The Jefferson Airplane, for all their commercial success and artistic importance, have had a peculiarly checkered recording career; after hearing each album in toto one gets the impression that it somehow could have been better — even if what we are given is quite admirable in many aspects. Thus The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off has several rock masterpieces amid mediocrities and up against the liability of a recording that is in general poorly engineered. After Bathing at Baxters can at times sound over-indulgent, particularly “Spare Chaynge,” and coupled with some tight, innovative rock tracks are several highly stylized songs that fail to hold up to repeated listenings.
Style in fact is both the curse and the achievement of the Jefferson Airplane. Certainly there is a constancy to the Airplane’s output (as there is to that of the Byrds) that immediately marks an Airplane Album or track by style alone. Yet the problem with style (which is not only essential but a prerequisite for any work of art) is the danger of degeneration into stylization which can become a crutch and a refuge from artistic development. The new Jefferson Airplane album, Crown of Creation, shows the group caught in the midst of a struggle between style and stylization, and the results are sometimes ambiguous.
Obviously one of the strong points of the Airplane, as well as the source of the group’s problem, is the fact that the Jefferson Airplane has among its personnel a number of distinct and forcible stylists: Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, and Marty Balin are only the most obvious figures in the group in this respect. Take the case of Grace Slick: here is an obviously talented vocalist who can transform a song into something unique — but at the same time, Grace is not beneath the distorted mannerism offered up in place of thoughtful style. Her “Greasy Heart” is, by and large, a satisfactory performance, but the phrasing is, to say the least, eccentric. At times peculiar words and phrases are accented in such a way as to jump out at the listener; in “he wants to sell his paintings but the market is slow,” “slow” is dragged out and given such prominence to be jarring beyond ostensible purpose. On the other hand the phrase “woman with a greasy heart, automatic man” is rendered beautifully, a nice clip being applied to “automatic.” The point is that Grace is not immune to the dangers of her own style which can, through exaggeration, verge on self-parody and mannerism.
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Jorma Kaukonen also has developed a distinctive style; his guitar playing owes more to Kaukonen than anyone else, which is a rarity in these days of mini-Claptons, Bloomfields and B. B. Kings. However, in contrast to Grace, Kaukonen is less likely to fall into mannered playing, although often his style contributes to a stylized texture.
Which brings us to Marty Balin, whose “Share a Little Joke” is a prime example of uninteresting Airplane. “Share a Little Joke” sounds like bits of other Airplane songs strung together, yet it makes the mistake of not being particularly cohesive, a characteristic quality of the best Airplane songs. Now “Share a Little Joke” is not a terrible track — by this fourth album, the Airplane are to the point where there is little chance that they will commit a truly howling musical blunder, But taking their music as in process of development, a song like “Share a Little Joke” is highly disappointing.
Of course Crown of Creation has its share of excellent moments which reflect the kind of creative rock we have come to expect from the Airplane. For instance, the use of acoustic guitars (sometimes mixed with electric guitars) on several tracks is noteworthy, especially in the case of Balin and Kantner’s “In Time.” On “In Time” Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Kantner spin a gentle yet complex web that surrounds Kantner’s vocal; here also Grace does a beautiful job of vocal embellishment, an object lesson to all practitioners of the art. “Ice Cream Phoenix” is an odd but effective song that sounds refreshingly dissimilar to anything the Airplane have recorded before; it includes a marvelous passage with Kaukonen and Grace phrasing together the line “the wall of your memory will echo your sorrow….” Unfortunately the record’s ambitious closing song, “The House at Pooneil Corners,” does not fare so well; it can best be described as a noble failure. To carry off an explicitly apocalyptic song is a difficult task, even for someone like Jimi Hendrix, but the Airplane nevertheless at times achieve striking success. The song builds nicely in its churning way, and when Grace sings of “jelly & juices & bubbles — bubbles on the floor” the effect is pretty chilling. Yet for some strange reason the track is allowed to drag on for too long with little essential musical development: the chaos and drive is solidly present from the beginning, and after almost six minutes the effect begins to wear off.
Most of the rest of Crown of Creation is capably executed, particularly Kaukonen’s solo on the otherwise undistinguished “Star Track.” Kaukonen here, as elsewhere on the album, uses the wah-wah pedal, making clear that the new sound is a perfectly natural outgrowth of his earlier playing. Apart from “Greasy Heart,” Grace’s only other song is “Lather,” which rather unsubtly uses sound effects; apparently the Airplane saw nothing ludicrous in underlining the phrase “his mother sent newspaper clippings to him” with the sound of scissors clipping paper.
Of special interest is “Triad,” a David Crosby composition. One of the great losses to the rock world was Crosby’s departure from the Byrds where his writing (not to mention his singing) was always a bright spot. “Triad,” with its acoustic guitar arrangement, texturally is reminiscent of the Joni Mitchell set Crosby produced; like so many Crosby songs, this one is rather sad, and (as usual with his work) “Triad” makes a haunting impression. Its inclusion in Crown of Creation is a big plus for the album, doing credit to both Crosby and the Airplane.
Caught between style and stylizazation the Jefferson Airplane seem momentarily trapped artistically in a position where they may engulf themselves through their own exemplary aesthetic efforts. Crown of Creation (like the other Airplane albums) has its high points, but it certainly also has its disappointing low points. Nevertheless the Airplane has steadily (if slowly) evolved, and it is refreshing to have a group refrain from rushing into Sgt. Pepper changes and instrumental augmentations. If the Airplane can avoid the pitfalls of mannered stylization there is every possibility that they will remain among the best solid rock units in the country — and perhaps then we may get, one day, the completely satisfactory album the Airplane should be capable of recording.