Thursday, November 8, 2012

Janis Ian Explores Loneliness, Celebrity And Life With Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings.

The Good: Great voice, Many of the lyrics, Themes of loneliness
The Bad: Moments that are musically derivative of itself.
The Basics: It's easy to see how Janis Ian was huge in the late 1960s but Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings makes the argument that she ought to be required listening for any music lover!

Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings is a two-disc compilation set that includes all of the material on Janis Ian's first four recordings from her record company at the time. So, here's what I decided to do: Because disc 1 is Janis Ian and all but one track of ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind, I’ve provided links to those two reviews and new material for the second disc. Unlike one of my usual reviews, this might seem a little stylistically clunky, but I hope those reading this get the concept and can dig it because Janis Ian's work is truly extraordinary and these four albums, er, two discs, make for an incredible listening experience.

So, with that: Disc 1 of Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings includes the albums Janis Ian (reviewed here!) and her sophomore album ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind (reviewed here!).

Disc Two, then, encompasses Janis Ian's albums The Secret Life Of J. Eddy Fink and Who Really Cares (before closing with a stray track from the prior album!). With over seventy-seven minutes, the disc packs in twenty tracks that see a return to form more in line with Janis Ian.

The second disc features all tracks written and performed by Janis Ian. She sings on all the songs and plays guitars, piano and organ as well. She relies on more accompanying musicians on the latter half of the disc and the difference between the two albums encapsulated on the second disc seems to be that Janis Ian co-produced and co-arranged the first eleven tracks, but that the eight tracks that cap off the album were produced by another. But given that she seems so integrally involved in the various aspects of the album, it seems reasonable that this is truly her musical vision.

And it is an impressive vision. Those who think they might be ignorant of Janis Ian's works might well recognize "Love You More Than Yesterday" from television commercials (which is where I believe I've heard the song before). Vocally, Ian challenges herself quite a bit more than she has. With "Everybody Knows," she opens the album with a speed singing that is very different from the stark emotionalism of much of her prior material. She then moves into more vocally pop-driven performances with "Mistaken Identity" and especially the brief track "Friends Again." She has a laid-back funky sound with songs like "Time On My Hands" and "Love You More Than Yesterday" that makes her sound like a more mainstream pop-rock star.

Ian has a beautiful voice that is quite capable of traversing the alto and soprano ranges, though she seems pretty set on the alto range for more of this disc. She still goes higher, as she does on tracks like "When I Was A Child," "What Do You Think Of The Dead?" and "She's Made Of Porcelain." But more of her presentation is the husky vocals that make up "Love You More Than Yesterday."

She even experiments a bit with production elements and they work well on tracks like "Son Of Love." There she poses questions and her production-altered voice answers with a haunting effect that works to allow her to truly tell a musical story.

Lyrically, Janis Ian remains convincingly adult, despite her youth when writing much of the material here. This is actually something that she explores with her lyrics like lines like, "Once I was a child on the outside / Now I am a child on the inside / . . . I used to be a child" ("When I Was A Child"). Whereas the prior works might have been somewhat obsessed with loneliness, here Janis Ian opens herself up to growing thematically. She sings about love, changes in her life, being an artist, and longing ("Time On My Hands").

She also has a bevy of musical stories that tell little vignettes of time and place like the emotive "Galveston" and the moody "Month Of May." She tells wonderful musical story-songs with lines like "Hotel rooms on the road sometimes get lonely / When you turn out the lights / Hotel rooms on the road / You're not the only one sleeping in your bed tonight / Oh I'd like to see you / Knocking at my window . . . " ("Month Of May").

Janis Ian evokes the comparisons with Bob Dylan with her energetic folk-rock songs that border on pop music, like her song "Friends Again," which sounds like one of Dylan's early enthusiastic one man guitar tracks. Ian grows into a generally richer sound over the course of the second disc, affirming that the musical diversity of the Janis Ian portion of the first disc was not just an ambitious debut bit. Instead, it seems she is more comfortable with being accompanied by a richer sound.

So, for example, on "Sweet Misery," she has her vocals out in front of a powerful electric guitar and pounding drums that make her musical point so much stronger than the waifish sound her lone guitar and voice sometimes had. On "Look To The Rain," Ian is belting out plaintive vocals with bongo drums rapping out behind her and it works wonderfully!

The only real drawback here is that the instrumentals and music begin to sound derivative, often of herself. In addition to a few of the tracks sounding remarkably like works by Bob Dylan, some of the tracks sound like one another. So, for example, "When I Was A Child" and "Son Of Love" sound remarkably similar and "Month Of May" and "Time On My Hands" use a number of the same progressions. They sound good, but they sound like one another, making one wonder if forty-one original tracks over the course of only three years might have burned the young woman out some!

At least the weaknesses is in the (occasionally) derivative music as opposed to the lyrics which remain fresh.

On the second disc, the superlative track is the memorable and recognizable for a reason, "Love You More Than Yesterday" and the weak link is the indistinct "Baby's Blue." The overall collection is certainly worthwhile, well above average and a must for anyone who truly loves folk-rock music!

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
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 where the reviews are organized Best to Worst!

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