published: 29 /
American folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian has just been the subject across two new reissues of three of her albums and a concert performance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' from the mid 1970's. Lisa Torem assesses her career at the time and both reissues
What’s marvellous about singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Janis Ian is that she’s as authentic as your favorite dog-eared cookbook. Reach for it, skim the contents, gather the ingredients; voila - you’ll be incredibly well-nourished.
Ian rose to fame in the 1960s singing the controversial ‘Society’s Child’ and later lamented teenaged angst in the chilling ‘At Seventeen.’ But, two new re-issues, one which combines her 1975 album, ‘Between the Lines’ with a DVD of a 1976 performance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, and the other which packages together her 1974 and 1976 albums ‘Stars’ and ‘Aftertones’, highlight many of her lesser-known, but equally poignant alternate cuts.
All re-issues include booklets with lyrics and introductions written by Ian about the back-story of the projects. Photographs that show Ian performing and clowning with friends provide a personal flavor as well. .
‘Between the Lines’ won two Grammy awards and featured ‘At Seventeen,’ which chronicles the harsh isolation of youth; “To those of us who knew the pain/ Of valentines that never came/And those whose names were never called/When choosing sides for basketball” stream from one of the more heart-wrenching verses. Set against a stark acoustic samba strum, Ian’s contralto stimulates shivers.
‘Watercolors’ is another study in subtlety. “Go on be a hero/Be a photograph/Make your own myths/Christ, I hope they do last” Ian admonishes. Legendary for her brutal lyrical honesty, coupled with a warm, sultry voice, Ian is also extremely gifted finger-picking on an acoustic or thrashing against electric steel.
‘Light a Light’ is pure beauty. “Now am I humble, who once was proud/Now am I silent, who once was loud/Now am I waiting for the sound of your saying/Lover, am I coming home again.”
“I haven’t been loved by a man in quite a while/You know it ain’t easy making me smile,”she poses in ‘The Come On.’ It’s exhilarating that Ian gets straight to the point; defining the mood expertly and immediately like a veteran steamboat commander on a coastal shore.
The title track on ‘Stars’ is a mellifluous near-lullaby. Precise notes dabble from Ian’s fingers and she murmurs: “Stars they come and go/They come fast or slow/They go like the last light of the sun all in a blaze.”
From there on, the images crescendo with intensity, while Ian’s vocals and instrumentals never clash and only complement.
‘Page Nine’ finds Ian brandishing the piano reveling in the naivete of youth: “I’d be happy living in a shack/All the plumbing in the back,” she intones. .
A live bonus track and studio recording of the harrowing love song ‘Jesse’ is stunning. “Jesse, come home/There’s a hole in the bed where we slept” is how the song begins. By the close, like all solid stories, a lifetime has passed within minutes, and the characters feel eerily familiar and explicitly understood.
Aftertones’ provides some comic relief: “Boy, I really lost my head/I woke up in a double bed.” These phrases from ‘Boy I Really Tied One On’ features lavish guitar arrangements and perhaps waxes nostalgic for a more free-wheeling Ian.
This Must Be Wrong’ also has a youthful delightfulness: “Religion came almost overnight/You were the high priest/I was the sacrifice….Throw away your long johns/I ain’t no Lois Lane.”
‘Hymn’ incorporates the vocal vibrance of Phoebe Snow and Ian’s muse Odetta
‘Roses’ is both gripping and confessional; a song which Ian wrote to confront her parents’ divorce when she was 16. “And then there’ll be the papers/In black and white, to say they’re through/Nobody ever loved me quite like you/I guess nobody wanted to.”
Ian admits she regrets rushing through ‘Aftertones’; her instincts told her not to, but her management team disagreed. But, still, she has some favourites, worked with some special artists and explored a variety of genres.
Those well-acquainted with Ian will probably find this romp through more innocent times enchanting; but for those looking to seriously inspect her best work, ‘Stars’ would better serve that purpose.
Ian’s DVD re-issue, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ (taken from the 1970’s British music TV show of the same name), shows Ian performing at the BBC Television Theatre in London. The original show was broadcast by ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris and often highlighted visiting American acts; hence Ian. On a show in 1974 Ian played ‘Dance with Me; on piano and ‘Stars’ on guitar, backed by her touring band.
This DVD shows the infectious grin and sombre sensitivity of a younger Ian. What’s riveting is the comfort she demonstrates during a live performance, and the fact that beauty is transmitted so naturally; no bells and whistles, just fabulously rich ingredients that create an exuberant gourmet performance.
Second vocalist Claire Bay, her long brunette hair sliding around her shoulders, maintains a vivacious tone off-setting Ian’s more emotionally direct persona. “Let’s drink a toast to those who’ve survived the lives they’ve led” is a poignant line from ‘Tea and Sympathy.’
The first song, ‘When The Party’s Over’ swings joyously and then suddenly dips, like an Argentinian tango. Live, ‘Boy, I Really Tied One On’ is exciting as Ian relives her experience going to pick-up bars; “Boy, I really lost my head/Woke up in a double bed.”
Ian’s unruly mass of black curls frame her dangling earrings. She and Bay trade vocal lines commanding amazing precision. ‘Jesse’ is brilliant, especially those tender lyrics: “I’m leaving a light on the stairs/No, I’m not scared/ Waiting for you, Jesse/I’m lonely, come home.” Ian voice is warm and evocative and she keeps the simple guitar arrangement cloaked intelligently behind her masterful phrasing.
Ian treats us to three piano pieces. ‘Bright Lights and Promises’ is gospel-tinged and encourages Ian’s deeper register. Burrowed underneath is a gorgeous stride-piano interlude. ‘In the Winter” has the majesty of a national anthem and is wistful; the theme is about unexpectedly running into a previous lover. ‘Applause’ is straight from vaudeville. It bounces and then veers into a bittersweet B section only to rise to centre-stage more powerful still.
Ian precedes the next number by recalling how she desperately tried to straighten her kinky hair in an effort to fit in with blonde cheerleaders. You already love her at this point, but then ‘At Seventeen’ is, as always, performed with the greatest of feelings. Ian strums and sings, “to those of us who knew the pain of valentine’s that never came…” This fragile musical epiphany, which documents such universally awkward moments of abandonment, brings us together in the strongest possible way. Ian has always been and still is the most touching and illuminating of artists and should not be missed.
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