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A case of Joni... Print-ready version

The singer-songwriter's brilliant career highlights

by Mat Snow
MOJO
February 2008

MASTERPIECES: 1970-75

Ladies Of The Canyon
**** Reprise, 1970
Though titled in tribute to LA's Laurel and Topanga Canyon bohemias, her great-leap-forward third album's best songs draw their inspiration elsewhere. Written in Hawaii, Big Yellow Taxi combines two strokes of genius: an eco-warning that bats its eyelids; and the lyrical jump-cut from the spoilation of our natural paradise to the unexplained midnight flit of a lover (in a big yellow taxi): "you don't know what you've got till it's gone." And then Woodstock, the festival she watched on TV in tears in absentia; her song, a hit for Matthews' Southern Comfort and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, poetically links the back-to-paradise countercultural revolution to our origins as "million-year-old carbon", the weight of that thought echoed in her sombre, stately Wurlitzer electric piano.

Blue
***** Reprise, 1971
Written in transit -- in flight, in Paris and Crete, in cafes, "on a lonely road...and traveling" -- Joni's fourth is her naked mid-twenties life audit. Romance had taken a battering but she still believes intensely in a significant other, with songs of passing trysts with Leonard Cohen (A Case Of You) and a chef called Carey (the album's hit single); she's homesick too for California and, in River, her native Canada. More coded, the blessing of Little Green to the daughter she'd given up for adoption in 1965 trawls an undertow of loss that colours often playful, always chimingly tuneful music, played on piano, guitar, and Appalachian dulcimer lightly accompanied by such fellow Canyonistas as James Taylor and Stephen Stills.

Court And Spark
***** Asylum, 1974
Joni's voice had taken on a darker register on 1972's For The Roses, whose songs also prefigured this album, her commercial peak where she perfected a sophisticatedly structured, arranged and personalized pop as revolutionary as had been The Beatles. Support personnel drawn vocally from folk-rock (Crosby & Nash) and instrumentally from jazz-pop (Tom Scott's LA Express) exquisitely frame Joni's harmonically zingy songs of anxious romantic rapture (Help Me, Car On A Hill, Just Like This Train) and social and artistic isolation (the title song and People's Parties). Joni did funny too: Free Man In Paris (a fantasy on the theme of Asylum Records boss David Geffen) and Raised On Robbery round out this self-portrait of the artist as a hyper-sensitized 30-year-old.

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns
***** Asylum, 1975
Midway through the Me Decade, 10 vignettes of Lotus-land where it isn't just the sprinklers hissing but the snake in the grass -- the seduction of a hip and easy lush life Joni is half in love with too in her sexy, sumptuous and serpentine meditation on the cocktail hour, Rhine wine, air conditioning, high fashion girls, fresh glistening lipstick, shining skin, the "taste of something smuggled in". On her second and most accomplished 'jazz' album, the sensual groove heightens a mood of almost spiritual incantation in songs like Shadows And Light and The Boho Dance, and every line is a jewel of erudite imagery -- lyric poetry at its most glitteringly luxurious. Socio-cultural critique has never been so insidiously, hauntingly beautiful.

THE WILDERNESS: 1985-98

Dog Eat Dog
*** Geffen, 1985
Joni mad one more undisputed masterpiece, 1976's Hejira, a spacious, fluid and intimate reverie duetting with Jaco Pastorius's sublime bass. This visionary mood came to overwhelm the songs, and her public switched off. Like many '60s giants, in the '80s Joni tried to upgrade her sound to recapture lost ears. Synth-pop pioneer Thomas Dolby might have seemed an unsympathetic choice of co-producer were not his work on Prefab Sprout's Steve McQUeen that year so respectful of songsmith Paddy McAloon's cryptic romantic vision. But here everyone succumbs to gated snare-drum headache, Fairlight fever and modish hyperactivity. A fortysomething anachronism both in the MTV pop bubble and Reagan's America, Joni is full of angry liberal fight: we've gone to the dogs, and only the most savage survive. Angry Joni emerges here.

Taming The Tiger
**** Reprise, 1998
In the '90s Joni got her groove back by digitally tweaking her classic sound, finding inspiration in her own comfort zone. Night Ride Home (1991) and the angrier, double Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo (1994) returned to her strengths, though her voice began to show its age. Best of the three, Taming The Tiger is suffused with love: for her newly reunited daughter, Kilauren, given up for adoption in 1965; for her new beau Donald Freed, celebrated in the song Face Lift (Joni's ex-husband, Larry Klein, was to remain in her life as bassist and sometimes co-producer); and for her cat Nietzsche, whose temporary disappearance was to inspire the lovelorn song Man From Mars, a lyrical and melodic masterpiece among Joni's very best.

THE REBIRTH: 2002-07

Travelogue
**** Nonesuch, 2002
Two years after Both Sides Now, her album of jazz standards plus two of her own chestnuts revisited, the same Vince Mendoza-arranged 70-piece orchestral treatment of 21 more Joni originals. Where the former album cast her as a battered saloon-bar dame backed by a school-of-Riddle sound no less lush, Travelogue is both a coded life-in-song (its selection by no means a greatest hits or canonical best-of) and an assertion of musical self-belief; these songs, such expansiveness declares, are worth it. And most are, especially the Hejira numbers, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (based on a Yeats poem) and For The Roses, mining harmonic territory closer to Ellington than Neil Young, Debussy than Dylan. It flopped; Joni announced her retirement.

Shine
**** Hear Music, 2007
Provoked out of retirement by the sideshow 'War against terror' while the world overboils, Joni bestows upon our suicidal folly the blessing of serenity. On the title song her trademark suspended chords of doubt and inquiry enrich the reverie of long, lyrical piano-lead melody lines and synth textures rooted in the Reagan as she itemises humanity's irretrievably overdrawn account with a grace that accepts it all without fear or rage. If I Had A Heart, Bad Dreams Are Good and Strong And Wrong allow some bitterness to peep through the hallowed mood despite her setting of Kipling's poem to stoicism, If. And she pointedly revisits her skittish eco-dystopia of 1970, Big Yellow Taxi; you can't say that she never warned us.

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