Tag Archives: Tin Angel

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(1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things.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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Tin Angel – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell has expressed dissatisfaction with 1969’s Clouds, dismissing it as merely an attempt to emulate the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clouds and the first CSN album both came out in May 1969, but that doesn’t invalidate her retrospective judgement – being so close to the major players in CSN, she’d have heard the songs from their debut from their very earliest stages. Indeed, some versions of the Crosby, Stills and Nash creation myth have them singing together for the first time at her house (others say it was at Mama Cass’s).

She’s overstating, I feel – Joni’s songs rarely have anything in common with Graham Nash’s, except they both take their personal relationships (and at times, of course, their relationship with each other) as subject matter, and her work has even less to do with Stills’s, musically or lyrically – but Clouds does find her at her most Crosby-like. Specifically, the modal-medieval Crosby of If I Could Only Remember my Name. It’s a style that is otherwise Crosby’s alone, so work that sounds similar stands out. If she did feel later on that she had been trying to copy CSN, then perhaps Tin Angel is the song that she was thinking about most.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I love David Crosby’s music: the mood, the voice, the harmonies, the chords, the whole bit. And similarly, I can find the good in almost any Joni Mitchell song, so Tin Angel is almost tailor-made for me.

It’s a gloriously stark piece of work, with an elegant, elongated melody that circles round upon itself, only resolving after ten lines with a glorious Picardy third. Her guitar playing (on one of those vanishingly rare occasions when she played in standard tuning) is, as always, top-drawer. The mood, though, is one of ambivalence – the singer knows that she loves someone ‘dark with darker moods… Not a golden prince who’s come’. ‘What will happen if I try to place another heart in him?’ the singer can only ask, pointedly not ending the song on the major chord that closes each of the song’s long verses, returning instead to the minor that begins them.

Elsewhere on the album she goes too far down the mystical-medieval path (Roses Blue and Songs to Aging Children Come are missteps – no getting away from that) and there’s some overbalancing tweeness (The Gallery, Chelsea Morning) I could live without, too. But any album that contains Tin Angel, I Don’t Know Where I Stand and Both Sides Now deserves better than it has received from its own creator, and it’s still probably the most satisfying of her pre-Blue albums. If you’re a casual fan interested in hearing something of her early music, Clouds – and not the more lauded Ladies of the Canyon – is where I’d direct you.

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Joni, circa Clouds, to judge by the fringe

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Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?