Big Brother & the Holding Company

How Hard It Is

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The second and final of the post-Janis Joplin Big Brother albums for Columbia looks and sounds like the closing of a chapter. A picture of Big Brother inside the gatefold has the band glowing with heavenly light; the cover photo is more telling, with faceless men standing in the shadows. To realize how good a Big Brother & the Holding Company album this is, all one has to do is play it next to Do What You Love, the group's release from 1998. On that disc, Lisa Battle is a commendable vocalist, but Do What You Love feels strained in both songwriting and performance. How Hard It Is, on the other hand, from 27 years earlier, is right on target. The title track feels like vintage Big Brother. Kathy McDonald is credited as a guest artist on "Black Widow Spider"; she co-sings the lead, but it sure sounds like her on "How Hard It Is" and "House on Fire" as well and, eerily, it is much like when Janis sang in unison with the band. The major difference is that they can play their instruments better here, four years after the Monterey Pop Festival brought them to the attention of Clive Davis. Nick Gravenites and McDonald were the perfect choices to step in, Gravenites having written two tracks on Joplin's Kozmic Blues LP and also having performed with her on Joplin in Concert. McDonald has sweetness, but can reach in and find some gravel to complement Gravenites. Everything on this album is listenable, and the three instrumentals -- "Last Band on Side One," "Maui," and "Promise Her Anything, But Give Her Arpeggio" -- are statements that the band members are real musicians, journeymen with vision. The loss of more recorded music by this group from this point in time is a tragedy. The Gravenites version of "Buried Alive in the Blues," the song he wrote for Joplin's Pearl album, is chilling; her death happened hours before the scheduled session when she was to sing on the Full Tilt Boogie Band's recording. Sony would be wise to include Big Brother's rendition on future copies of Pearl: It completes the circle. Big Brother would do well to continue in the more bluesy direction this album pointed to rather than perform Janis Joplin's hits in small clubs. The instrumental "Maui" and the song "Shine On" are as good as anything Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service could conjure up. Sam Andrew, James Gurley, Peter Albin, and David Getz cover music from all three phases of Joplin's career. The first song on side two, "Nu Boogaloo Jam," is pure Kozmic Blues Band, which Sam Andrew was part of at the beginning; the aforementioned "Buried Alive in the Blues," as stated, was recorded by the Full Tilt Boogie Band for Pearl. This album covers the gamut of styles that Joplin would bring to the world between 1968 and 1970. It's a catastrophe that this band was waiting for its lead singer to come home for the inevitable reunion; Joplin's death affected many lives and the body of work this band could have amassed. Where the Doors went off into a brief and spirited rock-jazz journey for two albums -- Jim Morrison's band experimenting with ideas they couldn't attempt as a superstar pop group -- Big Brother had lost its Morrison and was lost without its focal point. How Hard It Is and the album that preceded it, Be a Brother, are very musical and very good albums, but they just don't have the electric majesty of Cheap Thrills, an album that took their wildness and used it as an incredible bed for Joplin's truly cosmic vocal work and emotion. If allowed to record as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane had despite those bands' personnel changes, there would now be a deep catalog of San Francisco rock from this essential psychedelic/experimental ensemble. Although Janis Joplin had a guest vocal on Be a Brother, her only participation here consists of photos inside the album jacket, a family tree of sorts. This is a striking record by an important band, but Joplin's contributions were so overwhelming that the integrity in these grooves never got the chance to reach a wider audience when it was first released.

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