Beyond Description (1973-1989)
Beyond Description (1973-1989) is a companion set to 2001's 12-disc box The Golden Road (1965-1973), which collected all of the Grateful Dead's albums for Warner Bros, adding bonus tracks to each album, along with a double-disc collection of early pre-Warner recordings called "Birth of the Dead" for good measure. Beyond Description picks up the story after the Dead started their own label with 1973's Wake of the Flood and runs all the way to 1989, when they released their last studio album, Built to Last. Like The Golden Road, each album here is enhanced with bonus tracks, running the gamut from as little as three (on Built to Last) to has many as 16 (a full-length bonus disc added to 1980's live acoustic Reckoning), but there's nothing quite as enticing as "Birth of the Dead." Indeed, "enticing" is not a word that's frequently associated with the albums in this collection. Even among Deadheads, these records, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, aren't highly regarded, and the additional studio outtakes, demos, and live tracks don't necessarily help matters either; after all, if the foundation is shaky, it's hard to add an expansion. That's true here. It's certainly nice to have this material excavated, particularly for legions of dedicated fans, but none of the bonus tracks are revelatory. None of them offer a new perspective on the album, nor are there any lost gems here (not even the version of "Good Lovin'" sung by producer/Little Feat leader Lowell George on Shakedown Street qualifies as a hidden treasure). Instead, the bonus material ranges from the merely pleasant (the bonus discs on the live Reckoning and Dead Set), to the somewhat interesting (an early take of "China Doll" on Wake of the Flood), to the forgettable (most of the studio outtakes), to the actively irritating (a long acoustic demo of "Weather Report Suite," tedious jams on Blues for Allah). It's material that fans will hear once and file away, next to their large collection of Dick's Picks discs. Conversely, the individual albums featured in Beyond Description do pack some surprises. Certain records live up to their reputations -- Wake of the Flood remains one of their strongest, moodiest affairs, From the Mars Hotel is an underrated record, In the Dark is an assured comeback -- but others sound both better and worse than they did in memory. In particular, Go to Heaven, while far from their best, sounds much better than its reputation suggests -- it may not be much of a Dead record, but it's warm and well-crafted, a good fusion of the Doobie Brothers and Little Feat. Built to Last, however, is an outright embarrassment, a rushed sequel to In the Dark constructed with overly slick synthesizers and cavernous drums that sounds even more dated than the disco cuts scattered throughout Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street (neither of which sound inspired, but are fascinating in their tentative attempts to streamline the Dead). Ultimately, it matters little whether the albums themselves are all that strong or weak -- this is a package for the diehard, the one who will buy the bad albums just to complete his collection. In that regard, Beyond Description is every bit the equal of The Golden Road -- the remastering is good, the packaging has been assembled with loving care, the liner notes are solid. It's all enough to make this a necessary library piece for truly dedicated Deadheads.