Joni Mitchell - Travelogue (Nonesuch) ***
Mitchell, who turned 59 in November, would undoubtedly resent having this elegantly packaged and produced (by ex-husband Larry Klein) two-CD set labeled as "pop." But this tour through her back catalog, in which songs as widely known as "Woodstock" and as faintly remembered as "The Dawntreader" are revisited and reconsidered in various settings - many with a 70-piece orchestra and choir - doesn't really fit really any category aside from "art."
In recent interviews, Mitchell sounds like a crank convinced that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, but her basket has at least been beautifully embroidered, drawing our attention to the delicate craftsmanship in even the most confessional of her songs, like the early "The Last Time I Saw Richard," with its indelible opening line; "The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68, and he told me, all romantics meet the same fate someday / Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe."
There is nothing here even remotely boring, and Mitchell certainly sounds sober, but the loss of her romantic ideals, with the accompanying cynicism, can be heard in her feathery vocals and the lost-horizon arrangements by Klein, who finds a lighter touch than on her last orchestrated CD of standards, "Both Sides Now."
Some of these songs, especially the jazz-inflected "God Must Be A Boogie Man" and "Trouble Child" have been improved by their new, spatial surroundings, and the core band, which includes longtime collaborators Wayne Shorter on saxophone and Herbie Hancock on piano, Klein on bass and the fine Brian Blades on drums, brings out the best in her vocals. But there was little to be improved on in "Amelia" and "For The Roses," even though it's interesting to hear them reinterpreted. What one misses are those giggles and hiccups that once punctuated - and sometimes deflated - her stern pronouncements on the state of things. We already took you seriously, Joni.