KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

JONI MITCHELL Part 5 – The Geffen Years (1982-1991)

David Geffen & Joni Mitchell – Life Magazine (Early ’80s)

When Joni Mitchell released her double live album Shadows And Light in 1980, it signaled the end of her contract with Asylum Records. She would spend the next decade with a new record label (Geffen Records) and a new collaborator (bass player Larry Klein, who would also become her co-producer and husband). This wasn’t a critically or commercially successful period of her career, although she did court chart success with 1980’s production techniques, drum programming and guest appearances by numerous pop and rock stars. In fact, it’s these of-their-time qualities that initially turned me off to these albums (at least the first few), so much so that if I had started writing this post after one listen I wouldn’t have had many positive things to say. Of course I’m glad I stuck with them, because after listening to each of these four albums numerous times, I found a lot to like. If not as much as the brilliant studio albums that preceded them, then that’s mostly because the production still dates much of this music, whereas the majority of her earlier recordings still sound timeless.

The first album of this new era, Wild Things Run Fast (1982), is a quirky beast. It’s got a lot of the jazz stylings of the last few albums, but there’s also a rock edge to some of the material, possibly due to the inclusion of Toto guitar whiz Steve Lukather. This sound is most evident on “Wild Things Run Fast.” It’s like nothing else in her catalog, and it sounds like she was trying to write a radio hit (think Pat Benatar or Hall & Oates from this era). That’s not a criticism, as I really enjoy this song. Her rockier side also appears on the Lieber & Stoller song “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” I prefer the jazzier, slightly syncopated sections to the straight-ahead chorus, but her quirky arrangement really won me over. That’s Lionel Richie guesting on “You Dream Flat Tires,” a cool, propulsive Toto-esque rock song which, ironically, doesn’t have Mr. Lukather on guitar (he’s replaced by the equally versatile Michael Landau).

Album opener “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” is really the key song here. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is first introduced in the piano intro, and its melody & lyrics are repeated throughout the song. She also briefly references the Goffin/King classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” I love the subtle jazzy arrangement with fretless bass, which ties this to material from her last few albums. Until I read the lyrics, I didn’t realize she was once again referring to the daughter she gave up for adoption years earlier, which she previously addressed on “Little Green” (from Blue). “Ladies’ Man” is a soulful track with a nice slinky groove that has an early-80s R&B sound (think Luther Vandross). I love the “fire and ice” backing vocals on the very cool “Be Cool.” The shortest song, “Underneath The Streetlight,” is also one of my favorites. She blends a midtempo jazzy groove with a straightforward rocker that’s upbeat (both lyrically and vocally). The remainder of the album is also solid, with no clunkers or aimless tunes. I wouldn’t rank this among my four or five favorite Joni albums, but it’s not far off.

With Dog Eat Dog (1985), Joni really embraced the overproduced sound that was permeating the airwaves at the time, with electronic drums and Fairlight synths. This is not surprising, as it was co-produced by Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me With Science”). I like a lot of these songs, but my enjoyment is slightly dulled by the sound of the album, which is ironic because I like a lot of music from this era. It’s just strange for an artist like Joni, who seems a little out of her element. That’s the unmistakable voice of Michael McDonald on album opener “Good Friends,” a duet seemingly about a secret love affair that has grown complicated (“walk on eggshells and analyze”). The lyrics to “The Three Great Stimulants” are puzzling to me. They’re poetic but abstract, as she reveals that the “three great stimulants of the exhausted ones” are “artifice, brutality and innocence.” Is it about a bad relationship? Anti-war? Anti-capitalism? At 6+ minutes, I still couldn’t crack this song, especially since it’s not terribly melodic. Still, I mention it here because I think she has something important to say…I just can’t figure out what it is. Any input would be appreciated.

One of the best songs is “Dog Eat Dog,” with Don Henley and James Taylor on backing vocals. Here she’s railing against modern society (as she does on the earlier, less memorable “Fiction”), by referencing the “snakebite evangelists, racketeers and big wig financiers” (that last one is the melodic hook). Too bad about the gated snare & airy synths, but this was 1985 after all. “Impossible Dreamer” is another winner, a light-as-air, vaguely jazzy pop song with a catchy melody in the title. At first I thought she was singing about someone else, but I think she sees her younger self as the “impossible dreamer” and wishes she were still that way. I also really enjoyed “Ethiopia,” its slow, repetitive beat highlighting the lyrics, where she’s appalled by the TV footage of suffering in Africa.

[Joni Mitchell – “Dog Eat Dog”]

Dog Eat Dog (Gatefold LP)

The prettiest song is “Lucky Girl,” which I’m assuming she wrote for husband Larry Klein. She’s looking back at past failed romances and feels lucky now to be with him. It’s nice to hear Wayne Shorter on tenor sax for a change, instead of soprano sax. One other notable track is “Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another),” a brief interlude of a song where Joni “plays” a cigarette machine, and features some cool slapped bass. It captures the feeling of a smoker needing a cigarette when the machine is empty, and you can hear the frustration as she repeats “try another.” I can’t say I love this album, but once I got past the production, there’s enough here to make me revisit it again in the future. However, I don’t see this as an essential Joni record.

That 80s sound is still prevalent on Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988), but it’s not as distracting. The most notable element of this album is its guest stars. Joni duets with Peter Gabriel on “My Secret Place,” a beautiful and tender love song with a midtempo pop melody. Joni’s allowing herself into her lover’s life, physically and emotionally, and her vulnerability is very powerful. Willie Nelson adds his inimitable vocals to “Cool Water,” an old song with updated lyrics by Joni. It’s almost meditative, and the hook is in the slow refrain of “cool…clear…water.” The strangest pairing on this album, though, comes during “Dancin’ Clown.” It’s a fun, lively track that stands out from everything else here, and features both Billy Idol and Tom Petty on co-lead vocals. Stranger songs became hits during the ‘80s, so this must have been her attempt at one. At first I found this song to be quite weird, but for some strange reason it grew on me.

Joni has a defiant & proud sound in her voice during “Lakota,” sung from the perspective of the Lakota Native American tribe, who were taken advantage of by white settlers. Probably the most powerful track is “The Beat Of Black Wings,” an anti-war song about a wounded soldier & how he’s affected by combat. The title refers to the sound of helicopter blades. Does anyone know what she’s singing before the word “angel”? It sounds like “tired angel” or “darling angel,” but I can’t tell, and it’s the most melodic part of the song. “Snakes And Ladders,” with Don Henley on guest vocals, is another memorable tune. It starts off upbeat and happy about a couple in love, but ends with lyrics about the relationship deteriorating. I like how she uses the board game of the title as a metaphor for relationships (“get to the top and slide back down”).

“The Reoccurring Dream” wouldn’t work in any other setting, with the production and keyboard sound laying the foundation, and various spoken words (like TV commercials in a dream state) nearly hidden in the mix. The album ends with the pastoral “A Bird That Whistles,” Joni singing in falsetto, with just acoustic guitar, sparse bass and sax. I’m still not sure how I feel about this album. On one hand, it’s sonically superior to its predecessor, but the guest vocalists sometimes make it a little too offbeat. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more after 4 or 5 listens, which means it will probably continue to grow on me over the years, but it’s not nearly at the level of her best work.

It took a few spins, but I finally started to “get” Night Ride Home (1991). Those ‘80s sounds are gone, replaced by a quiet, early-‘90s studio sheen that initially hid some incredibly powerful music. It begins with “Night Ride Home,” a blissful tune of mostly acoustic guitar and light percussion (and cricket sounds throughout). This is possibly the slowest road song ever recorded, but it’s fantastic, about Joni riding in the car with the man she loves on the 4th of July. It’s followed by the soft & gentle “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free),” which asks “who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?” I found myself singing along with the hook (“who you gonna get?”), and although I’m not completely sure what the song is about (what’s with the references to ecstasy, misery, apathy & tragedy?), I found it mesmerizing.

“Come In From The Cold” is the longest song (at about 7:30) and it’s also one of the best. It’s got a simple verse-chorus structure repeated seven times, and she sings about wanting to connect with others, to make up for past mistakes. Light percussion drives the midtempo “Nothing Can Be Done,” with strong vocal support from David Baerwald, who I knew from his 1986 album Boomtown with the duo David + David. Her vocals here remind me of Martha Davis (of The Motels). It’s a simple, melancholy song, and I really like the line “my heart is like a smoking gun, and nothing can be done.” Another powerful song is “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing),” where Joni is defiant against her ex during a divorce (“I’m not gonna be the jackpot at the end of your perjured rainbow”).

[Joni Mitchell – “Nothing Can Be Done”]

She’s positively giddy during “The Only Joy In Town,” admiring her “Botticelli black boy.” It’s followed by “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” a wonderfully blissful tune which fondly looks back on a high school boyfriend.  That’s Brenda Russell on backing vocals, playing a similar role to the one Chaka Khan played on “Dreamland” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter). The album ends with “Two Grey Rooms,” a piano and string-laden ballad about Joni hiding out in a small apartment just so she can watch someone walk by on the sidewalk below every day (although she doesn’t specify who that is). It’s a nice, quiet ending, with her voice going very low as the songs closes out. The overall soft tone of the album initially belied the power of the songs, but this one is by far my favorite of her Geffen years. It deserves to be mentioned among her very best work, probably just below my all-time favorites.

Joni Mitchell on the cover of Musician (1985)

This batch of albums is a perfect example of why I’m thrilled to be revisiting complete catalogs and writing about them. It’s easy to listen to an artist’s best work over & over again, but sometimes it can be a chore to work your way through the less substantial material (or at least the albums with that reputation). Following Joni’s career from helium-voiced folkie to sensitive singer-songwriter to jazz-infused poet and beyond, I’m no longer surprised by any of the left turns her music has taken. Her Geffen years are a slightly odd but ultimately rewarding collection of music that couldn’t have been made at any other time or by any artist other than Joni Mitchell.

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11 comments on “JONI MITCHELL Part 5 – The Geffen Years (1982-1991)

  1. Glenn S.
    October 28, 2011

    The only album I have from this era is Dog Eat Dog. However, I’ve had it since shortly after it came out and it’s survived several collection purgings and an 800 mile move, so I must like it. I’ve heard people say DED sounds too 80s, but to me that’s the point. I can’t think of another album from the 80s that is so of its time while also casting such a skeptical eye at it.

    To my ears the key cuts have always been “Shiny Toys” about yuppie materialism and “Tax Free” about TV preachers who mix religion with politics. While these are decidedly 80s topics, they are still relevant. These days the shiny toys are the latest cell phones and electronic gadgets, and a little channel surfing will show you that the over-the-top preaching by Rod Steiger on “Tax Free” is still alive and well.

    I can’t finish without mentioning the co-production by Thomas Dolby. I’m a big fan of Dolby as both a performer and producer (love his work with Prefab Sprout) and his name on this was no doubt one of the reasons I decided to pick it up. As always, he seems to get way more textures and warmth from his keyboards than so many other 80s button-pushers ever did. I recently heard him interviewed and apparently this album was not one of the happiest collaborations of his career, but I think the results were something memorable.

    • Hi Glenn. You’ve made an excellent point about how the ’80s sound is the whole point of the album, and not just an unfortunate result of the prevailing production techniques of that time. My main complaint is that most of the songs wouldn’t work without that ’80s production. I can’t imagine “Tax Free” or “Shiny Toys” in any other context. I happen to like a lot of songs with that big booming ’80s drum sound, but I guess these two Joni songs just didn’t work for me.

      In my scribbled notes about “Tax Free,” I wrote that it “could be a Starship song,” and that “Tax Free” was a “silly song where the ’80s instruments make it more of a throwaway than it already is.” For some reason I didn’t include either of these comments in my post, probably because I already had enough to say about other songs, and I already made my feelings clear about the production. I love the fact that you enjoy this album as much as you do, and I will definitely keep your comments in mind next time I listen to these songs. Is there any reason you never got any other Joni albums from this era? Or did you have them and subsequently purge them from your collection?

      I also enjoy Thomas Dolby’s work, especially his production of Prefab Sprout (“Jordan: The Comeback” being a particular favorite). I read that Joni didn’t have many positive things to say about Dolby’s work on “Dog Eat Dog,” but who says a producer and artist have to get along? XTC butted heads with Todd Rundgren when they worked on “Skylarking,” but the results were outstanding.

      Thanks for writing. Have a nice weekend.
      Rich

    • Michael Francis McCarthy
      November 4, 2011

      Hello!

      Have a listen to the Dr. Kevorkian remix and let us know what you think of that sound:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8Iurqn2uXI (can you dance to that?)

      and compare it with her original:

      Cheerio,

      Michael

      • Hi Michael. As with most ’80s 12″ remixes, not much is added to the original song other than making it longer and adding more of that 80s instrumentation. I like the story by the person who uploaded this to youtube, about how he only knew this version from the radio, and it took him years to find a copy. When I eventually go back to Joni’s albums from this era, I think I’ll appreciate them a lot more, knowing better what to expect. Thanks for sharing these videos with me & my readers.
        Rich

  2. Glenn S.
    October 28, 2011

    Rich, I appreciate your quick responses, even when we’re not on the same page. I could imagine “Tax Free” as a voice-and-piano thing, but you’re right about “Shiny Toys” — it only works with that big 80s arrangement. I never bought Joni’s other albums on Geffen although I remember hearing Wild Things Run Fast at least once and liking it well enough. My Joni collection is tiny (Court & Spark, Hissing and DED) but if I was going to start adding to it I think I’d first want to get the albums discussed in part 4 of your series.

    I’m curious to see what you have to say about her more recent things. She has put out several albums with similar-looking cover art, and I did not realize there were until I looked her up on Amazon today. Apparently some are compilations but I know she did some re-makes too. It’s all a bit confusing to me.

    You have a good weekend too.

  3. Glenn S.
    October 28, 2011

    Oops, I dropped a few words in editing my post above. I meant to say “She has put out several albums with similar-looking cover art, and I did not realize there were so many of these until I looked her up on Amazon today.”

    • Glenn, if/when you get those albums I discussed in Part 4, I’d love to know your thoughts.

      I’ve been listening to the three albums she released between 1994 & 2000 this week, including one of mostly standards (and two re-recordings of her own songs), and I’ll be posting about those in the next few days. After that, I think there are only two other studio albums left, and I’ll probably also check out the Herbie Hancock album of Joni songs (since she appears on it along with a few other singers). I agree that a lot of the artwork on her recent releases is very similar, so it’s hard to tell them apart, but a few of those are compilations that I don’t have (or need).

  4. Michael Francis McCarthy
    November 4, 2011

    Hi Rich:

    Another great assessment! I particularly like this about WTRF:

    This sound is most evident on “Wild Things Run Fast.” It’s like nothing else in her catalog, and it sounds like she was trying to write a radio hit (think Pat Benatar or Hall & Oates from this era). Nice! Alas, that comeback tune was to elude her.

    I think the lyrics to “The Three Great Stimulants” are brilliant, especially the line about no tanks in her streets.

    I did some research at jonimitchell.com for you. I think this article will explain some of it. I also like how she says Survival is her finest work!

    FROM:
    “Writing in her own blood, but for deaf ears”
    In another, The Three Great Stimulants (Survival, originally from Dog Eat Dog, 1985) she takes the thoughts of the 19th-century German philosopher Nietzsche and puts them in a modern context.

    Nietzsche had said that life had three illusions: “One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; still another by the metaphysical comfort that beneath the whirl of phenomena eternal life flows on indestructibly . . . The more nobly formed natures . . . must be deluded by exquisite stimulants into forgetfulness of their displeasure. All that we call culture is made up of these stimulants.”

    Mitchell has always been seen as the model confessional songwriter, but it does an injustice to the sweep and scope of her work to downplay her concerns in relation to culture and society.

    An illustration to this is seen in part of the Vanity Fair interview in which she speaks about The Three Great Stimulants: “The three great stimulants of the exhausted ones are artifice, brutality and innocence. It should be ‘corruption of innocence’. The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have need for what they don’t have at all, which is innocence, so you end up with kiddie porn and a perverse obsession with youth.”

    Apart from calling her cat Nietzsche, Mitchell has a link to the philosopher going back to schooldays in Canada, when one of her teachers, Arthur Kratzmann, formerly of Queensland, and described by her as a seminal influence, urged her to “write in her own blood”. It was an echo from Nietzsche.

    Six songs in the middle of Survival are the album centrepiece: The Beat of Black Wings, No Apologies, Sex Kills (“Sex sells everything. Sex kills.”), The Three Great Stimulants, Lakota and Ethiopia. They stand out as equal to anything the singer-songwriter has done. If nothing else, this collection forces a reassessment of her work from the ’80s and ’90s, when Mitchell was using technology more in the studio and painting canvases of sound, both dense and, as it turned out, demode.

    http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=1251&from=search

    About “Impossible Dreamer” (one of my all-time faves) Joni writes in her liner notes to the Geffen Box:

    “Impossible Dreamer”
    This is a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy- to all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.

    “The Beat Of Black Wings”
    During the late ’60s, I used to play at Fort Bragg for boys who were coming from and going to Vietnam. On night, I came off stage in a long velvet dress with flowers in my hair and bare feet. I opened the door to my dressing room and inside was a little guy with his fists clenched and his teeth grit- shaking- and his face was red with anger.

    With a southern drawl he said, “You got a lotta nerve, sister, standing up there singin’ about love because there AIN’T no love. An’ I’m gonna tell ya where love went!” Then he burst into tears and told me about his experiences in ‘Nam and having to pick up pieces of what he referred to as his “brother,” who was his best friend. He said, “I went over there to kill a commie for God.” He said, “Give Charlie a safety pin and he’ll blow up a platoon.” He said, “They’re in the right. We shouldn’t even be there.”

    I believe she’s singing “Johnny Angel, Johnny Angel,” the melodic hook from Shelly Fabare’s hit from 1962:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Angel_(song)

    Who you gonna get? Great line!

    “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)”
    I always liked the Rabbi Jesus’ spunk and his rebellious spirit. My father told me, “Your Jesus is awfully human.” He also said my way of telling the story of Moses and the Burning Bush would be, to some people, blasphemous!

    This song is basically my telling of the Easter story but it morphs into contemporary ecological and sociological disasters. It is about crisis in the heart and healing of the heart. The “I” perspective that I am singing from is that of Zachius, the tax collector. He was short. He was jumping up and down in the back row of a large crowd that gathered to witness the arrival of Jesus into the town of Jerusalem. He had climbed into a sycamore tree to get a better look.

    °
    °
    °

    Joni has rarely made direct comments about what her songs are “about.” She’s been elusive, but the Geffen Box set has her own liner songs about the ’80s songs that she thinks were abandoned or never discovered.

    “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)”
    In 1974, I bought an old Spanish house that sat on the market for a few years and I got it for a fraction of its worth. I moved into it from an apartment in Burbank. I moved in like the Beverly Hillbillies, with everything I owned in a pickup truck. The big house swallowed-up my few pieces of furniture like a whale eating anchovies. I had to hire somebody to help keep the dust and spiders down. Most of the people who came for the position were horrified because it was so Spartan. One applicant, a professional houseboy, asked, “Where is your silver?” It was clearly beneath him to keep a house so poorly appointed. Finally, there came a Guatemalan who spoke no English. She was smiley and kind of cute, she wore white patent-leather go-go boots and a red miniskirt. Over the years, she learned to speak English and I finally moved her and her husband and their infant daughter into my house and for a few years, all was well. But she began to climb…

    °
    °
    °
    BTW, in case you (or your readers) haven’t found it yet, jonimitchell.com is, in my opinionated opinion (I stole that from La Mitch and use from time to time), one of if not the best fan-initiated websites devoted to a single artist. I know Joni is, in her opinionated opinion, adverse to computers and the ‘net, but should she ever decide to go on-line I think she’d have to agree that this website is a real labour of love. Kudos to those who created it (Wally Breese) and those who redesigned it for the new millennium and who maintain it.

    Here’s a link to the Geffen liner notes:

    http://jonimitchell.com/music/album.cfm?id=24

    I’ll let you go there yourself to read about the inspiration behind another of my all-time faves, “Two Grey Rooms” (love the video, too):

    Thanks again for your very astute comments. I’m going to blog about your blog on my blog one of these days when life slows down.

    Best,

    Michael

    • Michael,
      I really appreciate all the time you’ve taken to share this information with me & my readers. I will definitely be visiting the Joni website you mentioned anytime I revisit her music. I also mentioned that website in my final Joni post, so if anyone wants to delve further into these albums and songs, they’ll know where to go first.

      I’m really glad you included the video for “Two Grey Rooms” in your comment. Not only is it a beautiful video, but knowing the story behind the song makes me appreciate it more. I almost bought that Geffen box set when it came out, but I already owned two of the Geffen CDs and it was more cost-effective to just buy the other two individual CDs. Seeing how much additional information was provided, I wish I had gotten the box set instead. Of course, thanks to the internet (and your guidance), I now have all that info at my fingertips. I don’t always need to know the story behind every song I hear, but sometimes when a lyric is so abstract & the song so captivating, it’s helpful to get some background information. Since many of Joni’s songs are confessional, her more abstract tunes seem even harder to crack because I always assume they’re about her.

      I’m amazed at how many of her songs, especially from her last 5 or 6 albums, have continued playing in my mental jukebox. This even applies to songs that didn’t make a strong impression at first, since they tend to have some kind of melodic hook that works its way into my brain.

      Once again, thanks for all of your input, and for your kind words about my blog. It means a lot to me.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

  5. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2011 | KamerTunesBlog

  6. Pingback: Joni Mitchell Slams the Music Business | What Happened to the Music Biz?

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