[26 April 2012]
Watching the local rural (Cascade) Iowa hometown band open for Justin Townes Earle recently, the lead singer mentioned he had recently performed with a new female singer. “She’s the second coming of Janis Joplin”, he intoned. However, judging by his looks one could not imagine he had been around for the first one. No matter, Joplin has become the gold standard by which other female rock vocalists are measured. More than forty years after her untimely death, she is still thought of as the greatest woman singer of the modern era.
And most listeners consider Joplin’s final album Pearl her best record. Although Joplin died before the disc was released, she approved every song and arrangement she sang on (there was one instrumental). The tight Full Tilt Boogie Band, which backed her up, was considered a better fit than her freewheeling previous ones, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band. Pearl hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1971 and stayed there for nine weeks, went quadruple platinum, and routinely has made “best albums of all times” lists. Simply put, Pearl is a rock classic.
When Pearl was first remastered on compact disc in 1991, the package included four live recordings from her last tour in 1970 as bonus tracks. In 2005, a two-disc edition was released that included additional live tracks and a happy birthday to John Lennon tribute recording of “Happy Trails” that she taped in the studio with the band during the Pearl sessions. Now Sony Legacy is reissuing the album for the third time as The Pearl Sessions with more bonus tracks and alternate takes as well as studio conversations between Joplin, the band, and her producer during the recording sessions.
Some of the conversations are strictly work related as the group works out how they want the songs to sound, others are silly as they joke with each other, and some are just mundane discussions. While hearing Joplin speak is always a pleasure as the blissful spirit of her personality exudes from her every pore, these do not make the The Pearl Sessions worth replacing one’s copy of the original Pearl. Nor do the alternate takes. While the demo version of Joplin playing acoustic guitar and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” offers much pleasure, it is not as good as the hit version recorded with the band. The same is true of alternate versions of other material, including three separate renditions of “Move Ove”” (listed as take 6, take 13, and take 17 respectively) or three different takes of “Get it While You Can”, and double versions of various other songs. As one would expect, the most excellent stuff made it on the original record. And sometimes one take was all she needed, as she revealed on “Mercedes Benz”.
The best thing about The Pearl Sessions is the first disc, which includes a dynamic copy of the ten songs from the original stereo album and six more mono versions that were released on 45 rpm records back in the day. While Joplin’s voice jumps out of both the stereo and mono cuts, comparing the two reveals the strengths of both technologies. The stereo cuts are much more forceful. One is meant to play them at full volume. The mono cuts are meant for radio, and when played at the lower volumes needed lest the speakers clip or the music distort on the less technological equipment, one can appreciate Joplin’s subtle touches as she clearly enunciates the lyrics no matter how intense her performance.
So buy a copy of Pearl if you do not already have one. It’s a true classic that deserves to be played and remembered regularly. As to The Pearl Sessions, well, that’s for the completist. The extra tracks are fun, but far from essential.