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Hissing LP IS Relief for Mitchell Fans Print-ready version

by Tom Waseleski
The Pitt News
December 8, 1975
Original article: PDF

"You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song"

Joni Mitchell seemed to be making a confession in her last album that she finally was set to jump to commercial rock from her more aesthetic genre.

Highly praised by fans and nonfans alike, Court and Spark sold in markets that had had no use for Mitchell's music. The reason—a definite change in style.

Court and Spark was a sleek, slick album. You could whistle the songs; you could even sing them. Some, like "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris," were suitable for recording by Ray Coniff, Johnny Mann and the like.

What was going on here? This wasn't Joni Mitchell.

Deep down, her fans feared the more traditionally structured melodies and their consequent success would point Mitchell in a more pop direction.

It's understandable why this album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was so anxiously awaited.

And the verdict as seen by this juror is that Mitchell is not out to compete with Olivia Newton-John.

Despite the initial comfort this brings, there is still much in the album that is disturbing—in a nice sort of way.

This may be a concept album— not that a concept album is something to be uneasy about, but the fact that it may and yet may not be one is what is so distressing.

The 1O songs are held together by a fine, yet ever-present, thread of references to things African.

"Rousseau walks on trumpet paths, safaris to the heart of all that jazz" ...And he chains me with that serpent to that Ethiopian wall" ..."There's a black fly buzzing. There's a heat wave burning in her master's voice, And the hissing of summer lawns." And there are songs entitled "The Jungle Line" and "The Boho Dance."

Yet with all this tribal, tropical footnoting, the great body of the songs are stinging commentaries on suburban American life.

"In France They Kiss on Main Street" plays with the dichotomy of parent-child generations, at least as seen from the standpoint of kissing in public: "Amour, mama, not cheap display."

"Edith and the Kingpin" documents a small-town gangster's nightclub ploy to pick any woman he wants.

A poignant depiction of love succumbing to the doldrums of middle age is found in "Harry's House":

"He's caught up in Chief of Staff
He drifts off into memory
Of the way she looked in school
With her body oiled and shining
At the public swimming pool..."

The lyrics overall are crisp. The music, however, is somewhat lackluster. As usual, the melodies are subtle, but perhaps a little too bereft of color, despite the multitude of tones in Mitchell's inflective voice.

Probably the strongest song on the record is "Shades of Scarlet Conquering." Much of it resembles "Down to You" from Court and Spark in its quiet force, even without Mitchell's expressive vocals, this piece can stand alone on the sheer tightness of its melody.

A strange closing tune, "Shadows and Light," is sung practically a cappella; the only accompaniment is the intermittent buzz of a synthesizer. As if it were a Gregorian chant. Mitchell cantillates several lines, then responds with multiple voice trackings in unison.

Here she once more returns to primitive references: "Man of cruelty—mark of Cain. Drawn to all things. Man of delight—born again, born again. Man of the laws, the ever-broken laws, governing wrong. wrong and right."

Even the cover lends itself to a theme, contrasting the tribal existence with that of modern suburbia. The top half shows several suburban dwellings on the periphery of a city; in the foreground is a band of natives carrying a huge snake.

Mitchell says on the inner sleeve that the album as a whole "unfolded like a mystery," and "it is not my intention to unravel that mystery for anyone." Whether she herself knows the intricacies behind the mystery is hard to tell. But the Hissing Of Summer Lawns, perplexing though it may be, leaves Mitchell's fans with welcome relief, for this is obviously not the one-dimensional stuff of which Top-40 is made.

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Added to Library on January 14, 2024. (1576)

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