ACID-ROCK EXPERIMENTALISM AND FOLK-BASED ARRANGEMENTS YIELD MYSTERIOUSNESS, DARKNESS, AND BEAUTY: GRACE SLICK'S CLARION-CALL SINGING MATCHES VIRTUOSIC PLAYING OF BAND MEMBERS AND GUEST JERRY GARCIA
They were the best of times for Jefferson Airplane, and the good vibes are heard throughout the band's iconic Surrealistic Pillow. The group's first album with vocalist Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden, the 1967 effort bowed as the first psychedelic-rock breakout from the potent San Francisco scene, climbing to #3 and boasting two Top 10 singles. By bringing the then-unpolluted counterculture to the attention of the mainstream, the effort ranked by Rolling Stone #146 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time eradicated boundaries and opened up creative vistas for a parade of likeminded artists that followed.
You'll immediately hear finer pacing, enhanced information retrieval, and superior transparency. Soundstages stretch far and extend back, with instrumental separation giving all of the musicians their own place in the mix. As a result, subtle albeit important details – Hopkins' rollicking piano, guitarist Norma Kaukonen's biting tones, Garcia's deft pedal-steel work – emerge in three-dimensional fashion amidst a musical canvas that manages to be both edgy and produced, raw and revealing. Jefferson Airplane has never sounded more vital.
Much had changed in America – and within Jefferson Airplane – in just the two short years since the release of the San Francisco collective's breakthrough smash Surrealistic Pillow. The countercultural movement had darkened, government involvement in Vietnam escalated, and regard for human rights fallen. Retreating from the excessive experimentalism that graced its prior two LPs, the Airplane responded to the social circumstances with defiant, assured, and cohesive songs shot through with driving psychedelia, crunchy acid-rock, and rustic country. From start to finish, it's the aural equivalent of a demonstration march.
Having drawn attention for the inclusion of profanities in multiple tunes, the Top 20 LP also ran up against the nonprofit Volunteers of America after the sextet wanted to title the record Volunteers of Amerika in order to express further dissatisfaction with the country. While Grace Slick and Co. gave into the charity's desires to switch the name, there's nothing compromising about Volunteers. Kaukonen's leads cut searing swaths through urgent fare like "Eskimo Blue Day" and anthemic "We Can Be Together," which boldly speaks out against convention and in favor of chaos and anarchy.
Indeed, in organizing a pseudo summit of many of the counterculture's leading musical figures to participate on Volunteers, the Airplane treats the album as an orchestrated stance against the establishment. Stills and Crosby assist in rocking the boat on a turbulent cover of "Wooden Ships" lined with Slick and Marty Balin's overlapping lead vocals. Hopkins gooses the call-to-arms title track with frisky boogie-woogie lines. Garcia lends "The Farm" a suitable rustic vibe, and on his final appearance with the Airplane, drummer Spencer Dryden helms the pastoral sing-a-long "A Song for All Seasons."