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Pearl
Janis Joplin

Columbia 30322
Released: February 1971
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 42
Certified 3x Platinum: 11/21/86

Janis JoplinThe greatest white blues singer of her time, Janis Joplin is without rival in plumbing the bottomless depths of loss. Indeed, her spine-tingling wails and moans are a kind of rapture of the deep -- no lyric about abandonment is too slight to warrant her bloodcurdling investment in it.

That intensity is everywhere evident on Pearl, the album on which the twenty-seven-year-old singer was working at the time of her death, in 1970, from a heroin overdose. Her new band, Full Tilt Boogie, cranks the volume when necessary ("Move Over") but never competes with or overwhelms her, as her previous combos, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band, sometimes did.

Consequently, Joplin is fully able to go for emotional broke. Her version of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's soul ballad "A Woman Left Lonely" is a harrowing journey along Desolation Row, while the strangled howl with which she opens Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy's "Cry Baby" sends a chilling signal of the ravages to come. "Get It While You Can," the devastating track that closes the album, crackles with desperation. It is a scarred survivor's advice to her sex: Love and pleasure must be seized whenever they offer themselves, though they are mere preludes to the pain that will surely follow.

Janis Joplin - Pearl
Original album advertising art.
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Of course, Joplin was not a survivor, and that lends Pearl (her nickname for herself, chosen to match a female lover's tag of Ruby) a poignancy that is as undeniable now as it was upon its posthumous release, in 1971. Her humor on the self-mocking a cappella prayer "Mercedes Benz" (which was recorded in one take) includes this knowing barfly's request: "Prove that you love me/ And buy the next round." And her lovely rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Me And Bobby McGee" is her greatest studio recording -- its eloquent restraint all the more effective in communicating the song's heartbreak.

Kristofferson, who had been Joplin's lover not long before her death, cried when he heard her version of the song. "Did we do this?" he reportedly asked as he stood before her dead body. It's the question that caring survivors are always left with, and one that Pearl, in its frightening beauty, does little to resolve.

- Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone, 9/30/99.

Bonus Reviews!

Gone but not forgotten, Janis Joplin leaves us with a voice on the edge of ruin, and producer Paul Rothchild's sure understanding of her place on disk. On her best and sad last effort since Cheap Thrills, Janis connects with the Full Tilt Boogie band on "Me And Bobby McGee," "My Baby," "Get It While You Can" and "Half Moon," as the Pearl of Rock gathered up all her soul and emotion before the light went out.

- Billboard, 1971.

I hesitate to call this one of her "best" because I like all of the others so much. But it certainly rocks the best. The Full Tilt Boogie Band is dynamite and fits next to her voice perfectly. Paul Rothchild receives production credit here and the old Doors producer did a good job. "Me and Bobby McGee" finally shows how sweetly she could sing if she wanted to. It makes me want to cry every time I hear it on the radio. Boogie on, Janis.

- Danny Goldberg, Circus, 4/71.

Fult Tilt Boogie prove themselves the most musicianly of her three backup bands -- there's not a track where they don't help her grab the moment by the seat of the pants. Nevertheless, they and their soul/blues do her a disservice. I miss Big Brother, whose bizarre lumpenhippie "acid rock," when combined with her too frequently ignored country roots and her blues allegiances, made for an underclass tripleheader altogether too threatening and unkempt to suit the kind of professional advisors who help singers assemble backup bands. No accident that the only trascendent tracks here are "Me and Bobby McGee," a country song, and "Mercedes Benz," an impromptu (or simulated impromptu) hippie goof. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Released three months after Joplin's death, Pearl tapped the popular affection and regret felt widely by the public after her demise at the age of 27. The Kris Kristofferson song "Me and Bobby McGee" went to number one on the Hot 100 and Pearl logged nine weeks atop the album chart. Another noteworthy cover was that of Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters' 1963 gem "Cry Baby."

In his memoir Clive: Inside the Record Business, then-Columbia chief Clive Davis, a friend and fan of Janis, tells about the release of "Me and Bobby McGee." At the time Billboard reviewed new singles under the prediction headings Top 20, Top 60, Top 100, and Also Possible. Davis was staggered to hear that the top trade magazine was about to rate the posthumous release "Also Possible." He had already placed a two-page ad in the publication publicly calling the single an "instant classic."

Clive phoned Billboard and asked that in the interests of discretion the categorization not be printed. The magazine acquiesced and no review appeared. As Davis wrote, "It was the only time that I ever tried to interfere with Billboard's critical judgement -- and I was glad that it didn't prove an embarrassment to either of us."

In 1987, Pearl was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #97 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

Janis Joplin was on the brink of major stardom. She had been working on new songs with a new band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, when, in October 1970, she was found dead in her hotel room from a heroin overdose. Certain songs were left unfinished: "Buried Alive in the Blues" was one of thse and appears here without vocals. Pearl, being Janis Joplin's nickname, was the title chosen for the posthumously issued album.

The range of Joplin's sadly missed talents can be sampled on this album -- the superb cover version of Kris Kristofferson's song "Me and Bobby McGee" with its Country and Western simplicity, the unaccompanied raw vocalising of "Mercedes Benz," the blues of "Cry Baby," and the climaxing belt-it-out power of a song like "Get It While You Can."

The CD sound is boxy, soft and a little muddled. The simpler vocal items lack treble "air" and sound somewhat dulled while tape hiss levels are high, particularly in the concluding track.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Clearly Janis's best recorded effort after her original Columbia release, Cheap Thrills, done with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Sadly, the stature of Joplin's myth is not matched by either the quality or the quantity of her recorded output. Not even this relatively brief outing captures the legend at her best. But on "Me and Bobby McGee," "Mercedes Benz," and "A Woman Left Lonely" she manages to convey the nakedly honest intensity that, at its best, made her work incendiary. Even though the Full Tilt Boogie Band provides first-rate instrumental assistance, too often, the other cuts seem either slightly out of sync or overly marred by excessive vocal hystrionics. The initial Columbia CD's sound isn't great, marred by a general muddiness, consistent hiss, and occasional excessively bright upper mid-range. B+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Backed by a tight rock band, Full Tilt Boogie, Joplin puts her mark on everything from the bluesy "Cry Baby" to her hit version of Kris Kristofferson's hit "Me & Bobby McGee." * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

For the 1960s' greatest white blues voice, this posthumous No. 1 album, featuring her cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," marked a new mood that this generation's Billie Holiday didn't live to explore. Her voice had already been beaten into submission by cigarettes and Southern Comfort, but few wailed with such soul. While a handful of holdouts claim Big Brother's Cheap Thrills was her shining moment, both discs set the cosmos on fire. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

By the time Joplin had scored her first Number One album, Cheap Thrills, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, she had outgrown the group's punk-blues sound. After an uneven solo bow, I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969), Joplin joined Doors producer Paul Rothchild to make this more assured and intimate album, digging into quality soul such as "Get It While You Can" and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" with the combined authority of Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton. Joplin did not live to enjoy her triumph. She died of a drug overdose in 1970, before the album was completed. She was twenty-seven.

Pearl was chosen as the 122nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Pearl is widely acclaimed as Janis Joplin's greatest album, even though she succumbed to a heroin overdose before it was finished.

The 27-year-old had only begun work on the album a month earlier with her recently-formed Full Tilt Boogie band when she was found dead on October 4 1970 in a Hollywood motel. The recordings captured an artist at her full emotional powers, with her rasping voice backing her reputation as one of the finest white blues singers.

Released three months after her death, Pearl houses her most famous recording, a restrained, yet heartbreaking cover of her one-time lover Kris Kristofferson's "Me And Bobby McGee," which became a posthumous Hot 100 Number One for her in March 1971 as the album was in the midst of its own nine-week run at the top and a total of 42 weeks in the charts.

Her reading of the soul ballad "A Woman Left Lonely" is harrowing, and a cover of the Garnett Mimms and The Enchanters' hit "Cry Baby" chilling, but she allows for humour on "Mercedes Benz." One track, "Buried Alive In The Blues," is an instrumental as she was scheduled to add vocals to it on the day after her death.

Pearl was chosen as the 122nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in 2003.

As of 2004, Pearl was the #91 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

In her too-brief career, Janis Joplin seemed to teeter permanently on the precipice of self-destruction. As with Billie Holiday, it was Joplin's struggle with drug addiction and relationship woes that made her blues sound so convincing. Yet the singer seemed to be in the process of righting her personal ship when she went into the studio to record Pearl. Having gone gold with 1968's Cheap Thrills, Joplin had left Big Brother and assembled the more versatile Full Tilt Boogie Band; she also seemed ready to settle down and was engaged to be married. Of course, settling down is a relative term. The album's cover showed Joplin with her regular companions -- a drink and a cigarette.

Pearl is a convincing argument that Joplin might not only have been the premier blues singer of the era, but the premier singer of the day. Starting with the Full Tilt Boogie assault of "Move Over" and continuing with the mournful "Cry Baby," Joplin displays astonishing vocal versatility as she fills her words with tangible drama and passion. Listening to the chops shown on "A Woman Left Lonely," it is hard not to draw comparisons with all-time greats like Bessie Smith. Joplin also knew how to have a good time, witness "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Mercedes Benz."

In retrospect, the most moving number on the album does not feature a single word sung by Joplin. The vocalist was found dead of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel room before she had added her vocals to "Buried Alive In The Blues." Released posthumously, Pearl would top the charts and forever secure the singer's legend.

- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Janis Joplin had recorded most of the vocals for this album before she died, from a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel, on October 4, 1970. But it wasn't finished: She was scheduled to return to the studio the day after she died, to do the vocals on at least one more song. The song appears on Pearl as an instrumental. It's called "Buried Alive in the Blues."

The sentiment of "Buried Alive" is typical blues woe -- one verse goes, "All caught up in a landslide, bad luck pressing in from all sindes, just got knocked off my easy ride, buried alive in the blues." It's tempting to hear the tune as an eerie triumph. But that overlooks one key Joplin trait: Though she poured everything into the blues, she never let herself get swallowed up by it.

By her last year, the belter from Port Arthur, Texas, had grown into a devastatingly original voice, the rare white interpreter of African American music who resisted the ready cliché. She treated old Delta songs and '50s R&B ballads as theathrical platforms, ripe for large-scale rethinking. Her blues woe was never typical blues woe. Matching paint-peeling power with an uncanny sense of dramatic timeing, she could turn out a plea that made listeners feel like they were part of a fateful make-or-break moment happening right then.




Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits

Single Review:
"Me and Bobby McGee"

DVD Review:
Festival Road

Janis Joplin Lyrics

Janis Joplin Videos

Janis Joplin Mugshots

This album contains her only chart-topping single (the posthumously released "Me and Bobbie McGee") and several ofher most compelling covers ("Get It While You Can," "Cry Baby"). More significantly, it captures the astounding repertoire of vocal mannerisms Joplin discovered singing with her old band Big Brother and the Holding Company and perfected with this ensemble, which she called the Full Tilt Boogie Band. The 1999 reissue contains four previously unreleased live bonus tracks, recorded in the summer of 1970 on a Canadian tour, all showcasing the mighty Joplin at the peak of her powers.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

(2005 Legacy Edition) Released four months after her heroin-related death on October 4th, 1970, Janis Joplin's 1971 album Pearl ended up being the defining record in the revolutionary singer's career, as well as an ellipsis suggesting what might have been. Like Jimi Hendrix's The Cry of Love and Elliott Smith's From a Basement on the Hill, Pearl was only a work in progress when its principal creator unexpectedly passed. But unlike those records, Pearl was Joplin's biggest commercial success, and, song for song, her best album, despite some undercooked moments and signs of incompletion.

Like its predecessors -- 1969's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and the earlier discs with Big Brother and the Holding Company -- Pearl is short on Joplin-penned originals. The differences are that Pearl was overseen by expert Doors producer Paul Rothchild, and the backup group is the rock-solid, mostly Canadian Full Tilt Boogie Band, Joplin's own version of Bob Dylan's Band. Crucially, Pearl also includes Kris Kristofferson's folk-rock smash "Me and Bobby McGee" and Joplin's strongest songwriting -- the ass-kicking opening track, "Move Over," and the consumerist-gospel spoof "Mercedes Benz," which she wails without accompaniment. By contrast, "Buried Alive in the Blues" appears without vocals (she had planned to record them on October 5th). Just as "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" were obscure soul tracks that Joplin made her own, Pearl's bulk is R&B rewritten as rootsy rock, most notably on the final cut, which served as her epitaph: "Get It While You Can."

Expanded to capitalize on last year's DVD release of Festival Express, the concert film chronicling her three-date train trek across Canada with the Band, the Grateful Dead and others, Pearl - Legacy Edition includes a powerhouse live disc culled from those Canadian dates, as well as alternate versions and ephemera from the Pearl sessions. Much of this material appeared on previous reissues, but this package does the best job of representing Joplin in her final months. Although her slurred live monologues suggest a shift from hard drugs to heavy drinking, Joplin had otherwise become more focused in her life and art. Had she not relapsed, Pearl might have marked a new beginning rather than a tragic ending. * * * * 1/2

- Barry Walters, Rolling Stone, 6/16/05.

Joplin died before finishing her best album. "Buried Alive in the Blues" was left as an instrumental, the title speaking for itself. But the star-crossed singer, who came to overnight celebrity with Big Brother and the Holding Company via raw blues, psychedelic rock and flamboyant sexual challenge, revealed her deep, scarred soul on Pearl, in the heated, stripped-bare spectacle of "Cry Baby" and the prophetic "Get It While You Can." Her whiskey-lovin'-kitten side came out in her version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and the a cappella "Mercedes Benz." You also hear the weight she carried all through her fame in the low, hurting registers of "A Woman Left Lonely." Joplin rarely acted like a refined lady, but she was never less than soul royalty.

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 10/11/12.

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