Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Joni Mitchell Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.


The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975, Asylum)

A –

It was commercial suicide and her career would never truly recover from the move, but Joni bizarrely opted to follow up her best-selling studio album yet, Court and Spark, with this highly inventive and experimental outing that incorporated hints of world music (many years before the likes of Talking Heads or Paul Simon would do the same to much greater critical acclaim) and more heavily pronounced elements of jazz than either of the two preceding discs and even closed with a track centered around, of all instruments, a Moog synthesizer, a first for a Joni Mitchell album. The stylistic experiments might not have been so jarring to listeners had Joni’s pop instincts still been present here, but there is no “Help Me” here – in fact, Joni doesn’t seem the least bit interested here in scoring a follow-up radio hit, and “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” the album’s lone single, was a bit too free-form for its own good and too bereft of a solid hook to have had any real chance of reaching the Top 40. Yet, in spite of the total lack of any truly catchy song, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is actually a surprisingly great record, one that slowly works its charms on you and keeps you coming back until the brilliance of these unorthodox-yet-captivating songs sinks in fully. “Edith and the Kingpin,” “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” “The Boho Dance,” and “In France They Kiss on Main Street” are all quite underrated, and “Shadows and Light,” once you get past its Moog-heavy sound, is actually a beautiful piece of songwriting. While there’s no one song here you’re likely to go back and listen to repeatedly in isolation, this is a phenomenal album piece and a surprisingly largely relaxing one, at that, for all its innovations and sheer weirdness. It will almost certainly take two or three plays before you can fully appreciate it, but it’s worth the effort.    


Hejira (1976, Asylum)


Perhaps realizing she took the experimentation a little too far on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni inches back ever-so-slightly into more pop-friendly territory on Hejira. Mind you, she’s still more interested in jazz at this point than pop and has even recruited Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius as a key player here (and he is a marvel here indeed, his fretless-bass work proving to be a highlight of such stellar cuts as “Refuge of the Road,” “Coyote,” and the title cut), but she’s found a more delicate balance, the songs a tad catchier this time out – particularly “Amelia” – and the tasteful rhythm tracks noticeably much warmer and less jarring than those on Summer Lawns as well. Indeed, Hejira is arguably Joni’s most ambient album to date, and the sound quality fittingly is a step up from Mitchell’s prior albums as well, Henry Lewy’s remarkable engineering and mixing efforts here a real wonder to behold here. [It’s not quite the same sonic marvel that Steely Dan’s Aja is, but as far as late ‘70s albums go, it’s still right up there.]  Hejira is also a notable release in the Mitchell canon in that it more or less provided, in its warm, tastefully-produced jazz-pop, the musical template for most, though not all, of Joni’s subsequent albums – she never would quite fully return to the folk sound of her earliest records – and foreshadows her later transition into more adult-contemporary-oriented territory.  


Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977, Asylum)

B –

Arguably her most pretentious album up to this point and her spottiest since Song to a Seagull, there’s actually more good material here than many critics might have you believe, but the album falls well shy of having the same appeal as any of her previous seven albums for two major reasons. One is that the album is simply too schizophrenic and several of the cuts sound like they were recorded for another album entirely, and the other is that the album contains far too much padding for a double-disc set, even if there’s technically only ten – albeit ten very long – songs here. The side-long “Paprika Plains,” a lushly-orchestrated piano-based piece, is neither captivating enough to warrant its sixteen-minute running time nor does it exactly fit in with any of the songs that preceded it, either. The frantic percussion work of the largely-instrumental “The Tenth World,” meanwhile, sounds like a Santana jam that got included on the album by accident, and “Dreamworld” – which features nothing but percussion and vocals – is just as out of place. (Not even a cameo from the great Chaka Khan is able to salvage either cut.)  But “Otis and Marlena” sounds like it would be at home on nearly any of Joni’s early-‘70s outings, and the title cut, “Jericho” (a very belated studio recording of a song that had already appeared in live form on the concert album Miles of Aisles), and, best of all, the intoxicating “Talk to Me,” which makes wonderful use of Jaco Pastorius’ bass playing, all retain the warm jazz-pop sound of the best material from Hejira and rank among some of the most highly underrated songs in Mitchell’s post-Court and Spark catalog. If Joni had simply trimmed this package back to a single disc, it’s likely that it would have a far greater reputation than it does; just skip from “Jericho” (the closing cut on Side One) to “Otis and Marlena” and then move from there to Side Four, and you’ve got yourself an album that’s very nearly the equal of Hejira.


Mingus (1979, Asylum)

C +

Joni had been regularly incorporating steadily larger shades of jazz into her albums as far back as For the Roses, so it was probably inevitable that she’d eventually cut a full-blown jazz album, and she’s even gone so far here as to write three new pieces with legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus (who sadly passed away before the release of this disc) and even write lyrics to go along with one of his signature standards, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” While the album is not likely to have a whole lot of appeal to Joni fans already turned off by the jazz-fusion-oriented, Jaco Pastorious-heavy sound of her previous two outings, Mingus does have its redeeming cuts – namely the easygoing grooves of the minimalist “God Must Be a Boogie Man,” featuring only Joni’s guitar and Jaco’s bass for instrumentation, and the funky “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” – and it’s fun to hear Joni playing alongside such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine. The disc stops shy of feeling especially satisfying, though, in part because of its brevity – there’s technically only six songs here (along with five brief interludes) – and in part because one of those six songs, “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the disc at all, lacking either a direct connection to Mingus or seeming the least bit influenced by him.


Wild Things Run Fast (1982, Geffen)

B +  

Asylum Records founder – and longtime friend of Joni’s – David Geffen left that label in 1975 and Joni would ultimately follow him to his next label, simply named Geffen, at the dawn of the ‘80s. Apparently, David has a talent few other label execs have for coaxing out Joni’s more commercial side; her work for Asylum after his departure became steadily and decidedly non-mainstream, while her first album for her new label finds her writing more traditional pop songs again. (One of the biggest pop stars of the ‘80s, Lionel Richie, even makes multiple appearances on backing vocals.) Mind you, she’s a bit rusty, and it’s a bit telling that the lead-off single from the record was a cover – in this instance, Elvis Presley’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” which neither feels like a suitable choice of cover material for Joni, nor does it sound as if it really fits in with the rest of the album – while the album-opening ballad “Chinese Café” relies on awkwardly-worked-in (and not terribly well-sung) snippets of “Unchained Melody” for its primary hook. But Joni’s at least trying to sound mainstream again, even if the hooks aren’t quite as strong as they used to be, and tracks like the title cut, “You Dream Flat Tires,” and “Underneath the Streetlight” are all fine songs that also find Joni rocking out harder than she has on anything since “Raised on Robbery,” while “Man to Man” (featuring Richie and James Taylor on backing vocals) updates her jazz-pop sound for the ‘80s quite nicely. “Be Cool” (featuring Kenny Rankin on backing vocals), “Love,” and “Moon at the Window,” meanwhile, all sound as if they could practically be first-rate outtakes from the Hejira or Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter sessions. There’s too much filler here for this disc to truly rank with most of her platters from the early ‘70s, but this is still her finest disc since Hejira.   


Dog Eat Dog (1985, Geffen)

C +   

The good news about Joni’s second album of the Eighties is that she’s tapped Thomas Dolby to produce, which may sound like an odd pairing if you only know Dolby as the synth-pop performer behind the massive hit “She Blinded Me with Science,” but Dolby’s also the producer behind the cult classic Steve McQueen (or, as it was retitled in the U.S., Two Wheels Good) by the criminally underrated British jazz-pop band Prefab Sprout. The bad news is that Joni hasn’t exactly brought her best material to the table here, either musically or lyrically, and her sour mood throughout the disc – she rails against pretty much everything here, from consumerism to televangelists, and with very little subtlety most of the time – prevents even the more up-tempo material like “Shiny Toys” from being all that fun. Joni is clearly striving to make a point on cuts like “Ethiopia” and the biting “Tax Free” (featuring an extensive spoken-word guest turn from In the Heat of the Night actor Rod Steiger – no, really), but she seems little concerned with whether or not it makes great art for the listener. But the appealing title cut strikes a nice balance between shimmering pop melodicism and Joni’s social commentary, and the record fares even better when Joni turns her attention to less topical concerns, like on the lovely ballad “The Impossible Dreamer” (with the great Wayne Shorter returning on saxophone) and the Michael McDonald duet “Good Friends,” easily the most radio-friendly song here. It’s a bit of a shame that this would be the only time Mitchell and Dolby would ever work together, because you can’t help but wonder how much better this album might have been had Mitchell not been in such a cynical and overly political mood at the time and had focused a little more on crafting some stronger melodies to the proceedings for Dolby to play with as a producer.   


Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988, Geffen)

B +

This album is detested by some critics, and it’s easy to see why: simply put, this is probably the most commercial album Joni’s made since Court and Spark, and the disc’s abundance of high-profile guests could conceivably be seen as a bit desperate or strike some as being in bad taste. (Tom Petty popping up on “Dancin’ Clown” is surprising enough, but when Billy Idol shows up on the same cut, it's hard not to marvel at the sheer surrealism of the moment.) But if you don’t begrudge artists for wanting their music to be heard on the radio, there’s actually a lot here to like, and, though the album is roughly the equal of Wild Things Run Fast overall, the hooks here are much stronger than practically anything from either that album or Dog Eat Dog, for that matter, and the strength of the music helps to mask the occasional preachiness of the lyrics. Aside from the aforementioned “Dancin’ Clown” (which may be filler, but it’s fun filler), there are several fine duets here with Peter Gabriel (“My Secret Place”), Willie Nelson (a top-notch cover of the country standard “Cool Water”), and Don Henley (“Snakes and Ladders”), while Joni herself shines on such tasteful adult-contemporary fare as the hypnotic “Number One” and the “Johnny Angel”-quoting “The Beat of Black Wings” (both of which feature The Cars’ Ben Orr on backing vocals to delightful effect) and the album-closing “A Bird That Whistles,” a minimalist adaptation of the standard “Corrina, Corrina” featuring only Wayne Shorter’s sax and Larry Klein’s bass for instrumentation. Not everything here works – “Lakota” and “The Reoccurring Dream” fall flat in particular – and the commerciality of the production may be off-putting to some ears, but Joni’s melodic skills continue to inch closer back to their peak form, and this album is consequently a very encouraging bounce-back after the utterly insular Dog Eat Dog.