Various Artists

Day of the Dead

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The Grateful Dead were not known for their modesty so perhaps it's fitting that Day of the Dead, the 2016 tribute album assembled by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National for the Red Hot Organization, sprawls with abandon. At five-and-a-half hours, the 59-track album -- divided into three separate sets, like any good Grateful Dead concert -- is longer than any individual Dead show but it's not necessarily as far-reaching. The Dessners favor very specific traits within the Dead, eschewing folk, boogie, blues, and cowboy songs in favor of ever-expanding experimentalism. Bob Weir may sit in with the National for an album-closing "I Know You Rider" but he's essentially been back-benched: his penchant for good-time rock & roll has been erased and he has a mere seven songwriting credits here, and three of those are band compositions ("Dark Star" being repeated twice). This means Day of the Dead is anchored on Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter songs, all filtered through an out sensibility indebted to Phil Lesh. Some of the contributions break this mold -- Charles Bradley lays into a funky "Cumberland Blues," Courtney Barnett sneers through "New Speedway Boogie" -- but it's rare to hear the kind of winding, intertwined guitar interplay that characterized so much prime Dead. It surfaces when Weir sits in with the National and Wilco, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks contribute a rangy, excellent "China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider," and J Mascis graces Kurt Vile's "Box of Rain" with a gorgeous solo, but these are accents on an album that strips away any of the seedy, crunchy elements of jam band music. What's left is striking, albeit an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Dead. If very few cuts here are especially rhythmic -- an odd thing, considering the Dead had two percussionists -- the emphasis on shifting textures is alluring, reaching a pinnacle on a 17-minute interpretation of "Terrapin Station" that emphasizes its suite structure and shimmers with a quiet elegance. Whether it showcases a singer with a guitar or circular improvisations on a theme, most of Day of the Dead follows a similarly understated, tasteful path and, ultimately, that's what's impressive about it: it is a tribute to the Grateful Dead as sonic adventurers, pioneering new avenues into space and beyond.

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