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Switch to Mitchell -- and make it live Print-ready version

by Ian Penman
New Musical Express
September 27, 1980

LIKE, A Rolling Stone picnic or something more in touch with these headachey contemporary days?

"Shadows and Light" is, like 1975's "Miles of Aisles," a double live album slide show -- sliding from past to present, sketching evolution and revolutions, travels and emotions. In the five years separating "Miles" from "Shadows" the mercurial all American (or Canadian) girl has moved on, sometimes drastically, progressed through four albums and an array of metaphors. She hasn't worked a way forward in the backward, somnambulist manner of some old peers who also started their "trip" in the '60s: "Shadows" ends with "Woodstock" -- but it isn't a spot she has returned to in order to settle down.

Mitchell, I'd say, can be precisely set against such tired old troupers as Dylan and Young -- the former has well and truly settled down in the right-eous heart of today's middle America as a sold-again Christian Soldier, and Neil is the same ol' rock'n'roll conservative, rusty as all get out.

Where the boys' muse has snoozed off in some tattered and homely hammock, gently rocking out a limited series of pat phrases -- by now all but meaningless through repetition and reputation -- Ms. Mitchell has expanded all her ranges, often to excess. In the more disciplined and deluxe Mitchell catalogue we find contradictions and movements stolen from a number of genres, from Torchy to more archeological avenues -- recherché du vamps perdu! She's in love with certain subjects, and it's not at all true that the favourite one is herself. America and Love are the primary mythological reservoirs -- and Travel links them, land in land: States of mind. There's seldom heard the maudlin self-inspection so rightly associated with the singer-songwriter club.

Pull down the blinds. "Shadows and Light" is -- with the exception of "Woodstock" and a frothy "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" -- a list of the last five years, overlapping "Miles of Aisles," through the inclusion of one song from "Court and Spark" ("Free Man in Paris"): after that, we get three from "Hissing of Summer Lawns," five from "Hejira," one from "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and three from last year's "Mingus."

So it's onto the perennial ponderable: what joy -- bar the fanatic's -- in a two record live set? If this is a "documentary" should we edit out all the drifting and skidding? Sometimes, is probably the answer. "Shadows and Light" is sometimes lazy. No matter how "tight" a musician is, how necessary is it to solo (for so long)? God made little green ECM labels for those kinds of things.

There are points where the skid and drift is irresistible. Where Mitchell's vocal changes course -- off cue -- and takes the long way round a phrase, letting technical control over phrasing slip up on a moment. The same thing -- improvisation kept under control -- can be said of the musicians she employed, who were Jaco Pastorius (bass -- the best he played for a while and no solo!), Don Alias (drums), Pat Metheny (guitar), Lyle Mays (keyboards) and Michael Brecker (sax).

There are points where they don't steer so clearly -- where "Black Crow" dives into "Don's Solo" (sic) and "Amelia" bumps into Pat's, for instance. I could really have done without sides Three and Four entirely as it happens -- but then, I'm just a borderline case: my heart only goes as far out to the jazzy blonde in her.

"Shadows and Light" is a trail of clues, a blaze of sights seen, an on-the-road exhibition of her favourite (?) bits and pieces. She keeps on being busy, she's pretty pithy, she's often lousy. But more like a strolling player than a rolling stone . . .

"Shadows and Light" is Mitchell for memory. Blonde or blind spots.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (10531)


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