Janis Ian

The Essential 2.0

(Sony Legacy)

There’s always room for a Janis Ian compilation album and this double might be the strongest yet. It certainly has lots of highlights and for the newcomer to this stalwart artist’s work will be a revelation. Broadly chronological, this is a trip through a creative artist’s world and back again. Quite a trip from guesting on the very first Saturday Night Live TV show to filling concert halls worldwide today…

Society’s Child and its spooky harpsichord intro and steady-paced siren call of a song sets the scene. The melody has Brill Building elements but also a sort of Haight Ashbury vibe, ascending bridge and all. The strings still remind me of the musical Hair. So on to Hair Of Spun Gold and it’s sunshine guitar picking and gentle melody, beguiling still. Stars takes its time with arpeggio chords and restrained, very personal vocal. Most cover versions miss the point, this is the real deal.

Dance With Me is more strident, striking and surreal in its lyrics. Really, as good as anything Neil Diamond put out in this vein. Persistent piano tapping. All a bit Lewis Carol in mood. The roll into ragtime is genius and pulled off well, the bass counterpoints delicious. Jesse sounds like the awakening from a dream and the vocal is carefully handled..no wonder the likes of Roberta Flack wanted to record her songs. And then the sublime tale of growing up and its pain and setbacks – At Seventeen. Friday Night charades, indeed. How little things change, if anything society is more appearance-obsessed today, shallowness means that tattooed halfwits secure TV series in which they act like twats in the company of others of that ilk. The basslines on this are magical. What a song. Man, that lonesome trumpet!

From Me To You has an easy folk-rock cadence and how I would love to have heard Sandy Denny sing this. Maybe she did. Janis calls out a lover, the band know where to put the emphases, especially the drummer. Why is she not as feted as Paul Simon? Love Is Blind is piano-led and uses a loping tempo to set the scene. Fabulous singing, here. I bet the likes of the late Al Jarreau were influenced by this agile phrasing, very often the note sequence would be what an alto sax might play. Will You Dance? is stately in delivery, a Spanish tinge in the rise-and-fall. Maria rivals Carole King for captivating melodic approach. The bass waits and drops in behind the piano, electric guitar back in the mix spins phrases, the drums go for drama. The Other Side Of The Sun has vibes over a Drifters bassline, she sings in almost a whisper. A cute melody that belies the numbers sentiment. Maybe the nearest our Lass gets to Bacharach.

Don’t Leave Tonight floats in on lush strings and flirts with corniness. A waltz in form, Ian still manages sincerity but it’s a bit Carpenters for this grizzled reviewer. Jenny and its ghostly piano could enhance any romantic film. Through The Years encapsulates yearning over Byrdsian chords. A truly lovey and lesser-known composition, but that’s what these compilations are for. Surely our own Dusty Springfield should have attempted this, or our young star Harriet should!

Tattoo has a Greenwich Village tinge. Again almost a whisper in delivery. Then the beat thickens and the chordal tumble gains impact. Would have been an ace cut for that trumpet player…psychedelic lyric, for sure. One for the Kate Bush fans. Maybe the most dynamic arrangement here and stunning. His Hands hits you with an edgy blues approach. One for Sheryl Crow to discover? Fly Too High is here in the form of the Extended Dance Mix, a Moroder skywards setting for one of this artist’s greatest songs. Always struck me as a warning about drugs, this song. A fast chugging beat over synths and a jazz trumpet cruising overhead like a vulture, you are hooked from the opening. At 2:22 the trumpet takes a break then a curiously warm middle eight leads to an emphatic instrumental passage. This is quite a recording and the chorus is so addictive.

On to CD 2 now and On The Other Side starts with some dischordant sounds, then a disturbing tale of children in danger commences, the rhythm has a hint of hiphop and the strings could be from a stage musical. Janis sings of angels with an edgy delivery. A vocal round starts, stalked by the strings. Eerie stuff, this. An unsettling listen. God & The FBI is a total switch, electro-acoustic guitars setting a blues-rock pattern and sharp wah guitar squelching away. Fear of the dark forces of the establishment is the thing. A political animal like Ian would have attracted the attention of the ‘protector’, you can be assured. Bet this influenced Jill Sobule!

When Angels Cry is a raw piece, gently imparted over soft acoustic guitar. Memphis hooks Ian up with Willie Nelson on a sombre, slow-paced ache of a song, Ian on first verse then Nelson chiming in at the minute mark. When the voices combine there is still a light-touch and no competitive element. The lyric sketches the vibe of old-time Memphis. Laments are rarely handled better than this. Days Like These is lighter in vein, atypical sparse arrangement using acoustic guitar, the band sitting this one out. It’s a Dylanesque composition, you could hear Bob singing it. Honor Them All is a live cut with winsome accordion accompaniment, the lyric concerns relationships and regrets. Ian entreaties us to honour our relatives. Let’s all suck our breath in at this point, eh? Silly Habits is also live and a bit of Patsy Cline moment, barroom piano et al. My Tennessee Hills has Dolly Parton aboard. It’s a steady foot-tapping song with hints of dobro. Of course, the voices are markedly different. Parton arrives at 1:16 with a high-harmony that soothes.

Marching On Glasgow has fluid Celtic guitar noodling as it commences and is a gently stirring instrumental with martial drumming. It gets more and more animated evoking kilted men dancing unsteadily over crossed swords..you know, like King’s Cross Station on a late Friday. A curiosity, but pleasant. Danger, Danger goes all Woody Guthrie on us, a song about the effect of raunchy music. And other threats to us decent folks.

My Autobiographer and its speedy folk strumming is tongue in cheek. The Tiny Mouse is stealthy story for kids and fun, too. Married In Love is live. Seems same-sex marriage is not universally accepted everywhere. Put over well, this is Ian’s lighter side. Another live song Searching For America uses moody guitar and is probably my favourite song here. If you like Tracy Chapman check this one out. Joy provides a beatific farewell, beautifully sung.

Open the door and step inside this incisive and heartfelt musician’s world, good people….

Pete Sargeant


(Thanks Stuart)

Janis Ian's 'Essential 2.0' is released on Friday 22nd September 2017 by Sony Legacy.

You can pre-order the album on Amazon UK here: http://amzn.to/2yiF0uX

Janis Ian