Music News & Reviews

Album reviews

Critic's pick

Grateful Dead

Dave's Picks, Volume 6

Rare Cuts and Oddities 1966

At this point, are there any creative insights left to reveal about the Grateful Dead that haven't already been exhumed in the hundred or so concert recordings released since the band's demise after the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995?

Probably not. But when additional relics surface from the Dead's youth — specifically two new releases covering its first five years together — we are reminded of an adventurous spirit, an extraordinary performance intuition and, yes, a few creative imperfections.

The sixth and latest offering in the Dead's mail-order Dave's Picks series does all of that and then some. It covers, over three very long discs, two concerts given only four months apart, in December 1969 and February 1970. But the performances often differ in temperament, with the Dead opus Dark Star at the center of each show.

The '69 outing is far more playful. Dark Star is dispensed with at the onset as a spacious, animated jam framed equally by Garcia, the puncturing bass of a young Phil Lesh, and organ lines that dance with snake-charming flexibility in the background from Tom Constanten. Such looseness dominates the entire show, from the rubbery bounce of New Speedway Boogie to Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's 35-minute tent-revival recasting of Turn on Your Lovelight. How wild it is to hear him continually shout "Wait a minute," undoubtedly knowing that the band and the audience weren't about to heed the call.

There also is a lovely take on High Time that foreshadows the exquisite balladry that Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter would fully unleash just a few years later in Stella Blue and To Lay Me Down. The real surprise, though, is Me and My Uncle, in which Bob Weir's pre-outlaw country sensibility is transformed into a neo go-go party tune.

The 1970 set (cut after Constanten left the band) is considerably more solemn, with Dark Star standing as a monument of everything the Dead did well: light, effortless improvisation that intensifies and subsides, with Garcia's brief vocals reflecting just a hint of desperate fancy. A few cracks surface, especially on the harmony support during a shorter, more subdued Lovelight. But the stark musicianship on Cold Rain and Snow and Black Peter (both of which set up Dark Star) compensate beautifully.

Rare Cuts and Oddities 1966 is, by comparison, all innocence, with the Dead playing as a beat combo on a set largely made up of R&B covers (Walking the Dog, I'm a King Bee) and blueprint versions of early originals (Cream Puff War, Caution). McKernan and Garcia are at the forefront, leading a giddy psychedelic celebration that would soon soar way off the reservation.

Walter Tunis, contributing music writer

Electronic dance music

Daft Punk

Random Access Memories | ★★☆☆☆

The mysterious Frenchmen of Daft Punk — Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — are never seen without their trusty robot helmets. But even though they keep their faces hidden for the expertly marketed Random Access Memories, they say the pendulum has swung too far toward the faceless in modern music-making.

That explains why this pair of EDM (electronic dance music) avatars has made a point of putting living musicians to work on Random Access Memories. On an album that in many ways plays out as a tribute to '70s disco, that approach pays some dividends, as with the Nile Rodgers guitar licks that drive the single Get Lucky. It's also to blame, however, for such misplayed moves as Touch, the gooey, seven-minute, big-band centerpiece that features 1970s songwriter Paul Williams' ungainly aching for connection in a machine age. For a blockbuster album, Random Access Memories is an oddity, an up-and-down effort that includes a (surprisingly good) collaboration with Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and a disappointing one with Panda Bear of Animal Collective. There's an overly long homage to disco king Giorgio Moroder, and there's Within, a winning Auto-Tuned ditty that makes its point about the impersonality of the times far more succinctly than the overblown Touch. Daft Punk gets points for creative restlessness, but a search for deeper meaning has stripped the duo of a measure of electronic pizzazz.

Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer


The National

Trouble Will Find Me | ★★★★☆

High Violet, The National's breakout fifth album from 2010, sometimes bore the weight of a band striving. But Trouble Will Find Me demonstrates an easy confidence, a self-deprecating humor and an unguarded sincerity.

Matt Berninger makes everything he sings seem portentous, although that's deceptive. His baritone sounds thoughtful and casual, whether he's addressing adult relationships (in I Should Live in Salt, which counters mundane annoyances with a chorus of "You should know me better than that") or using his mordant wit to catalog failures (in Demons). The music is deeply textured, with complex layers of guitars from twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and a consistent pulse from the rhythm section of brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. And it's just as effective when it blossoms into a propulsive anthem on Sea of Love as when it dials back for the stately ballads of Heavenfaced or Slipped.

Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer