Saturday, October 20, 2012

Janis Ian Is BACK! Folk Is The New Black Is Great!

The Good: Wonderful lyrics, Interesting music, Good vocals
The Bad: Does not strain the expectations of Janis Ian
The Basics: Funny, soulful and deep, Folk Is The New Black reminds listeners that Janis Ian and folk-rock can still have relevancy!

To the casual observer of my reviews, it might seem like I have rather suddenly gone soft. After all, I have suddenly hit a string of reviews where I am rating things rather high. As it turns out, I have just stumbled upon a pretty wonderful bunch of items in the last few days and as a result, it is making me appear as something less than the curmudgeon I usually am at reviewing. Stick around, there will be a lot more I pan in the very near future!

However, after a few weeks of listening to only James Taylor, I decided to put my library's interlibrary loan system to the test and I requested a whole load of Janis Ian's works. Right around the time I got in a new load of James Taylor, a whole lot of Janis Ian came in and despite myself, I couldn't resist forsaking Taylor for the latest full album by Janis Ian, Folk Is The New Black. And on it, Ian reminds the listener she is still here and she still rocks!

With fifteen songs clocking in at a second under fifty-five minutes, Folk Is The New Black ought to give hope to all artists whom the pundits claim "peaked young." Ian wrote all fifteen songs and provides the lead vocals on all of them. She is credited instrumentally with "guitars, etc." and what the "etc." is is a bit of a mystery. Considering that the guitar is the primary instrument on the album, Ian has quite a bit to do. At least as important for anyone looking at the creative control of the artist, Folk Is The New Black was produced by Janis Ian, so it is pretty much indisputable that this is her artistic vision and the album she wanted to release - which also might explain why it is on an independent label.

The thing is, after all of these years, Janis Ian still clearly has something to say and her folk rock sound may be familiar, but she uses the medium well. In fact, while God And The F.B.I., one of her other recent albums, dabbled in production elements to an extent that Ian's listeners might not have been comfortable with, Folk Is The New Black finds a rather impressive balance. On this album, Janis Ian effectively combines the lyrical strength and sensibilities of her young self with the orchestrations that dominated her sound in the 1970s with the production elements that she has now become comfortable with and her own sense of maturity. Yes, Janis Ian has something to say still and in this incarnation, Ian's works take on a status that soars above traditional folk while retaining the heart, message and diction that separates Ian from every other folk-rock artist, past and present.

A lot of what Janis Ian has going for her is in her lyrics. Janis Ian is an excellent lyricist and on Folk Is The New Black, she mixes the political ("Danger Danger," "The Drowning Man") with the deeply personal ("Standing In The Shadows Of Love," "Joy") to the professional and introspective ("Life Is Never Wrong," "My Autobiography"). She balances thematically with the brilliance of her humor on “Folk Is The New Black” (the final track on the album) with the heartwrenching emotion of "All Those Promises." Track to track, Ian reveals herself to be a cunning manipulator of emotions and this album keeps her words vital and compelling.

Take, for example, Ian's ability to tell story-songs. Like any folk artist, Janice Ian is talented at creating musical storysongs as she does on "Jackie Skates," "The Drowning Man," and "The Crocodile Song." On that last storysong, she creates a snooty female character who is the embodiment of the man-eater and she follows her through a song where "She said 'Darling meaning no offense . . .' / 'Good God Almighty, those teeth are huge / No way I'll do the hokey pokey with you' / So they went to the dentist, who pulled all but two / Ain't it amazing what love can do" ("The Crocodile Song"). The jazzy song meanders through victims of the woman who go to obscene lengths to please her, often at their own peril and to their discomfort. It's impressive that she makes it so musical, but she does!

As with all of the past albums by Ian that I have heard, Janis Ian is intensely political and on Folk Is The New Black, she continues that tradition. She opens with a song about suppressing art ("Danger Danger") and continues with the strongly political with "The Great Divide," where she sings "While politicians lie and cheat / To get to higher ground / We follow them like sheep / And salute them as we drown / But no man will be king / When all men wear the crown / And there will be a reckoning / From deep inside the rising tide / As we tear down the walls / Of the Great Divide." Yes, it takes a lot to get a mainstream musical artist to sing a socialist anthem, but in Folk rock this is pretty common and Janis Ian makes a doosey with "The Great Divide."

This is not to say that she is all political. On "All Those Promises," she goes deep and soulful and the track resonates like her mid-70s songs without the schmaltz factor. In other words, she lets the words carry the emotion as opposed to telegraphing the emotion through overbearing instrumentals. Yes, there is a crescendo reminiscent to some of her mid-70s works, but the focus is definitely the lyrics and the sense of loss and betrayal one has from being lied to. Similarly, "Shadows Of The Wind" is agonizing in the lyrical intensity for the universal emotions of loss the song expresses.

Janis Ian also has a pretty wild sense of humor and she allows it to come through and have its day on the final track of the album (as well as tongue-in-cheek humor on a number of her political songs and "My Autobiography"). On the song “Folk Is The New Black,” she makes a blatant advertisement for folk-rock music. Indeed after several exhortations on the greatness and enduring quality of folk-rock music, she gets a whole chorus to accompany her with singing "Folk is the new black / Cheaper than crack and you don't have to cook / Download it and see / First time is free, then you'll be hooked / We'll be singing hootenanny songs / Long after rock and roll is gone / Better than crack - folk is the new black" (“Folk Is The New Black”). It's catchy, it is funny and it is pretty hard to dispute (at least for those of us who like folk and have never tried crack). Janis Ian does a wonderful service to her cause with the tune.

And at the very least, all of the songs on Folk Is The New Black have something to say or an emotion to express. They are sung by Janis Ian who has a sultry voice that has decent range from a husky alto and goes into the soprano range on several of the songs. Ian is not afraid to use her full range, though most of the songs stay in the safe range as embodied by "Shadows On The Wind" where she appears most comfortable.

Despite some of the songs, like "All Those Promises" having production elements or somewhat extensive instrumental backings, most of the songs are Janis Ian, her guitar and minimal percussion. The songs are generally mid-tempo, though there are ballads and more upbeat or rocking songs. There is a good diversity of sound on the album.

Within the larger context of Janis Ian's audio library, though, she is beginning to illustrate the problems with having a career that spans four decades. "Danger Danger" has essentially the same tune as the track "God And The F.B.I." and "The Crocodile Song" appears to be the tune of a classic jazz track. Indeed, the first time I heard it, I thought it was a cover - it sounds like "Fever" or a song that I would swear was "What a little love can do." Regardless, this is not the most musically exciting album in the known universe, but it is hard to imagine there would be many (if any) folk-rock fans who did not enjoy it.

Anyone who likes a strong, progressive, feminist voice and/or folk-rock music will find something to love on Folk Is The New Black.

The best track is "Haven't I Got Eyes," the low point is the strangely unmemorable "Joy."

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


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of the music reviews!

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

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