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Shine and River: Music Reviews

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Joni Mitchell
Hear Music, 2007

River: The Joni Letters
Herbie Hancock
Verve, 2007

Starting with Night Ride Home in 1991, the PR for Joni Mitchell’s new CDs has been pure hype. NRH was touted as a collection of “middle-aged love songs” (they weren’t), and Shine, just out, sports a sticker proclaiming it “The Radiant Return of One of the Greatest Singer/Songwriters of Our Time.” Return? I hadn’t noticed she’d gone away. Turbulent Indigo was released in 1994, and since then she’s put out a whole bunch of re-releases with a new song or two thrown in. Not to mention Both Sides Now, in which she covered old standards like Comes Love and Stormy Weather backed by a sixtysomething-piece orchestra. At 65, I’d say Joni’s working pretty darn hard! Besides, Mitchell doesn’t need promotional gimmicks: her fans buy every jewel she quietly slips out, and we’re so passionate about her that word-of-mouth always brings in new buyers. I don’t know if Joni feels like she records in fits and starts—she’s as involved in her painting as in music, so I’d guess not—but to me her considerable body of work seems like a seamless trajectory.

Shine could actually be touted thematically, under that popular modern tropism, Green: almost every song is about “this unfolding tragedy,” environmental destruction. She doesn’t bang our heads against the wall, but sings about the situation with deep and gentle pathos. I hate to separate Shine into parts, though, with lyrics here and music there: as critic Ann Powers has said, the genius behind Joni’s work is that each and every aspect–lyrics, melody, phrasing, intonation, even cover art—is executed with enormous care and consideration for the whole. Thus it would be misguided to tear her work apart, even to quote lyrics out of context—a rule I’m probably going to break any minute.

With the exception of one or two, the songs on Shine are typical Joni Mitchell—although, with her eclectic explorations, there really is no such thing as a typical Joni Mitchell song. The effect these songs have on me, however, is typical. This Place, for instance, a melodic elegy for the planet, is hauntingly addictive: every minute I’m not listening to it I want to be. The writer Doris Lessing has frequently complained that so many songs with upbeat messages are accompanied by desultory, dirge-like tunes. In This Place the equation is reversed: while the lyrics could break your heart, a joyous ballet could be choreographed to the melody. (The Alberta Ballet has in fact set a ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum, to Joni’s music. It debuted in February 2007, and a new full-length adaptation will debut in February 2009.)

My only sort-of quibble with Shine is the inclusion of yet another remake of
Big Yellow Taxi. Although the arrangement differs slightly from the original, with an almost Cajun sound, I for one didn’t need another version of one of the most overplayed songs in radio history. It could be she decided to include it because it so perfectly fits the album’s theme—and reminds us that Joni Mitchell was issuing environmental alerts umpteen years ago.

As a smoker, I must say something about Joni Mitchell’s attachment to cigarettes. Over the years she’s gotten predictable criticisms for it; some reviewers say she’s ruined her voice. Well, I happen to like her husky smoker’s voice at least as much as the sparkling bell tones of her youth. Sometimes I even prefer it: Mitchell used to do a lot of high-pitched woo-woo-ing that could break glass; the Ladies of the Canyon album is so full of screeching woo-woo’s I’ve been tempted on occasion to smash it. Again, Ann Powers agrees: “Decades of committed smoking have changed her voice, and she makes an adventure of exploring her more limited range.” Right on!

Bad Dreams (from Shine)

The cats are in the flower bed
A red hawk rides the sky
I guess I should be happy
Just to be alive…
But we have poisoned everything
And oblivious to it all
The cell phone zombies babble
Through the shopping malls
While condors fall from Indian skies
Whales beach and die in sand…
Bad dreams are good
In the great plan.

You cannot be trusted
Do you even know you’re lying
It’s dangerous to kid yourself
You go deaf and dumb and blind.
You take with such entitlement.
You give bad attitude.
You have no grace
No empathy
No gratitude

You have no sense of consequence
Oh my head is in my hands…
Bad dreams are good
In the great plan.

Before that altering apple
We were one with everything
No sense of self and other
No self-consciousness.
But now we have to grapple
With our man-made world backfiring
Keeping one eye on our brother’s deadly selfishness.

And everyone’s a victim!Photo by Yvette Roman
Nobody’s hands are clean.
There’s so very little left of wild Eden Earth
So near the jaws of our machines.
We live in these electric scabs.
These lesions once were lakes.
No one knows how to shoulder the blame
Or learn from past mistakes…
So who will come to save the day?
Mighty Mouse?
Bad dreams are good in the great plan.

Mingus Mexico

Jazz musician Herbie Hancock first worked with Joni Mitchell when she invited him to play piano on Mingus in 1979, an album that was, in my opinion, sadly underrated. She took on a huge challenge by going to Mexico to work with Charles Mingus when he was dying of cancer, putting lyrics to some of his compositions. While the result was somewhat uneven, a few of the songs, most notably The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines and Sweet Sucker Dance, are as cleverly witty as anything by Cole Porter. Hancock’s been a Mitchell fan ever since, and River: The Joni Letters proves it. As much original interpretation as homage, the album is, like Mitchell’s work, hauntingly beautiful.

from The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines

I’m down to a roll of dimes
I’m stalking the slot that’s hot
I keep hearing bells all around me
Jingling in the lucky jackpots
They keep you tantalized
They keep you reaching for your wallet
Here in fools’ paradise

I talked to a cat from Des Moines
He said he ran a cleaning plant
That cat was clanking with coin
Well he must have had a genie in a lamp
’cause every time I dropped a dime I blew it
He kept ringing bells
Nothing to it!

He got three oranges
Three lemons
Three cherries
Three plums
I’m losing my taste for fruit

River reminds me somewhat of Mingus: nearly every opening chord had me anticipating the song God Must Be a Bogeyman–and not just because I can’t distinguish one jazz composition from another (sometimes I can). It’s the Joni Mitchell syndrome in action: just as every one of her new albums makes me re-play the old ones, River made me play Mingus.

Hancock’s interpretation of Joni’s signature song Both Sides Now is, to me at least, unrecognizable—I wouldn’t have known it if not for the liner notes. Still, it’s absolutely gorgeous—and how could it not be, with Wayne Shorter on sax and Dave Holland on bass? Also, Hancock’s interpretation is a perfect bridge to the non-Mitchell compositions on Shine, Duke Ellington’s Solitude and Shorter’s Nefertiti.

With two exceptions, I much prefer the instrumentals on River to those with vocal accompaniments. One of these exceptions is the last vocalist I would’ve expected to cover a Mitchell song, Tina Turner, who revamps Edith and the Kingpin from an inscrutable dirge into a sexy number for a hot mama. Almost as surprising is Leonard Cohen, talk-singing a brilliant interpretation of The Jungle Line. On the other end of the spectrum, Corinne Rae Bailey sings River, reprising Joni’s woo-woo’s with predictably unhappy results.

Edith And The Kingpin:

These two CDs go together like bread and butter—a detail not lost, of course, on Amazon with their “Better Together’ marketing ploy. This is one occasion when they’re right on target, and it’s worth putting out the money for both CDs.

Sweet Bird (from The Hissing of Summer Lawns and on River)

Out on some borderline
Some mark of inbetween
I lay down golden in time
And woke up vanishing

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Up on your feathers laughing

Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone’s hand

Give me some time
I feel like I’m losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing
No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

Note: Joni Mitchell’s website is the best celebrity site I’ve run into on the Internet. Devoted fans keep adding to its exhaustive store of information, which includes a biography, musicology with every lyric to every song, and some of Joni’s paintings. It’s a must-visit for any serious Joni Mitchell fan.


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