Saturday, March 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" by Joni Mitchell

Okay, first off, let's approach, in point-form, just what this particular beast is. Joni Mitchell's particular corner in the story of 20th century music is so discrete and particular that it's quite rare indeed to just 'stumble across' her post-Court and Spark material. Unless you've made a conscious decision to immerse yourself in it, you can be well-versed in 1970s music and be completely unaware of this album, and of Hejira and Mingus, the albums which preceded and followed this one, and are very much of a piece with it. So what is it?
  • Sonically, it's remarkably consistent: this is Joni Mitchell sacrificing hummable vocal melodies for long-winded poetry delivered with a jazzy vocal feel, accompanied by acoustic guitars and an always-prominent fretless bass. Seriously, this is like a textbook for the bass student.
  • It's barely even a double at all: ten songs, less than sixty minutes. It's only seven minutes longer than Hejira, released the year before as a single-length. If you remove a single song, "Paprika Plains", you walk away with a perfectly manageable 43-minute, 9-track album. I'm tempted to do exactly that, but I think that would be a bit cheeky.
  • This album is of limited value to people who don't listen to lyrics. Lyrics are the centre of this album: everything revolves around them. If you prefer music for the music (which I admit most of the time I tend to), you might find this rough going. Also it takes effort: personally, I felt like I needed to be reading the lyrics to listen to this or else I was missing out. Not music for that morning ride to work, then.
  • Even with that significant caveat, this is still music you need to be in the mood for. It's a 60-minute invitation into a very interesting person's mind, and if you're up for that, it's a hell of a journey. But if you're not up for it, you'll find this pretentious and maddeningly low on 'tunes'.

Critical acclaim for this album was 'mixed'. It wasn't quite panned, but there wasn't much love for it either. I find it difficult to ultimately say the degree to which I like this album, because there's this nagging voice in the back of my head telling me I ought to like it. But I find it easier going than a lot of doubles I've considered. It's no masterpiece, but it ain't half bad either: I guess the critics were right all along.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter

Side one
  1. Overture / Cotton Avenue (6:41)
  2. Otis and Marlena (4:09)
  3. Dreamland (4:38)
  4. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (6:36)
Side two
  1. Paprika Plains (16:21)
  2. Off Night Backstreet (3:20)
Overture / Cotton Avenue: keep (side one, track one)

This is two entirely different entities fused together: it starts with three minutes of overdubbed acoustic guitars, disembodied wailing and navel-gazing fretless bass. If that sounds horrifying, it really isn't. It's quite pretty and evocative - and it's certainly a mysterious beginning to a rather inscrutable album. The spell is shattered a bit when it breaks into a rather more conventional pop song, but really that's just a new spell being woven, for "Cotton Avenue" is also beguiling in its own way: fun, swinging and exciting. It's about how music can be a release: dancing to 'shiny music' during a 'summer storm', which is perhaps what the first three minutes of this track are meant to be.

I probably respect artists' opening track choices too often. In the vast majority of my distillations, I keep them intact. Here's another. But what else to do with the 'overture' part? Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is overinflated as a double, but I respect Mitchell's use of space here. Opening with such a sparse piece is brave. And I like bravery.

Talk to Me: lose

That lead bass grounds her, but otherwise the hyperactive strum and breathy gibber of a vocal performance would have taken Joni Mitchell completely airborne here. She's great fun to listen to, drunkenly trying to chat up a 'silent type' and imitating a chicken at one point. But it's not as flirty and cute as it needs to be, and so ultimately it's a failure as a seduction.

Jericho: lose

The reason why double albums tend to be more sonically diverse than singles is easy: a limited palette becomes excessively repetitive over four sides of vinyl. Joni Mitchell does shake things up, but on a limited scale, and by and large this song represents her raison d'être this time out all too exactingly. The languid tempo and sonic feel is all quite familiar, and the vocals again sound like a poem sung out loud: lines spread across bars with the most minimal of melodies. It's not an embarrassment at all; after all, being entirely an example of the particular genre she created and then worked almost exclusively in from 1975 to 1980 or so, how could it be? But neither does it stand out.

Paprika Plains: keep (side two, track one)

Ah, the bane of my existence at the moment. 'Paprika Plains' is sixteen minutes and twenty-one seconds. It stands out by featuring Mitchell on piano, not guitar: a pretty decent piano performance, I think. The different texture, especially once the excellent orchestration kicks in, makes this an attractive prospect. As does the initial segment of the song, an evocative picture-in-words of the Native American experience - viewed by an outsider. This part of the song last 5:15, and were it to end right there would be a cinch for inclusion in my single-length version. 'I'm floating into my dreams', she says - and then she does exactly that, stumbling into an entirely instrumental piano-and-orchestra midsection that lasts six minutes and forty-one seconds. It's pretty enough: Mitchell performs well, and the score is vaguely cinematic in feel. It's all deeply evocative stuff. But almost seven minutes of it? In the middle of a song? It's tough to define that as anything but indulgent. In any case, the vocals return for the briefest of segues as we enter 'part three' of the song twelve minutes in. Out of nowhere come drums and a saxophone, and the 'journey' is complete. But the saxophone coda goes on too long too, and a second overlong instrumental section in the same song is a bit trying, since so much of the song is truly beautiful and evocative. This song is the bane of my existence because the decision to include it or not affects everything else: it's a whole side... If I ditch it, the album that remains is pretty much good to go as is. If I include it, I have to throw large parts of the remainder of the album out to accommodate it. Where needle time is precious, can I afford seven minutes of piano tinkering?

Okay, so I chose it ultimately. Perhaps it's more than a little overdone, but it's worthy of inclusion, and its instrumentation makes all the difference. I don't quite devote a whole side to it, though: I allow it to dominate side two while giving it a brief dénouement (and palate-cleanser). I think the result is much more user-friendly.

Otis and Marlena: keep (side one, track two)

An electric guitar floats in from nowhere in this song, and it feels like a revelation. Drums occasionally appear, but they're superfluous: Joni Mitchell's violent acoustic guitar strokes are percussion enough. She's quite confident on this one, painting the picture of a couple arriving on holiday in Miami, 'while Muslims hold up Washington'. That political/religious image, a chorus of sorts, recurs several times in the song, a non-sequitur so extreme that that must be the point. Apparently this is a lampoon of the kind of people who travel to Miami for vacation. I don't really know what that means, but that seems a bit unhappily élitist to me. I choose not to listen to the lyrics. Side three is actually the same in structure as side two, except the three component parts are given different names this time out. So the song doesn't exactly end so much as gradually become the next song.

Having chosen to include 'Paprika Plains', I'm now forced to programme my album entirely around its side-one inclusions. Sadly, they follow the album's actual 'flow', though this way, with this as track two, the whole side gradually builds in tempo. Which is nice.

The Tenth World: lose

When you listen to this album for the first time, the entrance of some South American and otherwise 'international' percussion makes you perk your ears up with excitement. The idea of Joni fronting a battery of exotic drums is far more interesting than, say, Paul Simon. Yet we never quite get that... at first you find yourself wondering when the song will begin, you marvel at the length of that 'intro', you start to bemoan the pretence of such an extended beginning to a song... and then you sadly realise that this is the song. That for seven minutes, it's going to be nothing more than percussion with some guy sounding like one of the Gipsy Kings (anachronism, I know) singing on top. And Joni Mitchell nowhere to be found... and how silly is that? It's her album: why give seven-minute stretches to other people? Ultimately, it starts to sound like a documentary, and forced eclecticism.

Dreamland: keep (side one, track three)

And then finally we get what we've been waiting for: Joni extemporising over that Latin percussion. It's as good as it should be, Joni at her gypsy best with the drums less 'wild' but more purposeful. She plays around with racial stereotypes - a lost little Canadian wandering around during Carnaval, perhaps, confused but enjoying the reverie. Again, shut off the lyrics and just enjoy the mood: it's been eight minutes coming, after all. It's a lot of fun, even though you get this sense that it's not supposed to be all that much fun.

Yes, I get rid of the Latin percussion 'interlude'. But I still let this follow 'Otis and Marlena' as side one, track three. Joni was going somewhere with her side three, after all. Let's let her.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter: keep (side one, track four)

This is pretty unrelenting stuff, six an a half minutes of ferociously strummed guitar and breathless vocals, singing pages and pages of lyrics that merge side two's Native American introspection with side three's Latin American release. And with the USA American national anthem interspersed to boot (the second time she's put an anthem into one of her songs, after 'A Case of You'). You might reach for the lyrics sheet, but this time you can survive on the half-heard phrases and put them together as you see fit, really - since the end result is in some way 'psychedelic', a word that makes less than no sense in talking about a late-seventies folkie/jazz fusion concept. But it's true - altered consciousness brought about by sleep or alcohol or whatever constitutes a large part of this album, and here it's brought about by music, by the chant-like repetition and swimming sound of this particular track. it's pretty great, and on the double it brings the album to a kind of climax before two more 'retro' songs bring it back to earth.

It's always a good question where to put the title track. First or last seem obvious, but the title track isn't always the album's 'main idea' - for example here I don't think it is, though it's still a compact epic. I like letting it conclude side one. As I've said above, it allows side one to constantly increase in tempo, toward a climax.

Off Night Backstreet: keep (side two, track two)

This is probably the single track on this album most accessible to Court and Spark fans, and oddly enough it gets lost in the shuffle here. The fretless bass carries the melody again, though there are subtle little flavours here and there, including a shimmering electric guitar and an occasional orchestral entry. Tempo is relaxed yet focused, Joni is on top form vocally working her way through a structure that could actually conceivably be covered by someone else (most of this album is too idiosyncratic to). She provides her own background vocals once the song's title appears, and it is sublime; a simple beauty of a song that does not outwear its welcome.

Joni Mitchell closes her album with two more 'traditional Joni songs' - this can't have been a coincidence. I'm only keeping one of those, but I'm still using it to close. And after sixteen and a half minutes of piano-and-orchestra flight, a safe landing is what the doctor ordered.

The Silky Veils of Ardor: lose

And suddenly, Joni gives us the folkie. This is the only acoustic-guitar-and-voice song on the album. Elements of her vocalisation are still jazzy like the rest of this album, but the 'feel' of the words she sings and certain words and phrases are taken directly from the folk oeuvre: tongue, perhaps, in cheek, but it closes the album on a very 'retro' note. Nostalgia, perhaps, for the artist Joni Mitchell no longer was by this point.


  1. I would've definitely kept Talk To Me, probably in the place of Otis. Also I would've kept Silky Veils - it's such a great closer - in place of Off Night Backstreet.

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