by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
It tends to be a knee-jerk reflex by most music critics, who seemingly perpetually hold it against the band that they ever strayed away from their hippie roots, to hold up the catalog of Jefferson Airplane as being a worthy musical relic of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s but immediately dismiss everything the band did in its two later incarnations (Jefferson Starship and Starship) as being easily dispensable. The band got so used to getting such savage reviews in its post-Airplane era that they ended up using that as subject matter for one of their angriest songs, “Stairway to Cleveland” from 1981’s Modern Times, which goes so far as to hilariously call Rolling Stone and Village Voice out by name (A gutsy move, that’s for sure!). With the recent passing of band founder Paul Kantner, we thought we’d go back and re-evaluate his post-Airplane albums with the band one by one and see if they were, in fact, really deserving of the critical barbs or if that era of the band has more good music to offer than is commonly believed.
Dragon Fly (1974, Grunt/RCA)
The band’s lineup is little changed from the final lineup of the Airplane, save for the addition of two new members: lead guitarist Craig Chaquico (one of the more unsung excellent rock guitarists of the classic-rock era) and keyboardist/bassist Pete Sears, and the new band’s sound isn’t yet terribly different from latter-day Airplane albums like Bark—even their frequent penchant for mystical or surreal lyrics is still intact—though there’s a slight shift away from the psychedelic music and lyrics of old (especially on the refreshingly straightforward rocker “Come to Life”), and the band has brought aboard occasional latter-day Airplane guest violinist Papa John Creach as a full-time member. The latter-day Airplane suffered commercially from having very few obvious singles in its output (indeed, they hadn’t had a Top 40 hit since “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” in the ‘60s), but, while this album fared little better, there’s some pop potential brimming underneath the surface. Both “Ride the Tiger” and the epic (nearly seven-and-a-half-minute) ballad “Caroline”—the album’s best moment—have melodies memorable enough to render them minor band classics. While most of the other tracks are appealing enough (particularly “Come to Life” and “Hyperdrive”), the album’s lack of hooks and strong choruses ends up really working against the album.
Red Octopus (1975, Grunt/RCA)
The new band’s sophomore outing was a commercial breakthrough for the band, and deservedly so. Former Airplane lead vocalist Marty Balin, who made a one-song guest spot on Dragon Fly, is a full-time member of the band once again and here provides the group with its single biggest hit to date, the syrupy ballad “Miracles.” There’s no denying that it’s the schmaltziest song that the band has made up to this point, but it’s simultaneously the most hook-laden song the band has put out since the days of “Somebody to Love.” It’s hard not to admire the band’s attempts to take what otherwise might just be a saccharine AM radio ballad and turn it into something epic and sweeping (the album version clocking in at just under seven minutes.) Elsewhere, Grace Slick turns in her greatest single set of songs in years, the best being the album-opening “Fast Buck Freddie” and the playful romp “Play on Love,” in which Slick lets down her guard and shows a real sexy and flirtatious side we rarely ever hear from her on record. It’s an unusually light moment for such a typically serious band, but it works amazingly well. Chaquico ends up being an invaluable contributor as well, co-penning both “Fast Buck Freddie” and the new band’s hardest-rocking cut to date, “Sweeter Than Honey.” The band’s chops are impressive on the two instrumentals, the Creach showcase “Git Fiddler” and “Sandalphon,” the back half of which nearly sounds like a lost Allman Brothers jam.
Spitfire (1976, Grunt/RCA)
Creach had left the band for a solo career, but Spitfire otherwise very much seems like a conscious duplicate of Red Octopus, just without any truly great songs. Like its predecessor, the album's lead single comes from Marty Balin. "With Your Love" is every bit as hooky as Balin's "Miracles" but manages to come off sounding even more schmaltzy and makes soft-rockers England Dan and John Ford Coley seem aggressive in comparison. Even Slick’s best track here (“Hot Water”) is noticeably lacking the same fire and immediacy of “Play on Love.” Like much of Dragon Fly, the album is short on hooks strong enough to keep you coming back and way too many cuts just seem like leftovers from the previous album. It seems—particularly given the number of songs from outside writers and the presence of a one-off, self-sung composition from drummer John Barbata—that the band was short on material at the time. The album’s best moment comes from the Side One-closing epic “St. Charles,” which stopped shy of the Top 40 upon release as a single at the time but today seems far superior to “With Your Love.”
Earth (1978, Grunt/RCA)
The band’s final album with Balin, Earth is a step back in the right direction, even if it noticeably stands in stark contrast to the identity the band was cultivating on Dragon Fly. While it doesn’t make quite as artistically cohesive a statement as Red Octopus, it’s certainly their catchiest set of songs since that album. The Balin-sung ballads—this time penned by outside writers like Jesse Barish, who Balin would continue to go to for material during his solo career in the ‘80s (“Hearts,” “Atlanta Lady”)—are less syrupy, and both “Count on Me” and the even better “Runaway” would go on to be Top 40 hits. Slick also gets in one of the album’s highlights with “Love Too Good,” which hearkens back to her playful performance on “Play on Love,” if in a vaguely more disco-ish ambience. Earth still sounds fairly soft relative to the albums that followed and is more easily compared to Balin’s solo albums than the Jefferson Starship albums from here on out, but it’s at least got more appealing pop hooks going for it than could be found on Spitfire.