An Unlikely Pairing
Jazz vocalist Sarah Partridge honors folk legend Janis Ian with new album, “Bright Lights and Promises”. Unlike some other musical homages, Partridge and Ian actually worked together on the album and created two new songs for the album. Fans of 1983’s “Risky Business” starring Tom Cruise will no doubt remember Partridge’s role in the film. After embarking on an acting career, Partridge tried singing, and her debut album was released in 1998.
Janis Ian, Folk Icon
New York-born folk singer Ian catapulted to fame while a teenager in the 1960s. And while she is still active, Ian is best known for the musical catalogue she made during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of Ian’s most important recent work has been writing, as she contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and still tackles women’s issues. Ian has won two Grammys, one for the single, “At Seventeen”, and the other for an autobiographical spoken word album, “Society’s Child”.
The Subtle Power of “At Seventeen”
I first heard “At Seventeen” a little more than a decade ago. Caught up in my own dizzying array of drama that came with being a young American. Life moved fast. Usually I dealt with it by playing songs with quick tempos, and sharp wordplay. Whether it was rock or hip-hop, it needed to have an edge or I just didn’t have time for it.
One day, however, I was sitting in my tiny car on the street in front of my apartment building. And I found myself not listening to the music I amassed over the years, but my city’s oldies station. “At Seventeen” came plain and clear through my speakers. I could see what the singer was describing. The unfairness of adolescence when others seem to have advantages of better looks and more money. The universal truth was raw, and while not unheard of, the way it was presented sounded novel to me. So ugly were those truths! But so gently told over intricate-sounding guitar work, and sung about in a sincere tone without anger or pretense. The song has stuck with me ever since.
The lyrics of “At Seventeen” are not raw because they are explicit. They are honest. A slice of life is laid bare for listeners to accept. The rhythm of the lyrics has an uneven feel at the end of the lines, like jazz, mimicking awkward teenage years.
A New Take
In Partridge’s version, the vocalise is wistful and wispy. So at one with the music is the stylistic turn that it is not obvious at times that someone is singing. The lush arrangement, the awkward rhythms of the lines, allow those who have an inclination toward forming mental imagery to paint soft focus pictures of girls with long, flowing hair, or high, cotton-soft afros, all wearing maxi dresses and smiles as the sun stretches its beams overhead. Then, in the next instance, a mental look is cast at the girl with the unfortunate face, to whom teenage society is not kind. Each type of girl is aware of the boundaries between herself and others.
While there is much to appreciate about Partridge’s work, I recommend listening to the original as well. Either version offers listeners a lush melody and steady, mid-range vocals that gently dole out the truth many find difficult to face.