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13 November 2017

Jefferson Airplane - 'After Bathing at Baxter's' (RCA Victor)

Now this record I genuinely love, as it fulfils all of the promise of what late 60s psychedelic San Francisco music was supposed to be. I never have managed to get into the Grateful Dead so this is the pinnacle for me. One could argue that if this was supposed to be a 'drug band' (an appellation frequently used when I was growing up to describe artists such as Ozric Tentacles, Janes Addiction, etc), then After Bathing truly is a record made after having the psychedelic experience, where Surrealistic Pillow was more superficial, being mostly dressed-up folk-pop songs. There's little of that here, with the most folk-leaning moment being 'Rejoyce', though it doesn't take long to reveal itself as a wolf in sheep's clothing, with shifting time signatures, a lurching melody and Ulysses-inspired lyrics that tackle everything from nationalism to marital frustrations. That's Grace Slick singing again, now a more fully-integrated member of the band, and it helps. Her voice helps seal the deal on songs like 'Wild Tyme' and 'Young Girl Sunday Blues', both of which are solid, crunching rockers, and her 'Two Heads' has a pre-punk sneer. The guitar playing in general is where things really lift up on this album, as the three-guitar lineup finally starts to do something useful. It's not a thick wall of fuzz like a Superconductor record, nor delicate, thoughtful musings like Bedhead, but three musicians (and songwriters) with different styles, knowing how to assemble their contributions equally. Jorma Kaukonen I think might be the secret MVP of this band, though I don't know - there are edgy shrieks of psychedelic guitar all over this record, oozing from the corners of 'The Ballad of You and Me (And Pooneil)' and 'Martha' which I assume are him, but maybe not. Nine minutes of side two are given over to the improvised jam 'Spare Chaynge', probably considered an indulgent mess by listeners at the time but actually pretty solid. It builds into some more impressive riffage, but again, it's not too thick or lazy; the rhythm section of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, credited as co-composers, finally show their mettle. It's not a throw-everything-into-the-mix psychedelic jam but rather a lurching, jazz-leaning blues-based jam; I'm surprised how much I like it, maybe because it grounds the Airplane into an 'earthier' sound. Maybe I should check out some Hot Tuna records. For the second LP in a row, a Kaukonen composition ('The Last Wall of the Castle') is probably the best song on the album; it's a scorching hot boogie that feels like it's hurtling towards the end of the world while capturing the colours along the journey. But the pop-leaning material is in perfect balance, making this a two-headed beast that feels well-integrated, with hooks that persist fifty years later. This is not just a document of the times but an enduring psychedelic rock masterpiece. I haven't even mentioned 'A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly', which utilises musique concrete and other collage techniques to be the most 'experimental' cut there is. 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' has a nice round-like structure, and is the most obviously drug-referencing lyrics that I could here, but the real 'outer' sounds are 'Small Package' and 'Spare Chaynge'. Jefferson Airplane were a great band but I think recognised for the wrong material. Crown of Creation is a pretty good record too and Kantner's Blows Against the Empire is a very cool thing indeed, though I never picked up either of them, sadly.

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