Janis’ last. Fortunately, Pearl is a good record and Janis is often magnificent. The voice cut off was clearly in its prime. I suspect that some of the tracks are not in their final shape, but these are not scraps, and there is every indication that Janis was working toward a new maturity and confidence.
Her last album can’t simply be an occasion for evaluation. The fact that there will be no more studio albums inevitably outweighs the issue of how good or how bad the record might be. Besides, Janis was a heavy, and had incredible presence whether at the top or bottom of her form. She was a remarkable, if erratic, singer, and she proved it, live and on record. Anyone who exhibits qualities of greatness earns certain privileges — not critical immunity so much as the right to be forever removed from inconsequentiality: all their work, flawed or not, is worth experiencing. Would you rather listen to bad Monk or good Ramsey Lewis? Or, if Monk could ever be called bad, could Lewis ever be called good? In certain instances, “good” and “bad” can be pretty useless terms. It’s Janis, or it’s Monk, and you listen, and you care, because you know that whatever is going down is genuine and may contain a revelation, and possibility that may be written off in the case of lesser artists.
Janis’ career was complicated by its skyrocketing character. The music she made with Big Brother (documented on Cheap Thrills) was so full-bodied and complete, had such a distinctive stamp, that it became in a listener’s mind an end, rather than a beginning. A hard act to follow, an even harder one to change from. She was a rock singer with a rock band, not a “vocalist” in the conventional, independent sense. Her (in my opinion) failures confirmed this. She couldn’t really handle a song with a tradition behind it, like “Summertime.” The result was hokey and not a little desperate. Similarly, on “Little Girl Blue” (from Kozmic Blues), her style, her very being, flashed with the firm identity of the song. The song resists her, the way it wouldn’t, say, Ella, or Chris Connor, or most vocalists.” But ooooh, the vibes on Cheap Thrills. The critics gave that album a rough time, but audiences sized it up just right as a momento of a live show they didn’t want to forget. Not only the music, but their own experience was immortalized, so they bought a million copies of it. And if they hadn’t seen the group live, they went after buying the record and got just what the psychologist ordered: the assurance of finally being present at an event they were luckless enought to have previously missed out on. In the face of such drives, reviewers can be extraneous.
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It was music that swept you away. Its crude confidence was somehow part of its unwritten aesthetic. It gave a sense of something religious going on. The stuttering guitar on “Combination of the Two” seemed a strange form of prayer to some new god in the making. There are some things that polish will destroy. Janis singing “I Need a Man to Love” like a used waif is one of them. Big Brother’s flesh-electric assault was more than enough to compensate for lack of refinements. It was no Frankensteinian current radically startling the body, but something that flowed through it as naturally as blood, a richener. They made a giant sound and had the stage energy of a palpitating mountain. Janis seemed to be in her element, giving up pieces of her heart like there was enough for everyone.
Nothing on Pearl or Kozmic Blues equals that supreme moment of artistic largesse and it’s promise of life’s bounty. With Big Brother, Janis was free to leap and range; the band was always there to break any falls. But there are no real disasters on the record, and when I saw them live just before they broke up there was still an overriding exultation, remarkable in a band that was supposedly full of discontent and had been repeating a small repertoire of songs for so long. Evidently, what they had to offer from the beginning was substantial enough to take a lot of wear before it began to thin.
Kozmic Blues was bound to be a disappointment, and it was. Janis seemed displaced. The new band didn’t help much and her voice, subjected to studio clarity, sounded more strained than expressive. Her style, too, transplanted to a tighter setting, seemed overblown and uncontrolled. Still, she salvaged the record. In her best moments, she took the lumpish rhythm and gave it wings, using the slides of her voice and her asymmetrical attack on the syllables to break loose from the banal riffing behind her. It was like trying to breathe life into a corpse. Having everything thrown on her shoulders, she tortured her mannerisms, and what sounded right with Big Brother verged on unpleasantness and often lacked justification.
No wonder the association was short lived. Eventually, she assembled Full Tilt Boogie, the band that backs her on Pearl. They are simply a better band and more congenial to Janis, which is a big reason why Pearl is more satisfying than Kozmic Blues. What distinguishes it, in general, from Cheap Thrills, is a certain flavor. The halcyon days of rock are over, and it shows. Big Brother put an ambience, a quality, into circullation, released it into the atmosphere, and Columbia was around to pluck it and transfer it to records. With Pearl it’s a case of a conscious attempt to make something of Janis’ talent; simply having it wouldn’t do any more. Each has its limitations. Cheap Thrills is sloppy as hell. Pearl is more refined and careful and labored and not as exciting, but it does show, on occasion, that the girl who let loose with Big Brother had other things to offer that were equally valid as the uninhibited rocking and souling that had become her trademark and her legend. This is not a new Janis, but a redefined, more organized, old Janis. Her good and her bad vocal habits are still the same, but they are tempered by updated goals and surroundings.
Columbia must be credited with a discreet packaging job. No outrageous claims are made; there is, in fact, an air of understatement in the unassuming photos of Janis (front) and the band (back). The effect is to make us ready to listen to the music and let the awful business of Janis’ fate and whatever it or she might “mean” outside of music proper operate as a substratum of feeling. It is also clear that Paul Rothschild was working hard to find the right material and the right context for Janis, to shape her gifts and give them direction and balance. Janis’ vocals are more contained than usual, more “fitted” to precise arrangements without any lose of intensity, suggesting a willing self-discipline and channeling of energies.
“Move Over” opens the album and the distribution of emphasis says a lot. The band, while relatively anonymous, is very much of a band, and not in any way dwarfed by Janis. They move with her and she with them. The tune is quick, the production tight, and there is no room for grandstanding. “Cry Baby” is Janis in full, passionate orbit. Her urge for drama, sometimes too hasty and spurting — not developed and sustained — is controlled by the solid foundation Full Tilt Boogie provides. She stays in control, and invitations to hysteria notwithstanding, gives a fantastic performance.
“A Woman Left Lonely” raises a question whether a singer like Janis can be “produced,” whether the studio production characteristic of this album is any substitute for the anti-production of Cheap Thrills, and whether rawness is a quality in itself that shouldn’t be messed with if and when it seems to be an essential quality. I love Cheap Thrills, but I have to admit that the extra care and guidance works wonders here. Janis’ tendency to rush the moment of intensity is kept in check long enough for the tune to achieve a shape and a flow. By the authority of her delivery early in the tune, she earns the right to just plain rip at the close.
The organ solo midway is calculated to provide an emotional width, to stretch the texture, make things spacious, and help “build” the tune. Since I find Janis’ self-assertive habit of driving every song to a similar climax as much pathological as artistically viable, I think the tight organization on this album makes a good mold for her excesses, gives them form and tension. There’s only a stray moment or two where her credibility breaks down from this misapplied frenzy.
“Half Moon,” with congas, is atypical. More like Full Tilt Boogie accompanied by Janis Joplin than the other way around. With the band taking over, Janis is under no obligation to outdo herself and must have found it a relief to ease the flame on her torch and let the band upstage her. She sounds like she wasn’t even famous, and if you substituted her vocal with someone else’s it would still be an effective cut (not that she isn’t mighty good). “Buried Alive in the Blues” is a harmless interlude that has no vocal though one was intended. What might have been some good honest crotch rock has been studio-deodorized into a series of fussy touches. It has little force as an instrumental, but might have made a good accompaniment. Everybody seems on assignment, and bits of sound sort of hurtle against each other. There’s no spontaneity and a crippling cuteness. An instance of overproduction, a fault which makes for a stiffness that runs through the album as a whole.
Side two opens with “My Baby,” a song that wants to do a funky roll, but something’s grounding it. Maybe it’s the piecemeal studio construction, or the clompingly conventional approach that some pleasant intricacies in the arrangement can’t quite dispel. “Me and Bobby McGee” is bot