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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship – Blows Against the Empire

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 9
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: A CHILD IS COMING

This isn't exactly a Jefferson Airplane album, but at the same time, it kind of is. If that sentence confused you (hell, it confuses me when I re-read it), let me explain. With the start of the new decade, it seemed self-evident that many of those bands symbolic of the era would become relics, especially after the values they espoused came crashing down with a single murder at a Rolling Stones concert. The one member of the band to be physically impacted by the violence at Altamont, Marty Balin, had started to become disenchanted with the band, and his departure, as well as the departure of Spencer Dryden, gave the remaining members plenty of time to decide what to do next. Paul Kantner, the de facto leader of the group by that point, figured a solo album would be a good way to kill some time. So, he got fellow Airplane bandmates Slick and Casady to help, as well as members of many high and low profile Californian rock groups, most notably three Grateful Dead members (Jerry Garcia on a number of compositions, their two drummers on a track each) and David Crosby. Completing the line-up, and adding more relevance to the Jefferson Airplane ties of the LP, are new JA drummer Joey Covington and two future Jefferson Starship members, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter.

Speaking of Jefferson Starship, this is the first album to credit them by name – secondary to Kantner and Slick – since the name is an important part to the concept. Basically, the story of the album – and there is a discernable plot throughout the recording, as opposed to a general consistent idea on Volunteers – is that of a group of hippies tired of American conservatism and dream of an anarcho-communistic utopia; not one on Earth, as one would generally expect, but one in space, on a distant planet, for which they hijack a "starship" to achieve. In the mean time, the characters trip some acid, realize the two (unnamed) main characters are expecting a child in which they hope can revel in their new world, and a fight over the leadership upon the starship. It's a relatively stupid concept, to be sure, one that can only be concocted as a hangover to the Woodstock era (and one that almost comically contradicts Marty Balin's reason to leave Jefferson Airplane), but the lyrics and music tell the story in an enjoyable way, and it can serve as an allegory to any failed revolution, so I guess it's deeper than anyone involved truly realized.

The two sides each serve as a "volume" or "chapter" of the story, something also represented in the music. I could summarize it here, but maybe it'll be clearer with a song-by-song analysis (I know what you're thinking, "here we go again..."). The story begins with "Mau Mau (Amerikon)", a violent protest anthem against the strict morality of conservatism, especially that of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan and then-President Richard Nixon (who wasn't even a true "conservative" Republican, but a party moderate, but I guess to anarcho-communists there's little difference between a Reagan or a Nixon). The brief opening tribal chant aside, the song is surprisingly punk-ish for Jefferson Airplane alumni, with a simple, two-or-three-chord based riff filled with rebellious anger, emphasized by sputtering guitar leads and clumsy drumming, and featuring their most intentionally ugly vocal harmonies, thanks to Covington's Bob Weir-esque nasal howl harmonizing with Paul Kantner at his nastiest. The lyrics are also quite violent in their imagery: "You unleash the dogs/of a grade-B movie star governor's war" and "Drop your fucking bombs/Burn your demon babies" aren't exactly something you often expect from peace-loving hippies. And isn't it ironic that the idea of the tune itself is that the protestors in the song claim to be peaceful and nature loving yet the lyrics in the song indicate otherwise?

Anyways, in a huge sonic contrast, the following "The Baby Tree" is a stripped down folk cover (by one Rosalie Sorrels, supposedly well-known in Idahoan and Utahan folk circles at the time). It's just Kantner's voice and banjo, strumming along nonchalantly, cooing out a nursery rhyme-like melody to lines about an island where babies go on trees, falling off when the wind is strong for adults to pick them up. If I'm following the story correctly, this brief, cute ditty is meant to be a prelude to the main couple's realization of pregnancy; with the bizarre lyrics and fanciful music and melody, one can assume this song occurs during an acid trip of the young couple's, perhaps after participating in the previous song's protest.

"Let's Go Together" – not to be confused with the Volunteers album opener "Let's Get Together", although musically this song would fit in quite nicely alongside it, or elsewhere on that LP – is where the central utopia of the concept is introduced. The main couple, as played/sung by Kantner and Slick, bid farewell to America in search of this new dreamworld in the verses, while pushing the revolutionary call-to-arms "propaganda" in the bare, yet catchy refrain (simply stating the title repeatedly). Musically, it's an anthemic folk-rocker, with guitar/banjo arpeggios, thumping piano and, every once in a while, Casady's fat basslines popping out of the mix to create riffs on its own, and of course there are some terrific harmonies from Kantner and Slick to create that anthemic feel.

The final song of side one, "A Child Is Coming", is when the couple finds out that – you guessed it! – they're going to have a baby. It starts off as a simple two-minute country-pop groove based on a boogie-esque piano/guitar sequence where the young couple finds out about the pregnancy, leading them to be paranoid in the verses (with lines like "What are we going to do when Uncle Samuel comes around?") but ecstatic about the possibilities of bringing a child to life in their planned utopia (a joviality emphasized in the rising harmonies and twangy lead guitar). Yet the centerpiece of the tune is in the 4-minute coda, one that's musically much darker: moody acoustic guitar/piano chords slowly descending, thick bass melodies unravelling around you like a python on the prowl (do pythons prowl?), and slow waves of feedback accompanying the kind of twisted, psychedelic harmonies Jefferson Airplane are known for. With Marty Balin out of the picture, David Crosby is enlisted to fill in, and he does a great job, with his distinctive tenor bordering on falsetto serving as a great counterpoint to Kantner's deeper, thoughtful vocals and Slicks' Eastern-influenced droning. I'm not sure what the coda is actually supposed to represent in the album's plot, but the embryonic sound of it could be the fetus' perspective of its parents' mumbled conversations, or it could just be the cover of darkness and secrecy in which the couple joins the revolution. Either way, the atmosphere of it is just too good for me not to consider the track to be the album's best.

The plan to escape not just America, but planet Earth, begins to reveal itself on side two. Its opener, "Sunrise", is the first of three avant-garde-like soundpieces on the LP side, but it's the only one that acts as a standalone composition rather than brief, conceptual filler. With several overdubbed, feedback-laden basslines and menacing acoustic guitar chords, not to mention the overdubbed Grace Slick vocal drones in a much more demonic way than you usually hear from her (just compare it to her soaring vocals on the previous track), it may be difficult to understand plot-wise, but it's interesting music nonetheless.

As far as I can tell, it just serves as an introduction to the revolution itself, which takes place on "Hijack". As the title suggests, the hippie revolutionaries' plan to escape is through a hijack, one of a spaceship whose construction is a 20-year venture, if the lyrics are to be believed (the years 1980 and 1990 are both mentioned as deadlines of some sort). To add to the revolutionary feel of the tune, the music is stormy and rhythmic, and while it's not a military rhythm, the quasi-tango of the piano and acoustic guitar pounding is just as effective, and manages to be relatively diverse simply by tweaking the rhythm every once in a while: speeding it up, slowing it down, having the two main instruments play counter to each other, etc. The gypsy-esque harmonies from Kantner and Slick are also an excellent touch, since they allow them to switch from militant revolutionaries to hedonistic hippies daydreaming about their utopia in the heat of the moment in seconds flat. As the song comes to its conclusion, with a spacey fade-away of the piano and the fade-in of crumbly feedback noise, it indicates that the hijack was successful and the starship can take off to explore the wonders of space.

The second short filler piece, "Home", is nothing but buzzing and whirring sound effects as the starship settles into a decent speed, I suppose, although it doesn't damage your ears enough to prevent you from enjoy the album's penultimate highlight, "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?". It's a pretty, romantic ballad, with bubbling and feedback sound effects laid over from "Home", an intricate layer of droning acoustic guitar and psychedelic, echoey pedal steel (the latter courtesy of Jerry Garcia), Grace's thumping piano chords, and beautiful harmonies that at times sound like classic Jefferson Airplane harmonies, as if Marty Balin were there to help them (I swear I even hear is voice pop out in the line "Would you like to go up for a stroll and keep me company?"). In the plot, it's a short break for the couple, enjoying the view as they assume all will go on smoothly from here on out.

It's followed by "XM", another spaced-out sound effects piece, this time accompanied by stoned-out vocals muttering something or other, which end suddenly and violently, as if the starship were broken into. Finally, the album concludes with "Starship". As far as I can understand, the song is about the plan for a utopic escape backfiring, with hijackers taking the previously hijacked starship from the revolutionaries (if the defeated way the bridge "The melting acid fever streakin' through my mind/Makes it oh so difficult to see you/And oh so easy to touch you/I melt with you/Feel with you/Make love for you/At you, around you, I love you" is sung is any indication). Anyways, the music only somewhat reflects the conflict expressed in the lyrics; overall the tune is somewhat poppier than the rest of the LP, thanks to the more upbeat tempo and more straightforward rhythm behind the guitar and piano interplay. Yet it's the rest of the interplay that's much more interesting, as Jerry Garcia delivers some of his distinctive space-rock guitar style à la "Dark Star", which interweaves wonderfully with Casady's thick basslines which are just as lead instrument-like in the grand scheme of things, but also plays off the vocal melody, playing smoother or tenser as the melody requires.

Perhaps, on a song-by-song basis, the charms of the album aren't immediately apparent. Mind you, half of these songs are highlights (the first side's opener and closer, the full-length songs of side two), which is an accomplishment in its own right, but even the clearly filler-ish tunes, or more plot-based tunes like "The Baby Tree", are fully enjoyable, yet are much more so when taken in context, but I guess that's a given since we are dealing with a concept album, after all. It's a stupid concept in retrospect, to be sure, but as far as musical sci-fi goes, it's up there in quality. As for how it fits in the Jefferson Airplane catalogue, I don't like it quite as much as Crown of Creation, but I do like it about the same as Takes Off (the two other 12/15-rated albums), so even if it's far from being that well-known, it's definitely among their best works. It manages to improve on formulae and ideas presented on Volunteers, and given the reputation of the final Jefferson Airplane albums, this might just need to be your final destination with them, if you'll pardon the flight-based pun.

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