Grateful Dead – Go to Heaven (1980)

go to heaven header

Following the release of the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street in November of 1978, tensions between the Godchaux’s and the rest of the group were high. The married couple had reportedly been fighting like cats and dogs, all the while Keith Godchaux was deep into an addiction to opioids. These personal issues in conjunction with Keith’s increasingly more subpar playing would leave the band with no choice but to say goodbye to the couple. The Dead have always prided themselves on going out night after night and improvising in new directions, but this only works well if each member is willing push the others into new sonic avenues. When one member becomes complacent or unwilling to follow this path, it goes against the purpose of the band. So on February 19th 1979, after six years “playing in the band” Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux bid the Grateful Dead farewell.

The loss of both a keyboard player and voice in the group would be filled by one man rather quickly. Brent Mydland, formerly of Silver, had been playing in Bob Weir’s solo band and was invited to join the group. His youth, distinctive voice, and unique approach to the keyboard and organ would bring a much needed freshness to the band now in its 14th year.

19790416_0914.original
The Grateful Dead in 1979. Newest member Brent Mydland is seated below the rest of the group.

Now with a complete line-up, the group needed to release another studio album in order to fulfill their Arista Records contract. The group hooked up with producer Gary Lyons and embarked on completing another studio album that July. The album would be a return to the group’s rock, blues, and folk roots, specifically shying away from the increasingly disliked disco sound they had previously experimented with. The group’s 11th studio album, Go to Heaven, was released in April of 1980, over one year after Brent Mydland’s induction into the Grateful Dead.

Right off the bat the band rips into the bluesy, rocking song “Alabama Getaway” to start off side one. The updated Chuck Berry sound is a return to form for the aging rockers. What stands out in the song is new keyboardist and vocalist Brent Mydland. His soulful tenor works well in conjunction with Garcia’s soft voice. The second track is a coming out for Brent Mydland on the track, “Far From Me,” which he wrote and takes lead vocals on. Mydland brings a soft rock vocal tone, a la Michael McDonald, to the song. The breaks in instrumentation take much inspiration from the California Soft Rock or “Yacht Rock” sound. Mydland’s youth in comparison to the other members is clear. His musical styles are inspired by the music of his youth in the ‘60s and early ‘70s , a decade apart from the other members of the band. 

The next track, “Althea,” is a tune with a magical quality. Whether it’s the melody, the lyrics, or just the band’s ability to jam at the end, “Althea” is a song that stands above most of their discography. The opening riff is clear as day and commands attention. Phil Lesh talks about how their infamous jam “Darkstar” is always playing in the zeigtgeist and they just tap into it. “Althea” is exactly the same. From his emotionally guitar to his soft vocals, the song is inherently Jerry Garcia. Side one wraps up with the first Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow track on the album, “Feel Like A Stranger.” The funk music track is clearly inspired by the popular music of the time. The track is fairly forgettable, but it does have some great wah from Garcia and ‘80s synth work from Mydland.

The second side of Go to Heaven starts off with a pair of songs from Weir and Barlow that are meant to be played together. “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” aren’t the same song, or two in a suite, but they work as a pair so perfectly. “Lost Sailor” is a jazz-rock ballad with wild production. The strongest point in the song is when the instruments align on the lyric, “You’re a lost sailor, you’ve been to long at sea.” The bridge in particular features soft and beautiful playing from Garcia and Mydland. The track fades out and the band breaks into “Saint of Circumstance.” The immediate upbeat sound of the track flies in the face of the previous track, but it works so well. The chorus features powerful piano playing from Mydland and lifts up the track’s melancholic verses. The connection between “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” is odd. They both contain references to a “Dog Star” and could have a similar narrator, but are two separate songs. Sonically, the two songs just work together well.

Side two transitions to the second half using a short 39 second instrumental from Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The track features swampy frog like sounds, with Kreutzmann playing quick fills on the drums. It does little for the album as a whole besides adjusting the mood. The follow-up is a Mydland and Barlow composition, “Easy to Love You.” The romantic song is Steely Dan meets Doobie Brothers. The chorus and keyboard solo echo Michael McDonald, but the jazzy breakdowns after the chorus feel like a Fagen-Becker composition. “Easy to Love You” does feature a notable contribution from Hart, who plays a steel drum during the key solo, providing a laid back vibe to the track. The album wraps up on “Don’t Ease Me In.” The traditional track is most commonly credited to Henry Thomas, a Texas Blues musician who recorded the track in 1928. The track is interesting in the Dead repertoire as they had been playing different versions of it since their inception, even releasing it as the A-side to their first single in 1966. The track does a great job of subverting expectations when Mydland takes a solo instead of Garcia. The track does fall short in the vocal performances, compared to previous versions of the song. Previously it leaned more on acoustic guitars and vocal harmony, but the background singing in the 1980 version are blended so much that they just fall behind Garcia’s lead.

All in all Go to Heaven is a decent album, that gets a bad rap for it’s atrocious cover*. Excluding the cover art, Go To Heaven has aged well over the last 38 years and it still stands as a glimpse of the band’s newest iteration with Brent Mydland. Having completed the required three studio albums in three years contract with Arista Records, the Grateful Dead would take their longest break from studio recording following the albums release, not putting out another studio work until 1987.

 

*Author’s note: It is the prevailing opinion that the album art featuring the band in all-white disco suits prevented people from purchasing the album. There was more focus on album art in those days because the internet couldn’t be used to research the album prior to listening. Many albums were purchased because of the band name and album art alone. Casual listeners would think the band was going full disco, but the cover was meant to be ironic with back cover featuring the band in ripped up disco suits and text reading “Go to Hell.” However the back cover was never made, leaving the band looking like they had sold out to disco. The joke wasn’t there and it changed the general public’s perception of the group.

New Music: Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

goldenhourheader

Kacey Musgraves just got married and she equates the feeling to the fading high of marijuana. At least, that’s how it comes off on her newest album, Golden Hour. The 29-year-old Texan’s album title comes from the time following sunset where the sun is down but it’s not quite night. That moment, that fading high, pervades the Country singer-songwriter’s latest work as she continues to defy the role of the typical female country star.

On her third full length album, Kacey Musgraves updates the iconic sounds of ‘70s, ‘90s, and early ‘00s Country music using a blend of old and modern instrumentation. On the track, “Butterflies,” Musgraves uses synths with a distinctive country twang to twist the instrument to fit the genre. This subtle touch gives the track the added flare it needed. At other times, Musgraves uses modern sounds in a black and white manner. The Daft Punk-esque vocoder at the beginning of “Oh, What a World” feels jarring at first, but Musgraves expertly uses the robotic voice to set up the emotion of the song. Later in the track she blends the vocoder with well placed banjo plucking, an unexpected combination that manages to perfectly fuse Americana and Futurism.

Using blends of different instruments throughout the tracks also allows Kacey Musgraves to blur the lines between different genres. On the first two tracks, “Slow Burn” and “Lonely Weekend,” Musgraves comes off as more Adult Contemporary than Country, sounding more like Sheryl Crow or John Mayer. Tracks like “Velvet Elvis” and “Golden Hour” could be considered more Americana than Country. She also dares to show off influences well outside the Country genre on “High Horse.” The track’s disco and electronic sounds are imbued with the spirit of Tame Impala. Musgraves makes bold moves and these moves are paid off, showing that she is a well traveled artist.

Lyrically, Musgraves and her team are setting out to change the perception of typical country songs. Musgraves spends much of the album writing about situations and emotions leading up to a married life. She chronicles these different situations throughout the project, from early love in “Butterflies,” to the acceptance of a broken relationship in “Space Cowboy.” Musgraves gets more specific in tracks like “Wonder Woman”, where she opens up about not being perfect partner and it should be accepted because she doesn’t expect her husband to be the perfect partner either. Musgraves also touches on her relationship with her Mother on the simply titled ballad “Mother.” In the chorus she sings, “wish we didn’t live so far from each other, I’m just sitting here thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping, And missing my mother,” realizing the importance of the passage of time and the mortality of life.

What makes Golden Hour an album that will be critically acclaimed and sets her apart from other artists, also keeps her from being Country radio friendly. By flirting with different genres, she makes music that doesn’t all fit on one radio station. A track like “High Horse” would belong on Top 40 Pop Radio, but tracks like “Slow Burn” and “Love is a Wild Thing” belong on Country Radio. Even “Lonely Weekend” sounds like it belongs on an Adult Contemporary station. However in the modern digital age, blending genres also allows her the ability to gain a new following that might be outside of the normal Country scope.

Golden Hour’s 13 tracks give it a short run time, clocking in at 46 minutes. Musgraves keeps the show moving from upbeat song to ballad and back, but she does have moments that are forgettable. Songs like “Happy & Sad” and the title track “Golden Hour” do little to set themselves apart from the other songs, blending in to the album’s overall sound.

Kacey Musgraves manages to wrap all 13 of these tracks into a blissful record that serves a snapshot into this moment of her life. Settle in, watch the sunset, and feel the high fade away.

Grateful Dead – Shakedown Street (1978)

shakedown header.png

Following the release of the 1976 album, Terrapin Station, the Grateful Dead continued to hit the road as always. Having returned from their near two year hiatus, the group found their groove throughout 1977, performing at what many consider their best shows. Continuing to push boundaries, the Dead would also plan and play three nights in Egypt, in front of the Great Pyramids. These shows, which coincided with a total lunar eclipse, would prove to be the Grateful Dead and their most Grateful Dead, doing what others would never do, following the music off the beaten path, and being plagued with technical issues so the live recordings wouldn’t come to fruition for 30 years. The band continued to always screw up the big ones, so they moved on to finishing their next studio album.

19780914_1580.original
Grateful Dead playing live in 1978.

By the end of 1978, the Grateful Dead was taking influences from the soft rock and disco that pervaded the airwaves. The band couldn’t be less on the same page. The core group began to resent Keith Godchaux for his lazy playing and difficulty to work with. They would bring in another outside producer, Lowell George from Little Feats, to produce their record. The resulting project, 1978’s Shakedown Street, continues in Dead tradition to make studio works that are completely out of left field.

The first side of Shakedown Street begins with the track, “Good Lovin’.” The fun, upbeat song is a cover that was first made famous The Young Rascals, reaching number one on the Billboard charts in 1966. Nearly 13 years after it was written, the Grateful Dead inject the tune with fresh blood, giving it a slightly harder edge and more modern instrumentation. It’s a great way to kick off the album and Weir’s vocals are inviting. The album takes an immediate left turn afterwards, with “France,” a Weir and Donna Godchaux-led track. The Caribbean-influenced percussion is an interesting departure from the group who seem to never stick to one schtick. Mickey Hart’s influence is clear and while his style lends itself to distinctive songs, “France” is a clear miss. The yacht-rock tune features sub-par lyrics by Robert Hunter, particularly the first line, “way down in the south of France all the ladies love to dance.” After four minutes of mediocrity, the band shifts into the title track, “Shakedown Street.” The Dead-meets-Disco song is once again, a foray into new sounds for the group. Garcia’s vocals are welcoming, considering he only appeared on one track on the previous album. Hunter’s lyrics are catchy and light, despite describing the urban decay of the inner city.

Following the title track the first side begins its conclusion with the instrumental, “Serengetti.” The aptly named song is inspired by African Rhythms. At just over two minutes, the track works at transporting its listeners into a new sonic space for just long enough to stay intrigued. Concluding side one, The Dead rip into their now classic tune, “Fire on the Mountain.” The writing features a unique partnership, Hart and Hunter. The song is catchy with touches of disco and funk, yet it’s secretly complex. The percussion and Phil Lesh’s bass line push the melody forward, but it’s a melody that is not simple enough to whistle. This allows the simple hook and easy going solo from Garcia to become so much more powerful.  

After the flip of the record, the Dead return to rocking on “I Need a Miracle.” The ZZ-Top-esque track is a big blues rocker where Weir brings his power to the lead vocals. John Perry Barlow’s lyrics are hilarious, describing the impossible woman that Weir wants to be with. It’s a decent song, but overly dated now, and only really is notable to this day because of the Deadheads’ usage of the term “miracle” for when they are gifted a free ticket to a show. The track is succeeded by “From the Heart of Me,” a funky ballad written and performed by Donna Godchaux. It’s a forgettable track, with a boring vocal performance. This song should have been on solo album by Donna, so no one would have to attribute it to the Grateful Dead. However, the group picks it back up on “Stagger Lee.” The Americana track is a return to the sound that brought them so much success at the turn of the decade.

The Grateful Dead once again go back to a cover on “All New Minglewood Blues.” The song is a rework of “New, New Minglewood Blues” which appeared on their debut album. The updated sound features a slowed down tempo, more full-bodied tones in the guitars and bass, and a new verse. The omitted organs and Weir’s new vocals show how much has changed in the past 11 years since its original release. Pigpen’s death was over five years prior and they’ve all grown up so much. It’s a reminder that they are no longer that small band playing at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests and running around Haight-Ashbury. No clearer is the band’s overall growth and expansion into different sonic avenues than in the final track on Shakedown Street, “If I Had the World to Give.” The Garcia/Hunter soft rock ballad is full of sweet percussion and lite piano playing. Garcia and Hunter’s approach to the romantic tune shows their prowess as writers, adding a whole new genre to their discography. The song is particularly beautiful in the bridge when Garcia sings, “I may not have the world to give to you, but maybe I have a tune or two.” Hearing Garcia and Hunter produce a track so different than any of their prior work is no new trend for the duo, but reaching into subject matter that’s more deeply personal and coming out with a ballad that’s better than most at the time is truly incredible.

On the Grateful Dead’s tenth studio album, they approach the end of a prolific decade. Unfortunately the record serves a reflection of the group in their state in 1978. Despite the great live shows of 1977, tensions were high and the drug abuse was getting worse in the group. The album is disjointed, featuring at two absolute missteps by Donna, and strays away from what the Grateful Dead do best. The production by Lowell George has moments that sound lower quality than some of the group’s live albums and it comes as no surprise the George passed away only months after the record’s release from drug abuse issues of his own. Despite all this, there are these shining moments like “Shakedown Street”, “Fire on the Mountain”, and “All New Minglewood Blues”, where the Grateful Dead deliver.

Released in late 1978, Shakedown Street would be the last record by the group in the ‘70s. It would also be the last studio record featuring Keith and Donna, who would leave the group in February of 1979. However as the group entered their 15th year and the ‘80s began, they would soon find some of their greatest success.

Grateful Dead – Terrapin Station (1977)

terrapin header

The Grateful Dead remained on a hiatus from touring that began in 1974 for over 20 months. This near two year hiatus ended in June of 1976 when the group decided to return to touring. The Dead released the live album Steal Your Face in 1976, but the band was hemorrhaging their finances and decided to resign with a major label. Their personal label, Grateful Dead Records, folded and they signed with the newly formed Arista Records. As a result of their negotiations with Arista, the band was required to use an outside producer for their next studio album. The label would go on to choose Keith Olsen, who had just produced the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album. Fleetwood Mac’s comeback album had become a No.1 hit in the US and Olsen’s mainstream influence became clear on the Dead’s latest release. The album, Terrapin Station (1977), would incorporate the sounds of many mainstream acts at the time.

19770507_0937.original
The Grateful Dead in 1977. (T-B; L-R: Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Keith Godchaux, Donna Jean Godchaux, and Phil Lesh)

The beginning of Terrapin Station upon first glance seems to be where the real meat of the album is, with the second side consisting of a singular medley. However, side one serves as a real reflection for the band’s latest forays into incorporating new genres. The first track, “Estimated Prophet,” kicks things off with a reggae-funk melody and heavy wah in the guitars. The whole track has this awkward 7/4 time signature, but the vocals are so catchy that it would be nearly impossible to realize it unless tapping along to the beat. Instead of the usual Garcia solo, the band chose to have an odd saxophone solo instead. The horns not only give the track a heavy ‘70s sound, but now seem out of place by a band that doesn’t have a saxophone player in their touring band. The Grateful Dead frequently covered songs by other musicians and the next track is their take on Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit record “Dancing in the Street.” The Dead’s rendition, titled “Dancin’ in the Streets,” gives the track a funky disco flavor. The track is horn-heavy with prominent rhythm guitar from Bob Weir. The back beat is also worth note; Mickey Hart’s hand drums being more prominent in the mix than Bill Kreutzmann’s traditional drumming.

The Dead’s ability to take inspiration from other genres is prominent again in “Passenger,” an Arena Rock/Country track written by Phil Lesh. Due to a vocal cord issue Lesh couldn’t sing, allowing Bob Weir to take lead vocals with Donna Jean Godchaux alongside him. The track gets a nice country rock flavor thanks in part to the inclusion of slide guitar, but the flavor is muted by the Fleetwood Mac-inspired heavy rock chorus. Weir again takes lead vocals alongside Donna on “Samson and Delilah.” The gospel-blues track, which Weir learned from Reverend Gary Davis, is a traditional song about the Biblical story of Samson, his feats, and his inevitable betrayal by Delilah. The modern gospel song is a standout track with powerful Weir vocals, dynamic back and forth from the percussion and drums, and a organ that invokes a Sunday church service from Keith Godchaux.

The last song on side one is “Sunrise,” written and vocally-led by Donna. The pop ballad has a Fleetwood Mac style blend of acoustic guitars, arena rock guitar solos, and sweeping string sections. The track is truly the most bizarre from the group that so many put the label of “‘60s psychedelia” on. “Sunrise” is a thinly veiled attempt from Arista to turn Donna Jean Godchaux into the group’s own Stevie Nicks. The track is completely forgettable, almost begging that the record be flipped over.

Side two contains only one track when viewed on digital formats. The track “Terrapin Part 1,” which now just appears as “Terrapin Station Medley,” is a 16 minute track that fuses Jazz and Prog-Rock in seven parts. Part one, “Lady with a Fan,” is four minutes of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborating at their best. The track has this echoey and tactile guitar that touches the heart strings during his solo. Garcia does what he does best in this first part, taking full command of the group and proving his place as their leader. A keyboard solo by Keith followed by Donna’s harmonies lead into the second part, “Terrapin Station.” This section contains some of Hunter’s best lyrics and features moving strings to amplify Garcia’s emotional performance. The two minute portion of the song also explains a bit what “Terrapin Part 1” is about, this journey to get to the fictional location Terrapin Station. The third part, “Terrapin,” is a two minute section where the guitars and drums build up, then crash. The whole section, echoes the melodies of the prior section. Part four, “Terrapin Transit,” is a Hart and Kreutzmann composition featuring beautiful strings, chimes, and gongs, transporting the song into a cosmic dimension. Garcia rips through this dimension with a powerful solo, echoed by the horns and strings. Garcia vocally re-emerges on part five, “At A Siding.” This section’s freeform jazz sound only furthers the listener being lost in the cosmos until Garcia let’s them know they will be in Terrapin again. The minute long part transitions quickly to “Terrapin Flyer.” This instrumental section features an african-influenced rhythm, which becomes completely overshadowed by the disco inspired strings. In this section different instruments go on runs. Caribbean steel drums, Garcia’s guitar, flutes, and the strings all wildly move through scales. This extended drum-led jam echoes the suite from the Dead’s prior album, Blues for Allah. This is continued as the final part, “Refrain,” begins and a chorus sings “Some will rise, some will fall, some will climb, Just to get to Terrapin.” The album concludes on this area rock high note.

“Terrapin Part 1” is a continuation in what has become a tradition for the Grateful Dead. The track is the third installment in a series of medley/suites from the group. Like “Weather Report Suite” or “Blues for Allah,” the group once again use their combined talents to take listeners on a profound journey. This time they eschew the country-rock or Arabic-inspired jazz, for a jazz-prog fusion. This medley is the perfect finale to an album that starts out sounding like an album by a completely different band. It also proves again why Hunter is the most talented writer in the group, creating this lyrical journey which is more thoughtful and moving than any other track on Terrapin Station.

Terrapin Station is not a perfect album and certainly not the finest moment for the band. With the exception of “Terrapin Part 1,” the whole album feels overproduced. The frequent horn-heavy or string-heavy tracks feels like a radical departure from the free-from jazz that the band exhibited two years prior. Clearly new producer Keith Olsen was experimenting, trying to make the Grateful Dead sound more like Fleetwood Mac. This strategy of trying to turn aging ‘60s bands into ‘70s mainstream rock acts didn’t work with the Dead. This left the group sounding like a whole different band. This isn’t a bad move when it’s clearly a conscious choice by band to move that way, but album doesn’t echo that sentiment. Terrapin Station exhibits a sound that is chosen by a producer or executive at Arista Records, in order to have a mainstream appeal and the Grateful Dead didn’t need to have mainstream appeal.