Monthly Archives: July 2017

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.

Advertisements

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