Joni Mitchell

I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell. This is not something I tell a lot of people, but it’s true. My mom was a huge Joni Mitchell fan and her music was the unofficial soundtrack of the time in my life before you’re old enough to choose what to listen to. Mrs. Mitchell turned 69 today. I called my mom to ask her how she felt about the life Joni Mitchell. She paused for awhile and finally said,“In a word, old.”

Joni Mitchell was born November 7, 1943 as Roberta Joan Anderson, in  Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. Neither my mother or I knew she was Canadian. She contracted polio at the age of eight. She spent the nights in the hospital recovering from the disease singing. After calling several places home over her teen and adult years, including Toronto and Detroit, she found some success in New York and released her first album in 1968, Joni Mitchell, with the help of David Crosby from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The album wasn’t a huge hit, but was popular enough for her to release another. Clouds came out in 1969, and won the Grammy for Best Folk Performance. She went on to win seven more Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.

I’m obviously familiar with Joni Mitchell’s body of work but never considered myself a fan. Growing up, I never thought it was that great. As I’ve aged I’ve gained more of an appreciation for it and now think of her as a female Bob Dylan – an assertion she would not take kindly. Her music is kind of folksy, which I like. She has more polish than Dylan, and clearly a very different set of pipes. Her newer music is jazzier and poppier, which I don’t really like. Regardless, her first few albums are exceptional. I picked up a dusty copy of Clouds on vinyl about a year ago for $3 and it’s proven to be a great purchase. The last track of the album is probably my favorite Mitchell track of all time, “Both Sides, Now.” This is Mitchell at her best — just her, an acoustic guitar, and a good story.

After the success of Clouds, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles to live with her artistically minded peers. In 1970, Mitchell released Ladies of the Canyon, the beginning of her transition away from her folk roots and towards more piano-based music with pop sensibilities. Ladies featured the environmentally conscious single “Big Yellow Taxi” with its now famous lyric, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” while on vacation in Hawaii. She was taking in the grandeur of the landscape in the distance, only to see it spoiled by a parking lot right in front of her. Ladies of the Canyon went platinum, and paved the way for her future successes.

“I’ve had Blue on almost every format.” My mom recalls. “I had the cassette tape, the vinyl, and the CD.” Released in November 1971, Blue was Mitchell’s second platinum release in a row, and my Mom’s favorite. “I was 20 when Blue came out and I was crazy about it. It really spoke. I don’t want to say it spoke to me, because that’s sort of corny and selfish. It spoke to everyone. The album was just spectacular.”

Blue was a resounding success. The album was a perfect mix of where her sound had come from and where it was heading towards. A lot of the tracks on the album are simple, most just acoustic guitar accompanied by light piano. Blue was raw Joni. There’s clearly a lot of jazz influence on this album, most evident in tracks like “Carey” and “A Case of You.” The album title could even be a nod to Miles Davis’ famous record Blue Like Jazz. Whatever the origins, Blue is inimitable. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Blue #30 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, higher than any other female artist. Blue is #14 on VH1′s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, also the highest placement by any female.

Mitchell released two more albums similar in style to Blue, 1972’s For The Roses, and 1974’s Court and Spark. Mitchell found more success with these albums, including Grammy nominations for “Best Female Vocalist” and “Album of the Year” in 1974. My supremely cool mother saw Mitchell in 1974 at The Omni in Atlanta. “I was 23 in 1974. A friend and I made the drive from Spartanburg, South Carolina.” My mom recalls. “It was really cold, and we waited for a long time to get into the venue. Completely worth it. The opening act fell through so it was all Joni. She played for at least two hours. This was right after Court and Spark, so she played a lot of that, with some old stuff mixed in.”

Court and Spark was the last of Mitchell’s albums that received widespread commercial success until her resurgence in the nineties. She remained prolific throughout the 70’s, releasing four more albums: 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1976’s Hejira, 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and 1979’s Mingus. She was nominated in 1976 for a Grammy for best Pop Female Vocalist, which itself showed the change in her musical style since her 1969 Grammy nod for Best Folk Performance.

“After the 70’s me and Joni kind of lost touch.” My mom laughs. “I still listened to everything she made before the 80’s but I just never got into her music after that. Her work in the 60’s and 70’s was just so great that it paled in comparison. And all the memories tied to her earlier stuff is a big part of it too. I remember your sister (born in 1972) learning to ride a bicycle in the front yard and Joni Mitchell playing on the kitchen radio through the window.”

Mitchell released three albums in the 80’s, three in the 90’s, and three in the 00’s. Her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy for Best Pop Album and sounded more like her work from the 70’s. Her 80’s albums were more electronic and politically-charged, but Turbulent Indigo was a return to the Joni of old. Back were the open-tuned folky guitars and emotional, thought-provoking lyrics. She couldn’t recapture this magic on her later albums, but her guitar prowess was undaunted.

Mitchell’s musical style changes aside, she is truly an under-appreciated guitarist. Almost every song she wrote on guitar uses open tuning. Open tuning allows a guitarist to play a chord without fretting, or putting your hands on the strings. The result of open tuning is different, more varied sounds, which creates different harmonies when played in accompaniment with other instruments. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine named her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time, which I feel is low. Although this placement, like many others in her career, made her the highest ranked female in the list.

While she might not be the coolest musician of the 60’s and 70’s, Joni Mitchell’s music is still solid jams to me. It’s not something I’d put on a mixtape but is enjoyable nonetheless. Eight Grammys and countless other awards validate her place in history. Happy 69th Mrs. Mitchell. I’ll spin my worn out copy of Blue tonight and hope no one hears.

Sources:
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell. Biography

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How To Make a Killer Mixtape

In order to write this article, I decided to get on Facebook to see if any of my friends could help me out:

FB Question

I spoke to a handful of people, some of which considered themselves expert mixtapers. I casually interviewed them and their answers helped write this article. But I spoke to many more people who didn’t make or had never made a mixtape, especially in the physical sense (a cassette, CD, etc). It’s no coincidence that my “experts” for this article were all older, and those who had never even put together a few tracks they enjoyed were younger folks. This era of unlimited digital music poses a real threat to the mixtape as we know it. Why listen to a few select tracks when you can listen to every track, instantly? Don’t despair; if you aspire to discover the lost art of the mixtape, look no further.

I should clarify exactly what a mixtape is. For the purposes of this article, a mixtape is a homemade music compilation. It does not have to be on a cassette tape. The term “mixtape” has just endured since the time of cassettes and the meaning has been colloquially applied. A mixtape is a bunch of songs that you’ve put together on any medium for any reason. Most mixtapes in 2012 are probably playlists: iTunes/iPod, Spotify, Mog, or something similar; but it doesn’t matter how you make the mixtape, just why you’re making it.

There are lots of great reasons to make mixtapes. A vital part of any good mixtape is knowing why you’re making it. The mixtape you make to exercise to is going to be very different from the mixtape you make for the girl you have a crush on. Know your audience.
For your family road trip mixtape, leave off your more eccentric tastes. Think twice before dropping those bagpipe-laden tracks onto your iPod. If you’re making a mixtape for party, leave off the slow love songs. A good party mix has a mix of classics, dance tracks, plus with a dash of your own personality in there. Here’s part of a 4.5 hour mix from a party I had a few years ago:

mix ss

Making a mixtape for another person can be a real challenge. Just like with any other mix, you have to remember why you’re making it. Are you trying to introduce your friend to a band or genre of music you really like? Then try to pick a nice assortment that adequately represents that band or genre. You don’t always have to go with the hits, pick tracks that work well together and make up a cohesive mix.

Most people think of mixtapes as a gift from one person to another. For a shy highschooler, a good mixtape can speak the volumes you can’t. If you are making a mix for a love interest, keep your wits about you. I’m talking to you, 17 year old Corey. You are not, under any circumstances, allowed to use “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Avoid songs that really pile the mush on. Get your point across with some of your dignity intact. You can be a bleeding heart without being a dope.

A good mixtape has a good flow or rhythm. Regardless of genres or styles, the songs need to flow together. This might mean leaving some of your favorite tracks off the mix for the sake of the mix as a whole. You can’t end a mixtape with a raucous single, and you can’t start one with a long song. If you start with too long of a track you risk losing the person if that track doesn’t happen to be to their liking. Establishing a good flow is difficult, especially if you have multiple bands or genres. It doesn’t have to (and probably won’t be) perfect but get as close as you can.

Know your medium. If you’re going old school (high-five!) on a cassette, check your tape before starting. Look for writing that says “B60” or something in that format. The letter can be anything, and the two or three digit number after is the length of the tape, in minutes, both sides combined. So for example, an “A46” tape will be approximately 23 minutes per side. C46, C60, and C90 are three of the most common tape types. Sometimes, especially with older tapes, this number might not be exactly right. If you want to get it perfect, start the tape from the beginning and time it with a stopwatch.

tape

If you’re burning a CD, you have about 80 minutes to work with. Most CD-Rs are the 700mb (80 minute) variety, but it can vary. It should be written clearly on the CD or the packaging.

For a playlist, the musical world is your oyster; but don’t let this go to your head. No one wants to get a 300 track “Bobby’s Best of 90’s Carolina Bluegrass” playlist. Keep it reasonable. My rule of thumb is to try to keep any playlist to about CD length. But unlike CDs, you can have an 81 minute Spotify playlist and be fine, where as CD’s are a firm 80 minutes. While CDs and cassettes do have physical limitations, they are also just that – physical. You can hand paint or design a CD cover or cassette. You can physically hand it to them. Or physically sneak it in their locker. That beats emailing any day.

Mixtapes can serve many purposes. They can set any mood, tell someone how you feel about them, provide a soundtrack for a trip or adventure, or remind you of better (or worse) times. You have to remember who is going to be listening to your mix while you’re creating it. And you have to remember the limitations and opportunities each medium provides. And if Susie rejected you after you made her that radical hand-painted cassette mixtape with “Song about an Angel” on it, then well, maybe Susie wasn’t right for you anyway.

(Cassette Tape Image Courtesy Stock Exchange)

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Desaparecidos – MariKKKopa / Backsell 7” Review

It’s been 10 years since Desaparecidos released any new music, but if the band’s new 7” single MariKKKopa/Backsell is any indicator, they haven’t missed a beat. This fiery two track release is a sign of good things to come for fans of the “disappeared ones,” a Spanish term for people who are secretly abducted or imprisoned against their will, from which the band draws their name. Fronted by legendary singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, this Omaha-based post-hardcore band is back with a vengeance, railing against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio, well-known for his harsh treatment of immigrants and local inmates, is currently being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for racial discrimination.

Oberst wastes no time firing the first salvo. On the first line of the A-side track “MariKKKopa,” Oberst proclaims: “There’s a lynching at Home Depot of the last day laborer.” Oberst’s tone remains both seething and satirical throughout “MariKKKopa,” with most of the track’s lyrics sung in a patronizing manner from the faux-perspective of Sheriff Joe and the like-minded. The track reflects the sentiments of Maricopians that feel that immigrants are hurting their city and “something” needs to be done. The sample at the end of “MariKKKopa” is Sheriff Joe being interviewed. He claims he’s alright with being compared to the KKK (hence the track’s title), saying it’s an “honor” and means “he’s doing something.” The distorted guitar riffs crunch and heavy bass permeates the noisy track. Oberst gives it all he’s got, and screams the final words of the song: “They’ll never learn until Maricopa burns!” At only 2:44 minutes long, “MariKKKopa” feels like a classic punk A-side single: short, loud, and mean.

If “MariKKKopa” is an indictment of Sheriff Joe and his ilk, then the B-side track “Backsell” is surely an indictment of the recording industry. Calling out Capitol and Interscope by name, Oberst pulls no punches. “Backsell” sounds like it could have easily come from Desaparecidos’s 2002 album Read Music Speak Spanish and not much like your run-of-the-mill B-side. After 10 years with no new material, one would imagine Desaparecidos do have some things to get off their chest. “Backsell” has sharp hooks and nice builds to the choruses, and like anything Conor Oberst gets near, great vocals and lyrics. In reference to being pursued by labels, Oberst quips, “Their cash cow killed himself so they’re looking for the next one.”

Despite being a two track single clocking in at just over six minutes combined, MariKKKopa/Backsell says a lot, the obvious messages about the evils of Sheriff Joe and the record companies aside. This 7” speaks volumes about Desaparecidos themselves. They still have a fire in their belly, they can still write good music, and, most importantly, they’re back!

A direct download of MariKKKopa/Backsell is available through the band’s website. Pre-orders for a physical copy of the 7” went on sale August 2nd and quickly sold out. More copies will be available after pre-orders ship, sometime this month. An exclusive stream of “MariKKKopa” and an interview with Conor Oberst about the new material is available at Huffington Post.

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What killed emo?

I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s and 90’s emo recently and it got me thinking – what happened to this music? Some of my favorite albums are by 90’s emo bands; and some of my least favorite are by emo bands from the 2000’s. Where did emo go? How did we go from Jawbreaker to Dashboard Confessional? What curse befell this music to warp it so unmistakably from its former self? Before we can begin to answer any of these questions, we undoubtedly need a (not so) brief emo history lesson.

“The stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”

This is how Ian MacKaye described emo, live on stage at a 1986 concert. MacKaye, lead singer for Fugazi, Minor Threat, and the pioneering, and oft-called emo band, Embrace, is a god in the D.C. music scene, the birthplace of emo. “Emo” as a label has always been controversial; as I type this blog post every instance of the word emo has red squiggly lines under it. There’s always been a struggle, both internally and externally, about how to apply the term. Is it a sensibility or a sound? Even some of the most decidedly emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Rites of Spring have “rock” and “punk” listed respectively as their genres on iTunes.

Rising from the Washington, D.C. punk and hardcore scene, emo (shortened from emo-core) was just a more emotional version of the music everyone was already making. The instruments and music hadn’t changed; just the lyrics and the feelings associated with them. The original emo music was made by guys like MacKaye, who had been in punk and hardcore bands their whole life. This music was rough, nasty, and most importantly, emotional. The divergence occurred when these guys decided to stop singing about Ronald Reagan and getting drunk, and started talking about their feelings and emotions. This shift changed music forever – and emo was let loose on the music world. The 80’s weren’t the most illustrious years for emo, but without them we wouldn’t have had what came next.

The 90’s were the heyday of emo. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, Jawbreaker, and Texas is the Reason adapted the grittier emo of the 80’s and put a slight polish on it. The music was still heavy, but had more indie and pop sensibilities. This is also when the word emo earned a lot of the negative connotation associated with it. Music from this era could easily be dismissed as sad boys moaning about their feelings. The Promise Ring song “Nothing Feels Good” from their self-titled album was playing while I was writing this: “I don’t know God / And I don’t know anyone / And I don’t know if anything at all will be alright.” One could see how this music got a bad rap. And I concede, it is whiny at times. But it has genuine, low-key, honesty – which is the key difference between 90’s emo and what followed it, and most other music in general.

The new millennium was the beginning of the end for emo. This is especially depressing for me personally, since 2001 was my first year of high school. I can’t help but feel like my generation helped to nail the coffin shut. That aside, emo exploded in the 2000’s. Riding on the popularity of 90’s emo bands, bands like Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, and Saves the Day took the next step with emo – into the mainstream. Gone were the punky riffs. This new generation of emo was lighter, acoustic, and somehow even wimpier. But not in a genuine, redeeming way. In a groomed, forced, record label-inspired kind of way. This begins to answer our original question – what really killed emo was itself.

The popularity that emo music began to enjoy led to more and more interest in the music, and an unavoidable overall dilution in quality. The music also changed. Gone were the days of gritty emotion screamed over punk music. Emo bands were now more alternative and poppy. By record labels becoming interested in emo as a genre, they began to alter and tailor the sound for the masses, for the lowest common denominator of fans. While this broadened the appeal of emo to more people, it took away some of the raw, real qualities that made emo so great in the 80′s and 90′s. The internet brings us a theory: Back in the 90’s, few people had internet access. One of the few groups that did were college students. So every September, there was a new generation of kids on the internet for the first time, being uncivilized hooligans. Eventually, the old guard would civilize them and things would go on as normal. Now, there are new people on the internet every day, and the internet is overrun with idiotic 14 year olds. This is known as “Eternal September,” like every day on the internet is that first day of college. This influx of new users has diluted the overall quality of the internet. The influx of new emo fans diluted its quality.

So in conclusion, what killed emo? Emo itself is the easiest answer. Its popularity brought it closer and closer to the mainstream until it reached critical mass and changed inexorably. More people got into emo and more bands formed and made emo music that tried to appeal to wider and wider audiences, transforming emo into some sort of alt-pop amalgamation. I don’t mean be elitist, or to say that more modern iterations of emo are bad, but I think somewhere along what was the natural progression from D.C. basements to MTV, emo had a magical, magical era.

Bonus: A necessity for any 90’s mixtape made for a girl, and one of my favorite emo songs:

Sunny Day Real Estate – Song About An Angel

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