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What is this? A Buckminster Fuller-influenced statement on humanity? Maybe an opus about the elements? (There’s a song called “Fire” and a verse about surfing.) Or maybe there’s a clue in the perspective of the title art. Is this the Jefferson Starship coming back down to earth, or simply waving goodbye as the group is propelled into hyperspace for another Flashback Gordon fantasy?

How about just another pop record? Earth is a grab bag of everything the Starship does, well or poorly. The songs whirl by with no apparent relationship to one another. A great deal of the time, the planet bound observer might be forgiven for wondering whether this is a rock band at all.

Well, it isn’t. Instead, it’s a collective of musicians, singers and composers, each tracking his or her own orbit. All mergers are momentary, the result of chance more than a creative master plan. Surprisingly, it’s not the stars (Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Craig Chaquico) who keep things going, but the relatively anonymous asteroids — drummer Johnny Barbata, bassists/keyboardists Pete Sears and David Freiberg. Only the final track, “All Nite Long,” reminds us what kind of a rock band the Starship used to be. And it’s significant that “All Nite Long” is not only the sole song composed by the entire group, but also Paul Kantner’s single major contribution to the album. To echo another space explorer, is this love or is it confusion?

Mostly the latter, though there are some fine cuts and expert performances here. In Jesse Barish, Balin has discovered the perfect writer for his fevered pop/R&B vocals. Barish’s “Count on Me” and “Crazy Feelin'” are probably the LP’s best songs. Both are terrific showcases for Balin and for the formidable keyboard talents of Pete Sears. In addition, “Count on Me” is the one track on Earth that gives Marty Balin and Grace Slick a chance to sing the soaring harmonies that are this band’s only musical link with the Jefferson Airplane of yore.

Neither “Count on Me” nor “Crazy Feelin'” has much relationship to the rest of the record, and each is infinitely superior to the formulaic tedium of “Fire” and “Runaway,” also sung by Balin. When Grace Slick steps front and center, you think you’re on another planet. Two of the songs she sings were written by Craig Chaquico, the band’s hot young guitarist. Elsewhere, Chaquico is clumsy — his wrongheaded guitar line nearly ruins “Fire” single-handedly — but as a songwriter, he sometimes gets by. Granted, “Love Too Good” is a mistake — Gene Page’s horn and string charts are about as appropriate as a razor blade in an air lock — but as a conventional ballad, the tune might have worked if Slick had the voice for it. “Skateboard” is another matter, however. It’s a tour de force for Slick’s ranting, which with its usual sarcasm, neatly manages to undercut the song’s cash-in novelty aspect. But would the Starship really be happy playing tours to skateboarding teenagers with this cut as a cult hit?

“Show Yourself,” on the other hand, is meant to be Grace Slick’s personal statement, and it pays off. Though Earth nearly sinks under the weight of too many love songs, Slick, in making a political pronouncement with romantic imagery, manages an effective, if not terribly original, commentary on the corporate ownership of American government. It’s not subtle, but this singer’s long suit has always been the thin veil. What’s really good about “Show Yourself” is its underpinnings: strong drumming, an organ lick Sears lifts from “Maggie May” and similar British rock, a dense mix reminiscent of European progressive rock. Slick’s vocal isn’t up to the music, but that’s all that misses.

In contrast, “All Nite Long” isn’t really a song at all. It’s the kind of eclectic jamming San Francisco bands once specialized in; onstage, you can imagine it becoming an encore anthem. Once again, Chaquico’s guitar line, laid on top of a heady mix of voices and rhythm, is an excess, but the intensity of the performance and the commitment to the ideal of rocking all night long make such complaints inconsequential. It’s hard not to wonder what the Starship might sound like if it played so cohesively all the time.

Perhaps Kantner is the key to why it doesn’t. Just as the Jefferson Airplane was originally Marty Balin’s band, the Jefferson Starship is Paul Kantner’s. He brought Balin back and added Chaquico, both of whom now overshadow him. And even though it’s the Balin/Slick vocals that have given the Starship its aural signature, it’s been Paul Kantner’s guitar — not Chaquico’s, which is expert but could have come from anywhere — that has most often provided the perfect bed for their singing. But Kantner, for one reason or another, has withdrawn. It is one thing for him to reduce himself to a rhythm guitarist (that’s his natural turf), but without any of his songs, the Starship sounds like a collection of parts, not a whole. While I’m not necessarily a fan of Kantner’s rambling compositions, I do think this collection of nine random, albeit tightly knit, songs could have used his peculiar and particular vision. There’s no sense of history here and no reflection at all of the roots of the band’s current music. Maybe this is a transitional period, but personally I’d rather fly.

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