Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – Joni Mitchell

More One Song Onlys next time, I hope. But now, Joni. Again.

I wrote once about the pleasures to be found in going deep into a major artist’s back catalogue and spending time with the minor records: the fiascos, semi-failures, secret successes, curate’s eggs and baffling left turns.

Joni Mitchell’s body of work – large but not vast, varied but always idiosyncratically reflective of its creator’s self – really rewards this kind of listening. To that end, I’ve been revisiting Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell’s 1977 double album, trying to decide what I make of it these days.

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was not kindly received by critics or the public on its release*. While it sold enough to go gold, it was the last Joni album that did reach that benchmark, and record-store lore has it that it’s the most returned album ever, or at least one of them. Small wonder – this is a double album by Joni in her “jazz” phase. Its four sides are heavy on Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass and feature a 16-minute piano-and-orchestra song, Paprika Plains, that takes up the whole of side two. Its 59 minutes contain scarcely a snippet of melody that will stick with you after one listen.

There are, however, slowly uncoiling verse melodies that will work their way in if you listen to the record 10 or so times, if you have the patience. At 21 or 22, my devotion to Joni Mitchell was such that I did have the patience. I put in the time, and am on the whole a defender of the album, in all its bewildering excess.

More recently, though, I’ve hardly listened to it. There are Joni records that offer more immediate pleasures, and not listening to her music as much as I did in my early twenties, when I do, I want to hear my favourite stuff.

After The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell stripped back the electric jazz sound she and the LA Express had constructed over the past two records (and taken on the road – check out Miles of Aisles for a very decent document of Joni live in 1974) and rebuilt it around her acoustic guitar and new recruit Jaco Pastorius’s fretless bass guitar. This updated formula worked to stunning effect on Hejira‘s first side.

DJRD is hit and miss in comparison, but even after spending time with it this week, I find it hard to put a finger on quite why.

Partly, I think, it’s that the extended melodies of Hejira and Summer Lawns had little phrases that lingered in the memory and allowed you to hang on to the verse as a whole, a quality not always apparent on DJRD. Partly it’s that a lot of the chord sequences and strummy rhythms are samey – compare Cotton Avenue, Talk to Me, the title track and Off Night Backstreet. And partly (and I say this while acknowledging that Mitchell works at a level only a couple of other pop songwriters have ever attained), her lyrics on DJRD just aren’t quite at the level of the albums preceding it. There’s nothing here as arresting or moving as Amelia, Harry’s House, Edith and the Kingpin or Woman of Heart and Mind, let alone the more concise, melody-anchored songs of her early career, the Circle Games, Chelsea Mornings, Rivers, Both Sides Nows and Little Greens that any songwriter in any genre would give their right arm to be able to write.

When Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter came out, Mitchell had released five more or less brilliant albums in a row, plus a couple more very good ones before that. She had to strike out sometime. And this minor, flawed work is fascinating because it’s so close in form and style to Hejira, which in any fair appraisal of Mitchell’s oeuvre has to be counted as a major work, even if you’re not fond of Pastorius’s bass playing. Every great Joni record represented both a stunning collection of songs and a stylistic development from her previous work. DJRD is Hejira part 2, even with The Tenth World and Paprika Plains on it. It was the first time she failed to make a musical advance on her previous work.

I’d recommend Hejira to anyone. It’s not my favourite Joni record – over the full album length, I find the Joni-and-Jaco arrangements wearying – but the first three songs are heart-stoppingly good, and it demonstrates that the forms and structures she was working with in the mid- to late-1970s were not themselves holding her back. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, though, is one to save for when you’ve heard everything Mitchell did between 1970-1976 and wonder what it would sound like to hear a great artist losing contact with their greatness. That might sound odd, but trust me, it’s worth doing: it makes you appreciate that greatness all the more.

*The cover of DJRD largely escaped critical censure at the time. Featuring as it does Mitchell in blackface and, on the inner sleeve, dressed as a Native American, that seems scarcely credible. Forty years on, the best we can say for it is its creator seems to have remained unaware of how crass it is in concept and how offensive it is in execution.

The One Song Onlys, part 1

About a year ago, I put together a post about my favourite songs and albums. The two lists did not have much crossover; few of my absolute favourite songs are by artists whose entire body of work means much to me in the way that Joni Mitchell’s, John Martyn’s or Paul Simon’s do. That list was heavier on pop, soul and disco compared to my favourite-albums list, which was much more about mellow 1970s singer-songwriters. But even so, none of the artists on that favourite-songs list was that rare phemoneon, the One Song Only artist.

For an artist to be a true One Song Only, I have to genuinely only care for one song, and I have to have heard enough of their other work to know I don’t like or care about any of it. That’s actually pretty rare. Normally if an artist does something that you like once, it’s unlikely they’re never be able to touch you in the same way again. But it does happen. I thought it’d be fun to do a couple of posts with some examples.

I don’t like being negative about musicians and music on this blog; I write it to talk about music that excites me, moves me – stuff I like. But I can only explain why these are One Song Onlies by discussing why I don’t normally dig what the artist does. So here goes.

The Wild Ones – Suede
Britpop never meant much to me. I found it parochial, even at the time, even at the age I was in 1994 (twelve). Most of all, I didn’t like it musically. I didn’t like exagerratedly English vocals, parping semi-ironic brass sections or drummers playing two and four without any verve or authority. Some exciting players emerged in that era (Blur’s Graham Coxon, Suede’s Bernard Butler), but the bands on the whole just weren’t to my taste. Suede were no exception, yet I have a lot of love for The Wild Ones.

The Wild Ones shouldn’t work for me. On an instrumental and arrangement level, it’s really messy, and demonstrates a lot of the things that I don’t like about the band generally. Drummer Simon Gilbert will not stop playing fills and bassist Mat Osman is scarcely less restrained; producer Ed Buller resorts to making Gilbert a tiny reverb-drenched presence at the back of the mix, where he’s less in the way, and thinning out Osman’s sound (although, to be fair, all of Suede’s records in that era are bass-light). Bernard Butler was always a maximalist guitar player and, while he’s in great form here (his intro on the dobro is magical), he’s not helping to give the arrangement focus by stuffing every corner of it with yet more detail and ornament. While the band play over each other, singer Brett Anderson also goes big, pulling the deepest, bartitone-Bowie notes he can out of himself and adding a huge vibrato to his sustained notes that had seldom, if ever, been there before in his delivery.

It’s all far too much. Yet the song itself is far too much, and the gaucheness of the execution – the too-muchness of it – becomes weirdly touching, and is in sympathy with Anderson’s lyric, which grabs at hope with a desperate romanticism even as that same hope slides out of his grip. It ends up being strangely touching and it affects me in a way no other song of theirs does.

Only the Lonely – The Motels
Before products like Elastic Audio and Beat Detective, if a drummer couldn’t meet the demands of the material when a group was in the studio, the ways available to “fix” their performances were either slow and laborious (physical editing of 2-inch tape), or would be unsatisfactory for stylistic reasons (use of drum machines instead of a live drum track). If a drummer couldn’t cut it, it was easier in the long run simply to hire another who could. Same went for any kind of instrumentalist.

In 1981, The Motels’ third album Apocalypso was rejected by their label, Capitol, who sent them back to the studio to redo it. Apocalypso was released a few years back and it’s not hard to hear why Capitol took that decision. Singer Martha Davis had written an obvious hit in Only the Lonely, but it would never have sold in its jerky Apocalypso form, where the hooks fell flat due to the band’s heavy handedness and Davis’s stylised over-singing.

The group recut the album with the same producer, Val Garay, but they gave him a free hand the second time around (the argumentative Tim McGovern, lead guitarist and now former boyfriend of Davis, had reportedly clashed with Garay and taken over the previous sessions). Garay’s solution to the problem of making a new wave band commercial and technically satisfactory was to replace the band members with drummer Craig Krampf and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. This was an era in which LA labels solved a lot of problems by bringing in guys like Waddy Wachtel.

So Only the Lonely and its parent album All Four One is new wave put through the LA mincing machine – with the band’s assent. Yet, despite the cynicism of the enterprise, it’s impossible to argue that the song wasn’t vastly improved in its second incarnation. It towers over everything else I’ve heard by the group, most of which doesn’t do anything for me. It’s the combination of sleek LA session playing, Davis’s more restrained vocal (more than usual, at least) and a thoughtful lyric that fully deserved to have a great track built for it; the second verse in particular (“You mention the time we were togther so long ago/Well, I don’t remember, all I know is it makes me feel good now”) strikes me as a rather adult and hard-to-pin-down set of emotions that you rarely get in pop music.

If Davis and the group had been consistently stronger writers, the tension between the LA pros brought in by Garay and the sensibility of the songs could have led to a minor classic, full of sharp little pop songs with a weird tension in them (a little like the Cars, maybe). As it is, they’re a One Song Only group.

I’m moving house this week, but more as soon as I can manage.

Spoon @ the Forum, Kentish Town, 30/06/17

On the day I like to call Bobby Goldsboro Day, Spoon returned to London and, in their Spoonian way, crushed it. Again.

20-odd years and nine albums into their career, Spoon are a fuss-free rock ‘n’ roll machine. Their songs are sleek, minimal and always brilliantly arranged, and last night they rattled them off in a fury, with several songs segueing into one another most impressively.

They began with a great version of Do I Have to Talk You Into It, one of the highlights from new album Hot Thoughts, and any worries we had about the sound in the Forum vanished. When opening act Proper Ornaments were playing, the mix was poor, but in retrospect I think that had mainly to do with the band congesting the midrange with strummed, clanging electric guitars, which drowned out the vocals and made the snare drum a wimpy, barely discernable little tapping noise somewhere in the background. Spoon, by comtrast, are pros, and know how to arrange and play their music. They sounded pretty damn big and settled in straight away, instrumentally and vocally.

I always marvel at how good Daniel’s voice sounds live. A bit nasal and congested sounding, more than a little hoarse, his voice would suffer over the course of a long tour, you’d think, with gigs every night for days on end without a break. But no, from the first song he sounded warmed up and ready to go, and his voice remained strong all night, no matter how much he shouted or how often he jumped into his falsetto range.

Sara and I had a plan yesterday. Get in the queue early and get seats in the middle of the front row of the balcony so we could see the whole band unobstructed. Everything went exactly to plan, so we had a glorious whole-stage view all night long. While it was hard for me to not watch Jim Eno, my favourite drummer in the world right now, I tried to take in as much as I could of what bassist Rob Pope and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Fischel were up to, too.

Pope is hugely impressive. He’s always in the pocket, and even better, he knows how much impact he can have by sitting out for a while and slamming back in during a chorus to make it sound even huger. It’s a neat trick, and he did it several times last night, notably on Can I Sit Next to You (another cracker from Hot Thoughts) and They Want My Soul‘s swaggering, Stonesy Rent I Pay.

Daniel was in fiery preacher mode last night. Striking rock-frontman poses and singing I Ain’t the One while lying on his back, he was closer than I’ve seen him get before to winking at the audience, sending up the idea of being the focal point of a big rock ‘n’ roll show. He got away with it, mainly, I think, because Spoon’s music is basically sincere: its occasional forays into pastiche are done with a lot of love, and the band’s enjoyment of playing together and just being Spoon is evident all the time. His excesses seemed enthusiastic, not cynical.

Last night they tore through 16 songs, plus three more in the encore, and I was lucky enough to get versions of a lot of favourites: I Turn My Camera On, the astonishing Don’t Make Me a Target, I Summon You (played solo by Daniel as the first song of the encore), Anything You Want (Sara’s favourite, but not at its best last night – the jaunty piano hook wasn’t quite loud enough), Black Like Me, which would have been a brilliant final song, and the menacing My Mathematical Mind, which tore the roof off at the 100 Club; while last night couldn’t match the impact of that eardrum-shattering version, it was still plenty cool, Jim Eno’s backbeat as mean as it needed to be while Fischel pulled all sorts of funny sci-fi noises out of his keyboard.

Spoon have been great each time I’ve seen them. At this stage, I can’t think of a band I’d rather see in concert. They’re coming back to the UK in the autumn for more gigs. Get a ticket.

Spoon
Spoon, from the front row of the balcony

Pray for Rain – Pure Bathing Culture

At their current rate of evolution, Pure Bathing Culture are halfway to being a for-real pop band.

The Portland-based duo (they aren’t natives; they moved there from Brooklyn*) released their second, self-titled, album in late 2015 to moderate reviews. Critics seemed to prefer their first album, Moon Tides – a much more moody, textured, layered and atmospheric affair, one heavily indebted to the Cocteau Twins, Frankly I much prefer the songs I’ve heard from the new one; it’s a fool’s errand to try to sound like the Cocteau Twins, unless your singer actually is Liz Frazer. When they tried it, Pure Bathing Culture just sounded a bit twee and rubbish. And anyway, why try to recreate someone else’s already-perfected sound?

For their second album, Pray for Rain, PBC hooked up with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Wye Oak and St Vincent among many, many others) and began to get serious. Congleton’s work sonically leaves me a bit cold. There’s something fake about the instrument sounds on all his records. Nothing sounds natural. But even despite the unlovely sonics of Pray for Rain, you have to say Congleton did a great job with these guys. The primary duty of a producer, historically at least, is to create something saleable for the record label, but the best producers are able to do this while helping the band to grow and develop, challenging and bettering themselves, and coming up with something that’s an advance on anything they’ve done before. In this regard, Congleton played a blinder.

Pray for Rain (the song, not the album) has a confident swagger that nothing on the band’s debut had. Singer Sarah Versprille is now singing in her natural range instead of half an octave above it and the effect is transformative (I can’t think of a single comparably huge one-record improvement in a vocalist. Not one). The arrangement and song structure is tight and focused, and the vocal drives the music rather than just existing within it. Daniel Hindman’s guitars are similarly emboldened – they’re still absolutely saturated in reverb, delay and all the time-domain effects contemporary indie can’t seem to do without, but the style is more idiosyncratic, less obviously derived from just one or two sources. The duo’s past musical endeavours, both in Vetiver and their early days as Pure Bathing Culture, seem a world away.

Now, when you compare them to a contemporary band that genuinely court the pop market and know how to make pop music, it’s pretty clear that Pure Bathing Culture still have work to do. Their melodies remain essentially static, and the songs don’t evolve so much as arrive, dwell in front of you and then stop. But they’ve come a long way quickly and are maybe only a record away from arriving at something really great. It’s now coming up to two years since Pure Bathing Culture was released. Perhaps that big step forward is being taken behind the scenes as we speak.

*I shouldn’t be cynical, but if you wanted to sum up the last five years in rock music in one short sentence, you could do a lot worse than “Indie band moves from Brooklyn to Portland”.

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

In 2014, Tawnee Baird was stabbed 46 times by her girlfriend,  Victoria Mendoza, who is now 18 months into a 16-years-to-life jail sentence for Baird’s murder. The two were in a car on Interstate 15 when an argument between the pair escalated into violence and Mendoza began stabbing Baird. At the time of her murder, Baird was 21, Mendoza 22.

Sera Cahoone has been a fixture in Seattle’s music scene for around 15 years now, initially as drummer for late-period Carissa’s Wierd (sic) and early-period Band of Horses. She released her first, self-titled, solo album, in 2006, and has made three more since, most recently From Where I Started, which came out in March 2017.

Cahoone has a lovely, unaffected voice, and she uses it to illuminate without over-decorating her melodies, which on From Where I Started are universally strong. She and producer John Morgan Askew put together a top-notch band for the project, too: Rob Burger (who’s played with Iron & Wine, Calexico and Lucinda Williams among many, many others),  Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Amy Ray), Jason Kardong (Son Volt), Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie) and Annalisa Tornfeldt (Aoife O’Donovan, the Minus 5). They decorate her songs with minimal, sympathetic touches – nothing showy, everything for the song. A songwriter couldn’t ask for more from her collaborators.

While From Where I Started is compelling all the way through (and Up to Me, Better Woman and Not Like I are all wonderful), but it’s Ladybug, Cahoone’s tribute to Tawnee Baird, that hits hardest. Not just because the song is beautiful, with a lovely arrangement and graceful melody that’s full of empathy and regret for dreams that can never be fulfilled, but because Baird was Cahoone’s cousin.

Cahoone has talked about the process of writing Ladybug, and of her memories of Baird, in several interviews (such as this one with NPR), but still, whenever I hear the song, I find myself thinking not about how the song works on a formal level (which is what I usually do) but instead wondering how Cahoone found the strength, the grace, to write something like Ladybug in the face of such terrible events. How do you honour the memory of someone close to you who died in such violent circumstances without the sadness overwhelming you or the anger making you bitter and vengeful?

It’s not a question many of us are in a position to answer. I’ve been sitting on this blog for over a week, trying to think of more to say, and I really don’t think I can add anything more. The song speaks for itself, with an eloquence and humanity that amazes me. The video below is from a live session Cahoone recorded recently for KEXP. In some ways, it’s even better than the album recording.

Belle and Sebastian @ Royal Hospital Chelsea, 15/06/17

Seeing Belle and Sebastian in the environs of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was a rather strange experience. For a group whose milieu seems to be the more down-at-heel parts of Glasgow, and whose music has always been determinedly small scale and for years had the whiff of the school-assembly-recital, a large-scale outdoor gig at a grand institution on the banks of the Thames in Chelsea was unlikely enough that every now and again I found my mind turning to the distance the band had travelled from their uber-indie beginnings twenty-odd years ago to here and now: the Royal Albert Hall last year, the Royal Hospital Chelsea this.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day, but windy, and by evening the stiff breeze made it feel pretty damn cold, and few of us were dressed for it. Sara and I had walked to the gig, and the evening seemed perfect, but by the time we took our seats, it was so cold that neither of us were sure we’d make it to the end. In the event, we did what lots of other people did, leaving the bleachers and joining the standing crowd, hoping that the chance to move around a bit, and being among a throng, would make the wind less of a problem. It worked a little, but we left before the encore as Sara couldn’t feel her feet.

After an introduction by two Chelsea Pensioners, the band came on and opened with Act of the Apostle from The Life Pursuit. The band found their gear right away, but Stuart Murdoch’s voice was rough around the edges. The song’s got some unusual chord changes and difficult intervals, and I wondered whether it would have been better for Murdoch if they’d started with a run of easier songs and he’d had time to get warmed up before tackling it.

Things took an immediate upturn, though, with I’m a Cuckoo, from 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I’m a Cuckoo is probably the best song that Murdoch has ever written (and the best record the band has ever made), and they played a fuss-free but spirited version, Murdoch sounding much more comfortable in the lower end of his register. Unless I’m mistaken, they played the single edit of the song, which I’ve come to think is actually a better length than the 5.20 album version.

The set was a nice mix of recent tracks, including a couple of new ones, and vintage material: Seeing Other People and She’s Losing It were well received by the old-school fans, Another Sunny Day from The Life Pursuit was really pretty (and appropriate to the occasion), I Know Where the Summer Goes from the This is Just a Modern Rock Song EP was an unexpected treat (although I’d have loved it if they’d played the title track instead), and as the band moved up through the gears, The Boy With the Arab Strap, The Blues are Still Blue and Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying brought the gig to a strong conclusion, with Arab Strap the cue for the inevitable on-stage dancers and the release of some specially made Belle and Sebastian balloons.

The balloons promptly blew away. “Well, that was £1500 well spent,” quipped Murdoch. An attempt at something beautiful thwarted by something as mundane as a stiff breeze. It seemed an appropriately Belle and Sebastianish moment.

Howard Goodall’s Beatles programmes

Last week the BBC broadcast a programme about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Howard Goodall.

Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution is well worth watching while it’s still available on iPlayer and catch-up services. Goodall’s a genial screen presence and, a composer by trade, is really good at explaining music theory and recording techniques for a general audience while going deep enough in his analysis at a compositional and technical level to make things interesting for those who already know their modes, their calliopes and their ADT.

Above all else, Goodall’s a fan, and his enthusiasm for the subject is genuine. Television’s so full of fake enthusiasm and feigned excitement that the real thing stands out a mile. At one point, having explained how Strawberry Fields Forever is constructed from two takes of the song, recorded more than a week apart, at different tempos and in different keys, and then how George Martin and his team went about manipulating the two takes in order to be able to edit them together seamlessly, Goodall plays the end result and simply comments, “Awesome”. This is not routine hyperbole of television; you’ve no doubt he means it.

This isn’t the first time Goodall’s taken on The Beatles on TV. In 2004, he made a series for Channel 4 (I think) called 20th Century Greats – an hour each on Lennon & McCartney, Bernard Hermann, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. As in the Pepper programme, he went deep on a handful of songs (I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Jealous Guy/Child of Nature) rather than look at dozens only on a surface level. It’s equally good. The series seems to have received a limited release on DVD (I’ve seen it come up on eBay – possibly an American import or something), but it pops up on youtube pretty regularly.

Both programmes are essential viewing for Beatles fans. They don’t contain anything you couldn’t learn by reading Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive accounts of the band’s recording sessions or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, but Goodall’s love for the music is not poisoned, as MacDonald’s was, by the conviction that nothing could ever be this good again. For non-fans, or outright sceptics, Goodall might just get you to hear The Beatles the way he hears them.