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Joni Mitchell Takes Up Topicality   Print

by Stephen Holden
New York Times
October 16, 1985

Within the next two weeks, Geffen Records is releasing "Dog Eat Dog," a new album, by Joni Mitchell that is certain to generate controversy. For on "Dog Eat Dog," the most probing confessional singer-songwriter of the 70's has largely forsworn autobiographical self-examination in favor of blunt topical commentary.

One song, "Tax Free," denounces America's fundamentalist right. Toward the end of the song, Rod Steiger, playing a flamboyant Moral Majority-styled preacher giving a mock TV sermon, advocates the invasion of Cuba. Miss Mitchell's lyric asks, "How can he speak for the Prince of Peace when he's hawk-right militant?"

Another song, "Shiny Toys," haughtily takes on today's consumer culture and its "flashy boys and girls." "Ethiopia" meditates darkly on famine in Africa and on the way "shortsighted greed" is depleting the rest of the world's natural resources.

"Dog Eat Dog" and "3 great Stimulants" both condemn American materialism. "The dove's in the dungeon and hope is in the hands of the snake-bite evangelists and racketeers and bigwig financiers," the singer announces in the album's title song. "3 great Stimulants" evokes a declining America in which "the exhausted ones" call for "the three great stimulants - artifice, brutality, and innocence." Near the end of the song, the singer fantasizes a nuclear holocaust. "Fiction," in which the singer imagines the end of the world, concludes with simulated sounds of a nuclear explosion.

Because of its topicality, "Dog Eat Dog" represents a dramatic return by Miss Mitchell to the activist folk-music tradition that spurred her to write songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" 15 years ago. Musically, however, the album is miles away from anything that could be called folk.

The most futuristic-sounding record of Miss Mitchell's career, it presents her pronouncements within the context of richly layered sound-scapes that bear some comparison to Neo-Expressionist painting.

Recorded with a production team that includes the brilliant young British synthesist, Thomas Dolby, the music fuses pop-rock, jazz and electronics, with several interjections of dialogue in addition to Mr. Steiger's. Amid the clicking computerized ambiance of "Shiny Toys," a male voice shouts, "Yahoo!" and another boasts "I love my Porche." In many places throughout the album, the elaborate overdubbing turns Miss Mitchell's voice into a choir that seems to be debating within itself.

Many will of course disagree with Miss Mitchell's gloomy assessment of America's spiritual condition. What will be interesting to observe is how the traditionally liberal rock press receives an album whose rhetoric is so outspoken and at the same time so detached in its formality.

While the rock press has welcomed spokesmen like Bruce Springsteen, who speak in the voices of embattled everyday people, its response to artists like Bob Dylan who assume a prophetic diction has been ambivalent. "Where the wealth's displayed, the sycophants parade," Miss Mitchell sings in "Dog Eat Dog." Words like that are hard to sing in a way that has any flow.

"Dog Eat Dog" isn't all grim topicality. "Good Friends," a duet with Michael McDonald, is a celebration of long-term grownup friendship and the whimsical love song, "Lucky Girl," is one of Miss Mitchell's two or three finest jazz ballads.

A Weill Compilation By Jazz and Pop Artists

"Lost in the Stars" (A&M), an excellent collection of music by Kurt Weill performed by various pop and jazz artists, should do a great deal to enhance the German-American composer's already growing reputation in the pop community. The album is the third such tribute-compilation to one musician to be produced by Hal Willner, who last year put together "That's The Way I Feel Now," a multi-artist salute to Thelonious Monk. Earlier Mr. Willner has worked on a similar overview of the film music of Nino Rota.

The Weill tribute is the best and the most star-studded of the three. Its high points include Sting's bracingly vinegary interpretation of "Mack the Knife" and a version of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?," by Tom Waits, that is so grief-stricken it almost seems to come from beyond the grave.

Carla Bley and Phil Woods offer a moody jazz instrumental version of "Lost in the Stars," and the Armadillo String Quartet's version of "Youkali Tango" is suffused with an Old World wistfulness. Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful, two rock veterans who have had more than their share of well-publicized ups and downs, bring out a world-weary quality that seems intrinsic to Mr. Weill's music.

Mr. Reed's drone-rock version of "September Song" goes too far, by reducing a great melody to a monotone. But Miss Faithful's ravaged but rich voice is ideally suited to "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife." Miss Faithful is the rare singer who seems born to sing Weill, and one wishes that someday she might record a whole album of Weill-Bertolt Brecht.

'Miami Vice' Strikes Again

WHAT"S HOT? "Miami Vice" fever is weeping pop music. MCA Records' soundtrack album of songs featured on the show has sold 1.3 million copies in just two weeks and has spawned two fast-rising singles. Jan Hammer's 59-second "Miami Vice Theme," developed into a full-length single, has reached No. 5 on Billboard's singles chart and is rising rapidly, and Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City," is No. 15 and climbing.

Two other cuts created for the record that are scheduled to be included on forthcoming episodes are Chaka Khan's "Own the Night" and "Vice" by Grandmaster Melle Mel. Both of "Miami Vice's" two stars have been signed to major record deals. Don Johnson's Epic record debut, reportedly to be a mainstream pop-rock album with some original songs in the same genre as Huey Lewis, is due this spring. Phillip Michael Thomas' solo debut on Atlantic Records will be available before the end of the year.

 

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