Voice Lessons, an Offering to the Grateful Dead

by The Sweet Clementines

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Songs written by John Burdick ©2015 Spaceboat Music (ASCAP)
Performed by The Sweet Clementines with additional contributions from:
Thade Spilfor: dulcimer on “Voice Lessons”
Chris Tanis: acoustic guitar on “The New Old Pretty Girl Blues”
Chelsea Lacatena Galvin: vocals on “The New Old Pretty Girl Blues”
Recorded and mixed by Thade Spilfor, John Burdick, and Jason Sarubbi
"Voice Lessons" mastered by Jamal Ruhe
Design assistance by Mike Amari


The eccentric New Paltz, New York rock band the Sweet Clementines get in on the Grateful Dead tribute business with the release of the new single, “Voice Lessons” b/w “The New Old Pretty Girl Blues.” The song’s debt to the Dead is explicit in its loping, half-time feel and its slow-build, extended jam freakout, but Sweet Clementines guitarist and songwriter John Burdick argues that the homage is in the lyrics as well.

“’Voice Lessons’ was written a few years ago, a delayed response to the passing of my father. It is a deathbed reckoning scenario, in which the survivors rue the fact that the deceased swallowed his tongue too often, kept his feelings inside and never dared to sing—inhibited by shame and by cultural values. The singing part, at least, is true of my pops. He was a jazz pianist with a great ear, but he was terrified of the sound of his own singing voice. And it has been a long and difficult road for me to become comfortable with mine.”

Ironically, Burdick took his voice lessons from a band not exactly known for its strong singers. “If the message of the song is use your voice while you have it, and don’t get caught up in the ephemeral vanities of personality, who could be more exemplary than the Grateful Dead?” he asks. “The Dead are THE positive role model for singing it yourself, haters be damned. The courageous voice will find its audience, maybe not quite as many millions as theirs did, but many dozens at least.”

The Sweet Clementines identify their sound more with the guitar pop styles of the Beatles or XTC than with the experimental Americana of the Dead, but the connection is not news to the band. “From the beginning of the Sweet Clementines, a portion of our audience has heard a hint of Grateful Dead in our mix,” Burdick recalls. “Some members of the band are not entirely comfortable with that perception, but I embrace it, and I think it is good time to celebrate it and to say thanks to a unique American institution. I am proud to have been influenced by BOTH of the Dead’s exceptional guitarists, and I adore their songbook.”

“The Dead have begun to lose some of that cultic singularity, and that is a great, invigorating thing for their music and their legacy. It separates the music from the myth and clears the way for people to like the songs in an uncomplicated way, without feeling they have to buy into an entire culture and its values just to dig a cool song like 'Jack Straw,' or to enjoy the spindly poetry of Garcia’s playing.”

In certain quarters, I point out, it is unfashionable to wave this particular flag. “There has never been so polarizing a band,” Burdick agrees. “I knew many people, many musicians, who disliked the music of the Dead for what seemed to me entirely non-musical reasons. Now, since the cultural exceptionalism of the Dead is receding, the music takes its rightful place as just one more unique flavor at the buffet. More people now allow themselves to recognize what a great song “Stella Blue,” is, or what important psychedelic Americana Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are, or how there’s an almost punk rock abandon to their very early stuff, or how, from "Anthem of the Sun" all the way through "Wake of the Flood," "Blues for Allah" and the exquisitely produced "Terrapin Station," the Dead were really one of the most, one of the only, important American prog rock bands.”

People have hard time separating the Dead’s classic songs from their idiosyncratic way of playing them. “True. The Garcia/Hunter songwriting team, in my opinion, absolutely needs to be considered in the same Roots-Modernist conversation as Dylan and the Band, Steinbeck and the Beats,” Burdick muses. “Hunter drew from the same haunted American mythology, but Garcia was the modernist, ruthless in his editing, Pound to Hunter’s Elliot, and it was Garcia’s slashing that gives the lyrics that evocative, skeletal feel; mythic stories are being told but you’re not sure exactly what they are, like what Tom Waits does so brilliantly. Garcia was technically not a lyricist but he was such a smart, verbally engaged cat, an idea man, and you know he was a big part of those lyrics coming out the way they did.”

What about “Voice Lessons” strikes Burdick as being in the tradition of the Dead? “So much,” he says. "It’s a loose, live feel and we left the blemishes in. The way we smear into the song gradually rather than just hit it at the top strikes me as Dead-like; the ‘melodic rhythm’ guitar part is a kind of playing strongly associated with Bobby Weir—in fact I am not sure there is another source of it in all of rock; the modal jam section, obviously, is overt in its Dead reference. Especially at the end, it reminds me a bit of the freaky Dead of ’67, Live/Dead and the really early bootlegs. And in the lyrics I was going for something anachronistic, a high archaic feel, Biblical without being religious, a kind of Appalachian prophecy or something.”

“MY Dead,” says, Burdick, “is the Dead of the early ‘70s, the one-drummer 'electric ragtime' (Elvis Costello's description, not mine) band of Europe ‘72, when Keith Godchaux was in the mix. I think that is their peak as songwriters and as an ensemble, but that’s just my opinion. I am intimately familiar with all of their music from the Acid Tests through the post-Jerry age. It has all affected me, and I want to own that influence proudly and not be silenced by cultural baggage and the rulebook of cool, to which we are all more susceptible than we like to admit.” --Thade Spilfor, 7/3/15


released July 11, 2015



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The Sweet Clementines New Paltz, New York

New Paltz, NY, eccentric rock band the Sweet Clementines continue to play a melodic, musically adventurous brand of smart guitar pop. With vibraphones and violins. They are: John Burdick, Jason Sarubbi, Marianne Tasick, Matt Senzatimore, and Paul Carroll. ... more

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Track Name: Voice Lessons
At the death of death, at the bed of ends
at the time to tell, you'll explain yourself when they free your hands
and the ones you loved will understand
the jagged edges of the voice that you killed, that you killed within
and each according to his dreaming is

And if they will forgive, it'll start with the kid
so shy and tall as his talents bloomed and his heart stayed hid
and his mother judged all his father did
and the Order of the Book and the Gun made a man, made a man of him
and each according to his dreaming is

Dream on while the evening plays on the ceiling
and the shallows are warmer than the deep
did you get the feeling that your children were stealing
the flowers that make you sleep?
and each according to his dreaming is

And we will account, and we will attest
our voices mount in your defense though it could be said
that you cheated most what loved you best

They tamp the ground. The rains will come
the names dissolve, and all the lost will be mourned as one
and when it is sung, there's no one cares
how well it was sung.
Track Name: The New Old Pretty Girl Blues
Pretty girl blues, it doesn't matter
Where your heart's at at the start
when the needle hits the platter
it'll be in your shoes
It's not an optical illusion
you were yellow
now you're red and she can green you if you chooses
before you fade into

Your pretty girl blues, for your pretty girl blues
how much are you willing to lose?

Pretty girl blues, it's in the iris
but its the redness on the whiteness
that has us so desirous
for the peril of you
premium booze a Valium chaser
put the hip check
on the shipwreck that launched a thousand faces
into the icy blue

It's a chemical, a cultural, professional jones
for your animal in other words:
I'll never change, I'll never even try
Until the day that God or nature
orders you to change your pretty blue eyes

Your pretty girl blues, for your pretty girl blues
how much are you willing to lose?

Pretty girl blues is sung in Spanish
is sung in English
but never in German, that's outlandish
and Ich bin a fool

It's a chemical, a cultural, subliminal jones
for your animal in other words:
I'll never change, I'll never even try
Until the day that God or nations
order you to change your pretty blue eyes