When I was five, my brother and I were digging in the yard and we dug up some jelly beans. Being jelly beans, we ate them. As you would expect, as they weren’t really food and since they didn’t really decay, they were pretty much intact. And they were delicious. Our Mom apparently didn’t seem to think this was a very smart thing to do, so we were punished. But it seemed oh-so-worth-it in the end.
Listening to the Red Hot Organization’s 25th release, the sprawling 5-CD Day of the Dead, I kinda feel the same way. There’s a lot more digging though, and way fewer jelly beans.
First, I am not a Grateful Dead fan. That’s putting it mildly, as any playing of “Touch of Grey” has previously made me jump out of windows (second story or lower only; higher levels have forced evacuation to the roof until a possible airlift rescue). On the highest level, the Dead approaches advanced levels of jazz and experimental music. At its lowest, it devolves into anti-music, meandering off like the guy saying grace at a prayer breakfast who is into his tenth minute and everyone wonders if he will ever land back on Earth. Still, even at their worst, the Dead was one of the most beloved and influential bands in rock history, and has spawned some of the best covers that I have ever heard.
This collection is tremendously ambitious, as all Red Hot compilations are, and highly unfocused, as all Red Hot compilations are. There are the reverent covers that play very close to the originals (Phosphorescent’s “Sugaree”), albeit with a fresh coat of paint. There are duds (see below). And there are the aforementioned gems, such as Lucius’ indie pop reconstruction of “Uncle John’s Band.” To turn such a well-known song on its end is a punk rock move: add enough swagger and halos, and any cover has the potential for greatness.
It’s hard to tell who is on what, as almost every artist is credited with the ubiquitous tag “& friends” at the end. We know the National produced the album, play everywhere on it, and add the morose yet excellent cover of “Peggy-O,” recorded in the Leonard Cohen style. I can see Dead fans both liking it and hating it, but “Peggy” is a tragedy at heart, and no amount of banjo is going to bring Captain Will back. I mean, they buried him in Louisiana, his coffin probably floats, and that’s about as high as he’s ever gonna get. For Deadheads, that’s a very sad thought.
There are indefensible songs here. War On Drugs covers “Touch of Grey” and makes me consider upping my game and climbing an extra flight of stairs so I can jump out of a THIRD-story window — could I land on cardboard boxes to break my fall? Mumford and Sons makes us all remember why we are tired of Mumford and Sons by making “Friend of the Devil” seem three times as long as it actually is. And there’s a sixteen-minute cover of “Terrapin Station” (oddly enough a track that doesn’t list “& friends” at the end, opting to list all 47 people that play on the song) that ends on a fade-out when it’s obvious the band is still playing. HOW LONG WAS THIS SONG ORIGINALLY? I went out grocery shopping and came back and it was still playing.
Look, there’s stuff I like. Ex-Grizzly Bear’s Droste teams up with Little Joy’s Shapiro on “Loser” to muck around in the swamp doing their best channeling of My Morning Jacket, and it’s glorious. Hiss Golden Messenger takes a time machine back to 1972 and live streams “Brown-Eyed Woman” straight to the future. Same. And Courtney Barnett’s psychedelic take on “New Speedway Boogie” recalls everything David Roback in Mazzy Star and nothing “Fade Into You.”
In the end, a skilled surgeon could have cut the fat. Day of the Dead is in desperate need of a lap-band. Still, I found some great covers that I probably will add to some mixes here and there. But I had to eat a lot of dirt to get there.