The Janis Fund

When it comes to Janis Joplin's music, there's not all that much to rediscover.

There's precious little of this last characteristic on Cheap Thrills, which initially hit stores just after Joplin's popular breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Wrapped in a famous cover illustration by R. Crumb, the disc is frequently ludicrous, in large part because the men of Big Brother are amateurish players utterly convinced of their instrumental prowess. Many of the solos, including the prolonged excursion in "Combination of the Two," are monumentally dumb, and so is the conclusion of "Oh, Sweet Mary," during which a Brother wails something along the lines of "hut-nuh, hut-nuh, hut-nuh, hut-nuh, ooooooh YEAAAAAH!" Joplin, too, generally employs the too-much-is-just-enough method, rendering George Gershwin's "Summertime" in a bizarre wheeze and tearing apart "Piece of My Heart," one of the few songs in the Holding Company's catalogue that still stands up. And that's not to mention the nine-minute-plus "Ball and Chain," the dippiest sort of tour de force imaginable. Perhaps some people can still take this stuff seriously, but even those who can't will probably find Cheap Thrills enjoyable. It's like a high school picture of your parents that mutated from cool to hilarious long before you were born.

I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! isn't so lucky. Chockablock with unimaginative horn charts and lifeless background vocals, the settings conceived by producer Gabriel Mekler aim at a sophistication that's frequently at odds with Joplin's undisciplined wailing. On tracks like "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and "As Good as You've Been to This World," introduced by a nearly two-and-a-half-minute brass fantasia that makes Blood, Sweat and Tears seem like Ornette Coleman by comparison, Joplin seems like a ruffian crashing her own party. The attempt to turn "To Love Somebody," by Barry and Robin Gibb, into a towering soul scorcher along the lines of "When a Man Loves a Woman" comes across as utterly forced, and even "Kozmic Blues," which became a mainstay of Joplin's repertoire, is limited by an overly ornate arrangement. Joplin slices through "Blues" like a laser through cream cheese, and it's an impressive display -- but when she tries the same tack on a bonus-track cover of Dylan's "Dear Landlord," her unwillingness to back off a bit makes her seem as if she's abusing the song more than singing it. On most of the recording, she uses only two gears: first and fifth.

Pearl, which was finished after Joplin's death, works far better because producer Paul Rothchild, who also worked with Jim Morrison, another of the early Seventies' most famous cadavers, keeps things simpler, dispensing with the horns and other filigree in favor of more straightforward accompaniment. The players on the disc, dubbed Full Tilt Boogie, include a couple of refugees from the Kosmic Blues Band, but Rothchild makes certain that they support the star of the show. Just as important, he gets Joplin to shape her performances with greater care, understanding that her roaring will seem even more awesome if it's preceded by the occasional purr. That doesn't mean Joplin is straitjacketed; "Cry Baby" kicks off with what's arguably her most concentrated shriek ever. But on "Move Over," credited to Joplin, she lets the riffing do some of the work for her, and her more deliberate approach to "A Woman Left Lonely" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" (her biggest hit) allows the pieces to build, not fizzle out. Finally, "Mercedes Benz," a silly little ditty that Joplin sings all by her lonesome, transcends its novelty status by allowing her to display a sense of humor that was usually buried under delirium. The tune's jokes don't always hit pay dirt -- why must she make amends because her friends all drive Porsches? -- but Joplin's boisterousness puts them over anyhow, implying in the process that she had more to share with her audience than agony.

Soul-baring can be painful: Janis Joplin.
Soul-baring can be painful: Janis Joplin.

The strength of Pearl makes Greatest Hits superfluous; five of the twelve songs on the reconstituted version of the latter come from the former, and Hits would have been better if even more had been included. But just because Joplin came close to fulfilling her promise shortly before her passing doesn't mean that she would have scored countless more triumphs like it had she steered clear of hypodermics. In many ways, the contemporary with whom she had the most in common was Joe Cocker. Like her, he had a crazy stage persona and a striking voice, but he was dependent on good material and sympathetic musicians and producers for his success -- and when he ran out a few years later, he was reduced to crooning bad duets for the adult-contemporary crowd. Joplin might not have suffered that fate, but it isn't difficult to picture her at a neighborhood dive in Anytown U.S.A. circa the Nineties singing about Bobby McGee for the handful of old-timers who still remember when she was the Bride of the Beatniks.

Instead, the manner and timing of Joplin's death turned her into a modern martyr, and so she remains. And in the end, it doesn't really matter if her music doesn't always live up to her legend. Chances are good that the people who are buying won't notice anyway.

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