It's the return of the warrior women of pop - defiant, awesome artists whose best work from back in the day remains unmatched. More seasoned today, they're still making smart, vibrant music. This month, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan and Bettye LaVette return with new albums that should satisfy old fans while intriguing new ones.
Joni Mitchell, Shine
When I moved to New York seven summers ago, I dove into the music of Joni Mitchell. For months, I lived off of Blue, Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. I even started pushing her on my hip-hop-inclined friends: "Hey, listen to this Joni cut. She's on that other wavelength."
And on the graceful Shine, Mitchell's first studio album in nearly 10 years, the legendary singer-songwriter continues to work in a sophisticated creative space that nobody commands the way she does. The CD is her debut for Hear Music, the Starbucks label whose roster includes another legendary pop star, Sir Paul McCartney.
Mitchell's lyrics remain poetic and evocative but more pointedly somber these days. The music is still progressive, ethereal in its blend of synthetic and jazz-shaded organic instrumentation. But the sound is spare; the 10 songs on the succinct album seem to float. Although Mitchell's voice (darkened by years of cigarette smoking) is nothing like the diamond soprano that soared through "Woodstock" and "Chelsea Morning" so many years ago, her coarsened sound is still inviting. She burnishes the lyrics with well-worn wisdom.
Where the acoustic guitar dominated her classic work of yesterday, Shine is anchored by the piano. Centering the lyrical focus largely on societal and political turmoil, Mitchell stays hopeful, as exemplified on the haunting title track. She remakes 1970's "Big Yellow Taxi," which years ago spoke to concerns of preserving nature. The newer version sports a staccato rhythm, accented by accordion, and fits perfectly in the context of the deeply contemplative Shine.
Chaka Khan, Funk This
Last time I interviewed this soul sista about 2 1/2 years ago, we talked on the phone for nearly three hours. Among the juicy, hilarious things we talked about, the singer mentioned that she was ready for a return to funk, reminiscent of the earthy sound of her Rufus days. (At the time, she was promoting ClassiKhan, an impassioned but overlooked jazz-standards CD.)
On Funk This, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Chi-Town native is back to sweaty R&B, her first such effort since 1998's uneven Come 2 My House. The sleek new album is a mix of covers and original material, and it's a mostly satisfying effort. Chaka's voice is as powerful as it was in 1975. The high notes, though, have become a little frayed around the edges, adding an attractive texture to her devastating approach.
The originals are among the album's highlights, including the nostalgic, swaggering opener, "Back in the Day," and the stunning inspirational ballad "Angel." The remakes are polished, but a few are unremarkable. "Foolish Fool," a grating song originally done by Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne's underrated sister), should have been left alone. Not even Chaka can make it interesting. Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" feels a bit listless, and Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me," featuring Michael McDonald, is pointless.
But Chaka's treatment of "Sign O' the Times" by Prince and "Ladies' Man" by Joni Mitchell are winners, chiefly because the songs are rock-solid to begin with, and the artist sounds completely invested. Although at times Jam and Lewis' production feels anonymous, Chaka still rises above it all, making Funk This her most spirited R&B album in years.
Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime
This native Detroiter with the whiskey-and-vinegar voice should have been a much bigger star. She started her recording career in 1962, but "buzzard's luck" (LaVette's words) kept her from achieving anything outside cult notoriety. Bad record deals, ill-fated albums, no promotion - the singer suffered it all for more than 40 years before she garnered mainstream critical acclaim for 2005's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. A concept record featuring interpretations of gutsy songs written by female artists (Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple and others), the superlative CD kept the singer on the road for two years.
Now, LaVette is back with The Scene of the Crime, her follow-up on the alt-rock label Anti. This album is darker and steeped in slow-drag country blues. It was recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where LaVette was backed by the rock band Drive-By Truckers.
Overseen by the singer, David Barbe and Patterson Hood, the production is swampier and looser than Hell to Raise. LaVette's voice and leathery phrasing drive the album. It's also more personable, as exemplified by the humorous juke-joint strutter, "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)." My only quibble is that the CD crawls with too many down-tempo numbers. Although she handles them well, the long-suffering singer really shoots sparks when the beat kicks up.