On Second Thought: Joni Mitchell – Dog Eat Dog (1985)

I mentioned last week in my look back at Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast that it was her first album for Geffen Records — and one which left a major impact on me. Mitchell’s subsequent release, 1985’s Dog Eat Dog, was not only my first experience with the singer but had an even more lasting impact.

Dog Eat Dog also rivals her Mingus album for being her most polarizing work. Dog Eat Dog finds Mitchell newly married to bassist and co-producer Larry Klein. It also finds her setting aside her innovative guitar tunings for a Fairlight CMI synth and the widespread use of samples. Mitchell and Klein even engaged synthesizer guru Thomas Dolby (of “She Blinded Me with Science” fame). Her core band included Michael Landau on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Klein on bass, with Mitchell and Dolby handling sampler and keyboards.

The result is an intentionally cold and stark sound with an indisputable rock edge. Part to the reason for the sound of the album goes to the fact that Mitchell wanted to record the band, then use various samples of them to shape the songs. Also Mitchell, even while in one of the happiest periods of her life, was majorly pissed off about the world around her. The environment, lawyers, politicianx, TV evangelists, and materialism are all subjects of her songs. The fact that, during the making of the album, she and Klein were involved in a serious head on accident didn’t help her mood.

In the opening track “Good Friends,” Mitchell starts off in a fine mood and the melody is supported by Michael McDonald’s soothing tenor, but the song seems to end as a pleading moment rather than a statement of friendship. The next track “Fiction,” co-written with Klein, is Mitchell calling bullshit on a lot of pop culture and materialism — and these beefy lyrics are served up over a sampled Vinnie Colaiuta drum pattern.

The subsequent “Three Great Stimulants” goes down in my book as one of the worst songs she’s ever recorded, however. It’s preachy, self-rightous and best skipped. That said, “Tax Free” is an unlikely gem. The song slaps televangelists in the face with their hypocrisy, while making use of great sample licks from Landau. “Tax Free” also effectively uses sampled spoken vocals from Rod Steiger. The side ends with a weird track featuring a cigarette machine, Mitchell’s vocals and power chords by guitar ringer Steve Lukather.

The second side of the album kicks off with a title track where Mitchell gets vocal support from sometime buddies Don Henley and James Taylor — interesting casting, considering the songs basically says the world is a corrupt shithole. At least Mitchell makes the message sound inventive and interesting.

“Shiny Toys” continues the theme but uses a sampled Thomas Dolby spoken part and a uplifting drum pattern, while covering men’s desire for bigger, more expensive and ultimately less-satisfying things. We see into the modern electronic world through Mitchell’s eyes. “Ethiopia” is a mostly piano-based rant on world hunger, but the final two tracks — “Impossible Dreamer” and “Lucky Girl” — show signs of optimism and hope.

After all the vitriol on Dog Eat Dog, there is a turn for the better, something which is touched on more fully in the remaining two albums of her Geffen era quartet. A fan of Mitchell should not skip Dog Eat Dog, though I wouldn’t recommend it as being representative of all her work.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Chicago. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • SpiedUpon

    I like Dog Eat Dog. I remember hearing it in the depths of the Reagan
    era, and, at least in Kansas at the time, televangelists and Reagan
    shaped the culture. This was like a breath of much desired fresh air, a
    relatively gentle rebuke of the prominent materialistic and jingoistic
    weirdness that dominated the country (or so it seemed to me) at the
    time. Joni jumped onto the sampling trend, bravely and perhaps just a
    tad ahead of the curve, like she often does. But it wasn’t bad, it
    still isn’t, to my ear. And she was one of the few lonely voices at the
    time to criticize the crazy American pseudo-pious televangelists and
    black and white demagoguery that was going on then. Maybe you had to be
    there to fully appreciate it. It felt to me brave.

    I hope brave artists keep making music like this, that confronts conventional political thinking.