It would probably be safe to argue that Joni Mitchell's legacy is not fully appreciated by most members of the general listening public.
At the present time, Mitchell is known primarily for her early works in the late-1960s folk idiom, and for her re-emergence as a mature singer-songwriter of the 1980s and 1990s (respected for her earlier works, if not exactly adored for her more recent output). This version of history works extremely well in a "Dave Marsh" paradigm, but is otherwise both unfair and misleading.
These days, Mitchell's period of combining jazz-fusion and folk stylings is sadly overlooked. From The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975) to the live Shadows And Light (1980), Mitchell operated with various figures from the jazz-fusion movement, pushing forward her own musical boundaries considerably in the process. It wouldn't be unfair to categorize some of her output from this time as falling fairly close to the variety of music that Weather Report were producing.
Obviously, the response from both the critical and popular communities was mixed. The current "historical interpretation" seems to be that many of Joni's fans were confused by her innovative musical ventures, and lost interest as the 1970s came to a conclusion. I am not entirely certain that this isn't a bit of historical revisionism by those interested in defining his career among more limited lines. It may be worth noting that the aforementioned Dave Marsh, in his usual manner, regards this period of Joni's career as a disgrace (while promoting such lightweight tracks as "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" as her best work).
Whatever the reason, the most consistently interesting period of Mitchell's career (even granting that Mingus has a few lulls) is generally ignored by popular histories of her output. Which is quite unfortunate.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter was released in approximately the middle of this period, and is an extremely successful merger of her diverse influences. Some might argue that The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira are better, but the difference of quality is rather slim in any event.
The album begins with "Overture - Cotton Avenue". The "Overture" section of this track consists of various introductory guitar chimes and vocal echo effects (which are quite chantlike is this context). Although Mitchell has never been a virtuoso musician on the level of her bandmates on this release, she nevertheless makes the most of her guitar skills in this section, creating a folk-jazz effect which seems to reflect the general ethos of the work. Jaco's entrance to the album is quite memorable too -- right from the beginning, his technique of "speaking" with the bass is used to its full extent. The "Cotton Avenue" section of the song begins as the drums enter -- Joni's lyrical descriptions of slightly dangerous dance locale are in the style of her more well-known lyrical works, and her vocals fit the song extremely well. Jaco and Guerin are in top form as well. An excellent (if somewhat understated) beginning to the album.
"Talk To Me" features only Joni and Jaco, creating an interesting musical effect as such. The song is a compelling confession of weakness on Mitchell's part, outlining the effects of her character's ... well ... "reckless" lifestyle and the transient nature of any communication made within this state; given her reputation in the 1970s for being involved in a series of destructive relationships, it probably wouldn't be too hazardous to guess that at least some of this has a distinctly personal edge. Musically, Joni outlines the basic structure of the music (the chords of which are actually fairly interesting in combination with the lyrics) while Jaco adds "colour" throughout the work. On the down side, one can't help but wonder if the chicken reference could have been excised without losing the essence of the song.
Although "Jericho" is a perfectly enjoyable track on its own terms, there isn't terribly much which distinguishes it from the other material on the album. The piece is well-written, and the lyrics and performances are all well-executed, but there nevertheless seems to be a certain "indistinctive" quality to this track which hinders it slightly in comparison to the rest of the album (perhaps the rather general quality of the lyrics adds to this problem as well). The bongo addition is a nice effect, though; Shorter's saxophone contribution is limited to a few seconds at the end of the piece. This is a very good track, but perhaps somewhat less than essential.
At this stage, the album embarks upon two separate (and equally ambitious) ventures, generally related to the "folk/jazz" nature of album but ultimately far exceeding the limits of these terms. The first of these occurs on the epic "Paprika Plains". The track begins with a piano introduction (played by Mitchell herself), clearly in a jazz setting. Mitchell's voice is more "musical" than on the previous tracks as she narrates a first-person description of a late-night gathering in a bar frequented by a Native American clientele (whether or not Mitchell's character is herself Native American isn't quite clear -- she apparently speaks from this perspective through most of the song, but certain lyrics might suggest that her perspective is that of an outsider). Her description of this setting, told from a personal rather than a cultural standpoint, comes off remarkably well, generally not sounding even remotely hackneyed (though the "lost some link with nature" line might have been altered) -- the portrayal of hopelessness and alcoholism is presented in an extremely realistic manner.
At the point in the narrative in which this character leaves the setting and enters into a dreamstate, the music shifts to a duet between Mitchell on piano and an orchestral accompaniment. The lyrics which accompany this section (which are only printed in the inside jacket, not actually appearing in the song) is a disturbing mixture of references to innocent childhood memories, a nuclear explosion and an expressionless Plains tribe gazing upon the dreamer as if a relic from an earlier time (which may suggest that she is, in fact, an outsider to the scene). From a purely musical standpoint, this section is able to stand its own ground as a work of semi-"modern" classical form (even granting that Mitchell's piano skills aren't quite world-class). Some of the music is actually quite disturbing, as befits the theme.
As Mitchell's character returns from her dream to the real-life setting, the music shifts as well -- Jaco, Guerin and Shorter present a jazz-fusion based setting over which the remainder of the story unfolds. The character once again becomes lost in the present scene as the track reaches its conclusion -- the orchestra returns toward the very end, with Jaco still playing along as well.
The song contains a few minor weaknesses, but is ultimately best regarded as a successful attempt at capturing a rather unique perspective of character development. It's not quite the best thing on the album from a musical standpoint, but it's still quite easily one of the high points of the work.
The second ambitious experiment follows immediately after this track, in a three-song disjointed narrative beginning with the deliberately prosaic tale of "Otis And Marlena". Sung from the perspective of the female character, Mitchell's portrayals of tedious petit-bourgeousie vacationing take on a vaguely frustrated edge, with the anger never quite rising to the surface. The chorus reference to "Muslims stick[ing] up Washington" is presumably a reference to the small-town sentiments of the lead characters (though the keyboard and drum section which accompany this section of the track are a nice touch as well). Like "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock", this track ultimately succeeds by virtue of its vivid description of failure.
As the protagonist of the song slips into a bored dream state (recurring themes, anyone?), "The Tenth World" suddenly brings her direct contact with an entirely different cultural setting -- the character escapes to a world dominated by Brazilian percussion stylings and a fairly "free" manner of musical expression as such. From a purely musical standpoint, this track could easily have fit on a contemporary Weather Report release. The performances (by various players) are quite impressive, and the briefly recurring tones of Joni's voice (as if from another plane) are an extremely clever touch.
This is then followed by the enigmatic "Dreamland", which continues the musical essence of the previous work in conjunction with Mitchell's lyrical depiction of the character's vacation progress (with her perspective, accordingly, falling somewhere in between "insider" and "outsider" perspectives). My own theory is that this song was probably written first within the trilogy, with the rest of the story being developed later. As before, the generally theme of racial divisions plays a (not surprisingly) significant role -- on a related note, it bears mentioning that Chaka Khan's vocal contributions work well within the song as well. As the character returns to her prosaic settings at the end of the track, she still sees herself as approaching the dream-state of the previous occasion; whether this represents a significant personal shift or simply an entrancement by the "sights and sounds" of the vacation area isn't entirely clear.
One way or the other, the final two tracks in this series constitute the most interesting section of the album, from a musical standpoint.
The next two songs on the album are generally within the same style as the first three. Of these, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" is easily the more interesting number, involving a depiction of two animal spirits (eagle and snake) battling for control of the singer's soul -- the "spirit" which explains these two tendencies to Mitchell alternately takes the form of a detached seer and a seductive male figure; the references to another "forbidden" affair in the final verses suggests that the latter definition may be the most immediately significant. From a lyrical standpoint, the "coward" section of this song (and thereafter) is perhaps the most articulate moment of the album. The band, as always, provides good accompaniment, and the guitar effect at the end is quite appropriate.
This leads to "Off Night Backstreet", another less-than-essential track which nevertheless works on its own terms. Musically, it's a return to the stylings of "Cotton Avenue" [and ... is it just me, or does the chord pattern sound a bit like "Satisfaction" at the beginning?], with the added accompaniment of an orchestral setting. From a lyrical standpoint, the song is another depiction of a disastrous love affair, fine enough on its own but somewhat limited in comparison to the earlier tracks as such (the "pleasure/pain" dichotomy isn't the most original sentiment on the album). Still, the jazz-folk setting of the track allows it to generally attain a level of success.
Finally, the album ends with "The Silky Veils Of Ardor", the only completely solo track for Mitchell on the album. This intricately lyrical number consists of a lament on the futility of her previous attempts at resolving her romantic inclinations (thereby bringing the general theme of the album to its conclusion). Tellingly, the final lyric on the album is "It's just in dreams we fly/In my dreams we fly". Mitchell's skill at creating a unified "concept" in an album without overdoing the theme is quite admirable. From a musical standpoint, this track too is fairly interesting (in a "folk/epic" manner, as distinct from "folk/pop").
This album is certainly recommended to fans of progressive and jazz-fusion stylings, many of whom may not even be aware that this aspect of Joni Mitchell's career exists. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira might be even better choices, but it would be hard to envision someone "going wrong" with this one.
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Added to Library on January 27, 2008. (6043)
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