Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Janis Ian Goes All Country And Jazz And Folksy With Billie’s Bones: A Fair Album

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Moments of voice/instrumentals
The Bad: Strangely monotonous vocally, Instrumentally dull
The Basics: One of Janis Ian's more dull outings, Billie’s Bones experiments erratically and leaves the listener unsatisfied.

I am, most certainly, one of those people and reviewers who tries to stay objective when reviewing an artist's works, even when I've fallen in love with some of their works. I am not one of those people who becomes a fan in a way where those whose work I love can do no wrong and they cannot fail. In other words, no matter how much I like an artist or their works, they need to do something more than simply show up when they put out a new album in order to get my praise.

I'm writing that first because after eight listens to it, I am finally at a place where I can say I don't particularly care for Janis Ian's album Billie’s Bones, even if I can't quite say why. I know, in part, it is because the album takes a sort of buckshot approach to making music with the front tracks being more of a country sensibility, before going jazzy in the middle and eventually getting more to the folk that originally brought the works of Janis Ian to my attention. I have adored much of Ian's works but this one just falls flat and I am past trying to justify my opinion: I simply do not like this particular outing.

With thirteen songs clocking out at 54:05, Billie’s Bones represents an eclectic mix of the talents of Janis Ian and several collaborators. As far as the writing goes, Ian wrote nine of the songs and co-wrote the other four with the likes of Woodie Guthrie, Buddy Mondlock, Jimmy Collins and Skip Ewing. She is listed as one of three co-producers, so she seems to have been instrumental in getting the sound she wanted to the album. She provides all of the primary vocals - though Dolly Parton gets a "second vocal" credit for "My Tennessee Hills" and Harry Stinson is similarly credited for "Forever Young" - and she plays the keyboards and acoustic guitars. It seems easy to say that this is Ian's musical vision, but given the sheer number of other musical instruments on the album and how different it sounds from other Janis Ian albums I have heard . . . I'm not entirely convinced.

All right, here's the thing. Billie’s Bones was released in 2003 when Country Music was big on the pop charts. This album is heavily influenced by Country on such tracks as "My Tennessee Hills," "Paris In Your Eyes" and "Forever Young." I've often said that I have been exploring all sorts of musical artists to increase my musical education, well, after two years of that I've learned enough to know that the pedal steel is primarily used by Country artists. So perhaps part of my general dislike of Billie’s Bones comes more from the idea, the idea that one of my beloved artists would sell out her innate talents and sounds to try to capitalize on a trend like the crossover popularity of country music.

The leap into Country is right up front in the change in Ian's lyrics. In the past, most of her lyrics have revolved around either expressing powerful, universal emotions or telling little folk-rock storysongs. With "My Tennessee Hills," she ventures into some pretty standard County lyrics as she sings about the South and scenery. She does this when she sings lines like "I'll go home, I'll go home / Where the wild shadows roam / And the dawn over mountaintops spills / where the deer pause in flight / On the edge of the night / I'll go home to my Tennessee Hills" ("My Tennessee Hills"). Janis Ian has been known to sing ironic songs (like "Cosmopolitan Girl"), but there is no evidence of that on this country-twangy ballad that uses virtually all of the conceits of Country Western music. This is not to say Folk doesn't sing about locations, but classic folk songs tend to either be more broad range (train rides across the country) or tie a location to a political statement.

I will give Ian some credit, though; she manages to create an entirely new and original Irish highland jig with "Mary's Eyes." Ian wrote Mary's Eyes and it seems to be more than just an intellectual exercise, given that she writes some truly soulful lyrics here. In fact, she had a line that actually got me thinking and confused me as to her intention when she introduced the song with the lines "Mary's eyes are startling blue / And her hair's Newcastle gold / And she walks the thing white line / Between the body and the soul / She's as faithful to her history / As a novice to his fast . . . She's as constant as the tide . . ." ("Mary's Eyes"). The tide, of course, is constantly changing . . . but it returns regularly every day. It is that level of cleverness that keeps Ian's words and works engaging.

Ironically, her song Billie’s Bones, is based upon a poem Ian wrote back in 1968. Her song adapts the themes, but not the writing or original phrasing. The poem, which is in the liner notes to the album, is intriguing but hardly musical. Janis Ian did a decent job adapting the song for the opening track.

That said, lyrically, Janis Ian is still writing generally strong stuff. In fact, the album's final track reminds the listener just how ballsy Ian can be. Facing a personal crisis, the narrator in that storysong recalls the hypocrisy and the feelings it brought up in (presumably) her. Ian does this quite clearly when she presents "He said lay down in the water, / Even though you don't believe / All your sins will be forgiven, / And your soul will be redeemed . . .I fell down on my knees / And I took out some insurance / And bought a little peace / But when I lay down, I lied" ("When I Lay Down"). She then equates this spiritual cheating to the sexual experiences with a man that were equally false and filled with lies and a sense of self-loathing. Tying those things together is something it takes a pretty incredible writer to do and in this political climate is impressive to hear. Ian presents it fearlessly and it works beautifully!

Musically, the album does start out with several tracks that have Country sensibilities and instrumentations (as well as lyrics). They develop into more jazz sensibilities with songs like "Amsterdam" and "Matthew" before getting into more traditional folk-rock tracks like "Dead Men Walking," "Save Somebody" and "Mockingbird." The later tracks sound more like folk-rock and pop rock with Ian and her guitar backed by fewer instruments and ones more regularly associated with those genres, like the bass as opposed to the pedal steel.

And honestly, instruments like the pedal steel are not bad and on the album they lend a fresh sound to accompany Ian's vocals. But the twang does not sound authentic next to her voice and when she plays the keyboards this sounds not only more familiar, but better with her range and lyrics. Rather interestingly, though, Ian does present an instrumental track with "Marching On Glasgow," which is another very Irish sounding track that she makes work! Accompanied by deep drums (one suspects a tympany, though none is credited) "Marching On Glasgow" is a wordless Irish folk dance song and it is intriguing to hear.

Vocally, Ian stays within her safe range as an alto-soprano which might be why Billie’s Bones does not resonate so much with me. Instrumentally, she drives off into other experimental places between the Country and Irish tracks, but vocally, she is still trapped in the familiar. And while some artists can experiment and create an album that works, this one feels more like a shotgun approach to an album, like Country, Irish, Folk or Jazz did not captivate her enough to do a full album in any one of those genre's so she just shot out a couple in each and let them fall. This album probably works better single by single as opposed to as a whole album.

The best tracks are "Mary's Eyes" and "When I Lay Down." I'm not so fond of her vocals and the instrumentals on "Paris In Your Eyes."

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Janis Ian
Between The Lines
Breaking Silence
God & The F.B.I.
Live: Working Without A Net


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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