JONI MITCHELL — For the Roses (review)

JONI MITCHELL — For the Roses album cover Album · 1972 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
In my review of Joni’s “Blue” album I noted that it marked a slight deviation from her folksinger roots and a branching out into jazzier, more eclectic areas. “For the Roses” is a continuation of that migration as she matured not only as a vocalist but also as a poet. I also mentioned in my assessment of “Blue” that my callous dismissal of Mitchell’s music in the early 70s did nothing to endear me to the heart of the beautiful girl I had a close relationship with at the time. This record is the one she played most often and I recall turning up my nose at the mere sight of the cover. I wish, for many reasons, I could go back to that era in my life. One of the things I’d change was my snobbish attitude towards a lot of artists like Joni. Truth is, I never gave her an unbiased listen and thereby only deprived myself of witnessing her talent as it evolved and became more ground-breaking. Without a doubt she was a major player in determining the role women would have in affecting the course of musical expression. But I was a young turd and thought I knew everything. I have better perspective now.

She opens with “Banquet,” a song that takes up where Blue’s closer (the exquisite “The Last Time I Saw Richard”) left off with her using piano as the sole accompaniment behind her voice, further evidence that her transition from folk stardom was progressing steadily. The tune’s structure is certainly not folkish and her words reveal an artist unafraid to comment on the lack of fairness that surrounds us all. “Who let the greedy in/and who left the needy out?” she asks. A bluesy sway underneath “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” serves the track well. On this number she brought in Tom Scott to provide some smart soprano sax riffs. His tactful injections and her dense vocal harmonies add a mysterious edge to counter her angelic singing style. “Someone's Hi-Fi drumming Jelly Roll/Concrete concentration camp/Bashing in veins for peace,” she intones. Her song about a truck stop, “Barangrill,” displays her creativity by employing a chorale of Scott’s flutes and recorders to bounce over the track’s upright bass line. “Three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings/Talking about zombies and Singapore slings/No trouble in their faces/Not one anxious voice/None of the crazy you get from too much choice,” she sings. A lush piano backs her confident vocal on “Lesson in Survival,” a tune that demonstrates how her melodies could be delightfully complex without being superfluous. Here she remarks on her utterly human tendencies. “I came in as bright as a neon light/and I burned out right there before him/I told him these things I'm telling you now/Watched them buckle up in his brow/When you dig down deep you lose good sleep/And it makes you heavy company” she confesses.

The best cut on the album is “Let the Wind Carry Me.” The segue from the previous song is so seamless you may not realize it’s a different tune but Tom’s soprano sax returns (along with his bank of flutes) to establish its separate identity. Joni erects her jazziest one-woman chorale for this one but all these ingredients are used sparingly as highlights to add dynamic tension to her unique compositional idea. She can be brutally open about herself as she is here. “I get that strong longing and I want to settle/and raise a child up with somebody/But it passes like the summer/I'm a wild seed again.” I’ve read that the title cut was intended to be a “see ya later” message to the “biz” but, luckily, her hiatus didn’t last more than a year. The tune’s acoustic guitar/vocal approach is familiar but not a full retreat back to the “innocent waif” phase that characterized her early stuff and it’s just quirky enough to be unorthodox. “Just when you're getting a taste for worship/they start bringing out the hammers/and the boards/and the nails,” she complains. In “See You Sometime” the piano/voice motif grows repetitive but her avoidance of being a commercial sell-out is still so refreshing I can accept these “stream of thought” pieces for what they are. Often she delivers zingers about love that strike into the soul. “It seems such a shame/we start out so kind and end so heartlessly.” The light percussion that graces “Electricity” is a welcome change of pace at this point and once again she brightens up the track with her close-knit, jazzy harmonies. “She don't know the system/Plus, she don't understand/She's got all the wrong fuses and splices/She's not going to fix it up too easy,” she relates.

In a sarcastic response to her record label’s urging her to manufacture a hit single, Mitchell cranked out “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.” Lo and behold, this odd little country/folk ditty caught on and became her first Top 40 trophy winner. Part of its charm is contained in snarky lyrics like “I know you don't like weak women/you get bored so quick/and you don't like strong women/'cause they're hip to your tricks.” “Blonde in the Bleachers” is deceiving because its piano/vocal mien sounds much like earlier fare at first but then drums and bass appear out of nowhere to give it vitality. Her views on the macho rock & roll lifestyle and its ever-present groupies are dead on. “It's pleasure to try 'em/it's trouble to keep 'em/'cause it seems like you've gotta give up such a piece of your soul/when you give up the chase/feeling it hot and cold/you're in rock & roll/it's the nature of the race/it's the unknown child/so sweet and wild/it's youth/it's too good to waste” she chortles. On “Women of Heart and Mind” a 12-string guitar, bass and congas flow under her icy voice as she croons “You know the times you impress me most/are the times when you don't try.” At the end you’re treated to yet another piano/vocal number, “Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune),” and you realize that when Joni’s words came first she’d then sit at the keyboard and mold the music to fit her melodic narration. Having said that, flutes, airy harmonies and a small chamber orchestra pop up unexpectedly and make things interesting. I gotta hand it to her for not being complacent and for sprucing up her arrangements so colorfully. She exits with strong words of defiance and encouragement. “You've got to shake your fists at lightning now/you've got to roar like forest fire/you've got to spread your light like blazes all across the sky/they're going to aim the hoses on you/show 'em you won't expire/not till you burn up every passion/not even when you die,” she sings.

As I noticed on “Blue,” the jazz leanings in her voice were slowly starting to become more pronounced during this period of her career and it’s principally in the role of a jazz vocalist that she appears on this site. “For the Roses” is the overlooked record that made it possible for her popular “Court and Spark” album (released over a year later in early ’74) to gain widespread acceptance. Here, by further weaning her fans off of the sweet cream that had attracted them during her “pretty folksinger” stage, she was preparing them for the meatier diet of jazzy art rock that would dominate her later work. Don’t discount “For the Roses.” It’s a fine listen and further proof that Joni Mitchell will never be confused with any other artist. She was, is and always will be one-of-a-kind.
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