Saturday, September 22, 2012

Janis Ian Cheats By Putting The Best Song On Hunger Twice!

The Good: Some wonderful lyrics, Some musical arrangements, Moments of voice
The Bad: Vocals are rather safe, Music is pretty standard, Mismatch between lyrics and music
The Basics: Janis Ian returns to form with an album that reminds listeners why we hungered for her work in the first place!

It is fortunate that I picked up some Bjork c.d.s and started reviewing the disappointing Star Trek: The Animated Series or else one of my regular readers was bound to pipe up and ask me if I had abandoned my reviewing strategy of acknowledging the reality that most experiences ought to end up as more or less average. No, I have not been purposely grading items high these days; I've just hit a stride of truly amazing works lately. Since I began listening to the works of Janis Ian, I've been generally impressed and having wonderful works to review in glowing terms. So, despite my recent disappointment with her album Between The Lines (reviewed here!) Janis Ian continues to impress me and with her album Hunger, I am once again caught with a coin toss for the rating.

Hunger is a twelve-track folk-pop-rock album clocking in at 61:41 minutes and it represents the Janis Ian work that has had the most influence by people other than Janis Ian that I have yet encountered. While all songs are written by Janis Ian (two are co-written), two of the songs are produced by outside producers and Ian only takes a co-producer credit on the others. She plays acoustic guitar on most of the tracks and is accompanied by a significant selection of background artists. As with Dar Williams' cover of "Comfortably Numb" on her album My Better Self (reviewed here!), Ani Difranco accompanies Janis Ian on her track "Searching For America," which Difranco produces as well. My point with all of this is that there is reasonable room to wonder how much of Hunger is Janis Ian's artistic vision and how much has been reworked by those who are interpreting her work and performing it.

That said, Hunger is an album that restores my faith that Ian's early works were not a fluke. Despite the more prevalent pop-rock vibe to many of the tracks - most obviously "Honor Them All" - Hunger presents a more mature voice and set of themes for Janis Ian and most of it works.

Because it's the track playing now, I'd like to peg the track that absolutely infuriates me. I am on my seventh listen to Hunger and my body is swaying to the bongos and dance vibe of "Empty." Yes, I am ready to get up and dance to a song that has Janis Ian singing "Now I'm empty without your love / Like that big old moon / I'm lost in the stars above / While the lovers laugh and life goes by / I sit alone in my room and cry / Empty without your love" ("Empty"). And for the young woman who was so perceptive and moved me with her emotionally charged lyrics and a mastery of musical satire, I'm sitting at my computer for the seventh time thinking "What the hell, Janis?" Seriously, this is the musical equivalent of a bad dub job. The lyrics are fabulous, the music does not match it at all. The music does not express loneliness or feeling empty. Instead, it expresses "let the music move you!" And if the lyrics were "I'm tired of being empty and I'm moving on empowered!" then the instrumentals would work. Perfectly. But they're not. Instead, it's a depressing song performed in a way that makes no sense.

Similarly, "House Without A Heart" - which follows it - has a disconcerting upbeat, even peppy sound to it. For a song about missing someone, this is just incomprehensible. I want to blame it on Ian's producers and the music industry, but she co-produced these tracks! And for the first time since beginning to listen to Janis Ian, I'm absolutely positive about the mismatch because the lyrics are presented in the liner notes to the c.d.!

It is not that Ian is incapable of being expressive without the intent to get her audience to move. The two troublingly mismatched songs are followed by the melancholy "Shadow" and the album is topped off by the depressing remix of "Getting Over You" which adds a string accompaniment to accent the sense of longing and loss the song is expressing.

What binds Hunger is a generally strong collection of well-written lyrics. Sadly, the best lines come on a track only co-written by Ian. When Janis Ian lets her voice reach a crescendo on the lines, "You want answers that I can't give / You and words I don't know [DAMN, Janis, you're a tear-jerker!] / Ask me when I'm through getting over you" ("Getting Over You") she accents the most wonderful and helpless quality of the what she is trying to express. "Getting Over You" is an agonizing song in that every line so perfectly captures the raw emotions of being abandoned by a lover. Ian is not afraid to put the tough questions in her songs and that superlative track is wrenching every time and it is an amazing poem.

Thematically, Ian returns to her early form of mixing the political and the personal. She tackles ethnic relations ("Black & White"), infidelity ("On The Dark Side Of Town"), abandonment ("Getting Over You"), and the religion of making music ("Welcome To Acousticville"). In this fashion, Janis Ian presents a diverse album that is very pleasant to listen to.

Even so, Ian occasionally lapses into predicable rhyme schemes and it is somewhat disappointing to hear from an artist I respect so much. This is never worse than on "On The Dark Side Of Town" which features lines that could be called two lines in advance with the word combinations like "wife/life," "down/town," "last/fast," and "ring/things." Fortunately, most of the lines are much, much better than that.

Musically, Hunger is not only disturbing, it is mostly limited in a very narrow folk-rock, pop-rock sound. The most creative that Ian gets is in her repetition of "Getting Over You." There are two versions of the song on the album as tracks four and twelve. The track twelve version adds strings to the song, violins at the very least, and the additional instruments manage to accent the emotions rather than telegraph them. It does not change the feel and it does not fill in the emptiness, rather it underlines it musically. The track four version is stark and relies on Ian's voice to carry the music, the intent and the power of the song and it works just fine. Both versions are great, for different reasons. And honestly, I think that I'd go with the track twelve version just because with the strings accenting her, it seems like she makes a more grand crescendo on that line (see above - seriously the way she belts it out it truly is a Damn, woman! moment) and that's the kicker of the song.

But beyond that musical experiment in comparative instrumentals, the album falls very safely as a one-woman with a guitar folk-rock album with contrasting tracks that are full press pop-rock with percussion, electric and other guitars and a bass. It sounds good, but it's not her most impressive musical outing. There are a number of very smooth sounding tracks that have a beautiful and hypnotic quality to them ("On The Dark Side Of Town") but even those sound familiar.

So, too are Ian's vocals somewhat limited this time out. She stays safely alto not venturing into the soprano range those who know her early works know she could do. Her real vocal diversity comes more in the ability to articulate all her complex lyrics (she does a great job in this respect opening with "Black & White") and in her controlling her emotional resonance through her control of her voices' volume.

But ultimately, I found myself wanting to skip over some tracks to focus on the ones that truly impressed me. The result is that after my seventh listen, I was doing something I virtually never do; bouncing around the album for the select tracks as opposed to simply replaying it over and over again - which is what I usually do. The result is an album sure to be loved by anyone who likes a powerful feminine voice for folk, vocal jazz and/or pop. And it sounds good, regardless, but ultimately, even as I look to purchase a copy for my permanent collection, this is a difficult work to say is objectively great with all its serious faults.

The best track is "Getting Over You (w/strings)" (by a nose over the unaccompanied version), the low point is "Empty," which is saying something given how good the lyrics are!

For other Artist Of The Month reviews, visit my reviews of:
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland - Jewel
The Way It Really Is - Lisa Loeb
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, be sure to 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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