Warner Brothers Records, 1969
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/01/2000
After the sonic weirdness of their second album Anthem Of The Sun, who would have expected Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead to make a more approachable album?
Aoxomoxoa approachable? Admittedly, this wasn't an album that was screaming "hit single" anywhere, nor did the band throw away their "try everything once" approach to the music. But what this disc does for the band is lay a solid foundation for what they would end up basing their career upon. Even now, some 30-plus years after this album was first released, it holds up incredibly well.
Of the eight songs on this disc, many have become legendary among Deadheads. "China Cat Sunflower" lays down a solid groove and features an almost jazz-like rhythm guitar run from Garcia. The true magic of the song would be revealed once the band got the chance to further develop it in concert (as well as pairing it up with "I Know You Rider"), but it is intriguing to hear this track's birth cries. Likewise, "St. Stephen" is an absolute masterpiece, allowing the group to work through different tempos and styles of playing. All of this in just under four-and-a-half minutes - remarkable!
While these two songs are probably the best known from Aoxomoxoa, they're not the best in the bunch to my ears. Those honors belong to two more acoustic-based numbers. The first, "Dupree's Diamond Blues," hints at Garcia's fascination with songs that told stories (and didn't necessarily have a moral). Part of the credit should definitely go to lyricist Robert Hunter as well. The second track, "Mountains Of The Moon," dares to suggest that the band would be taking a more introspective look at their music in time. (Never mind the fact that it would take the tragedy at Altamont for this to be kicked into high gear.)
Of the remaining four tracks on Aoxomoxoa, the key word is experimentation. "Rosemary," a track that made it onto the best-of Skeletons From The Closet, is an incredibly stripped-down track featuring layered vocals from Garcia and acoustic guitar. I've always thought this song was far too short, and it showed just how beautiful the Dead's music could be. Another major experiment, "What's Become Of The Baby," is even more stripped-down, almost sounding like a call to prayer being wailed out by Garcia. This is a track that has to grow on you - and I suggest listening to it with headphones for the full effect.
"Cosmic Charlie" is a strange song for me, mainly because it sounds like the Dead wanted to straddle the lines between rock and ballad with this one. The end result is okay, but it does come off as a little under-done. The only other track we haven't talked about, "Doin' That Rag," is simply fun to listen to, again featuring the band playing with rhythms a bit.
Compared to Anthem Of The Sun, Aoxomoxoa is a much friendlier album for the listener. However, in many ways, it's just as complex, so a cursory listening isn't suggested. The more I've listened to this disc over the years, the more I've learned to appreciate some of the finer points of it, such as "What's Become Of The Baby". But this disc marked something that wouldn't be realized for some time: it was the end of their early, experimental days. Sure, you could argue that the next release Live/Dead capped this, but that album is almost a transition piece to me. Anyway, we'll have this argument when that disc gets reviewed.
Aoxomoxoa is a pleasant enough listen, but the truth is you're going to get out of this disc what you put into it time-wise. In the end, you'll discover it's time well spent.