Each week – our contributor Eli Thomas will review a Vinyl record and give you an up close and personal look at the craftsmanship that goes into each melody and overall performance, this series is The Vinyl Experience.
Cheap Trills – Big Brother and the Holding Company
Combination of the Two-
We Start off with a recorded introduction to the band which fades slightly into a stirring instrument barrage lead by a searingly twangy and harmonically rich guitar intro that sets the mood for the blues and psychedelia to follow. You can almost imagine you are there and that this is the first song of their set placed to hype the crowd. The music jangles and shuffles through with a forceful locomotion pushed by the the bands collaborative interplay. Dave Getz often pushing the tempo forward with perfectly placed fills that sometimes sit just underneath Janis Joplin’s characteristic vocal sound. Everyone is participating; calling out for you to receive the excitement of this live performance. The guitar solos, especially the lengthy one towards the middle, are not necessarily technical masterpieces as much as they are masterpieces of contextual perfection that place you in the midst of a psychedelic stir of improvisational togetherness. Credit must go to the band for this is what music sounded like when it was played together, and they want you to know it. (Band members include Sam Andrews, Peter Albin, James Gurley, Dave Getz and Janis Joplin. John Simon is credited with playing the piano). The song finishes with a beautifully harmonic Janis whistling her way into her upper register in a sweet tone that contrasts her rough blues sound that we come to expect.
I Need a Man to Love-
Most people will say that the best of Janis is found in Piece of My Heart. However here in this piece of historical capture is Janis at her best blues filled wailing. She cries against the possibility of finding love. She is supported by a call back from the band that you almost forget is there as she sails up and down her register testing the limits of her vocal force. The track fades out leaving you wondering what greatness we missed and suddenly drifts into Summertime.
The sparseness of summertime contrasts bravely with the lush orchestration Gershwin originally scored. We are not hearing a cover more than we are listening to an exploitative rendering of the musical themes played out by various instruments that then leads into a beautiful segue that places us back into the main theme with Janis carrying the feeling of thoughtfully and almost poignantly mournful arrangement. This takes the tune from Broadway to Blues before you even recall the sound of the original. The painting of this texture is what gives this mournful track a playful element of hope and we are rewarded richly with a Picardy third that Janis slides into from the fifth above assuring us “don’t you cry”.
Piece of my heart-
It cannot be stressed how important the choice was to place summertime before piece of My heart. It’s sparseness is the perfect prequel to what became a song that is almost inseparable from the public’s opinion of Janis as a performer. Summertime ends on a glorious G major with Janis singing the B and after a moment of silence we are greeted with and F minor lead intro that bounces around until arriving safely at the E major of the songs actual key. The leap of the fourth after the almost mysterious introduction that dances around the B from Summertime is lifting and vibrant. Whether intended from the musicians or not it is in hindsight a great choice because of the theoretical relationship of So to Do. Enough head spinning theory though. Piece of My Heart is sheer delight. It’s sprightly almost in contrast to the lyrics but that is the point of the songs message of ‘You treat me wrong but I can’t resist you’.
Janis carries the message home begging “come on come on- take it!”.
Sit back and enjoy the feeling. She just carries the song. And the band is strong and sturdy at lifting her up and placing her on a beautiful pedestal of rhythmic joy.
Side B –
Often it Is hard to imagine anything could be better on a B side of an album after you are so voraciously lifted as this album’s A side tends to do by ending with a chart topper like piece of my heart. What is interesting here is that the beginning of the track almost gives the impression to the listener that there has been a rest after the full throttle A side. We are greeted by subdued sounds of chatter that continue through the first song as though Janis crept back on stage after an intermission and the piano started in and she just settles into starting off the next set and different players trail in. There is an inserted chatter and clanging of glass as well as a bottle or glass breaking at one point. People clap and call. Did we end up in a blues club? Then all of a sudden the close proximity cuts of suddenly and then bursts into a larger number.
Oh Sweet Mary–
We start simply and spacious. The feeling of small ensemble and acoustic instruments is exploded by stretched time and quick rhythm meeting as the guitar solos lyrically over a frenetic drum kit and we are tossed through a psychedelic rock journey that certainly would push the listener into a sense of anticipation. This track seems out of place sonically we lose the spaciousness in the recording. Yet if you are a fan of exploitative songs this is sure to please as an acceptable song to float on and let the band push your psychedelic infused state along. If it is assumed that we are listening to a chronologically placed recording of a live set as it seems was intended by the clearly placed “live material recorded at bill Graham’s Fillmore”(it was actually recorded at the Winterland ballroom) this song seems to be the bands response to the slower Blues that proceeds it to get the crowd tapping its feet again and keep the audience interested.
Ball and Chain-
What you don’t know is there; is easy to forget! The beginning is the perfect demonstration that a rest can be musical even though it is filled with complete silence. In classical music it most often came before a showy soloist went through a fancy show of skillful playing that then arrived either at a final ending or pushed to the next movement or theme. Here though we are greeted by a sudden rush and then time. Time to wonder what happens next. Already we are not sure where the band is going musically because Oh Sweet Mary shifts around so much it is almost hard to sing to someone if they hadn’t heard the song before.
Palpable expectation gives way to harmonic distortion that is a near perfect match to Janis’s grit, and then instead of coming in powerfully she sings sweeter than we have ever heard. She then shows us how heavy the ball and chain actually is. She carries it slowly uphill vocally trying to lead us. Teasing us with glimmers of her heavier vocals and then settling back into tender Blues. You can feel the interaction between her and the band. They soften and strengthen and she responds in every space given. A perfect call and response arrangement between her and their supportive roll. We hear Janis in her living glory singing whatever she feels is right for that moment. This is the magic of her voice. It wasn’t the grit or the wail. It was where she put them and here she shows that although she had a rasp to her voice she also had control. Her interpretation at times might turn some listeners off but for true Janis fans this is a great ending to sitting at the feet of a Blues goddess who deserves notice amongst many other greats and she stands strong.
WARNING! SPOILERS! Listen to the album first before reading ahead!
Seriously! Go and Find Any Copy. (even if it isn’t Vinyl) Listen! Then Come Back!
Originally this album was received with mixed reviews but today sits as a masterpiece amongst many. For to the uninitiated this album appears to be a recorded live performance set at the Fillmore when In fact it is predominantly a studio album. So far you have lived a carefully crafted majestic lie. The only song actually known to be recorded live is Ball and Chain. The audience was not actually there when any other song was recorded. Surprise!
This is a master stroke of genius in hindsight because it accounts for the very soulful and hard felt transparency that is in stark contrast to the close compression of modern recording techniques. It’s album art has been praised and it carries one of the most important songs that placed Janis’ voice on the air over and over again.
The LP I listened to was in great condition with a few noticeable crackles on the b side that were caused by dust! No visible scratches to be found! They almost vanish amidst the gritty sound of ball and chain. Certainly someone could easily listen to a pristine rendition of remastered greatness. However, as I sat and gave my full attention to this album I often forgot the medium and was pulled into the art. That is what great music does it transports us to a different place. The “live” texture added to this album does exactly that. The music pushes you even further. Is this the best or worst album ever? Who cares? Try and fool your friends who aren’t “in the know” and tell them it’s a live album and see if they can’t tell the difference.