The Grateful Dead typically is known for out-on-a-limb jams that were either loose or tight, depending on whom you ask. The band is less identified with the craft of songwriting, which is a damn shame, and which seems to be one of the prime inspirations behind this new 59-track tribute. It’s a sprawling showcase for an embarrassment of sturdily built songs, such as “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Dire Wolf,” and “Cassidy,” and most of them are hardy enough to shine through even the middling interpretations.
“Day of the Dead” is uneven; what tribute collection isn’t? For the most part, tribute albums contain three or four worthy pieces mixed in with a whole mess of dutiful or misbegotten interpretations. The best in this case are Dead songs that have been intensely felt or reimagined by the artists, such as the funk-R&B version of “Cumberland Blues” by Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band. By changing the musical setting to the more emotional strains of R&B, the band adds new shadings — a kind of suffering — to the story of a man afraid of losing his job in the mine. It’s as worth hearing — if only once — as Jim James’s ordinary “Candyman” isn’t.
By toying with the phrasing and keeping the guitar licks front and center, Steve Malkmus and the Jicks own “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” enough to make them interesting. Malkmus connects with something in the songs, just as Bonnie Prince Billy finds something moving in “Bird Song.” Adam Granduciel and the War on Drugs tweak the phrasing of “Touch of Gray” enough to make it fresh. Australian folk duo Luluc comes up with a wonderfully delicate “Till the Morning Comes,” with lead singer Zoe Randell bringing folkie sorrow to the cringe lyric “you’re my woman now.” (Randell is one of too-few female vocalists on the album.)
More prosaic tracks — “Sugaree” by Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends; “Loser” by Ed Droste, Binki Shapiro & Friends — seem to sink into pointlessness. Kurt Vile and the Violators, with their melodic-stoner vibe, seem like a natural for the plaintive “Box of Rain,” but the result is easily forgotten. Likewise Courtney Barnett’s “New Speedway Boogie,” where the same anxiety-beaten attitude that works so well on her own wry material fails the apocalyptic intensity of the lyrics here.
The collection was curated by the National, which is lovely in theory: Not too long ago, most younger “alternative” musicians would not be caught dead on this tribute, but perhaps a hipster sense of openness to old influences has prevailed. The National’s “Peggy-O” and “Morning Dew” are, as you’d expect, oh-so-somber and sufficiently haunting.
But the reality is that the National did not do enough curating. There are novelties — Marijuana Deathsquads’ “Truckin,” for example — useless beyond a single curiosity listen, while tracks that affect Dead jamming — “Playing in the Band” by Tunde Adebimpe and Lee Ranaldo — belong on a different compilation, even when they work. The few gold nuggets too easily get lost among the many chunks of lead.
ESSENTIAL “Cumberland Blues”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.