on 13 June 2013
Few if any of us would have known upon this album's release that it would be the Grateful Dead's last studio album. It is, therefore, wrong to see it as the band's swan-song; indeed, the band had another six years in front of it, albeit not always happy years, particularly the last two of them.
So what do we get? Three Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songs, two from Bob Weir, and four from Brent Mydland.
The opening number, Garcia's 'Foolish Heart', is a sprightly rocker and is amongst his better numbers, as is the moderately-paced title track. 'Foolish Heart' did well live, and the bonus live cut of it on this re-release CD clearly demonstrates this. The Garcia slowie, 'Standing on the Moon', is good enough and again did well live, but I can think of many more of his slow ballads that I prefer.
Weir's 'Picasso Moon' is for me an odd number that doesn't quite work; there's something awkward about it, as if it can't properly mesh itself together. It hasn't improved with the live versions I've heard. 'Victim or the Crime' is also an awkward-sounding, almost clumsy number which, on the other hand, does work here (and live) for me, although it's not a popular number with Dead-Heads.
Mydland's songs are a mixed bag. 'We Can Run...' is a rather laboured ecological anthem that doesn't bear too many listenings; the two rockers, 'Blow Away' and 'Just a Little Light', are on the other hand effective, although live versions are better (the former here as a bonus, and both on the Dozing at the Knick 3-CD set); and his lullaby to his little kids, 'I Will Take You Home', is a bit twee, again there are better live versions, where it fitted neatly, despite the incongruity, into the post-'Space' medleys.
There's one more track, the remaining bonus number, 'California Earthquake (Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On)', which is not, as the subtitle might suggest, a stomper, but a nice Garcia-sung slowie.
Sadly, Mydland was not able for long to take his kids home, for within a year or so of this album's release, he had died. His presence in the band was greatly appreciated, as he brought life back to the keyboard seat after Keith Godchaux's sad decline from brilliance into mediocrity, and his musical skills, particularly on the Hammond organ, were obvious. He had a strong voice which fitted in well with the harmony signing. His compositions, however, did not always fit too well into the band's overall sound; but on Built To Last 'Blow Away' and 'Just a Little Light' held their own with Garcia's and Weir's compositions. Who knows what he might have written had he lived.
The sound quality on the re-release is much better than the tinny, weedy sound on the original CD, and the bonus tracks are welcome too. The Grateful Dead were never really a studio band, and their real sound was best captured live -- and we are lucky to have such a vast archive of that -- but Built To Last has a sufficient amount of good material on it to make it a worthwhile album.