Of course one of my first actions as a newly minted Californian was to get evaluated. But because of being inundated by anti-drug Reagan era runoff, I was still a little leery spilling the beans to the man about using a substance still federally outlawed. Besides, things had been just fine (give or take a few stems) for the fifteen years of grey market trade I’d engage in prior. What if the doctor reported me to the feds? What if my name was added to a giant list of criminals somewhere? Then I remembered that happened the first time the NSA saw I sent the word “herb” in a text message in 2003. So I found a service that conducted appointments through Skype, which meant I didn’t even have to be in the same room as the doctor was to grant me clemency. After about fifteen minutes of pondering Kafka in a digital “waiting room” (which, honest-to-god, was a picture of a waiting room on my computer screen) a young man appeared. He was barely twenty-five—tanned, with gelled hair, and the teal sleeves of his scrubs too tight around muscled biceps. “Dr. D”, as he called himself, commented on my pasty skin complexion and called me “man” and “dude” several times in the five minutes it took to get my medical marijuana recommendation. Whatever. I racked up $100 worth of high-end product, and waited for it to be delivered right to my door. Thirty minutes, they said. I was giddy, like a child awaiting Santa, except this Santa delivered pot instead of toys. I know this may not be a big deal to those SoCal lifers, but as a red state native, this was the world spinning backwards. Then–in an instant–tragedy struck, coming in the form of a phone call from a prospective new employer. While the job was very ideal for me, the only part that reverberated in my head during the opportunity was the utterance that I’d have to pass a drug screening. The woman seemed to sense my instant hesitation and she said, yes, it does include marijuana, even if you are medically recommended. Just as I hung up the call, the doorbell rang. The lord giveth and the lord taketh away.
The purpose of the lengthy preamble is all to say that I haven’t been able to enjoy the Burger Records reissue cassette of Dead Meadow’s eponymous debut in the way that God truly intended. Keep that in mind while reading forward. The review would be peppered with a lot more superlatives and, probably, talk of the good, the bad, and the gnarly vibes throughout. But perhaps there’s a silver lining to this forced abstinence, as I found out an answer to a long-asked question: do you need to be stoned to really get stoner rock? And my answer is this: though it would certainly enhance the record listening experience, weed isn’t necessary to truly enjoy the fuzz and wah assault that the Washington D.C. band first offered the world fifteen years ago.
Like myself, Dead Meadow are L.A. transplants. I’ve casually followed their output since I was in college in Pennsylvania, when I was smoking a ton of pot and drinking most nights until they became days (same as it ever was). At that time, DM were best as background music for me–when I was entrenched in marathon writing of term papers on the Cossacks warring against the Bolsheviks, or just contributing to the din of dude chatter and video game sound effects. The stoner aesthetics were always deeply planted in the Dead Meadow, but the harsher qualities of the genre were mostly fallow; their early albums are unobtrusive in their washed out qualities. Listening to Dead Meadow didn’t require full attention like the riffage of Kyuss commands, nor did the band entrance like monolithic Sleep and their forced march back to the Bong. There’s also something distinctly east coast evident on Dead Meadow’s debut, which includes that the album was originally released by Fugazi’s Joe Lally. The band eschewed the prominent D.C. noise aesthetic, but experimented with sound in other more psychedelic ways. Though I fully enjoy these tunes (more now than undergrad me in 2003) and have come to regard the album as a sturdy entry into the stone hall-of, there’s a quality that seems like the band is trying on masks throughout, jumbling its array of pedals and effects and seeing what sounds the best at any given time. I’m reminded of the tale of George Martin cutting up a carnival sound effects tape and reassembling it willy nilly for the bridge of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”. We know how that one turned out, and so too, with the benefit of time passed, do we know on what masks Dead Meadow settled.
The sound of their future is nearly entirely contained on the album’s opener, still one of the most well-regarded tracks of their oeuvre, “Sleepy Silver Door.” The song contains a truckload of wah, a dirging main riff, dreamy vocals, and a solo that lasts for way too long. When I’ve asked various friends if they dig DM, they’re usually into them (or at least the idea of them), but their responses invariably contain one of the above qualifiers. As “Door” is a solid entryway (get it?) into the band, it’s also the best track on the album. A close second is “Beyond the Fields We Know”, which serves as the band’s frenetic apex before lollying into an extended bridge that could have been recorded inside a lava lamp. Other facets the band tries out offer fluctuating successes: “Greensky Greenlake” is killer and sounds like the bastard son of Floyd and Frampton, whereas “Dragonfly” is forgettable in its ambling yacht rock that is, unfortunately, a strong trend on indie FM these days.
The best part of revisiting Dead Meadow’s first record (big ups to Burger for continuing its cassette reissues of fringe and favorites alike) is that while it is very steeped in a tradition and owes a lot to its forefathers, it isn’t derivative. Jason Simon’s guitar playing skills aren’t virtuosic, but they are distinct–you know a Dead Meadow song when you hear one then and now. His chops as a guitarist, and lesser as a vocalist, are consistent throughout their entire catalog. While later albums like Feathers and Old Growth slow down to the point of glacial freeze, the pace on DM is content to chill at a nice saunter between puffs. Overall, yeah, the entire package is probably best enjoyed with a nice toke accompaniment, but you can still listen and enjoy even if you don’t want to be included on that scary criminal list.