Robin Denselow reviews the latest albums from Joni Mitchell and other rock performers
WITH her new double album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum K63003), Joni Mitchell pushes into musical, lyrical, and even emotional fields well beyond the range of most popular music, but still manages to keep her music popular.
Her previous album, Hejira, at times seemed an experiment in free-form jazz and poetry, admirably bold in concept but ultimately limiting and monotonous. Undaunted, she has once again teamed up with Weather Report's superb bass player Jaco Pastorius, and this time the jazz strains are assimilated, there is greater confidence, and thankfully a return to lightness and melody. She has got the mixture right, and combined it with lyrics that are dense and personal as always, but have also matured there's no longer the infuriating obsession with the dreadful problem of being a rich superstar.
The set starts undramatically, with a relaxed, gently improvised guitar and bass instrumental which still shows how far her musical relationship with Pastorius has developed, and the range and unobtrusive inventiveness of his work. The improvisation moves into Cotton Avenue, with its almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics and the images of a sultry juke joint matched by a confident jazzy style and a wonderful growling bass line. From here on her ideas get bolder. Talk To Me is a fast, strummed cameo piece, in which she is suddenly a gabbling drunk at a party, gushing through a breakneck mixture of embarrassing revelation and puns, before ending with a desperate cry of "shut me up and talk to me!"
The second side, over 16 minutes long, is devoted to her longest and boldest song yet, Paprika Plains. This time she plays piano, there is an orchestrated section, and a saxophone solo from Weather Report's Wayne Shorter, and the song itself moves from the realistic and personal to the surreal, and back again through images of her childhood and Indians on the bleak Canadian plains, then of the Indians empty handed and destroyed through drink, and herself flying over watching them from a helicopter, alienated from her own roots and nature. The music (particularly the sparring, evocative use of the orchestra) holds it together even when the stream of consciousness becomes a less manageable torrent.
The third side is dominated by a Latin and African feel, with a frantic percussive instrumental leading into the jumble of West Indian and New York themes in the catchy, bouncy Dreamland. There are more rock influenced, tuneful tracks on the fourth side (along with characteristic double-edged lyrics), before this fine set is wrapped up with a solo re-working of traditional themes like Wayfaring Stranger, with the reminder that the route to her present complex jazz-ballads started with the fold scene.
The album is an impressive reminder that even in the year of the punk there's an increasingly enthusiastic audience for jazz-rock and fusion music. Bands like Weather Report itself now attract large audiences, and in Britain there's something of the same development. Livestock (Charisma CLASS 5) is the new live album from Brand X, among the brightest and most imaginative of our jazz-rockers. The album captures the energy of their concerts, with the percussion of Morris Pert and Phil Collins powering the impressively controlled guitar work of John Goodsall and Robin Lumley's keyboards.
Feel Good To Me (Polydor 2302075), the first solo album by the former Yes and King Crimson drummer, is another jazz-orientated mix of tracks involving complex structures, songs, and improvisation. For a drummer the album is quite remarkable for not including a drum solo. Instead, Bruford concentrates on his surprisingly far-ranging writing, and on providing the framework for performances from the excellent Dave Stewart (with whom he played in National Health) and the disturbing, gentle vocals from Annette Peacock.
Finally, a brief recommendation for an American singer-songwriter, who by now surely deserves wider recognition. John Stewart's Fire In The Wind (RSO 2394194) is the best produced and most commercial album (though not quite the best in terms of songs) from a writer who dares to be emotional, even passionate, in his writing about (geographical) middle American, the fate of the American dream, and the ordinary man.
The best song here is Promise The Wind, a cool study of his disillusion at Carter's Presidency: "There's redneck Billy and beer, don't look like anything's going on here . . . but it's so easy to suck us in, sell em the Lord and you promise the wind."
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