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The Divine Ms. M’s Print-ready version

Two legends returned in ‘98

by Gregg Shapiro
Bay Area Reporter
December 31, 1998
Original article: PDF

Two of the most eagerly anticipated discs of the year came from two true legends of popular music. Joni Mitchell's and Bette Midler's fans have pretty much known what to expect on each of these diving divas' albums over the course of their lengthy (30 years and 26 years respectively) and illustrious recording careers. There have been the occasional forays into the forgettable (Mitchell's Mingus, Midler's For The Boys soundtrack) forgivable because we know that an artist has to experiment in order for her to grow and become that much more perfect.

Taming the Tiger (Reprise) by Joni Mitchell and Bathhouse Betty (Warner Brothers) by Bette Midler are no exceptions to these rules. Both albums fine both women returning to familiar ground, while continuing to broaden their respective grasps. For example, for twenty-five years, Joni Mitchell's albums have had certain constants (personal and political songwriting, a subtle jazz influence, a rock influence a la "Raised On Robbery," and the occasional cover tune, to name a few) that can all be found on Taming The Tiger.

The same holds true for Midler. You know that you can count on a retro number or two, comic relief, and inspired covers of songs by both well-respected and up-and-coming songwriters, and you can find all of those things on Bathhouse Betty with a stunning cover of Leonard Cohen's "Song of Bernadette" (which Cohen co-wrote with Jennifer Warnes and Bill Elliot). Midler nails it in her special way, which is why the song that follows, "I'm Beautiful," is such a disappointment. A comedic dance number that was probably perfert for her live performances simply loses something on disc. Redemption comes in the form of "Lullaby In Blue," about a woman who gave up a child for adoption when she was younger, which, ironically enough, was co-written by Cohen's son Adam.

Midler goes Polynesian (she is, after all, a native) on the sweet "Ukulele Lady," but loses her footing on "I'm Hip." She doesn't regain it until her inspired cover of Ben Folds's "Boxing." I advise you to skip "Big Socks," which makes her claim on the son "I'm Hip" a bald-faced lie. All is not lost, especially on the trilogy of songs that close the disc, "That's How Love Moves" (co-written by Jennifer Kimball), the appropriately schmaltzy One True Thing movie theme song "My One True Friend" (co-written by Carole King, Carole Bayer Sager and schmaltz-meister David Foster), and the smart "Laughing Matters."

Overdue honors

Coming four years after her last studio disc (Turbulent Indigo) and following her long overdue honors at the Grammy Awards and from Billboard Magazine (among others) and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Taming The Tiger finds Mitchell at her most unaffected. In fact, her phenomenal songwriting and guitar-playing (her guitar sounds like a harm throughout most of this album), combined with her distinctive and evocative vocals, are nothing short of the most logical progression occurring over the course of her more than 15 studio albums.

Wayne Shorter's soprano sax, which has been a presence on Mitchell's albums for more than twenty years, is back on Taming The Tiger. The way it works in tandem with Mitchell's voice and fret-work gives new meaning to music having charms to sooth the savage beast.

Where to begin? "Man From Mars," from the movie Grace of My Heart, has been re-recorded (another version exists on the promo-only cassette of the soundtrack) and, along with "Love Puts On A New Face," "Crazy Cries of Love," and "Stay In Touch," ranks with the best songs Mitchell has written on the subject of love. "Harlem in Havana" elevates Mitchell's tradition of writing story songs from a youthful perspective to a new height, while "Facelift" finds her confronting middle-age with the same style and grace. Politics, both local and international, are given her expert treatment in back to back "Lead Balloon" and "No Apologies," and she is as persuasive as ever.

Since Court and Spark, France has also been a recurring theme in Mitchell's songwriting (think of the songs "Free Man In Paris," "In France They Kiss On Main Street," and "Yvette In English"), and Taming the Tiger is no exception, as you can hear in the song "Love Puts On A New Face," in which she sings the chorus, "In France they say/Everyday love puts on a new face." The hidden track "Tiger Bones" fleshes out the Blake-reference-laden "Taming The Tiger," and her cover of "Here's to You" should be her theme song. Here's to you, Joni, for taming the tiger and staying fierce.

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