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Jefferson Airplane - Surrealistic Pillow CD (album) cover


Jefferson Airplane



3.62 | 196 ratings

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5 stars A perfect moment from the real Summer of Love, '66

"Somebody once said there was a period, maybe about a week in 1966, where anything you wished for would come true. Like you know, 'wish upon a star' kinda stuff. And sure enough, it did." -Paul Kantner

I've heard both Airplane and Dead members say '66 was the real thing while '67 was for the tourists. I wasn't there but I'll take their word for it. This iconic work was created at the tail end of 1966 and is deserving of its status. Sometimes I see people question why the earlier classic albums are rated so highly. After all, these albums seem quaint by today's standards and they lack today's sophisticated recording techniques. I've never understood these reviewers though, from my perspective albums like Pillow, Piper, Rubber Soul, and Days of Future Passed are about as good as music gets. While the later works of all of these bands would get more experimental and complex, and while I would call many of them masterpieces as well, there is something special about the early work.

I think there are several factors which make these works appealing. What comes through in the early work is band relationships which are still firmly in the "band of brothers" fun stage. They are not yet tired and plagued by infighting. Their drug experimentation was still in the wide-eyed stage of hallucinogens and mostly good vibes, as opposed to some of the dark excesses that came later. But most importantly to me, the one foot in each world effect, the transition, the blast off, this is the moment I find so exciting. These works are the moments when the traditional songs are just starting to morph. The branches are just starting to sway in the breeze. So you get to hear songs which are still fairly traditional on the exterior being ever so subtly twisted by the infancy of the counterculture, and it is that combination of the innocent and mischievous which is so unique. Yes in a couple of years everything would get very radical. But I for one find the initial altering of the consciousness as exciting as the full blown party. It's like those first partying experiences in your teen years which were so memorable and largely innocent. Those naive and heavy moments with friends. Bands can't really recapture that spirit of wide-eyed wonder any more than people can recapture their youth.

The album was recorded a mere two weeks after Slick joined the band in November of 1966. As a testament to how talented and resourceful they were, the sessions took two weeks and cost $8K. The collective charisma and enchanting power on display place Pillow among the very best iconic albums of the 1960s or any decade for that matter. Slick brought a combination of power and sexuality a full decade before anyone knew who Ann Wilson or Stevie Nicks were. Along with Marty Balin's wide range and generally likable presence, the Airplane had one of the most entertaining and formidable vocal fronts of any band. The had the ability to play off of each other and trade leads for great variety. Behind them were a band every bit as interesting as the Dead or the Doors. For 1966 Kaukonen had an aggressive and sometimes caustic edge to his playing while having the ability to spin pure sunny beauty with the delicate "Embryonic Journey." Textural contrast is all over this album as it songwriting variety. From the whimsical sweetness of "My Best Friend" to the hazy strains of "Today", Surrealistic Pillow proves Kantner's magical quote about 1966.

The sparks fly early in the lead off track "She Has Funny Cars", it is the moment when Balin's smooth voice is first joined by Grace's tentative, soft entrance to the band. An interesting track with different sections that range from chilled to urgent, that abrasive guitar edge already getting in your face. "Somebody To Love" is a single I thought I was sick of years ago from radio play, along with "White Rabbit." Wrong. In the context of the original album, nicely remastered, both come alive with a new power. "Somebody" rocks out while "Rabbit" beguiles with masterfully played leads, completely subtle but mysterious. "Comin Back to Me", recorded the first of November 1966, is among my favorite Marty Balin moments. After a delicate acoustic/flute opening that is pure San Francisco flowers, he dreamily sings "the summer had inhaled and held its breath too long, the winter looked the same as if it never had gone." I love that. It's a very poetic and fragile piece but effective. Kantner's "DCBA-25" is another typical sunny psych number whose lilting guitars simply transport you to the Haight, very upbeat, very happy, as the three vocalists harmonize behind it. "How Do You Feel" is a love song with more acoustics and Grace's recorder, great harmonies and completely high-minded. The album closes with Balin's uber cool delivery on the catchy, lyrically clever "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which is commentary on television, and features some Jerry Garcia guitar work.

It is what a wide-eyed, joyful, cynicism-free masterpiece feels like. If you're young and wondering if you should bother with these albums from half a century ago, made by people now in their 70s, the answer is a resounding Yes. They won't provide the adrenalin rush of the latest Haken album but there is much more to life than what is currently cool. Be amazed by what the mid 60s artists did when they were replacing the templates.

Finnforest | 5/5 |


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