I guess it’s all in what you look for in a rock and roll record.
Now, I happen to think that the Jefferson Airplane, on the basis of what they have done on Bathing at Baxters’ and now Volunteers, are musical pioneers. But tell this to some people and they tell you that the Airplane is dull, leaden. They don’t swing, for chrissakes. And on Volunteers, man, the politics …
But there is most assuredly something there with the Airplane, something that may raise the musical sophistication and complexity of rock and roll to new heights. The only trouble is that in the process, the Airplane is turning off a part of their audience, those who might be called successors to the it’s-got-a-nice-beat-and-you-can-dance-to-it people. This same thing has happened to jazz a dozen times, and although I hate to start drawing parallels between rock and jazz, still I think it’s fair to say that pretty soon we’ll be seeing the emergence of a whole new brand of “serious rock,” which will probably get even less airplay than “progressive rock” does today, appeal to a smaller audience, and generate a good deal of very heated debate.
Now, I am neither a musician nor a musicologist, so I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly what it is that the Airplane is doing that inspires me to all of these rash feats of prophecy, but if you compare the fine collective improvisation “Spare Chaynge” on the Baxters’ album to the general musical level of your average “super-session,” or compare the well thought-out guitar work of Jorma Kaukonen to your average wind-up guitarist, maybe you’ll see what I mean. Or maybe you won’t. Like I say, it’s all in what you’re looking for. For instance, one thing I really appreciate is the way the Airplane plays around with the rhythmic and harmonic structures they set up in a song; in “Spare Chaynge” they are merely hinted at, while in “Hey Fredrick” they are emphasized while the musicians play around with the value of the metrical unit. I find that kind of thing exciting, at least when the musicians are good enough to know what they’re doing and to do it well; you may be indifferent or bored by it all, or you may feel that to have to put as much effort as it takes to figure all that out into a piece of rock and roll is ridiculous.
So, with the prejudices up front, let’s take a look at Volunteers.
Probably the best cut on the album is their version of “Wooden Ships,” which has been given new life by Paul Kantner. Kantner seems to be a true innovator; in almost all of his songs the vocal harmonies come to the fore, rich and weirdly un-harmonic, consisting as they do of lots of unresolved seconds and other strange intervals. “Wooden Ships” emerges as a new and better “Won’t You Try Saturday Afternoon” with the same apocalyptic bass (Casady was credited with playing “Yggdrasill bass” on Crown of Creation, Yggdrasill being the Norse sacred tree of life) and a fine searing lead guitar. The song comes off as more of a scream of desperation than does the Crosby-Stills-Nash version, with the “wooden ships on the water” part supported by some mellow harmony that reinforces the lyrics nicely. It is an epic performance, and one of the best the Airplane has ever done.
The other major song on the album is Grace’s “Hey Fredrick,” which contains some really inspired instrumental work by Jorma and Nicky Hopkins, who seems to turn nearly everything he touches into gold. Jorma’s duet with himself is remarkable in that neither of the parts is anything special by itself, but they are different enough so that the combination of the two parts results in a separate, third musical entity.
“We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers” are more or less the song (and I have a feeling that the chord progressions used show up in somewhat different forms in several of the other songs — “”Good Shepherd” and “The Farm,” for instance). Kantner’s harmonies are here in all their glory, and the tune(s) is (are) undeniably catchy. Some people are disturbed by the words. Well, they’re certainly no more or less stupid than the average rock lyrics, and right about now lyrics about revolution are becoming about as trite as most of those about love have always been. Is “We Can Be Together” a political statement? Listen to how the “revolutionaries” sing the line “And we are very proud of ourselves” before launching into the self-indulgent “Up against the wall” part. If there’s a political statement here, maybe it’s between the lines. And don’t forget, the kid who buys the album to hear them say “motherfucker” will listen to the rest of it and maybe get musically, if not politically, radicalized.
The rest of the album, with the possible exception of Spencer’s “A Song for All Seasons,” which I think is a cute slap at the music business, but little more, is excellent. “The Farm” and “Turn My Life Down” have supporting vocals by the Ace of Cups, who wind up, due to the exigencies of 16-track recording, sounding like a chorus of angels squished way down in there somewhere. Marty’s voice has never sounded better than on the latter cut, and the pyramiding of the voices on “The Farm” is delightful. “Good Shepherd” is a beautifully relaxed reworking of the old gospel tune, “Eskimo Blue Day” sounds like a combination of “Crown of Creation” and “Bear Melt,” with the best features of each, and “Meadowlands” is just fine.
The Jefferson Airplane will never replace the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead will never replace the Airplane. More power to all of them.
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