Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Janis Ian's Stars Is Decent Elevator Music.

The Good: Good lyrics, Great vocals, Decent instrumentals
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: Despite being a bit "elevator music-esque," Stars is a solid album that is a bit short for a c.d. but otherwise is a phenomenal Janis Ian outing!

[Note: This review was originally written when I used to write reviews for a different site. There, I tried to make an event for my readers for my last review of one year and the start of the next year. So, for 2009, I opened with this review and the opening reflects that. I have decided to keep that opening simply because I like the sense of renewal to it and it does not detract from the review itself. Thanks for reading! – W.L. Swarts]

As we jump forward into a new year, I find myself thinking of what made 2008 at all memorable for me. Honestly, one of the things that did it for me had to have been my discovering the music of Janis Ian. I had never heard of Janis Ian or any of her songs. Now, I have listened to, reviewed and hunted down almost all of her albums (links at bottom!) and I have been astonished by how I never knew of her or her works before now. One of the last albums in my 2008 cache, which I am proud to make my first review of 2009 is Janis Ian's classic album Stars.

Janis Ian had a career as something of a musical prodigy in the pop-rock/folk-rock world, exploded with hits and potential by the time she was sixteen and then sank into obscurity for years after her teens. Stars was her return to the spotlight as an adult artist and she also returns to her roots as a folk-rock artist with an album that is melancholy, contemplative and utterly adult in its execution. This is also Ian's venture into adult contemporary, emphasizing her voice and lyrics over production elements and other distracting stylistic tells. And it works to establish her as a serious, articulate and well-presented artists.

With only eleven tracks, clocking out at 40:54, Stars is distinctly the work of Janis Ian. Ian wrote all ten songs (the eleventh is a bonus track on the c.d. of the live version of "Jesse" from Working Without A Net, so she wrote that at least as much as she wrote the original studio recorded track that appears three tracks prior). Ian provides the lead vocals on each song and plays guitar on seven tracks and piano on five, so she is constantly playing at least one musical instrument!

On the production end, Ian is not credited with any form of production credit, however, she is credited with being a co-arranger on every track. Given that she wrote the music, lyrics and arranged the songs, it is hard to see how the producer had much creative control that Ian herself did not already have. As a result, it is fairly easy to declare this the musical vision of Janis Ian.

And what a musical vision it is! For those who like light rock or folk rock, this is pretty much everything one could want, save long. Janis Ian has a great voice, which ranges from low and forceful, like on "Dance With Me" and she sings beautiful and haunting soprano on songs like "Thankyous." Vocally, Janis Ian is not to be denied on Stars. She is articulate and expressive and while the album has a somewhat homogenous quality, it is hard to listen to her vocals and deny that they are anything but truly notable. Ian has both range and articulation and the more music I review the less I find that combination to be as prevalent as I once thought it would be.

What originally drove me to the works of Janis Ian, though, were her lyrics and on Stars this is no exception. The title track is one of Ian's most recognizable tracks and "Jesse," which appears twice on this album, is her most-covered song. But what catches me about the album is how melancholy it is while maintaining a strong sense of poetics. Ian muses on stardom (“Stars”), loneliness ("Without You") and desire ("Sweet Sympathy"). No matter the subject, Ian makes the songs both listenable and poetic.

Take, for example, the haunting sounds of "The Man You Are In Me." Ian presents a poetic exploration of sorrow and loss with a sense of rhythm that almost is a chant when she sings "I love the man who waits beside you / I love the man who hides behind you / I love the shadow though it disappears / I love its afterglow reflected through the tears / I love the shadow in my tears / I love the dreams you can't remember / Lost in the early waking hours / I love the season of forever" ("The Man You Are In Me"). Throughout the lines and the song there is a strong sense of lack of fulfillment and she creates a musical protagonist that is instantly easy to empathize with.

Even her more introspective songs on her own experiences still have a strong sense of poetics. It is hard to deny that Stars is a lyrically a great song and despite the singsong nature of it, "Applause" is a great song that accurately captures what it is like - especially the insecurities - being an artist. Ian writes from experience when she sings of her younger days performing: "Applause, applause / Give the singer a chance / Treat her right / Be polite / Maybe she will dance / Applause, applause / Give the singer a break / How much can you give / How much can you take / Give the singer a chance . . . Anything to buy your soul / And maybe she will dance" ("Applause"). She makes the performance as universal as the act of listening to her music! Listening to her lines, we feel like we are being manipulated, just as she feels pressured by her audience.

And it is easy to see why her biographic song "Jesse" is so frequently covered. The sad song of abandonment resonates with its lines like "Jesse, the floors and the boards / Recalling your steps / And I remember, too / All the pictures are fading / And shaded in grey / But I still set a place / On the table at noon / And I'm leaving a light on the stairs / No I'm not scared - I wait for you / Hey Jesse, I'm lonely, come home" ("Jesse"). Truly Janis Ian is a poet and her lyrics resonate for anyone who has lost anyone in their lifetime.

As far as the instrumentals go, Stars is a very quiet, melancholy and difficult album, with the songs quietly resonating. All of the tracks - save "Applause" - are slow, sad, piano or guitar-driven tracks that are defined by a tone of longing and a general lack of percussion. This leaves Ian's voice to carry much of the album and that works out well, as she has an amazing voice.

This album is best for those who appreciate quiet adult contemporary or the quieter aspects of folk-rock. If James Taylor was ever to cover an album of Janis Ian's, one suspects Stars would be the one he would do. It is that smooth sound, gentle instrumentation and attention to lyrics that makes this album an enduring success.

The best track is "Jesse," the low point is the fairly unmemorable "You've Got Me On A String."

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


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

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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