Now from Arista, the record label that brings you Whitney Houston, it's . . . the Grateful Dead. Huh? Indeed, it's the summer of 1987: the Grateful Dead are on the cover of Rolling Stone . . . are releasing a new album, "In the Dark" . . . and have a single ("Touch of Grey") that already is a favorite of rock radio.
"In the Dark" is the 20th album in the Dead's ambitious but checkered 20-year recording history. It's the first to contain new material since 1980, and it's sweet and solid. You're probably never going to get the essence of this band on record, as any Deadhead will attest. The group shines most during audience-energy-fueled, inspired moments of serendipitous, shared improvisation only attainable in concert. Recorded Dead songs function more as snapshots in the GD family album than portraits of the group's greatest achievements. Each LP captures a profile here, a smile there, occasionally a group shot--always a different angle.
"In the Dark" is one of the best GD snapshots: an honest, big, friendly bear's paw of a rock 'n' roll album. It is remarkable for the same reasons that the GD are remarkable--the spontaneity, sweetness, bursts of unexpected power, the articulate and sometimes poetic lyrics (notably those of longtime lyricist Robert Hunter), idiosyncratic musical rapport unique to long partnerships. And it is certainly remarkable that a group can record anything at all after 22 years together--let alone a work as pretty, hefty, humorous and sentimental as "In the Dark."