October 2021 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Grateful Dead: Grateful Dead
Rhino R2655956 (2CD). 2021. Grateful Dead, prod.; Bob Matthews, Betty Cantor, David Glasser, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

As the 1960s became the '70s, the Grateful Dead went through a remarkable transition. After unsuccessfully trying to reinvent the wheel in the studio and finally clicking with Live Dead, the group found its mojo. In 1970, the band released its two greatest studio albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. But the Dead made its bones on live performances, and early in '71 they decided to make another live record even though they had enough songs for another studio album.

Grateful Dead (known affectionately as "Skull and Roses" after the iconic cover illustration) caught the Dead at a sweet spot. This stripped-down version of the band (essentially a quartet after drummer Mickey Hart's departure and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's virtual abdication of keyboard duties) is as tight and focused as it ever sounded. The vocal performances are uncharacteristically great. The balance of Bob Weir's country side (Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee"), Pigpen's gritty R&B vocals and blues harmonica ("Big Boss Man"), and Jerry Garcia's ethereal soul ("Wharf Rat") was the perfect combination of styles. Grateful Dead quickly went gold, the first time that had happened in the band's history.

Oddly, the Grateful Dead's success was occluded by the subsequent release of the iconic 3-disc live album Europe '72. This reissue revives an overlooked gem, with a slick remaster from the stereo analog masters that emphasizes the vocals and Phil Lesh's great work on bass. The additional disc of live material, from a July 2 Fillmore West show, is not as well recorded, but we get to hear Garcia soloing fiercely during a fired-up "The Other One."—John Swenson


Scritti Politti: Cupid & Psyche 85
Rough Trade Records RTRADLP695 (LP). 1985. Green Gartside, David Gamson, Fred Maher, Arif Mardin, prods.; Ray Bardani, Gary Langan, Howard Gray, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ***½

Cupid & Psyche 85 was the latest stop in Scritti Polliti's musical journey. Singer/guitarist (and Mr. Scritti Politti) Green Gartside already had the band moving away from do-it-yourself scratchy post-punk toward a smoother, pop sound. Wanting to progress further, he decamped to New York with a new set of clothes and his head full of synthesizers and funk. There, he teamed with drummer Fred Maher and producer, songwriter, and keyboardist David Gamson (whose CV would later include Chaka Khan) to coproduce and cowrite the album. Gamson brought in top session musicians including guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. (Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, others). Together, they created Cupid & Psyche 85, Scritti's masterpiece. It brimmed with hit singles: "Wood Beez," "Absolute," "Perfect Way," "The Word Girl."

Sonically, it is very much of the 1980s—overproduced, synthesizer/drum sequenced pop funk. Two things save it from sounding dated and elevate it to the status of a minor pop classic: the catchy tunes and Gartside's stunning voice. Vinyl gives his singing the space to float above the synths, adding warmth to the shiny programmed pop. Hearing it on the turntable reinforces my view that only Smokey Robinson or the smoothest cream-based liqueur can match it. Like Bowie before him, Gartside immersed himself in black American soul and added a very English ingredient, making it more than mere copying.

Included is an intelligent and witty commentary from Gartside on the album's recording. Provision (1988) and Anomie & Bonhomie (1999) have also been rereleased.—Phil Brett


Stone Temple Pilots: Tiny Music...Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
Rhino R2 654105/603497844357 (3CD/1LP), 2021. Brendan O'Brien, prod.; Nick DiDia, Dan Hersch, engs.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****½

It's never good to start an album with a throw-away instrumental, but that's what Stone Temple Pilots did for their third, now a quarter-century old and receiving a deluxe reissue.

There's another problem: The third CD on this 3-CD package contains a 1997 live set from Panama City, Florida. The band tears through songs from their first two albums—Core and Purple—and also Tiny Music. The earlier tunes are better, which casts Tiny Music in a bad light. STP came out of the gate strong, quickly emerging as a hard-rock hit machine. That was sort of a curse for all the records that followed their first two.

Tiny Music sold millions of copies and, according to booklet notes included with this reissue, written by Katherine Turman, it was the band's favorite album. Rolling Stone, which panned the first two records, praised this one. Band members reminisce about escaping to a 25,000-square-foot house in California's Santa Ynez Valley and taking an "experimental" and "homemade" approach. The late Scott Weiland, STP's singer, recalled the band being "on the same page" in wanting "to deconstruct" the approach they took in their prior, more tightly played and produced records.

Tiny Music is indeed less tight, and it contains some good songs. Out-of-character songs like "Lady Picture Show" and "Adhesive" stand up well 25 years later. "Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart" won a Grammy. The flow improves if the side order is reversed. Start with "Trippin'," cut out "Press Play," and end with "And So I Know," and Tiny Music is a solid hard rocker.—Tom Fine

jamesgarvin's picture

Had STP essentially regurgitated the first two records for record #3, would the criticism instead have been that they were a one trick pony, repeating a formula? Perhaps at some point in time musicians need to write and record music they like, rather than what is expected, and perhaps that is why they sometimes go off the reservation.