Thursday, January 16, 2014

Decent Lyrics Cannot Save Joni Mitchell's Ladies Of The Canyon From Mediocrity!

The Good: Good lyrics, General voice, Soothing sound
The Bad: Homogenous vocals and instrumentals end up bland upon repetition, Short!
The Basics: Joni Mitchell presents a musically unimpressive album that has a few wonderful lyrics and an impressive -if repetitive- vocal range with Ladies Of The Canyon.

I'm beginning to feel like I might have liked Joni Mitchell a whole lot better if I had started with one of her Greatest Hits albums because, so far, having listened to Song To A Seagull (reviewed here!) and now Ladies Of The Canyon (I have another I've been listening to, too) I have been strongly underwhelmed by the singer-songwriter. Actually, while I find myself disappointed by the music and the general straightforward and boring vocals, Joni Mitchell continues to impress me as a songwriter. Lyrically, Ladies Of The Canyon is all right, the problem is how the lyrics are presented.

With twelve tracks clocking in at exactly forty-five minutes, Ladies Of The Canyon is very much the work of Joni Mitchell. She composed and arranged the album, as well as provided the primary vocals, guitar and piano. All of the songs were written by Joni Mitchell. She did not produce the album, but it does seem likely that she was heavily involved in the creative process at that level as well. Regardless, with so much of the lyrics, instrumentals and vocals falling under her pen, it seems reasonable to call this Joni Mitchell's creative endeavor.

The problem is, it is boring. Vocally, musically, this is a surprisingly dull album; it is limited in sound and scope and it literally came down to the toss of a coin for the "recommend" I ultimately gave it. Ladies Of The Canyon is hampered by tracks that sound similar to one another and a lack of musical and vocal diversity that makes listening to the album - especially over and over again - a less enjoyable experience than it ought to be. If one has heard other works of hers, and in my case coming right off Song To A Seagull probably did not help, the album suffers even more because there is no real growth between the albums. Had Mitchell combined this album with another when it was converted to a compact disc format, it might have given it greater value to make it worth the investment.

As it is, Joni Mitchell presents a very straightforward folk-light rock album with Ladies Of The Canyon and as a result, the album lives with the conceits of the folk-rock genre and comes close to dying on the limitations of a solo artist in that same genre. Well known for being less produced than rock and roll and especially pop-rock, folk rock is especially limited when presented by an artist who is not careful and very skilled.

So, for example, "Conversation" begins with a remarkably similar straightforward guitar strumming and tune as "Big Yellow Taxi." Despite almost completely different tempos of the vocals, the instrumentals and the latter's more melody-based theme, both ultimately have the same general feel and sound because of the strong, generic guitar strumming that recalls the other. Similarly, "Morning Morgantown" and "The Circle Game" have similar tunes and instrumentals.

The only real musical surprise that is pleasant in the instrumentals is the appearance of the clarinet at the end of "For Free." After a rather placid and predictable tune that follows the same format as the rest of the album (I have it on constant rotation, so despite it being the second song on the album, this phrase applies) the vocals cut out and a new instrument breaks out and it is euphoric to hear because it is so different from the rest of the album.

Ladies Of The Canyon is a fairly slow album with almost all of the instrumentals carrying slow, ponderous music. "Willy" blends almost seamlessly into "The Arrangement" via the contemplative and almost mournful piano in both songs. It seems like only "Big Yellow Taxi" and "The Circle Game" dare to crank up the tempo and even then, "The Circle Game" only truly breaks out of the tempo rut when it is presenting the chorus.

Yes, this is a slow album and it is more narcolepsy-inducing than intimate in its lack of tempo. The slow pace translates into a lack of pep on the album and it makes it hard to listen to more than once at a time.

That said, the instrumentals are almost outdone in their blandness by the vocals. This is one of the stranger musical arguments to make, yet here it is. On Ladies Of The Canyon, Joni Mitchell displays incredible vocal range. She is a comfortable soprano who goes high and clear on songs like Ladies Of The Canyon and "Willy" and she can go into the alto range and lower, like on "The Priest." Mitchell's excellence of vocal range even appears within songs. In "Big Yellow Taxi," near the very end, she plummets from notes in the soprano range down into tenor range and she does it with an effortless quality that is impressive.

In an academic sense, Mitchell's voice and vocal range is truly impressive. The problem with the album is that all the leaps and range changes sound identical to the others. On "Blue Boy," Mitchell starts high as a soprano and as the song becomes more of a musical story, she lowers her range in exactly the same way she presents "Willy" and "The Arrangement." Come to think of it, her formula on the album Ladies Of The Canyon seems to be just that; she starts high (if she's presenting high range vocals) and then as the song becomes more of a story in the lyrics, she slips to a more "conversational" vocal range where the lines may be heard clearer and at a slightly faster tempo than the more showy pitches she begins the tracks at.

The effect is, it almost sounds like Mitchell becomes tired singing high and just devolves in a bored fashion to the more safe vocal ranges. This is, of course, not likely what is actually happening, but the sound of the album with track after track presented in the same vocal formula, makes one think that it could be what is going on.

The exception is the oft-covered "Big Yellow Taxi," which starts Mitchell out in the lower vocal ranges right in the middle of a musical story and it works. What doesn't work are some of the higher range notes in "Woodstock." "Woodstock," I actually recognized when I heard it from an episode of Six Feet Under called "Back In The Garden" from the second season (reviewed here!), and near the end of the song, Mitchell returns to the higher ranges for lyricless vocalizations that unfortunately become atonal and her voice breaks a couple of times. It is the only example of truly poor vocal choices on the album, but the sound of the compelling song becomes unpleasant.

Ultimately, what drags the album Ladies Of The Canyon up into the "average" territory and earns it one of the weakest "recommends" I have given out lately, are the lyrics. Joni Mitchell is an able musical storyteller and she sings some wonderful songs on this album. "Big Yellow Taxi," the classic that reminds us "Don't it always seems to go / That you don't know what you've got / Till it's gone / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot" is often covered because it is a wonderful song! Moreover, it has a timeless message that is resonating even today (and will likely continue to resonate for decades yet).

But songs like "The Circle Game" where Mitchell tells a complete musical story - in this case the aging of a child into an adult - illustrate an amazing ability in Joni Mitchell's songwriting talents. She has a wonderful sense of poetics and storytelling and opening a song with wonderful picturesque descriptions like, "Yesterday a child came out to wonder / Caught a dragonfly inside a jar / Fearful when the sky was full of thunder / And tearful at the falling of a star" ("The Circle Game"). Indeed, despite some of the predictable rhymes in the song, it is an amazing track based on the imagery, poetics and story.

Mitchell presents a number of songs about not quite fitting or the melancholy of life on Ladies Of The Canyon, so it's not much of an upper album, but it is consistent. And lyrically, it is impressive that such a young artist could create so many musical stories; one wishes there were more, even if they had continued to sound as much like the others as the tracks on the album already did.

Those who like very classic folk rock or - seriously - need pleasant-sounding music to put themselves or children to sleep with - will want to pick up Ladies Of The Canyon. I suspect, for the rest of us, that the best tracks appear on some of her compilations alongside more musically diverse songs.

The best track is "The Circle Game" (though admittedly, that has a very personal connection for me as it was played at a loved-one's funeral, so I'm not exactly unbiased on this one) and the weak point is "The Arrangement," which leaves even less impression than most of the rest of the album.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out:
“Jackie’s Strength” (single) – Tori Amos
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
MTV Unplugged - 10,000 Maniacs


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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