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“All Tracks on Day of the Dead Ranked Last to First”

Yeah, I get that it’s lame that I waited two years to do this, although in a way it’s obviously understandable given the absurd bulbousness of this project. Really, leading up through this last decade, the Grateful Dead have retained a pretty impressive level of popularity, Day of the Dead arguably marking a significant landmark given that its label’s native country, England, has historically thumbed its bloody noses at those hippies [1].
One thing I noticed, overall, in doing this project is that a lot of these finished versions are incredibly DOWN — melancholy, slow, soft, and as I’ll allude to, often even androgynous as well. As a fan of Credence Clearwater Revival and just anything gutbucket, I strongly prefer showings of a little garage scrappiness, and have veered a little in this direction for these rankings, although the Dead are quintessentially Sunday music and so definitely allow for some calmness, reflection and texture.
The reduction to 57 tracks from the original 59 can be explained by my fusing of the Cass McCombs “Dark Star” and the “Nightfall of Diamonds” number into one entity, since they were apparently meant to be juxtaposed that way and seamlessly flow into each other in music, and my disqualification of The National’s “I Know You Rider” version for the appearance of Bob Weir on it and with they being the producers.
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57 Marijuana Deathsquads – “Truckin’”

Yeah, dude! These guys remind me of those psychos in the crowd in Dead Set who cheer during “Candyman” when Garcia sings “If I had me a shotgun / I’d blow you straight to he**”. I could see these guys performing this in like, Vegas, dude!
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56 Lucius – “Uncle John’s Band”

Ooh, thweet, it’s a dance-pop version of “Uncle John’s Band”! Then maybe we can, like, start serving apple pucker at microbreweries. An absolute insult.
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55 Richard Reed Perry, Caroline Shaw, Little Scream – “Brokedown Palace”

These guys just didn’t nail it, from top to bottom — nothing on this session has the world weariness of the Dead original, and choral a capella is no way to open a cover of the Grateful Dead, who were masters of guitar and organ texture and improvisation. Also, when we get to the “Mama mama many worlds I’ve known” segment, the background vocals are sorely missing.
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54 The War on Drugs – “Touch of Grey”

Good God… I mean what are they doing? I cannot stand anything Kurt Vile has done in the last three years. This is just synthy new wave goop. Jerry Garcia was as far from new wave as it gets — it was pure songwriting grit, genuine, brass tacks Americana made plausible for rock radio. This corporate shmear is the exact opposite thereof. The singer’s lame, George Michael voice doesn’t help either.
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53 Orchestra Baobob – “Franklin’s Tower”

I probably wouldn’t hate this number for its Gloria Estefan salsa-fiesta late-era Talking Heads crap if not for having just heard that atrocious David Byrne album of this year, which again played as like a Quince Anos from the late ‘80s or something. I definitely don’t live for loving this particular cover, which is sad since this is one of the Dead’s best songs, easily.
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52 Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends – “Sugaree”

This track starts promisingly enough, with some hearty, gutty snares and that signature 6/8 groove we all know and love, but that synth that comes in is not only too loud and gaudy but also just culturally wrong, veering us again back into assembly-line ‘80s slop, the very Dead antithesis.
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51 Hiss Golden Messenger – “Brown-Eyed Women”

I really can’t stand this original Dead song and this Hiss Golden Messenger sounds to me like some Southern dweeb who’s always clogging up the festival circuit with his good-ol’-boy persona and nothing really inspired or memorable to offer anybody, other than a lot of hair.
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50 Tunde Adebimpe, Lee Ronaldo – “Playing in the Band”

Yak… to be honest I sort of get a claustrophobic vibe from TV on the Radio in general with their lack of sense of humor and trying-too-hard production strategies, and then Sonic Youth’s Lee Ronaldo seems like one of those overly serious Dead enthusiasts with a chip on his shoulder. Also, I could never stand this original Dead track. For you at home, I sure hope you get something out of this arrangement. Personally, I can just pop in Live/Dead and get something texturally and structurally similar but way, way better.
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49 Real Estate – “Here Comes Sunshine”

Well the good news is, it’s definitely not worse than that last Real Estate record was, but many things are wrong with this cut such as the smarmy, feeble tone in Martin Courtney’s voice, and the fact that in the first place this Dead song is just an egregious ripoff of the Beatles song “Sun King.” Ack. Get me away from this New York scene, now. I think I’m on the wrong coast.
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48 The Tallest Man on Earth – “Ship of Fools”

While obviously a fan of the Doors song “Ship of Fools” I’ve always found this Dead a little forgettable — the guitar sound and the feeling seem to be all here for this cover (that is apparently this tall guy got something out of the original I didn’t), but that chord progression just comes in so bland and sort of implosive, suggestive of the really flaccid, over-easy songwriting Garcia would do late in his career.
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47 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Shakedown Street”

I half expect like a California Raisin to dance out on my living room floor during this song, or even better, announce himself to be the producer and sound man. These guys sound like they’re on coke and put no care or inspiration into this recording. I’m really sick of hearing about this Unkown Mortal Orchestra thing, whatever the he** it is.
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46 The Flaming Lips – “Dark Star”

True to Flaming Lips form, this performance is very FUNKY, with that big stupid bass that would sound most appropriate in one of those Berlin gay bars where they do really disgusting sh** and stuff… look “Dark Star” cannot be under 10 minutes. That’s all there is to it.

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45 ANOHNI, yMusic – “Black Peter”

It certainly seems fitting that the engine behind Antony and the Johnsons would choose a song that goes “The tragedy of life / Is that you don’t enjoy living”… the problem being of course that for one thing this sort of coerces the listener into sadness (this definitely isn’t a popular Grateful Dead song) and as well ANOHNI’s voice can come across as the product of some serious overacting, the chord progression also veering toward the overly dramatic.
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44 Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis & Friends – “Cassidy”

I like a lot of what they’re doing here — for instance they picked a song which I hadn’t originally envisioned as being poppy in any way but actually works pretty decent as expedited twee, dressed up with all the high-pitched synths we’ve heard all over the place on the project. Sumney’s voice, though certainly not very rugged and venturing a little too close to David Gray territory for comfort, does adopt a nice tinge of feeling in the song’s mid-way point, while Jenny Lewis chimes in with some crisp, snazzy “doo-doo-doo”’s.
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43 The Lone Bellow – “Me and My Uncle”

Here we have a pretty close courting of the original Dead cut by Brooklyn outfit The Lone Bellow — the guitar solo struts in as a duel featuring some pretty crisp and throaty bite, but my personal favorite touch on this little number is that “Raw Hide”-sounding snare drum.
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42 Jim James & Friends – “Candyman”

Here we are actually back to some rock instrumentation — the guitar is deep and jangly and the preferred key instrument is the Hammond organ (which sorry but I really love as a fan of ‘90s alternative rock). Also at hand, and this is sort of half negative and half positive, is Jim James’ eerie way of sounding otherworldly, or othermanly — as if the persona of stepping into Jerry Garcia’s shoes has transcended its way right into the timbre of his voice as he sings. The result can sometimes deteriorate into emptiness or stasis, but you’ve also got to give him credit for melodically and rhythmically nailing the part, becoming one with his subject. “Candyman” is a solid slow-burning slice of lazy blues gracing American Beauty as well as Dead Set.
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41 Tal National – “Eyes of the World”

Ok, I’m very confused right now for lots of reasons: first of all, I’d expected this to actually be Matt Berninger and The National and company, as a way of like diversifying their own Day of the Dead portfolio like how their fellow New Yorker the Pharma Bro might do or something. It turns out… are these Mexicans, like the Buena Vista Social Club? A couple things pi** me off about this recording, like the fact that it sounds like it was played through a little kid’s Fisher Price boom box, and being goofy, jovial and non-biting, it doesn’t fit in well with the overall project given The National’s melancholy offerings of “Peggy-O,” et. al., but it’s an amusing enough jam if you’re stoned, I guess.
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40 The Walkmen – “Ripple”

Ok, Walkmen. Jeez. I just feel bad. Let me backtrack here. I didn’t expect “hilariously cheesy” like in the spirit of Modest Mouse’s drummer Jeremiah Green to be a tinge splattered upon this particular covers record canvas, but then in comes that jaunty heart-and-soul, “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”-type piano run (I can just see St. Vincent making some bad New Yorker joke about how this operation is like stylistically self-mocking in a postmodern sort of way)… what I hear with The Walkmen here is an inferiority complex on The National’s project, which would make me feel even worse except for the fact that I just like The National way better than The Walkmen in the first place and so as a result don’t really think about The Walkmen that much, comparatively speaking. Also, this Dead tune is pretty good but a little overrated, in my opinion.
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39 Orchestra Baobob – “Clementine Jam”

At first I was like, God I’m really sick of these Orchestra Baobab characters, but this song actually evens out into a pretty mellow little vibe session, with a nice bongo/tom combination, and some wailing guitar that while psychedelic still blends in competently with the rhythm section.
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38 Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “If I Had the World to Give”

No these are those skewed piano sounds we came to know and love in the 2000s decade, from the likes of maybe The Go! Team or Fleet Foxes, all with the “Prince”’s weird vocal drawl dripping itself throughout the operation. Yup, that’s what’s goin’ on.
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37 The Lone Bellow – “Dire Wolf”

This rendition kind of has that old blues-rock giddyup that I like that in a perfect world Chicago would like to claim as its own, although in this case it’s got so much rustic hat flavor and gentle Mississippi snare sound that I don’t think there’s any chance of that (plus the fact that it’s about a wolf, at least I think it is).

36 Cass McCombs, Joe Russo – “Dark Star”/Nightfall of Diamonds – “Nightfall of Diamonds”

Hmm, to be honest I’ve never noticed this done before, grouping “Dark Star” into the suite and this other portion known as “Nightfall of Diamonds” which I guess is meant to encompass the second half of what otherwise often just bills itself as one extended song “Dark Star” — it works pretty well I guess and it’s pretty cool. The listener would never really know that it were two different bands at work, more like a new singer standing in and subbing in where McCombs left off, around the four-minute mark. Diamonds bring some surreal, murky noise fuzz to the party for some much-needed spice.
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35 s t a r g a z e – “What’s Become of the Baby”

This trippy, off-kilter selection in the original Dead catalogue (from Aoxomoxoa, which I just noticed is spelled the same forwards as it is backwards) has one of those curious syntactical song titles which is similar in that regard as well as musically to Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene,” which sparsely sidled its way into “Dolby’s Top 50 Pink Floyd Songs”… why am I rambling about my own blog on this blurb? Oh, to show how charming aimless sonic doodling can be sometimes, I guess.
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34 Tim Hecker – “Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald”

I thought I recognized Tim Hecker’s name from somewhere in the labyrinth of music-snob corridors I’d navigated in the last decade and given the wacky sounds on this track including what I hear as an electronica harpsichord souped up with some funky reverb, it came as no surprise to me that his speciality is listed as electronica. Interestingly, this track in a way feeds as an extension of the “Dark Star”/ “Nightfall of Diamonds” suite that directly precedes it (both on the album and on this list, oddly enough), although the tracks do not seamlessly connect in rhythm and theme as in the case of the latter, and the “Dark Star” performance was probably long enough at 12 and a half minutes already. Also, when you google this song title you don’t get any Dead versions, just this Hecker track. Wow am I confused! Thank God I’m not tripping.

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33 Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “Bird Song”

More than I think any other Billy shin-dig on here, “Bird Song” really blossoms into a full rock and roll sound, while still obviously retaining that majestic spookiness, coupled with a professional restraint, that seems to be the Grateful Dead’s signature. If that isn’t actually Garcia’s signature Alembic guitar he’s using here for the soloing frills, it sure sounds like it, but my favorite aspect of “Bird Song” is that it makes full use of the time it has — the six minutes and nine seconds are fully potentiated and divided into phases, the guitar/bongo climax coming relatively late and thereby fully enlivening a real “jam” experience associate with the original.
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32 Mina Tindle – “Rosemary”

I remember “Rosemary” from my youth as being the only song I couldn’t stand on Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of Grateful Dead, so I guess with my explorative nature I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into this current projection: long story short it just breathes more, with a light but trippy percussion quality and some guitars with a little more body and pearl on them. Mina Tindle is the stage name of the French pop singer, according to Wikipedia.
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31 This is the Kit – “Jack-A-Roe”

There’s a little more texture and prominence in this little outing, with a heartily twanged intro, not the most riveting vocal ever but still a nice selection from a cover act I generally enjoy.
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30 Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear – “High Time”

Ok, good job overall here to Rossen, who happens to be my favorite member of Grizzly Bear and whose Department of Eagles side project I thoroughly enjoy, My main problem is that from the big, lavish cymbals to the deep, faux-meaningful snare crashes it just sounds so much like a track from Veckatimest that I think it might have been produced by “Sleepy Bear.”
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29 Ed Droste, Binky Shapiro – “Loser”

Well now this is something I didn’t quite expect from Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste: swampy blues. I did, obviously, partially foresee the weird, arhythmic percussion sound at the beginning and of course the delicate, androgynous vocal, which strangely doesn’t really ruin the project for its strength of vividness. A particular highlight in the distorted guitar caterwaul which takes the form of one single, calculated wail, following the first verse. And then the solo really rips it too.
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28 Bryce Dessner – “Garcia Counterpoint”

Resembling Don Caballero quite a bit here on this guitar/bass jaunt that features no percussion, The National’s Bryce Dessner lays down a rendition the original of which I actually couldn’t even find on Spotify — well it hardly matters because Dessner’s product here is off the beaten path and rich with insolently independent swagger. And sure, there is a faint Grateful Dead tinge here, no doubt — one of the riffs distinctly resembles part of “Throwing Stones” and just when I’d thought I had the time signature of the first phase figured out, he threw in another phrasing unorthodoxy to throw things asunder. This is the type of recording that will get people seething for a whole album of this stuff.

27 Courtney Barnett – “New Speedway Boogie”

I have to say that so far (I’ve been listening to the tracks in order) this one has come the closest to actually making me YELL from synth overload. Luckily, the groove at hand here settles down charmingly into Barnett’s amusing, lazy British drawl, some physical but innocuous blues drumming and some serious treated texture to accompany the melancholy mood (“One way or another / This darkness got to give”).
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26 Bela Fleck – “Help on the Way”

Ah, it’s nice to hear this mountain man the vaunted Mr. Fleck freed from those oppressive egomaniac bandmates the “Flecktones”… although is that the “help on the way” he calling to??? The plot thickens! In all seriousness, on what I hear as a ukulele, anyway, along with his own cigarette-hardened but jam-circuit immaculate melodic din, he creates more than enough noise for a good-vibes textural ride that more than pulls its weight on Day of the Dead.
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25 Fu**ed up – “Cream Puff War”

Wow, the admixture that results when Toronto punk band Fu**ed up cover the Grateful Dead, something usually akin to Adolf Hitler in the world of punk rock, is certainly something very intriguing — sort of like a War on Drugs-type groove of mellow retro, that is of course until Damian Abraham’s twisted vocals come in. Yeah, I don’t listen to these guys at all, but this is definitely a memorable project they did here, as well as an nicely off-kilter selection from the Dead cat.
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24 Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear & The National – “Terrapin Station (Suite)”

This is actually the exact track that got me on this little shin-dig in the first place. What random song should pop into my head late last night at work but this unexplainable psychedelic opus by the Dead. My first impression was, well, Daniel’s Rossen’s hands touched it (by far the most underrated member of Grizzly Bear, the American Radiohead), so it must be gold. Right away, it left no bad earmarks. A thorough listen threatens to subjugate it to regularity, but still, all of the guitar tones are well grounded and rugged yet clear, and it is nice to hear this and other songs updated freshly. Also, a certain elevation does take place upon the entrance into the “Terrapin Station” PHASE of the song (a smaller subsidiary of the overall track) — the percussion subsides, we’re privy to a gorgeous bath of synths over spooky, intermittent bongos and Rossen sings with conviction to sell the whole thing.
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23 Local Natives – “Stella Blue”

This is not at all a bad effort here from a group I’ve never heard of, of a Dead track I’m not too familiar with — the early chord progression which is magnificent in its own right is rendered on this truncated and skewed synth full of little reverb mini-baths, jaunting along without getting dramatic but still wild enough to make an impression. Things threaten to reach the 9+ territory if not for the annoying Fruity Loops snare sound and this guy’s voice which… I mean.. I dunno. You know what I mean.
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22 Lee Ronaldo, Lisa Hannigan – “Mountains of the Moon”

To be honest, I’m not familiar with the original Dead song “Mountains of the Moon,” and to make things even weirder, this really doesn’t sound like the Sonic Youth guitarist and singer here. It works really well, though, with a mellow persistence full of bongos and twangy but still soft guitar runs, intriguingly contrasted.
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21 Vijay Iyer – “King Solomon’s Marbles”

Now, even more so than the end result, which certainly is becoming, the concept of what Mr. Iyer has done here is a point of pride indeed — that is, to my ears, “King Solomon’s Marbles” relayed here plays essentially as a bona fide piece of piano classical, whereas the Dead version on Blues for Allah is more guitar jazz (the Dead not even being a jazz band primarily in the first place, further spicing the stew).
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20 The Rileys – “Estimated Prophet”

I must say that this was not what I expected — an almost instrumental, gibberish-uttered, nigh on structureless sort of half-arrangement of what is really an excellent Dead tune performed by a bunch of futuristic ragamuffins who just might have stole my heart. None of the vocal melody interface comes into play here but the instrumental skeleton is there — the verse’s guitar lick sort of creeping in and out in a humid, textural haze, and the the chorus’ chord progression, which significantly pronounces itself as major as opposed to the verse’s minor, making a sort of curiously nonchalant climax while also embodying an undeniably zesty variation on a classic.
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19 Lucinda Williams – “Goin’ down the Road Feeling Bad”

“Wailing” is an idiom used by Wayne in Wayne’s World and other fine gentlemen to describe a musician who’s really nailing it and making you feel it… well on this cover Lucinda Williams takes the term to a whole other level. There is nothing “gently weeping,” in other words, about her wah-wah exploits here — also the song is drastically slowed down from the original, giving it even more of a Williams trademark and further cementing her already established position as a blues virtuoso of our times.
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18 Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “Rubin and Cherise”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy gets especial props on this one for digging deep, onto the album by the Jerry Garcia Band Cats under the Stars for his Day of the Dead installment. Also kudos should go for that poppy guitar sound which almost singularly emulates Garcia’s own within this larger covers collection. The overall project is spirited and I genuinely hope Billy has received the credit he deserves for this session, an expedition filled with just the right jaunty little synth and organ runs, and overall good cheer as well.
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17 Man Forever, So Percussion, Oneida – “Drums -> Space”

As are the “Drums/Space” installments on Dead live albums typically, this current issue isn’t really describable with words — one thing I noticed is that refreshingly it’s not an exact replica but rather incorporates some glitchy electronica aspects, and makes me want to get into all these strange artists and get my feet wet with all the zany devilry they might be dabbling in.
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16 The National – “Peggy-O”

Fu** The National’s haters. That’s all I have to say. I was just thinking about this the other day: you can’t DO them. I see these impish automatons online trying to pick apart what Matt Berninger does, like in concert, putting him under a microscope and trying to belittle him, and I just think, SUCK IT. And it’s all the more props to Matty B and company here that I love this version for the exact reason why I hate it too: it’s just SO National — ushered down into a near lull, summoning in acoustic guitar plucks and Berninger’s low moan. I personally find The National to be an act of undeniable meaning within our country, now in these divisive times more than ever, but in a sense, this Dead cover divests even a new wrinkle on the catalogue just because it’s thoroughly unexplainable as to why he would have this much desire and meaning in his voice. Out the window, in other words, goes the typical cover song’s vapidity.
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15 Sam Amidon – “And We Bid You Goodnight”

On the strength, or weakness, as it were, of a very low-profile catalogue selection, Sam Amidon crocks up what is in my opinion the perfect little jocund, organic ballad to cap this whole da** thing off, though at the same time I can’t blame Berninger and the boys for chiming in with their own bonus track, given that they were the producers, and given the little dinner guest they had on stage with them for that number.
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14 Bruce Hornsby, DeYarmond Edison – “Black Muddy River”

Well, this has not proven to be an easy track to write about, the crux of the reason being that it astoundingly blends the spirit of being explorative in music with the original, pure and basic feeling of this Dead song from In the Dark. Furthermore, this very explorative aspect, which again is seamlessly drowned in feeling, takes on multifarious shapes from the curious instrumentation (piano, synth, ukulele) to its structure, which allots the auxiliary singer to tackle the same verse as the first, right after. Each one of these guys sounds markedly distinct from the other and the sharp onlooker will note that in the credits Hornsby is listed first, rather than Edison, despite obviously the latter having the higher up name in the alphabet. In a sense, this personal unorthodoxy of the song’s compilation bespeaks the very impossibility of looking into an artist’s head, and this might seem like an unusual Dead choice to some, but it’s always been a favorite of mine, a sort of more personal update in balladry on “Brokedown Palace.”
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13 Wilco, Bob Wier – “St. Stephen” (live)

Oh, well, Wilco… it’s just like you to actually HAVE BOB WEIR, the original Grateful Dead guitarist and auxiliary singer, on this cut with you. How’s that for illegal doping? Well, it should answer a lot of questions within contemporary folk-rock circuits about the Grateful Dead’s credibility, or you would certainly think. And yeah, I didn’t give it a 10 since freakin’ Weir is on it for Chrissake, although I probably could have.
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12 Charles Bradley, Menehan Street Band – “Cumberland Blues”

Very few of these versions one-up the correspondent original, but this one of them, an astonishing romp-through-the swamp, a blues with bite — punchy drums, soul mamas in the background and this animal off his leash Charles Bradley who sounds like he just got done chain smoking five packs of Marlboro Reds straight off a woman dissing him. The rendition also features sparse but cordial use of the flute, to take you back to the true spirit of classic rock a la Jethro Tull or Canned Heat.
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11 Luluc, Xylouris White – “Till the Morning Comes”

This is something not really related but weird that I just noticed: the Dead have this weird habit of stealing other people’s song titles, cases in point being the aforementioned “Ship of Fools” and then this particular ditty, which on American Beauty followed Neil Young’s ankle-biting interlude on After the Gold Rush by just two months (but both artists were in the California hippie scene, so I’m assuming they’d have heard it). And to be honest I’m not really sure what to make of the line “You’re my woman now / Make yourself easy”, though I definitely give this Luluc woman credit for not changing it to “Your my man now”, but leaving the lyric as it is and just rolling with it. It’s always better that way, like in the case of The White Stripes’ Jack White in “Jolene” and “I’m begging of you / Please don’t take my man”. One great thing about this ambient, balladry-gracing version here is the organic and rustic, almost woodbine drum sound in hat, kick and snare.
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10 Angel Olsen – “Attics of My Life”

Sorry, but I just have to preface this little blurb with the observation that, like the original version of this song on American Beauty, this rendition is peppered with myriad background vocal parts, but they are not accredited here as only in the artist field appears “Angel Olsen,” who has herself in my opinion sort of been brashly crowned a de facto queen of indie rock in recent years, more or less. But they really hold it down here — not varying too much from the original but really nailing the instrumentation, with spooky, sporadic bass drum and gritty, snarly little bass runs to insulate the grandiose, undeniable singing chops of Olsen herself and… whoever the he** else this is on here.
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9 Phosphorescent – “Standing on the Moon”

This is just amazing music to the point where it’s hard to know what to say about it, especially since I’m actually not familiar with this original Dead version (Built to Last is generally held as their lamest album), but I guess when you get past that fuzzy productional perfection and the combination of vocal chops at work here with sincerity in voice, what emerges and sells it is the original chord progression songwriting of the Dead themselves. But again, give Phosphorescent credit for allotting a bona fide dark horse cut here special treatment, and getting this in big time ship shape.
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8 Bill Callahan – “Easy Wind”

A very signature-Callahan output here is what we have indeed, down to that trademark low-baritone in which melancholy is almost etched in like a birth certificate. He gets extra points here for tackling what is basically a pretty forgettable Dead brainchild, at least arguably. Props too to the Dessner brothers on nailing the acoustic/punchy production of the guitar strumming and that in-your-living-room snare.
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7 Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten – “To Lay Me down”

The Grateful Dead are obviously sort of an ethereal entity, often eschewing their own songwriting craftsmanship for their epic “jams,” and even introducing songs in well-published live shows which haven’t appeared on erstwhile studio albums. This is the case with Reckoning’s “To Lay Me down,” which actually is even improved upon in this cover version. Mike Hadreas definitely has the perfect voice for this delicate little present of melody and chord change, lilting into the production with ceaseless surety. Sharon Van Etten, another Dolby Disaster favorite, plays a lesser role of background vocals on this track.
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6 Ira Kaplan – “Wharf Rat”

Wow, lots of things are at work here… for instance I don’t remember Kaplan ever doing a project in his life without his wife and Yo La Tengo bandmate Georgia Hubley along with him, the irony pitched further by how full and textural this current cover sounds. Another is that there is no doubt, “Wharf Rat,” a tale of meeting a homeless dude who was wrongfully jailed, is arguably the hardest song to ably cover in the whole Grateful Dead catalogue. Now, Kaplan does it here on his own terms, with his signature mellow croon, sort of disarmingly so like the National “Peggy-O” installment. To hear the “Wharf Rat” performance on the Closing of Winterland compilation is to be enamored to a haunting extent by the sheer human sympathy and feeling at work. In a way, then, it’s good that Kaplan didn’t even attempt emulation of Garcia’s vocal inflection, and I even prefer this version of the “I’ve got some time to hear his story” part. In general, it seems that gentle acoustic strumming mixed with a caustic, biting but sporadic snare sound is a pretty reliable winning formula all over this project.
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5 Winston Marshall, Kodiak Blue, Shura – “Althea”

Wow, my mind is thoroughly blown here for a number of reasons, one definitely being that for the life of me I can’t remember this original Dead song, and my parents were hippies. “Althea” opens with this beautiful and amazing ethereal sort of electro-pop blueprint very much in the ambient format of Mr. Little Jeans or maybe an easy Prince number, then precociously offering a psychedelic guitar solo in the same song and not making it sound confused at all. “Althea” gets a perfect score except for the fact that this female singer just sounds a tad too much like Macy Gray.
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4 The National – “Morning Dew”

The National’s Aaron Dessner is credited with overall production of Day of the Dead and without any doubt, their contributions to the festivities just have the most confidence about them. This “Morning Dew” version even has a certain rock tenacity lacking in the Dead original, along with a beautiful Garcia guitar sound, sporadic organ splashes and those same ol’ mellow but prominent bongos. Actually, if the Dead themselves had written better lyrics to this song, it might have placed even more highly.
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3 Kurt Vile and the Violators, J Mascis – “Box of Rain”

I’d literally JUST started writing this blurb and was going to be like, “Wuz J Mascis do on this song,” and then who should chime in on background vox right there at the four minute mark but that very unceremonious devil of rock himself! I dunno, maybe I’m just a sucker for all things J: I’ve routinely been known to list Dinosaur Jr. as my favorite band ever (particularly following I Bet on Sky) and ranked his solo album Tied to a Star as the best album of ’14. I guess it’s like I said before with the “Terrapin Station”: sometimes it’s just nice to hear these songs updated with some fresh legs, although the jangly bass that makes itself a factor late within this particular version definitely is a moderation on the original that helped but the cover version over the top.
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2 Mumford & Sons – “Friend of the Devil”

It wasn’t so much optional, when I started listening to this particular track, as it was NECESSARY, to account for it as something quintessentially Mumford, rather than an extension of the Grateful Dead catalogue. There was that synth again — that synth that has been plaguing this whole project and practically making me spill my coffee out of frustration. Then this sublime guitar riff takes over, harking us back to the glory days of alternative rock, when music was scrappy and full of purpose. The clincher, though, along with Marcus Mumford (wow, he really calls his band the “sons,” haha) and his beautiful baritone drone is the knack this version has for capturing the restless, cowboy spirit of the original: when he annunciates “I lit out from Reno” we actually envision this place geographically, and that almost Coen Brothers-like, quintessential American DARKNESS envelops us within an undeniable listening experience.
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1 Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – “China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider”

Well I am just thoroughly humbled by the genius of Stephen Malkmus at this point… I never even knew he was a Deadhead! Well, now I know that he’s a Deadhead, but not just for the fact that he signed up for this project. It’s how he sells it — it’s the punchy frills of the guitar solo in the “China Cat” segment in which he even masterfully emulates Garcia tonally, and most importantly, it’s how on board drummer Janet Weiss sounds, whom Malkmus himself once aptly described as “an avalanche.” Fittingly, “I Know You Rider” is even about driving around in Colorado.
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[1] And I quoth Everett True in Nirvana: the Biography: “There are two reasons why the British will never understand Americans: the Grateful Dead and the Dave Matthews Band.”

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