Saturday, 17 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - For The Roses (1972)

"I want to take you higher." When I quote Sly Stone here, I'm not thinking of a descent into drug oblivion, the dark flipside to the hippy dream, I'm actually thinking of artistic ascent: how can an artist already as good as Joni has been on her first four albums get any better?

I love all Joni's albums up to this point, passionately. She is, and I say this unreservedly and unashamedly, my musical goddess. And it continues to blow my mind how fabulous so much of her output both was and is, and, for me, For The Roses hits some highs that are like choirs of cosmic angels in orgasmic epiphany, and what's more, it's a natural high.

Where Blue's cover photo bespeaks internal turmoil and intense emotions, on the cover of For The Roses she's a Nordic nature girl, blond, beautiful, and clad all in green velvet, elfin in her beauty, inhabiting a Tolkienesque setting of pure natural splendour. I'm guessing the picture was taken near her Canadian retreat. And, for those who, like me, yearned for Joni's love in our teen years, what capped all this off was the insert, which (in my LP version at any rate) had a photo of her buck naked, staring out to sea, stood atop some rocks. Seen from the rear, and from quite a distance, her perfect body nonetheless lived up to the promise her music and lyrics seemed to make: in as far as female perfection can be realised, this is it! And what's more, the music is magnificent. And, to cap it all, this was released in 1972, the year I was born. A meaningless coincidence, perhaps. But redolent with the kind of 'synchronicity' we humans are so wont to find in the patterns of our lives.

This is the first of her albums to commence with a piano based song: 'Banquet' continues her habit of leading off with a strongly poetic number - "I took my dream down by the sea / Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine" - in which, in this case, she's looking at the banquet of life ("Some get the gravy / And some get the gristle / ... Though there's plenty to spare"), from the vantage point of her British Columbia beach retreat. Whether the banquet itself, or the fortune cookie referred to in the last stanza, are real or imagined is hard to tell, but as usual, Joni effortlessly shifts gears through different levels, from the personal and specific to the general and abstract. Her piano playing has been developing, and, like her guitar playing, is very distinctive, mixing chords, licks, and lines, and frequently following the vocal phrasing which, as is normal with Joni, is anything but normal.

Having referred to drugs before obliquely or in passing, she now tackles the theme head on, perhaps as a result of having gone out with James Taylor for about a year, around 1970/71, prior to recording this album (there's a great story here from a guy who's record store they visited, after closing time, near christmas, in 1970). This is, in a way, an interesting foretaste of the direction she would take when she went more in a more electric/band orientated direction, with albums like Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira. It's the first time on record that it sounds like a full band, despite previous instances of tracks with bass guitar and drums, and the lyrics are very urban and gritty, reminding me of a feminine take on Iceberg Slim, whose excellent book Trick Baby (which deals more generally in prostitution and all-round hustlin' and scamming, rather than drugs, but shares a dark urban flavour with this song) I read some years ago, whilst I was, pardon the affected hipster patois, jonesin' on a Joni jag.

Here's an extract of her lyrics for 'Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire':

Red water in the bathroom sink
Fever and the scum brown bowl
Blue steel still begging
But it's indistinct
Someone's hi-fi drumming Jelly Roll
Concrete concentration camp
Bashing in veins for peace
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire
Fall into Lady Release

We've come a long way from the pastoral idylls of 'Sisotowbell Lane', or even the suburban hippy haven of Laurel Canyon as celebrated in 'Ladies Of The Canyon'. In fact her bleak urban poetry is so powerful I want to give you another hit:

A wristwatch, a ring, a downstairs screamer
Edgy-black cracks of the sky
"Pin cushion prick fix this poor bad dreamer"
"Money" cold shadows reply
Pawnshops crisscrossed and padlocked
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas
Sparks fly up from sweet fire
Black soot of lady release

It's interesting to me that two of my favourite singer songwriters, Tom Waits and Joni, both started out sounding sweet and innocent, and both felt the allure of the gritty urban scene, and jazz related culture. This track alone is enough to connect Joni's vein of beatnik lowlife to Waits circa Blue Valentines, and Heartattack And Vine. And of course, she would continue down this road on later albums, with themes such as that of 'The Jungle Line', which I'll be discussing when we get to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.

Track three is one of my favourites from the album, and in fact one of my all time favourites in the Joni Mitchell songbook, 'Barangrill'. After the urban drug hell of the previous track this is like the sunnier side of the beatnik dream. Joni's Kerouackian vibe is strong, and comes over well in the lines of the opening verse:

Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
and Singapore slings
No trouble in their faces
Not one anxious voice
None of the crazy you get
From too much choice
The thumb and the satchel
Or the rented Rolls-Royce
And you think she knows something
By the second refill
You think she's enlightened
As she totals your bill
You say "show me the way
To Barangrill"

Barangrill becomes a mythical Utopiua, and the waitresses are a combination of siren, muse, and boddhisattva. Joni observes all this, and their easy-seeming ways, contrasting it with her own 'crazy', torn as she is between the rock 'n' roll queen's life of luxury, and the "thumb and the satchel" (already a dichotomy she's been increasingly aware of in songs like 'Carey': "My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet / And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne"), that would later seem to be a theme on almost the whole of the Hejira album, with tracks like 'Refuge Of The Roads'. But for the present, at least on this song, the mood is relatively light, as witness the following extract of the last verse:

The guy at the gaspumps
He's got a lot of soul
He sings Merry Christmas for you
Just like Nat King Cole
And he makes up his own tune
Right on the spot
About whitewalls and windshields
And this job he's got

But with Joni it can never be that simple, and she finishes the song by singing:

And you want to get moving
And you want to stay still
But lost in the moment
Some longing gets filled
And you even forget to ask
"Hey, Where's Barangrill?"

And I have to say, this little bit of the song kills me, every time. It's a Zen insight into life: caught in the gap between wanting to change and improve, and wanting to be satisfied with things as they are, lost in those moments some longing does indeed sometimes get filled, in a transient way. And in those moments, even within the bigger picture, we do indeed forget to ask 'Which way Utopia?' Genius, pure genius. And this song also combines fabulous guitar, beautiful vocal melodies, and one of the best woodwind arrangements ever, bar none. At this stage of her career, Joni is getting the best from her talented sidemen. Some might say that later on (exactly when you think this happens is probably a variable matter of opinion) her musicians might occasionally overdo it. Not so here, Tom Scott's contribution to this track is sublime.

In this live recording of the song (below) she talks, in her intro, about the philosophical search for the meaning of life, and how she "started seeing gurus everywhere". Ironically, she says she was at a very low ebb, and therefore thought that everyone was more enlightened than her: "So I walked into this restaurant one day, and I thought I saw my guru... As a matter of fact there were three of them [the waitresses mentioned in the opening line], and I was so spaced out that I was sure that they were The Trinity, you know?" But the resulting song, certainly on the album version, manages to turn this 'saudade' into something beautiful and uplifting, albeit still tinged with melancholy.


'Barangrill', live, 1972, with a great intro explaining the origin of the song.

An interesting footnote to this, one of my absolute favourite Joni numbers, is that Mark Murphy has recorded an excellent cover of it (and as noted elsewhere, a good cover of a Joni tune is, in my opinion, a rare thing), on his album II, which I discovered here.

The next two piano numbers, 'Lesson in Survival' and 'Let The Wind Carry Me', continue the soul-searching theme addressed in 'Barangrill', but in a different manner, both also taking in romantic love, and, in the latter, some family history. These are both good songs, great even, by normal standards, but I'll gloss over them and concentrate on the songs that have most power for me, and the next of these sees Joni back on guitar, singing the bleakly haunting title track, 'For The Roses'. Sounding harmonically and melodically like it could've been on her debut album Song To A Seagull, a mark of the continuity as well as the development of her talent, it's both a threnody for the lost love she shared with Taylor, and her disenchantment with the 'music biz':

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation well who's to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet
Now I sit up here the critic
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you're getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

Feeling crucified on the cross of her creativity by a music business that just cares about the bottom line, Joni retreated to her log cabin in British Columbia, with her dog, as referenced later, in the lyrics of 'Electricity':

Well I'm learning
It's peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown
Of this century

And so she ends for 'For The Roses' alone in nature:

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Brilliant! The connections she makes through her poetry, from one image and concept to another, are really stunning. The more I listen to the music, and the more I write about, and really concentrate on the words, the meanings, and artistry it took to put all this together, the more I am in awe of Joni Mitchell's talents. And at this stage of her career she seemed to just be exuding pure music. But she obviously wasn't entirely happy, as For The Roses preceded a year long hiatus, and a brief (thankfully) self-imposed withdrawal from making and recording music (at least publicly).

'Electricity' finds Joni in band mode, with Wilton Felder (of The Crusaders) on bass and Bobbye Hall (a female percussionist with an enormous and impressive CV) adding congas and tambourine. And it's a magnificent folk-jazz masterpiece, simultaneously of the moment, and a sign of where she might be going next. The lyrics are phenomenal, using electricity, wiring, servicing and so on, as metaphors for feelings, including, of course, love. Fabulous! The feel remains band-like for 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio', but with more of a folk-rock feel, Graham Nash supplying a Dylanesque harmonica solo, and Bobbye Hall again adding congas. This number was apparently something of a riposte to a request for something 'more commercial' from 'the suits', and, perhaps ironically, it paid off, becoming Mitchell's biggest charting hit to date.

'Blonde In The Bleachers' starts out sounding like another typical Joni piano ballad, but by the end of the song it's morphed into her newly-evolving mix of folk-rock-jazz. Again she's lamenting her chequered past in the rock'n'roll business:

Feeling it hot and cold
You're in rock 'n' roll
It's the nature of the race

...

She tapes her regrets
To the microphone stand
She says "You can't hold the hand
Of a rock 'n' roll man
Very long

There's another mention of a child left behind (as in 'Little Green', a nod to her own daughter), and there's the bittersweet self-awareness of the contradictions between the freewheeling freedom-loving rock 'n' roll dream - "it seems like you've gotta give up / Such a piece of your soul / When you give up the chase" - and what's lost - "the unknown child / So sweet and wild / It's youth / It's too good to waste" - and the impossibility that the ephemeral way of life can have a lasting solidity. And that brings us back to the last verse of 'Let The Wind Carry Me':

Sometimes I get that feeling
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me


'Woman Of Heart And Mind', live.

This all brings us to the next of my favourite tracks from the album, 'Woman Of Heart And Mind', the guitar part of which is utterly sublime (also featuring the talents of Felder and Hall on bass and congas, and what chords, especially the final one!) in which she more or less explores and depicts herself:

You think I'm like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl

Before dissecting her lover's stance:

All this talk about holiness now
It must be the start of the latest style
Is it all books and words
Or do you really feel it?
Do you really laugh?
Do you really care?
Do you really smile
When you smile?

You criticize and you flatter
You imitate the best
And the rest you memorize
You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don't try
When you don't even try

But what really comes over is the blues of her own sense of loss and disappointment:

I'm looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation-nothing more
That's what I think
But you know I'll try to be there for you
When your spirits start to sink

If you listen carefully to this album, I think you can hear a woman who's almost having to live like a man, in a male dominated world - the music business as it was then - and is feeling the loss of certain aspects of her femininity as a result. Lady readers, your comments would be welcomed here: as a guy I might have it all wrong! For evidence I submit two more lyrical extracts. First this, from the end of 'Blonde In The Bleachers':

N.B. it's in quote marks here because this is what 'she says' when she's up there, regrets taped to the microphone stand.

"You can't hold the hand of a rock 'n' roll man very long
Or count on your plans with a rock 'n' roll man very long
Compete with the fans for your rock 'n' roll man for very long
The girls and the bands and the rock 'n' roll man"

Here she sounds, despite being a star every bit as big in her own right as many of her male associates, like another groupie, squeezed out in the scrum as they try and get a piece of some 'heroic' male superstar! One thinks this all must've been affected by her relationships with such men as Graham Nash and James Taylor, both of which, one might hazard the guess, provided her with great material for songs, but wounds and 'lessons in survival' to boot.

My second piece of evidence is Joni as the archetypical feminine flower child, and I don't really mean by that Joni as hippy chick, but rather as 'woman' - soft, gentle, receptive, etc. - from the lyrics of 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio'. Tongue in cheek they may well be, but many a true word is spoken in jest:

Oh honey you turn me on
I'm a radio
I'm a country station
I'm a little bit corny
I'm a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

Now, before writing what I'm about to say, I've listened very carefully to these lyrics on the recording, several times, and I'd wager good money that what she actually sings is "I'm a wild open flower", not 'wildwood', as the jonimitchell.com website has it. Admittedly she sings this crucial bit very indistinctly - and in my opinion that very fact lends weight to my contention that she's saying the more saucy of the possible versions - so it could perhaps not be 'open' after all. And there's also the fudged double entendre of whether he or she is the 'broadcasting tower. But, whichever it really is, the meaning of the lines rhyming 'flower' and 'tower' couldn't be any more explicit to the savvy listener.

Having engaged in a good deal of soul-searching, Joni rounds off this superb album with a meditation on love and music, in 'Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)'. The Ludwig is of course Beethoven, and the song's about love, music, love of music, the music of love, and so on. To what degree it's really about Beethoven in any specific or historically accurate way I couldn't say. Certainly she seems to be trying to imagine a kind of empathetic connection between Beethoven and herself. One might think this presumptuous and arrogant, but given Joni's tortured artistic personality and musical genius, I think it's an entirely natural and justified link for her to make.

Joni had said from quite early on that she wasn't a singer, but a composer, and here she gets to indulge her first most overtly orchestrated section of music, the middle of the piece sporting numerous arranged parts, from multi-layered vocals, woodwinds, keyboards, and strings. She's already travelled down this road bit by bit, adding various instruments, extra layers of harmony, and even the highly wrought arrangement for 'Barangrill', mentioned earlier. But here the self-consciously classical influence is stronger, and more portentous. Although her music got ever denser with her more electric albums, she wouldn't go do anything else quite so self-consciously 'classical' until the album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and 'Paprika Plains' in particular. And of course much later, in 2002, she put out travelogue, which features two discs worth of material, old and new, set against lush orchestrations.

This is one of the best albums from a superlative talent, and it's hard to measure the real height of such artistic achievement. So I'll let Joni have the last word. As a description of her view of Beethoven, of herself, or just the artistic endeavour, these words are, I hope you'll agree, pretty powerful:

You've got to shake your fists at lightning now
You've got to roar like forest fire
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They're going to aim the hoses on you
Show 'em you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You've got to try
If you're feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you're tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal


Credits: (sourced from allmusic.com, wikipedia and the original album liner notes)

Joni Mitchell - vocals, guitar, piano
Wilton Felder - bass
Russ Kunkel - drums
Graham Nash - harmonica
Bobbye Hall - percussion
Tom Scott - woodwind, reeds
James Burton (credited as "Jim Burton") - electric guitar on "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire"
Stephen Stills - rock'n'roll performer on "Blonde in the Bleachers"
Bobby Notkoff - strings

Friday, 16 September 2011

Betjeman's Best British Churches

Another book review? Oh well... I do love books, and this is my only blog, so here goes...

Betjeman's original book covered twice as many churches (approximately 5000). This new shiny hardback coffee table version is lavishly illustrated, and as a result cuts the number of churches covered in half, at roughly 2,500... still plenty! First I'd like to point out before going any further that I'm not Christian. I am, using A. C. Grayling's pithy phrase, a naturalist and free-thinker. Nonetheless, I, like this country and our culture, am steeped in the ever-evolving Christian tradition (I was brought up Christian, and went to several churches, none of which were deemed beautiful enough for inclusion here!). And the legacy on our landscape, and in our lives, from our language to the sights and sounds we deem typically English, are all bound up with the history of Christianity. And, regardless of all this, some churches are just very beautiful. I've often liked stopping at a random church and wondering around inside, connecting in my own quiet, personal and meditative way, with all that life and history. So this book was a must.


I confess I know little about Betjeman outside this book, except that he was a poet, and indeed poet Laureate for a while. When reading his introductory essay, it struck me that Betjeman chooses to spell the word 'show' using the rather archaic British variant 'shew', which is fittingly antiquarian, but irritates me mildly, as I feel, and indeed my brain is wired, through learning commonplace English, to think that it should be pronounced to rhyme with shrew, stew, brew or few, of for that matter pew: that's how it looks! In light of this I was not initially sure I go with the TLS quote on the cover which effusively describes Betjeman's introductory essay as 'pure gold'. In fact at first I found it more crabbily and fustily conservative (rather like some of the church wardens you may bump into when visiting churches using this book), if very erudite and occasionally quite funny, as for example: "If the path leading... wealthy unbelievers ... key from there." (p23) Well, that's certainly priceless, but not necessarily because it's 'pure gold'!


He also, as well as making some very prescient remarks, says a few things, which, to my mind at least, are a little odd, such as "It must be admitted that spirituality and aesthetics rarely go together." I guess this depends on you how you define spirituality, a nebulous term at the best of times. But many admirers of culture, including eminent scholars of religion, for example Diarmid MCulloch, stress the great contribution religion makes to our aesthetic culture. Quite apart from own mainly Christian heritage ( which has plenty in it that's clearly pagan), one need only think of the incredible non-figurative arts of Islam, the rich iconography of Buddhist mandalas, or the great traditions of religious music, to wonder if perhaps Betjeman has made a mistake with this particular pronouncement. In the context where he makes it, it is more plausible - he's lamenting the restorations and addition to a church that are, by and large "practical and unattractive", and begs that we remember "however much we deplore it ... [these ugly things] have been saved up for by some devout and penurious communicant.' Whilst this sonorous phrasing has an appeal, its rendering of the 'spiritual' is open to debate. And the quote that follows is dour Puritanism, and despite England's break with Rome, I don't think that Christianity, or humanity, for that matter, was suddenly and totally bereft of aesthetic awareness. Indeed, that's more than half the attraction of this book: these churches are frequently very interesting, and often, in part or in whole, quite beautiful. It I'd true, there are some horribly oppressive Christian buildings across these islands, and even some of the churches we've visited using this book belong in that category, but fortunately they're in a minority. however, when he follows his line of thought to the conclusion that "Conservatism is innate in ecclesiastical arrangement" I can't disagree. But perhaps this pinpoints the difference between religion and spirituality?


"Who has heard a muffled peal and remained unmoved?" Well, ironically part of the appeal of hearing church bells to folk like me, nowadays, is the comparative rarity with which you hear the sound. In the times where I've lived close by a regular ringers church what has annoyed me is not that "they are reminders of Eternity" (in the whole I get along well with Eternity and any reminded I get of her), buy that I'm being reminded of a belief which I don't share, and a belief whose omnipresence, and even perhaps omnipotence, is, thankfully, receding.


One little criticism is that the photos which illustrate points being made in the introductory text give only the village/town name, and then the church name, but not the county. This could very easily been included, and would have been very useful in determining if the church shown is within easy reach. So, for example 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS', which happens to be on the page I was on when this shortcoming struck me, could so very easily have been 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS (Berkshire)'.

A Tolkien Tapestry - Cor Blok

Eh? A non-musical post?

As a life-long lover of Tolkien's vast Middle Earth mythos, I'm always intrigued by artistic developments related to it. For several years I'd been aware of, and very intrigued by, the few and seldom-seen LOTR-themed images by the mysterious and exotically named Cor Blok. Some (e.g. The Game Of Riddles, or The Cow Jumped Over The Moon) I really didn't like, but others (Frodo's Vision On Amon Hen, or The Battle Of The Hornburg II) were tantalisingly compelling.

Every now and again I'd trawl the web in search of more Cor, and every once in a while I'd be able to add another poor quality 72dpi jpeg to my scant collection. I longed to discover a book of Blok's LOTR art. But such a thing didn't seem to exist. Now it does, and now I've got it. My excitement at the prospect was such that I pre-ordered it as soon as I learned of it's existence, before it had even hit the shelves. A slight delay in it's arrival only heightened anticipation.

Well, now that I have it, I must confess I'm a little disappointed. I'd hoped, as had Tolkien before me (Tolkien and Blok corresponded, even meeting once, and Tolkien thought highly enough of Blok's art to buy several pictures, including his own favourite - and one of mine also - The Battle Of The Hornburg II, even considering Blok as a potential candidate for an illustrated edition of LOTR), for more in the vein of the second of his Battle Of The Hornburg artworks. It's no surprise that this piece also adorns the cover; it's probably amongst the best in the book, and certainly amongst those with the broadest appeal. Feedback on the recent Tolkien calendars of 2010 and 2011, both featuring Blok's art (and of both of which I'd been blissfully unaware of!), show that his take on things Tolkienian is not favoured by all. That didn't ever bother me. But, truth be told, even seen in a favourable setting, as here, in a well printed and well put together book, some of these pictures do seem rather poor (Bill Ferny Hit By An Apple is the picture I like least!).

Blok's an interesting, intelligent guy, and his intro to the book is a good, informative read. Some of his ideas and artworks succeed. But some don't. There are several reasons: the method employed for most (but not all) these pictures doesn't always translate brilliantly into print (and these are very good quality reproductions), with the silk-paper layering and underpainting effect not as tangible as might be the case when seen 'in the flesh'. This method also meant Blok's art is all on the smaller side, a constraint which may have fed into another choice he made, regarding his stylistic approach - in essence he leaves out a lot of detail, both in terms of figures and settings, but this is especially noticeable in terms of contextual detail - which I feel is a ploy that's frequently responsible for any weakness these pictures may have, and is at odds with the approach Tolkien took, in which details of character and setting are so important.

Nevertheless, as well as a sizeable chunk of work that I feel is less successful, there are a lot of pretty solid pieces to enjoy here, and some really great artworks. Ironically, given Blok's avowed policy of leaving out 'unnecessary' detail, the aim being to give the viewer more imaginitive elbow room, the pictures I think work best are those depicting events or scenes on a grander scale, in which the figures are smaller. This befits the grand narrative sweep of Tolkien's world. And in fact Blok himself, quite rightly, observes, in a note on the picture titled Weathertop, one of his successes to my mind, that "landscape with Tolkien serves not merely as a backdrop to the action: it contributes greatly to the atmosphere".

Occasionally he departs from Tolkien's narrative 'facts', as in Slaying Of The Nazgul (of which scene there are three versions: interesting in that they illustrate how his ideas evolve), where he has Eowyn slay the Lord of the Nazgul with a spear rather than a sword. That seems like justifiable artistic licence, as it really adds compositional drama. But when, in his second version of The Hobbits Sacking Bilbo's House, he has stairs to a second floor... No, that's just wrong! Remember the description of Bilbo's home in The Hobbit: "no going upstairs for the hobbit"! Nevertheless, the second version of this picture remains the better of the two, with the medieval influence on the composition being an effective idea.

Overall I'm not too keen on how he handles figures. The idea of 'less is more' is great, but I just don't like how he's done it. Learning how this style evolved out of his own invented 'Barbarusian' mythos is fascinating, but it doesn't necessarily cause one to like it any better. This said, there are occasions where the approach he's adopted does work remarkably well, such as 'Gandalf Relates His Adventures'. Undoubtedly though, one of Blok's strengths is how he stands out from the crowds of more conventional 'sword and sorcery' type illustrators. In fact I like him better sometimes the more abstract his figures are: his final LOTR piece, 1962s The King Of The Nazgul, for example, which is almost like a hyper minimalist de Kooning painting (from the latter's brief B&W period, with approx 95% of the detail stripped out) is, to my mind, far better and more sinister than the earlier painting, The Sorcerer King, made circa 1958/9, which looks banal in it's naivety, and ridiculous rather than ominous.

Despite these criticisms, and despite a degree of disappointment, Blok's work remains unique in it's relation to Tolkien, and it has an otherworldliness to it that chimes well with the monumental act of creation Tolkien achieved in building his whole mythos. And on a positive note, there are many delightfully atmospheric pieces here, my favourites, like Amon Hen and Hornburg, but also the previuosly unspublished Weathertop, The Last Bridge, Country Of The Trolls and The Petrified Trolls, depict larger scenes, and include more landscape and context, but even some of the figure based or minimalist paintings work very well to, for example The Firework Dragon II, Gandalf Persuades Bilbo, and the very evocative and highly stylised The Crebain, or the darkly moody Legolas Shoots The Nazgul Down.

As a body of work, Blok's Tolkien Tapestry, gathered together here for the first time, in its most complete (thanks to the arduous sleuthing of editor Pieter Collier, who tracked down several pieces that had gone off the radar) and well printed manifestation ever, is intriguing, perplexing, sometimes dissatisfying, and occasionally brilliant, and I'm really glad Harper Collins put this book out, allowing me to really get to grips with this until now elusive Scandinavian interpreter of Tolkien's bestselling masterpiece.

Can I recommend it? Well, not without circumspection, and a few provisos. But, if you're a Tolkien nut, and open-minded and eclectic in relation to art, then yes, I would recommend it.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)

A Himalayan range of dizzying cloud capped peaks. Music so potent you have to mind how much you dose yourself up on it.

I recently had a couple of separate conversations with two friends in which we discussed different aspects of artistic talent. There was some overlap in things we hit upon. Whilst Tim felt that you could usually quite easily identify an artist's peak achievement, and he used the term in the singular, and that this achievement would kind of sum up all that's best about that artist, Patrick had an even more blunt way of putting it: all the crap that any artist produces is worth it, for the occasional diamonds!

Well, I think there's an element of insight in both these observations. But for me, certain artists - Woody Allen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell - have a pretty big corpus of fairly consistent excellence. If the average artist can only hope for one Monadnock, standing like an erupted shark's tooth in a plain of otherwise flat less-than-brilliant achievement, there are nonetheless those few who have Himalayan ranges filled with peaks that are so high they seem to threaten to pop our thin atmosphere. And indeed, there is an element of danger in their works, as they cut so close the skin and the bone.

Blue is most certainly such an album. Continuing to enrich her palette with a broader range of sounds, the balance between guitar-based (well, actually several are played on dulcimer) and piano-based songs is, for the first time, about even. Russ Kunkel, the fantastic drummer and percussionist with the famed 'mellow mafia' rhythm section known simply as 'The Section', makes his second appearance on a Joni recording, adding more to this recording than he did to Ladies Of The Canyon, and, Joni herself makes dulcimer a new core voice in her repertoire, with its distinctive jangly sound. There's also a new departure visually, in that the cover is not adorned by a Joni original, but instead features a very stark blue-hued montone full-frontal close-cropped facial portrait. The photograph, taken (acc. to Wikipedia) by one Tim Considine, is perfect, reflecting the melancholy intensity of the music within.

Listening to the album again for the first time in several years, I realised that it wasn't as piano-heavy as I'd recalled, and in fact the Appalachian dulcimer is as strong a musical voice on the album as the piano, eclipsing even the guitar, with 'All I want', 'Carey', 'California', and 'Case Of You' all played on this unusual instrument.

Below is a clip of Joni playing an early version of 'All I Really Want' (commenting "here's another really new one that isn't quite finished"), after a quick lesson on the history of the dulcimer, and a story about the origin of her own instrument. Fab!


Joni plays 'Carey' live in the early 80s.


Performing California for the BBC in 1970.


'Little Green' and 'This Flight Tonight' are the only normal guitar numbers, and given Joni's penchant for unusual tunings, even they are far from ordinary. 'This Flight Tonight' is particularly notable for the very low open tuning Joni employs, and the sliding blues-influenced figure that keeps recurring. Over at jonimitchell.com they break it down as follows:

The tuning for this song is similar to a variation of open G ( DGDGBD )that has the bottom string tuned right down to a very low G. The actual key for this song is Ab though, one semitone above G, so the tuning you need is Ab Ab Eb Ab C Eb.

The resulting drone from the lowest strings gives the song a very distinctive sound and feel. It's a technique she employs elsewhere to great effect, for example on 'The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey' (Mingus), albeit that on that occasion she goes for a very different vibe. Here she is playing 'This Flight Tonight' in 1972:


Jason Ankeny at Allmusic starts his piece on the album thus "Sad, spare, and beautiful, Blue is the quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album." And he's bang on. It certainly is "forthright and poetic", and Joni's songs really can be described as "raw nerves". In fact the review of Blue is amongst the best review I've read on Allmusic, and I use that site all the time whilst researching my Drummer magazine articles...

One of the things that I've found about this album, as great as it undoubtedly is, is that, of all the Joni albums (talking now strictly about the golden-streak of records starting with her debut and running somewhere into the latter part of the seventies), it's amongst the hardest to take in one sitting. Why? Well, for me, it's the emotional intensity of it. 'Little Green', written for her daughter, given away when Joni herself was very young, simply destroys me every time I hear it.

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You're sad and you're sorry but you're not ashamed
Little green have a happy ending

I think you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by this song. And, in addition to the emotional punch it packs, it's musically wonderful, her guitar playing like plangent harp, and her vocal lines enigmatic in their mixture of unusual winding melodies, that are yet effortlessly delivered with a voice that seems capable of going anywhere it pleases, with a kind of liquid charm.


Here she is playing 'Little Green' in 1967, four years before it came out on Blue.

It's also some of the more intensely confessional piano ballads that, whilst individually magnificent, can, if taken together, become somewhat cloying. The tendency towards maudlin self-doubt and criticism that began to be apparent on 'For Free', is not just aired here more freely, but is in fact studied, dissected and concentrated, as in the intense closing number 'The Last Time I Saw Richard', in which she sings (from Richard's point of view in the song)

All romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
You laugh he said you think you're immune
Go look at your eyes they're full of moon

before ending the song with

I'm gonna blow this damn candle out
I don't want nobody comin' over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes dark cafes

It's getting pretty bleak! And in the title track, an absolute gem of a song, she sings

Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs lots of laughs

before musing

Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go
Well I don't think so
But I'm gonna take a look around it though

In the parlance of the times, this is some pretty heavy stuff, man!

But, at the end of the day, as Jason Ankeny says, over at the allmusic.com preview for Blue, "Unrivaled in its intensity and insight, Blue remains a watershed." Amen to that!

Credits:
Gary Burden - Art Direction
Tim Considine - Cover Photography
'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow - Guitar & Pedal Steel Guitar
Russ Kunkel - Drums
Henry Lewy - Engineer
John Mayall - Composer*
Joni Mitchell - Audio Production, Composer, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Vocals
Stephen Stills - Guitar & Bass
James Taylor - Guitar, Vocals
Steve Thompson - Composer*

* Mayall and Thompson share composer credits with Joni on one track, 'California' (credited as Mayall, Mitchell, Thompson), all other songs are solely Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell - Ladies Of The Canyon

The cork's off and the genie's out of the bottle.

Modern music's most magnificent musical goddess takes us all on a trip to musical heaven, expanding her palette as she rapidly matures.

Joni's third album starts with the familiar duo of guitar and vocals, sounding, initially at any rate, very much like her first two records.
'Morning Morgantown', is an evocative, descriptive song, and finds Joni sounding elfin and youthful as she sings "The merchants roll their awnings down / The milk-trucks make their morning rounds". But then piano steals quickly into the mix, as do subtle percussive sounds, already heralding developments which, by the end of the album, make this a real departure from her previously super-minimalist soundscape.

Track two, 'For Free', is newer territory yet, being the first fully fledged piano-based song to appear in her recorded catalogue. It's also the first time we hear Joni sounding self-conscious, guilty even perhaps, about her status in the 'music biz', a theme whose implications she would explore ever more as her career developed. And it also anticipates the rather bleakly melancholy vibe, which, coupled with her distinctive touch on the piano, here taking form as a rolling triplet-based feel, which would be such a characteristic part first really big album sales-wise, the justly lauded and famous 'Blue' album.

'Conversation' adds subtle brushwork drumming to Joni's stealthily expanding palette, also adding recorder and flute ('For Free' already having brought in clarinet) to her own ebullient harmony vocals, and us the first time she sounds a bit catty: jealous of another ladies' man she writes scornfully of her rival "she speaks in sorry sentences, miraculous repentences, I don't believe her"!

Track four, the title track, sounds melodically and harmonically very like earlier songs, but the degree of maturity and sophistication she's attained by this stage is staggering. It's also wonderful for being a celebration of womankind. What a great subject for a song! Clearly showing that she's more than a narrator or purveyor of self-indulgent confessional emotional catharsis, she celebrates a gaggle of her female Laurel Canyon companions. How wonderfully unlike the self-aggrandisement of the seemingly never-ending tides of successive 'me-generation' style rappers and pop tarts this is: these ladies won't pop a cap I'm yo' ass, or diss you cuz you aint got enuf bling or rep or whatever, they'll perhaps bake you some brownies instead. And any song where the lyricist celebrates chubby kids and cats - "all are fat, and none are thin" - is alright with me. Go Joni!

'Willy' presages the piano-centric vibes of Blue, and it's beautiful, but like Blue, it's so shot through with, well, blue. The melancholy edge to much of Joni's music is the aspect I find simultaneously alluring, compelling, and disturbingly narcotic.

The intro to track six hints at things to come, from Hejira to Hissing Lawns and Paprika Lawns. Called the arrangement, the title is clever for not just describing the lyrical content, but also the side of Joni that is pure composer. It's not exactly 'classical' music, but it's certainly boy just pop either. The chord she ends with is sublime, as are the challenging lyrics: 'you could've been more' she admonishes, over a chord that is neither pop, classical, jazz or any other 'type', it's pure music, sound, chemistry, humanity... genius!

The back-to-back brilliance of Chelsea Morning and Woodstock illustrate Joni's effortless seeming excellence: one minute she's, pardon the phrase, tossing off an upbeat acoustic 'folksy' ditty, whose darker message - "pave paradise, put up a parking lot" - seeps through despite the ebullient harmonies and the slightly forced sounding laughter as she delivers the casually brilliant sign off, and the next she's looking to her electric future as she tinkles on (oops, sorry again) an electric piano. Again, whilst she celebrates the blissful innocent apotheosis of the flower power generation at Yasgur's Farm it's already elegaic, and despite the optimism of those times Joni still locates us firmly outside paradise - "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

And all this leads to the masterpiece that is 'The Circle Game'. Not amongst her most famous songs, it's nevertheless amongst her best (mind you, her catalogue is littered with jewels). Where STAC felt self-conscious, TCG feels totally natural and uncontrived, and yet STAC kind of paved the way, preparing the ground, if you like.

Here's a great clip of Joni performing 'The Circle Game' way back in 1966, long before it finally appeared on LFTC.

Joni's first two albums already marked her out as a new and brilliant voice in modern music, and with each new recording she just seemed to blossom and grow. If you don't already own this album, you really have to buy it. And yes, I know, Joni's rich enough to not need your dollar (and often sounds more than a little bitter these days, perhaps making her Starbucks deal strangely appropriate). But art this good deserves recognition and reward, all the way down the line.


Credits:

Terry Adams - Cello, Clarinet
Don Bagley - Cello Arrangement
Milt Holland - Percussion
Jim Horn - Baritone Saxophone
Paul Horn - Clarinet, Flute, Wind
Russ Kunkel - Drums
Henry Lewy - Advisor, Engineer
Joni Mitchell - Arranger, Composer, Cover Art & Design, Design, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Vocals
Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir - Vocals (Background)
Saskatunes - Vocals (Background)

Friday, 9 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - Clouds

The flowering of a Canadian genius.

Adorned by a beautiful self-portrait, much more successful than the rather more dated (but admittedly sweet) cover she did for her debut, Joni Mitchell's second album, like her first, is dominated by the Spartan combination of her voice and guitar.

The C.S.N. connections of her debut - David Crosby produced it, Stephen Stills plays on it, and she was in a relationship with Graham Nash - give way to a more independent stance. Whilst David Crosby's minimalist production helped establish a template that this album follows, Rothchild's production is, if anything, even starker. Crosby favoured quite a lot of rather wet reverb, most noticeably on Joni's guitar, and all told Song To A Seagull is just a little muddier sonically. Rothchild helps bring Joni's voice and instruments even closer to the listener. Her already superb instrumental skills sound even better as a result, and we can thank Rothchild's production for this.

Whilst Song To A Seagull had a very little bit of piano on 'Night In The City', Clouds is entirely given over to stringed instruments, predominantly guitar, but also dulcimer, and perhaps others, like zither and mandolin. 'Tin Angel' starts the album, and it's a very strong opener. Despite lines such as "In a Bleeker Street café, I found someone to love today", it sounds more like a threnody or elegy than a celebration of new-found love. But that's Joni for you! This only serves to make the striking contrast with the next song even starker. This next song, 'Chelsea Morning', is the first of her more famous numbers, and is the embodiment of joyful simplicity. But it's still Joni, so she plays it in an unusual tuning. The lyrics are fabulous, here's a small sample:

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I saw
Was the sun through yellow curtains
And a rainbow on the wall *
Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you
Crimson crystal beads to beckon

Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day
There's a sun show every second

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

For an explanation of why there's an asterisk (*) in there, go here.

Here's a clip of her playing 'Chelsea Morning'.



Everybody who knows Joni will know 'Cheslea Morning' and 'Both Sides, Now', and both these songs which are not just well-known hits, but small masterpieces. With 'Chelsea Morning' she pulls off an upbeat feel far more convincingly than she did with 'Night In The City' on her debut. 'Both Sides, Now' had been a hit for Judy Collins, before Joni's own career had got off the ground. Indeed, much of the material on her first two albums was already written before she'd released anything commercially in he own right. And until she got her solo career going, she may have appeared destined to be a writer/composer, rather than a performer. I mean no respect to Judy Collins, but compare her version of 'Both Sides Now' with Joni's and Joni's is on an altogether different level. Collins' version is still a good one - it's a great song after all - but it's done just like any other over-produced pop of the day. Mitchell's own rendering is so much more personal, and as a result, timeless.

Mitchell also turns in her first a capella performance, the anti-war song 'The Fiddle And The Drum', which, earnest and well-written as it is, isn't anywhere near as compelling - especially out of it's Viet Nam era US context (one hears the more topical and resonant power it had at the time more potently in some of her live bootleg performances from back in the day) - as the astonishing 'Songs To Ageing Children Come'. Personally I find 'The Pirate of Penance', on her debut, somewhat too self-consciously clever (I still love it, and by anyone else's standards it'd be a masterpiece, but in relation to Joni's own body of work it's less successfull). 'Songs To Ageing Children Come', on the other hand, is not only self-consciously clever, but entirely convincing. Playing in a sonorous and resonant open-tuning (there's a transcription of it here, which I've not tried yet) she harmonises her way through an unusual chord progression. It's certainly very mannered, and I've read many reviews of her albums where people dismiss it. But I think it belongs to her experimental thread, and as an artist this kind of exploration is essential. Sometimes it works, as it does here, and on 'The Circle Game', on Ladies Of The Canyon, or, even more experimentally, on Hejira's 'The Jungle Line', and sometimes, perhaps, it doesn't. But then again, these are perhaps quite subjective judgements. Certainly I think that a sing like 'Songs To Ageing Children Come' pave the way for later songs, like 'The Circle Game', so an experiment expands the palette, and can later be reabsorbed and seem, relatively, more mainstream or 'normal' And that's what great artists do, they expand our consciousness and our perception, they add new faculties to our way of perceiving the world, or rather, they uncover truths we already knew, but hadn't quite articulated so well ourselves.

All the songs on this album are excellent. 'That Song About The Midway', 'The Gallery', and 'I Think I Understand' are all very strong, demonstrating that even the lesser-known numbers aren't filler. Even the songs I'm less keen on, for example the religious/occult themed 'Roses Blue (there's certainly something like a hammer-dulcimer or zither on this one!) are very good. Almost all the lyrics are about personal relationships, and Joni is very articulate on this, her (apparent) favourite subject. But it's also her powers of poetic observation that make the songs so achingly emotionally strong:

Here's the opening two verses of 'Tin Angel':

Varnished weeds in window jars
Tarnished beads on tapestries
Kept in satin boxes are
Reflections of love’s memories

Letters from across the seas
Roses dipped in sealing wax
Valentines and maple leaves
Tucked into a paperback

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

And she also gets pretty philosophical. Here's the whole of 'I Think I Understand':

I Think I Understand

Daylight falls upon the path, the forest falls behind
Today I am not prey to dark uncertainty
The shadow trembles in its wrath, I've robbed its blackness blind
And tasted sunlight as my fear came clear to me

I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones or sinking sand

Now the way leads to the hills, above the steeple's chime
Below me sleepy rooftops round the harbor
It's there I'll take my thirsty fill of friendship over wine
Forgetting fear but never disregarding her

Oh, I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones and sinking sand

Sometimes voices in the night will call me back again
Back along the pathway of a troubled mind
When forests rise to block the light that keeps a traveler sane
I'll challenge them with flashes from a brighter time

Oh, I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones or sinking sand

That's some pretty heavy stuff, and certainly not candyfloss pop! And then there are the cosmic ruminations of 'Songs To Ageing Children Come'. Some might think this sort of thing pretentious. Personally I think it's profound, and it really speaks to me. For every insightful and articulate Joni there are legions of mindless pop-tarts dealing out oceans of inane trivia. give me a drop of Joni any time:

Songs To Ageing Children Come

Through the windless wells of wonder
By the throbbing light machine
In a tea leaf trance or under
Orders from the king and queen

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

People hurry by so quickly
Don't they hear the melodies
In the chiming and the clicking
And the laughing harmonies

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

Some come dark and strange like dying
Crows and ravens whistling
Lines of weeping, strings of crying
So much said in listening

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

Does the moon play only silver
When it strums the galaxy
Dying roses will they will their
Perfumed rhapsodies to me

Songs to aging children come
This is one

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

Hey Joni (as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo memorably sang on Daydream Nation), I certainly 'hear the melodies in the chiming and the clicking and the laughing harmonies'. She certainly is "a beautiful mental jukebox"!

The album ends with Joni's aforementioned rendition of her own classic 'Both Sides Now', and rather than Judy Collins' perfectly good but rather dated version, Joni's recording is a true timeless classic. And what a way to end an album! Here's a great version of her playing the song live at '2nd frets', in 1966, in which she tells how the idea for the song was born whilst reading Henderson The Rain King, a book by Saul Bellow. The album version is better, actually, but hearing her sing it live, and tell the story of how it came into being is just wonderful.


Here are the words:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds * that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company


Credits:

Henry Lewy - Engineer
Joni Mitchell - Cover Art, Guitar, Producer, Vocals
Paul Rothchild - Producer
Ed Thrasher - Art Direction

Allmusic also credits Stephen Stills (allegedly on bass and guitar, but I can't hear any!), nor do I hear any keyboards, also credited to Mitchell by the allmusic.com credits page. One thing that they certainly get right is that it's a "stark stunner", although I don't think it's so much the "great leap forward" David Cleary calls it. Song To A seagull is a brilliant start, and Clouds is a fantastic development.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Changing up the vibe at SFTFG

I hope some people are still reading my blog? It's been a long while since I regularly posted. Well, in truth, I've never managed to post with anything like real regularity!

I've decided to change the approach to my blog. I started it because I wanted to share music as many others have done, and many still continue to do. However, from an ethical perspective (something a bit like the Buddhist idea of not taking the 'not-given') - never mind the legal one - I feel I can't share copyrighted music. This is basically and fundamentally because I'm a musician, and I myself want, in a world such as ours now is*, to make a living from my own musical 'work'. And so I must respect the work of others. If music is out of copyright, or has never been copyrighted (e.g. bootlegs from concerts), then I might still share it, as long as there are no ramifications to prevent me.

But, as a rule, I'll be aiming, somehow, not exactly sure how yet, to have audio samples that readers can listen to, but not download. There are numerous options for doing this, and if any of you have helpful suggestions (I'm aware, for example, of Soundcloud, but as yet not very au fait with using it), please get in touch and let me know. So far I've updated just a very few posts (Jobim/Aguas de Marco, Beefheart/Decals, and a couple of the Earth Disciples posts), with Soundcloud tracks. I'll try and do more in this vein as soon as time allows.

For those who might be interested, I write a monthly column for Drummer magazine (UK), called 'Recycled', in which I cover a classic or obscure album every month - I'm fast approaching 100 issues/articles, for this esteemed publication - writing about everything from the band to the historic context, but obviously with a drummer's eye view. I'm also an Amazon Vine reviewer, and have written over 150 reviews on Amazon's UK website, ranging from highly informal 'fan-boy' ejaculations, to more 'serious' pieces, most of which are written out of pure passion on my part, but a number of which are part of the Amazon Vine program.

I'm going to attempt to write a short review as often as possible for a period of time, in order to start covering a big chunk of my favourite music, and, once I know how best to, I will aim to include at least one audio track with each post (where that's appropriate). Please do leave comments/feedback!

* Whether or not I think the way the world is now - economically speaking - is the best we could have, well, that's another matter altogether!