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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1498

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Joni Mitchell: Shine
by George Graham

(Hear Music 30457 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/26/2007)

One of the set topics I like to do on Mixed Bag is something I call "still at it after all these years," featuring new recordings, released within the past year, by veteran artists who are still at the top of their game, but whose new work the commercial media has no use for, even though their music from decades ago is repeated endlessly as oldies or "classic rock." Dylan, Springsteen, Janis Ian, and even Cat Stevens are among those whose new music apparently is not deemed likely enough to sell products, but some of whose old music is played over and over.

One of the artists whom I did not think we would be including in such sets is Joni Mitchell. The veteran folk icon of the 1960s and 1970s, and lyricist to a generation, famously declared a few years ago that she was done with making music, calling the music business a "cesspool," and deciding to concentrate on her visual art. It also did not help that a lifetime of cigarettes had taken a serious toll on her voice. In a way, it was a courageous move -- better not to make music than to make bad music, as a number of pop stars of the past have resorted to -- or to make music without your heart in it. So she left us with a wondrous body of work from the past

But this year, nine years after her last recording of new music, Ms. Mitchell had a burst of creativity. She was inspired one day by a particularly attractive scene at her seaside house, she writes, and says that the piano "beckoned" for the first time in ten years. She has became involved in three simultaneous projects, the first a ballet called "The Fiddle and the Drum," performed by the Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Canada, based on her past music. This fall, there will be a new exhibition of some of her paintings with political themes in New York. And, after a long musical hiatus, she has returned to the recording scene with a new CD called Shine, an album done very much on her own terms, and also suffused with her commentary on the state of the world, both its environment and the state of politics. A couple of those new tunes are also being performed in the ballet.

This recording is an interesting one, as I said, definitely on her own terms. Most of the instrumentation on it is created by Ms. Mitchell herself, with synthesizers that sound as if they came out of the 1980s, and perhaps they did, lamely imitating strings and horns. She is joined by the usual smattering of first-rate jazz-oriented players including Bob Sheppard on sax, Brian Blade on drums, her ex-husband Larry Klein on bass, and ace studio steel guitar player Greg Leisz. But it's mainly Ms. Mitchell herself, on her ersatz orchestra and refreshingly occasionally on guitar. Vocally, she has improved since her last recording on which she sang orchestrated versions of her famous songs in a decidedly sultry voice that many did not recognize. She still can't hit those angelic high notes, but she does sound more like a kind of older, wiser version of herself in her late 1970s and 1980s recordings.

Lyrically, she shows some of her brilliance of the past, but a few critics have already called some of the protest lyrics on this CD a bit clumsy or stuck in the past. And most of the lyrics are related to the state of the world. There are none of the confessional personal narratives that formed some of her most memorable songs. But she does often wax poetic, and there are still not many artists of her popular stature saying what she feels compelled to say. And to tie is all together, she does a new version of her famous environmental hit Big Yellow Taxi, which she performs more or less putting it in the past tense, with her quirky synthesized instrumentation.

The CD opens with an attractive instrumental piece called One Week Last Summer inspired by the scene that got her back to the piano. She explains that there are seven verses to the piece, one for each day of the week. Bob Sheppard is heard on alto sax, while Ms. Mitchell synthesizes everything else. <<>>

The lyrical theme of the recording is established on the next track This Place, again about the attractive environs she was in, and then concerned that it was in danger of being spoiled by pollution or development. <<>>

If I Had a Heart is one of the more musically attractive pieces in terms of its creative themes, reminiscent of Ms. Mitchell's 1980s work. Lyrically it's a straight-out protest song. <<>>

A piece called Hana is an appreciation of someone who is apparently making a difference in the world, through helping the less fortunate. Musically it's an interesting juxtaposition, reminiscent of the work of the late Joe Zawinul of the band Weather Report. <<>>

Ms. Mitchell draws on literature for two of the tracks. Night of the Iguana is based on Tennessee Williams' play of the same name. <<>>

The closing track If paraphrases a Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name about asserting one's aspirations. Some of her familiar and distinctive guitar sounds make a welcome appearance. Also in the assets column is the presence of real drums, as played by the creative jazz drummer Brian Blade. <<>>

Probably the most obvious political protest song is called Strong and Wrong, the musical mood seems more sorrowful than angry. Lyrically it's hardly Ms. Mitchell's most subtle work. <<>>

The remake of Big Yellow Taxi is intriguing. Though she doesn't substantially really change the lyrics, one comes away with the notion that she moved the song into the past tense, that what might happen in the original version has already happened. She included this song in her new ballet, and the whimsical fake instrument parts from her synthesizer, including a kind of cyber-accordion, give the arrangement a more danceable quality. <<>>

It's great that Joni Mitchell, after famously renouncing the music business, has chosen to return to recording. It's interesting that she is doing it for a record label owned by Starbucks Coffee. She is in very good form on Shine, her voice regaining some of its old sound, and her concern for the state of the world and especially the environment undiminished. But whether she will attract a new generation with this recording remains to be seen. Musically, it's hardly her best, and the dated-sounding synthesizers she uses to simulate various instruments sometimes sounds, dare I say, "low-budget" in the current day. She could easily have had her pick of the best studio players to join her, and concentrate on her distinctive guitar work, or even on acoustic piano. But there are some interesting sounds, and it does give this a different quality from her previous recordings. Lyrically, it's also not her most subtle or sophisticated, but she brings a passion to her message that very much rings true.

From a sonic standpoint, we'll give the CD about a B-plus. The vocals are well-recorded, and nicely capture the way Joni Mitchell sounds in 2007. But the synthesized instruments sound fake, and they lack much dynamic range. And the whole CD is pretty much stays at the same volume.

Joni Mitchell has moved back to the limelight again. In addition to this CD, there is the ballet based on her music, an exhibit of her art, and there are two new tribute recordings of other artists doing her songs. To paraphrase Paul Simon, who himself is one of those veteran artists still doing good work, Joni Mitchell, after an extended hiatus, is now "still at it after all these years," and that's only good news for her millions of long-time fans.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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