Sunday, February 01, 2015
THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS
Joni Mitchell made bold strides away from her singer-songwriter-folkie persona in the mid seventies, taking a decision to explore the outer limits of her creativity which would ultimately exceed the expectations of even her most besotted worshippers.
Down the line, this transformation would also pose problems for short-sighted marketing drones trying to shovel out the usual shit-disguised-as-ice cream to the masses. Those who were prepared to classify or label this one were perplexed. Great painters utilize as many colors as their pallet can handle. Understanding this well, Mitchell made a detour into jazzier stylings, augmenting her songs by calling in some of the hottest session players in the business. Intent on avoiding a misstep into bland, cocktail lounge territory, her inspired leap would not sacrifice the edge that she had sharpened to a fine point as a wordsmith. Combining poetic sensibility with newfound instrumental textures gave her a much larger canvas to work with.
Artistic maturation also brought about a rethink in Joni's approach to singing. In short, her delivery was altered to suit the idiom of cool jazz that now colored the tracks. Note that the gentleman making love to the upright in the following clip is legendary bassist Max Bennett, who would figure prominently in her recording/touring cycle in this period.
Always inventive with modal tunings, her original sense of melodic design has often fooled listeners (and fellow musicians) who have sought out the root notes, finding them replaced by an ever shifting musical bedrock. This is just one of the attributes that has kept people crawling back, repeatedly, to immerse themselves in her genius. Each trip through her carefully constructed records leaves no choice but to return again, in the eternal hope of discovering how this canny magician manages to successfully suspend disbelief.
What she has to offer is something far more subtle than the typical street corner hustler's brand of three card monte.
Gently pushing forward, the transition point started with For the Roses. Brilliantly understated, it paved the way for the more grandiose makeover that produced the commercial smash of Court and Spark. The ensuing tour matched her with Tom Scott and the LA Express, bringing all of the pieces into place on stage. Miles of Aisles gave listeners a recorded souvenir of these shows.
Most artists close the loop on a particular period of activity with a live album, which can function as both a summation of what has come before and as a means of satiating their fan base while they re-evaluate their approach to their craft.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns would be a masterstroke.
Employing, for the most part, the same cast of phenomenal musicians who had supported her on the aforementioned Court and Spark, Mitchell's vision for the new material was decidedly much more "free form" in terms of what she had to say. Sheer inscrutability is the one constant of the lyrical subject matter.
Not for the last time, she would be moving much faster than her contemporaries.
This has often been called a "difficult record", though if it is, I don't hear it. Reading certain reviews would almost lead you to believe that this was her version of Metal Machine Music. Don't buy into that.
Sonically, there are instances where she veers away from conventional pop structures ("The Jungle Line" "Shadows and Light") though the surprises primarily turn up in the unfathomable verses. Things start out in relatively familiar territory, with the smooth strains of "In France They Kiss on main Street". In fact, it's pretty much like Old Home Week with pals David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor lending strong harmonies to a track that would have fit in perfectly on Court and Spark.
We'd all go lookin' for a party, lookin' to raise Jesus up from the dead
Listeners expecting another soft landing pad get a jarring wake up with the insistent, pounding rhythms of the Royal Drummers of Burundi. Acoustic guitar, austere Moog synth interjections and a detached vocal float over the mass of percussionists.
Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I bars and girders-through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts, through Harlem, through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line
Light years away from anything she had committed to tape thus far, you can imagine the subversive pleasure that she must have derived in throwing this musical change-up so quickly into the set. Work of this calibre is a shining example of why so many writers are driving comfortably down roads that she has broken her back to pave.
Perfectly balanced, each of the five songs on this immaculate "Side One" will drag you back for repeated listens. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" offers up a patented CGDGBD tuning, searing verses and subtle backing from the players who cradle the tune as if they are at risk of losing it. Definite highlight.
Wrapped in the sweet groove of the LA Express rhythm section for much of this disc, Joni is free to do many aerial somersaults, safe in the knowledge that Max Bennett and John Guerin are there to catch her. Guerin even scores a co-writing credit on the title cut, which involves a sketch of a man who scores a trophy wife and then proceeds to treat her as if she was one of his many acquisitions.
He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
Treated like a domestic pet, running along the perimeter of a fence with "a diamond for her throat", her incarceration is painted as being one that she has chosen. Mitchell looks, with some distaste, upon the affluent, cookie-cutter style neighborhoods, with the manicured lawn of each home featuring the suburban system of irrigation. The bitter medicine of this subtle commentary on patriarchal materialism is sweetened by laid back electric piano.
Every note of this record hits the mark, with the second side filled with as many engaging melodies, though much more low key. "Sweet Bird" is reminiscent of "Other People's Parties" musically, though the words remain purposely vague. It is very easy to put this album on and just let it play through.
Her happiest musical moment?
"When I wrote 'Shadows and Light', which came out intact, verse by verse by verse with no rewrites; that was a thrill."
Much like the startling innovation of Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" from Revolver nearly a decade before, this stunning track was a departure in form, even when measured against the adventurous compositions that preceded it. It could only be placed at the end of the album, as it would have made anything that came after seem anti-climactic. Mitchell creates her own vocal chorale, using the ARP as her only support.
I leave the interpretation to you.
Fine as it is, "Hissing" occupies a spot in the back gallery of forgotten music.
Having spent a lot of quality listening time with tis disc, I rank it higher than both Blue and Court and Spark (which were both worthy efforts). All of Joni Mitchell's ambitions coalesce as she closes the door on semi-confessional song writing and begins to explore a different type of expression. The joy here is in the veiled word play and her clever way of leaving things unresolved. Some do not appreciate it, though the best art is that which makes your brain work, compelling you to revisit its complexities. Where would we be if everything was completely laid out on flash cards and wrapped up neatly with nary a loose end to be found?
Bored to death.