03 December 2009
Pearl (Columbia 1971)
Produced by Paul A. Rothschild
Janis Joplin's meteoric rise and fall on the rock and roll music scene is well documented; indeed, almost 40 years (!) have passed since her death and there is still talk of a movie biopic in the works (this time with Zooey Daschanel in the title role). Aside from Aretha Franklin, it is hard to identify a woman with a more soulful, powerhouse voice in popular music. But while she lives eternally in that famous clip from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, her recorded body of work is a mixed bag. Although it was released four months after Janis' fatal overdose, Pearl finally captured the promise so many had envisioned. Heaven knows it wasn't easy.
The album's title refers to the alter ego name Janis gave herself: "Pearl," the fun-loving, outgoing, hard drinking woman that was the furthest personality from the little girl blue that grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. On "The Dick Cavett Show" she famously announced that she was returning to her hometown for her tenth high school reunion. And that she did, with a full blown hippie entourage. Dressed in flamboyant regalia that embarrassed her mother so much that she left town, news cameras recorded the entire circus. Teetering back and forth from alcohol and drug use, her moods ran the gamut from cackling devil-may-care to wounded duckling.
Yet she put herself together in the fall of 1970 just enough to deliver a classic performance on an inspired grouping of songs squired by producer Paul A. Rothschild (who helmed albums by The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley and Neil Young). The key to this reviewer was the band from Ontario, Canada that she had been plying her trade with for most of the summer, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, anchored by guitarist John Till, pianist Richard Bell and organist Ken Pearson. Back in 1967, Janis' original splash came as lead vocalist for Big Brother & The Holding Company, a muscular garage band with the psychedelic sound popular in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time. There are still many fans who think Janis made a mistake by following manager Albert Grossman's suggestion to split from Big Brother. As evidence, critics point to the bad fit with her next backing musicians, The Kosmic Blues Band, which overpowered Janis' vocals with a full R&B sound (complete with horn section).
But on Pearl, the opening salvo, "Move Over" (the only track authored by Joplin) immediately tells the listener that Full Tilt Boogie is one tight outfit, and Janis trusts them. The time spent together on the road is evident; Janis pleads (Please don't you do it to me baby!) and cajoles (You know that I need a man/Honey, I told you so) with a recently departed lover to come back into her arms, only to end in exhaustion (Either take the love I offer/Or honey let me be) - and the band twists and turns with her the whole way.
"Cry Baby" hearkens back to the "classic" Janis in full throated blues wail, telling her man to come back home whether he finds himself at the end of the road in Detroit or even Kathmandu. The end is simply thrilling with Bell's gospel chords punctuating her gut bucket soul reading of the Jerry Ragovoy composition.
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's "A Woman Left Lonely" is the production centerpiece on Side One. But Rothschild resists the temptation of going over the top, and Janis stays inside the ropes just enough to wring out every tear. The mournful church organ of Pearson compliments the plaintive lyric beautifully.
Then it's time to turn it up. The full sound of Full Tilt Boogie steps to the front and Janis strides along effortlessly; you can close your eyes and see her interacting with the players, finally erupting at the end in a penultimate invitation to her lover to "bring it on home." The first half of Pearl ends in much the same vein with an rolling instrumental called "Buried Alive In The Blues." It was a backing track that was originally scheduled to be combined with a Janis vocal. Given the circumstances, the listener can't help but wonder about the title.
The flip side starts with "My Baby," and finally some sun shines on the lyric front. What starts out as a confident vocal based on the familiar refrain that home is where her man is, no matter how tough work or life is in general, becomes a tour de force for Janis. Following is another tune about the simple satisfaction of being with the right partner - albeit a more famous one: Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee," which would become Janis' musical signature.
Listeners probably still don't know what to make of "Mercedes Benz." A Shel Silverstein knock off penned by Janis with Dylan pals Bobby Neuwirth and Michael McClure, it carried some social bite in its day but now is just another novelty song.
Thankfully, deep soul becomes the order of the day to close out the album. Bobby Womack's "Trust Me" is to these ears the highlight of Pearl. Controlled but convincing throughout, Janis asks for simple trust from her partner and she pledges unrequited love in return. And "Get It While You Can," upon repeated listens over the years, sounds like Janis as older than her years, imploring her fans to cherish and live life to the fullest.
What could have been is the lingering question, of course. But what was is captured eloquently on Pearl.
The original review of Pearl by critic Jack Shadoian as it appeared in Rolling Stone in its February 18, 1971 issue.
Listen to Janis Joplin perform the studio version of "Trust Me."
Watch Janis belt out "Cry Baby" live in Toronto with Full Tilt Boogie in the summer 1970.