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POP ALBUM REVIEW : THE DEAD--SWEET, SOLID AND ALIVE

July 05, 1987|RIP RENSE

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."

Disappointed in its last two, would-be-commercial LPs in 1978 and 1980, the group refrained from recording its last contractually owed Arista LP until this year. Jerry Garcia and band have long lamented that the GD has never been able to capture "that live spark" on record. It was with that goal that the just-back-in-action Dead went into Marin Veterans Auditorium last February (minus audience) and played these songs as they might in concert (albeit shorter).

There was minimal overdubbing, most of it vocal. If a solo was a little laid-back, a vocal line momentarily soft, the overall sound briefly overstocked, there was no retake of individual parts. It was an experiment, and it works. "In the Dark" is honest, fresh, and yes, alive --not assembled, layer-by-layer. There are at least two gems, both by Garcia and Hunter: "Touch of Grey," an absurdist anthem to survival, and "Black Muddy River," a poetic and poignant reflection on aging and death.

"In the Dark" marks a forthright, confident, potent and happy return to (recording) life for the Grateful Dead. "I will get by / I will survive"--indeed.

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