Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Janis Joplin classics

Critic's picks

Janis Joplin

The Pearl Sessions

Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin

Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968

"I'll do it ragged," Janis Joplin says during a studio exchange with producer Paul Rothchild as she braces for another stab at Get It While You Can. "I'm not trying to sound like Dionne Warwick."

The finished version of the tune would soon be the finale to her classic 1971 album Pearl, but this studio run-through, part of a fascinating new double-disc set titled The Pearl Sessions, is edgier, churchier and full of greater soul-infused charm. You could almost imagine Aretha Franklin singing with this righteous backdrop from Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band. But no. This arrangement called for something more urgent, something more desperate sounding, more ragged.

Less than three weeks after this version of Get It While You Can was cut, Joplin was dead. A mere three months later, the finished Pearl was released. To date, the album has sold more than 8 million copies and remains Joplin's signature work.

The first disc of The Pearl Sessions contains the original Pearl and the lost mono mixes created for the singles released from the album. But the second disc is the killer. It boasts 13 glorious alternative takes (the majority of which had been unreleased until now) along with spoken studio segments with Joplin in obviously invigorated spirits.

What is especially fascinating about these recordings is the dynamics involved. With no performance crowd to play to, Joplin turns her gale-force voice inward. A glorious outtake reading of A Woman Left Lonely simmers with bluesy solemnity. But a riveting Cry Baby seems to feed off the emptiness left by an absent audience. It is an astounding performance that seems to thrive on solitude.

A very different dynamic is at work on Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968, a newly unearthed concert document that was cut when Joplin was still in the ranks of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Timing was everything for Joplin at that point in her career. This performance came in late June 1968. Her second album with Big Brother, Cheap Thrills, would hit stores in July. By September, Joplin and Big Brother had parted ways.

So Carousel Ballroom is essentially a moment in time. It's just that Joplin sings with an authority and command that her Big Brother mates seldom match. Even the vocal charge for the album-opening version of Combination of the Two has the entire Big Brother quartet playing catch-up. Summertime unfolds with scorched but torchy authority, Piece of My Heart roars with combustible soul, and Ball & Chain ignites in shades of psychedelic blues.

Carousel Ballroom is the first in a proposed series of "sonic journals" chronicling the onstage mixing of the late soundman Owsley "Bear" Stanley. Bring on chapter two.

Walter Tunis, contributing music writer