Sunday, November 4, 2012

Janis Ian’s Sophomore Album Remains ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind .

The Good: Great voice, Many of the lyrics, Thematic sophistication
The Bad: Moments that are musically derivative of itself, Short
The Basics: ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind helps illustrate just how Janis Ian became enough of a phenomenon to survive beyond her debut album!

So, here's the thing. I've fallen in love with the early works of Janis Ian. Her later works may be just fine, but I haven't heard them yet. I got my hands on a few old Janis Ian records - yes, actual long out-of-print records! - and was listening to them before I got a stack of her c.d.s in. The result is that I listened to her debut, Janis Ian on record and was blown away by it. I then listened to and reviewed her sophomore album ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind before discovering that it was so long out of print that it is very hard to come by.

Sophomore albums are a challenge for any artist. When one has been successful with a debut, the pressure on a sophomore album to prove that the debut was not a fluke is immense. As someone who just this week discovered the albums of Janis Ian, I was blown away by her debut Janis Ian. I was actually a little afraid to pop on her sophomore effort, ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind, because I was so impressed by her first endeavor. I knew I would want to love the follow-up and I was worried that I would be polarized by it, either hating it or loving it unjustly.

As it is, after seven listens, ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is a slightly better than average album and one that I certainly do not hate. But it does lack some of the magic of Janis Ian. That said, it's still better than 90% of the crap being made in pop-rock and folk-rock music today!

...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is an eleven track album clocking in at forty-six minutes. All of the tracks were written and performed by Janis Ian, though the arrangements are credited to her and "everyone else in the band" according to the liner notes. In addition to singing, Ian plays the guitar, piano and organ on the album. In many ways, this is the artistic vision of Janis Ian, one of the youngest and most talented women to ever grace the folk-rock scene. It is not an inapt analogy to compare her to Bob Dylan and since I've started listening to her, I'm aching to know if Dar Williams was influenced by her works.

...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is a far more intimate album than Janis Ian's first, both in terms of instrumentals and themes. The predominant theme on the album is loneliness and listening to the album, one gets an immediate impression of being separated from what one loves and appreciates. Ian uses less instruments and the production is very straightforward, focusing on Ian's voice.

Janis Ian has an incredible voice that skips along the alto and soprano ranges without ever becoming shrill. She is a musical storyteller, like Dylan, Baez and more recent artists like Dar Williams. Actually, this album resonates more like one of Heather Nova's more intimate albums, like Storm (reviewed here!). While Ian is more clearly established as a folk-rock artist on this album, she caps off the album with the explosively poppy song "Insanity Comes Quietly To The Structured Mind." But for the most part, these songs are a mellow collection of tracks that have a very intimate quality to them.

Part of that intimacy certainly comes from the fact that Ian's natural voice comes through on every track, with a rather un-retouched sound to it. The impression one has when listening to ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is that one is sitting in a coffee house or that Janis Ian is sitting in one's living room performing a (mostly) acoustic set for the listener.

And Ian's voice is perfect for the musical stories she sings; low enough that the words may be perfectly articulated, high enough to allow for a truly melodic presentation. She is not just a gifted lyricist, she is an impressive singer and she is not afraid to challenge her range some, like going a little lower for the opening of "Bahimsa." For the most part, though, she finds herself in the upper ranges singing refrains with a passion and sadness that is breathtaking.

On "There Are Times," Janis Ian belts out her lyrics with a strength and force that contrasts with the intimate bridges she uses in the song. So, she quietly establishes the musical premise with the setting of her musical story, then goes loud and forceful for the emotional resonance, then diminishing for such simple likes like "There are times I wish I could be a little bit stronger" ("There Are Times"). The oscillations between the sweet and the soulful are exceptional for their complexity and expressiveness and when she ends "There Are Times" with a simple "please help me" it is sung so purely that it could evoke tears.

And many of her lyrics maintain the high standards that she set with her first album. Loneliness dominates and generally the lyrics are more intimate and personal than political. In fact, the only truly, overtly political song is "Shady Acres," which is all about the decrepit state of nursing homes in America. She sings ironically about the concept of nursing homes with lines like, "So you've grown tired of your parents always hanging around / Now they spoil your children and hiding grand parents is out / Yes and they raised you well / Jewish to hell / But think of the ways so you wouldn't have to pay for their food / Forget all the years when they paid for you . . ." ("Shady Acres"). Outside a few drastically predictable rhyme schemes like "blame/shame" she continues to have a fresh grasp of lyrics that manages to sound original even forty years later!

While she mentions the Captain America and counterculture movement on songs like "Lonely One," she escapes creating a generic '60's political folk song by instead exploring the problems of being an artist instead of the politics. She sings about trying to find a place in the art community and not quite fitting, with a sense of universality that transcends simply being an exploration of being an artist. In other words, the cultural references in the song establish a setting of being an artist in the late 1960s, but she reflects on that isolation in a way that is universal for anyone feeling like they are an outsider.

And most of the songs are about existing in a state of being alone. She has a strong sense of poetics and her lines are beautiful and haunting containing a level of diction that seems only common within the confines of folk music. Possibly the best track on the album, "Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call" Ian writes and sings, "Lonely here, forever dreaming / My life is teeming with a yearning / I'd like to be learning / And it's summer out on the street / Sunflakes fall, snowrays call / Hey mama, it's me saying "hi" / A policeman walks a most solitary beat." And while the unique and clever configurations of sunflakes and snowrays make it wonderful poetics, it is the way the musical accompaniment falls away to let Ian's voice carry the kicker line that truly translates the lyrics into music. She has a strong sense of voice and an amazing sense of personal expression that makes every listener feel like their struggles are not alone.

For the most part, ...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is a very traditional folk-rock album. Janis Ian appears on most of the tracks as a woman with her guitar or piano singing ballads and musical stories that have a simplicity to them that does not challenge the range of folk-rock. Unlike some of the truly funky and mind-bending tracks on her debut like "Younger Generation Blues" which used a siren as an instrument and had a whole backing vocal section and "crowd scene" noises (which I usually loathe, but she completely made work!), this album is far more traditional. The piano muses gently on "Evening Star" and her guitars are much more traditional and quiet on songs like "Queen Merka & Me." And "Shady Acres" sounds like the archetypal folk-rock one-person, one-guitar sound.

One of the few musical exceptions to this general rule is the opening track "A Song For All The Seasons Of Your Mind," which has a more frantic quality to it. Despite not being listed in the instruments used on the album, I would have sworn there was a zither in it. It is a strange song as Ian sings in the upper ranges, sublimated to the instrumentals which include a lot of strumming on guitars and what sounds like a zither. It is a somewhat noisy track and its unfortunate that it opens the album as it sets up a somewhat unrealistic expectation in the listener for what is coming next.

But after the funky blues sound of "Honey D'Ya Think?" the album maintains a much more consistent instrumental and vocal sound with the Ian fronting a quiet guitar. It's adequate, but the instrumentals are not so exceptional that I sat up and was amazed at anything on this album.

...For All The Seasons Of Your Mind is bound to be liked by anyone who likes folk-rock music and anyone who likes a strong feminine voice. On those fronts, Janis Ian delivers. But anyone looking for a diverse pop-rock experience is bound to be underwhelmed and those who do not want to risk being depressed, this album might not be for you. After all, this is Janis Ian as a woman isolated singing about feeling alone.

We can all relate to that, but we might not all want to listen to it.

The best track is "Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call" with its beautiful poetics and perfect expression of a solitary existence. The weak link is "Queen Merka & Me," which left no impression even after eight listens to the album.

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