Here’s a clip of the original folky-chick turned jazz fusion crossover abettor Joni Mitchell with a crack team of musos (Pat Matheny, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, and others). It’s ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’, the studio version of which appears on the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. For a tune that evokes the continental practices of Gallic culture, it actually turns out to be more about Mitchell’s misspent youth in Canada in the 1950s.
Oddly, the album in question Hissing of Summer Lawns was pronounced to be the worst album of 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine. I say oddly because it is such a vital release, crammed with imagery and character which is well demonstrated by this song alone. Yet, much like Dylan, Joni Mitchell was most likely the victim of the expectations of the press for her to remain as she was .
In Mitchell’s case it was the pose of the sensitive woman with an acoustic guitar, or behind a piano, in ‘confessional’ mode as she was on 1971’s Blue. No one expected jazz, even if it was heavily hinted at on 1974’s Court and Spark. And no one expected Burundi drumming, as featured on the track ‘the Jungle Line’ here on Hissing…
Despite criticisms by the rock press at the time, the album is now looked upon as an artistic turning point for her, a switch-over from one era to another. As successful as this album was commercially, no one would ever expect her to repeat herself again. And she wouldn’t disappoint on that score, even if universal critical praise for her next few releases into the 1980s wouldn’t be a reality.
For me, it’s the strength of individual songs that sells the record. And this is one of my favorites. The optimism of youth in this song, and the feelings of immortality experienced only in that unique way by teenagers is perfectly captured. It is a perfect soundtrack for a sunny day when the world is full of possibilities, poised on a precipice of wonder. Yet, like the impressionist paintings from which Mitchell herself draws inspiration, you never get lessons about any of these things. You just get suggestions of characters, emotional tones, and of course impressions of that 50s teenage world.
Maybe the strength of this tune lay in the contrast between a naive 1950s and a jaded 1970s, or more pointedly between childhood innocence depicted and adult experience in which the song was written and performed. This of course would be a theme which Mitchell would revisit often, even as her musical curiosity continued to expand. Mitchell would inspire other songwriters to be as curious as she, including Prince, who called this an album that he loved ‘all the way through’.
For more information about Joni Mitchell, be sure to check out Jonimitchell.com.