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by Stephen Holden
New York Times
March 30, 1988

Musical Collages

"My songs aren't as introverted as they used to be," Joni Mitchell said the other day in a telephone interview from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. "I think I explored the inner landscape thoroughly. Although I still return there from time to time, I don't think I will live there again."

Ms. Mitchell has just released a new album, "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm" (Geffen Records). It is a star-studded affair whose guests include Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Wayne Shorter, but it includes no songs written in the raw confessional mode of "Blue," "For the Roses," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira," albums that established her as the most gifted autobiographical singer and songwriter of her generation.

As on her last album, "Dog Eat Dog," Ms. Mitchell scrutinizes the contemporary social climate.

"The 70's were a time in which all of us, having discovered we couldn't change the world, thought that perhaps we could change ourselves," Ms. Mitchell said. "Once we discovered we couldn't change ourselves, we said, 'Well, then, let's make money.' "

The album extends Ms. Mitchell's longtime interest in developing pop studio collages that have dramatic content. The song "Snakes and Ladders" is a densely textured musical play in which she and Mr. Henley portray "an airbrushed angel" and "a young-fogie-financier" parrying and flirting amid an aural maze of voices chanting fragmentary phrases that portray a couple clawing their way up the corporate ladder. "The Reoccurring Dream" is an equally thick soundscape in which ricocheting inner voices mouth seductive inanities ("latest styles and colors" "Hollywood's greatest legends," and "order your youth secrets from the stars") while the singer comments:

"This is the reoccurring dream Born in the dreary gap between What we have now And what we wish we could have."

"In making this album, I found myself so profuse with melody that I wanted to see how far I could take overlapping chorale work without it becoming cacophony," the singer explained. "The idea was partly inspired by an excerpt from 'The Marriage of Figaro,' in the "movie 'Amadeus,' in which more and more servants, all singing different melodies, keep entering a scene."

Ms. Mitchell, who divides her creative energies between music and painting, finds a parallel between the two activities. "The layering of the music on this album is similar to the painting process," she said. "Experimenting with all the electronic sounds one can make in the studio, often one stumbles on something accidentally. It's similar to the kind of accidents that happen while one is painting. But it also gives one control over the sound. I don't have to tell an arranger what I want. I think that if Mozart were alive and had all these keyboards at his disposal, he would probably be in heaven."

The album's most specifically issue-oriented song, "Lakota," addresses the plight of the Lakota nation, the Indian reservation in the Dakotas where many different American Indian peoples coexist uneasily on land the United States Government covets for its uranium.

"According to Indian tribal teachings, the third world was destroyed by flood, and the fourth will be destroyed by fire," Ms. Mitchell said. "They believe the fourth world will end when the holy mountains go, and those mountains are filled with uranium. It's ironic, isn't it. How could they have known what uranium would mean?"

A Breakthrough

Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, who are appearing tomorrow evening at the Beacon Theater with special guests, the Feelies, seem poised to break into the rock mainstream after having established themselves as one of the most popular acts on college radio. "Globe of Frogs" (A&M Records), the group's major-label debut, is a dazzlingly clever collection of surreal pop musings that extend the Beatles' psychedelic vocabulary into the realm of serious zaniness. Songs like ' 'Balloon Man," "The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals," and "Tropical Fish Mandala" evoke a world in which the spirits are constantly taking material form, and corporeal life explodes into the ether.

"The songs portray life aimlessly weaving in and out of itself and the same people and animals reproducing themselves over and over," Mr. Hitchcock said last week. "I often write songs from two or three simultaneous points of view. But I don't like to explain them. If you dismantled a car you might discover how it works, but it would also be useless in getting you anywhere."

In the ebb and flow of pop fashion, Mr. Hitchcock's brand of highly developed pop surrealism has come back into style following the demise of the English punk movement.

"I've never made any secret that my work springs out of what happened in the late 60's," Mr. Hitchcock said. "As time goes by, more and more people are admitting to the fact that that is the period that inspired them. From the Pretenders and Elvis Costello to the Psychedelic Furs, Squeeze, XTC and Sting, it's apparent in all their work."

Beneath the surface whimsy in Mr. Hitchcock's songs runs a dark thread of nihilism. Or as "Flesh Number One," a chipper Beatlesque song on the album in which Mr. Hitchcock sings with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, puts it: "Everyone worries so much about themselves/ There's nothing happening to you that means anything at all."

Just Say No Symphony

The Composers' Showcase series will present three world premieres tomorrow evening at Alice Tully Hall. "Riding High," a jazz symphony by Charles Schwartz, the series' founder, speaks out strongly against drugs, right down to the naming of its four movements: "Angel Dust," "Mary J.," "Smack," and ' 'Crack." The performance will feature Freddie Hubbard playing trumpet and fluegelhorn, Jon Hendricks, speaker and vocalist, Sonny Fortune on saxophones and flute, and Joe Beck playing guitar.

The evening will also feature one of Charles Mingus's last sketches, performed for the first time by Roland Hanna playing piano, Jimmy Knepper playing trombone, James Newton playing flute, and Ray Mantilla on percussion. The third world premiere is Sun Ra's solo piano work, "New York Town," a series of impressionistic sketches of the city, performed by the composer.

 

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