I've been lucky enough to get my hands on pre-release copies of new studio albums from two incredibly gifted, albeit radically different, singer/songwriters I've been following for years.
No huge gay angle to any of this, but if you're a big music fan like me and count down the days until your favorite artists' new records drop, it's always fun to read sonic impressions from someone who's heard the new stuff. So consider this merely a preview of coming attractions/early review for the new Joni Mitchell and Twila Paris projects.
Mitchell, of course, is almost universally lauded as a landmark musician and though she peaked commercially in the early '70s, has continued, with a few stops and starts, to evolve musically. Mitchell released some of her best work in the '90s, though, by then, she was appreciated most by fellow artists who often spoke of her influence.
Mitchell planned, at one point, a trio of symphonic albums and two materialized: the standards collection, "Both Sides Now" (2000), and a double album of orchestral remakes of her own songs, "Travelogue" (2002). A Christmas album that was to complete the trilogy was never recorded.
After "Travelogue," Mitchell, now 63, announced she was retiring, burned out from years of public indifference and record industry practices she found appalling. Claiming she had lost interest in songwriting, she quit recording but did continue to oversee retrospectives and re-issues of her work. Anthologies "The Beginning of Survival," "Dreamland" (both 2004) and "Songs of a Prairie Girl" (2005) were lovingly and lavishly sequenced and packaged but contained no new material. The box set "Complete Geffen Recordings" contained a few previously unreleased outtakes from the vault, but nothing new.
"Shine," Mitchell's 26th album since her 1968 debut, is due Sept. 25 on the Starbucks Hear Music label. I tried to land an interview with Mitchell for the Blade but no dice. Her manager did, however, graciously offer a pre-release copy of the new record.
"Shine" was inspired, again, by disgust, one of Mitchell's frequent inspirations. But its eight new songs (the other two tracks are an instrumental and a remake of "Big Yellow Taxi," her oft-covered chestnut) are more often shaded with touches of sadness and regret than outrage.
Mitchell does indignant well some of her best songs, "Tax Free" (from 1985's "Dog Eat Dog") and "Sex Kills" (from 1994's "Turbulent Indigo") are fueled by it. And while some critics found Mitchell's harshness off-putting, both in certain songs and in her no-holds-barred dismissal of the big labels, I always found in refreshing. Too much negativity and pessimism? Perhaps for some, but Mitchell always tempered it with songs of romance, keen observation and wonder.
The "Shine" songs, though, find balance within themselves. They don't have rose-colored glasses outlooks, but they are, at times, hopeful and blissful. The opening lines of the jazzy, lilting "This Place" are as idyllic as postcard imagery: "sparkle on the ocean/eagle at the top of a tree/those crazy crows always making a commotion/this land is home to me."
It's not long, though, before toxic spills, miners and big money threaten Mitchell's utopia. But she's not pissed off she's in mourning, and it's a recurring theme. On the moody "If I Had a Heart" (she doesn't? go figure), "it's so out of hand/big bombs and barbed wire/we've set our lovely sky &/on fire." The lyrically brilliant "Bad Dreams" handles the juxtoposition best:
The cats are in the flower bed
A red hawk rides the sky
I guess I should be happy
Just to be alive
But we have poisoned everything
And oblivious to it all
The cell phone zombies babble
Through the shopping malls
While condors fall from Indian skies
Whales beach and die in sand
Bad dreams are good
In the great plan
Would have made a great theme for "Inconvenient Truth" if Melissa Etheridge had been unavailable.
Initially I questioned the inclusion of the "Big Yellow Taxi" remake. Artists covering themselves are usually bad ideas (remember the new version of "Think" from Aretha's "Through the Storm" album?). Plus, everybody and his uncle has covered that song, what is the point of Mitchell covering herself, I thought. But upon hearing the rest of the album, its inclusion makes perfect thematic sense. Mitchell has, of course, been mourning this kind of loss ("You don't know what you got 'til it's gone") for decades.
I'm still absorbing this album musically. After only a few spins, it's unfair to guess how the songs might stick. The genius of Mitchell has always been that her songs, for the most part, work just as well musically as they do lyrically. On paper, "Come in From the Cold" (from 1991's "Night Ride Home," Mitchell's best album), works as a breathtakingly expansive bio-poem but takes on added dimension sonically when it comes to life as a lushly layered island dance.
"Shine," at times, has rhythm. "Hana" and the "Taxi" remake are calypsos, the former with oddly placed electro flourishes. The pulsating, percussive "Night of the Iguana" is captivating but has an unfortunate late '80s pop feel. Much more musically effective is the slinky, bluesy, acoustic-guitar-driven "If," which contrasts with much of the album, perhaps Mitchell's most piano-centered album ever.
It's an interesting approach. Mitchell says in the liner notes that the instrumental "One Week Last Summer" drew her to the piano for the first time in a decade. She's a much better guitarist, though, and the piano work here is simplistic, lacking both rhythm and captivating figures.
What remains to be seen for me is whether the non-rhythmic tracks (several are slow, moody and seem to meander) will sink in. Many of the "Indigo" and "Taming the Tiger" (1998) tracks sounded melodically unmemorable to me at first, but gradually seeped under my skin, rendered indelible by Mitchell's priceless and nuanced vocal inflections. I hope the same thing happens for me with the "Shine" tracks in time.
Vocally, Mitchell sounds as good as ever. Some long-time fans may miss the bell-like clarity and range she exhibited on her early albums but I prefer the warm, years-of-smoking vocal shades that became noticeable in the mid-'80s.
Gospel singer Twila Paris, 48, is every bit Mitchell's equal in the songwriting department, though lyrically and structurally their compositions are vastly different. Paris isn't nearly as well known in mainstream circles as she's focused on a genre that has less mass appeal. She's a legend, though, in religious music, as highly esteemed as Mitchell is in pop.
"Small Sacrifice," which she's releasing independently under her own Mountain Spring Music imprint, has no street date as far as I could ascertain online, but she's selling copies of it on her current tour with the Korean Children's Choir and I nabbed a copy when she played in Fredericksburg, Va., two weeks ago. This her first studio album since "House of Worship" in 2003, though there was a live project in 2005. It's her 19th album since her debut 27 years ago.
Unexpectedly, "Sacrifice" (whose title sounded to me like a cheap horror flick at first), has a slightly haunting, Euro-pop lite feel courtesy of British producer John Hartley. If there's anything frustrating about the album, it's that Hartley didn't cut loose a bit more. Nothing crazy I'm not expecting a Max Martin production job but there are enough icy-cool touches here and there that I would have liked to have seen things taken a tad further. Paris, largely a pop/AC artist, has dabbled convincingly in rock and could easily have pulled something off to that effect.
There's nothing groundbreaking here, either for Paris or anybody else, but it is a fresh batch of religious praise tunes, several of which are on a par with her best. Since "Sacrifice's" distribution is up in the air (rumor has it she's shopping it to various labels for better penetration), it's a big question as to whether this record will have any impact or airplay but a few of its songs deserve to.
"We Know Love," is a tight, driving ditty propelled beautifully by what is, perhaps, the most ethereal vocal Paris has ever cut. She cascades silkily, yet vibrantly, over the pulsating rhythm bed with near-Enya-like precision. The stirring "I Can Do All Things," driving "You Lead Me" and intense, Christmas-themed "There is a Plan" are all relatively simple. They succeed, as does much of Paris' past material, with melodies that are easy to pick up and remember.
If there's one that belongs up there with "He is Exalted," "We Will Glorify" and "We Bow Down" in terms of church sing-along fodder, it's "You Are a Great God," a disarming little praise tune with a great hook.
Equally tight in terms of pop craftsmanship is the gorgeous title track, a lite rocker about giving something back to the divine. Nothing here stinks, though "Lord I Need You" is blandly written and unimaginatively produced and album closer "Alleluia," though it has a gorgeous melody, features lyrics that are as cliché as it gets for religious music.
Which brings us back to Mitchell for a minute. There are a few similarities between her new album and this one by Paris. To some extent, they're both like fresh visits from old friends. Both are still doing solid, if hardly innovative, work and the new material is enriched by the long history fans have had time to forge with these two musical warhorses. Neither of these projects are stylistic left hooks like Mitchell's jazzy "Hissing of Summer Lawns" was back in '75 or Paris' rocking "Beyond a Dream" was in '93, but both share a buoyancy.
For Mitchell, that's refreshing. "Travelogue," a fascinating record conceptually, got bogged down in heavy symphonic gluts. She admitted it turned out awfully heavy. Paris, though, could use a bit more toughness. I've always found her most convincing when she's belting something out. I don't need a predictable power ballad. "The Time is Now" (a mid-'90s showstopper) for instance, sounds overwrought now. But I do want to hear her break a sweat. She doesn't on "Sacrifice."
The interesting point of contrast, though, is the way they each have expressed their feelings about God. For Paris, it's nothing new. She's been singing to and about a Judeo-Christian, biblically informed vision of God since "Knowin' You're Around" came out in 1980. Her world, it seems, is one of blacks and whites, moral absolutes where God, whomever he or she might be, is deserving of endless adulation, hence Paris' bounty of praise and worship songs. And while she's undeniably gifted, she's so topically confined that no non-Christian would find her compelling on any level. The music, while solid, isn't innovative enough to be a calling card on its own, though it works beautifully for what it's paired with lyrically.
Agree or disagree with her interpretation of the world (and what does religion do if not interpret the world?), there's something quite admirable about the seeming clarity with which she sees things. While many of her fellow religious singers have stumbled in the eyes of the U.S. Christian church, held, perhaps, to unrealistically high expectations, Paris has, at least among other female gospel singers, the most unblemished track record. And, to her credit, she's never come off as harsh or judgmental. Her approach has always been embracing, a la Billy Graham, rather than condemning, a la Jim Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell. "Rescue the Prisoner," an early '90s track, is as close as she ever came to renouncing anything and even that didn't get specific.
Mitchell, though, sees God, whom she acknowledges repeatedly on "Shine," in much-less concrete, much more wary terms. She renounces "holy war" and, instead, calls the earth holy on "If I Had a Heart." She compares the pre-industrialization age to the Garden of Eden on "Bad Dreams" and suggests, in the vein of Gnosticism, that "before that altering apple/we were one with everything," but now, "& there's very little left of wild Eden earth/so near the jaws of our machines/we live in these electric scabs/these lesions once were lakes &" The health of the earth seems like the furthest thing from Paris' mind. She's too busy looking upward. And that's OK. It's become her shtick, though I don't mean to imply insincerity by pointing that out.
Mitchell's "Night of the Iguana," a story-song of the Tennessee Williams play, tells of Rev. Shannon's plight ("no help from God at all") and, most indicative, perhaps, of Mitchell's own beliefs, are these lines from "Strong and Wrong": "what is God's will/Onward Christian Soldiers/or thou shalt not kill/men love war/is that what God is for/just a rabbit's foot?/just a lucky paw/for shock and awe?"
While Mitchell questions and plays devil's advocate, Paris is so assured in her beliefs, she uses them to encourage others, most notably on "Not Forgotten": "When you think your dream is dying/he has not forgotten you."
Mitchell find encouragement, though, from a non-Christian, the tough but resourceful "Hana," who "rolls up her sleeves/and starts pitchin' in," while turning out advice like "get a good grip on your grief." For "Hana," "there is no simple Sunday song/where God or Jesus comes along." We must "tackle the beast alone."
A bit absurd, perhaps, to compare such disparate artists as Mitchell and Paris. Mitchell, herself, has previously taken offense to being lumped in with other women musicians just because they share the same gender.
Fair enough, and perhaps it's nothing more than random timing that landed these two records in my possession but, listening to them back to back, I couldn't resist a little comparing and contrasting.
It's doubtful either record will electrify the charts or the zeitgeist, but I'm just happy to see these two stunning artists still inspired to write and record. Mitchell came disappointingly close to throwing in the towel completely and said, in fact, that she had. As with other well-loved artists, I'm no longer wishing for anything specific from these two. I trust them enough to continue to go on whatever journeys they want to take me. I just hope they continue to be up for new journeys.
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