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on September 3, 2003
I've never understood the intensity of the PEARL vs. CHEAP THRILLS debate among Joplin fans. Yes, the Big Brother record captured Janis at her raw vital best. Her final album, with the more polished Full Tilt Boogie, was a somewhat different breed of animal, tighter, more "professional," and ultimately, more commercial, providing Joplin her posthumous (and sole) number one hit in Kristofferon's "Me and Bobby McGee." I loved all of Janis' records--including the much maligned Mainstream debut and only somewhat less maligned Kozmic Blues--and never felt compelled to take a stance. The body of work isn't that extensive: it's better to treasure each one for what it has to offer.
And they all offer at least a few real pearls. The variety of styles that Janis' embraced during her brief recording career was impressive. Her former road manager, John Cooke, notes in the liner notes to this newest version of PEARL that Janis' musical restlessness was reflective of her "questing nature." That's certainly true--three different bands in as many years suggests as much--and it's also reflective of the times as well. No one expected the Beatles to do SGT. PEPPER REDUX or the Stones to linger at the (BEGGAR'S) BANQUET for very long.
Moreover, by 1970, when PEARL was recorded, there was more of an emphasis on tighter musicianship and less experimentalism. You could argue that had Janis, in fact, remained with Big Brother, they would have both mellowed out and tightened up themselves (as evidenced on their post-Janis records in the 70s). Maybe so, but there can be little doubt that FTB was a good band and a perfect accompaniment for Janis and that the move toward a more keyboard based sound complemented her vocals in a way that was different (if not necessarily better) that Big Brother's twin guitar freak out.
There's no epic "Ball & Chain" style number here, although "Get It While You Can" is an offering in something of the same spirit, if not the same magnitude. Much of the material here is straightforward rock'n'roll ("Move Over," "Half Moon") appropriate for any bar or garage band to cover.
But along with all that full tilt boogying, there's still plenty of emotional heft. The feeling that she can pack into a single phrase, or WORD, can be revelatory. When she sings, "a woman left lonely is just a VICTI-I-IM of her man," well, you just better believe the lady.
"Bobby McGee" was, of course, proof of what fans already knew, i.e. that Janis was not just about screaming her lungs out. I was glad in the winter of '71 to finally have a Joplin track I could play for my mom, proof not only that Joplin could sing, but that she could be subtle to boot. In fact, a careful listening to PEARL will proove that as Cooke observes in his notes, she was beginning "to learn...something she never expected to learn: how to sing in a new way...(one) that would allow her to sing for years to come."
And that touches on another debate among fans, the one about how long she would have had before her voice gave out totally. It's not just "Bobby McGee" that suggests that she was learning to rely on more on phrasing and shading than on belting. Every track on the album suggests a more mature singer was emerging, with no loss of spontaneity or vitality though. She would have continued to make great blues rock records for years to come, had she lived. Of that I am convinced.
The bonus tracks are all previously unreleased "live" tracks with Full Tilt Boogie. Similar live arrangements of three of these songs have been released in the past, however, so the listener is justified in getting that deja-vu all over again feeling. Fans like me are glad to have them anyway. There are always little differences in phrasing or in her vamps that are worth the price of admission.
For Joplin newbies, though, I'd suggest playing PEARL through a few times straight, and stopping it BEFORE the bonus live tracks. Ending the record with "Get It While You Can" was ending the record on just the right note. It's a mini-anthem for Joplin--as much "on message" as "Bobby McGee" certainly. And both songs took on new meaning in light of her death.
The debate about which Joplin record was the "best" will likely rage on among devotees. Me, I'm not gonna worry about it. To me they're all classics.