Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company

Big Brother & The Holding Company
Cheap Thrills
I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
Pearl
In Concert
Greatest Hits
Live At Winterland '68


Big Brother & The Holding Company (Columbia ‘67) Rating: B
I only heard this album well after her more notable later efforts, and I find myself enjoying it much more than I expected to, even if it is an atypical effort that shows neither the strengths of Janis Joplin or Big Brother. Indeed, this album is comprised primarily of laid-back short songs, Janis is sometimes relegated to backing vocals, and she rarely let’s loose on her lead vocal tracks, either, as I guess she didn’t possess the self-confidence yet to really let ‘er rip. Apparently Big Brother didn’t realize her star potential yet, either, or else they probably would’ve showcased her more, plus they had yet to come to the conclusion that playing as loud, distorted, and sloppy as possible was their true strength. So, this album takes some getting used to, as it sounds almost like a different band than the one who would soon rise to prominence with Cheap Thrills, plus, let’s face it, this album hasn’t aged all that gracefully. That said, silly though they are, songs such as “Easy Rider” and “Caterpillar” are very catchy, and successful ballads come in the form of “Bye, Bye Baby,” a melodic, gentle country-tinged number likely influenced by Patsy Cline, and “Call On Me,” a slow, sing along duet. “Intruder” is more electric and is also improbably catchy, “Light Is Faster Than Sound” has an appealingly “far out,” Nuggets-esque ambiance despite the vocals and musicianship being barely adequate, “Blind Man” has those haunting “show me the way” backing vocals, “Down On Me” is another good song even if this rendition is extremely tame compared to the better known live versions that would appear later on, and “All Is Loneliness” ends the album with a moody droner that again works surprisingly well. Still, none of these songs rise to anywhere near the high level of Janis’ later successes, being modest “guilty pleasures” for the most part, and awful lyrics and the band’s amateurishness are major problems at times; I think that a knocked over guitar falling down could provide a more convincing rhythm than the one offered on "Women Is Losers." In truth, I doubt that I’ll be playing this album much from now on given that it’s such an anomaly within its participants careers, but on those rare occasions when I do put it on, I suspect that I’ll continue to be surprised at how much I end up enjoying it.

Cheap Thrills (Columbia ‘68) Rating: A
Big Brother is almost exclusively remembered for their singer, a young lady legend by the name of Janis Joplin. Which is somewhat unfair, because her bandmates backed her with a raw musical attack that was a perfect fit for her tattered rasp of a voice. Janis was at her best live, and in truth she never made a studio recording worthy of her reputation (for eye popping proof of her live prowess, rent the video of the Monterey Pop Festival. Her performance there with Big Brother perfectly captured the fiery essence of her stage persona and is a compelling testament to her enduring legend). This album comes pretty damn close, though, in large part because of Big Brother’s proudly primitive backing, particularly from guitarists James Gurley and Sam Andrew. In fact, on “Combination Of The Two” and “Oh, Sweet Mary” the lead vocals are actually handled by Andrew, and are secondary to the explosively grungey psychedelia, anyway. Janis sings backing vocals and contributes (along with Andrew) catchy "whoa whoa whoa's" on the former, but both of these hard rocking and enjoyable jam-based songs are more memorable for their intense music than anything else. "I Need A Man To Love" is also impressive, as its wailing blues guitar cuts through and Janis sings convincingly (to quote a later punk rocker: "she means it, man!"). Its singable "no it just can't be" backing vocals are also notable, while "Turtle Blues" is significant for being the sole Joplin-written composition here, though its simple Bessie Smith-inspired piano melody is no great shakes. The main reason that this album is considered a minor classic by many (even the cover art is classic) is because of its three best tracks, all of which are cover songs dominated by Joplin. On this version of George Gershwin’s "Summertime" Janis shows that she was more than merely a no holds barred blues belter, but that she could sing with a tender restraint, all while being backed by some beautiful guitar work from Big Brother. Continuing, Bern Berns and Jerry Ragovoy’s "Piece Of My Heart" is the Joplin song that's most likely to be blaring out of car stereo speakers via "classic rock radio," and for good reason - it's simply a great rock n' roll song with a typically tortured (and sexy) vocal from Janis. Finally, the album ends on an epic note with an absolutely harrowing 9-minute version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball And Chain” (the lone song here recorded live), on which her desperate, unforgettable vocals cut right to the bone. My main problems with this album are that it's a bit short at only 7 songs and the album is laughably dated at times, starting with the sexist (if unintentionally humorous) "four gentlemen and one great broad" introduction. Yet the incredible energy and passion that goes into these genuinely exciting performances makes Cheap Thrills one of the defining albums from its era (i.e. the psychedelic San Francisco scene of the late '60s), anyway. Janis in particular almost lives up to her (admittedly almost impossible to live up to) reputation, and her bandmates do much more than merely back her up. Unfortunately, Janis would leave her sympathetic compatriots in Big Brother soon after her spectacular Monterey performance to try to become a solo star, not realizing that inspired amateurism trumps professional competence nearly every time.

I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia ’69) Rating: B
After leaving Big Brother, Janis formed the Kozmic Blues Band, taking Sam Andrew with her. The resulting, appallingly titled album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was considered a major disappointment by many, though in retrospect this album gets a bit of a bad rap. It may not be Cheap Thrills, in large part because it doesn’t even try to be, but listening to this album today, without considering the Janis “myth” or whether or not she lives up to it, reveals it to be a modestly enjoyable if seriously flawed collection. As previously noted, the Kozmic Blues Band is much more polished and professional than Big Brother, whose technical incompetence had fit her unpolished voice perfectly, and there’s also precious little rocking out on the album, as there was an obvious strategy to show a different side of Janis than that of an out-of-control screecher. Only the album’s first and best song, “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder),” even attempts to approximate the hard rock heat of Big Brother (and even this song is tame compared to Big Brother), after which the album settles into a mellower groove, with Stax-like horns often battling Janis’ voice for attention. Yet, despite the album’s dubious overall strategy and inconsistency, I like a good many of these songs, such as “Maybe,” a slow, soulful ballad with a big chorus and a bit of a show tune feel, and “Kozmic Blues,” a slow blues that boasts a simmering intensity (along with another big chorus). Unfortunately, such intensity is too often lacking elsewhere, though her cover of Rodgers & Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” sure is pretty even if its syrupy strings don’t really fit, while her rendition of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” is solid but lacks that special spark. Worse yet, “As Good As You’ve Been To This World” relegates Janis to secondary status (didn't she leave Big Brother to further showcase hertalents?), as she only starts singing at the 2:25 mark, and though this loose, groovy, jazzy jam hits on a pretty good groove, I wouldn’t exactly call it inspired, either. “One Good Man,” her only original composition along with “Kozmic Blues” (the latter a co-write with producer Gabriel Mekler), is better, even if it is a rather generic slow blues with yet more horns. I like the tasty guitar soloing, though, and “Work Me, Lord,” with its strings and horns, ends the album on ambitious note, as this almost 7-minute track, which soars at times and has an epic quality, is a rare song here that offers up some genuine excitement. The song may be messy, erratic, and over-long, and as a result it never really lives up to its full potential, but like the overall album itself, it is still good for the most part and it's really good in spots.

Pearl (Columbia ’71) Rating: A-
After ditching the Kozmic Blues Band and hooking up with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, Janis came closer to realizing her considerable potential on the posthumously released Pearl, an excellent album under any circumstances. Again, these songs and performances are much mellower and more thought out than her hard rocking yet ramshackle efforts with Big Brother, as Joplin reveals a different side of herself. Indeed, sweetly sung songs such as her covers of Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham's “A Woman Left Lonely” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” (her lone #1 hit; as is usually the case, her death proved a boon to her career from a commercial standpoint) are all the better for Joplin’s restraint. Of course, the emotion is always there, and she still belts it out when the song calls for it, like at the end of “A Woman Left Lonely” and on the chorus to "Cry Baby." For their part, the Full Tilt Boogie Band adds atmospheric keyboards and classy piano along with a highly professional - perhaps too much so at times, as I miss the combustible magic of Big Brother - rock band backing. But Joplin’s raw, gravelly rasp of a voice is always the star, as it should be, though the band goes it alone on “Buried Alive In The Blues” since Janis died before she could add her vocals. Conversely, she sings a-capella on “Mercedes Benz”; along with "Move Over" the only song here that Joplin had a hand in writing, it became an improbable hit despite being a short throwaway. Although some of these songs are merely good-not-great (the funky "Half Moon"), sound unfinished (“Buried Alive In The Blues”), are overly familiar ("My Baby," which is good but too close to "Cry Baby" for comfort, unsurprising I suppose since both were co-written by Jerry Ragavoy, who you may recall had previously co-written “Piece Of My Heart”), or reek of novelty ("Mercedes Benz"), Pearl nevertheless contains several of her best songs. These include the sparse yet sexy groove rocker “Move Over,” the impassioned “Cry Baby,” a sweeping, dramatic ballad on which Joplin is restrained on the verses and let's loose on the chorus (come to think of it, this one is similar not only to “My Baby” but also the prior album’s “Maybe”), “Get It While You Can,” another Ragavoy co-write (previously recorded by Howard Tate) that provides a memorably soulful and catchy album closer, and the aforementioned "Me & Bobby McGee," probably her signature song. Additionally, the penultimate track, a terrific cover of Bobby Womack's "Trust Me," is a real overlooked gem that provides further evidence that Janis was indeed a significant talent, at least as an interpreter (the raw vulnerability of her voice on this track kills me). A grand goodbye with several superb songs, Pearl joins Cheap Thrills as the two truly essential original Janis Joplin releases. Alas, Janis’ hard living lifestyle caught up to her, and she lost her precious life due to a heroin overdose at the tender age of 27. Pearl was released three months later. What a waste.

In Concert (Columbia ‘72) Rating: B
A solid live showcase, though for me it ranks below the more recent archive release Live At Winterland ‘68. This album should definitely be listened to as an LP, as disc one contains material from Big Brother, most from 1968 and some from a brief reunion in 1970, and disc two is comprised of two shows from June and July 1970 with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. The performances are solid overall for the most part, but by and large Janis’ stage blathering only detracts from the overall experience, particular on “Ball and Chain,” which would’ve climaxed the album in spectacular fashion had she just kept on point. Other tracks either don’t add much to the original, like “Bye, Bye Baby,” or are notably inferior, such as “Piece Of My Heart” (yeah, I miss those catchy backing vocals too), and where the hell is “Me and Bobby McGee,” anyway? As for the tracks that hadn’t appeared elsewhere, “Roadblock” is utterly dreadful, and “Ego Rock” is a generic slow blues duet with Nick Gravenites that’s at times amusing but is too often boring. “Flower In The Sun,” a chugging rocker, is good, though, as are stretched out versions of “Move Over,” “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder),” and “Get It While You Can.” But back to Big Brother, who start the album with a sloppy, loud, yet exciting version of “Down On Me,” while the largely improvised version of Moondog’s “All Is Loneliness” is actually moodier and has more character than the studio version. Best of all, this superlative rendition of George Gershwin's “Summertime” is arguably the definitive take, closing side one on a high. So, overall there’s some really good stuff here amid a fair amount of forgettable fluff. Needless to say, pieced together as it is from multiple sources, the album lacks cohesiveness, and there are times when Janis sounds like one whacked out woman who took a few acid hits too many. But when she hits her stride, either with Big Brother or the Full Tilt Boogie Band (whose songs are surprisingly by far the longer of the two), In Concert has its fair share of riveting moments. She may have been a bit of a train wreck, but at her best she made you stop and listen, even if she could end up making you cringe as well.

Greatest Hits (Columbia ‘73, '99) Rating: A-
An imperfect and incomplete summation of an imperfect career, this little album nevertheless serves as a fine introduction for those curious as to what made Janis Joplin a legendary Hall Of Famer. In truth, her reputation exceeded both the quality and especially the quantity of her output, in part due to her pioneering role as a female rocker and her unfortunate early death (let's face it, we tend to mythologize the Hendrix's and Morrison's who die far too young). That said, she did have a one-of-a-kind presence (as the saying goes, oft-imitated but never bettered), and her abundant strengths - particularly that unforgettably raw and fragile voice - are showcased here via many of her best songs. The album cover captures Janis in a delightfully innocent motorcycle pose, but when she sings “you know I need a man” she makes you feel that she does more than anything else in the whole world. The album culls some obvious high points from Cheap Thrills (“Piece Of My Heart,” “Summertime”) and Pearl (“Cry Baby,” “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Get It While You Can,” “Move Over”), her two best original albums, while also featuring some live work from In Concert (a smashing rendition of “Down On Me” and a great until the hippy blather ending of “Ball And Chain”). And though the first self-titled Big Brother album (“Bye, Bye Baby”) and I Got ‘Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (“Try (Just A Little Bit Harder”) are under-represented, this concise 10-track collection (12 on the 1999 reissue) gives the listener a nice cross-section of Janis’ most accessible and best-known moments.

Live At Winterland '68 (Columbia ‘98) Rating: B+
This archive release compiles together two complete Big Brother concerts from the legendary Winterland venue in April 1968. Both are rather short, containing a mere seven songs apiece, but given the consistency of the source material this is more consistent and cohesive than In Concert and is therefore recommended over it. However, I'd still call Cheap Thrills and Pearl the only absolutely necessary Janis albums; this one is primarily for diehard Janis and Big Brother fans since it doesn't really offer anything especially new. Yes, the songs from the debut are longer and harder rocking, and there are three tracks from the posthumously released cash-in Farewell Song (including the stellar title track), making that album all the more unnecessary. But, as expected, the best songs are repeated from Cheap Thrills in pretty similar versions. And while I appreciate the sanctity of keeping a complete concert together, do we really need to hear "Down On Me" twice? Still, those of you who can't get enough Janis, especially those of you who (like me) think that Big Brother was her best backing band, should enjoy this album a good deal, especially since solid sound quality and excellent liner notes provide added enticements. As for Janis, she's in good form, and her performance is far more focused than on In Concert, possibly because she was playing shorter sets at that time. Live At Winterland '68 is a very worthy historical artifact that captures a one-of-a-kind talent in her best element.

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