Tag Archives: Water Colors

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

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Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

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