Pearl was assembled posthumously after Texan blues singer Janis Joplin overdosed in 1970, joining the 27 club. It was her only album with her newly formed band Full Tilt Boogie. The instrumental ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ is evidence of the album’s tragic interruption; Joplin planned to lay down the vocal track the day after she died.
Joplin’s point of distinction was her hyper-charged vocal technique; inspired by legendary blues woman Bessie Smith, her voice rarely betrayed that she was white and not particularly large. She was once asked to sing a gospel song named ‘Quiet About It’, but refused on the grounds that she couldn’t talk to her God quietly; Joplin rarely did anything by half measures. Full Tilt Boogie provide her with an ideal backing, earthy and driving, although Joplin’s vocals naturally take centre stage. The album’s name is taken from Joplin’s nickname: “Pearl” is credited with acoustic guitar on ‘Me & Bobby McGee’.
My favourite tracks are the two which deviate furthest from blues; Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ is a standard, and Joplin’s version is definitive; she can’t resist shredding her voice on this relatively mild country ballad, and the end result is powerful. ‘Half Moon’ breaks the musical mould the furthest, with a funky arrangement. Meanwhile, the entertainingly throwaway a capella ‘Mercedes Benz’ (“My friends all own porsches/I must make amends”) is the other song that stands out among Joplin’s energetic blues workouts and dramatic ballads.
Joplin’s enthusiastic blues screeching has a certain charisma, but I’d rather listen to the elegant angst of Joni Mitchell’s contemporaneous Blue.