Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mid-70's Generic Pop-Rock Sound Plagues Janis Ian's Between The Lines

The Good: Lyrics, Voice, Moments of music
The Bad: Much of the music has a bland, produced feel, Short, Incomplete liner notes.
The Basics: Janis Ian's disappointing work that makes me overuse the word "bland" is Between The Lines a mix of mid-70's pop ballads and jazz tunes united by a theme of loneliness.

I have been on a Janis Ian kick for the last few days and I think that I understand any frustration Ian might have had with the musical establishment, especially reviewers. Ian's folk-rock music career began on such a high with her recordings on Verve, encapsulated on Society's Child: The Verve Recordings, this it must have seemed to many people that there was nowhere for her to go but down. I imagine that with Between The Lines, Janis Ian took a lot of flack for buying into the sound of the time as opposed to truly innovating. If she didn't, well, then, this will be new.

With eleven tracks clocking in at 43:47 minutes, Between The Lines was Janis Ian's 1975 recording that found Ian singing her songs accompanied by other musical artists (none of whom were recognizable to me by name) and drums and bass. I am fairly sure that there is a guitar in there as well (on tracks like "From Me To You") but the liner notes for the album only mention percussion and bass. All eleven songs were written by Ian and performed by her as well.

In all truth, Between The Lines could just be the four instruments: bass, percussion, Ian's voice and the voices of the back-up singers. The album has a stark, strangely acoustic sound to it that suggests intimate venues and lack of production elements. The problem is, that Between The Lines sounds very generic, like it was perfectly produced for the "live, but better than live" sound.

Musically, this is the least distinctive and original Janis Ian album I have yet encountered. When she is not singing bland pop ballads like "At Seventeen," Ian is presenting quiet, dull vocal jazz songs that could be from any number of artists. Even when she gets the lyrics right, the album's simple and unsophisticated aural pallet undermines their intensity. "Bright Lights And Promises" is a slow track that spotlights Ian's sultry voice accompanied by minimal instrumentals and a quality that is very familiar. The album continues with more tracks that sound virtually identical to the bland nightclub jazz quality of "Bright Lights And Promises," like "Water Colors." On my seventh listen to the album, I realized why the album was unsettling me; it has the same musical resonance as Peaches And Herb's "Reunited." It might not be quite as annoying, but that kind of generic mid-70s sound is exactly what I mean by Ian's album sounding bland and like an embodiment of the conceits of the time.

Then again, when one is pretty tired of the music, along comes track five, "In The Winter." The track clearly has pianos and violins (maybe cellos), so it's probable that the liner notes were just oversimplified. This does make one wonder how many instruments Ian performed on this album. "In The Winter" breaks up the monotony of bluesy, jazzy tracks that lack distinction to mix it up with a fairly orchestral pop song that could have accompanied any mid-70's romantic drama.

The contrast between vocally bigger pieces like "In The Winter" and “Between The Lines” is undermined by the fact that they are big in almost the same way. So, we have the extreme contrasts of Ian sounding blandly small and isolated with a spotlight jazz sound and the generic movie soundtrack pop hit vocal tracks.

Between The Lines follows Ian's exploration of her take on her success and her music career. Many of her tracks on Between The Lines are odes to her celebrity and the effects it had on her and her development as an artist and a person. So, for example, she sings "Bright lights and promises / A pocketful of dreams / That's what they paid me / To be / Gold lame and diamonds / I am a hometown queen / Honey would you sing it just for me" ("Bright Lights And Promises") she sings about losing the mystique of being a musical artist. She captures the disillusionment of being successful and having expectations, of not being successful at love and romance.

And her lyrics are good and she is able to evoke some powerful emotions and imagery. When she writes and sings "I have not been loved by a man in quite a while / You know it ain't easy making me smile / Friends have been lovers . . ./ There must be something terribly wrong with me" ("The Come On") she captures the perfect antipathy of loveless sex. She is quite able to evoke emotions even forgiving such obvious rhymes as "while/smile" and "nice/price."

And vocally, Ian is not as impressive on Between The Lines; she presents nothing we have not heard from her before. She dwells more in the alto range this album and as she sings with her sultry, husky voice, she does not leave that range, only crescendoing beyond her current volume as opposed to actually stretching herself vocally.

I could deal with a smaller album, but the bland and very generic quality to the pop ballads and the quiet jazz tracks just bored my ears and made me wonder when I would hear any of the musical brilliance that drew me to Janis Ian's works in the first place. Unless one loves mediocre pop ballads, Between The Lines is bound to disappoint audiophiles.

The best track might well be the short power ballad "In The Winter," the bland "From Me To You" is the weakest link.

For prior Artist Of The Month selections, check out my reviews of:
Jackie’s Strength (single) – Tori Amos
Educated Guess -Ani DiFranco
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion


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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  1. I love this album.
    Her concert in Seattle in 1975 is one of my favorite memories.

  2. I'm hoping to see her in Michigan in March and I am SO psyched about that!