli-scented, patchwork panted, VW bus-driving, crunchy, groovy, granular, granola-munching fan mythology.  This being the early days, the band is still finding it’s footing on their debut; everything is a bit too “psychedelicized”, if that makes sense.  It’s a pure product of San Francisco, 1967, Summer of Love and the flow of LSD – bluesy, but more freewheeling, like Janis Joplin’s Big Brother if they were actually really good musicians.  At the same time, there are better blues albums from the time – pick any Cream album – and as such it was much bigger in San Francisco proper, among people who’d actually seen them live, than on any national scale.

 

To be honest, it’s impressive that the recordings are as down-to-earth as they are.  The band named themselves while smoking DMT and played their first gig at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.  Their initial recording spaces, rehearsal house, and equipment were bankrolled by Owsley Stanley, the man who made all of Ken Kesey’s LSD.  It was also the West Coast in 1967 and as such the sheer amount of marijuana being consumed at the time in addition to all of the other drugs could have driven the band completely off the rails into art-drone trash.  As such, it’s a testament to just how utterly great the Dead are that they managed to turn in such a tight record, even if it didn’t adequately capture the band’s captivating live performances.  The real classics here are “Morning Dew”, which features a high, keening squiggle and some stately chords that probably sound thrilling at twilight (the recent National cover on their broad-minded tribute album was also stellar, incidentally) and “Viola Lee Blues”, which shows off the lengthy jamming that the Dead were even then known for.

By the way, does anyone else catch a sort of Star-Burns vibe from Jerry on the album cover?

Ducktails – St. Catherine

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Ducktails – St. Catherine

Ducktails’ Matt Mondanile’s musical day job is with indie middlers Real Estate, and that sums up part of my problem with it.  There are very few Real Estate songs I can actually stand, and it’s been my longstanding opinion that the band is the Coldplay to Deerhunter’s Radiohead.  This extends to side-projects; for my money, Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza are much better diversions than Ducktails has ever been.  If I’m being honest, however, there was a possibility that Ducktails might have won me over, had I been able to ignore the four albums they’d released previous to St. Catherine.  There’s a certain loveliness to the arrangements, after all, a hazy sort of stoned beauty in the songs.  The problem, however – the same problem I have with Mac DeMarco, incidentally – is that there’s nothing to really grasp onto on any of the songs.  There are some clean Real Estate chords, some whipped-up old vintage synth noise, a lazily sung bit processed through one filter or another, and a bass guitar mixed high and burbling in the background.  Despite all of these parts there’s nothing to really string them together; there are very few hooks on St. Catherine, and after several spins of the album I’m hard-pressed to come up with a single memorable moment.

St. Catherine is an album to try if you’re in the mood for something to be aimless and stoned to, but even then it’s going to wear thin about halfway through.

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The Fifteen Best Canadian Summer Jams

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Canada is best known for its winter – this is an undeniable fact to anyone who’s ever had to live through one.  What many outside of the country don’t realize is that Canada isn’t a snowbound wonderland of Bonhomme de Neige and frozen maple syrup hockey pucks 365 days of the year.  The inhabited parts of the country also get hot, sticky summers for several months.  For some, the hot weather provides an impetus to “get away from it all”, whether it be on vacation to a natural wonder like Niagara Falls or just to go north and hang out on the dock of the cottage all day.  For others, the summer is a magical time in the city, where the clothes and pretensions come off and that keening je ne sais quoi drives you further into the core in search of love, life, and the pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll.  The songs in this list reflect that:  part dock rockin’ good times, part hot-town-summer-in-the-city, all north of the 49th.

 

Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams

Once upon a very long time ago (the 1980s) Bryan Adams was a Canadian teen heartthrob who represented the northern vanishing point between Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.  He later became briefly famous for a featured power ballad in that one movie where Kevin Costner plays Robin Hood but can’t be bothered to master an English accent.  Northern audiences know him best, however, for this ode to being young and full of rock ‘n’ roll dreams in that most fabled of Boomer summers, the summer of 1969.  Adams, of course, was ten in the summer of 1969 – the song was co-written and largely about Jim Vallance, a Canadian songwriter and producer who was 17 in that same year.

Working For The Weekend – Loverboy


“Working For The Weekend” is the ultimate “get out of the city up to the cottage” jam, and one that classic rock radio in Canada pumps out nonstop once the snow melts.  How could it not be?  That early-80s vintage production drives those drums right at you, and the synths say “wouldn’t you rather be relaxing by the water with a cold beer in your hand”?  Meanwhile you’re stuck in the office, staring at the spreadsheet for the Warner account while freaking Janice is microwaving fish again despite the fact that you put a freaking sign up.  Don’t worry.  Loverboy has your back.

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – Arcade Fire


The best song Blondie never wrote is also the song that best encapsulates the yearning our suburban youth feel when the summer comes and the spires of the city rise out of the hazy horizon to beckon.  While much of Arcade Fire’s third album is about Win Butler’s youth in the suburbs of Houston, the last full song on the album is Regine Chassagne’s ode to the siren call of Montreal as seen by someone wasting away in boredom.  “Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,” they say, but she wants something more:  to dance through the streets of a vibrant, urgent metropolis, to feel the summer sun as it bakes the masses in the streets, to find herself and others like her before the snow comes to lock everything up again.

The Spirit of Radio – Rush


Written in honour of CFNY – Toronto’s once-mighty 102.1 The Edge – “The Spirit of Radio” captures the feeling of driving down the highway with the windows all the way down and the radio cranked.  The wind blowing back your hair and whipping at your face, the music drowning out all conversation and thought, the endless road stretching out before you with all of its crackling potential energy yet to be consumed:  all of this is spoken of in that initial rush of synths, drums, and guitars.  Plus, it’s Rush – one of the few bands that the average American can point to and say “oh yeah, they’re from Canada”.

Raise A Little Hell – Trooper


Personally it’s between this and “Boys In The Bright White Sports Car”, but “Raise A Little Hell” is definitely more ubiquitous.  The anthem of hellraisers the world over, the song is the perfect soundtrack for getting deep into it at the cottage, around the fire, or pretty much anywhere in this great wide country.  Just remember, though, to raise only a little hell; this is Canada, after all, and we must maintain a veneer of decorum even when the rye bottle is nearing empty.

Tornado ’87 – The Rural Alberta Advantage

Let’s stop here for a moment to consider the slightly darker side of Canadian summers.  The hot, sticky days are fun, but when they turn ugly it’s often quick and vicious.  Many places throughout Canada are susceptible to tornados, including where I grew up, and they’re a fact of life children have to learn about alongside fire safety and not pulling Uncle Joey’s finger.  The center square of the picturesque port town of Goderich, Ontario was demolished by one such storm.  “Tornado ’87”, meanwhile, from the band’s second album Departing, chronicles the storm that struck at Edmonton on July 31st, 1987.

Patio Lanterns – Kim Mitchell


Here’s the thing:  there are objectively better Kim Mitchell songs (“Go For A Soda”, “A Million Vacations”) but none of them capture the spirit of summer as a blossoming awkward teenager quite so well as “Patio Lanterns”.  It’s actually quite a horrific song, in it’s way.  It depicts a summer patio party attended by a bunch of shy and nervous adolescents, the kind of hell everyone’s parents shoved them into when they wanted to go off with their adult friends to do adult things, like drinking wine and finishing sentences before getting corrected by a goddamn know-it-all.

Drunk Teenagers – The Joel Plaskett Emergency


The Halifax native’s ode to youth and getting wasted at a bush party is quintessentially Canadian.  It is a rite of summer for the kids in and around the rural parts of the country to disappear into the woods on the weekend with cases of beer and rye and get smashed.  For certain swaths of the population, it’s true that you did it, your kids are doing it, and their kids will do it too.  Plaskett even gives specific directions for where he did it:  Clayton Park is a suburb of Halifax, and the Ashtray Rock is apparently a real place in the woods near Clayton Park where many a drunken night of shenanigans took place.

Echo Beach – Martha and the Muffins


This international New Wave hit wasn’t about any particular beach (although it may have been inspired by a night Mark Gane spent at Sunnyside Beach in Toronto in the fabled year of 1977) it was about every beach.  It’s a song about being an office drone in a boring job, watching the clock slowly tick down towards five o’clock and wanting to be anywhere else.  It’s the reality for everyone working in the summer, and thus it’s the premiere anthem for everyone looking forward to the weekend cottage getaway on a Wednesday.

Soda – Gob


I WANT TO JUMP IN A LAKE!  SUN SHINING DOWN ON THE BEACH IN THE SUMMER!  I WANT TO JUMP IN A LAKE!  It’s self-explanatory, really.  The British Columbia band’s teenage symphony to the sun struck a chord with sun-seekers in 1995, many of whom went on to emulate the song’s simple message of jumping in lakes in the summer.  Fun fact:  the video for this song was shot by an amateur on 16mm and got shot into heavy rotation by the once-great MuchMusic.

Five Days In May – Blue Rodeo


Summer is the time for romance – forget spring, it’s all about finding love under the scorching sun, or maybe while taking shelter from a fragrant rain storm.  Blue Rodeo knew this quite well, and “Five Days In May” is a wistful, nostalgic alt-country hymn to summer flings and the lasting memories that they create.  It’s also perfect for singing around the campfire, or for just putting on the stereo while you relax in the yard and watch the sun set into the haze of the horizon.  Crickets required, mosquitoes optional for the masochists.

Summer Dress – July Talk


The summer months can get sticky and they can get gritty.  People get desperate and they can get crazy with the heat.  “Summer Dress” is all about that – getting tangled up in love and leaving for the city to do dumb things without thinking much about them.  The riff that the song rides is pure grit, a rock ‘n’ roll punch in the gut that sounds like the sweat pouring off of you in a dark, loud rock club in the height of July.

This Beat Goes On/Switching To Glide – The Kings


A party-ready rock ‘n’ roll song that will get things going whether you’re at the cottage, stuck in commute, or trying to convince your boss that five o’clock really means four, or better yet, three.  After all, nothing matters but the weekend from a Tuesday point of view.  It’s a Stones-inspired stomp that layers on the keyboards for that extra-summery effect, and then it switches into an even better groovy summer jam.  If this hybrid mutant of a song doesn’t play from your radio at least once while you’re reclining with a drink in your hand, you’re doing it wrong.

Come For A Ride – By Divine Right


For some of us, summer is all about getting in the car and just, like, going somewhere, man.  “Come For A Ride” captures that blissful feeling.  You’re bored, it’s summer, there’s nothing to do – and suddenly your friends show up at the door with a car and no particular place to go.  It’s breezy, relaxing, and perfect for cruising around.  Also of particular note is the presence of Brendan Canning on bass and Leslie Feist on guitar, both of whom would go on to seminal Canadian indie outfit Broken Social Scene.

Sun – Caribou


A pulsing electronic slice of summer, and one in which Dan Snaith makes things as clear as possible:  the song’s lyrics consist of the word “sun” repeated endlessly.  When it comes right down to it, that’s all we really ask out of summer.  Some of us will point to the cottage, and fishing, swimming, hiking, etc.  Some of us will point to the city, and patios, hazy streets, exposed skin, and magic in the parks.  Either way, though, what we want out of summer is the sun.  We want that big, constantly exploding ball of nuclear fusion way out in space to light up our lives and heat our days, so that we can enjoy them to the fullest.

Best Coast – California Nights

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Best Coast – California Nights

California Nights is the perfect example of why picking your lead single carefully is important.  Leading off with the title track, it would seem that Ms. Bethany Cosentino had decided to go in a much darker, much more downtempo direction on her third LP.  This would have been actually kind of welcome:  While her debut, Crazy For You, was the perfect pop album for hitting the sunny beach in style, The Only One was like it, but without the charm and winsome longing that she’d brought to the first one.  “California Nights” is a big leap forward for her as a songwriter, a slow psych-rock number that could double as a soundtrack for, well, light-blinded California nights.

It’s the only song like it on the record, however.  The rest of the album is a return to the tempos and structures that she brought to the table on Crazy For You, but with a bit less sun and shrug.  In and of itself this is a good thing – there’s none of the mid-tempo L.A. slog that marred The Only One and quite a few places where the speed spikes and Cosentino stretches into pop-punk territory.  “Heaven Sent”, and “Fine Without You” both mine this vein, but the rest of the tracks aren’t terribly far behind.

Can we just pretend that The Only One didn’t happen and that California Nights is her follow-up to Crazy For You?  Her second album can just be considered a strange aberration, much as Bad Religion’s Into The Unknown is seen as an ill-advised dip into something best forgotten.

 

Palma Violets – “Best of Friends”

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This song.  This song right here.  Every time I hear it I feel the urge to write down the name, because I know I’ll forget it if I don’t, and yet I never do.  Now it’s here, so that everyone can share in the fist-in-the-air, summer’s-here exultation that this track’s chorus and reverberating leads promise.  Open-air garage rock for the nights that never end.

Cayucas – “Bigfoot”

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Poor Cayucas.  They just want to play the soundtrack to an endless summer, paying homage to Vampire Weekend and Beck along the way.  These days, however, are a catalytic era for popular music; under the surface, an intense period of creativity and exploration is occurring.  Bands like Cayucas that come along and just want to take stock of what’s already been accomplished are typically derided for being “derivative” and lacking in artistic merit.  Albums like Bigfoot, though, aren’t about creating some new artistic paradigm, however; they’re just here for the barbeque and the brews.  It’s an album written to be played in the summer, outdoors, and in this goal it succeeds admirably.  The first two tracks, “Cayucos” and “High School Lover”, hit like a one-two punch to radio while we were all still languishing under snow, and they brought with them the promise of brighter, warmer days.  Now that those days have arrived, Bigfoot provides a perfect accompaniment to them; it works for outdoor parties, BBQs by the lake, cottage get-togethers, or whatever other cliched Summer Activities you’re into.  It doesn’t aim much further beyond that, and it doesn’t have to. You can’t discuss Hemingway and Proust with it, but who cares?  You can chug a beer to it,  it’s at least vaguely intelligent, and sometimes that’s all that really matters.  Now go outside, or something.

Final Mark:  B+

And, if you’re going to go outside, don’t forget to bring a book.  If you need a book, you can find links to such sundries on http://www.trevorjameszaple.com .  There’s even an excerpt you can download to try it before you buy it.  Shareware stylez.  Word.