Until the release of this disc in the summer of 2003, the CD history of Surrealistic Pillow had been a study in confusion and frustration. The original 1980s CD was an abomination, the mid-'90s high-priced audiophile version an improvement (offering both the stereo and mono mixes of the album), the 2000 European reissue a slight improvement over that, and the 2001 remastering a sharper and louder version of the stereo/mono mixes. And then came this 2003 remastering, which skips the mono mixed version of the album but offers superior fidelity on the stereo mix, with better balance and a more solid center (especially for the voices) between the two stereo channels than any prior version. It's still not perfect, betraying some slight distortion, but it hits this listener as at least the equal of the 2001 version, with the added bonus of a quartet of chronologically related single sides: the superb Jorma Kaukonen-authored slow blues "In the Morning" (worth the price of the new disc), featuring John Hammond, (allegedly) Jerry Garcia, and future Steppenwolf keyboard wizard Goldy McJohn; founding member Skip Spence's more folky and spirited "J.P.P. McStep B. Blues" (which would have been a great B-side, but lay in the vaults until 1974's Early Flight); the slashing, guitar-driven rocker "Go to Her" in its harder, more developed second version -- the Paul Kantner co-authored song had been in the band's repertoire from the beginning, and gets its more powerful of two treatments here, with a killer solo verse by Grace Slick and great ensemble singing; and Kaukonen's searing psychedelic rearrangement of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Come Back Baby," a late-winter 1967 track sandwiched midway between this album and the sessions for After Bathing at Baxter's. Also included are the mono single mixes of "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," which aren't all that special, though they are different from the stereo album mixes. There is also a hidden bonus track appended, after an extended pause, to the latter song -- an instrumental track to Paul Kantner's "D.C.B.A. - 25," included for no apparent reason except to throw listeners a bone from the original multi-track studio tapes. The overall effect is to make Kaukonen stand out a bit more in center stage and, coupled with the very thorough annotation, makes the 2003 version an absolutely essential acquisition.
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Because Surrealistic Pillow was the first album by a San Francisco band to go gold, and because it also spawned two Top Ten singles (the emblematic-of-their-era "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit"), it's tempting to think of Jefferson Airplane as merely hippies with hits. Actually, the band's musical roots were considerably earthier than that might suggest. True, there was a folk-music contingent in the Airplane, at least on the guitar end, but a good half of the group (singer Marty Balin, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dreyden) were seasoned bar-band and studio vets with long experience in R&B and jazz. Which probably explains why these so-called hippies were such a ferocious live act and why this record, against the odds, has dated very little. Chock-full of first-rate songs, the album ranges from exquisite ballads ("Today") to rustic acoustic guitar interludes ("Embryonic Journey") to careening psychedelic apocalypses (the aptly titled "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds"). Make sure you get the 1996 reissue, which features remastered mono and stereo versions; the mono, out of print for years, is by far the best sound the band ever got on record.