Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wow! Damn! Is Janis Ian The Female Bob Dylan? How Did I Not Know About Her?! (My Next Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Great lyrics, Amazing voice, Good music, Poignant themes
The Bad: Moments that are musically a little limited (repetitive), Short
The Basics: Pick up Janis Ian if you love folk rock, articulate pop, rock and roll from a strong female voice or if you just want something that is amazing even today!

So I recently picked up, watched and reviewed Saturday Night Live - The Complete First Season and one of the understated aspects of the show in my review was that the mid-70's musical guests intrigued me. Okay, some just frightened me, some made me feel bad for the way they were treated. But only one of them (that I hadn't heard before seeing the season) stuck with me enough to hunt down. Honestly, I don't remember which songs Janis Ian performed on the DVDs, but whatever it was, it was enough for me to remember her and when I went hunting for new music, I wanted to hear more.

As a result, I've now picked up a small collection of Janis Ian's works and I am plowing through them starting at her debut album and working my way up. And wow! Just wow! Just wow with expletives deleted and a moon-eyed look on my face. Where the heck has Janis Ian been in my musical education up until now?! Seriously, I was raised on folk rock music, how have I never heard Janis Ian before the last two months? My father's folk rock music collection has lost all credibility to me now. Because with her debut, Janis Ian, wow!

Janis Ian is the first album by folk rock singer-songwriter Janis Ian who was a child prodigy recording most of these songs when she was only fourteen. Damn. There's something wonderfully intimidating about encountering an artist whose debut album is entirely written by the performer as well as includes her performing on guitars, organ, harpsichord, siren and tambourine. One wonders why she needed the other five musicians (well, I suppose the drummer made sense!); she seems so inherently talented.

For those, like me, who have never heard of Janis Ian, Janis Ian is an incredible debut well worthy of being picked up. With 11 tracks, clocking in a 37:76 minutes, it is truly the musical vision of the young Janis Ian and it is a respectable outing that makes one wonder why her works are not taught alongside those of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And truth be told, for the ultimate heresy, Ian's voice has a quality to it (consistently) that Baez gets . . . occasionally. I love Baez, but Janis Ian is track for track more listenable and more consistent in presenting a beautiful voice.

I was thrown, actually, when I stuck Janis Ian in. On "Society's Child," Janis Ian sounds very much like a 1950s - early '60s pop star, like the Shangri-Las on "Leader Of The Pack." Janis Ian has a range that moves effortlessly between alto and soprano and she has the ability to go lower. On "Janey's Blues," she goes lower and pops back up to the highest notes she hits on the album fading into a whisper that melds with the haunting scratching of the guitar strings and it's sultry. Janis Ian has a sultry voice and I cannot recall the last time I heard a guitar that was sexy, but on the climax of "Janey's Blues" with its strings being scratched as opposed to plucked or strummed, it's an instrument exuding a powerful sense of sexuality and potency.

But back to her voice. Ian opens with a whispery pop princess presentation and evolves into a perfect pitch storyteller with songs like "Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl" and "Younger Generation Blues." Ian quickly casts off the heavy echo that makes it sound like she has back-up singers and opts for a straightforward singing storytelling voice. She introduces "New Christ Cardiac Hero" and transitions perfectly from speaking to singing in a way that usually takes artists a few beats.

Most of the songs on Janis Ian present the artist as a musical storyteller and role of her voice is to articulately present those stories. Ian is crystal clear on every word and it's amazing because musically she plays with something very primal on the guitars and some of the notes (most notably on the superlative "Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl") yet even as she holds notes long and goes high into the upper soprano ranges, she remains clear and articulate in a way that is impressive and a stark contrast with most pop-rock artists these days.

As a musical storyteller, Janis Ian truly is a reasonable comparison to Bob Dylan. Yes, Ian gives early Dylan a run for its money. Her songs vary from deeply personal to the politics of the sexual revolution and counterculture personalities. And she makes the issues she sings about sound amazing. She presents lyrics about being raised on fear in a time of exploration with all sorts of pop culture references like a Mickey Mouse nightlight and the "Inquirer!" She gives a haunting presentation when she satirically sings, "Don't go into the park little girl / You know those men are all the same / Stay inside alone after dark little girl / Boy wants just one thing / Don't talk about sex / You might get hexed / God'll punish you for your dirty mind" ("Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl"). And the lines that follow are riotous in their implicit argument to abstinence only education (seriously, even back then - the album was released in 1967 - the concept of safe sex through sexual ignorance existed!) and dang if Janis Ian doesn't make them sound great. Seriously, this one song is making me seriously reconsider my list of Top Ten Best Pop Songs You Probably Haven't Heard. I suppose it might be a little more folk than pop, but with its tambourine, guitars, bass and harpsichord, it's one of the more poppy sounding songs on the album.

But unlike the stodginess of pop-rock which tends to (as a general rule) limit its subjects to love and love lost, Janis Ian has a great freedom as a folk rock singer and she has a sense of humor. On "Mrs. McKenzie," for example, she writes and sings, "She taught them all about sex and little girls / Encouraging them to go out among friends and spread the word / And going from one little game to another / She being more of a friend than a mother / Kept them in her freedom . . . " And thematically, Ian is not afraid to explore the concepts of consequences and the complexity of life and relationships, like on "Janey's Blues" where the protagonist comes to learn that she is the result of a mistake between her mother and father and that they are miserable together, but stick together anyway.

And Ian has a great sense of imagery. Like on "Then Tangles Of My Mind," she writes and sings a beautiful picture by describing, "The purple grains of sand / Whisper through my hourglass hands / Convincing me I've little time for sleeping." Where are writers like that in today's musical marketplace?

Janis Ian has a great musical diversity on Janis Ian, going from the pop-heavy opening tracks to a slow, sensual folk ballad with "Hair Of Spun Gold." She plays "Then Tangles Of My Mind" like a straightforward rock song at times letting her guitar rival her voice, then belting out her punchiest lines with crescendos that would intimidate her persona on "Lover Be Kindly." And she seems quite able to play all of the instruments she plays on Janis Ian.

The weakness of the album - which is not a huge one, at least for a debut album - is that there is a repetitive sense to much of the album in terms of music and some of the lyrics. "I'll Give You A Stone If You'll Throw It (Changing Tymes)" holds up poorly because virtually every line ends with "you." Ian doesn't mix it up nearly enough on the song and it's easy to tire of it quickly. Similarly, musically the album sounds generally diverse given the overall variety of styles, but specifically, it has some problems in terms of repetition and overall arrangement. "Society's Child" and "Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl" sound remarkably similar musically and "I'll Give You A Stone If You'll Throw It (Changing Tymes)" and the adjacent "Pro-Girl" have some of the same progressions and use the same tempo and feel, especially in the opening of "Pro-Girl."

Is it enough to not recommend this album? Not at all! For someone so young - for anyone of any age - this is an impressive album, even if it does not live up to the full potential of the length of a c.d. Janis Ian puts funk into folk lyrics on songs like "Younger Generation Blues" and she contrasts it well with the starkness of "Janey's Blues." And wow, this album rocks.

Sometimes it truly is that simple.

The best track is the perfect song "Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl," the weak link is slightly too ethereal "Lover Be Kindly" (which sounds just like a Bob Dylan track!).

For prior Artist Of The Month selections, check out my reviews of:
The Collection - Alanis Morissette
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow


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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