Review Summary: “Four gentleman and one great, great, girl; Big Brother and the Holding Company!”
When Cheap Thrills
was released nearly 50 years ago, it’s easy to see why people thought it was a live album. Not only does the production mimic the raw energy of a live performance, but producer John Simon incorporated crowd noise to several tracks on the album.
To this day, the album has left an indelible impression on psychedelic and heavy music, and yet it seems to have been left on the backburner of many peoples’ minds. On one hand, it’s easy to see why Cheap Thrills
was so successful and continues to be acclaimed by critics to this day, but on the other it’s understandable that it hasn’t been reviewed on this site until now.
For one, the album does admittedly sound dated. For all it’s arresting musicianship and vocals, many tracks, especially “I Need a Man to Love,” feature nothing that modern listeners haven’t heard before and better since its release. Joplin’s vocals are equally at fault at times as well. Her voice is an incredibly versatile one, but it can also be grating at times. It’s not nearly as polished and just plain deadly as it is on her later solo work, such as Pearl
But while these are admittedly detractions from the quality of the work, its important to understand that they aren’t overbearing. Aside from the one song that I mentioned (which is no more than a weak link), the faults are only noticeable in small instances throughout the album.
In fact, the album is ridiculously consistent overall. With only seven tracks, there’s absolutely no room for filler, and the album benefits greatly from it. It feels no shorter than it was meant to be, or should be, and there’s no sense of constriction or lack of creativity evident due to its short runtime.
Take for example “Turtle Blues.” For all we know, they just plopped Joplin down in front of a piano at an old-timey saloon and she started playing the blues. There’s an occasional murmur of background conversation and the eventual hush and appraisal of the crowd as their attention turns towards her. It’s just plain cool, and far more interesting than a straightforward studio cut would’ve been.
“Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart” also benefit from thinking outside of the box. Refusing to lean on any one side of the sonic spectrum, each flies about from sound to sound without care. This was a time unworried about labelling noises and trying to stick with one, and a time where the audience didn’t give a damn what they were listening to, as long as it was good. It’s no wonder that they still play “Piece of My Heart” on the radio today; it’s timely appeal remains timeless even now.
The more times my ears are graced by the album, the deeper I fall in love. By the third listen, I was captivated by “Oh, Sweet Mary” when at first I was skeptical. And as far as “Ball and Chain” is concerned, well… why waste words when if you take one thing from this review, you’ll go and give it a listen yourself? In fact, go do yourself a favor and give the entirety of Cheap Thrills
You can thank me later.