Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Tough Sell Of Janis Ian's Overproduced Revenge!

The Good: Good vocals, Good lyrics, Moments of instrumentals
The Bad: None of the vocals, lyrics, or instrumentals are as good as her other works.
The Basics: One of Janis Ian's less inspired outings, Revenge might reach "good," but it's mostly mediocre and can be skipped by those looking for the essential Janis Ian.

Janis Ian, what can I write about her that I might not yet have written? She amazes me on virtually all of her albums. In fact, yesterday, I declared Breaking Silence an album close enough to perfect to give five-stars to. After six weeks of the James Taylor musical diet, it has been pretty wonderful to listen to Janis Ian's works and fall back in love with folk-rock music and be amazed at what a great singer-songwriter can do. It is a good thing I did not start my return to Janis Ian with Revenge.

Revenge is, quite simply, not Ian's best work. It is not her worst work, either, but it is missing the spark that usually makes me so eager to listen to the works of Janis Ian. In fact, it is utterly unsurprising after eight listens to this album to learn that only one song from this album made it onto her essential two-disc collection released earlier this year. The only thing that surprised me about only one track from Revenge appearing on My Autobiography was which track; I would have guessed "Take Me Walking In The Rain," if any, but Ian chose "When Angels Cry." Go figure. Unfortunately for Ian, the consequence of having a great amount of creative control on one's albums also means the artist takes the "blame" when the album does not reach its full potential. Yes, Revenge is mostly Janis Ian's fault.

With twelve songs taking up 52:01, Revenge is mostly the work, musical vision and talent of Janis Ian. Ian wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on this album, but perhaps where the album goes wrong is that Janis Ian co-wrote far more of them than usual. Half of the songs have a co-writer with Ian and one might only try to pawn off some of the responsibility for the album's mediocrity onto some of those co-writers.

Ian takes the credit for all of the primary vocals on Revenge and that's fine; the vocals are decent, even if they are a bit banal. Ian provides nothing new as far as vocal range or ability on this album to mix up the sound for listeners. Ian also plays the acoustic guitars on the album as well as the piano on three of the songs. She is accompanied by a rather full number of instrumentalists with bass, percussion, piano on other tracks than the ones Ian plays on and other guitars. The sound of Revenge actually has its moments of richness and it works in that regard . . . when it utilizes the full instruments and sounds that Ian puts into the songs. Janis Ian is a co-producer of the album. So this is very much her musical vision and the statements she wanted to make to the world in 1995 when it was originally released.

Revenge is mediocre and has a soft-rock feel and sound to it that makes it possibly the most bland Janis Ian outing to date. Ian has an incredible creativity and ability and on this album is seems to be masked for a sultry sound on early tracks that soon melts into a bland, musical mush of light pop-rock that confirms the worst fears one has for folk-rock music: it's boring. This is a boring-sounding album with contemplative guitars and pianos washed over with ethereal and vague vocals that create a more narcoleptic sound, defying the title of the album. Revenge only works for this album if that act were one of quiet, angry boring to death.

The lyrics on Revenge are hardly the most inspired of Ian's illustrious career an, unfortunately, her co-writers cannot take all of the blame. When I read over the tracklist, I was perhaps most excited by the possibility of "Ready For The War," knowing that Janis Ian is an ardent pacifist. Instead of a rousing anthem, I found a song riddled with strangely obvious rhymes like "I'm ready for the war / Ready for the heat / Choose your battleground now / Why don't we do it in the street / There will be no peace tonight / No angels at the door / You are ready for a fight / And I am ready for the war" ("Ready For The War"). Ian continues the song with rhymes like "heart/apart," "door/war," and "me/free" that just seem simplistic and fail to convey any complexity to the song and leave the listener feeling unfulfilled by the lines.

But what is refreshing are the moments Ian has a sense of humor. Janis Ian has a dark sense of humor that she lets loose in some of her songs, like "Davy." On that track, she presents a musical story-song with the lines "This whole park bench belongs to me / I'm not crazy / I reserved it late last spring / Don't sit on my dog / Thought we'd spend the summer here / (My wilderness vacation) / Scare off the tourists / Or charge them to feed us / Yep, I'm a real financier" ("Davy"). Of course, there is nothing funny about homelessness or mental illness, but Ian presents a song about a character who is likely suffering from both with a tongue-in-cheek wit that few musical artists dare to put in their songs. And it works!

Moreover, not all of the co-written songs are bad or even mediocre. Ian and Jenny Yates manage a pleasant-enough love song that follows the whole theme of "dance like no one is watching" with "Take Me Walking In The Rain." On that song, Ian sings "Take me walking in the rain / Take me dancing in the waves, baby / Let it wipe away the tears / Wash away the years / Take me walking in the rain / Take me right here where I stand / Let me feel your heart on mine / Life'll never be the same / We've got everything to gain / Take me walking in the rain" ("Take Me Walking In The Rain"). It is direct and maybe a little simple, but the song has charm and on this album, that is pretty much the best the listener may hope for.

Vocally, Janis Ian has an amazing soprano voice and songs like "When The Silence Falls" she illustrates a pretty impressive bit of range by starting lower and going high. Unfortunately, that song is pretty much the exception to the rule on this album. Most of the songs have Ian trapped in the upper limits of her range presenting high-pitched, melancholy ballads that inspire sleep as opposed to any form of . . . well, anything else.

Instrumentally, one has to give credit to Ian; this album uses a number of instruments and some of them even work, like the saxophone that comes in at the end of one of the later tracks to make the album somewhat less monotonous. But largely, it is a very guitar or piano driven album that uses percussion in an obvious, beatkeeping capacity (as opposed to being at all expressive or musically interesting, it is simply keeping time).

The tough sell of Revenge is much of the album is technically decent, but it lacks spark, zest, character and all of those are essential to the Janis Ian musical experience. And this is one that can be skipped over.

The best track is "Take Me Walking In The Rain," the low point is . . . take your pick from the rest of the tracks, let's just say "Ruby" because after eight listens it left absolutely no impression on me.

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Janis Ian
Between The Lines
Breaking Silence
God & The F.B.I.


For other music reviews, please 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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