Taylor, on the Bright Side; Mitchell, Branching Out
Longtime friends James Taylor and Joni Mitchell led the soft, sensitive singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. And while imitators have fallen unremembered along the wayside, Taylor and Mitchell have endured and developed. Perhaps that's because they refused, in spite of critical and commercial complaints, to lock into a certain style. Mitchell borrowed colors from jazz, then electronic, and now celebrity pop. Taylor has always integrated elements from ethnic styles into his distinctly Yankee folk base. Now they've both reemerged with significant new albums. The often troubled Taylor sounds more optimistic and energetic than ever, while Mitchell is again casting dark glances about her.
James Taylor: 'Never Die Young'
For quite a while there, in the new wave days, "mellow" was a dirty word, and it certainly wasn't chic to appreciate Taylor, the prototypal soft-rock wimp. But now there's new age, with its emphasis on gentle sounds, and the time is ripe again for Taylor's relaxed style.
Opening with a chiming peal of acoustic guitars on the optimistic title track of "Never Die Young" (CBS 40851), Taylor marks his 40th birthday with an album that's a strong return to form. Like the Grateful Dead's recent Top 10 hit "Touch of Grey," it offers a musical solution to midlife crisis, a sound track for surviving the perils of aging and acquiescence.
For the time being at least, it sounds as if Taylor has abandoned self-pity and introspection -- in fact, he's audibly grinning as he sings a love song to his "Sweet Potato Pie." The most winning track, and the most lyrically successful, is the wistful "Baby Boom Baby," about the singer's infatuation with a young yuppette. He works hard at making sure "that you remember my name," but wonders "what will I do if my dream comes true?"
Set to a simple piano figure and a swooning, sighing violin like that in a tango orchestra, "Valentine's Day" is assured of airplay every February. A clever string of words links cartoon images of love with memories of the famous massacre to make the point again that "love is war, all is fair." But the song's success is undermined by Taylor's vocal preciousness.
"Never Die Young" was produced by pianist Don Grolnick, who replaces Taylor's longtime collaborator Peter Asher. Grolnick achieves a spare, spacious and unhurried keyboard-based sound. Otherwise this is comfortably familiar Taylor territory, with the usual peppering of exotic influences. "Runaway Boy" is a pastoral ballad that calls to mind "Country Road" or "Carolina on My Mind" but with Cajun spice added, and the album ends with "First Day of May," a dip into warm and currently trendy Brazilian waters.
Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm'
Building on the electronic experimentation and topical treatises she ventured in 1985's underrated "Dog Eat Dog," Mitchell's new "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm" (Geffen 24172) is a solid effort, though not as easily and insistently likable as Taylor's. Then again, it's an edgier collection, more complex and formally difficult, and one that refuses to become background music. It begins to give up its submerged rewards with several spins.
Mitchell seems to have tired of talking about herself and her romantic obsessions. In fact, one of the idiosyncrasies of "Chalk Mark" is the virtual absence of love songs in favor of wider-ranging concerns. Mitchell has evolved from the confessional poet of "Blue" to the cocktail crooner of "Court and Spark " to the be-bop dabbler of "Mingus," and now she positions herself as pop's oracle, declaiming about mistreatment of Indians and Viet vets and the insidiousness of commercial culture.
The latter theme, touched on previously in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and other LPs, is the main preoccupation here. "Number One," with its teeth-grinding rhythm, details the soul-stealing seductions of an upscale acquisitive life style. "The Reoccurring Dream" is a hallucinatory audio montage of advertising come-ons and whispered subliminal messages. "Snakes and Ladders" limns the poisonous effects of corporate careerism on personal life.
Elsewhere, Mitchell gets planetary. "Lakota" begins with an Indian chant by Iron Eyes Cody, and Mitchell's voice is correspondingly weary and somewhat desperate. "The Beat of Black Wings," an observation about an embittered Vietnam veteran, is propelled by a chopper whirring percussively through the mix, as Mitchell breathes an ethereally ironic chorus of "Johnny Angel" between verses.
The record was produced by Mitchell and her husband, bass player Larry Klein, who cowrote the music on several of the songs and took the jacket photos. There 's remarkably little acoustic presence here; instead a different impressionistic surface is developed for each song, and Mitchell's fluid voice is darkened and roughened to suit the electro-textures. Throughout, however, the melodies and rhythms sound unsatisfyingly vague and elusive, as if they're waiting for video images to solidify them.
Mitchell's LPs have usually been one-woman shows, but here she shares the microphone with a handful of celebrities, perhaps to polish up her chart appeal. The album opener "My Secret Place," the closest Mitchell comes to a love song here, finds her trading lines with Peter Gabriel, and their intimate timbres are almost indistinguishable on the moody song, which contains references to several earlier Mitchell songs.
Billy Idol and Tom Petty snarl and growl comically on "Dancin' Clown," but it 's an unconvincing stab at conventional rock, and the LP's least successful number. On "Cool Water," Mitchell finds herself a soul mate in Willie Nelson, of all people. It's a remake of the Roy Rogers hit, also recorded by Vaughn Monroe and the Sons of the Pioneers, with new words by Mitchell about poison buried underground. Elsewhere, Don Henley guests on "Snakes and Ladders"; the Cars' Benjamin Orr turns up on "The Beat of Black Wings"; and Wendy and Lisa, formerly of Prince's Revolution, sing along on "The Tea Leaf Prophecy."
Prince, a well-known Mitchell fan who has borrowed his unconventional multitracked harmonies from her, reportedly offered Mitchell a song called "Sexy Love," but she politely declined. Could have been interesting.