A host of contradictions--the insufficiency of her collaborators, the spectacular potential of her voice, the inconsistency of her efforts--have left Joplin's historical legacy a tangled mess. The new 3 CD box set, Janis, captures that mess in all its glory but does little to untangle it. Typical of compiler Bob Irwin's decisions was his choice to replace the familiar version of George Gershwin's "Summertime" from the "Cheap Thrills" album by a weaker but unreleased alternate take. There are too many examples of strangled singing by Joplin's male partners in Big Brother and not enough examples of her incendiary live performances. The album begins with Joplin's first-ever recording, a vocal-and-autoharp version of "What Good Can Drinkin' Do" taped in a friend's living room in Austin in '62. That's followed by two unreleased blues recorded with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen in a San Francisco living room in '65 and eight songs from the controversial [and hard-to-find] 1966 debut album, "Big Brother & the Holding Company." "Cheap Thrills" is represented by five cuts, four outtakes and one live version; "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!" is represented by seven cuts, one outtake and two live versions; and "Pearl" by eight cuts and three outtakes. Other rarities include a longer spoken introduction to "Mercedes Benz" and two live performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The 48-page booklet features nude photos of Joplin on the outside and feminist essays about her on the inside. Ellen Willis compares Joplin's self-created image to Madonna's, ignoring the crucial fact that Joplin was a brilliant singer while Madonna is hardly any kind of singer at all. Ann Powers addresses the music itself and correctly points out that Joplin's art was not merely unmediated emotion but a premeditated mix of gambles and craft, of Bessie Smith's open-throated wails and Otis Redding's gruff shouts. She was some kind of singer, and that's what she should be remembered for. --Geoffrey Himes
Notes: Limited Edition Japanese pressing of this album comes housed in a miniature LP sleeve. 2008.
Review: This box set walks the line between appealing to collectors and to the average listener. The project is basically well-thought out with the exception of a few of the tracks.
First, I definitely love the alternate version of "Cry Baby" released here. You hear Janis cracking up at herself as she misses a high note but never a beat, meanwhile letting it rip with this great studio take. The track includes a hilarious vamp/rap with Janis in fine form lamenting the guy who opts for the road instead of her satin sheets, fur and chicken. She cracks herself up again when she says, "And that should be identity enough for any man." You just gotta love it.
Another superlative moment that cannot be found anywhere else [18 Essentials does not include the studio discussion featured here] is the acoustic demo of "Me and Bobby McGee," featuring a solo Janis accompanying herself on guitar. Again, the track includes an introductory studio discussion with Janis's hilarious comments about her guitar playing and recurring Texas accent. But more importantly, the track reveals how Janis herself mapped out one of the great recordings in rock history. She's the one who kicks it up a notch during the la-la-la portion of the song before exclaiming "that's when somebody else has to take over.." It's vintage Janis and worth the price of the box set to obtain.
Another standout is the very hard-to-find Saturday afternoon performance of "Ball and Chain" at the Monterey Pop Festival. This is the quintessential moment for Janis and Big Brother and the Holding Company, the one that left Mama Cass looking on in awe. The Sunday night version is the one always featured in Janis documentaries in which she performs in her gold lame pantsuit. The Saturday afternoon "Ball and Chain" is rock n' roll history as it happened, and therefore an essential choice for the box set, even though the Cheap Thrills version is even more mindblowing.
Disappointments include the alternate choice of "Summertime," which while decent, doesn't begin to compare with the incredible sonic moments displayed in Amsterdam with the Kozmic Blues band. Another strange addition is "One Night Stand" produced by Todd Rundgren. This track is available on "Farewell Song," performed with the Butterfield Blues Band, but on the boxed set, it so speedy she sounds like she's singing on helium. What happened? How could the compilers/engineers make such a mistake?
There are two versions of "Try" here, one with the original Kozmic Blues band and the other with Full Tilt live. Anyone who has seen the movie "Janis" knows the spoken introduction featured with Full Tilt occured at Toronto, not Calgary, and that the compilers of the "In Concert" album from where this track originated, cheated by cutting and pasting the intro onto the Calgary track, totally unnecessary, in my opinion, because the Toronto performance was better.
But I digress. Because the fact is, no compilation ever seems to be perfect. So back to what else is good about the box set... I like the "Trouble in Mind" typewriter tape with Jorma the K playing acoustic guitar in his living room. Here's where Janis sounds just like Bessie Smith, which gives the listener an excellent taste of how Janis once sounded during the Coffee Gallery days of the early 60s. The box set also features Janis's first ever recorded performance, "What Good Can Drinkin' Do?", a Janis-penned original.
Lastly, the artwork and booklet are really hip and cool. I agree with the previous reviewer that the Ellen Willis essay could have been left behind, but Ann Powers' writing is very enlightening, especially for the younger listener
If you are a true Janis fan, you really must buy this boxed set.
Yes, you'll probably end up programming your favorite cuts and skipping others, but that's what box sets are for, right?