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by Jeff Miers
Gusto
November 15, 2002

Joni Mitchell, goddess among songwriters, once again leads the way

"Well maybe it's the time of year/Or maybe it's the time of man/I don't know who I am/But life is for learning" - Joni Mitchell, from "Woodstock"

In recent years, it has become fashionable for female song-writers to cite Joni Mitchell as an influence.

In truth, however, Mitchell's influence is not readily apparent in the modern music landscape. She's a tough act to follow.

"Travelogue," out Tuesday, offers a two-disc overview of Mitchell's life in song. It provides clear proof that Mitchell - as composer, lyricist, singer, guitarist - exists on a level that few artists (male or female) releasing records today can even aspire to. She's light-years ahead of the pack.

"Travelogue" is no greatest-hits package, though the majority of the 22 songs assembled here are drawn from previous Mitchell releases over the expanse of her 30 year career. Mitchell instead reinterprets her own work, radically reworking classics from her canon with the aid of a 70-piece orchestra, a choir and a core band of top-flight jazz musicians.

Consider the album "Mitchell does Mitchell." Lord knows no one else currently clogging up the popscene is up to the job.

It's interesting that Mitchell, from where she sits today, can glance around and see yet another school of pop divas attempting to lay claim to the crown she never seemed to want.

Over here, there's Jewel, who says she loves Mitchell but whose music lacks such depth and grace. There's Alicia Keys, a fairly soulful singer whose ability to play piano so startled critics and fans alike last year - as if being able to perform, even rudimentarily, on an acoustic instrument elevates one immediately to the head of the class.

At the far end of the room are the teen-pop sex kittens, falling over each other to be the dirtiest, the most brazenly sexual. Mitchell must laugh when she sees this stuff.

There's also Sheryl Crow, writing decent songs and at least having the courtesy to rock in an honest manner from time to time. Diana Krall sits hunched over the keys, an inspired jazz singer and pianist. But her best work - studied, imitative - is no rival to Mitchell's organic, idiosyncratic jazz leanings.

Who's left? Madonna?

To experience Mitchell's gorgeous voice - so much like the languid liquid trumpet phrasings of midperiod Miles Davis - wrapping itself around her early "anthem," "Woodstock," is to realise how far we've fallen. This is so strong, so musical, so profound, that it reveals in relief the shallowness of what now passes for pop music.

Driving headlong into Mitchell's world, however, one soon forgets such things and basks in the warm, forgiving glow of her assured, feminine beauty and her mastery of a musical language that transcends even fleeting gender concerns.

"The best lack conviction, given time to think," she sings during "Slouching towards Bethlehem," an interpretation of W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," given added weight by Vince Mendoza's airy, dramatic score. "And the worse are full of passion without mercy."

The words may belong to Yeats, but Mitchell makes them her own, imbues them with timeless relevancy, and places them firmly in the present by pairing them with her own artwork within the ornate sleeve notes. Here George W. Bush bows his head as an elderly woman in a shroud leers behind him, while on the next panel, a young woman sits stop Osama Bin Laden's shoulders, flashing her breasts as if at a concert. Ah, what to make of this? "For what is this rough beast, its hour come at last/Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?" asks Mitchell. Sometimes just asking the questions is enough.

Fan's of Mitchell's work will find plenty to like. Some of her best albums are represented, from earlier fare including "Ladies of the Canyon" ("The Circle Game," "Woodstock"), "Blue" ("The Last Time I Saw Richard") and "Court and Spark" ("Trouble Child," "Just Like This Train") to the vastly underrated "Mingus" ("God must be a Boogie Man") and the early 90's masterpiece "Turbulent Indigo" ("Sex Kills," "The Sire of Sorrows"). All are given a new wardrobe by Mitchell, both in terms of vocal phrasing and instrumental arrangement.

Perhaps "Travelogue" will catch some young listener, some songwriter-in-waiting, unaware. Perhaps they'll stumble upon the record unexpectedly, hear the power of what lies within it and be forever changed. Perhaps in 10 years, we'll actually have a new Joni Mitchell.

In the meantime, we'll keep looking directly to the course of this light, in hopes that one day it will shine across the generational divide.

 

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