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Any album which followed Joni Mitchell’s groundbreaking 1971 album ‘Blue’, still considered to be her best by many, would have difficulty in competing with such brilliant, heartfelt songs and musicianship.
Predictably, Mitchell’s 1972 release of ‘For The Roses’ (Asylum), did indeed seem to underwhelm by comparison. Even the title of the album does not exactly inspire one as much as the emphatic ‘Blue’, unless you happened to be a gardener or a seeker of some bucolic escape. Nevertheless, I have to say I find this album something of a sleeper.
I, like many, first became aware of Joni Mitchell with songs like ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, songs which made you stop, listen and take notice. Then along came ‘Blue’ and the plaudits, rightly, went bananas. Then, at least to me at the time, a youngster barely in his teens, there seemed to be a bit of a lull. Suddenly it was 1974 and the wondrous ‘Court and Spark’ was released, another groundbreaking collections of songs. Somewhere in the middle of all that came ‘For The Roses’. It has only been over the last fifteen years or so that I have come to appreciate how good this album is.
And it turns out the album’s name and character did indeed indicate the singer songwriter’s partial retreat from the hurly burly of superstar life. So here are songs perhaps less intense than ‘Blue’, but reflective of a different inner life, the beginning of her more observational, anecdotal story telling songs which have become so much a trademark of her later career.
The opening track ‘Banquet’ sets the tone firmly, yet gently, indicating her retreat from all the pandemonium, stepping down towards the shoreline and taking a wider philosophical look at life and all its absurdities. Here too I can sense the true beginning of her more jazz-folk inspired trajectory, followed up in the next acoustic guitar driven track, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’.
If the first two tracks evoke a certain subjective melancholy, track three, the more upbeat ‘Barangril’, really brings out Mitchell’s great gift of taking an everyday snippet of daily life and turning it into a timeless masterpiece of modern Americana.
‘Lesson in Survival’ returns to the reflective melancholy, but beautifully so. Few songwriters, one would imagine, have ever been so well read. The wish for escape is overpowering. ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’ continues with the theme, but gives us more than a glimpse of parental influences, how they seem to us as we age when we realise Mum and Dad were not perfect either. I love the little jazzy flourishes with the voices and wind instruments in this song, something she would continue to perfect in later albums. In this song they evoke the whistles of steamers.
Wild Canadian Expanse
It has been said before (probably by me previously too) that Russian composers like Rachmaninov can’t help but sound like the vastness of the Russian Steppes. I think the same goes for more contemporary Canadian composers too, particularly Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. In ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’ I can hear the vast open plains of central Canada where she was brought up and also the equally wide Pacific Ocean off California.
‘For the Roses’, the title track, is an understated guitar song of exquisite guitar work and minimal arrangement, critiquing the lifestyle she has become accustomed to and which she is now eschewing. ‘See You Sometime’ is more straightforward, reflecting on former loves, their lifestyles, in a major key, leaving open the possibility of staying friends.
‘Electricity’ is a beautiful guitar track, spanning this transition period. ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’ might also have appeared on an earlier album, but served the purpose of being a catchy hit single from this album.
‘Blonde in the Bleachers’ definitely looks forward, another anecdotal snippet finding meaning: It transforms beautifully in the middle to a more soft rock number with sophistication. ‘Woman of Heart of Mind’ really does sound to me like it was composed a year or so prior to the album’s release – it is, nevertheless, beautiful and understated.
The final track, ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s tune)’, is probably the most sophisticated piano based track on the album, Joni leaving us typically with a philosophical view based on much reflection. The arrangement of wind and strings is also tasteful.
Overall, this is still one of my ‘go to’ albums. It helps me relax and reflect, probably the desire of the composer at this particular juncture in her life. It is generally understated and certainly not her best offering – yet it is still a great album in my view.
copyright Francis Barker 2020
Choosing a favourite Joni Mitchell album is a bit like choosing my favourite chocolate.
I suppose I could pin it down a few: ‘For The Roses’, ‘Court And Spark’, ‘Hejira’, ‘Turbulent Indigo’…
But I’m plumping for the 1975 release of ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (Asylum). I think it received somewhat mixed reviews on release and to me it marks her final ‘departure’ from the folk scene, which she had been threatening to leave on her previous two albums.
‘Hissing’ is more jazz oriented than before, softly sophisticated and it seems to be this which attracted some of the more less favourable reviews.
For a start it’s varied. The first track, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’, sounds as if it could have been included on ‘Court and Spark’, her 1974 album. It moves along nicely, catchy, with a great hook involving a bit of ‘rocking and rolling’. Larry Carlton’s lead guitar work is quite superb, as usual.
‘The Jungle Line’, ‘Edith and the Kingpin’, juxtapose quite alarmingly. The former was quite radical at the time for its instrumentation and composition, though it’s not often seen as a favourite.
‘Edith’, on the other hand, is one her best, a juxtaposition in itself, for me. Beautifully written, performed and produced, it’s soft jazz but with a story line that’s actually anything but soft.
At the end of the song, when she sings about the two protagonists who dare not look away, intrigue, crime and sleaze truly never sounded so beautiful. Carlton’s guitar work is wonderful, too, gentle and precise, just enough to accent the song.
Another favourite, ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’, contains some of her best story telling, character forming lyrics. I’m taken to heady, intellectual parties somewhere in mid 70s California, full of ‘holier than thou’ characters, tipsy on German wine and other stuff.
‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ strongly evokes, over another jazzy theme, a Southern Belle whose sensibilities have no place in a changing, fracturing world, where the glamour seems to melt away the more you grasp at it.
The title track itself is that rare item, a co-written song. Here too, we can feel the easy, yet slightly disturbing direction of life in California at the time, drowning in its materialism.
‘The Boho Dance’ is a reflective, piano dominated piece, with lovely a lovely horn section. It leads nicely into ‘Harry’s House-Centrepiece’, another shot at the materialistic world of big business and its victims, the men and women sated on consumption and luxury, whose lives are empty.
‘Sweet Bird’ seems to give a hint of what’s to come the following year, with ‘Hejira’. Joni’s very distinctive guitar playing is at its best here in an atmospheric and reflective number.
‘Shadows and Light’ is perfect to end the album, a gospel sounding, philosophical song. Mostly sung a capella, a synthesiser track backing it up, this is a beautiful song and quite set apart from the rest of the album.
To conclude, I feel this album marks Joni Mitchell’s full maturity as a performer and songwriter. It’s varied, more jazz influenced and if there’s a theme, I think it’s the general disillusionment with America life at the time, a theme which was being picked up by other other artists at this time – but they never sounded this beautiful.
copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019
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Few British bands changed so radically during the 1980s as Talk Talk.
Their early albums and singles were very much of their time, like their eponymously named single and ‘Today’, for instance. The early sound featured a strong, driving electronica dominated by synths and hooks.
However, even on those earlier pieces, there were hints of what was to come, that this was no ordinary, shallow 1980s band.
‘Life’s What You Make It’, their best remembered song, though still synth oriented, is beginning to veer away from ‘established’ sound and subject matter.
Yet, despite such progress and change, I don’t think anyone was ready for the 1988 release, ‘Spirit of Eden’ (EMI).
At the time it left many fans and critics dumbfounded with its often improvised, expansive, moody, melancholic, spiritual soundscapes. Then there was the use of a wide variety of session musicians, playing an array of instruments – brass, wind, harmonica. And there were only six tracks.
Then there is the Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, even an obscure electronic device called a Shozygs to add to the eclectic, unconventional nature of the album.
But if the initial reaction might in some circles have been termed ‘puzzled’, or ‘underwhelmed’, over the years this album has achieved true iconic status, a literal masterpiece of modern music with many fans, myself included.
In some ways it’s a hard album to describe, or to breakdown in to what it’s really about. Yes, there’s an unconventional spiritual element to it, as the name ‘Spirit of Eden’ suggests. You just have to listen to it. It’s perfect background music, good to concentrate on, good to talk about amongst friends.
What’s more, the lyrics, though relatively sparse, have enough ambiguity to allow you interpret things your own way, to lead you back in again and again.
Take Track 1, ‘The Rainbow’ which sets things off as they are to carry on. It’s sparse to begin, wonderfully atmospheric with great usage of piano and organ in solitaire mode. An electric guitar pitches in suddenly with a bluesy riff, over the top of a simple drum beat – the latter a feature throughout the album until the last track. And the harmonica is something else too.
And what can one say about the late Mark Hollis’ vocals? I would’ve gladly listened to them on their own, without lyrics; they sound just like an instrument which complements all the others. He is forceful, thoughtful, emotional, tender, a kaleidoscope of feeling in one voice: no better British singer in the past forty years, in my opinion.
Then there’s ‘Eden’, another soundscape beginning with brass and wind. There is a particular melancholy here, but a beautiful one, like some sublime torture as each chorus leads up to a desperate statement of faith, or maybe the lack of it. But there’s hope here too.
I particularly like the electric guitar cameo, almost ‘Beatles-esque’ in its playing, to take you off in some beautiful diversion. An extraordinary song which I still don’t fully understand, but I love it.
‘Inheritance’ carries on with the improvisational sense, evoking space, yet might seem a little more conventional sounding.
Track 5, ‘I Believe In You’ might seem even more conventional to start with, with a regular, gentle beat. And there’s a soulful, gospel edge to this one too.
This leads us on to the use of The Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral. It’s not overdone, it accents everything tastefully, merely to illustrate the song, finally taking you out into the ethereal at the end.
‘Wealth’ ends this collection of sounds, with another understated sense of melancholic peace, with a twist of gospel. We’re back to the gentle minimalism of the organ and piano, with no percussion at all. It evokes a rare sense of space, reflection, the general feel throughout the album.
After all these years, I still can’t truly say I understand what this album is about. But it doesn’t matter, it’s all the better for it and will remain one of my ‘go to’ albums.
copyright Leofwine Tanner 2019
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