Between the Lines
Released: March 1975
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 64
Certified Platinum: 11/21/86
Janis Ian's second Columbia album is elegiac in mood, its 11 tunes composing a romantically introspective self-portrait. Ian has forged an appealing melodic style based on the folk simplicity of Don McLean and early Bob Dylan and added to it some of the sweetness of MOR pop. Some of her tunes could be covered by Roberta Flack or even Frank Sinatra. Vocally, Ian sounds more confident and relaxed than on her Columbia debut, Stars. Her singing is consistently strong and plaintive, reminiscent in timbre of Melanie's, though surer in pitch and more emotively reticent.
The finest songs on Between the Lines are painfully autobiographical confessions of loneliness, insecurity and the perils of dependent relationships. Ian asserts feminine vulnerability so nakedly that the album should appeal especially to white, middle-class high-school girls and college-age women who maintain a mid-Sixties idealism about sex. Sexual and romantic frustration provides the subject for the album's two finest songs, "At Seventeen" and "Water Colors." The first, a delicate samba, confronts adolescent misery:
These songs of experience are far more credible than those that strut a more general cynicism -- "When the Party's Over" and "Between the Lines" -- or those that formalize longing as soap-opera pageantry -- "In the Winter," "Tea & Sympathy." Yet these too have the virtues of careful craft, melodic strength and earnestness of interpretation. On the album's two most commercial (though not the best) songs, Ian effectively achieves a middle ground. "From Me to You" works as a terse update of Dylan's "It's Alright Ma," and "Light a Light," a melodious love song, has one flaw, the use of syntactical inversion for rhetorical effect ("Now am I humble, who once was proud/Now am I silent, who once was loud"...etc.). Ian is too prone to leaning on such devices, which though they have genuine roots in folk, pop and concert literature, seem affected in comparison to her skillful use of naturalistic diction.
Brooks Arthur's understated production complements the tunes and singing immeasurably. Ian's soft, acoustically based songs are buoyed but not inflated by atmospheric instrumentation (some of which she has arranged herself), so that her emotional intensity communicates from the most positive stance possible -- one of restraint. Particularly in "Water Colors," her most poignant creation to date, Janis Ian shows a potential for excellence.
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 5/22/75
Janis Ian was one of the authentic voices of the Sixties, one of the street kids who told it exactly as it was without any of the "poetic" trimmings. She directed her coruscating wit, gelid eye, and scolding fury as much at the opportunists of her own generation who were corrupting the dream as at the society that feared and brutally repressed anyone not stamped out by the cookie cutter. But Ian seems to have paid a high price for her own involvement and convictions. She came back about a year ago with a new album, and, aside from a lot of media palaver about her now being able to accept being a "star," it never really went anywhere beyond reminding her old fans that she was up and about again.
Between the Lines seems to be another water-treader, but it has one brilliant track: "At Seventeen," not about Viet Nam but about an ugly duckling, is filled with the same pitiless observation and ice-hard anger as her earlier work. "I learned the truth at seventeen/ That love was made for beauty queens/ And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles/ Who married young and then retired..." might seem the standard moan of self-pity and envy -- that is, until you reach the next few verses. About the lucky girls: "Remember those who win the game/ Lose the love they thought they gained/ In debentures of quality and dubious integrity...." And about the duckling now grown older: "To those of us who knew the pain/ Of valentines that never came... It was long ago, and far away/ The world was younger than today...." Good Lord! A popular lyric that actually implies that someone has learned something, that things do sort themselves out, given enough time, that experience can result in wisdom. And there's not a touch of cosmic Melanie or Laura Nyro style. "At Seventeen" is just a simple story about a girl-woman. But then so is "Madame Bovary."
It would be too much to ask that the rest of the album measure up to that gem, but there are some other nice things here: the mordant "Watercolors"; "The Come-On," a wry, funny appraisal of the difficulties of being promiscuous when your heart just ain't in it; "Light a Light," a solemn little love song. Ian is now definitely back in the ascendant, and I hope she continues in the vein of exploring characters and personality types of our time rather than taking on overworked, overheated social issues. She is very fine, and eventually, I think, she will contribute some unique and lasting work. But she is like a fine diamond: a lot of hoopla and celebration upon initial discovery, the tense moment of the first cut (and in her case there was some regrettable splintering), and then the long period of polishing. One thing is sure. When she does make it, she'll be absolutely glittering.
- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 7/75.
- Billboard, 1975.
In this time of dearth, it's probably improvident to laugh at someone so talented -- good melodies abound here, and I can't think of a rock singer who has made more unaffected and pleasurable use of her or his voice lessons. But this woman's humorlessness demands snickers. It was one thing for society's teenager to pity herself because she didn't have the integrity to stick with her black boyfriend. It's another thing for a grown-up to pity her teenaged self because she was always picked last in basketball. I mean, face it, Ms. Ian -- you're short. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
"At Seventeen" is only one of a group of beautifully written, tastefully performed, and very moving songs. * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
On Between the Lines, "At Seventeen" is only one of an album full of luminous, well-crafted songs. * * * *
- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Though she first recorded at age 15, this ultimate expression of angst, cut eight years later, proved Ian's breakthrough, thanks to the intimate hit "At Seventeen," an ode to lost innocence, which perfectly captures the turmoil inside the teenage ugly duckling. Though not an album to liven up a party, it's a tour de force that showcases the strong, fragile, beautiful voice of one of the original sensitive young women singer-songwriters. * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
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