The Good: Wonderful lyrics, Some truly vibrant performances, Interesting interstitials.
The Bad: "Live" conceits, Few songs I'd trade out for others
The Basics: A perfect live album experience, Janis Ian Live Without A Net holds up amazingly as (mostly) the best of Janis Ian's songs with amazing new performances of them!
"Live" albums suffer pretty mercilessly at the hands of my pen. I'm up front about that. despite how great most concerts can be and the way there is an energy in the room, often it does not get transferred to the compact discs made of the shows. In fact, in all of the c.d.s I've listened to, the only two concert album discs that come right to mind as ones I've recommended are Dar Williams' Out There Live (reviewed here!) and James Taylor's One Man Band (reviewed here!). In the case of Out There Live, Williams uses the album almost as a de facto "best of" album and because it lacks some of her best tracks, it was easy to knock it out of the top rating spot.
Janis Ian has plenty of greatest hits and "best of" compilation albums, so her concert album Working Without A Net is not bound by some notion that it ought to contain all of her greatest hits. Instead, this album, culled from performances from 1990 through 2003 is pretty free to be whatever it wants as a live album. It is intended to be the best, most vibrant or most interesting performances of the songs presented. In other words, because it is not trying to be the best of Janis Ian, I can't complain that her amazing song "Too Old To Go 'Way Little Girl" isn't included. I can complain, because I love that song, but I don't honestly have a standing to rate the album as something less than great as a result.
This is all a pretty long, roundabout way of me getting around to a "perfection by default" argument. Live: Working Without A Net caught me from the first listen as a vibrant mix of Janis Ian's classic and more recent songs. It does not overuse the noises of crowds to confirm that the tracks are, in fact, recorded live. The little bits that come between songs to introduce some of the songs are amusing and hold up remarkably well over multiple listens and the performances do everything a live album ought to: they entertain, some reinterpret and others just present in a slightly different way from the original album cuts. There is a decent mix that illustrates the lyrical, vocal and instrumental talents of Janis Ian. The thing is, after thirteen listens to the two-disc set, I can't realistically come up with a detraction to it to rate it anything less than perfect. For those who follow my reviews and know of my high standards, they know I do not take this sort of thing lightly. Live: Working Without A Net is perfect, eliminating true weak tracks in favor of the best performances of a pretty incredible mix of amazing songs by Janis Ian.
With two discs, comprised of thirty-one tracks - twenty-four songs and seven introductions to songs/stories about the songs - , clocking out at 64:27 and 56:27, respectively, Live: Working Without A Net is a masterwork of Janis Ian's musical vision and raw talent. Largely, this is the musical vision of Janis Ian: she wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, save "These Boots Were Made For Walking." Of the other twenty-three songs, nineteen were solely by Ian. Janis Ian provides the lead vocals on every song and she plays guitar on twenty-two of the songs and the piano on the other two. She is credited as a co-producer of the album and while her liner notes describes the excruciating process of choosing the songs and pawning some of that work off on others, but it is largely the work and effort of Janis Ian that is presented on this two-disc compilation album.
And wow, is it impressive! One not need be a lover of folk-rock to appreciate the talent, sound and presentation of the songs on Live: Working Without A Net. Songs range from musing storysongs in the folk tradition ("Jesse," "Paris In Your Eyes," "Berlin") to emotive poems set to music ("Ride Me Like A Wave," "In The Winter," "Stars") to personal and politically-themed storysongs that lead the listener to contemplation or rebellion ("Society's Child," "Breaking Silence"). Ian has an impressive arsenal of songs and she culled (most of!) the best for this album, making it pretty much the Janis Ian uber-concert.
Ian fearlessly presents her classic hits, like "Society's Child" and it is in this version that it is ridiculously easy to see how Janis Ian became an international pop-rock phenomenon. The song resonates today as a reminder of the United States's checkered past as far as interenthic relations go with its story of a young woman in love with a person of color. As the story goes, "Face is clean and shining black as night. / My mother went to answer you know / That you looked so fine. / Now I could understand your tears and your shame, / She called you "boy" instead of your name. / When she wouldn't let you inside, / When she turned and said / 'But honey, he's not our kind.' / She says I can't see you any more, baby, / Can't see you anymore" ("Society's Child").
Ian also puts forth some of her more personally risque songs in this compilation, like "Ride Me Like A Wave." This song is one of the most erotic poem songs I've ever heard (an actual sense of eroticism, not just spouting out anatomically graphic lines . . .) and one can feel the sexual energy in the air as she sings "Chart my secret places / Navigate my shores / Map the ocean's traces / Lick them from my pores / Dry me with delusion and desire / Ride me like a wave / Cover me with spray / Promise you will stay" ("Ride Me Like A Wave"). This is a song that is hard to diverge much from the original and still hit a sense of perfection with, so Ian mixes it up by including a decent bass solo by Stuart Blackwell to break up the song in the middle. When she returns to her vocals, she draws the final stanza out in a way that is loving, haunting and dripping with raw desire. It truly is the definition of sultry and the song is absolutely wonderful as a result.
As well, Ian has a real sense of humor, which she exhibits on songs like "Cosmopolitan Girl." "Without A Net" was the first time, to my knowledge, I had heard this song and it was so easy to be impressed with it. The song is a upbeat ditty about a woman obsessed with protecting her virginity that she loses the love of her life as a result. The song is presented wildly tongue-in-cheek and is written with clear humor with lines like "I hit thirty waiting for my endocrines / To match the questionnaires / He grew impatient, I said 'I'm saving myself / 'Meantime, let's do some therapy / Take a course in codependency / And while we're at it, you could lose some weight / We've got so much to share / No, don't touch me there / What's another year between friends? / The wait will be worth it / I'm bound to be perfect by then'" ("Cosmopolitan Girl").
Vocally, Live: Working Without A Netis an impressive collection of the talents of Janis Ian. Ian is a comfortable soprano on most of her songs, like "Ride Me Like A Wave" and "At Seventeen." She is able to go lower on songs like "Love Is Blind" and the truly incredible talent Ian has is no matter what register she is singing in, she seems to have the same ability to hold notes with an incredible amount of endurance. Moreover, she is able to articulate quickly and expressively on songs like "Cosmopolitan Girl" and still be perfectly clear.
Instrumentally, Ian manages to play a number of the songs with different interpretations than the originals and still make them pretty wonderful. For example, on "Society's Child," she slows the song down, accents the guitar quite a bit and makes it sound less "poppy" than the original. But what makes the two discs work so well is that Ian put together an album that mixes fast country-like tracks with slower folk ballads in a way that keeps the sound constantly fresh. The album does not sound at all like a lone woman on her guitar, even though a good number of the tracks are exactly that. Some of the songs do have Ian accompanied by bass or drums or there are two with her on piano (according to the liner notes, this is something she is no longer able to do) and the mix is pretty incredible.
In other words, this is an appropriately impressive mix of the works of Janis Ian's works presented in such a way that those who have all of her albums and have worn down a groove in her old records can buy this with confidence that they are getting both the best of Ian (mostly!) and a very different listening experience compared to what they might already own. And the intro with Ian talking about Britney Spears is utterly hilarious.
The best tracks are "Ride Me Like A Wave" (Disc 1) and "Cosmopolitan Girl" (Disc 2), the weak tracks are “Take No Prisoners" (Disc 1) and "Berlin" (Disc 2) and picking those took some effort!
For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Between The Lines
God & The F.B.I.
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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