But anyone expecting Taming The Tiger to reflect all that good news just doesn’t know Joni. As ever, she’s experimenting with new sounds—this time courtesy of a guitar synthesizer that not only enabled her to change between her multitude of tunings in a matter of seconds, but provided sounds and textures that inspired the songs she wrote on it. The usual gang of supporting players is here, particularly Wayne Shorter and his soprano sax (one of the few horn players we don’t mind hearing as much as we do him).
In a mild act of defiance to anyone expecting easy listening, “Harlem In Havana” begins with atonal percussion effects, which turns into the sound of a carnival gone haywire, the canned sounds of excited riders coming off more like screams of actual terror. But soon enough a melody emerges, as does a song, and the jarring feeling passes. “Man From Mars” is a heartbreaking song of loss, lamenting the one who left, but what makes it so universal is that it’s actually about her cat, immortalized in the paintings throughout the packaging, who disappeared after she scolded him for peeing on the floors. (The lesson, of course, is that pain is just as real for the loss of a pet as it is a partner, and if you’ve never experienced either, you’re lucky.) To that point, “Love Puts On A New Face” is presented as a recount of a conversation that delineates the difference between the sexes without blaming anyone. Not so for “Lead Balloon, a nasty song from the opening distortion and the “Kiss my ass” opening line is that sticks out like a sore thumb, and frankly goes over like the metaphor in the title. Much more effective is “No Apologies”, another sad rumination on the abuse of women by men who should have known better.
The title track has soothing atmospherics, but outside of the obvious slams against the record industry, the poetry is way over our heads. From there, however, the themes return to those of the heart, and for the better. “The Crazy Cries Of Love” puts new music to words by a fellow Canadian songwriter she admired, and has some wonderful, hopeful imagery. The song most people would focus on is “Stay In Touch”, a gentle acknowledgement of the new relationship she was developing with her daughter, who brought along a family of her own. It’s nicely paired with “Face Lift”, said to be based on an argument she’d had with her own aging mother. Something of a benediction comes in “My Best To You”, her reinterpretation of an ancient song by the Sons of the Pioneers. Then, after what seems like an eternal gap of silence, “Tiger Bones” emerges. It’s a solo guitar piece, and it’s just lovely. We can’t think of any other instrumental in her catalog, either, so that makes it all the more special.
It may be that in a few years’ time we’ll decry the “cold, dated sound” of Taming The Tiger, but for now, the arrangements and production work, not only recalling parts of Hejira but nicely complementing what we’ll be kind and call her mature vocal range. It was nice to have her “back”; but was she?
Joni Mitchell Taming The Tiger (1998)—3½