Then came the circus so I followed its parade
Fancy lion tamers, high-wire fiery flamers
Ravers of every kind
I saw those high-stepping sexy witches
Sons of satin, sons of bitches – all were there in my dreams
‘Dreams’ – Grace Slick
Now here’s a right little belter of an LP, Grace Slick Dreams.
This one splashed down in my life when I was about 12 and made a massive impression on me. My dad had a tape of Dreams on one side and, I think, Rumours on the other. I had heard him playing it a few times and was immediately drawn to the drama and vocal pyrotechnics of Dreams*.
I can remember it being one of the very few tapes of his I listened to on my Walkman. I have really strong memories of being transported by the exotic cast of characters summoned on the title track, thrilling to Grace Slick’s sinuous phrasing on ‘El Diablo’ and, on a windy day, feeling all adolescent and moody standing on the hill at the back of our house in the long grass, blasting ‘Face To The Wind’ just revelling in the joyous overwhelming power of it all. Then I sort of forgot about it all again for 30 years.
Not wishing to be struck down by hippy fundamentalists I have to say that I think some of Slick’s very best performances live right here on Side 1 of Dreams. With the exception to the obvious singles Jefferson Airplane were always a little underpowered for me, never quite escaping gravity. My Dad’s Jefferson Starship** albums were much more to my taste.
From what I can gather the band assembled by Ms Slick were a bunch of skilled session musicians and arrangers, some 6 years after her last solo LP (the awesomely titled) Manhole. There may have been drink and drug recovery going on, my informers tell me and there is a trace of the positive banalities from the AA lexicon around the fringes of a couple of Dreams less inspired lyrics. And so it goes.
But, lo, what sound yonder silence breaks? it is the opening and title track ‘Dreams’. After a gentle pianissimo opening there’s Grace and she wastes no time at all in showing us her firepower; menacing us with a glimpse of sweet vocal overdrive. The music is fabulous, a strange show-time parade befitting the freak circus she sings about, every bar designed to service and facilitate that incredible voice***.
I still get goose bumps when she really lets go, genuinely has there ever been a better rock vocalist? Need I say that the aforementioned goose bumps pulse alarmingly when she purrs ‘Sodom and Gomorrah / I see you’re back in town’, making those cities of the plain sound like an ideal holiday destination.
Second track is even better. ‘El Diablo’ is awash with incredibly tasteful guitaring courtesy of, well, three guitarists^^ and there are times when it boasts my favourite guitar opening ever. True story. The way that Ms Slick then wraps her phrasing around the snaking guitar lines is a thing of pure beauty and joy to me, especially when the wonderfully halting percussion starts to kick in. ‘El Diablo’ also gives lie to the view that Slick just over sings, always a danger when possessed of such weaponry I suspect; she doesn’t at all, everything is beautifully controlled and entirely proportionate.
Third track is even better. ‘Face To The Wind’, facilitator for my teenaged romantic/climatic angst is text book dramatic fare. We start out gentle and then gradually elements are added as Grace moves up through the gears laying out her message of ultimate defiance. If I was one of them weirdo objective reviewer dudes I might concede that it errs a little on the side of AOR, but I’m not one of those at all.
‘But still I stand / Face to the wind’ – here’s where you have to picture me, spotty, skinny, mulletted and forlorn (for no real reason I can recall), screaming out the words into an uncaring wind on a south Walian hillside.
Then we go a bit Stevie-Nicks-meets-Survivor on ‘Angel Of The Night’, but with a bit more grunt and heft behind. It’s fine and I like the way it chugs along, even if it robs from Heart a bit.
The final five tracks on Dreams are all Grace Slick penned tunes, of very variable quality I am afraid to say. ‘Seasons’ plays somewhat like a perky number from an abandoned Disney musical about a nuclear holocaust. At their best, ‘Garden Of Man’ the instrumentation is interesting and they reach towards the grandiose and harmonic. At their worst, ‘Let It Go’. we learn that drugs can be bad and that they can hinder your inner spirit child. Yuk.
What interests me is that the self-penned songs don’t unleash the howitzer of her voice in the same manner as those written by others, possibly because the other tracks use simpler, generally rockier instrumentation – or maybe we fellas just want to quiver to the thrill of that voice being used to maximum wall-shaking affect.
I would commend Dreams to your attention, at least half of it anyway. Nothing else sounds like it, which is about as good a recommendation as I can give for anything.
On which note I shall leave you as I continue on my life-long quest to find a suitably racy circus parade to join, damn those so-far elusive high-stepping witches!
Too much of life has fallen through my hands
I pray the Lord I get another chance
To face the raging storm and test its hands‘Face To The Wind’ – Grace Slick
PS: Excellent contemporary interview here. ‘The human name don’t mean shit to a tree’ – too right Grace. She’s every bit as bright and funny as I’d hoped:
*I’ve still yet to fully get into Rumours, apart from ‘The Chain’. True story. Maybe they were put together because they both share a track called ‘Dreams’ on them? At least Rumours isn’t as shit as Pet Sounds …
**not fucking Starship, Jefferson Starship! You know Dragon Fly^ and Red Octopus. All hail Papa John Creach!
***penned by KISS associate and co-writer Sean Delaney.
^’Ride The Tiger’, what an absolute tune!
^^Sal Ditroia, Scott Zito and George Wadenius.