Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Indistinct Joni: Taming The Tiger Disappoints The Listener

The Good: Moments of vocals, Moments of lyrics
The Bad: Songs blend together, Mitchell's voice is mumbly and unimpressive, Most music, Overproduced
The Basics: In the course of my review, I trundle out of denial to admit that Joni Mitchell made a real lemon with Taming The Tiger.

There's a disappointing quality to some of the Joni Mitchell works I've been listening to of late; the way she began to overproduce some of her works in the late-1990s, for example. And when I put Taming The Tiger on my high rotation play to be able to write about it, I suddenly discovered that Mitchell's works were truly disappointing me. After seven listens to Taming The Tiger - the eighth spinning of the disc is happening as I write this review - I realized I couldn't say what exactly I had heard. I've listened to this album over and over again and not one track has stood out, not one line, not one lyric.

With Taming The Tiger, Joni Mitchell presents an overproduced, melancholy album that blends from one track to another into an indistinct musical mess.

With eleven tracks clocking in at 44:19, Taming The Tiger was produced by Mitchell and she wrote all of the songs and sings the primary vocals on all of the tracks. As well, she plays the bass, keyboards and percussion. She is presented as the album's mixer, co-art director and arranger as well. This represents another very pure vision of the singer-songwriter's musical and lyrical intent. This means that Mitchell bears the responsibility for the results.

And it's a boring album. The tracks generally sound like one another, the lyrics are nowhere near as distinct or interesting as her prior albums and there is nothing new on this album that pops and informs the listener that Mitchell still has something to say.

The strong point for Joni Mitchell's prior albums has been her lyrics. On Taming The Tiger, Mitchell seems bored with writing and presents some of the most disappointing and repetitive lyrics of any of her albums. Take, for example, the album's title track. After a few indistinct lines, the song degenerates into multiple repetitions of just "Tiger tiger burning bright / Nice kitty, kitty / (Boring!)" (Taming The Tiger). And the way the song is presented, all that can truly be heard is "tiger tiger" and "kitty kitty" and it is just wrenchingly dull to the ears.

Unlike prior albums, Taming The Tiger is not a collection of musical stories. Instead, this is a philosophical album with Mitchell presenting her thoughts on love ("Love Puts On A New Face," "Face Lift"), changes in friendship ("Stay In Touch"), and the failure to deal with the consequences of history ("No Apologies"). The songs generally lack the innovative poetics and high level of diction usually associated with Joni Mitchell's poetic works.

Take, for example, "Lead Balloon," which does manage to use the word "kowtow" (which she spells "cowtow"). The title is repeated twenty five times. What is worse is that "lead" is repeated an additional thirty-two times! It's repetitive and indistinct and it is boring to listen to in a way I never would have suspected Mitchell could sink to. But believe me, after one hears "lead balloon" sung with repetition and a disturbing lack of enthusiasm, the word "mind-numbing" becomes the best one may say about it.

In fact, on the entire album, the only line that stands out is ". . . Love takes so much courage / Love takes so much shit" ("Face Lift"). Unfortunately, even that line is undermined by what comes after it, song dialogue that rhymes that line with "Snap out of it" and it just makes even "Face Lift" seem like the songwriter was bored while writing it.

Part of the problem with the lyrics on Taming The Tiger is the presentation of them. Mitchell abandons her previous soprano range for vocals that are entirely in the alto and tenor range. Mitchell has the ability to sing with a smoky quality that instantly evokes sultry nightclubs and genuine passion. On Taming The Tiger, that is not evident.

Instead, Mitchell mumbles through "Harlem In Havana" and "Life On Mars." She fails to sing in front of her own production on "Love Puts On A New Face," "Face Life," and "My Best To You." She is drown out by her own percussion and instrumentals on virtually every song and the only song that has a truly comprehensible lyric is "Lead Balloon," with its repetitive refrain and its opening of "Kiss my ass!"

Mitchell does not challenge the listener to hear anything different in her performance than what she has given us on prior albums in the past and this disappointing lack of range and musical vision. Instead, she sings with an understated quality that exists entirely in the lower ranges of the voice and she blends her voice with the keyboards and bass so it is even harder to understand what she is singing. This is especially troubling on "No Apologies" where she mumbles and hits her pitch almost precisely on the same places as the keyboards.

In other words, when Mitchell isn't mumbling her way through her own lyrics, she is producing the vocals into the music in a way that blends them so that the experience is more inarticulate than anything else.

Musically, Taming The Tiger is a light rock/jazz sound that blends one track to another in a way that makes it difficult to differentiate one track from another. In fact, the only song that has any distinction musically is the beginning of "Harlem In Havana" and it did not take me long before I realized that the reason that sounded familiar to me was that it begins sounding like "Jolene" off Janis Ian's God And The F.B.I. (reviewed here!).

Here's the thing, Taming The Tiger has gone over into a ninth spinning as I've tried to articulate my thoughts for this review and the truth that I've been avoiding - and was prepared to deny in my ultimate rating - is that this is a terrible album. As the ninth listen comes to a close and I type faster to try to avoid hearing this album again, I realize that I dread the thought that I might have to. This is narcolepsy-inducing music and truth be told, my desire to rate it at a 4 is just denial of that fact.

None of the lyrics pop and if they did, the vocals are so garbled and mumbled through and produced over that the only ones that come through are the over-repeated ones. The instrumentals are dull and similar track-to-track and are virtually all slow and carry a melancholy weight to them and it's a boring album. Joni Mitchell has done better and anyone who wants to hear and enjoy her works would do best to avoid this outing.

Ultimately, I could not even figure a single track from this album that might appear on a "Greatest Hits" anthology if ever her entire body of work were anthologized. That's how indistinct these songs are and how disappointing this slow, cumbersome album is.

The best track might be the instrumental finale, "Tiger Bones." The album is pretty homogeneously dull, though.

For other works by Joni Mitchell, please visit my reviews of:
Song To A Seagull
Ladies Of The Canyon
Turbulent Indigo


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

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