Janis Joplin – The Pearl Sessions (review)

Janis Joplin – The Pearl Sessions (Sony/Legacy Recordings) review

For a singer as legendary as Janis Joplin, her all-too brief recording career is wildly uneven; it’s as if she was forever searching for the right ingredients. Her debut with Big Brother & the Holding Company sounded tentative, lacking any strong flavors.  The band’s second album, Cheap Thrills, was loud and out of control – it was a triumph, yet in many ways it was too strong, as if they went too heavy on the spices – her singing is great, but it’s often overshadowed by the ferocious playing around her.

Joplin’s first solo outing, I Got Dem Old Kozmic Blues Again, featured a heavy horn influence – it was as if the spices were just thrown together, never really melding together.  Then there’s Pearl, her final studio record, released after her untimely passing.  Here, with the help of the sympathetic ear of producer Paul Rothchild, who had worked magic on the first five Doors’ albums, Joplin finally found the perfect mix of ingredients.  Rothchild wraps her vocals around an earthy sound, that’s funky like an old, comfy pair of shoes.  There is also great care to showcase the singer in a variety of settings, made perfectly clear in the ubiquitous reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

But, there are other surprises as well – Joplin is gentle at the opening of “A Woman Left Lonely” – she doesn’t even sound like the same vocalist that belted “Piece of My Heart” just a year earlier.  There is a maturity in her voice on many of the tracks, especially the soulful “Trust Me.” But, that’s not all that’s changed – the Full Tilt Boogie Band was the only group that truly complemented her voice.  They groove on the beginning of “Half Moon,” but lay back on the chorus, giving Joplin plenty of room to shine.  And, then there’s her goofy acapella “Mercedes Benz” – no song better captures her spirit.

The two-CD Pearl Sessions takes the original ten-song album and expands on it – adding the A and B sides of the three singles from Pearl, in their original, hard-to-find mono versions, rounding out disc one.  Disc two features mostly alternate takes of songs from the sessions, as the band were hammering them into shape.  Several cuts labeled “Overheard in the Studio” are a real treat, capturing some of the banter between Joplin and Rothchild, and really show off the singer’s sense of humor.  What also comes across is just how unsure Joplin was of her talent; she’s considered one of the greatest female vocalists of all time, yet, often it took a great deal of coaxing from Rothchild just to get a good take.  Sadly, she would never live to enjoy the fruits of her labor – she would die from a heroin overdose before completing the album.  Somewhat chilly is the eerily-titled “Buried Alive in the Blues,” the track Joplin would’ve recorded had she not overdosed the night before.  The instrumental-only track is haunting in the absence of her voice.

The set really plays up the “archive release” theme, reproducing the actual tape boxes from the sessions, as well as outtake photos from the Pearl album shoot.  There’s an excellent long-form essay from rock writer Holly George Warren, as well as touching personal reflections from Paul Rothchild himself.

The bonus material is certainly interesting to any die-hard Janis fan – you really do get a great glimpse of what she was like as a person (although, hearing Janis make sexual remarks about then-President Nixon is unnecessary).  But, besides the studio banter, there really isn’t anything noteworthy in the various alternate takes of the songs that stands up to repeated listening.  Plus, nothing really stands out on the mono versions to make them truly essential.  If you want to learn more about Janis Joplin, start by renting the Monterey Pop Festival film – it’s still the single-greatest moment of her career.  But, the Pearl Sessions gives us a much wider view of a legendary artist, and what she could’ve been.  –Tony Peters