Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2176
Seminal 1969 Album Steeped in Revolution, Vitality, Protest: The Aural Equivalent of a Demonstration March, Jefferson Airplane's Uncompromising Volunteers Rooted In Belief Music Can Change World
Awash in controversy and loaded with revolutionary protest, Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers stands as the last album made by the group's classic lineup and brings insurgent closure to the peace-and-love era. The potent 1969 record confronts war, politics, greed, and environmental ruin in head-on fashion matched by few peers. Steeped in the belief people and music could transform the world, it steers the band in community-minded and county-rock directions, and features charged playing by guest luminaries such as Jerry Garcia, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Nicky Hopkins. Volunteers also benefits from being one of the first 16-track recordings. And now, the historic set can be heard in the fidelity the artists and producers intended.
You'll immediately hear finer pacing, enhanced information retrieval, and superior transparency. Soundstages stretch far and extend back, with instrumental separation giving all of the musicians their own place in the mix. As a result, subtle albeit important details – Hopkins' rollicking piano, guitarist Norma Kaukonen's biting tones, Garcia's deft pedal-steel work – emerge in three-dimensional fashion amidst a musical canvas that manages to be both edgy and produced, raw and revealing. Jefferson Airplane has never sounded more vital.
Much had changed in America – and within Jefferson Airplane – in just the two short years since the release of the San Francisco collective's breakthrough smash Surrealistic Pillow. The countercultural movement had darkened, government involvement in Vietnam escalated, and regard for human rights fallen. Retreating from the excessive experimentalism that graced its prior two LPs, the Airplane responded to the social circumstances with defiant, assured, and cohesive songs shot through with driving psychedelia, crunchy acid-rock, and rustic country. From start to finish, it's the aural equivalent of a demonstration march.
Having drawn attention for the inclusion of profanities in multiple tunes, the Top 20 LP also ran up against the nonprofit Volunteers of America after the sextet wanted to title the record Volunteers of Amerika in order to express further dissatisfaction with the country. While Grace Slick and Co. gave into the charity's desires to switch the name, there's nothing compromising about Volunteers. Kaukonen's leads cut searing swaths through urgent fare like "Eskimo Blue Day" and anthemic "We Can Be Together," which boldly speaks out against convention and in favor of chaos and anarchy.
Indeed, in organizing a pseudo summit of many of the counterculture's leading musical figures to participate on Volunteers, the Airplane treats the album as an orchestrated stance against the establishment. Stills and Crosby assist in rocking the boat on a turbulent cover of "Wooden Ships" lined with Slick and Marty Balin's overlapping lead vocals. Hopkins gooses the call-to-arms title track with frisky boogie-woogie lines. Garcia lends "The Farm" a suitable rustic vibe, and on his final appearance with the Airplane, drummer Spencer Dryden helms the pastoral sing-a-long "A Song for All Seasons."
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Review by Mark Werlin - August 4, 2017
Got a revolution?
The stately Colonial Revival house at 2400 Fulton Street where members of the Jefferson Airplane once lived lies just outside a San Francisco neighborhood that was called Haight-Ashbury by the press and is known as 'the Haight' by those who actually live there. A ten-minute walk from the Airplane House places you on the verdant meadows of Golden Gate Park, where in the late 1960s thousands of young people participated—most of them, only very briefly—in a radical social experiment. Refugees from uptight, materialistic suburban households suddenly had access to a wide variety of psychedelic substances, the relaxation of sexual prohibitions (but not a concomitant improvement in gender equality), free or low-cost rock music performances, cheap rent and cheap or free food, and medical care from the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.
And above all: the shared conviction that they were living in a state of revolution.
The Summer of Love was made possible by generous federal programs provided to WWII veterans, educational subsidies and home loans that financed the Greatest Generation's college education and relocation from rundown cities to the shiny clean suburbs that their children, only 20 years later, would scorn and reject. Additional support provided by acronymed US intelligence agencies, ex-Harvard psychology professors, and rogue chemists.
Volunteers, the Jefferson Airplane's sixth studio LP and final album with the lineup of Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, is a time capsule of the social fragmentation that ensued in the wreckage of the failed Summer of Love. Should we protest in the streets, like the New Mobilization against the war in Vietnam? Or rob banks and set off bombs, like the Weather Underground? Or return to the Farm, that mythical place in the American imagination where the Garden is recreated? Or flee the coming nuclear war and sail off with the brothers and sisters in wooden ships?
That list of hippie/anarchist fantasies sounds fanciful forty years on, but songwriters Kantner, Balin and Kaukonen undercut the naïve themes with weary realism and taut performances. "We Can Be Together", "Volunteers", "The Farm" and "Wooden Ships" survey the landscape of utopias that were once imagined but never happened.
Grace Slick's two compositions, "Hey Frederick" and "Eskimo Blue Day", stand out from the album. Grace really was a revolutionary; she refused to play to the fantasies of millions of young men who taped posters of her (circa 1967) to their walls, or to compromise herself as an artist to the label executives. "Either go away or go all the way in"—no other pop musician at the time, male or female, could have written that first line of "Hey Frederick". Her steely tone is more menacing than seductive. Jack Casady's growling bass, Jorma Kaukonen's overcharged guitar, Nicky Hopkins' elegant piano figures and drummer Spencer Dryden's uncanny grasp of Grace's muse combine to make this one of the finest performances in the Airplane catalog, and one of a handful of songs from the SF psychedelic era that don't sound dated. "Eskimo Blue Day" was a highlight in the Airplane's live set, a strikingly modernist arrangement that sets Grace's poetic lyrics against rhythmically tight backing from Jorma, Jack and Spencer.
If Volunteers represents a high point of Grace Slick's songwriting, it's an artistic low for Airplane founder Marty Balin. By the time the band entered Wally Heider Studios in April 1969 to lay tracks on Heider's new 16-channel Ampex recorder, Balin had already ceded direction of the band to Paul Kantner. Balin had dominated Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and Surrealistic Pillow with his Otis Redding-meets-James Dean affect and emotionally-wrought phrasing. On Volunteers, he keeps mostly out of the spotlight, stepping forward only on the title track and on Jorma's "Turn My Life Down". The latter, together with Jorma's tribute to Rev. Gary Davis, "Good Shepherd", seems to come from somewhere else altogether—a place called Hot Tuna, Jorma and Jack's side project that was on the way to becoming a lifelong musical partnership.
Volunteers was the first studio album JA recorded entirely in San Francisco at a studio of their choice at at their own timetable—the previous two albums, "Crown of Creation" and "After Bathing at Baxters" having been recorded in fits and starts to accommodate their busy touring schedule. Engineer Rich Schmidt mixes guest musicians Jerry Garcia (pedal steel guitar) and Nicky Hopkins (piano) seamlessly into the Airplane's sometimes chaotic sound environment.
Mobile Fidelity's Shawn R. Britton, assisted by Rob LoVerde, transferred the original master stereo tape to DSD, and the resulting SACD has the strengths and limitations of the source. 16-track recording was in its infancy in 1969: Volunteers was one of the first LPs recorded in the new format. Sound quality of the SACD is very good and faithful to the original (my reference is an RCA LP). Bob Irwin's remastering for the 2004 CD was an improvement over the mid-1990's CD issue, and Britton's is better still. I'm a firm believer that guitar and bass amp distortion and analogue tape saturation distortion—both in evidence on Volunteers—transfer more euphoniously to DSD than to PCM. The MoFi SACD is the version to own.
It will come as a disappointment to MCH enthusiasts that the quadraphonic version of Volunteers, originally released on Quad LP in 1973, was not included in this reissue. If the four-channel tape is extant and in good condition, perhaps it will be released someday in hi-res on Blu-Ray or via download.
The original album art is faithfully reproduced in the booklet, including song lyrics, typography and cartoons. When you open the reproduction gatefold cover, you'll be rewarded with a colorful, if small, peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
Copyright © 2017 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net