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American Beauty
The Grateful Dead

Warner Bros. 1893
Released: October 1970
Chart Peak: #30
Weeks Charted: 19
Certified Platinum: 10/13/86

Jerry GarciaFor 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 work. 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.

The Grateful Dead - American Beauty
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
From "Box of Rain" they zip into "Friend of the Devil," which 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.

Pigpen drops by with "Operator." Pigpen songs are always enjoyable, because they're Pigpen songs. That would be good 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.

- Andy Zwerling, Rolling Stone, 12-24-70.

Bonus Reviews!

This is the simplistic folk-rock album Workingman's Dead is supposed to be -- sweeter vocally and more direct instrumentally, with words to match. Robert Hunter is better at parsing American conundrums than at picking American beauties, so too many of the lyrics revolve around love, dreams, etc. But only "Attics of My Life" has nothing upstairs. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

It features a couple of slightly above average compositions (including their trademark "Truckin'") and the ambience is fairly rustic/hippie. But the ideas are far from original and the "sound" is purveyed far better by other nonlegendary bands. The singing and musicanship remain vaguely communal. The sound is a marked improvement over prior reproductions, providing a clear, more spacious feel, and some dynamic enhancement -- and some hiss too. C

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Workingman's Dead, part two -- more of the songs that have served as the band's basic repertoire ever since these albums were released. Includes "Box of Rain," "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia," "Ripple," and, of course, "Truckin'." * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The follow-up to Workingman's Dead, American Beauty also managed to convey the band's flued lyricism with somewhat darker undertones. * * * * *

- Joel Selvin, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Very few studio efforts from the Dead ever really hit the mark, but for a while in the early '70s they couldn't miss, and this, the charming, woodsy follow-up to Workingman's Dead, hit all the notes: meaningful lyrics, on-key singing, and beautiful arrangements of great American music mixing folk, blues, country, gospel, bluegrass and a wee bit of LSD. Striking a balance between their mellow feel and sharper-honed R&R, it's perhaps the sweetest stop on the long, strange trip. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

The Dead were never better in the studio than on the down-home stoner country of Ameican Beauty. Released just six months after the folkie classic Workingman's Dead, Beauty has some of the band's most beloved songs, including "Box of Rain" and "Friend of the Devil."

American Beauty was chosen as the 258th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Although the late 1960s and early '70s saw leaps in studio technology, some groups, such as The Grateful Dead, seemed to revel in their undisciplined approach to recording. But 1970's Workingman's Dead -- a mature-sounding document that referred to their country/jazz/pop roots -- surprised fans. Follow-up American Beauty, though, would outlast all their other offerings as the definitive album by the group.

It is a joy to listen to: rich in acoustic instrumentation (including pedal steel guitar and mandolin), well-rounded backing vocals, and a subtle electric presence. American Beauty established the group as more than a house band for its charismatic stoner leader, Jerry Garcia. For the first time, the Dead seemed a cohesive unit with a battery of accomplished singer-songwriters, including Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.

Opener "Box Of Rain," penned by Leigh, is the perfect example of the group's new-found enthusiasm for the studio, while Weir delivered one of the record's standout moments on the joyous "Sugar Magnolia." Garcia, though, remains the undisputed heavyweight of the group, delivering an especially strong trilogy of songs to the set: "Candyman," Ripple," and "Friend Of The Devil," and supplying expressive pedal steel playing. The album's closing track, "Truckin'" would also endure as their anthem for generations of Deadheads.

Expertly played, with some gorgeous harmony singing, this is an intricate album. Its influence has resonated in successive generations of musicians, from the West Coast scene to the recent breed of Liverpudlian acts such as The Coral and The Zutons.

- Burhan Wazir, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

There are many portals through which to begin an exploration of the Grateful Dead. You could start at the beginning, with the 1967 self-titled debut, to hear the San Francisco group trying to shake its jug-band roots while serving up suitably weird blues designed to accompany the stored countercultural acid tests.

Or you could start near the end, with In the Dark (1987), the Dead's last studio work of consequence, which yielded the commercial success "Touch of Grey" and other songs lit with the wisdom of grizzled road vets. Some Deadheads would advise that the only reasonable first recorded encounter with the mythic band that rose from San Francisco hippie culture is a live concert recording -- and thanks to an aggressive archive program, there are plenty available.

Sooner or later, though, anyone seeking to understand the Dead needs to hear American Beauty, the crown jewel of the band's studio efforts. Recorded in August and September 1970, this collection documents the Dead before jamming became its raison d'être. The tunes are simple, kindhearted rambles through American folk, country two-step, and appropriations of Appalachian hymns. The performances are reverent, with little soloing and nothing getting in the way of the songs. And what songs: For decades after this release, the presence of its highlights "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," "Box of Rain," or "Friend of the Devil" on a set list was known to send hemp-necklaced Deadheads into rapture. That's partly because the tunes are so life-affirming, and partly because in the years of touring, the songs evolved tremendously -- from disciplined three-minute miniatures into jaw-dropping twenty-minute odysseys.

The Dead wasn't temperamentally suited to the studio. But around the time of this album, the musicians and primary lyricist Robert Hunter were writing at a fever pitch, building a songbook that was revolutionary and patchwork-quilt quaint at the same time. Just as Hunter appropriated the plainspoken language of old folk songs, guitarist Jerry Garcia, who'd played banjo in jug bands, brought that instrument's crisp articulation to the eletric guitar. Everyone else follows that folkloric bent without seeming too worried about details; the performances are sometimes ragged and the vocals stray off-key. Yet somehow the scruffiness becomes part of the chorus, helping to speed the trip back to the sounds and folklore of an earlier time while underscoring the Dead's great alchemy trick -- transforming the rustic into the revelatory.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

The sister LP to Workingman's Dead, released just over four months later, rode the songwriting bonanza, with new influences digested. The result is a slightly fuller sound, a brighter vibe, and maybe, song-for-song, their strongest set ever. "Ripple" and Lesh's breakout "Box of Rain" are the Dead at their deepest, and "Sugar Magnolia" and "Truckin'," both delivered by the band young'un Bob Weir, nailed the noodle-dance boogie style that took them from collegiate cult band to stadium-filling phenomenon.

- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 9/19.

The Grateful Dead never sounded better in the studio than in the down-home stoner country of American Beauty. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the ultimate outlaw credo in "Friend of the Devil," and "Box of Rain" has the band's most emotional harmony vocals.

American Beauty was chosen as the 215th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

 Reader's Comments

Cliff Anderson

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