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Music Review: Janis Joplin – The Pearl Sessions

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Looking back, it’s hard to remember a time when Janis Joplin wasn’t regarded as one of rock’s fallen royalty, a superstar taken all too soon. She wasn’t around long enough to establish an extensive discography – gone at an impossibly young 27, she only released three records. Yet her influence is undeniable.

Unafraid to bare her soul in song, she was arguably the first white female vocalist to bring the sheer raunch and raw emotion of the blues to popular music. And music hasn’t been quite the same ever since …

Pearl, Joplin’s final recording – released three months after her untimely death – comes closest to capturing her unfettered musicality, backed by the most sympathetic band she’d yet worked with. Disc one of Sony’s newly released Legacy Edition – at least the third time this material has been mined – includes the newly remastered original album, a half-dozen original mono-mix singles, and a second disc of studio outtakes and between-song banter.

There’s not much left to be said about the original album. Containing a handful of tracks that would go on to become FM radio staples and posthumously cement her reputation as one of the era’s – if not history’s – most passionate performers, Pearl contained enduring classics (“Me And Bobby McGee,” “Mercedes Benz”), and bluesy workouts (”Cry Baby,” “Get It While You Can”) that would eventually cement Joplin’s artistic legacy. The remastering reveals a band better at rocking than swinging, and a listening comparison between the stereo and mono mixes is of historic interest only, given sound isn’t typically squeezed down for car radios anymore.

This outing doesn’t add anything substantial to Joplin’s recorded legacy, other than the two live tracks (“Tell Mama” and “Half Moon,” the latter previously unissued, tacked on at the end of disc two). The extra material is all-too-obviously neither ready nor meant for release. But as a document of the sessions that led to Pearl the album and associated singles, the between-takes dialog offers fascinating glimpses into Janis as artist and individual. The outtakes themselves provide a compelling look at the creative process, which is part artistic exploration and part pure trial and error, as we hear the band and singer working to find a common groove and the optimum “feel” for the song.

Included are takes 6, 13, and 17 of “Move Over,” each a work-in-progress that also finds producer Paul Rothchild – fresh from the first five Doors albums – an integral element in Pearl’s evolution into the landmark it would become. Also here are both acoustic and alternate takes of “Me And Bobby McGee,” again highlighting how elusive musical magic can be. While both are appealing, they lack that certain something that made the released version a hit and an enduring classic.

And therein is the value of The Pearl Sessions. As a singer, Joplin was a natural in every sense, as she poured her soul into every note, and every note sounded thoroughly spontaneous. Yet despite a lack of formal training and the “anything goes” attitude of the times, she worked hard at her craft. It’s fascinating to hear Joplin the artist, still young, still finding her way, relaxed and comfortable yet serious about her music and focused on delivering the best performance possible.

The “official” results – Pearl held the number one position on the Billboard 200 chart for nine weeks – speak for themselves. Joplin’s vocals remain utterly definitive, and all these years later her pain and joy are still stunningly raw and real. The music holds up well, and the package includes reproductions of notes from the original sessions, which was a nice touch. It also includes an illuminating essay by Holly George-Warren as well as a conversation between Rothchild and Laura Joplin that reveals just how intense their relationship – personal and professional – really was.

Joplin’s flame burned out far too soon, but it burned bright indeed, and The Pearl Sessions offers a fascinating window on the making of a masterpiece. Not essential to casual fans, perhaps, but anyone with more than a passing interest in either Janis or the creative process itself will find much to enjoy here. And it’s always good to hear that voice again!

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