Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Joni Mitchell’s first three albums established her as a folk artist with a knack for catchy pop hooks. Her next three albums continued this trend while adding new musical elements, and she retained her position as one of the best early ‘70s “sensitive singer-songwriters.” It was her seventh studio album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, which pointed to the new directions her music would take. Not only was she beginning to incorporate jazz instrumentation, chord structures and vocal inflections, but her songs also became more elastic, eschewing traditional verse-chorus structure for something more free-form…yet rarely losing her melodic touch.
This “new Joni” first appeared on Hejira (1976). The opening track, “Coyote,” introduced a lot of listeners to the young bass-playing genius, Jaco Pastorius, whose contributions would be essential to the sound of the four albums I’m discussing here. His playing on this song is startling, complementing Joni’s guitar strumming (which sounds like a slightly faster version of the guitar part from the Rolling Stones song “Waiting On A Friend,” released 5 years later). There are no choruses here, only four verses, each ending with the line “You just picked up a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.” Since the album seems to be focused on traveling, this can be taken literally, or as a reference to cocaine (both meanings probably apply). The next song, another new favorite, is “Amelia,” about long-lost aviator Amelia Earhart…and also about Joni herself, who blames her failed romantic life on her head always being in the clouds. Larry Carlton adds some tasty lead guitar (sounds like a lap-steel).
Another winner is “Furry Sings The Blues,” apparently about her meeting with blues musician Furry Lewis (I’m unfamiliar with his work). The music is slow and dreamy with a mixture of jazz & blues, and Neil Young provides harmonica. The lyrics tell a sad story as she observes Memphis after that city has fallen on hard times. I love the way Joni’s guitar and Jaco’s bass complement each other on “Hejira,” as though the instruments are slow dancing, kissing and caressing each other. It’s hypnotic, with pretty much one guitar pattern throughout. “Black Crow” has a cool scratchy guitar with Jaco’s bass darting in and out of the rhythm. I love her vocal melody at “black crow flying.” Larry Carlton once again adds some great guitar atmospherics.
One of the most interesting songs here is “Song For Sharon.” It’s the longest tune, at 8-1/2 minutes, and includes 10 verses, all with the same melody. It’s Joni on guitar with subtle bass & drum accompaniment. Throughout the song I wondered who Sharon was, but it isn’t revealed until the last verse. She was a childhood friend, perhaps Joni’s one-time singing partner, who got everything they dreamed of as children (marriage, house, kids, etc) while Joni got fame and money but still feels unfulfilled. I love the occasional use of multiple Joni voices used in the wordless counter-melody. The remainder of the album is also excellent, and this is definitely among my favorites.
Jaco Pastorius only played bass on half of Hejira, yet he made his presence known, and he stepped it up a notch on the next album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977). In fact, musically speaking this is as much a Jaco album as it is Joni’s. The theme here seems to be decadence, with Joni exploring her wild side more than ever before. I should also point out that the “man” on the cover is actually Joni in disguise, apparently an alter ego named Art Nouveau. I never picked up on that until I started delving into her catalog and exploring the artwork along with the music. It was also Joni’s first double-LP, a trend that most popular artists explored in the 70s, and featured some of her most challenging material. Opener “Overture/Cotton Avenue” has some great chorused vocals reminiscent of David Crosby’s incredible If I Could Only Remember My Name album. The upbeat “Talk To Me” is musically close to some of her earlier folky work, but Jaco’s bass adds a spacey/jazzy element. “Jericho” is a slow-paced acoustic guitar-based song, where she wants her emotional walls to come down (a similar theme to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which was still two years away).
The most divisive song among her fans must be the 16+ minute “Paprika Plains,” by far the longest song she had recorded. It’s mostly Joni on piano with an orchestra, until bass, drums & sax join in for a few minutes at the end. It also includes an extended instrumental section coinciding with a large portion of unsung lyrics, which are printed on the gatefold LP (I still only have this one on vinyl). I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t sing these lyrics, so I’m hoping one of my readers can enlighten me. My favorite section of the album begins with “The Tenth World,” a percussive instrumental with some wordless vocals at the beginning, which segues into the equally percussive “Dreamland,” an awesome song with a great hook in the “dreamland, dreamland” refrain, and featuring Chaka Khan on backing vocals.
“Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” continues the percussion-driven theme of its two predecessors, adding some acoustic guitar and a deep bass note repeated on the fours throughout. “Offnight Backstreet” has a cool steady groove with some smooth harmony vocals from J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey. All in all, this is another fantastic album, but it takes time to uncover all of its charms. At some point I’ll have to play this back to back with one of her first few albums to see just how drastically Joni had changed as an artist in less than a decade. Revisiting her albums in order these past couple of weeks, that change seems much more organic, but the difference might otherwise be jarring.
In the mid-70s, Joni befriended jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (one of my favorite jazz artists) after he gave her some of his music to write lyrics to. The result of that pairing was Mingus (1979), sadly released shortly after his death. It’s a relatively brief album, with only six real songs in just over 35 minutes, as well as five very brief “raps” (actually, recordings of Mingus speaking on different occasions). Mingus doesn’t actually perform on the album, as he was very ill by this time, but the lineup of musicians is stellar: Jaco (again) on bass, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock (of Miles Davis’ classic Quintet) on sax and electric piano, respectively, Peter Erskine on drums, and Don Alias & Emil Richards on percussion.
The album begins with “God Must Be A Boogie Man,” a song written solely by Joni based on the first four pages of Mingus’ autobiography. As he was a very imposing figure, both musically & physically, the “God” in this title refers to him and the different sides of his personality. Jaco, as usual, shines here, and the chorus (which to me sounds like a schoolyard taunt) will stick in your head for days. The arrangement of “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” really caught my attention, especially those rattling guitar strings and howling in the background. The music could be the soundtrack to a creepy movie, taking place in a desolate desert town. It’s a mysterious-sounding tune, and her vocals have a Frank Zappa quality (without the sarcastic tone).
There are great performances all around on “Sweet Sucker Dance,” with Joni proud to be a sucker for love. But that just sets the stage for the final two songs, which are among her finest recordings. “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” is the peppiest song here, including a great horn arrangement by Jaco, and some funny lyrics about gambling with the title character. The tune itself is quirky and fun, and it’s got a killer bass line. This is followed by album closer “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the only previously existing Mingus song here. This is one of his classics, a tribute to his hero Lester Young, originally from the Mingus Ah Um album (if you’re a jazz fan and you haven’t heard this, I would highly recommend it…as well as Blues And Roots). After I got to know Joni’s vocal version, I played it back to back with the original, and her version more than holds its own. In a tip of the cap to Mingus’ original tribute, the lyrics are Joni’s tribute to him. My only complaint with this album is that it’s too brief. I wish there was more to the Joni-Mingus collaboration, but that doesn’t take away from the impact of this album, a true classic.
[Joni Mitchell – “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”]
Later that year, Joni toured with a stellar band of jazz luminaries, including Jaco (his last appearance on a Joni album), Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on keyboards and the brilliant Michael Brecker on sax. This lineup was featured on the 2-record live album, Shadows And Light (1980). More than half of the songs are from the previous three albums, and most of the others showcase her jazzier side, so this would not be recommended for fans of her earlier work (and is worlds away from her previous live album). The one exception is her version of the Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers classic early rock ‘n’ roll song, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” featuring The Persuasions on backing vocals. They also add a gospel flair to “Shadows And Light” that was missing from the studio version. I’m not a huge fan of Metheny’s guitar tone throughout (it’s a little airy and thin-sounding), but I still really enjoyed this album. I don’t usually listen to live albums multiple times, but in this case I did, and I’ll come back to it again.
It’s probably obvious at this point that I really love this portion of Joni’s catalog. Sure, the catchy choruses & pop hooks of her best earlier work are largely absent on these recordings, but there’s so much depth to her writing here and the musical performances reveal something new each time I listen. I imagine I’ll still be discovering nuances in this music for years to come. Now it’s time to move on to her 1980’s Geffen recordings, which I don’t believe are highly rated among fans & critics, especially as she embraced the glossy production sounds of the new decade. I seem to remember enjoying a lot of that music in spite of this, but I haven’t heard most of them in years and I look forward to this reappraisal.