Tag Archives: Hearts and Bones

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody – Joni Mitchell

Hi all. I should be in Barcelona right now, but owing to a rather nasty ear infection that dogged me all last week and hasn’t completely gone away yet, I thought it better not to risk flying; it tends to play havoc with my ears at the best of times. So since I’m here, here’s a little bonus post.

Joni Mitchell is high up on the list of my push-comes-to-shove favourite artists. But my appreciation of her music is based principally on the run of albums starting with Blue and ending with (but including) Mingus. There’s much good work to be found outside this period (the only time I’ve written about her on this blog before, I wrote about a song called Tin Angel from her 1969 album Clouds), but 1971-79 is where the most of the classics reside.

Wild Things Run Fast falls outside her great period. It’s the first studio album she made after Mingus, the first after signing to Geffen. It’s an album of variable quality, almost inconceivably bland at its worst. The mix of legit jazz players (Victor Feldman, Wayne Shorter) and LA session men (Steve Lukather, Michael Landau), intriguing on paper, instead seemed to bring out the most pedestrian aspects of both factions, making the album’s title the more unfortunate.

The record does, however, start with a wonderful song, a bona fide Joni Mitchell classic, and maybe the best thing she wrote in the whole of the 1980s: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.

Interpolating an old song in a new song is a trick Mitchell had pulled off before, on Harry’s House/Centerpiece, an astonishing track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In that instance, the insertion of a romantic swing tune in such an unsparing portrait of a crumbling marriage signified the emotional distance travelled by Harry and his wife from the optimistic (1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things. An irresistible but bitterly ironic musical joke, it’s the greatest coup on an album full of them.

Inserting Unchained Melody into her own Chinese Café, Mitchell repeats the trick to more straightforwardly poignant effect. Initially just quoting the song’s opening line within the chorus (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”), she ends the track by singing a whole verse and chorus, with a few canny melody adjustments and reharmonisings. As in Harry’s House/Centerpiece, the older song stands for youth, for optimism, for the “birth of rock’n’roll days” that are referred to in the first stanza, so different from the life the narrator finds herself living now.

In 1982, Mitchell was 39 and given that the song’s narrator refers to bearing a child but not raising her, it’s probably not presumptuous to assume Mitchell was singing about herself. Which makes Chinese Café, like Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon from a year later, one of the great backward-looking, stock-taking songs of middle age, a style of song not too well served by rock music on the whole. Akin to Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter musically, but departing from the long-stanza, third-person reportage of her writing on those albums in favour of a simpler, near-the-knuckle style, Chinese Café stands comparison with her very best work.

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Everything Put Together Falls Apart – Paul Simon

As I have alluded to here before, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon since I was very young. Six or seven years old probably. My parents owned Greatest Hits, Etc. on cassette in the eighties, and it got played on long car journeys to relatives’ houses, probably more than any other tape we had. It sunk in, got inside me. What I loved most were the wonderful jazzy chord changes of songs like I Do It For Your Love and Still Crazy After All These Years (from Simon’s combover-and-moustache years), and the unknowably adult emotions that accompanied them. This was music I couldn’t fully comprehend and had to get the measure of slowly.

Nowadays, despite my love of the jazz harmony that underpinned Simon’s work between Still Crazy and Hearts and Bones, my favourite of his solo records is the first, Paul Simon, from early 1972. Its most well-known songs (Mother and Child Reunion, Duncan, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard) are somewhat unrepresentative of the album’s mood as a whole. Take them away from the record and the remaining eight songs share a distinct character and feel – intimate, close-miked and alternating between metropolitan ennui and political anger, with occasional leavening moments of whimsy (‘Detroit, Detroit, got a hell of a hockey team’).

To be somewhat reductive for a moment, Paul Simon is Simon’s lo-fi album. The last Simon & Garfunkel album – the chart-conquering, record-breaking Bridge Over Troubled Water – was, Simon has suggested, difficult to make. As studio time mounted up (over 800 hours of it), disagreements surfaced (over the number of verses that Bridge Over Troubled Water should have – a debate Garfunkel, with his tendency towards the grandiose, won; over the inclusion of a song of Simon’s about Cuba and Nixon; over Garfunkel’s absenteeism while pursuing an acting career), and the pair did not make another record.

So while Simon had something to prove with his solo debut (to show that he was much more than just 50% of Simon & Garfunkel), he went about it in a way that was almost willfully low-key. If you’re going to make an album full of revealing, painful songs, possibly the best way is to do it matter-of-factly, without turning it into a big production. Duncan aside, Paul Simon is a small-scale, intimate experience, dry compared to the reverb-drenched Bridge, usually simple in arrangement and with mistakes and flubs left in.

The key moment comes in Everything Put Together Fall Apart, a short song that nevertheless modulates (sometimes semitonally) every couple of bars: a minute and twenty seconds in, Simon scratches his beard on microphone while singing the line ‘There’s nothing to it’. Such a thing happening on a Simon & Garfunkel record is unthinkable. Garfunkel wouldn’t have worn it, and in those days Simon wouldn’t have either. But after the protracted Bridge sessions, Simon was ready to make records differently. It’s a wonderfully human, magical moment; to break character, so to speak, in such a naked song, to look the audience straight in the eye and acknowledge the artifice of record-making, revealed a maturity that hadn’t been present on any S&G record, where everything (except possibly Cecilia) was done in dreadful earnest. It’s why listening to Paul Simon is never a heavy experience. It’s why it’s the most satisfying of any album that bears his name.

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Paul Simon