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Joni’s newest shows changes in her life and style Print-ready version

by WS Nichols
The Observer (Notre Dame)
February 10, 1976

Someday, in the unfathomable future, when Rock Music has run its full gamut and has died a natural death, the historians will praise the name of Joni Mitchell. They will point to her lyrics and ponder their meanings. They will study her distinctive music style and marvel. They will study endlessly, videotapes of her concerts and will be amazed by her ability to steal s thousand hearts at each concert. They will send their students to listen to selected recordings of her material and tests will be taken to see if the students of tomorrow can relate to the music of the past. And, one of the albums which the student of tomorrow will sweat over and desperately try to memorize will be "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" which was released way back in 1976.

Why will Joni Mitchell become a great artist of our time? One reason is that Joni Mitchell is both a musician and a poetess. Her lyrics are strong and descriptive, filled with images of modern-day life and love. Her music is complex and enticing, played in a seldom-used key with a style that is both flowing yet folksy. Her performances are a study in charisma and sensualness. And her finest quality is that her music actually lives and changes with the changes in her life, and in the world. Even though her music is constantly changing, her style doesn't, and that is what makes her a truly great artist.

Joni's newest album, "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" is a hint of another change in Ms. Mitchell's life. Her message this time is not one of personal heartbreak and loneliness but rather, one of social commentary and true love. Her music has changed some too, with the emphasis on a driving, jazz-like rhythm section and less on her own high harmonies. It would seem safe to credit these changes to some events in her own personal life, namely her long-standing relationship with LA Express drummer John Guerin who has affected both her music and her life.

The changes that has marked her material since her collaboration with Tom Scott's LA Express develops fully in this album and begins to wander off into other realms. Her lyrics now reflect an older and wiser woman, one that has transcended most of the personal, and has gone to try to verbalize some of the greatest thrills and frustrations of modern American life. In the dropping of some of her self-pity-evaluations, she has also become a viable social critic. All this while retaining the beauty of being a hopeless romantic lost amid the flow of the barroom TV sets.

Side one opens with "In France They Kiss On Main Street", a rollicking, frivolous song that is already getting over-played on some FM statins. It sounds very music like her gold-winning single "Free Man in Paris" from her previous album. The background vocals are quite interesting and upon examination, one will find that she was ably assisted by Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor. The next song, "The Jungle Line" is the most haunting song of the whole album. The instrumentation in this song is a Moog Synthesiser and the warrior drums of the African Burundi tribe. That's all. Needless to say, the sound is quite different and not quite like anything else in popular or non-popular music. It is however, quite appropriate for the lyrics which are a condemnation of the New York City jungle, symbolized by the jungle line of the Brooklyn Bridge. Words cannot quite describe the feeling one gets from this song because it is, as Joni noted, a "Total work conceived graphically, musically, and lyrically and accidentally - as a whole." Commercially, the song is a bust, but art rarely is commercial, and the music moguls won't push anything that will not sell. One must at least try to listen to this cut though, and just for oneself. The next two songs are of the "Down in the Streets Joni" variety of the previous couple of years. If you liked some of her material from the COURT AND SPARK album, the "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" will send you off into a Saturday night haze. The fiery "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow", the flip side to "In France They Kiss On Main Street" is Joni at her pouty, sensual best. The brass backup (minus Tom Scott) is outrageous, and the bass is dominating, as it does throughout the album. Curiously, a very mellow and introspective song, "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" follows, displaying a vastly different side of Joni. This is material similar to her earliest albums in which she is the eternal flowerchild, the loving virgin.

Society usually locks up people that have as many sides as this woman but fortunately, they haven't figured out her songs yet. The song also displays some of the hidden musical talent of Ms. Mitchell in the form of some very nice but lonesome piano playing. At this mellow point in your listening experience, the side is over, and you must get up and desperately flip over the album.

The title song, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" opens up the second side. It is excellent in that respect because the tune is uptempo and jazzy but the emotion behind the song is mellow. It is, as one Grace Hall resident put it, "morning-after music''; exhilarating yet very warm and comfortable. Note too, her incredible control of her voice as a lead musical instrument, much like a guitar. The next song is almost a scrapbook of her various styles through out the years. "The Boho Dance" first starts in the early simple style of the "Folky Joni"but soon revs up to a jazzy big band style of the "Sexy Joni". The next song is actually two songs in one, with the Johnny Mandel song "Centerpiece" being sandwiched in the middle of the Mitchell-penned "Harry's House." Her tune is too much like "Court and Spark" for my tastes, but the inclusion of the bluesy "Centerpiece" makes the song a hit. The most amazing thing about "Centerpiece" is how much Joni Mitchell really does sound like Billie Holliday. I never made the connection before, but it is an interesting point for musiophiles to ponder. The next song only adds to the difficulty of trying to classify her music.

"Sweet Bird" is another throwback to the early simple style. The only instrumentation is a couple of guitars and her voice still has the clear, piercing style of old. The close of the album is probably the most confusing and emotion-evoking of any of her previous works. This is Joni at her most artistic and least commercial; creating music into tones, and tones into audio imagery. If this description is confusing, welcome to the club, because I am confused by this song. There is a point in music when the artist goes off into a tangent that few can follow. This does not mean that the material is bad, just difficult. This particular tangent of hers is one in which she combines her voice with a Sacred Heart-style organ, flowing freely between the two. It is not a comfortable song and few will appreciate it, but it is encouraging to see a top artist trying a radically different idea in music.

The other stars of the album are her bassist, Max Bennett and her drummer-boyfriend-guide, John Guerin. They are the backbone of the whole album and the main people behind - her newer style (along with Tom Scott). Vibraphonist (yes, they are coming back) Victor Feldman is good but is overpowered in the mixing while guitarists Robben Ford and Larry Carleton are dominating, but not overly impressive throughout. The inside of the album cover will go well beside your pin-up of Miss December and the outside is another one of Ms. Mitchell's little side projects. The recording quality is average Asylum Records quality, meaning that you should check out the record before you leave the store. If you own anything above a Western Auto cheapie stereo, you should make sure that the pressing is of listenable quality or you will miss a lot of the material.

This album will probably not sell as well as some of her other albums, and will probably not get as kind reviews as the last two did. But the album is representative of a change in a great artist's style and as such, a landmark, deserves the proper recognition. Musical giants come rarely and they should be appreciated when they are around. Hopefully, we will appreciate Joni Mitchell's genius as much as those kids will in the future.

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Added to Library on December 8, 2019. (3733)


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