As that catch-all musical category we call rock catapults successfully, at least moneywise, into its third decade, all rock connoisseurs must begin to wonder if any artist will survive this century and beyond, merit a position of worth for musical and lyrical accomplishments which ranks favorably with the masters and thus achieve immortality (which in comparison to musical geniuses such as Beethoven, Bach, Verdi, etc., may seem pompous; it must be remembered that rock is one of the initial utilizations and expressions of a new vehicle of music - electronic). Recently, two artists who possess the potential and ability to reach this Valhalla released new albums. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, who record for the prestigious Asylum label, are known for poetic sensitivity and expression combined with musical ingenuity.
Joni Mitchell's eclectic musical nature is well established. The early Folkie known for her open tunings and vibrato, assumed a pop stance with the wonderfully accessible Court and Spark (as its three hit singles indicated), and a progressingly exotic jazz inspired mannerism in Hejira. During the same 10 album period, her lyrical approach has also been altered. The poetic vulnerability of the hopeless romantic seen for example in the lamentable "Blue" has developed through time and success into the construction and telling of verbal fantasies such as those on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Presently, however, Mitchell has made the greatest metamorphosis of her career and simultaneously risked a great portion of her monstrous following. The product of this ambitious new venture is a two record set entitled Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. It is an avant garde exploration of stylized jazz combined with the artist's folk oriented roots. It is easily Mitchell's most inaccessible album and will require long and intense listening to be appreciated. The side long "Paprika Plains" for example, is a brooding, rambling piano-dominated sonata highlighted by a shifting melodic approach. And contrary to past works the lyrical venue of the album is escapism exemplified by the percussion directed and dominated "Otis and Marlena" and the rhythmic "Dreamland" (what with a different arrangement would make an excellent hooked filled single, as Roger McGuinn's version illustrated). These observations are not meant to portray that Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is void of pop like stylizing. With a catchy beat, "Cotton Fields" and "Off Night Back Street" would hold the attention of the most staunch easy listening fan. The most fascinating cut of all though is the title track. It more than anything, represents the finished canvas of where Joni Mitchell has come from, is, and will be going. Featuring open tuned electric guitar, Jaco Pastorius' obligato bass, masterful harmonies and Mitchell's wonderfully controlled voice, it is a gem which backs my aforementioned connotation that Joni Mitchell is an artist to be reckoned with.
Jackson Browne must be placed above the first rank of recording artists. He, unlike the majority of contemporary artists, lives his music. Browne's vocal style, lyricism and melodies reflect an endearing, innocent earnest intensity that reveals him as a classic romanticist of immense sensibility. No album mirrors these revelations more than The Pretender, in which Browne agonizes heart, mind, and soul with the suicide of his wife (why is it that the most horrible always happens to the most vulnerable) and himself. It is a monumental work of which there is no comparison.
Yet from a different point of view Browne's new album Running on Empty is just as valuable. An ambitious recording, it is unique in many ways. It is a live album containing entirely new material recorded onstage, in hotel rooms and unbelievably as it may seem, on a bus (one can actually hear the motor humming in the background on the song entitled "Nothing But Time"). This record is sociologically indispensible [sic], for it supplies the listener with the true portrait of the performer on tour. And as Rolling Stone Magazine remarked, it is "an aura equivalent of film director Robert Altman's work." It lyrically possesses tunes dealing with boredom ("Nothing But Time," "The Road"), how some deal with the boredom ("Cocaine", "Rosie"), the endless lineup of cities ("Shaky Town"), exhaustion ("Running on Empty"), the roadies ("The Load-Out") and the fans ("Stay"). Musically, it is excellent, featuring fine performances by the best backup musicians America has to offer and the ever improving Browne vocals. Most importantly though, it reveals that Browne has finally come to grips with the death of his wife and his depression. For unlike "The Pretender" many of the tunes are upbeat and possess hints of humor. But probably the greatest demonstration that life must go on is the picture on the back of the accompanying booklet.
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