It’s time to shine the Vinyl Spotlight! Every now and then on Paloozapalooza, I like to focus on a random LP from my collection. This week, we have:
Janis Ian – Stars (1974)
I suspect a lot of people know Janis Ian primarily for her biggest hit, “At Seventeen,” but there’s much more to this fantastic songwriter than just that one song. Ian was a bit of a child prodigy, writing the song “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” at the age of 13 and releasing her eponymous debut two years later in 1967. She made a few more albums, but then left the music business for six years. Stars was seen at the time as her “comeback album.”
And what a comeback! Stars is a solid listen from beginning to end, especially the sensational title track, which also happens to open the album. “Stars” is, in a word, transcending. The guitar sounds so delicate it could slide off the wax at any minute, and Ian’s lyrics are absolutely captivating. Her singing here is terrific as well, and the way she sings, “… what I really feel” at the beginning slays me every time.
“Stars” is seven mesmerizing minutes long, but I always find myself wishing it was even longer. I don’t often repeat songs when I’m listening to an LP and have to manually move the needle, but this is most definitely an exception. I usually digest this album by listening to “Stars” twice in a row and then moving on from there.
(Some people might know “Stars” from Nina Simone’s infamous cover at the 1976 Montreux Festival. It’s perhaps most famous for the moment she angrily scolds a concertgoer for standing up, but it’s also a heart-wrenching performance on its own.)
The next two tracks, “The Man You Are In Me” and “Sweet Sympathy,” are much more upbeat, following up “Stars” with a well-timed change of pace. “Sweet Sympathy” is even a bit funky, and the production actually reminds me of Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle.
“Thankyous” ends the album’s first side on a high note. Just try these lyrics on for size and tell me they don’t make you crack a smile: “Papa gave me music/ Mama gave me soul/ Brother gave me reaching out to hold/ Teacher gave me license/ Learning set me free/ Schooling gave me nothing/ Music showed me how to be.”
Ian sounds a little like Joni Mitchell on this track, though I can’t specifically put my finger on where I’m getting that vibe from. Either way, it’s not meant as an insult; her singing on “Thankyous” is beautiful.
The centerpiece of the record’s second side is “Jesse,” a slow, sad song about a soldier who isn’t coming home. Sure, that’s not exactly a unique subject matter, but she’s such a strong writer that the song ends up sounding powerful and sincere, not vague or generic.
Oh, and one last thing: “Applause,” the final song on the album, is absolutely begging to be sampled. The right producer just needs to loop that opening piano, play with the tempo a bit, chop up some drums, and they will have the start of something great. (And pay for that sample, OK? She’s still alive, so show her some love!)
Unfortunately, Stars isn’t on Spotify in its entirety, but listen to “Stars” and “Thankyous” below …