Beyond Description (1973–1989)
Part Two: From the Mars Hotel
The Music Box's #8 specialty package for 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2004, Volume 11, #11
Written by John Metzger
Where Wake of the Flood was a pseudo-conceptual piece that featured songs that informed one another, From the Mars Hotel was a disparate collection of disconnected parts that sometimes sounded hurried to completion. Not surprisingly, the album was rushed. In addition to its investment in a massive new sound system and the mounting costs of its rapidly expanding entourage, the Grateful Dead had been stung by a counterfeiting scheme that had leeched money from its self-run label. To say that the band was trying to score a hit is probably an overstatement, but there is certainly some truth to this notion. For proof, one need look no further than the involvement of Roy Segal, a top-notch producer for CBS, who had been brought onboard to engineer the project.
Perhaps if it had taken a little more time to plot its course — the sessions for From the Mars Hotel began a mere 7 ˝ months after those for Wake of the Flood concluded — the Grateful Dead might have crafted another gem. Given its self-imposed time constraints, however, From the Mars Hotel became an uneven affair that not only reached glorious highs, but also fell to forgettable lows. Even so, Bob Weir’s Money Money was the only truly dreadful track, though the overly slick Loose Lucy was executed perfunctorily while Phil Lesh’s Byrds-meets-Jefferson Airplane, country-rock tune Pride of Cucamonga was simply awkward. On the other hand, China Doll was delicately haunted; Ship of Fools benefitted from the gospel-infused keyboard accompaniment of Keith Godchaux; U.S. Blues should have been a hit, given both its political overtones as well as the perkiness of its arrangement; and Unbroken Chain — with its shimmering electronic embellishments, courtesy of Ned Lagin — perfectly merged the urgent intensity of the collective’s concert persona with the pristine aura of a recording studio. Still, it was Scarlet Begonias that stole the show as the band folded Robert Hunter’s nursery rhyme ruminations over a percolating Carribean groove.
Seven songs have been appended to the reissue of From the Mars Hotel, thereby doubling the length of the original album. Culled from the sessions for Wake of the Flood were a pair of interesting, but otherwise unremarkable, solo, acoustic demos (Pride of Cucamonga and Unbroken Chain) as well as a more relaxed, early version of Loose Lucy. The remaining four tracks are all live cuts: Wave that Flag, a predecessor of U.S. Blues that features a somewhat different set of lyrics; the Grateful Dead’s only performance of Chuck Berry’s Let It Rock; a rendition of Money Money that does little to improve upon its recorded counterpart; and a sterling interpretation of Scarlet Begonias that once again highlights how the band was able to expand upon its material with splendidly transcendent results. ˝
This is the second installment of a ten-part
series, which will examine Beyond Description (1973–1989) on
an album by album basis. The entire set is rated:
Beyond Description (1973-1989)
Beyond Description (1973-1989) is available from Barnes & Noble.
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From the Mars Hotel [REMASTERED CD] is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box