Tribute albums are funny things. Usually formed by a disparate rabble of mainstream artists and indie darlings, they often lack consistency of style and tone.
For the most part, Day of the Dead, an extensive tribute collection to The Grateful Dead, avoids this typical problem. Collated by Bob Weir and members of The National, it partly functions as a catalogue of current indie artists, from Bela Fleck to The Flaming Lips.
The album begins nicely with The War on Drugs giving a smooth rendition of “Touch of Grey”, The Grateful Dead’s classic comeback song. Like all good cover versions, it is an interesting combination of the style of the original and the new additions of the cover artists – what was a goofy song becomes atmospheric and synth-drenched, yet still upbeat.
The standout track comes, of course, from Courtney Barnett, whose “New Speedway Boogie” is a choogling, melodic rendition with a large dollop of Barnett charm.
The one major clunker of the large set comes from those flatulent purveyors of excruciating earnestness, Mumford and Sons. Their rendition of “Friend of the Devil” manages to totally miss the point – what was a charming, wry song becomes the maudlin stutterings of a would-be-poet. I’ve rarely been so bored by four minutes of music.
The other problem the album faces is one of exhaustion – like Grateful Dead live shows, this tribute is long. Very long. So long in fact that by the time I got to the end, I’d forgotten how good most of the tunes were. The quality is fairly high, but it all ends up bleeding into one.
Not all of the artists manage to put their own spin on the track – there’s a bit of karaoke going on, particularly in the patchy third volume. Maybe like the band it pays honour to, the best way to enjoy this album is by skimming through to find the best bits, such as Kurt Vile’s “Box of Rain”, or Bill Callahan’s baritone musings on “Easy Wind”.
Overall, this is a rare tribute album that for the most part manages to maintain a consistency of quality and tone, while allowing each individual artist to add their own flavour to the tunes. Fans of The Grateful Dead are in for a treat and there’s enough here for casual observers to find something to like as well.
Review Score: 7.4 out of 10.
Day of the Dead is out now.