Cheap Thrills

Big Brother And The Holding Company

Columbia / Legacy Records, 1968

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


(Editor's Note: This album was initially reviewed as part of the Janis Joplin Box Of Pearls box set - hence the "Box Set Rating" at the bottom of the page.)

Cheap Thrills was the breakthrough album for Janis Joplin and Big Brother & The Holding Company. Topping the charts for eight weeks and spawning a top 20 single, this was the album that solidified the reputation that the band had spawned with their set at the Monterey Pop festival. It also marked the end of the band; not terribly long after the album's release, Joplin left the band to pursue a solo career.

When I first bought a battered vinyl copy of Cheap Thrills some years ago, I was unimpressed. This was the album that helped to shape the music scene of the late '60s? (Then again, keep in mind the first time I heard the Grateful Dead, I didn't much care for them, either.)

Now, with the re-mastered release (containing four bonus tracks), I got a chance to re-think my original position... only to find it had improved by the narrowest of margins. The time on the road shows in both positive and negative ways, and my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Cheap Thrills still remains an album that you either get or you don't... and I don't.

Musically, Sam Andrew and crew had worked themselves into a tight musical unit by the time these tracks (some of which were recorded live at the Fillmore Auditorium) were cut. But on the other end of the spectrum, you can hear the strain on Joplin's vocals. On some tracks, like "Piece Of My Heart," the raggedness fits the mood perfectly. But on others like "I Need A Man To Love" and "Summertime", it's almost painful to hear how she's shredding her throat. She had vocal power beyond many female blues singers; pity that she overused that power.

"Piece Of My Heart," the hit single from Cheap Thrills, remains a classic song that has lost little of its power over the course of three decades. Likewise, "Combination Of The Two" is an underrated classic that allows Joplin the fiery freedom to cut loose with her vocal abilities. In a way, I prefer "Combination Of The Two" over "Piece Of My Heart," maybe because it hasn't been overplayed over the years, and remains a secret treasure locked away for fans to discover. (Think of it this way: which of the two tracks isn't on the Greatest Hits album, though it should be?)

Of the remaining tracks that made up the original Cheap Thrills, there seems to be an overreliance on 12-bar blues that wasn't there on the band's first album. "I Need A Man To Love," "Turtle Blues" and "Ball And Chain" (the last track Joplin's tribute to the song's author, "Big Mama" Thornton) all seem to hammer the reliance home - maybe this was one of the limiting factors that Joplin saw with Big Brother & The Holding Comapny. The band's cover of "Summertime" (co-written by George Gershwin) just doesn't fit the mood that well.

What makes Cheap Thrills raise a few notches in my book is the addition of the four bonus tracks. Had songs like "Flower In The Sun," "Catch Me Daddy" and "Magic Of Love" been included on the original album, my opinion of it as a teenager would have been much higher. (Of the new additions, only "Roadblock" doesn't do anything for me; it almost seems like a song looking for a direction.)

Cheap Thrills is the kind of album that anyone who wants to discover what the '60s were like will want to run out and grab. And if you want to discover more about Joplin than a compilation album will show you, it's worth the trip. But Cheap Thrills shows a band whose musical focus was changing - and it's a shame we didn't get a chance to see if they would have gotten things back on the right road.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia / Legacy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.