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