You know, I’m gonna have to start doing more recent stuff soon cause yapping about the bygones can get real tiring when you’re all spent wondering if there’s anything else to say within the discussion of decades-old records other than glitzy characterization frosting. Now here’s something harder to do: rummage around for words in regards to a record completely washed in the blood of tragic legacy. We all know it’s a borderline unavoidable subject when it comes to Janis Joplin, among the clients of the psych-rock parade’s central merchant of death: drugs in an up-the-ass excess. This legacy helps really poison discussion of her and it’s demonstrable; the deeper you go into music, the less you hear of her. Now that we have that out of the way…
After departing from Big Brother & the Holding Company in 1968, Joplin chose to apply her voice in a solo career that flew like hell and set its sights down there too. She championed a sound embedded deep inside a heaving combo of all the right means of exacting melodrama with grit – a combination consisting of a bunch of blues-rock, soul, R&B (especially of the Big Mama Thornton breed), and just a touch of the psychedelia that prevailed virtually everywhere in the U.S, and used it to redefine what it’s like to be lovestruck. This time, to be lovestruck is to be punched in the face by her gift of a voice that’s like a whiskey-based hot sauce, full of rasp and swelter with a degree in reaching maniacal dramatic heights. Each monumental height her voice soared to would administer cramps through passion alone, and never would it feel more rife with the invaluable substance of life than in this debut that’s about as characterized as it gets through the title, I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969, Columbia), the only solo album she’d see the release of. None of the surface-level research work here is breaking new light and I’ll accept that, this kind of writing is far from guesswork when the musical contents aren’t mentioned. We should probably get to that.
The first songs Try and Maybe don’t do their job well. The former is already too short and its structure is stunted on a very developmental level. It has its moments through the sheer perfection of its drums (though not too much to dilute the grit, just the right amount of pristine) and the expertly applied bongos to further boost that department, but then there’s the horns which sound like a pack of flatulent afterthoughts. They just kinda whir, don’t they? The melodramas start feeling a bit trivial when they can’t fix one of the central means of communication.
Emphasis is a crucial tool at the band’s disposal, and especially more so at Joplin’s, and this is a clause present throughout the entire album. Do it right and you’ll find a shortcut to the soul. Do it wrong and you sound like a pair of nubs rapping on a door. The most prevalent use of emphasis second to Joplin’s voice is the backing horns stepping things up a notch, and they prove really unreliable at their jobs (look no further than just how off and lame they sound in Maybe). Even when emphasis prevails as an effective weapon throughout the rest of the band, the horns just aren’t getting it down even when they take center stage.
When you look at One Good Man, the most blues-reliant one so far, it’s everything else that shines. The organ and guitars sound properly sharp, you can nearly pick up a certain shape from just the sound of it, like the contours slapped ‘neath a real weird and bulbous surfboard. Whenever Joplin has the microphone, it’s at a specific plateau that seems a bit too comfortable for its own sake given it doesn’t seem to go anywhere when it isn’t strictly instrumental. The solo work only gets better, and if only we got a good look at how good it could get if it didn’t get cut short via fade-out. Once again, it could be longer.
A good thing to learn during As Good as You’ve Been to This World? Turns out the horns behave much more powerfully when Joplin isn't around. Maybe they're shy? Because they really lay things down here in a way that the last three tracks desperately needed. Then when Joplin comes on the horns are already properly up to shape and can keep up, combining with the drums (those cymbals are some proper garnish) to create the ideal environment for this version of her art. This song works most powerfully in the context of the previous tracks, especially when the listener has been deprived of a good backing ensemble for three songs straight. It gets even better in To Love Somebody, where Joplin is at a new height in terms of doubling down the heart-clobbering factor of her vocals. The horns manage to keep their momentum and continue dishing out power with ease as the drums choose the rim of the snare rather than the actual head, helping bring a snap to the song rather than a constant needless slamming that the rest of the band is doing, besides the organ. That organ insteads go for the more tender route, touching rather than swinging, an approach that helps provide balance to this whole equation they’ve got going on. Wanna know something even better? The songs in this middle point are longer, which means they can actually have the space they need rather than be confined to the cell of a three-minute duration.
Appropriately the title track, Kozmic Blues begins with one of the best opening pianos of the 60s. These first few seconds happen to be the best part of the album. The rest of the band coming on is just as perfectly executed, with Joplin at a perfect level of volume and utilizing her idiosyncrasies to the utter fullest. I’m not joking, that rasp is pure ecstasy and she floats with a gift. The chorus is just as perfect (at least on paper) as should be desired, peaking oddly enough in its seamless segue into the second verse. This anthemic power carries all the way to the final repeating chorus where the meandering makes the drums start tripping up, and the horns start flying too close to the song via thinking that somehow it was a smart idea to go up an octave, a move that makes them regress back to the napkin toughness of the first song.
Things wrap back around to the original status quo in the last two songs, unfortunately. Little Girl Blue’s twinkly guitar and replacement of the horns in favor of strings is a respectable detour but has far too little going for it throughout its runtime, especially given its paling in comparison to its predecessor. With the last and longest cut, Work Me, Lord, everything has regressed into awkwardness. The transition from verse to chorus is awkward, the cymbal work is occasionally off-tempo, the solo work doesn’t deliver, and I swear to god those horns were about to cover Hey Jude at the start. This song is like the residue left behind from the sheer power, life and soul from the other songs, it just doesn’t work. The second solo later in the song is on a completely different universe than the chorus which results in an unbearable lack of consistency and clutter, and not in a cool and boldly avant fashion.
All that beauty is slapped right in the middle, all it takes is an utter disregard of all this scorched padding to reach it. Of course, it could lead to a compromise in power but at least you get the real meat of things upfront. Try not to get too distracted in the search for worthwhile and noticeable cuts, it’s like the pink in a steak. A balance of great and poor thus creates an average of good. I’ll accept it.
Trajectory of listens past the first: negative.
Written 1/4/2024, 2:10 - 4:43 PM.