Beyond Description (1973–1989)
Part Four: Terrapin Station
The Music Box's #8 specialty package for 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2004, Volume 11, #12
Written by John Metzger
By the time that the Grateful Dead began working on Terrapin Station, its eighth studio effort, the group was ready to cede at least some of the control over the final product to its new label. With Keith Olsen — the man who, in 1975, produced Fleetwood Mac’s massive-selling eponymous outing — at the helm, the Grateful Dead put together an excessively glossy collection that succeeded in many ways, but failed in many others. Although the recorded version is significantly better than its concert counterparts, Sunrise — Donna Godchaux’s lovely memorial for roadie Rex Jackson — just didn’t fit within the ensemble’s admittedly varied repertoire; despite its percolating percussion, the revived rendition of Dancin’ in the Streets suffered from its stiff recasting as a disco tune; and simply put, Phil Lesh’s driving rock song Passenger wasn’t terribly interesting.
Contrarily, in the hands of the Grateful Dead, Reverend Gary Davis’ Samson & Delilah became a furious blast of fire and brimstone, and Estimated Prophet, complete with Tom Scott’s shimmering saxophone and lyricon accompaniments, was a breezy, sun-baked blast of California-style reggae. As for the title track, it, at first glance, was jarring to many fans and appeared to be the antithesis of the band’s raison d’etre. With its over-the-top orchestral arrangement, courtesy of Paul Buckmaster, the song was turned into a prog-rock epic that shouldn’t have succeeded anywhere near as well as it did, given the Grateful Dead’s proclivity for loose, free-flowing improvisation. Still, its roots undoubtedly were planted in the suite That’s It for the Other One from the band’s second outing Anthem of the Sun. Even the precision of its previous endeavor Blues for Allah — from the chirping crickets of the title tune to the ringing bell that concluded Slipknot! — lent credence to the notion that the symphonic architecture of Terrapin Station, polished as it was, merely extended the ensemble’s sound in an utterly logical fashion. Either way, the combination worked almost perfectly, and the composition certainly stands as one of the most majestic and fanciful flights within the collective’s canon.
Appended to the reissue of Terrapin Station are several studio nuggets, the best of which are a terrific instrumental interpretation of Peggy-O, a jubilant rendition of Catfish John, and a magnificent reading of Fire on the Mountain. In addition, there’s an interesting, if inessential, instrumental jam titled The Ascent as well as a version of Phil Lesh’s never-completed Equinox, which sounds like a work-in-progress that, despite its awkward tentativeness, held potential if only it hadn’t been shelved so quickly. The final bonus track is a concert rendering of Dancin’ in the Streets that sparkled in its elongated arrangement. While it was fitted with the same disco groove that would be featured on the album, this was a far more organic, intense, and focused performance, and its inclusion succeeds in highlighting the many problems that undercut much of Terrapin Station.
This is the fourth 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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Terrapin Station [REMASTERED CD] is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box