Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Janis Joplin

  • I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! [Columbia, 1969] A-
  • Pearl [Columbia, 1970] A-
  • Joplin in Concert [Columbia, 1972] A-
  • Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1973] A
  • Janis Joplin [Columbia, 1975] C+
  • Farewell Song [Columbia, 1982] B-
  • Janis [Columbia/Legacy, 1993] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! [Columbia, 1969]
Everyone who called Janis Joplin a great blues singer was wrong. She was, and is, a great rock singer. She needed Big Brother more than any of us knew, not just for image, but musically, and not as a complement but a parallel--their crudeness defined her own. Janis has been struggling to shake off that crudeness, and while this record doesn't quite do what she has in the past for most of us, it is a surprisingly strong try, with a lot of help from producer Gabriel Mekler. Anyone who has given up on Janis along the way ought to try again. She's coming on. A-

Pearl [Columbia, 1970]
Full Tilt Boogie prove themselves the most musicianly of her three backup bands--there's not a track where they don't help her grab the moment by the seat of the pants. Nevertheless, they and their soul/blues do her a disservice. I miss Big Brother, whose bizarre lumpenhippie "acid rock," when combined with her too frequently ignored country roots and her blues allegiances, made for an underclass triple-header altogether too threatening and unkempt to suit the kind of professional advisors who help singers assemble backup bands. No accident that the only transcendent tracks here are "Me and Bobby McGee," an country song, and "Mercedes Benz," an impromptu (or simulated impromptu) hippie goof. A-

Joplin in Concert [Columbia, 1972]
Sure would be nice if there were more new material on this double-LP--all the Full Tilt cuts and over half the Big Brothers are available in earlier renditions. But given how little studio time she clocked, I treasure it, especially "Ego Rock," a screaming, joking blues duet with Nick Gravenites, and the expansive concert versions of three neglected classics from Big Brother's Mainstream album. Sound quality: vibrant. Stage patter: poignant. A-

Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits [Columbia, 1973]
I was disheartened to learn that five of these ten tracks were cut with Full Tilt Boogie, but one of them is a live "Ball and Chain," and I'm delighted to report that such competent classics as "Cry Baby" and "Move Over" sound a lot more raucous following "Try" and "Bye Bye Baby" than they did on Pearl. In short, this blatant piece of product represents her more fully than any other disc: spontaneity as rebellion, tied to the will, the major mode of the late '60s, preserved--imperfectly, of course--forever on a piece of plastic. A

Janis Joplin [Columbia, 1975]
Because it captures such subtle yet essential virtues as intelligence, humor, and compassion as well as the big stuff she was famous for, film may have been Janis's real medium, and I recommend the documentary to which this double-LP is the putative soundtrack. But it ought to be seen and not heard--most of these cuts are available elsewhere, and the newly compiled early tapes are the rather tinny record of a singer who hasn't found her music or her band. C+

Farewell Song [Columbia, 1982]
The title tune, the last she recorded with Big Brother and the best original here, is tamer than the dullest cut on Cheap Thrills, which like all her Big Brother music thrived on sheer hippie farout get-down weirdness. Four of the five other Big Brother tracks are Cheap Thrills rejects, while "One Night Stand" and the rap that interrupts a quite decent "Tell Mama" are predictable crows of sexual pragmatism. Verdict: deceased. B-

Janis [Columbia/Legacy, 1993]
Having long ago wondered how she'd "hold up," I eventually concluded the answer was that I didn't feel like playing her records anymore. But it was just the opposite: one reason the music triumphs more miraculously than ever is that it's damned hard to listen to, fading into the background about as smoothly as Ornette or the Dolls or PJ Harvey. The most polished product here is the least compelling--it's in her demos, her live fracases with Kozmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogie, and especially her rough anything-goes with Big Brother that she demolishes the canard that she was some kind of blues imitator or hippie fool. For her, blues was a language to be twisted and shredded in the service of a utopian quest, a quest I swear she had the stuff to take somewhere. My only quarrel with this superb re-creation, which unveils many terrific previously unissueds and contextualizes several older finds, is that it sacrifices live rarities like "Ego Blues" to the Kosmic Blues album. You want to know more, read the liner essays by Ellen Willis and Ann Powers, which I hope aren't over the Grammy guys' heads. A

See Also