Kozmic blues indeed. Well sort of…
Many years ago, a friend of mine remarked that whenever I put on a Janis Joplin record, it reminded her of hearing a cat being strangled. Such is the reaction some people can have to the unique vocal talents of one of rock’s pioneering ladies. She got her first break with Big Brother And The Holding Company, who released two albums, the second of which, Cheap Thrills, made her a star, thanks in no small part to her stunning interpretation of Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ “Piece of My Heart”, however it was this success that would eventually lead to the band’s downfall, as Janis left Big Brother in 1968, to embark on a solo career, a move that was as logical as it had appeared inevitable.
With The Kozmic Blues Band behind her, Joplin’s first solo venture, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! was issued in 1969, an LP that was an obvious (at times too obvious) attempt at combining Janis’ penchant for show-biz and big band glamour – and what a band it was: no less than three guitarists (including Mike Bloomfield), three keyboardists, three drummers, two saxophonists and a trumpeter. Clearly Columbia was keen for their young talent to make a major impact.
Opener “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” has Stax written all over it, and is classic Janis from start to end. Yes she wails and screams a bit, but that’s the whole point isn’t it? The band do sound a little overcooked, especially the horn section, as they do on the next track, the bluesy “Maybe”, distracting from Janis’ heartfelt delivery. “One Good Man” is another late night soul-blues number, where Sam Andrew’s bottleneck complements Joplin’s raspy vocals perfectly. Mike Bloomfield also adds his own distinct touch, with a blistering yet restrained guitar solo. “As Good As You’ve Been To This World” is the funkiest thing on here, with more than a slight nod to Otis Redding.
Barry and Robin Gibb’s “To Love Somebody” gets an emotional impassioned reading, despite the horns diverting the listener’s attention away from what Janis herself is doing. The jewel that is “Kosmic Blues” is one of the best songs of the album, and suggestive of what Big Brother might have sounded like with better production and a few more music lessons. There is a primal urgency throughout, and when she cries “There’s a fire inside every one of us/You’d better need it now/I got to hold it/I better use it till the day I die” it’s like she’s singing as if her very life and soul depended on every line.
The Rodgers & Hart “Little Girl Blue” is one of Joplin’s more controlled performances, including elegant strings and a guitar arrangement similar to “Summertime”. Does it work? Not really. Too smooth, too slick. Although on “Work Me Lord”, the last track, Janis redeems herself, giving it all she’s got, while Bloomfield returns to provide more of those exquisite guitar licks only he was capable of.
The album cover has her resembling some psychotic banshee on LSD – hardly all that flattering I must say – but perhaps an appropriate image all the same. The remaster pads things out with three bonus tracks, taken from the Woodstock Festival, providing an interesting contrast between solo Janis and the one which wowed the crowd at Monterey two years earlier.
Kozmic Blues was the final album released during her lifetime, one which saw Joplin moving towards a more polished, refined yet less experimental sound. The following year would see her return to a gutsier, more back to basics approach, with The Full Tilt Boogie Band, but that’s another story, for another day.