Monday, April 15, 2013

Janis Ian Helps Us Remember An Engaging Musical Presentation!

The Good: Great voice, Wonderful lyrics
The Bad: Not an incredible mix/no audacious reworks of familiar Janis Ian songs
The Basics: The two-disc album Remember by Janis Ian is a very engaging live concert experience that holds up well over time.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a concert and meeting one of my poetic and musical idols, Janis Ian. The concert was absolutely incredible, though Ian performed songs that were “safe” (not requiring any radical reworking in order to be presented as a one-woman, acoustic performance) for her touring style. Ever since the concert, I have been listening to the two discs that comprise Ian’s first live concert album, Remember, in high rotation. In fact, since I began my new job, it is all I have listened to on the hour trips to and from work! The reason for my seeming obsession with this new-to-me album is that in meeting Ms. Ian, she gave me a copy of Remember (which absolutely floored me at the time and, regardless of anything that follows in this review, remains one of my all-time cherished possessions and one of my favorite gifts ever).

That great act of kindness took me back and it took me a while to get to an objective place in listening to Remember to review it with the same standards by which I review every other album. So, up front, it is worth reminding my loyal readers (or informing new readers) that: 1. “Live” albums (like holiday albums) are a tougher sell with me than for most; with a “live” album, I am looking to hear something truly different than I hear on the studio-produced album, and 2. “Average” in my schema is not bad. I have a number of things in my personal collection that are average or even below average (items that I might enjoy more than are objectively good or great). Remember is an average album or two-disc set. It is not extraordinary and it is not bad; I enjoy the album, but it is not an exceptional departure from Janis Ian’s studio albums of the 1970s (Remember was originally release in 1978). Given that Remember follows the release of Ian’s single “Stars” it is somewhat surprising that that single does not appear on the album!

With two discs, 22 tracks (12 on Disc 1, 10 on Disc 2), clocking out at a total of XX:XX (46:51 on disc 1, 50:03 on disc 2), Remember is a reconstructed concert album and the story behind its re-release is fascinating (Ian was sent the original masters out of the blue a few years ago and painstakingly reconstructed the “lost album”) and it represents a very cool concert experience culled from two concerts (Japan and Sydney) in the late 1970s. It also represents a great document that showcases Janis Ian’s musical and writing talents. While the album represents her musical talents, it does not showcase much outside what listeners would get from her studio albums from around the same era. And, having seen her live myself now, it is essential to note that an audio recording like Remember does not capture the raw charisma and performance ability of Janis Ian (though one of the between-song stories captures her sense of humor quite well!).

Remember is a live album that utilizes very few of the familiar “live” conceits. Ian smartly removes most of the applause and crowd noises so that her vocals and the instrumentals can be heard better. The minimal crowd sounds that are included are decent reactions to the few stories or speaking moments on the album, as well as applause after her big numbers.

Instrumentally, Remember is a very typical pop-rock album. The instrumental accompaniment to Janis Ian is largely generated by guitar, bass, and drums, with the occasional piano part thrown in. None of the songs presented on Remember are remarkable or fundamental reworks of the original, studio-produced, versions of the songs. Remember does have a rather energetic feel to the concert; it is not a quiet, melancholy presentation by any standard (to wit, her early hits “Society’s Child” – which is more cerebral and contemplative – and the ballad “Stars” are both absent from this concert). The instrumental accompaniment is produced to accompany, not overwhelm, the vocals.

As one might expect from Janis Ian, the vocals on Remember are stupendous. Janis Ian sings each word clearly and precisely, so she can be perfectly understood on every line. The songs on Remember are more of the up-tempo variety, so there are almost no notes that Ian is required to hold or display exceptional lung capacity for. Even so, she demonstrates wonderful vocal force on songs like “Party Lights” and “In The Winter.” She is fast and articulate on songs like “Miracle Row” and “Will You Dance?” Ian has decent range, though on Remember she stays very comfortably within her alto-soprano register.

While most of Remember is focused on songs about the human condition, there are a few bits that tie the music to the time. On “New York In The Springtime,” there are a few dated political references. When Ian sings “I like the recession / Call girls change their rates / Agnew's pitching hell / Nixon can't get laid” (“New York In The Springtime”) on the album, it lacks the relevancy it had at the time.

When Remember was released, Janis Ian was quite the celebrity. With lines like “Applause, applause / Give the singer a break / How much can you give? / How much can you take? / Give the singer a chance / Give the singer a chance / Anything to buy your soul / and maybe she will dance” (“Applause”), it is clear Ian was wrestling with the different facets of her international popularity. “Applause” actually holds up remarkably well over the years as a result.

This is not to say Remember is a morose or overly serious album. Janis Ian has a wit to many of her lyrics and her sense of humor mixes with pathos on songs like “Boy I Really Tied One On.” Janis Ian tells a poetic story, “Boy, I really lost my head / I woke up in a double bed / Allow me the pleasure of taking your measure / though I'm sure you ain't nobody's treasure / (And I know it isn't ladylike / to do what I've done tonight) / Wake up, I've got news for you / Nobody's knocking at your door / Nobody's gonna pull you through / Nobody needs you any more / Nobody's knocking at your door” (“Boy I Really Tied One On”) that is well-presented on Remember.

Ultimately, Remember is a good historical document, but it is no substitute for seeing Janis Ian live (now! She’s touring right now in the U.S.!) or her more career-inclusive Live Without A Net, which is one of the best live albums I have ever heard. Remember is good for variety, but not the most exceptional musical mix.

The best tracks are "In The Winter" (Disc 1) and "Would You Dance?" (Disc 2), the low points are "From Me To You" (Disc 1) and "Maria" (Disc 2) (both for being less memorable, not - per se - bad).

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Concert - East Lansing, MI - March 8, 2013
Janis Ian
. . . For All The Seasons Of Your Mind
Society's Child: The Verve Recordings
Between The Lines
Breaking Silence
God & The F.B.I.
Billie's Bones
Live: Working Without A Net
Folk Is The New Black
The Best Of Janis Ian - 2 CD + Exclusive DVD Edition


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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