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Joni Mitchell as Muse   Print

by Martin Johnson
New York Sun
September 25, 2007

After more than a decade on the periphery, if not out of view altogether, the legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has found herself at the center of a flurry of activity surrounding her work. "Shine," her first recording of new material in nearly a decade, will be released today by Hear Music, as will Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters" (Verve), a new recording of material either written or favored by Ms. Mitchell. In addition, the Violet Ray Gallery at Openhouse will present an exhibit of Ms. Mitchell's paintings this week, and "The Fiddle and the Drum," a collaboration between Ms. Mitchell and the Alberta Ballet, will be telecast on the Bravo network in late October.

The term "comeback" is dangerously overused in the music business, but this would certainly qualify. Ms. Mitchell didn't fade away quietly from the recording industry  she left in a huff. Although her groundbreaking work in the early 1970s, especially the recordings "Blue" and "Court and Spark," set a standard for introspection and lyrical observation that has rarely been eclipsed, Ms. Mitchell's work in the 1980s and '90s appealed to a declining niche. Seven years ago, shortly after the release of her last album of new material, 1998's "Taming the Tiger" (Reprise), she did an interview in which she called the stewards of the industry "pornographic pigs," and announced that she no longer wanted any part of it.

She completed her contract by recording "Travelogue," a 2002 release that recast her earlier repertoire with the backing of an orchestra, and the recording and subsequent tour felt like a farewell gesture. However, two years later, Ms. Mitcell returned with a series of compilations of her work and another of songs by others, essentially a Joni Mitchell mixtape. At the time, she seemed to be softening her tone.

To her surprise, Ms. Mitchell, 63, has said she enjoyed putting together those compilations, "Dreamland" (Rhino), "The Beginning of Survival" (Geffen), and "Songs of a Prairie Girl" (Asylum/ Reprise/Geffen/Rhino), as well as her "Artist's Choice" (Hear Music). She wasn't one to listen to her old recordings. But the experience revived her interest in making music again. She signed a two-album deal to record new music for the Starbucks Entertainment imprint, which will distribute the recording through its coffee bars and online.

Ms. Mitchell's output from the 1980s and '90s deserves reconsideration, but "Shine" isn't likely to inspire such an effort. The recording is a mild disappointment. The music is top-notch Mitchell: The arrangements are spare and effective, her singing is stirring, and her vocals, made deeper by a decades-long smoking habit, are smoother than they were on "Travelogue." One of the highlights is a new version of her 1970 classic, "Big Yellow Taxi," but the song also reveals the biggest weakness of Ms. Mitchell's latest work: Too many of the new songs are nothing more than vents of rage. Although "Taxi" is, too, it couches its commentary with whimsy and flair.

Too many of the new songs simply scold, and the litany of Ms. Mitchell's targets is all too familiar: "Big money kicks the world around," she sings on "This Place." On the more political title track, she commands, "Shine on lousy leadership / Licensed to kill / Shine on dying soldiers / In patriotic pain / Shine on mass destruction / In some God's name."

Fans of Ms. Mitchell will have to hope that it's the rust factor. The rest of the album stands up well, but singer-songwriters are always judged by their lyrics first.

Indeed, lyrics were what drew Mr. Hancock to "River."

To make Ms. Mitchell's lyrics central to the project, Mr. Hancock instructed his musicians to peruse the words o f each song before recording them. It may seem like a remedial exercise, but it's hard to argue with the results. "River" is an exceptionally crafted recording, the product of a firstrate team of collaborators, including Larry Klein (Ms. Mitchell's ex-husband and the producer of nearly half her catalog), the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Dave Holland (legendary players who, like Mr. Hancock, are alumni of Miles Davis's bands), and an allstar cast of singers, including Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, Luciana Souza, and Corinne Bailey Rae.

Mr. Hancock, a longtime friend and occasional collaborator of Ms. Mitchell's, sets the warm, burnished tone for the recording with an opening series of ruminative piano chords. Most of the material is drawn from Ms. Mitchell's mid '70s recordings. Ms. Jones, who excels at covers (her take on "More Than This" on Charlie Hunter's "Analog Playground" is a showstopper), offers a wry reading of "Court and Spark," which segues nicely into Ms. Turner's subdued take on "Edith and Kingpin." Ms. Souza, who starts her own recent release, "The New Bossa Nova" (Verve), with a Mitchell tune, performs "Amelia" with a lyrical austerity that glistens with tensile strength. The spare lyricism throughout keeps the recording from slipping into a verbose hodgepodge of songs, and Mr. Hancock supports each singer with deliberate and elegant playing.

Mr. Hancock tackles "Sweet Bird" and "Both Sides Now" as instrumentals, and Ms. Mitchell herself revisits "Tea Leaf Prophecy," making it more about her parents than in the original, which she wrote 20 years ago. The two non-Mitchell tracks are two of her favorites: Mr. Shorter's "Nefertiti," a track made famous by the Miles Davis quintet of the 1960s, and Duke Ellington's "Solitude."

There has been no shortage of Joni Mitchell tributes in recent years  from TNT's "All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell" to Nonesuch Records's recent "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell" with Cassandra Wilson, Prince, and Björk  but Mr. Hancock's is the first since the Black Rock Coalition's Summerstage concert, seven years ago, to argue for the timelessness of Ms. Mitchell's work on the basis of its versatility and depth. None of these tunes are slavish imitations of the originals, but all are unmistakably Joni.

 

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