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Digging through the Bins: ‘Day of the Dead,’ Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Heart

Last week, a Facebook thread commenced pondering the validity of Grateful Dead tribute bands in the Buffalo area. The thread raised a few questions. Are there more active GD tribs than the market can bear? Is it silly to keep playing this band’s music? And why can’t the various Dead factions get along with each other?

Much discussion and commentary was offered in good faith, though inevitably, the trolls arrived, demanding a pittance for crossing their digital bridge and basically grousing about tribute bands in general and the Dead in particular.

My take was simply this: The Dead created one of the deepest and most enduring canons of rock-based music of the 20th century, employed those songs as springboards for in-the-moment, improvisation-based interpretation, radically altered the culture of popular music, and became a movement as significant as the Beat poets.

That music is made to be messed with, interpreted, transformed and transposed, and generally employed as a ticket gaining admission to the bus bound for never-never land. I support musicians anywhere employing this music as a raw material springboard for their own sonic and sometimes spiritual excursions.

What I don’t dig so much is the idea that musicians should re-create Dead performances note for note. The late Jerry Garcia would surely find the idea repugnant, for he spent his life avoiding repetition, and searching for the ever-changing present every time he touched finger to string. Play the Dead’s music, please. But do your own thing with it, or else we might as well just listen to the original article.

On Friday, two members of alternative/indie-rock band the National released a sprawling labor of love known as “Day of the Dead,” (4AD Records) a collection that should put to rest any suggestions that there is no more water to be squeezed from the Grateful Dead sponge. Let that sink in for a minute, hipsters: The guys in the National are Deadheads.

Brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner rounded up a dream team of present-day alt/indie icons, called in a few elder statesmen, and at the end of four years of work, produced one of the most compelling curations of interpretive song to ever see release. “Day of the Dead” is a masterpiece, and it proves beyond reasonable argument that the Dead were masterful songwriters responsible for a songbook that offers seemingly limitless potential for interpretation.

The 59 songs featured guests adding their personalities to bedrock tracks crafted by the core band of the Dessners, fellow National members Scott and Bryan Devendorf, Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, Sam Cohen and Walter Martin. The production is warm, billowing, atmospheric and not unlike the august textures of the National’s 2013 effort, “Trouble Will Find Me.”

The guests run the full gamut of edgy modernity, featuring members of indie giants like Grizzly Bear, Phosphorecent, My Morning Jacket, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the War On Drugs, as well as earlier-generation luminaries Bruce Hornsby, the Flaming Lips and Wilco.

There’s not a dud among the 59 tracks. There are standouts – the War on Drugs’ “Touch of Grey,” Jim James’ “Candyman,” Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison’s elegiac “Black Muddy River,” the National’s haunting “Peggy-O,” Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s hypnagogic fever-dream “Rubin & Cherise,” Wilco and Bob Weir’s wired reading of “St. Stephen,” Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band’s soul-funk take on “Cumberland Blues” and the Flaming Lips technicolor freak-out “Dark Star.”

So should musicians stop covering the Grateful Dead? Not when they’re bringing this much inspiration, respect and creativity to the table. “Day of the Dead” isn’t just a great tribute album – it’s one of the year’s best records.

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So much has been written about the concept of female self-empowerment in pop music that it seems all but de rigueur to interpret any pop album from a female within the parameters of early 21st-century woman-ness. This can yield some interesting results, but of course, music is art, and art refuses to be confined to interpretation along such strict a priori lines. So what we have in the end is an awful lot of media proselytizing, and some music that may or may not support such lofty theoretical feminist claims.

By contrast, Corinne Bailey Rae’s just-released “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” (Virgin Records) is a pure delight, because it doesn’t need the support of theoretical claims. It simply is what it is: a beautiful, often profound, sophisticated and soulful strain of pop music.

Most of the people who are attempting to empower, educate and transform themselves aren’t the ones talking about such concepts in public, for growth and empowerment are achieved more often than not in a solitary state, far from the glare of the spotlight. So Rae – a British singer and songwriter with jazz and soul chops and an often achingly poignant singing voice – allows her heart to speak, as the title suggests, in ruminative whispers, not narcissistic, strident tones.

You can hear Rae’s influences here – Prince, Minnie Riperton, Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, perhaps – as she charts a course toward rebirth following the 2008 death of her husband, with the help of guests like bassists Marcus Miller and Pino Palladino, Los Angles neo-soul group KING, and drummer James Gadson, all of whom keep things supple and funky.

This is Rae’s strongest work, a confident but still subtle marriage of deft musicianship and insightful, poetic lyrics.

email: jmiers@buffnews. com