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by George Varga
San Diego Union-Tribune
September 24, 1998

Joni Mitchell Returns -- and Roams Free -- With Subtle, Nuanced "Tiger"

Few music lovers with an appetite for adventure will be able to resist when Joni Mitchell sings: Step right up folks! The show is about to begin, as she does on "Harlem in Havana," the enchanting opening cut from her exquisite new album, "Taming the Tiger."

Several years in the making, this meticulously crafted and sequenced collection of songs is an absorbing work that might initially sound enigmatic, abstract or even a bit dissonant to some listeners. But each listening reveals a wealth of nuances and a finely honed sense of logic, form and melody, much like a challenging film or book that creates and occupies a world of its own. Few musicians in any idiom achieve both as much freedom and structure, or grace and daring, as Mitchell, an accomplished painter whose art is featured on "Taming the Tiger's" front and rear cover and on the CD itself.

And the timing may again be right for such an original and uncompromising artist as this 54-year-old Canadian, who has struggled commercially over the past two decades, even as she influenced everyone from Sarah McLachlan and Jewel to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Then there's Janet Jackson, who liberally sampled Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" on her recent song, "Got 'Til It's Gone," and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, who performs a svelte instrumental version of "I Had a King" (from Mitchell's self-titled 1970 (sic) album) on his new album, "Timeless Tales."

Due in stores Tuesday, "Taming The Tiger" finds her writing and singing with poise and passion, while demonstrating renewed conviction. She often sounded glum and cynical earlier in this decade, including on "Turbulent Indigo," her Grammy Award-winning 1994 album, but "Taming The Tiger" is infused with optimism.

As fiercely independent as ever, musically and personally, Mitchell -- who is also credited as the album's producer -- has rarely been as confident or playful. By turns complex and spare, ethereal and earthy, her beguiling music casts a potent spell as she re-asserts herself as a singular artist who bravely charts paths that others follow -- or avoid altogether.

The 11-song album also marks a sonic breakthrough for Mitchell, a pioneer of unorthodox guitar tunings and advanced chordal voicings. Armed with a Roland VG8 guitar synthesizer, which allows her to digitally program myriad tunings with the flick of a finger, she can now quickly bring to life the adventurous sounds she hears in her head. Already, she has credited this high-tech instrument with helping to reignite her interest in music and fueling her desire to keep recording at a time when genre-leaping veterans of her depth and ambition are shunned by commercial radio programmers and many record companies.

The results are liberating on "Taming the Tiger," be it the chiming, steel-drum-like sound she simulates with her guitar synthesizer on "Harlem in Havana"; the steely, power-chords-from-outer-space that accent "Lead Balloon"; or the ambient orchestral textures that provide an otherworldly backdrop on the album's lush, shimmering title track.

Mitchell's voice has grown deeper and more expressive with age. Her supple, jazz-inspired vocal phrasing is more accomplished than ever, which easily compensates for her fading high range. And she benefits from the sensitive accompaniment provided by a small all-star cast.

It includes Joshua Redman/Emmylou Harris drummer Brian Blade, who creates a lithe pulse that is felt as much as heard; bassist Larry Klein (Mitchell's ex-husband); k.d. lang pedal-steel guitar whiz Greg Leisz; and jazz giant Wayne Shorter, a longtime musical partner of Mitchell's, whose ingenious soprano-saxophone work is featured on five selections.

Her impeccably constructed lyrics are less confessional than on such classic albums as 1970's "Blue," but are no less provocative or moving. She covers a broad range of topics, from the aftermath of the rape of a Japanese girl by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa on "No Apologies" to Mitchell's contempt for the bankrupt aesthetics and fast-food marketing principles that rule pop radio and the music industry, which she chronicles on "Taming the Tiger's" seductive title track.

The latter finds her slyly borrowing imagery from William Blake's poem, "The Tiger." The song includes such incisive lines as:

The moon shed light on my hopeless plight / As the radio blared so bland / Every disc a poker chip / Every song just a one-night stand / Formula music ... genuine junk food for juveniles / Up and down the dial / mercenary style!

But Mitchell's lyrics are not always about what they may seem to be. "Man From Mars," a stirring ballad that includes such wrenching lines as There is no center to my life now / No grace in my heart, is actually an ode to her beloved cat. And "Stay in Touch," which many longtime Mitchell followers will assume is about her recent reunion with the now-grown daughter she gave up at birth and her first meeting with the grand-daughter she never knew she had, is in fact about another, unspecified relationship.

Oblique or direct, Mitchell is a joy to hear from start to finish on "Taming the Tiger." She is also one of the few artists to rise to pop music prominence in the 1960s who is still fearlessly forging ahead to explore exciting new vistas. And that, like this splendid album, is just cause for celebration.

 

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