[12 June 2005]
What can you really add to this singer’s legacy? Sang her heart out, died too young, legacy has lasted longer than her own lifespan. But while she was here, Joplin managed to deliver each song and each performance with an intensity that few have ever approached. Few names even deserve being uttered in the same sentence. Like Tina Turner, the soul in her voice could make any follicle stand on end immediately. This album, released after her death in October of 1970, only solidified her status among rock’s ‘60s elite, as well as disappointing all in the face of what might have been. Now, the album has once again been re-released, this time with a special bonus disc of songs culled from her week-long 1970 Canadian tour with Ian and Sylvia and the Grateful Dead, which was documented in the recent film Festival Express. On top of that, there are six added alternate versions, demos and alternate takes on the first disc, along with the album itself.
Pearl opens with the boogie-based, up-tempo, Southern-tinged “Move Over” and set things off on a distinctive late-era psychedelic-rock path—although it still has oodles of soul. Joplin really lets loose here during the chorus, as piano and tambourine join the fold. Only Joss Stone might come close to giving the song justice, and maybe Melissa Etheridge wouldn’t be out of her league here either. The only problem is that she hits her stride only as the song hits the home-stretch. The swaying soul of “Cry Baby” has that voice reaching for the sky before going into the opening lines. From here she seizes control of the track as the guitar and piano subtly tag along for the buildup to the chorus. Sounding as if she’s possessed by Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, the number is a perfect showcase for Joplin’s pipes—tender when needed, rougher when required. The soul side is exemplified on the lowdown, downbeat and almost jazz-ish “A Woman Left Lonely”. Joplin has the blues here, but also sounds like she’s channeling Procul Harem’s “Whiter Shade Of Pale” at the same time.
While Pearl is a landmark record, Joplin didn’t make every song resonate, and the boogie-leaning “Half Moon” is adequate at best. It’s something that Edie Brickell might have covered with her New Bohemians, but it doesn’t really show Joplin at her finest. She nails the lovely “My Baby”, with what sounds like a backing gospel choir on harmony before the guitar fleshes out the bridge. Then we have her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, which doesn’t stray too far from the songwriter’s original, although it gives a bit more blues-soul to the country-tinged tune. The outro is a pure country boogie—if there is such an entity. Perhaps the sleeper pick of the album is “Trust Me”, which hits the perfect balance between her soul and the mellower, FM-ish romance songs you would hear for years after her death. “Get It While You Can” sums it up with her best effort on the album, or at least a close second. Seizing the moment is what this song is about, and Joplin did just that on this effort.
As for the six post-Pearl bonus tracks, there are some needless additions, including a minute-long “Happy Birthday, John”. “Me And Bobby McGee (Demo Version)” has her getting prepped for the song for the first minute before venturing into a sparse acoustic version that is perhaps better than the original album version. Joplin guides the song along before letting go for the last minute, ad-libbing and scatting parts as a guitar is strummed. “That’s when somebody else has to take it”, she says as it ends. The alt version of “Cry Baby” is much tamer, featuring Joplin’s chuckles during the intro. The closing “Pearl” is indeed a pearl here—slow and soothing, the instrumental seems a very logical coda to a fine first disc.
The second disc, which is nearly 80 minutes, opens with “Tell Mama”, which features hazy, psychedelic music trying to catch up to Joplin’s vocals. It’s not the greatest tune, mired as it is in a jam-based kind of groove from the get-go, but seems to get both her and the listener riled up for the gems that are to come. And each of these songs is extended, especially the upbeat “Half Moon”. “This is a song about a man I used to know”, Joplin says before the stellar “Maybe” begins, with her pipes as strong as ever and her heart fully into the performance. The disc is somewhat uneven. “Summertime” comes off as too winding and over-the-top. “Little Girl Blue”, which Joplin mentions she heard done by Nina Simone when she was a child, is a great number with the singer front and centre, rid of the often inane backing arrangements.
“That’s Rock ‘N Roll” is an old-school rave-up on which Joplin lets the band go nutty, whether on the ivories or on guitar. Is an organ solo really worth anything though? “Try” fares better, although its nine-minute stretch is a bit of a stretch, as Joplin only hits paydirt nearly seven minutes in. The highlight is “Piece of My Heart”, which has been repaired somewhat. Here Joplin makes her timeless mark on pop music with a very good rendition. By the time you hit “Ball and Chain”, Joplin has given you everything and more, and this song seems to end it on a high note. “That’s it, people, Janis Joplin”, the announcer says. And sadly months later, that was it.