Sunday, December 18, 2022

Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow (1967 us, psych rock masterpiece, 2013 audiophile and 2003 xpanded edition)

The second album by Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow was a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia, and it hit like a shot heard round the world; where the later efforts from bands like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and especially, the Charlatans, were initially not too much more than cult successes, Surrealistic Pillow rode the pop charts for most of 1967, soaring into that rarefied Top Five region occupied by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and so on, to which few American rock acts apart from the Byrds had been able to lay claim since 1964.

And decades later the album still comes off as strong as any of those artists' best work. From the Top Ten singles "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" to the sublime "Embryonic Journey," the sensibilities are fierce, the material manages to be both melodic and complex (and it rocks, too), and the performances, sparked by new member Grace Slick on most of the lead vocals, are inspired, helped along by Jerry Garcia (serving as spiritual and musical advisor and sometimes guitarist). Every song is a perfectly cut diamond, too perfect in the eyes of the bandmembers, who felt that following the direction of producer Rick Jarrard and working within three- and four-minute running times, and delivering carefully sung accompaniments and succinct solos, resulted in a record that didn't represent their real sound. 

They did wonderful things with the music within that framework, and the only pity is that RCA didn't record for official release any of the group's shows from the same era, when this material made up the bulk of their repertory. That way the live versions, with the band's creativity unrestricted, could be compared and contrasted with the record. The songwriting was spread around between Marty Balin, Slick, Paul Kantner, and Jorma Kaukonen, and Slick and Balin (who never had a prettier song than "Today," which he'd actually written for Tony Bennett) shared the vocals; the whole album was resplendent in a happy balance of all of these creative elements, before excessive experimentation (musical and chemical) began affecting the band's ability to do a straightforward song. The group never made a better album, and few artists from the era ever did. 
by Bruce Eder

The Jefferson Airplane’s second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, gave notice that San Francisco in 1967 was the epicenter of the counterculture, even more so than swinging London. Established Bay Area bands such as the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service already existed, but Surrealistic Pillow gained AM radio play with “Somebody to Love,” which brought Jefferson Airplane and the Summer of Love into many American households.

Jefferson Airplane had already released a debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, the year before. Something in the air seemed to inject more experimentation and radicalism into music, and the group took a big leap with their second record. The band solidified its new sound (slightly harder-edged but retaining folk-rock elements) when it hired vocalist Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden. Surrealistic Pillow comes on tougher and more focused than the band’s debut, and plays to the instrumental strengths of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady.

Significant sonic differences distinguish the original mono edition from the stereo version. The latter format has a heavier layer of echo. The mono uses the effect more judiciously, and some tracks vary in other ways, such as the more pronounced bass on “Comin’ Back to Me.” Mobile Fidelity’s choice to release the album in mono on two LPs cut at 45RPM is the correct aesthetic choice since it happens to be the best way to hear this music.

More importantly, the new pressing registers a distinct improvement over the original. Guitar tones come through with better clarity, the bass features extra heft, and the vocals are more clearly separated. The tones of Dryden’s drums on the intro of “She Has Funny Cars” feel more distinct, and the slight amount of fuzz tone added to Casady’s bass registers with striking clarity. On the original, when Slick and Marty Balin harmonize, their voices are crammed together, but here, it’s much easier to hear each singer.

Similarly, the voices on the wonderful folk-rock tune “My Best Friend” feel richer and harmonically deeper on the Mobile Fidelity, and Casady’s more audible, firmer bass gives the track a stronger foundation. Kaukonen’s electric-guitar lines ring truer and the acoustic guitar playing possesses added drive. In addition, the acoustic guitars on “Today” sound more resonant and warm, the tambourine in the background is less aggressively splashy than on the earlier pressing, and Dryden’s percussion more dramatically builds on the Mobile Fidelity.

The reissue also gives more space for the rock tunes to spread out, which makes it easy to hear each of the vocalists on “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and lets all the guitar parts bloom. Slick’s vocal on “White Rabbit” is more expressive, and Kantner’s rhythm guitar strikes have a slightly sharper echo behind them that firms up the arrangement. Balin’s vocal on “Plastic Fantastic Lover” conveys the snarl of the original, but the sibilance is tamed and, as a result, he sounds less self-righteous.

I also compared the Mobile Fidelity with the 33RPM mono pressing Sundazed released in 2003. Overall, the Sundazed sounds very good, less bright than the original and nicely balanced. However, as soon as I played “Somebody to Love” on the Mobile Fidelity and could more clearly visualize where Paul Kantner’s voice is placed in relation to Slick’s, just behind and in support, I knew it’s the version everyone should own—as well as more transparent, dynamic, full, and musical. Don’t miss it.
by Joe Taylor
1. She Has Funny Cars (Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin) - 3:14
2. Somebody To Love (Darby Slick) - 3:00
3. My Best Friend (Skip Spence) - 3:04
4. Today (Marty Balin, Paul Kantner) - 3:03
5. Comin' Back To Me (Marty Balin)  - 5:23
6. 3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds (Marty Balin) - 3:45
7. D.C.B.A.-25 (Paul Kantner) - 2:39
8. How Do You Feel (Tom Mastin)  - 3:34
9. Embryonic Journey (Jorma Kaukonen) - 1:55
10.White Rabbit (Grace Slick) - 2:32
11.Plastic Fantastic Lover (Marty Balin) - 2:39
12.In The Morning (Jorma Kaukonen) - 6:21
13.J.P.P. Mcstep B. Blues (Skip Spence) - 2:37
14.Go To Her (Version Two) (Paul Kantner, Irving Estes) - 4:02
15.Come Back Baby (Traditional) - 2:56
16.Somebody To Love (Darby Slick) - 2:58
17.White Rabbit (Grace Slick) / D.C.B.A.-25 - 5:21
Bonus Tracks 13-17 only on 2003 expanded edition

Jefferson Airplane
*Marty Balin - Vocals, Guitar, Lead Vocals Cars", "My Best Friend" And "Go To Her"
*Jack Casady - Bass Guitar, Fuzz Bass, Rhythm Guitar
*Spencer Dryden - Drums, Percussion
*Paul Kantner - Rhythm Guitar, Vocals, 
*Jorma Kaukonen - Lead Guitar, Vocals 
*Grace Slick - Vocals, Piano, Organ, Recorder, Lead Vocals 
*Jerry Garcia - Guitar (Tracks 4,5,11,12,13)

1966  Jefferson Airplane - Takes Off (2013 audiophile remaster)
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