Monday, January 9, 2012

Song #79 of 9999 - Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

Song #79 of 9999

Title: Big Yellow Taxi
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Year: 1970
Album: Ladies of the Canyon 

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I'm expecting to really dig into one day. I know her hits pretty well but I've never owned a record and I couldn't tell you much about her back catalog. But she really intrigues me and I think she is truly the kind of talent that only comes around once every twenty years or so. (Who's her 1990 predecessor then? Probably Björk.) Looking at this concert video from 1970 (here's the studio version, which is better if you've never heard it, but I rather enjoyed this video), it's hard to imagine someone like her making it today. She looks kind of gawky and I can just imagine some record exec telling her to get her teeth fixed or something. But she's obviously a natural performer in the same way Ani DiFranco is (oh wait, maybe she's the 1990 predecessor) and I have to believe she would have found her audience anyway.

"Big Yellow Taxi" is great from the perspective of the message but it's the hook everyone should really be enamored with. The catchiness of a hook is one of those things that often can't be measured and this one is so amazing, I feel a little awkward even trying. But I think in this case, there are two factors that make it work as well as it does. First, the vowel/consonant-pitch connection. When she sings "pave paradise," that upward-bended "i" sound is real open-ended and let's you know there's something else coming. Then she sings "put up a parking lot" and the word "lot" just slams the door with its brevity. But the real factor that makes this (and so many) hooks work so well is the setup. The lines that precede the hook—"don't it always seem to go/you don't know what you've got til it's gone"—are shot out of a cannon and float back to the surface like feathers, covering more than an octave in the course of two bars. If that doesn't get your attention, nothing will! And at that point, the hook is waiting for you and you are defenseless.

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