Monday, April 25, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 104 - Joni Mitchell

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

When I cued up the Indigo Girls three weeks ago, it was the first time in one hundred and two weeks that I had listened to an all-female group. Hell, I hadn't even listened to a lone female performer in the past two years. The best I had done is listened to a few bands that had a lone female member (more recently the Pixies and Yo La Tengo), but I suddenly realized my project had a very serious blind spot, even more so than the rap music I'm still hesitant about fully embracing. 

My girl power marathon of the past three weeks - the Indigo Girls, the Bangles, and now Joni Mitchell - has been somewhat of an attempt to remedy this. But the previous two groups were somewhat overshadowed by other forces - the Indigo Girls are lesbians, and the music of the Bangles is more a product of the coke-fueled eighties than representative of their actual gender. Listening to Joni Mitchell this week, at times personal and revealing, at times cryptic and coy, it was the first time I felt I was listening to music made by a woman for other women.

Is it completely fair to categorize music in this way? Not at all. Generally, these modifiers ("girl" music, "gay" music, "black" music, even "Christian" music) are used an excuse for the quality of the actual product. It's like the marketing forces behind this stuff are making excuses. "Of course you don't like [X]," they'll say as a justification. "You're not part of demographic [Y]."

But I think that good music can transcend the race or gender of the person who made it. In classical music, for example, most scholars have dismissed the idea that Aaron Copland wrote "gay music" just because he liked dudes. The best music should be able to appeal to human beings across the board, regardless of whatever demographic its been pigeonholed into. I liked Joni Mitchell quite a bit, and the last time I checked, I was a guy. 

At the same time, though, this is still too simplistic a solution. Music, despite what your middle school band director might have told you, is not the universal language, and certain things are going to appeal to certain people. It's unfair to dismiss Mitchell's music, for example, as stuff only for chicks. But it would also be unfair to pretend that I can come at this music with the same perspective or feelings as a woman. I can't. In part, music is shaped by our subjective experiences, and part of those experiences revolve around what gender we belong to.

I'm not quite sure what my point is, except that this week I oscillated back and forth between trying to listen to Joni Mitchell as a female performer, and listening to her as just a plain old musician. Neither method is wholly appropriate, and I'm sure there's all sorts of touchy issues that I'm skirting around. The best I can say is that I liked the music, even if I probably didn't like it in the same way that a woman might like it. And again, that's the best kind of music - the stuff that can appeal to both sexes.

WEEK 104


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had heard "Big Yellow Taxi" before, which strangely enough is a song that I never got around to listening to this entire week. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Blue (1971) every day this week. I also listened to Court and Spark (1974) four times, The Hissing of the Summer Lawns (1975) three times, Hejira (1976) twice, and For the Roses (1972) once. 


Blue actually seems like an outlier compared to the rest of the albums I listened to this week. The songs use sparse accompaniments, and everything sounds stripped down and minimal, as if this could have been recorded at your local coffee shop on open mic night. It's not as catchy as some of Mitchell's later stuff, and so it took me a while to appreciate it. But Blue is a beautiful album, and sounds like a remarkably honest one. It's not an album to listen to while speeding down the highway, but a subtle, contemplative piece of work. It's a big album made from small pieces, one that sounds slight on first listen but has plenty of depth. 

There are plenty of singer-songwriters, but Mitchell makes the best of both sides of this genre - she's a great singer and an amazing songwriter, and knows how a performance feeds into the meaning of a song. Each track sounds timeless, as if it has always existed, while still veering to chords and cadences that aren't what you expect but nonetheless still work. And Mitchell's voice, beautifully harmonizing with guitar and piano, provides stuttering melismas that dance around the notes. Sometimes the words come flowing out, sometimes they take their time, and the songs stop and start and speed up and slow down and play games with the listener. The phrases and structure are all there, but again, it's never what you quite expect, so songs like "California" and "A Case of You" keep surprising you even while sounding rather traditional. These kinds of contradictions are all over Blue - "All I Want" is simultaneously uplifting and really depressing, the story of a person trying to stay optimistic even while they don't know what the hell they're doing. 

But, like I said, the remarkable thing is that the minimalism of Blue and For the Roses seem more like Mitchell shaking off her folk rock roots, and her later albums are jazzy and avant-garde and have a weirdness I never would have associated with her. Court and Spark was the big turning point in her career, and this album almost sounds preordained, in that after you hear every note you think, "Wow, there's no other note that could have possibly been played there." But this is a trick, because Court and Spark veers to the most unexpected places, from the polished songs like "Help Me" to the jazzy "Car on a Hill" to instrumental interludes in "Down To You." Here, Mitchell has come from the minimal pieces of Blue to a very skillful incorporation of all kinds of instruments. The songs still sound simple, but they're not - there's all sorts of interesting instrumental and jazz stuff going on (and some interesting harmonies done with overdubbing, like on "Raised on Robbery"). She ups the ante in The Hissing of the Summer Lawns, which features the crazy drumbeats on "The Jungle Line" and some synthesized stuff. 

The later Joni Mitchell is more hit-or-miss than Blue - the catchy stuff is really catchy, the other stuff sort of boring, but it never really comes close to the honest lyrics of those earlier albums. Which is fine. I liked being able to switch between the raw-and-contemplative and the polished-and-allegorical. 


I get that Joni Mitchell was really excited about jazz and really excited to combine jazz and pop and folk, but some of her stuff gets a little close to Muzak, or something you'd hear on the Old People's Kenny G Radio Station. "Harry's House - Centerpiece" is a little too meandering, while "Twisted," which closes Court and Spark, sounds more like a parody than an actual Joni Mitchell song. 

And then there's Hejira, which some critics claim was the apex of her ability to integrate all these genres, but too me sounded plodding and overly long and completely unstructured. Maybe it needs repeat listenings, like Blue, to explain the appeal, but all the catchy hooks and beautiful vocal harmonies have been replaced by "Song for Sharon" and "A Strange Boy." Everything sounds too distant, too unemotive, too passive, to really appeal to me after all the good stuff that came before. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: My mother tells me that I need to listen to Ladies of the Canyon (1970), which does have "Big Yellow Taxi" and some more political, folksy stuff. As for her later stuff, all I know is that Mitchell's 80s albums are supposedly pretty crazy, like Dog Eat Dog. I enjoyed Joni Mitchell a lot, so I'd be willing to give pretty much anything she's done a shot. 


This song skirts close to the bland, easy-listening stuff I didn't really like, but the melody is actually really catchy, and the instrumentals do a good job at setting that mood of "flirtin' and hurtin'."