Carole King and Joni Mitchell - probably the two most popular 1972 female recording artists - having things in common professionally and more than a few that set them apart.
They are both highly talented and prolific songwriters who play and sing in similar straightforward and somewhat understated fashion. But beneath these surface similarities there are distinct style differences which are apparent on their latest well-crafted albums: Joni's "For the Roses" (Asylum SD 5057) and Carole's "Rhymes and Reasons" (Ode SP 77016).
To oversimplify a bit, Joni's lyrics are more eloquent, more intellectual, more provocative, more word-wise and world-weary.
She can be playful as with "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" but there seems to be a threat of melancholy woven into her song. She excels as a social critic and has an amazing ability to see through pretension at all levels and expose it with acerbic lyrics.
The first three songs on her new album deal with malignancies of society. "Banquet" comments on inequality this way: "Some get the gravy and some get the gristle. Some get the marrow bone and some get nothing, though there's plenty to spare."
"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" is a potent metaphorical description of a junkie's deadly, deadening affair with heroin - "bashing in veins for peace." With harsh poetic imagery, Joni tells how "Cod Blue Steel" rips off an apartment and frantically seeks his "Sweet Fire Shadow of Lady Release": "A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer. Edgy - black cracks of sky. Pincushion prick, mix this poor bad dreamer"! 'Money' cold shadows reply. Pawnshops criss-crossed and padlocked. Corridors spit on prayers and pleas. Sparks fly up from Sweet Fire, Black soot of Lady Release. "Come with me, I know the way", she says. "It's down, down, down the dark ladder..."
This heavy message is conveyed strikingly over acoustic guitar in Joni's high, pure voice with Tommy Scott playing what sounds like a soprano saxophone for a haunting effect.
"Barangrill" is also well arranged but the lyrics are even more encoded: "Well some say it's in service. They say "Humble Make Pure." You're hoping it's near Folly, "Cause you're headed that way for sure."
Seven of the other songs are personal memories and love notes - at times so personal that it's like overhearing an argument between lovers. In the depth and detail of feeling these songs are like those written by Dory Previn who poured out her fears and anger in song as therapy for a broken marriage and nervous breakdown.
Jon's well-publicized romance with James Taylor (who just married Carly Simon) seems to have prompted some of thee numbers.
Consider these lines from "For the Roses": "Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love and pour your simple sorrow to the sound hole and your knee. And now you're seen on giant screens and at parties for the press and for people who have slices of you. Fro the company they toss around your latest golden egg..."
And these lines from "See You Sometime": "I'm not ready to change my name again. But you know I'm not after a piece of your fortune and your fame 'cause I tasted mine. I'd just like to see you sometime." Joni's lyrics all stand on their intrinsic merits, though.
"Blonde in the Bleachers" acknowledges the sweet life attractions of being a "Rock 'n' Roll man."
"Woman of Heart and Mind" is a critical assessment of an immature lover - "I'm looking for affection and respect, a little passion. And you want stimulation - nothing more. That's what I think."
"Lesson in Survival," dealing with the depression of a love without a future leads into "Let the Wind Carry Me," a memory piece about conflict with parents.
"Electricity" almost stretches that metaphor to the breaking point. The final cut, "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune) is directed to the deaf Beethoven and expresses great empathy for his frustration. "...Condemned to wires and hammers, strike every chord that you feel, that broken trees and elephant ivories conceal."
Presumably Joni is the nude standing on the ocean rocks in the album centerfold.
It doesn't take as much space to tell about Carole King's album but that is no reflection on its quality.
The 12 songs on "Rhymes & Reasons" are difficult to discuss separately. The songs flow into each other so fluidly that they are more like movements in a symphony than unrelated cuts.
The lyrics are much more general and commercial - or cliché - than anything by Joni Mitchell but they have their own validity. There is also a refreshing innocence about Carole's songs, even while they deal with heartbreak and disappointment.
A couple of standout movements in Carole's symphony are the jazzy "Bitter with Sweet" and "Goodbye Don't Mean I'm Gone" with Red Rhodes on country steel guitar. "Been to Canaan" is also nice and can be heard on the radio.
Carole plays a variety of keyboard instruments, Joni plays piano and nice acoustic guitar and both are backed on their albums by a variety of musicians paying subdued accompaniments.
Both good albums but for different moods.
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Added to Library on March 18, 2009. (10379)
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