First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2004, Volume 11, #10
Written by John Metzger
A mere two years after the Summer of Love, the foundation of the hippie movement had started to show signs of wear, the Woodstock Festival notwithstanding, and the ties that bound its media-chosen spokesband together had begun to fray. At the same time, America was at a cultural crossroads: the war in Vietnam, the policies of the Nixon Administration, and the deaths of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were not only weighing heavily upon the nation but also were taking their toll, particularly on a generation of teenagers and young adults who felt frustratingly ignored by those in power. It was within this boiling cauldron that Jefferson Airplane’s fifth studio album Volunteers — the last to feature the ensemble’s classic line-up of Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Spencer Dryden — emerged. Coalescing around a bitter commentary that reflected the fractured state of America, the members of Jefferson Airplane unleashed their final masterpiece, which called for a simplified life of spiritual enlightenment and railed at the corporate greed, bitter politics, and environmental degradation that was ravaging the country.
Fueled by a raging intensity that was peppered with lysergic beauty and gentle bucolic bliss, Volunteers remains as potent a distillation of ’60s values as any album from the era. Indeed, unlike many of its counterparts, the collection has lost none of its bite over the course of the past 30 years simply because its lyrics were so finely crafted, its music so sublime. Kaukonen’s snarling guitar spun circles around the traditional hymn Good Shepherd turning it into a prayer of hope for communal society, which Jerry Garcia echoed in kind with sprightly swirls of pedal steel on the egalitarian dream of The Farm. On the march-turned-barn-burning rocker Hey Frederick, Slick merged sexual innuendo with socio-political intimations as the band matched her ominous tone, note for note, while on Eskimo Blue Day, she reveled in her sharp critique of human arrogance. The best-known track from the collection, however, was the post-apocalyptic anthem Wooden Ships, which just a few months earlier had been featured on the debut by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Jefferson Airplane’s rendition was slightly different in that it offered a ray of hope to those who heeded the band’s call to "ride the music," yet it also was equally magnificent in the way it painted a sorrowfully haunting future for mankind.
Recently remastered, Volunteers now boasts a sterling, crystalline sound that highlights the multi-dimensional depths of the songs’ acid-tinged arrangements. Augmenting the original material is a quintet of bonus tracks (Good Shepherd, Somebody to Love, Plastic Fantastic Lover, Wooden Ships, and Volunteers) — all of which were plucked from a pair of November 1969 concerts at the Fillmore East — that offer definitive proof that Jefferson Airplane had become a formidable live act, capable of soaring as high as the Grateful Dead. A week later, the dream turned into a nightmare when the Altamont disaster brought the turbulent decade to a violently depressing conclusion, and in 1970, drummer Spencer Dryden departed from the group. As a result, Volunteers became Jefferson Airplane’s final stand, an incendiary masterwork that overflowed with the urgency of the ensemble’s heartfelt convictions.
Volunteers is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box