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Joni Mitchell – Taming The Tiger

August 17, 2022
Joni Mitchell – Taming The Tiger (1998)

I am a Joni Mitchell fan and have been since the fall of 1977 when my new friend Uncle Paul rolled, burned and shared one. He then dropped the needle on an LP and commanded: “Listen to this!” I proceeded to have my mind blown by Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece Court and Spark. I was fortunate over the next couple of years to experience two great Joni albums in real time: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979). But then came the 80s and frankly Joni’s quality declined. I faithfully bought every album and dutifully listened, but none resonated with me like her pre-80s catalog. That 60s and 70s catalog is nearly flawless – one masterpiece after another. Some are accessible, some are challenging, some are hits and some are misses, but they are undeniably brilliant.

Uncle Paul recently texted me a link to a Joni 1998 concert film on YouTube: Joni Mitchell: Painting with Words and Music. I wasn’t in the mood at that moment to watch it and instead I streamed Taming The Tiger, her album from around the same period, and gave it a listen. I like it better now then I did when it was for released. It would be the last recording of new material for nearly a decade – and at the time I assumed this was it – her final statement.

Now Taming The Tiger sounds as brilliant as her pre-80s work. I am committed to reevaluating the rest of her post-70s work with my old, and hopefully wiser, ears. Sonically Taming The Tiger recalls Hijra, but simpler, in a good way.

The ensemble for the album is Joni on vocal and synth guitar (Roland VG-8 and I assume the Parker Fly she was playing live at the time – and recently at Newport) saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist and ex-husband Larry Klein, drummer Brian Blade, pedal and lap steel guitarist Greg Leisz (similar ensemble as the video concert above except trumpeter Mark Isham is playing Wayne Shorter’s role on trumpet vs sax).

The most distinctive aspect of Tame The Tiger is the atmospheric sound of Joni’s synth-guitar. It is folk, jazz, new age – it is Joni. It is a deceptively simple sound and the perfect accompaniment to the very personal songs. Her sidemen are the perfect side to Joni’s main dish. Wayne Shorter is magnificent.

Joni was in an interesting place when she recorded this album. She had reunited with her daughter that she had given up for adoption, she was having a comeback (her previous album, Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Album) and she had mastered the synth- guitar – which clearly inspired her. She was giving the impression that she was soon to be done with songwriting and the music business (she wasn’t, but it sure felt like it at the time).

“Harlem in Havana” opens like it is going to be industrial metal, but quickly blossoms into a gorgeous Joni Mitchell song. It reminisces about a carnival visiting a small farming community.

“Man from Mars” sounds like lament to a lost lover, but it is about her misbehaving cat (see the album cover art to see this cad of a cat).

“Love Puts on a New Face” is a classic Joni relationship song with this brilliant Joni final verse:

He said "I wish you were with me here
The leaves are electric
They burn on the river bank
Countless heatless flames"
I said "Send me some pictures then
And I'll paint pyrotechnic
Explosions of your autumn till we meet again
I miss your touch and your lips so much
I long for our next embrace"
But in France they say
Everyday
Love puts on a new face
Love puts on a new facev Love has many faces
Many many faces

“Lead Balloon” is a rock song that would not sound out of place on Robert Plant’s Now And Zen (1987). I love the opening phrase:

"Kiss my ass, " I said
and I threw my drink
Tequila trickling
Down his business suit
Must be the Irish blood
Fight before you think
Turn it now

“No Apologies” is a song taken from the news. Joni is outraged how the US military dealt with an incident of rape involving American servicemen in Okinawa.

“Taming the Tiger” is a kiss off to the music industry:

The moon shed light
On my hopeless plight
As the radio blared so bland
Every disc, a poker chip
Every song just a one night stand
Formula music, girly guile
Genuine junkfood for juveniles
Up and down the dial
Mercenary style

“The Crazy Cries of Love” is about some loud lovers who require a train passing by to cover their crazy cries of love.

“Stay in Touch” is a list of reasons to stay in touch. Good song, I just have nothing interesting to say about it.

“Face Lift” is a response to a judgmental mom:

I mean, after all, she introduced us
Oh, but she regrets that now
Shacked up downtown
Making love without a license
Same old sacred cow
She said, "Did you come home to disgrace us?"
I said, "Why is this joy not allowed?"
For God's sake, I'm middle-aged, Mama
And time moves swift
And you know happiness is the best face lift

“My Best to You” (Gene Willadsen, Isham Jones) is a cover of a 40s western swing tune that Joni reinvents and modernizes with her atmospheric synth. Joni does great covers. A great cover honors the song by the performer making it their own. As usual Joni owns this one.

“Tiger Bones” is an instrumental reprise of the titular track that shows off Joni’s prowess on the synth guitar. It is the perfect coda for the album.

I don’t know if it is my mood, my age or my experience, but this album sounds significantly better than I recall. As I said at the beginning of this post, this album has me second guessing my opinion of Joni’s post 70s output – at least her 90s work. This is good stuff! As part of my writing of this post I listened to 1994’s Turbulent Indigo and it is excellent too – although I like Taming The Tiger better. What I really like about this album is the synth guitar or what Joni called her orchestra guitar. It allowed her to directly express her musical opinions without the filter of side musicians.

Joni is not on Spotify out of protest of disinformation podcasts on the service. Here is a link to Tidal (in better than CD quality). I listened to both my original CD and the Tidal MQA Master stream and the Tidal stream rules!

I eventually did watch the concert video Uncle Paul sent and it is really well done. It is a must see for Joni fans. Coincidently we saw her live at the acoustical disaster that was the pre-renovation Target Center in 1998. The video is a better memory than that live show (Joni was likely great, but the venue was a wet blanket on her performance).

From → Music Reviews

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