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The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a 1975 album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. The album met with a very mixed reception when it was first released and many critics were unimpressed and at times even scathing about what appeared to be a more avant-garde and pretentious approach by the singer than on previous records. The album seemed less radio friendly and accessible than the early work and so wasn't immediately loved. However, the reputation of The Hissing of Summer Lawns has grown with each passing year and today it is generally regarded to be not too far away from the very best of Joni Mitchell. The opening song - In France They Kiss On Main Street - is fairly languid and poppy with lyrics about the 1950s and the advent of rock and roll. It paints a picturesque portrait of small town Americana and is fairly pleasant but maybe just seems to lack a certain something to make it that radio friendly single from the album you'll always remember. There is a beepy vaguely electronic sounding guitar riff here that I could take or leave. Joni Mitchell sings well though and has that nice conspiratorial aura where it feels as if she is telling us a story about the past and conjuring images and memories from her imagination. "Downtown, In the pinball arcade, With his head full of pool hall pitches, And songs from the hit parade, He'd be singing "Bye Bye Love", While he's racking up his free play." The Jungle Line is a song that can best be described as experimental and not something one would be expecting from a Joni Mitchell album of this era. The song is dark and grungy sounding with beat poet style lyrics and Joni Mitchell sounds rather gothic in her delivery. "Rousseau walks on trumpet paths, Safaris to the heart of all that jazz, Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipes, The mathematic circuits of the modern nights, Through huts, through Harlem through jails and gospel pews, Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine, Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue, Through savage progress cuts the jungle line." I quite liked it myself while it was playing but it isn't something I could imagine myself returning to an awful lot.
Edith And The Kingpin is a much prettier song although the lyrics are very dark and seem to be about a woman entering the controlled world of some sort of crime figure and becoming his property. "His eyes hold Edith, His left hand holds his right, What does that hand desire, That he grips it so tight." This is a common theme to the album. The song itself though is very spacey and mildly enchanting and one I enjoyed. Joni Mitchell sings wonderfully and much softer than on the previous song. This has a floaty, swooping sound and reminded me just a little bit of the theme to the Bruce Willis series Moonlighting! Don't Interrupt The Sorrow is also enjoyable and very likeable. This is an acoustic guitar song much in the vein of the songs on Joni Mitchell's early albums. Very restrained and charming. The lyrics present a poem that is very vague and stream of consciousness. "Anima rising, Queen of Queens, Wash my guilt of Eden, Wash and balance me, Anima rising, Uprising in me tonight, She's a vengeful little goddess, With an ancient crown to fight." One of the stronger songs on the album I think. Shades Of Scarlett Conquering is something of an epic and runs to almost five minutes. This is a piano led song with a few jazz inflections (that don't really intrude too much) and Joni Mitchell spins a haunting and compelling vocal that is rather poetic at times (and lyrically seems to be about female entrapment again - the big recurring theme on this album). "Out in the wind in crinolines, Chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn, Through stand-in boys and extra players, Magnolias hopeful in her auburn hair, She comes from a school of southern charm, She likes to have things her way, Any man in the world holding out his arm, Would soon be made to pay." This is not quite classic Joni Mitchell but it is very good.
The title song (The Hissing Of Summer Lawns obviously) is very jazzy and the background music seems a trifle workmanlike but Joni Mitchell sings beautifully again and the vaguely hypnotic quality to her vocal helps to mask the flaws that would be evident if this song was performed by a lesser singer. The lyrics are once again about a woman who is trapped. In this case the woman in question is trapped in the stupefying claustrophobia of suburbia and become a mere trophy for someone in this shallow material world. "He bought her a diamond for her throat, He put her in a ranch house on a hill, She could see the valley barbecues, From her window sill, See the blue pools in the squinting sun, Hear the hissing of summer lawns." Another good song. The Boho Dance is very easy listening in style - perhaps too much for its own good in the end. This is not a bad song by any means but not one that draws the listener in or charms them to any great degree. It's just sort of there and neither good nor bad. The honey drenched Joni Mitchell atmosphere of old is missing. The lyrics seem to be about artistic integrity but are rather obtuse and impenetrable at times in the trademark Joni Mitchell fashion. "And you were in the parking lot, Subterranean by your own design, The virtue of your style inscribed, On your contempt for mine, Jesus was a beggar, he was rich in grace, And Solomon kept his head in all his glory, It's just that some steps outside the Boho dance, Have a fascination for me." Harry's House-Centerpiece is the most complex song on the album and travels through different musical styles as it rambles on for nearly seven minutes. The lyrics are about domestic upheaval and feminist politics but the actual song is often lackadaisical and pleasant in terms of its sound. Not really my favourite song here but it is impressive and wonderful in its very best moments. "Caught up at the light in the fishnet windows, Of Bloomingdale's, Watching those high fashion girls, Skinny black models with raven curls, Beauty parlor blondes with credit card eyes, Looking for the chic and the fancy to buy."
Sweet Bird is a soaring ballad and relatively straight ahead love song and excellent. Joni Mitchell sounds very velvety (is that a word?) and dreamy here and gives one of her most enjoyable vocals. Her voice is richer than the early days and has a bit more timber to it by this period. "Sweet bird you are, Briefer than a falling star, All these vain promises on beauty jars, Somewhere with your wings on time, You must be laughing." Finally we have Shadows And Light, the most pretentious song on the album and performed like a prayer or a hymn. Joni Mitchell's lyrics sometimes have a William Burroughs cut and paste feel but you always sort of know what she means even if you don't always know what she is going on about. Maybe that was her intention all along. To make you think a bit. "Every picture has its shadows, And it has some source of light, Blindness blindness and sight, The perils of benefactors, The blessings of parasites, Blindness blindness and sight, Threatened by all things, Devil of cruelty, Drawn to all things, Devil of delight, Mythical devil of the ever-present laws, Governing blindness blindness and sight." This song has a certain beauty and her voice is impressive but it's not really my cup of tea to be honest and wasn't the high point of The Hissing of Summer Lawns for me. The Hissing of Summer Lawns wasn't quite the radical departure I had been expecting after listening to the early albums but it does capture the singer at what seems to be an interesting point in her career. She is moving away from the acoustic and folky simplicity of her first records and starting to experiment and broaden her horizons but this is still a blood relative to those records and if you enjoyed those you'll find much to like here again. I'd give Clouds and Blue a slight edge myself but The Hissing of Summer Lawns is certainly a fascinating and at times brilliant album.
I can only imagine this depiction of suburban underbelly in the 70's, and its collective stereotypes are right on the mark... 'Victims of typewriters', 'Skinny black models with raven curls'. All the characters are graphic, and this would come as no revelation for any who are familiar with the quality of Joni Mitchell's music. The detail however on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, is more so immaculate than what might have been expected of the archetypal introspective songwriter.
The band-orientated music fused with Joni's convicting vocals painted 'what's wrong with this picture?' type pieces. The nuclear family is under doubt, as is the idea/ideal of art. The often-romanticised tones hint at affectations. Not a million miles from a Randy Newman song, but the emphasis here is less on stupidity more on desperation. The actress 'Dressed in stolen clothes' from "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" parallels her love life to that of the movie character. She is left 'Running from the reels... Cast iron and frail'.
The music itself is a contradiction with echoes and understatement but finally it submerses with frantic textures. Again working with jazz-rock band The LA Express, this time something less mainstream than Court and Spark is created. It is not is for everyone. Joni Mitchell took a leap and didn't sell out when it was prime time for doing so.
First published on: vegansteven.blogspot.com (2007)
If the test of genius is the test of time, then Joni Mitchell can certainly be called genius. If her earlier albums weren't already proof of this, then her eighth album, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" seals the deal completely. This came on the heels of her most commercially successful album "Court & Spark" (and after the release of her first live recording "Miles of Aisles"), and although it didn't do quite as well as C&S, I'm beginning to think that "Hissing" might be the more fascinating of the two.
There are no big hits on this album, although the opening track "In France they Kiss on Main Street" got a good deal of radio time in its day, with its folk-style story telling mixed into an upbeat, jazzy rock melody. But whether or not this album was successful when it was released in 1975, listening to these songs today is a real eye-opener (or should I say ear-opener).
The first thing you'll notice about these songs is the sheer poetry of the lyrics in the songs here. This was always a forte of Joni's and she doesn't disappoint here. With lines like the following, you can immediately see how evocative her use of language is:
"pretty women funneled thru valves and smoke"
"petrified wood process tall timber down to rock"
"beauty parlor blonds with credit card eyes"
"see the blue pools in the squinting sun and hear the hissing of summer lawns"
While some people might prefer more simplistic lyrics one cannot compare this to some of the boring stuff we here on the radio today. These types of images bring extremely vivid pictures to your mind, and there are places where you can almost smell or taste what Joni is trying to say here. For instance, in "The Jungle Line", the verses are choppy phrases really give a feeling of colour, density and complexity with lines like "there's a poppy wreath on a soldiers tomb / there's a poppy snake in a dressing room / poppy poison - poppy tourniquet / it slithers away on brass - like mouthpiece spit..." which totally evoke what a painting by Rousseau looks like - which is what this song is about.
My personal favourite song on this album is actually two in one - "Harry's House" and "Centerpiece". Listed as actually one song, these two pieces blend together to tell a story of what can only be described as a "yuppie" couple. Here the combination of the two pieces, combined with a type of distance expressed in the words that reveal the couple's disillusionment, with lines like "she is lost in House and Garden / he's caught up in Chief of Staff". These are what writers would call a perfect examples of the cardinal rule "show, don't tell". What's more, these two examples prove that Mitchell's subject matter is as far from monotone as can be imagined. In fact, the only love song - if you can call it that - on this whole album is "Sweet Bird" and even that must be listened to several times to really understand both the passion and the sadness instilled there.
But this is only part of the magic in this album. The music itself here was far ahead of its time and still feels fresh and invigorating. In "The Jungle Line" the use of warrior drums throughout highlights the African feel to the song. Combine that with the blues piano with the dreamlike interlude of "Centerpiece" that comes in the middle of the more folk-jazz "Harry's House" with its brash sounding trumpets is something that is the type of unique that is rarely attempted today. Joni uses a great deal of her own guitar in this album, which never sounds like anyone else's because of her trademark tuning of her guitars. This is never more evident than in "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" which has shades of the bare Joni guitar sound that reminds me of "Big Yellow Taxi" from her "Ladies of the Canyon" album. In "Sorrow" she also includes congas and electric guitars, that slightly echo the wild confused feel of "The Jungle Line", but here the feeling that is evoked is more one of rebellion against society rather than escape from it.
What's more, the melodies here aren't at all straight forward. She moves from major to minor sounds, sometimes within the same phrase. These are not songs that you're going to be able to hum absentmindedly. They are more pieces of art that must be listened to carefully. Joni layers her songs not only with harmonies and instrumentals but also with different musical styles, mixing and matching to create the proper mood for her words. In addition, she also includes some unconventional embellishments - some of which could almost be classified as 'noise' - like those warrior drums in "Jungle" or the sour trumpet introduction to "Harry's House" that sounds like the beginnings of an air-raid siren.
When you first listen to this album straight, you'll feel both cohesion as well as all the dichotomies here. The cohesion is certainly in the unmistakable Joni Mitchell style that really embodies the very best of what her music is all about. That, together with her evocative use of words makes this album so extraordinary. Plus, Joni's voice on this album is slightly lower here than previously, as well as a touch scratchier, giving all the songs a bit of an edgy feel. But within that cohesion, we get all the variations as well. The subject matter of this collection is beautifully diverse, the mixture of jazz, folk, rock and even blues, together with ethnic sounds and even noise, could not be more exciting. In short, I find this album superlative and cannot praise it enough. If you want to listen to songs written over 30 years ago that are far more artistically and creatively composed both musically and lyrically than practically any of the songs on the hit parade today, then Joni Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is one to listen to.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © November, 2007
This album is available new from Amazon.co.uk for £6.97 or through their marketplace from £3.80.
1. In France They Kiss On Main Street
2. Jungle Line
3. Edith and the Kingpin
4. Don't Interrupt the Sorrow
5. Shades of Scarlet Conquering
6. Hissing Of Summer Lawns
7. Boho Dance
8. Harry's House/Centerpiece
9. Sweet Bird
10. Shadows and Light
Audio CD (19 Oct 1987)
Number of Discs: 1
To lots of people, Joni Mitchell is a folk singer best remembered for the single ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (later sampled on Janet Jackson’s ‘Got Til It’s Gone’). Alas, this pigeon-holing means that many never get to hear the full Joni repertoire and appreciate the sheer musical and lyrical accomplishment she achieved as she changed style later in her career. ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (1975) was Joni’s eighth album and the first one that I heard. I was immediately hooked. It couldn’t be more removed from her initial sparse, folky tunes, and is an incredibly experimental, brave and beautiful fusion of jazz and pop. Heavily bass driven, it's a cool, jazzy glide through Californian life accompanied by blistering lyrical beauty and ambiguity. On these 10 songs Joni's voice has never sounded to crystal clear, and as she does many of her own harmonies we get to enjoy the full range of her vocal ability. Guests on the album include Crosby, Nash, James Taylor and Robben Ford (whose jazz-pop fusion guitar is spellbinding). 'In France they Kiss on Main Street' opens the album, a carefree celebration of love, life and being young which conjures up images of Paris in the summertime so powerfully that you could almost be there. It’s the most poppy song on the album and a contrast to the lyrical darkness that is to come. The second song, ‘The Jungle Line’, is the most experimental. The lyrics are quite difficult to penetrate and are driven along by loud African drums. It’s my least favourite song on the album, but one that I admire for its experimentation and technique. Elsewhere Joni is in more reflective bittersweet mood. 'Edith and the Kingpin', for instance, presents a seductive, power-struggle relationship between older man and ingénue. Set against a cool jazzy backing track, the lyrics conjure a vivi
d emotional picture of unhealthy and ultimately doomed love. 'Shades of Scarlett Conquering' moves the album into psychological terrain, dissecting the capricious behaviour of an exasperating, needy beauty. Joni’s voice here is as clear as spring water, the music as just as cool, and the lyrics complex, deep and astute. The eponymous title track is absolute class, a cynical tale of a 'kept woman' who's given everything but love by her rich svengali husband in her 'ranch house on the hill'. The bass lines here are sublime, and the refrain a dark, swirling maelstrom which echoes the woman's inner turmoil and loneliness. Other tracks are equally accomplished, exploring familiar Joni territory of the joy/sorrow of love, unfulfilled dreams, struggle, art and human complexity. Lyrics range from the heart-wrenchingly accurate to the day-to-day minutiae of life to the perplexingly obscure. It is rare to find a singer/songwriter who is so intellectual in her themes both musically and lyrically, yet who remains accessible. Joni pulls it off by combining complex lyrics and stylistically experimental instrumentals with instantaneously grabbing melodies. The work is a fusion of heart and mind, and affects the listener on both levels. Listening to this album is a real emotional journey, where you will be uplifted, saddened, angered and soothed. As a whole the tracks gel seamlessly, providing an album of technical near-perfection and lyrical truth which I think no other woman in music – apart from her good self on later albums like ‘Hejira’ - has ever matched. Track List: In France they Kiss on Main Street The Jungle Line Edith and the Kingpin Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow Shades of Scarlett Conquering The Hissing of Summer Lawns The Boho Dance Harry’s House/Centerpiece Sweet Bird Shadows and Light <
br>Widely available digitally remastered on CD. Highly recommended.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 In France They Kiss on Main Street
2 Jungle Line
3 Edith and the Kingpin
4 Don't Interrupt the Sorrow
5 Shades of Scarlett Conquering
6 Hissing of Summer Lawns
7 Boho Dance
8 Harry's House -- Centerpiece
9 Sweet Bird
10 Shadows and Light