The Good: Amazing lyrics, Great vocals, Generally good instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Inconsistent instrumental accompaniment, DVD is unimpressive
The Basics: With her impressive, multi-decade spanning career, The Best Of Janis Ian does a pretty good job of encapsulating the artist’s body of work.
When an artist has been in business for decades and decades, consistently producing new works, it is tough for fans to pick up a compilation from them and get excited. It’s not hard to get excited about an album or compilation because one does not love the artist. Still, the usual catch-22 of an artist with a long career is whether to do a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” work – the difference being that a “Greatest Hits” album is usually the successful singles that virtually everyone will know vs. what the artist and/or fans believe are the best works the artist produced. Janis Ian makes that pretty simply with The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD. And while there are always going to be songs one misses from such a compilation, the real test for me for The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD came in not finding songs I remembered absolutely loving. The fact that “Hunger,” “Too Old To Go ‘Way Little Girl,” and “Folk Is The New Black” were overlooked on a “Best Of” album was unforgivable to me.
That said, Janis Ian, who produced The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD wrestles just fine with the other essential question artists need to when making a career-spanning compilation; whether or not to use the familiar, radio-played versions of songs or alternate versions. Janis Ian makes a decent mix of standard versions of her hits and alternate, non-album, previously unreleased versions of some of her most familiar (or best) works. The two-disc set features 31 tracks, seven of which are previously unreleased and another of which is the single version of one of her three biggest hits (“At Seventeen,” which appears on all three discs).
With three discs, thirty-one tracks (outside the DVD), clocking out at 61:57 and 56:46, respectively, The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD is very much the work of Janis Ian. Of the thirty-one tracks (29 songs), all but 6 are written by Janis Ian alone and five of those that are not are co-written by the artist. The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD showcases Ian’s talents amazingly well as she wrote the songs, provides all of the lead vocals, and plays instruments on virtually every track. As well, she selected the tracks and produced the album; this is very much her musical vision.
Instrumentally, The Best Of Janis Ian reveals a strong progression from a girl (she was a girl at the outset of her career) on the guitar, to a woman comfortable with more complex musical arrangements on the guitar and piano. The songs range from the musically (on the instrumentation front, at least) simple “Hair Of Spun Gold” and “Stars” to the more robust “God & The FBI.” Janis Ian’s works tend to be slower and more focused on articulating the lyrics, though she strums along faster on songs like “My Autobiography.”
Vocally, Janis Ian’s works are similarly diverse. Her career began with her as a very natural soprano and she has developed, as time has passed, into an amazing alto. While the album begins with her young , slow soprano presentation on songs like “Hair Of Spun Gold,” “At Seventeen,” and her breakout hit “Society’s Child” (where she actually shows some pretty extensive range and awesome lung capacity), she presents in lower registers for “My Autobiography,” “God & The FBI,” and “Through The Years,” which are later works of hers.
Lyrically, Janis Ian is amazing and the comparisons made between her and Bob Dylan are apt. Both are incredible poets and, like Dylan, Janis Ian’s works range from the deeply political (“God & The FBI,” “Society’s Child”) to standard love songs (“Every Love,” “Through The Years”). She has a healthy dose of simply creative works, songs about the basic human experience (“Ginny The Flying Girl”) and tracks about fame and her own celebrity (“Stars,” “My Autobiography”). Janis Ian is an amazing poet and almost all of her lyrics on The Best Of Janis Ian are incredible for the poetics. In fact, the only stand-outs to the contrary are the ones from “Ginny The Flying Girl” where it is clear rhymes were the priority, as opposed to meaning. No matter how many times I hear “She rode through the sky like an elephant's eye” (“Ginny The Flying Girl”), I wince. Elephant eyes do not fly, reach the sky, and cannot be ridden (gross!). It is the lone example on this album of bad poetics.
Far more common on The Best Of Janis Ian are inspired lyrics with both great imagery and a powerful statement. Ian captures love and loneliness with lines like “Jesse come home / There's a hole in the bed / Where we slept / Now it's growing cold / Hey Jesse, your face / In the place where we lay / by the hearth, all apart / It hangs on my heart / And I'm leaving the light on the stairs / No I'm not scared - I wait for you / Hey Jesse, I'm lonely, come home” (“Jesse”). Ian is a master poet who has the ability to tug the heartstrings expertly.
That is not to say Ian is without wit and humor. Even on The Best Of Janis Ian, she includes that side of herself and she does it with humor and punch on “My Autobiography” like a seasoned professional. When she sings “I know you and I'll agree / What this world needs is a lot more me / Well, I have got the remedy / Gonna write my autobiography / I've led a fascinating life / Had a husband and a wife / But you will truly be amazed / At just how humble I have stayed” (“My Autobiography”), the listener is invited in to a deeply ironic and engaging poem that pays off to the sensibilities, as well as the senses, line after line. Lyrically, The Best Of Janis Ian illustrates the power of the written word when set to music in an excellent and uncompromising way.
The DVD that comes with the exclusive three disc set is, alas, not enough to justify the added effort of hunting it down. The DVD is comprised exclusively of concert footage from a show in the late ‘70s, the opening scrawl of which notes that this was an atypical show performed overseas attempting to meet the more energetic expectations of the audience had for her. The songs are good, but are presented in more of a rock-style performance and Ian herself seems surprisingly stiff. Unlike simply hearing her on her live album Live: Working Without A Net, which captured her charisma and the idea that she was having fun with her performance, the concert footage on the DVD exclusive to this album set makes it look like a whole lot more work and Ian does not seem to be having fun, nor does she interact with the audience. It might be an interesting historical document, but it is not a disc one will get a lot of mileage out of.
In the end, though, The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD is a wonderful way for those who are unfamiliar with the works of Janis Ian to get into her library and for those who are fans to get a pretty incredible mix of the artist’s extensive career in one place. The best tracks are “God & The FBI” (Disc 1) and “Through The Years” (Disc 2) and I could have lived without “Thankyous” (Disc 1) and “Ginny The Flying Girl” (Disc 2). Even so, the detractions are nowhere near enough to negate the selling points of The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD!
For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
. . . For All The Seasons Of Your Mind
Society's Child: The Verve Recordings
Between The Lines
God & The F.B.I.
Live: Working Without A Net
Folk Is The New Black
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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