Janis herself has never sounded better on record, but it took me four full listenings to the LP before I could hear her. That’s how bad her band is. When (and if) you get hold of this record, my suggestion is that you listen really hard to how awful the backup is — everything from the arrangements to the level of musicianship. Those sons of bitches can’t do anything really right. The only answer is to get super-familiar with what they’re doing so you can ignore it. And then dig Janis.
They can’t be that bad, you say?
On “Try,” they stutter along like Stax rejects, thudding out a 16-to-the-bar quick-step so metronomic it defies you to pat your foot, let alone get up and dance. Janice sounds great, but —
“One Good Man” contains perhaps the only instrumental blessing on the whole record, wherein Sam Andrew plays a tolerable bottleneck introduction and obbligato to Janis’ vocal. At least the rest of the band is relaxed on this track, even if they add nothing. (Disconcerting reminders of Canned Heat intrude late in the arrangement, however.)
“As Good As You’ve Been To This World” finds the band back in their accustomed groove: incredibly stiff ensemble passages which sound for all the world like a college marching band at half-time doing their big Swing routine. Snooky Flowers plays the worst baritone saxophone solo I have ever heard, discounting only a handful of amateur performers at jam sessions in people’s garages. The tenor sax solo, while empty, is somewhat less embarrassing. The trumpet solo consists mainly of excruciating pauses where he was hung for ideas that never, alas, came. Then comes a big chug-CHUG-CHUG buildup to Janis’ vocal, reminiscent of those fine, socking arrangements behind Otis Redding — except that Janis’ band falls completely on its face. The big buildup is a huge, fumbling let-down, and only a massive effort of will on Janis’ part manages to make the track in any way listenable. (The way it’s recorded, her voice is buried in among the horns, so that, at times, it sounds like a grotesque duel between her and Flowers’ ugly, snorting horn.)
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On “To Love Somebody,” Janis is positively impassioned, imparting a terrifying urgency to the repeated line “You don’t know …” The band is almost mellow behind her, and the stomping arrangement is the only one on the record with any true character. It is marred, though, by uncertain intonation in the horns. Somebody’s out of tune — and why producer Gabriel Mekler, Janis’ organist, allowed this to happen is hard to imagine. Anybody can see to it that a band tunes up.
“Little Girl Blue” is a fine old Rodgers & Hart tune, and Janis is in fine form, unleashing her Texas furies (coupled with intimations of both Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington) upon the song’s fragile melody. But the intro — Sam Andrew’s guitar playing a fugal line — is almost identical to Big Brother’s arrangement to “Summertime.” Why should this be? Will every ballad Janis does get the same sweet/funky back-up? The string arrangement (!) is limber enough, and properly elegant — until at the very end, the final cello note (meant to cap off the whole thing) slides down at least a half-step flat. It destroys the whole beautiful mood Janis has created, really, because you are left with the feeling that the whole thing is essentially slipshod. Amazing that Columbia would release this!
“Work Me Lord” is excellent Joplin, despite an ensemble that steals the well-worn “Hey Jude” figure, and despite the ragged horns, which blow sour ones right and left. Janis gives this track (indeed, the whole record) whatever vitality it’s got. Listen when she’s not singing, here and elsewhere, where the band’s on their own. Without Janis to lean on they sound lumpier than a beer hall accordion band.
One of the principal faults is the wooden, mechanical drumming. But it’s not just the drummers, and not just the rhythm section. On the basis of this record, there’s not a funky cat in the band — and that’s the pure hell of it: nothing is more disgusting than listening to un-funky cats work at funk. It’s fortunate for Janis that she’s funky enough — all by herself — to overcome.
She sounds great. Just great. It’s simply a matter of reaching the point where you are able to shut out the band — entirely — and listen to this woman sing. An odd strategy, admittedly, but guaranteed worth it.