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 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 preview for Blue, "Unrivaled in its intensity and insight, Blue remains a watershed." Amen to that!

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.

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