The Grateful Dead and its members have a crummy reputation regarding studio albums. I could debate that position, with “American Beauty,” “From the Mars Hotel” and “Blues for Allah” as a few of my talking points. But still, live Dead, and live Jerry Garcia, live Phil Lesh, and live Bob Weir, are what have driven the Dead’s five-decade careers.
Weir’s new “Blue Mountain” may not persuade fans that the band members’ studio karma has turned around. The fact of the album is lovely. Weir, now 68, has made a collection of all-new songs and interpretations with their roots in traditional folk, rockabilly, and country. Fans have long known of Weir’s affection for cowboy songs, with his spins on the likes of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” as well as his own “Mexicali Blues.” The new album is a deep dive into that campfire motif, with songs that evoke the tragedy, rugged land, and spare emotions of the early American West. It’s Weir doing what other aging rockers, including Mark Knopfler and John Doe, have done, using their weathered voices in service of quieter story songs.
Many cuts on “Blue Mountain” are extraordinary, including the heartbreaking “Lay My Lily Down,” in which a father buries his daughter, the swampy “Ghost Towns,” with its repetition of the rich line “I know what the ghost towns know,” and the chugging paean to oblivion, “Gonesville.” Written by Weir and Josh Ritter, the songs have a lived-in feel, and at times it’s impressively hard to tell which ones were adapted from traditional folk tunes and which are entirely original. The title cut, built out of an early 20th-century song by Utah judge Fred Keller, is simple and haunting. A couple of songs, including “Gallop on the Run” and “Whatever Happened to Rose,” are saddled with bathetic melodies, but on the whole there’s plenty of expert songwriting to appreciate.
Here’s my one problem with the album, a problem that will probably keep me from returning to “Blue Mountain” again and again despite my admiration. The production choices, by Weir and Josh Kaufman, do not do justice to the material. There’s a consistent lack of clarity, replaced by a blurry, whispery, echoic quality that may fit with the National – the band whose members are backing up Weir – but that buries Weir.
These songs deserve a more straightforward, intimate approach that lets them speak for themselves. The manufactured atmosphere ultimately distances the listener. With a few exceptions, including the song “Blue Mountain,” the production also fails to find the best way to deploy Weir’s voice, holding it too far back in the mix. Free Bobby!
Essential cut: “Lay My Lily Down”
MATTHEW GILBERTMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.