Joni Mitchell has been liberated from the confines of being solely a folksinger with a great voice and a talent for writing tremendous lyrics. She has developed into something more in the last two years.
Not that she wasn't a powerful performer before. Ladles of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses; all were dependent upon her ability and little of others: But since she met up with the L. A. Express and her honey John Guerin, Joni's found the best of several worlds. For Guerin and saxophonist Tom Scott have taught Joni how to swing. They have shown her how rhythm can be manipulated, and how a band reinforces it. They demonstrated the differences between folk, rock and jazz.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns, her latest album, has shown that she's gained confidence in her new-found genres since Court and Spark. "This record is a total work," she explains on the liner notes, "conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally - as a whole." As she goes on to pay tributes to the performers and composers who contributed to the album (L. A. Expressers Max Bennett, Bud Shank, Robben Ford, and Guerin, trumpeter Chuck Findlay, and composers Johnny Mandel and Jon Hendricks), one can fell that she has come out of her shell, and is accepting and seeking advice from other talented musicians.
The best example of her now established jazz influences in The Jungle Line, which is accompanied by "Warrior drums" throughout. The rhythm of these drums, in fact, is the song, which tells the story of jazz swing and rhythm. "The jungle line burning in a ritual of sound and time... Pretty woman tunnelled through values and smoke/Coy and bitchy wild and fine."
This leads into Edith and the Kingpin, a beautiful ballad of a local pimp and a local woman, and their glaring respect (or deference) as they meet and make love to one another. These and the rest of the lyrics still deal with the typical Joni Mitchell love themes, but now they are more Street-wise (yes, like Bruce Springsteen), more realistic than before. Never before would she have written, as she does in Don't Interrupt the Sorrow. "Clandestine/He don't let up the sorrow/He lies and he cheats/ It takes a heart like Mary's these days/When your man gets weak."
Some of the songs, especially the opening on In France They Kiss On Main Street, are reminiscent of Court and Spark's Help Me and Free Man in Paris. Others are more haunting and mysterious, like the title cut and the finale, Shadow and Light.
And of course, Guerin plays a prominent role in the album, but his inspiration is far more important than his drumming. He's certainly a steady drummer, but not the most imaginative. However, Findlay is one of the more Proficient sideman around, and his flugelhorn and trumpet playing are a pleasure to hear. And the other L.A. Express members are, as usual excellent. But their most important contribution is bringing Joni into a fresh world.
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