Saturday, December 22, 2012

"For The Roses," by Joni Mitchell

Not that I needed any encouragement, but my 2012 summer jam, John Mayer’s Born and Raised, has plunged me even more deeply into an ongoing preoccupation with all things “early 1970’s rock-and-roll” and all things Laurel Canyon. And one can’t discuss the Laurel Canyon rock-and-roll period without significant homage to the “Queen of California,” herself, Joni Mitchell. In fact, Mitchell’s early legacy is synonymous with that legendary zip code. Joni Mitchell has evolved through myriad musical phases in her remarkable career, taking fans along for the staggering ride: starting with her hippie-chick, Joan Baez/Judy Collins-influenced singer-songwriter phase during the late 1960’s (singer-songwriter: a job that Mitchell, arguably, invented) into the early 1970’s pop-jazz chanteuse, into the later part of that decade’s jazz experimentalist, the 1980’s prog-pop innovator (the Thomas Dolby produced album, Dog Eat Dog was sorely under-heard and under-appreciated - oh, and the inventive video was produced by Jim Blashfield, who created Tears For Fears' "Sowing The Seeds Of Love" clip), and into the 1990’s adult contemporary smooth-jazz (muzac?) and current elder stateswoman of rock and roll. Mitchell is no less revered in her current incarnation as the smoky-voiced, pop interpreter of recent years, and there’s even talk in 2013 of a David Geffen-induced career “comeback.” As if she ever left.

And everybody talks about either Blue or Court and Spark when they discuss Mitchell’s best work, and deservedly so, but I posit that the album Mitchell produced between those two classics, For The Roses, is a forgotten masterpiece. Blue was exquisite, to be sure, with it’s spare arrangements, cringe-inducing, horrifyingly-personal lyrics, and stupefying, heartbreaking themes (indeed, it may be the quintessential break-up album) and Court And Spark, which covered similar themes but did so while immersing itself in smooth jazz (before it became it’s own, Velveeta-flavored genre) remains my favorite Mitchell album, but For The Roses serves as the perfect transition album between Mitchell’s folky musings and her superb, genre-expanding jazz phase. While it contained one of Mitchell’s precious few top 40 hits (“You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” #25 in 1973), in 2007, For The Roses was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry (it is Mitchell's first and, so far, only album to make that list).

The themes of the songs on For The Roses are classic, early-Joni Mitchell: cutting open her love-life arteries for all to see. While Mitchell leveraged the same approach for Blue, the songs on For The Roses were less universal and more specific to Mitchell’s own narrative. Interestingly, I recently had opportunity to attend a recording of a Taylor Swift concert for Vh1: Storytellers, promoting her latest album, Red (Red, huh? Kinda like another album title, Blue, no? Nah, it couldn’t be that calculating...). Not being familiar with Swift’s music before the show, I found myself struggling with her shtick, and then I found myself struggling with my own skepticism. Why was I so disbelieving towards Swift’s “art,” when, essentially, she holds many parallels with Mitchell, who herself started as a young, pretty, long haired blond, playing guitar and dulcimer (Swift’s other instrument is the banjo), whose first few albums were, essentially, full of songs about breaking-up with boyfriends? As I watched the peppy, sparkly, staged spectacle, it dawned on me that, besides the silly lyrics (to wit, “Cause I love the gap between your teeth; And I love the riddles that you speak; And any snide remarks from my father about your tattoos will be ignored; Cause my heart is yours” – sorry ‘bout that, gentle readers, but now you understand...), it was the crass commercialism surrounding the spectacle: the concert was sponsored by a pizza company giving out boxes painted with Swift’s face as well as Swift-inspired greeting cards and Swift-inspired “make-overs” and the giggly, “I’ve-sold-millions-of-albums-and-am-still-insecure-oh-my!” palms to her cheeks banter between her songs. Miss Swift is a product line; Joni Mitchell is a musician.

But I digress; back to For The Roses. So I hate the album cover, which features Mitchell, squatting in the woods on her Canadian property, wearing moccasin boots and a green velvet “hippie” shirt, which would fit perfectly at modern-day, “Renaissance Fairs.” The album’s inside cover featured Mitchell in the nude, staring into the ocean (Which, I guess, stands to reason, as her lyrics left nothing to the imagination; so why not just put everything out there?). If you’re not already Joni’s, this album may be a great place to begin. Stylistically, For The Roses is leaps and bounds beyond Blue, blending her folk-rock musings to her jazz influences and beautifully so.

The lead-off song, “Banquet,” predates Obama’s notion of “spreading the wealth” by almost 40 years, pointing out the inequality of Capitalism, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" describes harrowing heroin addiction, growing in prevalence in the L.A. scene in the early 1970’s, which is part of the reason Mitchell took refuge in her native Canada as she wrote this magnificent follow-up to Blue. "Barangrill," about the charms of a Canadian roadside truck stop, is my favorite track, because it takes me back to the sound of the early 70’s, singer-songwriter, “Schoolhouse Rock” vibe. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, everything sounded like a “Schoolhouse Rock” jingle, back then. Blossom Dearie is greatly missed... The rest of the album continues the early 1970’s groove, vacillating from love song to social observation and exquisitely so, hinting to listeners what lie ahead in her next few releases.

Recently, Joni Mitchell has expressed frustration that all her fans ever want to hear from her is more songs about her love life, and I’ll grant her that complaint, but in our defense, I posit that her best writing is about that very topic. In fact, I find her best work connected to times of personal turmoil, and some of her most tepid work was produced when she was happily in love...go figure. So, yeah, I suspect I speak for most Mitchell fans when I say that we’re still holding out for Blue, Too.” That said, Mitchell’s most recent release, 2007’s Shine, might just be THAT record. Critics were all over the map, but I thought the album was sublime, proving that Mitchell, after all these years, has still got it. Please record again, Joni Mitchell; we’re still turned on.

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