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Joni ‘jazzes’ folk style in recent album Print-ready version

by Bruce Connors
The Bona Venture
January 30, 1976
Original article: PDF

Joni Mitchell's latest release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, represents the new direction her music has taken. On this recent album she replaces her previous folk guitar accompaniment with a full ensemble. Her style has developed into a sort of folk/jazz fusion with emphasis on the "folk."

On The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the backing ensemble is comprised of combinations of seven jazz musicians. Max Bennett, bass, Robben Ford, guitar, Victor Feldman, keyboards and vibes, and John Guerin, drums, are also members of Tom Scott's L.A. Express. Larry Carlton, guitar, Wilton Felder, bass; and Joe Sample, keyboards, are courtesy of the Jazz Crusaders.

The album opens with a light-hearted tune entitled "In France They Kiss on Main Street," the album's required "top 40" cut destined for abundant A. M. air play. Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor are heard of singing backup on this.

At the end of band one, hurry to your turntable and quickly advance the needle to band three. Lifting the tone arm is optional in this case - the second composition can best be described as four minutes of musical banality. This selection features the war drums of Burundi and is appropriately titled "Jungle Line."

"Edith and The Kingpin," the third track, is a different story altogether. Mitchell seems to be thumbing her nose at many aspects of superstardom and the media's role in elevating entertainers with a minimum amount of talent to the levels of immortal musical giants. The song begins:

The big man arrives
Disco dancers greet him
Plainclothes cops greet him
Big man, small town, fresh lipstick glistening
Sophomore jive
From the victims of typewriters
The band sounds like typewriters

The message is one of complaint regarding the existence of ultra-commercialism spreading through the music field like a highly communicable virus. Many talented musicians have sacrificed artistic values for purposes of attaining fame and riches.

"Don't Interupt [sic] the Sorrow," the fourth band, features some of Carlton's tasteful guitar work which compliments Mitchell's well-written lyrics. This cut comments on Christianity. Similar ideas subtly work their way into many of the other compositions on the album.

Side one concludes with "Shades of Scarlet Conquering." The songstress/poet embraced by a string section as she tells of a young lady, by the name of Scarlet, who is quite arrogant in her ways. Scarlet's life is primarily influenced by the escapist world of the cinema. We are introduced to her.

Out of the flames like Catholic saints
Comes Scarlet and her deep complaint
Mimicking tenderness she sees
In sentimental movies.
A celluloid rider comes to town
Cinematic lovers sway
Plantations and sweeping ballroom gowns
Take her breath away.

Side two begins with the title cut of the album. Suburban, upper middle class living is the target of the lyrics that slyly sneer at "valley bar-b-cues" and "blue pools in the squinting sun." The theme is much like that of novelist Joseph Heller's "Something Happened."

Despite the innumerable sour aspects and frequent psychological trauma of "the good life," the persons involved seem to be permanently bound to their life style whether they like it or not.

"The Boho Dance," which adopted its name from Tom Wolfe's book "The Painted Word," is next. The song comments on those musicians who refuse to compromise even the slightest bit in order to gain a wider audience. These musicians hold artistic values as supreme. The Boho zone is

where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to their grave

The point is that an artist can become obsessed with artistic values and abandon the audience. This is the opposite extreme of the attitude expressed in "Edith and the Kingpin" on side one. By considering the two views, we are faced with the age old problem of commercialism vs. artistic quality. The music "industry" vs. the "art" of music. The extremes are artistic prostitution vs. artistic masturbation. The median that Joni Mitchell seeks lies somewhere in between.

"Harry's House - Centerpiece" is the standout cut on the album. It's a combination of Mitchell's "Harry House" and "Centerpiece," which was co-penned by famous jazzmen Jon Hendricks and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Mitchell again aims her guns at the upperclass executive lifestyle. The great American dream of cocktail parties and cosmopolitan living ends up as the corporate ratlands. In the third verse she sings

Yellow checkers for the kitchen
Climbing ivy for the bath
She's lost in House and Garden
He's caught up in Chiefs of Staff
He drifts off into the memory
Of the way she looked in school
With her body oiled and shining
At the public swimming pool

The sensuous sound of the blues accompanies us as we drift back in time. With Sample doing some fine comping on acoustic piano, Mitchell sings

The more I'm with you baby
The more I feel my love increase
I'm building all my dreams around you
Our happiness will never cease
'Cause nothing's any good without you
Baby you're my centerpiece

Add twelve bars of a piano solo by Sample and another verse of "Centerpiece." We are then thrust back into the harshness of the present.

Shining hair and shining skin
Shining as she reeled him in
To tell him like she did today
Just what he could do with Harry's house
And Harry's take home pay

Getting away from the executive class, we are then given "Sweet Bird," which is a reflection on time and perpetual change. The tragic conflict between the never-ending phenomenon of time and the limited lifespan of a person. Time - the frequent destroyer of dreams.

The album is brought to a close by "Shadows and Light" which, unfortunately, does not measure up to the rest of the album (with the exception of "Jungle Line"). "Shadows and Light" is like a Gregorian chant and features Miss Mitchell accompanying her singing on synthesizer and organ. She attempts to be much too profound and comes off a bit pretentious.

All things considered, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a very good album. Joni Mitchell maintains an effective balance between artistic creativity and audience appeal. This album merits many serious listenings.

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