The Good: Some truly great songs, Lyrics, Voice, Musical diversity
The Bad: Guest vocalists/musical collaborations
The Basics: Janis Ian's Timbre-esque album is bound by the struggles between an artist and society as she leaps genres to create a truly musically diverse and vital listening experience!
There are a few albums that I have experienced that are true milestones, albums that I listen to that are endeavors that come together in a wonderful way that are so distinctive that they define a very clear point in an artist's development or my own life. In the career of Sophie B. Hawkins, that point comes with her album Timbre (reviewed here!). Timbre is a remarkably diverse album with each track having a different musical style, yet the overall album does not feel fractured, it feels strong, diverse and clever and surprisingly cohesive. Whenever I encounter an album that has such track to track diversity, Timbre is my standard for comparison - albums like that are the ones that separate the creative from the haphazard (the shotgun approach to making music by which an artist shoots out a little bit of everything and hopes to pick up an audience by appealing to virtually everyone). So, for example, South (reviewed here!) is Heather Nova's Timbre. By the same token, God & The F.B.I. is Janis Ian's Timbre.
God & The F.B.I. is an eleven track disc clocking in at a little over forty-six minutes by folk-rock artist Janis Ian. Unlike some of her prior albums that have been strongly folk-rock or pop-rock recordings, this album is far more difficult to nail down. It is folk-rock-pop-electronic-country-vocal-funk. And it's pretty incredible.
Janis Ian created a deeply personal and political album with God & The F.B.I. and listening to it over and over again the past few days has left me with the unrelenting question: How is it Janis Ian huge now? Bob Dylan still gets sales, David Bowie is cooler than ever, the Rolling Stones manage to still sell discs, how is it the masses have not clung to the greatness of Janis Ian?
And God & The F.B.I. is the argument that Ian has enduring greatness. All eleven tracks are written or co-written by Janis Ian, she co-produced the album as well as providing primary vocals on almost all of the tracks. She plays acoustic guitars, keyboards, upright bass, electric guitars and banjo. On "On The Other Side" she provided the string and vocal arrangement for the song and the "Requiem" portion. In other words, this is - in many ways - the exploration of Janis Ian as a musical artist exploding with her innate talent. This is an album that explores Ian's musical curiosity and displays her strong ability to create.
It is also a highly collaborative effort. "Memphis" gives Willie Nelson the primary vocals and "Days Like These" has strong secondary vocals by John Cowan. Five of the tracks, including the superlative "Murdering Stravinsky" are co-written by Ian and other writers, including Kye Fleming ("She Must Be Beautiful"), Deana Carter ("Memphis"), Jess Leary ("Jolene"), and Philip Clark ("The Last Comeback," "Murdering Stravinsky"). Ian puts herself third in the credits on her own album as she acknowledges some of her accompanists as collaborators.
But this is distinctly Janis Ian, at least in the lyrics. God & The F.B.I. presents a mature Janis Ian writing about both the political and the artistic. As the album title suggests, Janis Ian has a strong sense of politics and the directions of the world. She has a healthy suspicion of the forces in power, singing, "Big investigation - danger to the nation / Search & seizure, better buy a lawyer / We know you're a member / Saw you undercover / Are you hiding evidence / None of this makes any sense / . . . We demand an interview / How long have you been a jew / We can make you testify / Freedom is no alibi" ("God & The F.B.I."). The only thing more impressive than the way Janis Ian perfectly captures the paranoia of the overbearing government and the way it oppresses its people is that the album was released almost two years before the September 11, 2001 attacks and the resulting limitations of freedoms! Ian pegged the direction of the nation before it was obvious.
But it's not all political. Indeed, Ian writes about death and the end of relationships ("On The Other Side"), the power of love ("When You Love Someone"), aging ("Days Like These") and heartbreak ("She Must Be Beautiful"). But she has girl power anthems with "Jolene" and the impressive "Play Like A Girl" and she's all about art with "Boots Like Emmy Lou's" and "Murdering Stravinsky." "Boots Like Emmy Lou's" is a tribute to classic Country and Western music rich in allusions including Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynett and a bunch of artists I'm not fluent enough in that genre to even recognize - truthfully, I'm not sure which Emmy Lou the title refers to!
But I do get the final track on the album and it's an example of Ian writing with a richness and depth that few artists ever achieve. She sings about creating art and the pressure to do something different with lines like "We're murdering Stravinsky / Shooting at Ravel / Burying Picasso / Slaughtering Caetano / At the gates of hell / We're bringing down The Beatles / Dylan and his pals / We're working very hard / To be the avante garde / Murdering Stravinsky" ("Murdering Stravinsky"). She is clever and sharp, exploring the artistic community and how fickle it can be and it is a rare thing to hear a singer sing about creating art and do it so well.
Janis Ian succeeds at least as well by exploring the deeply personal. She has a great grasp of the loneliness that comes from being left for another on "She Must Be Beautiful." Lines like "Strange to have you near after all these years / They say I couldn't possibly have done it by myself / Did you see our photographs / As they crumbled into ash" ("On The Other Side") pain a vivid mental picture for the listener and Ian illustrates a strong ability as a musical storyteller.
"On The Other Side" illustrates well Janis Ian's range. On some of her albums, Ian limits herself to the safe alto that she seems most comfortable with, but she does have ability to go into soprano territory and tracks like "On The Other Side" and "She Must Be Beautiful" have her venturing competently into the higher ranges of the musical spectrum and she approaches the high notes fearlessly, hitting each of them without any apparent strain.
Janis Ian has a wonderful smoky sound on some of the tracks, like "Days Like These" that put her in the lower ranges as well and it's wonderful and astounding to hear her full range, which she explores well on God & The F.B.I..
But even more than that, God & The F.B.I. is a celebration of various musical styles. She bounces, track to track with various musical styles. Opening with a funk-folk track ("God & The F.B.I."), she quickly bounces to tracks that sound almost gospel to country to folk-pop to the highly produced, almost electronica "When You Love Someone." Not content to stick with one genre, she goes on to a pop-country to a ballad to an upbeat bluegrass track, a slow and sad vocal to a rock and roll song and closing with a truly avante garde pop-rock anthem. But despite the musical diversity, the album sounds well-assembled and professionally arranged.
Indeed, there is a strong sense of balance and evolution as the songs alternate between slow and fast, quiet and intimate and boisterous and fun. She goes from one of the most funky and loud tracks ("Boots Like Emmy Lou's") to a powerful and slow song where she is accompanied only by a piano ("She Must Be Beautiful"). And the combinations work with an amazing resonance. The listener is given the strong sense that this is an artist who is versatile and she is showing off for her audience.
For the most part, it works. I tend to like my artists very pure and that's, admittedly, one of my preferences that is not too popular in these days of frequent collaborations and guest artists appearing on artist's albums. But in the same way I was disappointed in Dar Williams relying on a male backing vocalist for "Better Days" on End Of The Summer, I did not dig the heavy male influence on "Days Like These;" it could have been sharper with just Ian. And it's hard to begrudge Willie Nelson a track ("Memphis") and he is plenty cool, but the truth is, in some ways it detracts from the spotlight that ought to be on Janis Ian.
Because she can handle it. The other tracks richly illustrate that. Ian has a strong message and the combination of being an aging artist and living in a society that does not respect artists creates a musical vision that God & The F.B.I. relents against. In fact, the title becomes a perfect thematic cohesion for the album as artists vs. society (or artist within society) is what much of the diverse sounds, vocals and instrumentals are bound together by. Artist vs. oppression, woman against loneliness, God & The F.B.I. has a strong sense of a fertile mind at work and anyone who likes wide spectrum of music is bound to love this album. Indeed, anyone who respects the efforts of the truly artistic, especially when such explorations of various genres are so successful, will want to pick up God & The F.B.I.. And in these fractious times, the combinations of the title track and "Murdering Stravinsky" ought to be the rebel's soundtrack!
And as for the Timbre concept, when I opened the review with that, I said that there are milestones that indicate a place in an artist's life and that there are albums that are milestones in my life. One of those milestones came just a few days ago when I picked up and listened to Janis Ian. Hearing Janis Ian's debut album blew me away and it reinvigorated my artistic drive. And God & The F.B.I. is a worthy successor; it only took Ian thirty years to get there!
The best track is "Murdering Stravinsky" (only because the celebration and exploration of art triumphs over government, though the title track gives the finale a run for its money for the best track) and the low point is "Memphis."
For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Between The Lines
For other musical works, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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