The Sound of the Suburbs

The Hissing of Summer Lawns isn’t a ‘transitional album.’ It’s an arrival.

by Marshall Bowden

On the cover of The Hissing of Summer Lawns is Joni Mitchell’s redrawing of a photograph from National Geographic of a group of Amazon forest dwellers, unseen by civilization until the 1960s. In her artwork they are carrying a trussed up python across a vast expanse of green that ends at a row of houses, behind which the spires of the city rise into the sky. The forest people are bringing the snake from Eden, the jungle (“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”) to the new Eden of  suburbia, which was created as an oasis from the ills of the modern urban environment. The hissing of the title is the sound of lawn sprinklers, but it is also the undercurrent of menace that exists in what, to the casual eye, appears to be a graceful existence, full of perfection. 

The suburbs are a much maligned feature of American life, and Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a look at seventies life in the ‘burbs of L.A. from the inside. Joni was herself living in a rented Bel Air mansion with boyfriend and drummer John Guerin. Guerin was in a band called L.A. Express, which included saxophonist Tom Scott, guitarist Larry Carlton, pianist Joe Sample and bassist Max Bennett. They were a fusion style instrumental group whose members were also sought after session musicians–Carlton is famous for his guitar work on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”. With her album Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell made a soft move into jazz pop territory utilizing L.A. Express as an aural shorthand to what her listeners would hear as a fairly jazzy sound.

Bootlegs of Joni’s studio demo recordings of several tracks from Hissing of Summer Lawns have been released numerous times in varying degrees of audio quality. You can hear them via the YouTube post provided.

The demos are stripped down versions that are preferred by some fans, and they obviously reinforce the idea that Mitchell’s songwriting process had changed little. But she clearly had decided that the L.A. Express musicians were sympatico with her vision for the material, because she booked studio time with them and was eager to tour with them again.

That glossy sheen of the L.A. Express provides the surface that meets the eye, while Mitchell’s incisive lyrics cut through with equal parts longing, melancholy, uncertainty, lust, bitterness, and self-disgust. But that sound, that studio sheen was not what the music press, and to some extent the fans, wanted from Joni. Stephen Holden, reviewing the album for Rolling Stone certainly found fault with it: “Four members of Tom Scott’s L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell’s romantic style.” 

If Holden were talking about Mitchell’s previous outings with members of the Express, Court and Spark and the live set Miles of Aisles I would agree. Court and Spark was still very California folk pop, the logical successor to Blue in every way. There are still the guest appearances from those in Joni’s rock circle, including fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson, so the overall effect of the L.A. Express band is to be a light backing band creating a froth of jazz fusion to lace underneath the songs. I’ve never really enjoyed Miles of Aisles, documenting as it does her first tour with a band, the renditions featuring the band interspersed with Joni performing solo, accompanying herself on piano or guitar. Both recordings fit Holden’s description of ‘uninspired jazz-rock’ that is distinctly at odds with Mitchell’s overall style.

But on Hissing of Summer Lawns, the only record of material specifically written to be played by this group of musicians, it’s a different story. On tracks like “Edith and the Kingpin,” “Shades of Scarlett Conquering,” “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” and the title track the band’s laid back glossiness is meant to contrast with the messy lives and messy emotions of the characters whose stories Mitchell relates. Like the gatefold album sleeve photo of Joni Mitchell floating in a swimming pool in her Bel Air home, the band portrays the serenity on the surface of suburban life while Mitchell unfurls the poisonous thoughts, repressed emotions, and matter-of-fact betrayals beneath in her lyrics. 

The idea that Mitchell had turned her keen sense of observation outward, towards society at large, rather than inward seems to have been as unpalatable to her seventies audience as the music that accompanied her. The world wanted folky/confessional Joni Mitchell just as the world wanted folky/acoustic Bob Dylan. Mitchell’s sin wasn’t going electric, but rather writing at an emotional distance, seeming to hide behind third person narratives about people that often don’t even seem that likeable. In a 2004 essay and interview by Elvis Costello for Vanity Fair, he sums it up this way: “The influence of jazz upon her writing and arranging became more pronounced, and the dense, third person lyrical portraits of damaged and unsympathetic characters in songs such as “Edith and the Kingpin” and “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” did not sit well with some of her more starry-eyed listeners.”

Those ‘starry-eyed listeners,’ the refugees from the Woodstock and Watergate years, were now mostly married and finding their place in a world that seemed to have changed very little for all their efforts. Disillusionment had set in among many of their cultural leaders and icons. Neil Young, Joni’s fellow Canadian-turned-Californian released the dark, stark records Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach. On “Revolution Blues” Young’s imaginings about counterculture revolutionaries and the Manson Family paint an even more damaged and unsympathetic portrait of what’s going on in those gated communities with hissing summer lawns. 

Both Joni and Neil had reached the pinnacle of pop star success in the time between 1967 and 1972, and it seems as though both took a good, hard look at fame, fortune, and the music business and decided to blow things up. Whereas Young drove himself into a self-created ditch, Mitchell decided to pursue a musical vision that was more perfectly matched to her lyrical and artistic vision. Both created some incredible music and both are seen as valid interpretations of the directions the lives of many who lived with the promises of the counterculture took.

Mitchell followed Hissing of Summer Lawns with Hejira, a record that has come to be as well regarded as Blue by most of her fans, and the energy of her music changed. The biggest and most obvious change was the injection of bassist Jaco Pastorius. But the musical entourage changes little, with plenty of appearances by Guerin, Max Bennett, and Larry Carlton. On Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter Pastorius brought along other members of pioneering fusion band Weather Report: Don Alias, Alejandro Acuna, Manola Badrena, and Wayne Shorter. One thing that changed after Hissing is that Gary Katz came on board as recording engineer and co-producer, providing the same clarity and sense of texture that he brought as producer for Steely Dan. 

After Don Juan, Mitchell went on tour with a band that consisted of Pastorius, Alias, saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Pat Metheny, and keyboard expert Lyle Mays. The results can be heard on the live album Shadows and Light, where it is easy to compare the band with the L.A. Express-based backing band. 

I’ve always enjoyed the additional energy the Pastorius band brings to tracks like “In France They Kiss On Main Street” and “Free Man In Paris.” There’s no question that this band is looser and that the musicians had more leeway to improvise, and they bring a new dimension to many of the songs. But there are things that are missed–the intimacy of Joe Sample’s dominant electric piano is missing from Lyle Mays’  keyboard work on “Edith and the Kingpin.” Victor Feldman brings additional sonic flavor to “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” with his vibraphone work; elsewhere he demonstrates his mastery of the piano. 

Adding to many tracks on Hissing are horn players Chuck Findley and Bud Shank. Findley was another in demand session musician at the time, lending his trumpet and flugelhorn (and sometimes trombone) to many recordings by popular artists as well as a long tenure with the Tonight Show Band. Bud Shank came up playing with Stan Kenton’s orchestra before becoming a top saxophone and flute session musician. Shank played on many recordings by June Christy, including her signature record Something Cool, as well as iconic pop records like Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees and “California Dreaming” on which he played an iconic alto flute solo. 

The pair play together beautifully on “Edith and the Kingpin,” where Findley’s flugelhorn and Shank’s flute are supported by Joe Sample’s shimmering electric piano. They also provide a sumptuous backing to the title track and bring energy to “The Boho Dance.” Findley is integral to “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” providing both a pivotal solo and the perfect harsh downward slide that serves as the song’s introduction. The sound is meant to invoke the sound of jet engines landing on a hot runway, and it slices right into the end of “Boho Dance,” a production decision that further connects the wilds of the artistic life and the banality of the death of a middle class suburban marriage. 

Joni’s longtime producer, Henry Lewy, had this to say about his collaborator’s development: “What I love about her is that she never sits still for a second. She’s always moving forward. She grows with every album, which is, ironically, one of the things that turns some fans off. They get used to her doing one thing, and then she changes. She soaks in things constantly. She has a real appetite for new ideas.”

Nowhere is that appetite more ravenous than on Hissing of Summer Lawns.

One thought on “The Sound of the Suburbs”
  1. Great appraisal! This has always been one of my favourite records. I love the sound world of it, and I think it perfectly compliments the songs. I had always imagined the musicians must’ve had a large hand in shaping the compositions, but when you hear the demos you can see that really isn’t so. Joni has it all worked out. You can hear that she’s written the songs for the sound of that band. I think that’s why it works so perfectly. It’s a thoroughly conceived piece of work.

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