When 1971's over, it's going to be remembered as the year of the singer-songwriter. And even more specifically, it could be remembered as the year of the female singer-songwriter - or, I hope, the year when that species began to take on a whole new importance.
Carole King's beautifully-woven "Tapestry" is the nation's best-selling album right now, according to the trade magazine charts, nosing out the McCartneys' "Ram" and dislodging the chauvinistic Stones' "Sticky Fingers." Carly Simon's "Carly Simon" is catching on and coming up, while her single "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" is still doing likewise. And a host of others are in there trying, with more female composers and singers being heard now than ever.
Tying the mounting interest in the species to the current equally strong interest in Women's Lib, especially among younger women, seems an obvious connection, tho an over-simplified one. The Women's Lib interest has played a big part, certainly. The recording industry makes it its business to keep up with trends that can make the cash register sing as the records spin 'round. And the industry now is discovering that for some reason - Women's Lib, whatever - the old belief that Cash Box magazine, in an article on the burgeoning female singer sales, terms the "girls don't sell" credo doesn't go anymore.
So they're showcasing more and more women, and since the return to softer rock and more personalized statements seem to be entrenched, the girl who sings and writes too seems like a doubly good bet. What it adds up to is that the public has more of this variety from which to choose - and there are some real gems, as well as the usual lot of paste.
Hopefully in music like the rest of society, the move toward women in the spotlight will give way to a situation where women's equal prominence is accepted as a natural thing, not a fad or "trend." To borrow a line from Carly Simon, that's the way I'd always heard it should be.
Unlike the scattered successful women singers of some years ago, many of today's female singer-composers talk about what they're feeling now, not what society might still think they should feel. Too often, I think songs by women have been merely a reaction to the male point of view, a reaction to what some man has done to them or what they hope some man will do for them - i.e., marry them and let them have his kids. Well, that's not such a big deal anymore among women [especially younger ones] who think for themselves very much.
As the role of women in society changes, some of this is reflected y the female composers - a few of them, anyway, tho by no means all. I just happen to prefer the ones that do to a certain degree, since they seem far more like individuals.
Joni Mitchell has been around awhile, long enough to know it's impossible to classify her beyond her folk orientation and fragile, haunting voice that skitters thru her songs like an elusive butterfly.
And like butterflies her songs are meant to be enjoyed in flight, not pinned down and analyzed. Instead, you experience them as she swoops thru her delicate poetry in a high and pure or lower and warmer range, hurrying the words or slowing them down to fit her melodies. It is a very individual style, but one that suits her. Her latest album, "Blue" [Reprise] contains 10 new and sometimes very good songs, tho there is nothing better than "Both Sides Now" from her earlier "Clouds." This album is more backward looking than those before it, pervaded by a wistful sadness that accompanies the singer on her travels down roads and over oceans as well as moods and experiences. Originally titled "River," at one time "Blue" was to have included her beautiful "Urge for Going," but it somehow was dropped in favor of another song. Too bad.
The song on the album, "The Last Time I Saw Richard," is not one of the better cuts, but it is an indication that Joni Mitchell knows that too often even the romantics end up buying washing machines and percolators. She writes songs for aging children, but she knows we all have to grow up. It's how you do it that is important, and Joni Mitchell's very ambiguity and sensitivity are her keys to that process.
James Taylor, who got some help from Joni on "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon," pays her back for her harmonies by playing guitar on a couple of cuts. Stephen Stills plays on one and Sneeky Pete and Russ Kunkel round out the backup credits, but Joni's acoustic guitar and piano playing come thru it all.
In the title song of "If I Be Your Lady," [Elektra], Carol Hall asks, "If I be your lady, can I be me?"... If I come to your castle, what of mine?" But I don't think she has to worry about losing her identity. Her songs show her to be too much an individual for that. There's a lot behind her voice too - feelings, experiences and intelligence. This is a polished first album about herself and her feelings, her friends, and love.
From the cover of Alice Stuart's "Full Time Woman" [Fantasy], with Alice astride a motorcycle, her frizzy head bent to kiss a child, I had expected something with a little more guts. Her voice is a high, pleasant one, but not especially memorable or outstanding, and neither are the songs. Alice Stuart is obviously interested in being a full-time woman, and there are an awfully lot of those around.
Singer-songwriter Victoria, who'll appear with Cat Stevens tomorrow night at the Auditorium Theater, has another of those voices that's high and not bad, just dull after awhile. Her contributions on "Secret of the Bloom" [San Francisco] are oh-so-sensitive ones about people's wedding nights. That sort of stuff.
Judy Mahan's "Moments" [Atco] came out a while ago, and I kept meaning to review it, but never did. Meanwhile, I kept on playing it, and still do. She sings with a fine folk flavor in an emotionally powerful voice, and her songs are often expressive and beautiful walkways into her heart.