Monday, August 6, 2012

Big Brother and the Holding Company - Big Brother and the Holding Company

Big Brother and The Holding Company
Big Brother and The Holding Company
Mainstream  S/6099

I have no memory of Janis Joplin while she was alive.  The first time I can recall hearing her was on an 8-track tape that my father had of her "Greatest Hits" album.  I'm not sure why he had it, it certainly wasn't his type of music, I suppose he liked "Me and Bobby McGee."  He never played it, but then he pulled it out for a party once and I was blown away.  I remember one of his guests saying that Joplin would be a good singer if she didn't scream so much whereas I was enraptured by her passion.  I didn't like her solo stuff so much, but the cuts with Big Brother and the Holding Company really impressed me particularly "Summertime," "Piece of My Heart" and the ferocious live version of "Down on Me."  I'd never heard anything like it, even the Jefferson Airplane couldn't match the raw psychedelic power of these recordings.  I listened to this tape a lot until I was able to buy my own copy of "Cheap Thrills" which instantly became one of my favorite albums.  My feelings haven't changed much since then.  I still love Big Brother and think Joplin made a mistake when she left them.  Her solo recordings pale in comparison to the acid rock roar of Big Brother at their best.  I was lucky enough to see Big Brother live when they reunited to play the Tribal Stomp in Berkeley in 1978 just a few years after they had broken up.  Kathi McDonald took Joplin's spot and did a fine job.  It was a fabulous show, the band was loud and freaky and I loved them.  It is the closest I've ever come to witnessing the San Francisco acid rock experience that I missed out on because of my youth to my eternal regret.  This album was Big Brother's debut which I bought used in Berkeley around 1980.  It is disappointing compared to "Cheap Thrills" because the band and Joplin seem so subdued.  I don't think it is their fault, I've heard live versions of most of the songs on here from 1966/67 on various bootlegs and archival recordings and they sound much more powerful.  I suspect their record producer made them tone down their approach and recorded them poorly as well.  The sound of the band is thin, almost tinny.  There isn't much acid rock on this album, it is mostly blues and folk-rock.  I think the best song on the album is "Down On Me" which is a traditional blues arranged by Joplin in a blues-rock style.  The theme of the song obviously struck a chord with Joplin and the band delivers a punchy musical backing despite the almost total lack of bottom in the mix.  There are several thunderous live recordings of this song that are quintessential Big Brother.  Joplin's self-penned "Intruder" is another excellent song and of all the songs on the album it sounds the most like the San Francisco Sound as well as coming closest to the sound of Big Brother live.  Joplin also delivers strong performances on "Bye, Bye Baby" and the bluesy "Call On Me."  Both songs play to her strengths as a singer being full of feeling with a little bite on top of them.  Even with the tame arrangements on this record Joplin's vocal power is always evident on these songs.  "Women Is Losers" is a weaker song also in a blues vein, but it gives Joplin a lot of space to express herself and she delivers a very dynamic performance.  The band got "All Is Loneliness" from a street musician named Moondog and it is one of the oddest songs in their catalog.  The songs opens with a raga-like guitar drone and a hypnotic guitar riff as the boys and Joplin sing staggered harmonies consisting of the title phrase.  Then Joplin goes to work with a couple of verses delivered with typical fire.  Then the song ends as it begins.  It's weird but I really dig it.  Casual Joplin fans would probably be surprised that she doesn't sing lead all through the album, but Big Brother was a real band, not just her backing band.  Four of the songs feature leads by other band members.  I believe James Gurley is singing lead on his composition, the country-flavored "Easy Rider."  He's not much of a singer, but it is a charming song and I've always loved the bit at the end when he starts imitating Joplin's vocal style and she cracks up.  "Light Is Faster Than Sound" is the most overtly psychedelic song on the record and has an exciting guitar solo.  Peter Albin is singing lead, but he doesn't have the range to deal with the rave up section, it makes me wish that Joplin was singing.  Albin does a better job on the group composition "Blindman" which is a catchy folk-rock song with a strong hook.  He sings lead on his composition "Caterpillar" which is a really silly song, but with a lot of pop appeal and it rocks too.   This album isn't up to the standard of "Cheap Thrills" but it is still a very worthwhile debut album, that is full of charm and interesting music.  Too bad it doesn't have a little more distortion and volume, but it is not lacking in inspiration or feeling.  Big Brother and the Holding Company have been overshadowed by Joplin and they've never received the respect they deserve.  The late James Gurley was a freaking wizard of the guitar, I adore his solos.  Screw any rock critics who say that these guys couldn't play, let them go listen to their Emerson, Lake and Palmer records.  This band had heart, passion and style which ultimately means a lot more in rock.  I greatly admire this band, they had an original sound and their music went to places that few other bands ever went.  Recommended to people who prefer "Ball and Chain" to "Me and Bobby McGee."  

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