"Still glaring from the city lights, ... Into paradise I soared..."
The mansions of Beverly Hills, the haciendas of Bel Air and the bungalows of Laurel Canyon are a long way from the rolling prairie of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where Joni Mitchell grew up. They are even more removed from the mining towns of north Ontario, where Neil young was raised. How is it possible, then, that a pair of expatriate Canadians have come to be recognized as the most perceptive of all "California" pop songwriters?
The answer may well be that California is not so much a place as it is a state or mind. Or perhaps it's that even after years at the top of the Los Angeles rock aristocracy, Mitchell and Young are still outsiders who look at the goings-on around them from an outsider's point of view. One thing's for sure, though: The portraits of hip, young and affluent Southern California types contained in her "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (Asylum 7E-1051) and his "Zuma" (Reprise MS 2242) are more telling than anything else that's been recorded this year.
In Mitchell's case, even her wonderfully evocative album title manages to suggest Los Angeles. The dog days of August have arrived, the sprinklers whir on without respite, and from a ranch house somewhere up in the hills, one can "see the blue pools in the squinting sun and hear the hissing of summer lawns" -a sound that actually can be heard throughout the song that lends its name to Mitchell's first album of all-new material since 1973's "Court and Spark".
If you think the circumstances suggested here sound comfortable, you're right. Nobody in "The hissing of Summer Lawns" is hurting for money. Mitchell's people vacation in Paris, shop at Bloomingdale's when they're in New York, party at night in the slickest discos. Some of them can even claim to have "a room full of Chippendale that nobody sits in".
Unfortunately, in delineating the ennui and emptiness that lie behind this brave material front -and if that idea seems familiar, if you think you've read it in a book before or seen it in a film somewhere, you're right again- Mitchell takes a lone that is smug, sometimes so smug that it is downright irritating. The album's title tune suffers from this; so dies "Harry's House-Centerpiece", with its conversational fragments from some mythical household and its talk of "paper wives" and "paper kids" who "paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid".
What redeems the album are cool and jazzy melodies and some of the best songs about women and men that Mitchell has ever written. Sex and romantic attachment are subjects that she has touched on in each of her seven previous albums, but "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" are more subtle and mature than all but a handful of the many tales of dalliance that have appeared on predecessors to "Summer Lawns".
From another world altogether, but even more impressive is "The Jungle Line" a savage and bizarre fantasy obviously inspired by the works of French primitivist painter Henri Rousseau. The warrior drums of Burundi thump insistently, intertwining with the moog synthesizer that Mitchell uses for the first time and underscoring lyrics that try to impose the jungle's "ritual of sound and time" on "the mathematic circuits of the modern nights". Never before has Mitchell done anything like "The Jungle Line"; a few more songs as adventurous as this and "Summer Lawns" would have become a breakthrough album instead of merely being a reworking of familiar motifs.
While Neil Young's "Zuma" isn't without precedent, either, on one occasion it, too, turns away from what is close at hand and tries to detail the collision of two cultures. "Cortez the Killer", one of nine songs on Young's most satisfying album since "Harvest", is the story of the Spanish conquistador who found -and soon destroyed- Montezuma's Aztecs when "he came dancing across the water with his galleons and guns, looking for the New World and that palace in the sun".
He didn't find exactly what he was looking for, and, suggests Young on "Through my sails" and most of the rest of the album, neither will we. That's hardly what you'd call an optimistic outlook but compared to "Tonight's the night", an album so bitter as to be indigestible, "Zuma" is a remarkably upbeat record; Young still rages and rambles, but his music, good old three-chord rock'n roll, is more orderly than it's been in a long time.
"Through my sails" recorded with the assistance of the other three-quarters of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, is the album's gentlest and most mellow tune and also, not incidentally, the only song the newly-reformed Crazy Horse didn't play on. Young has apparently reunited with his old back-up band: a young Chicano rhythm guitar player named Frank Sampedro takes the place of Danny Whitten, the man whose death from an overdose of drugs was the subject of "Tonight's the Night".
The seamy side of the LA rock scene also provides "Zuma" with most of its material. Mitchell's golden glamour girls are seen here in a different light. There's malice in Young's voice when, on "Stupid Girl", he tells some wasted female hanger-on that "you're such a beautiful fish - floppin' on the summer sand - lookin' for the wave you missed - when another one is close at hand".
There's more of the same in "Barstool Blues" and "Drive Back". Young is obviously full of loathing for those who play at being hip -is it any wonder, then, that he now has left Los Angeles for the relative solitude of Marin County, just north of San Francisco?
Somehow it's hard to imagine Joni Mitchell, snug and secure in her role as rock's sophisticated lady, doing something like that. With Young, though, it's almost to be expected. He is as mercurial today as he was when he arrived on Sunset Strip from Toronto 10 years ago, and his albums -some great, some awful- reflect that. The years in the sun may slowly be making Joni Mitchell into a Pacific breeze more soothing than bracing, but Neil young remains the cold, turbulent and unpredictable gale from the north.
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