On their multitude of side projects, the members of the Grateful Dead indulged in everything from electronic noodlings to very high-and-lonesome bluegrass. Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box may be the most unexpected offshoot yet. Rather than make one of his admirable, if tedious, conga-class records, drummer and ethnomusicologist Hart has concocted a world-beat pop album. And if that isn’t mysterious enough, consider this: It’s pretty wonderful.
Hart’s battery of global percussionists is still here, banging out rhythms that dance like gently tapping rain. Sprinkled over those beats, though, are the Mint Juleps, an all-female, predominantly black sextet. With their earthy voices, the Juleps caress and jump-start the songs, which range from the island sway of ”Where Love Goes (Sito)” to the industrial-music-unplugged clatter of ”John Cage Is Dead.” Coproducer Robin Millar, known for his work with Sade, provides Mystery Box with the supple elegance of Sade’s hits — although they’re played on instruments like ”split bamboo on sleigh bells.” The combination makes for enchanting music, even when the women have to sing Robert Hunter’s cosmic mumbo jumbo (”I don’t spit in the beer of the devil/If the devil don’t spit in mine”).
Hart himself opens his mouth, talk-singing through three songs; ”Down the Road” is a sappy homage to deceased bohos from Jack Kerouac to Jerry Garcia. But for most of Mystery Box, Hart has achieved the seemingly unachievable: accessible, yet undiluted world music. In the hands of some remixers, these songs might even make you dance — or, at least, do more than the Dead shuffle. A-