Jefferson Airplane have been a subject of some contention ever since they abandoned their Summer of Love posture for music that aspired at once to both topicality and a degree of experimentation. If you love them, you know that they are one of the four or five most consistently vital American bands. If you hate them you’re at least partially justified on any rational man’s terms, given the rather squishy politics and pretentiously inane sense of humor. And if you’re one of those unfortunate souls caught between the staunch Planeiacs and tooth-grinding critics, then each new Airplane album is an exercise in manic depression, hamstrung between the fire of the Kaukonen-Casady combination (one of the great lead/bass juxtapositions of all time, in the context of the Airplane) and the bombastic excesses of the Slick-Kantner axis, who, after all, write most of the songs and have increasingly stamped the group’s identity with their own sensibilities, as Marty Balin receded, finally to hightail it for good.
Bark, the first post-Balin album and first really new release in two years, has gotten some bad press and provoked yawns even among some Airplane cognoscenti. Maybe it’s just that people built their hopes up so high that Bark could only prove anticlimactic. In fact, it’s a fine album that may lack somewhat the musical vehemence of earlier works, but largely checks as well the Kantner-Slick compulsion toward adrenaline filibusters.
As usual, the actual music is delivered wrapped in some of the most dunder-headed drool that ever served as a hip flack-pak. But once you’ve hacked your way through the thickets of excelsior, the music stands out both from most recent releases and the Airplane’s previous work. A cartoon trailer named “War Movie” is Kantner’s only real indulgence in the celebrated wheeze against the Big E, although similar themes appear in terms more mature and both musically and lyrically restrained in the quietly powerful “When the Earth Moves Again,” and Grace wanks away at her own Righteous Indignariff with “Law Man,” wherein a hapless flatfoot has barged in just moments after Grace and Paul or whoever have finished balling and finds this hippie broad Wagnerianly bawling those classically intimidating lines: “My old man’s gun has never been fired but there’s a first time!” Say one for me, Grace!
The rest of the music mostly finds some graceful detour around such heavyhandedness, although “Pretty As You Feel,” by Joey Covington, Casady and Kaukonen, is a banal bit right out of 16 magazine enjoining their own and ladies everywhere against polluting their pores with plastic goo. Some will call it sexist; I just call it mawkish, which is all right because so is much of the best pop music from grooves immemorial, and besides the purely musical part of it is just about as lovely as “Feel So Good” with its lyrics of perfect simplicity and fine falsetto breaks at the ends of the lines.
This may be the most consciously un-stentorian Airplane album since Surrealistic Pillow, and even at its most fatuous this new-found and distinctly relative humility gives us “Thunk,” a near-acapella Covington opus that’s so absurd I can’t resist it: it represents the Airplane’s special brand of humor epitomized by “Juff Gleento” and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Volunteers in the best possible way. Though not nearly so well as Grace’s “Never Argue With a German If You’re Tired or European Song,” an essay in something below Pig German (“Sticken in mine haken … fugen mine gas mit mine auss pucken”) set to abstracted choral lappings, which gasses the prurient gonads a lot better than that Ogden Nash trash about “Woman with a greasy heart Automatic man” and just cries out for a Grammy.
If you ask me, Bark is the ‘Plane’s most magnuminious opus since After Bathing at Baxter’s, and even if its woof and whissshh ain’t quite as supersonic as some of their other platters, it’ll getcha there on time just like an amyl nitrate TV Dinner garnished this time with a little Valium. And the zingy rush that Jorma’s and Jack’s reps rest on streams as strongly as ever just a bit below the surface of the music with a motion seconded in places by the always judicious application of Papa John’s sweet gypsy-blue fiddle.
Those three are the band’s nexus of strength, and it should stand to reason that they would be at least as invigorated on their own, but as we all know, it’s reason’s right to get falling-down drunk every so-so, so heed the words of a non-paying auditor when I tell you to steer clear of the new Hot Tuna set. It may not be as presumptuously vitiated in its cabaret blues as the first one, but unless you’re just crying for some muzak so mellow it’s fucking work to hear it, First Pull Up. Then Pull Down ranks as prototype Dentist’s Waiting Room fare, or maybe, in line with the title, the Executive Washroom at a Consciousness III Corporate Enterprise. Stick with the original accept no substitute.