Thursday, January 2, 2014

Song To A Seagull; Joni Mitchell's Sublime Early Work Leaves Little Impression Now (My New Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Nice voice
The Bad: Musically dull, Short!
The Basics: Joni Mitchell's fabulous storytelling lyrics are undermined by mindnumbingly similar vocals and dull instrumentals on Song To A Seagull.

After a few weeks of listening to the music of Madonna, I am certainly ready for something new (to me, anyway!). Considering great musical artists that I have little or no experience with, I decided it was time to give the works of Joni Mitchell a fair spin. So, I now have a pile of six of her works I'm listening to in high rotation to learn about her sound and vibe and albums. I'm starting with the earliest one I picked up, Song To A Seagull. This album is one I came to with a very pure listen; I did not know a single song off the album and now after listening to it nine times, I am finally ready to write about it.

Joni Mitchell presents a homogenous album of light folk-rock with Song To A Seagull, a concept album unified by themes of moving out of the city, back to nature as an allegory for moving on in relationships and discovering different ways to live and love. Lyrically and vocally, the album is far stronger than musically, which is surprisingly bland and unimpressive in every way imaginable.

Clocking in at 38:05, Song To A Seagull represents a fairly pure work by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. She wrote all of the songs and plays the guitar and bass on the ten tracks. As well, she provided the cover art for the album and worked with another on the banshee. While it is produced by David Crosby, one suspects that Mitchell did not simply turn over all creative direction to him. In other words, this is largely the musical vision of Mitchell and therefore much of the credit and critique falls to her alone.

The superlative aspect of Song To A Seagull is the lyrics. Joni Mitchell is an astonishingly good musical storyteller. Her lyrics read like little stories complete with characters, themes and plots. She sings about Michael, Marcie, Nathan and even creates a dialogue between Penance Crane and the Dancer on "The Pirate Of Penance." The character songs are often strongly thematic, like "Marcie," who Mitchell uses as a vehicle of abject loneliness with lines like, "Marcie's faucet needs a plumber / Marcie's sorrow needs a man / Red is autumn green is summer / Greens are turning and the sand / All along the ocean beaches / Stares up empty at the sky / Marcie buys a bag of peaches / Stops a postman passing by . . ." The lines where Marcie tries to relate to anyone proximate are heartbreaking and convey a desperation few know and few musical artists articulate in song.

And the songs that are not direct stories are still packed with wonderful lines that tell clear tales. Mitchell writes strongly poetic refrains, like, "I can't go back there anymore / You know my keys won't fit the door / You know my thoughts don't fit the man / They never can they never can" ("I Had A King"). The second half of the album, which more directly involves going down to the sea and is music of the journey are laced with images, mostly of sea birds. Poetically, Mitchell is well above the average singer songwriter and it is easy to see why her style fits the narrative form commonly associated with the poetics of folk-rock.

Moreover, Mitchell does not use the most bland poetics. She has a wonderful sense of diction and she's perfectly able to open a song in a way that is intriguing and intelligent. On "Cactus Tree," for example, she opens with "There's a man who's been out sailing / In a decade full of dreams / And he takes her to a schooner / And he treats her like a queen" which is a compelling opening to a good song. Listening to her sing "Cactus Tree," I hear the roots from which Dar Williams sprung "The Ocean" on Mortal City (reviewed here!).

Vocally, Joni Mitchell is initially impressive, though the sound of the vocals holds up poorly over repeated listens. Academically, Mitchell is a fantastic singer. She sings slow and sad, easily traversing the alto and soprano ranges. She has a flawless vocal presentation on the songs on Song To A Seagull.

The problem is the tracks sound alike vocally. Every track it's Mitchell quietly singing right in front of the guitar or piano which is produced to almost the same volume as her. She has a voice that is both quiet and strong. In other words her voice has substance, she is clearly singing from a place of inner power. However, she's not singing all that loudly. The result is a weird dichotomy that makes her sound somewhat diminished. To the listener, the sound becomes tired far too quickly.

The notable exception to this is on "Night In The City." Perhaps the most produced track on the album, "Night In The City" features Mitchell doing a cannon to herself, singing back and forth, repeating lines in a way that makes it sound like she is her own chorus. It's an intriguing sound and it is well mixed for the effect of making her sound bigger and bolder than she is.

Her strength overcomes the music as well on "The Pirate Of Penance" when she reaches a crescendo as her protagonist defends herself from the antagonist's allegations. But the two exceptions are just that; the remainder of the tracks are largely high pitched and quiet. The vocals are completely overrun by the guitars on "Song To A Seagull" (the track).

And herein lays the final difficulty with the album Song To A Seagull: the music. I understand Mitchell created this album when she was quite young. That said, it is one of the most musically boring albums I have ever heard. The guitar work is the most generic interpretation of folk I have yet heard. Seriously, if one were to make a generic folk sound, the tentative strumming that accompanies most every song on this album would be the perfect ideal of that. There is no percussion and as the primary instruments are Mitchell on guitar or piano accompanied only by bass, the album needs to mix up the music to make it compelling to the ear.

Mitchell does not do that on Song To A Seagull. Instead, the music is homogeneously bland with the same basic sound coming track after track. The exception here is for the chorus parts of "Night In The City." But even the tempo and volume change of the instrumentals in that track is hardly compelling.

As well, Mitchell's limitations crop up on the very first track in a disturbing way. Recall that I came to this album blind; all I actually knew was that Mitchell sang "Both Sides Now," thanks to the commentary track on Love Actually (reviewed here!). When the song "I Had A King" began I thought it was "Both Sides Now." Yes, she uses the same tune, at least to begin the song!

Ultimately, this is an average album and I finally opted not to recommend it for this reason: the length. I respect an artist and I am a huge fan of the idea of an album as a work of artistic expression. With such a short duration, Mitchell could have easily put two of her albums on a single disc when they were being brought over to c.d. I may be left ultimately feeling ambivalent about the album, but no matter what I wanted more to it.

Anyone who likes folk rock will appreciate the lyrics on Song To A Seagull, but the veterans of the genre will likely be as bored by the rather typical instrumentals and vocals as I was. There is hope with this album, but Mitchell does not land it, at least not for the medium.

The best track is the song of consequences that closes the album, "Cactus Tree" and I'll go with "The Dawntreader" as the weak link for this reason: I've listened to the album almost ten times now and I swear I cannot recall the song. It's that indistinct.

For other, former, female Artist Of The Month works, please visit my reviews of:
Remember - Janis Ian
American Life - Madonna
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann


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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