Pazz and Jop 1971 -#12 (tied)

Janis Joplin – Pearl

(Weirdly, it just occurred to me after doing this for the past two months that this is the 50th anniversary year of all these records. Ah, such a keen observer, I am.)

We finally come to a record I’ve listened to before. This was only a few months ago, after I read an incredibly sweet letter that she wrote to her family shortly before she became a star. (Check out “More Letters of Note” if you’re curious.) I thought it was fine, but didn’t remember much about it. My (now evolved) method with these mostly unfamiliar albums is to play them once to get over the strangeness (a lesson learned from Sly and the Family Stone), then again later with more attentiveness. When I listened on Tuesday past, I thought it was mostly meh. I don’t feel that way anymore. 

It’s an unfinished record – “Buried Alive in the Blues” is an instrumental because she died before her vocals could be recorded – which lends a bit of “what if?” to the proceedings. I think she was really a soul singer at heart, with several covers here of songs from Black artists and writers. Her voice is truly unique, which might explain why so few female artists of note have covered these songs over the past 50 years. There’s a bit of tension between her often howling vocals and the smooth playing of her Canadian (!) backing band that makes for a nice counterpoint. The piano especially stands out on a number of tracks, in particular on the powerful closer “Get It While You Can”, where the interplay between singer and band reaches its fulfilment. (Very different from the Howard Tate original, or the poppy posthumously released version from Chris Cornell.)

Other favourites are “Cry Baby”, which sounds in places like a relic from the 1950s. (It turns out to be a cover of a pretty decent 1963 hit from Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters. Check out the original for an object lesson in what happens when a good song ultimately finds the right singer. Mimms may be a forgotten great – she also covers his “My Baby” here.) “A Woman Left Lonely”, my favourite track, is more restrained (by Janis’ standards), almost tear-jerking, with a delightful instrumental bridge between the two verses that feels like it was part of a montage in “The Big Chill”. (Imagine the gloomy, sexless Jeff Goldblum staring into the camera.) (Also, props to Cat Power for taking this on, though her version is kind of lame.) “Half Moon” is a busy song, almost funky (pre-funk?), with surprisingly gentle vocals in places that brought to mind Fiona Apple. And, of course, there’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, known even to people living under a rock, which made me want to check out more Kris Kristofferson songs. There really isn’t a track here that I don’t like, and the record grows with each replay as I’m writing this. A good reminder to not always trust first impressions.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 17, 2021)

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