Thursday, October 25, 2012

Janis Ian Goes Bland And Mediocre With Aftertones.

The Good: Lyrics, Musical creativity
The Bad: Vocally unexciting, Instrumentally mediocre for the majority. SHORT!
The Basics: Janis Ian presents a remarkably indistinct recording with Aftertones, an album with no strong musical or vocal endeavors.

There is something refreshing about panning an album where there is little stress in doing that because the artist herself has wishy-washy feelings about their work. Indeed, after ten listens to the Janis Ian album Aftertones, which resulted in a complete inability to recall all but a single line from, I opened the c.d. case and discovered a note from Janis Ian on the album. She opens her notes with the lines "I consider Aftertones an interim album, seriously flawed in places, very exciting in others." It's the "seriously flawed" part I hear; I suspect the "very exciting" part for Janis Ian comes from the fact that sales in Japan were so incredible that she was able to afford a house from the sales of this album alone (no kidding).

But as I enter my twelfth listen to Aftertones, I'm a loss of what to write about it. This 1975 album is plagued by instrumentals that blend one into another and vocals that mash up into an indistinct, narcoleptic mix of light rock that is so unenthusiastic that it was only reading the liner notes to remind myself that Janis Ian is an amazing poet (even on this album) that I was able to rate it higher than "avoid it at all costs!"

With eleven songs, clocking out at 37:06, Aftertones is an unfortunate work by gifted singer-songwriter Janis Ian. Ian wrote all of the songs and provides the lead vocals on each and every song. As well, she plays guitar on six of the songs and piano on four of the others. While she arranged many of the songs - like the string section on "Goodbye To Morning" - she is not given any form of production credit on the album. Were I reviewing this back in the day, considering the works of James Taylor and others around this time, I would probably dub this Janis Ian's sellout album. As it is, it's just musically disappointing in the way it mimics the soft, flowery pop-rock of the time.

Gifted with a strong education in folk-rock music, Aftertones reveals a very different sensibility from musical artist Janis Ian. On this album, she presents slow, soft ballads that are so homogenous the album is completely boring to listen to. In fact, musically, this might be the most limited Janis Ian album as she takes no real risks instrumentally and backs her guitar or piano driven songs up with woodwinds and stringed instruments for a more orchestral sound that still bores listeners.

She manages to be somewhat creative on "I Would Like To Dance," which appears early on the album and breaks up the monotony with a Latin rhythm and sound, including the use of congas and a wooden flute.

What saves the album from utter failure is the strength of the lyrics. The songs may sound boring, but they are great to read with their strongly poetic lines. Indeed, after twelve listens, I can't tell you anything about the melody or instrumentals to "Roses," but it has great lyrics with its poetic refrain of "And there'll be roses / In the springtime still / I guess there will / I wish her roses and song / And she'll be older / As the years go by / And how they fly / She will be lonely / Without me along." Despite the simplistic rhyme scheme, Janis Ian writes a haunting song that includes the perspective of one who has died as the voice.

Moreover, it is easy to see why Japan embraced "Love Is Blind." Love is universal and Ian incredibly captures that sentiment on "Love Is Blind" with her lines "Love is blind / Love is only sorrow / Love is no tomorrow / Since you went away / Love is blind / How well I remember / In the heat of summer pleasure / Winter fades / How long will it take / Before I can't remember / Memories I should forget / I've been burning / Since the day we met." There may be many problems with Aftertones, but the writing is not one of them. Janis Ian has a remarkable ability to express the longing and conflict that come from love and breakups.

As far as the presentations go, though, the only lines that stick out on this entire album are from "Boy, I Really Tied One On." While the other tracks blend together with melodic, homogenous vocals, that song actually articulates something. Indeed, the only way I knew sometimes I was in another iteration of listening to Aftertones was when I heard Janis Ian singing "Wake up, I've got news for you / Nobody's knocking at your door / Nobody's gonna pull you through / Nobody needs you anymore . . . Boy I went around the bend / Thought I'd made a life-long friend / Imagine my surprise when I looked into your eyes / And I saw the kind of friends you meant" ("Boy, I Really Tied One On"). The song is horrific in its statement of how relationships change and the expectations some have for the protagonist. It's a thoroughly depressing, but emotionally accurate, piece.

Part of what makes Aftertones so insufferable are the vocals. Janis Ian has a great voice with exceptional range. On this album, she blends her alto and soprano voice with the instrumentals such that they overlap and essentially become auditory sludge. Ian fails to enunciate on any of the tracks, save "Boy, I Really Tied One On," at least in a way that the vocals overcome the instrumentals. The bonus track (exclusive to the c.d. release) with the live version of "Love Is Blind" (lifted directly from her album Live: Working Without A Net) is similarly vocally forthright in places, but also fades such that she cannot easily be heard.

The real vocal exception is on "Hymn." On that song, Ian is accompanied vocally by Clair Bay and Odetta. The three harmonize beautifully. The unfortunate aspect of that is that their vocal harmonizing is done in virtually the same way the string sections play on adjacent tracks, so auditorily it continues the overall sound of the album rather than breaking it up.

Janis Ian has many great albums (see below). This is not one of them. Anyone looking for a sleep aid might get some mileage out of Aftertones, but for the rest of us, there are other, better albums.

The best track is "Boy, I Really Tied One On" and outside "Love Is Blind," all of the rest of the tracks could be reasonably considered weak tracks.

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Janis Ian
Between The Lines
Breaking Silence
God & The F.B.I.
Billie's Bones
Live: Working Without A Net
Folk Is The New Black


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where musical works are organized best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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