Anytime Joni Mitchell releases a new album, it is usually a sure thing that something grand and wonderful, like manna from heaven or eggs Benedict for breakfast on a sunny morning, will happen. Quite simply, she is the best woman songwriter around and possibly the best rock vocalist. This time the new album is Miles of Aisles, a two-record affair, and while there are only two new songs on the album, hearing some of her best and oldest material again is well worth $8.95.
I should probably preface this review by saying I am entirely biased about this artist. Having discovered Joni Mitchell a few years this side of my puberty, I can say that she is one of the few rock-folk-pop or whatever artists whom I have consistently admired without suffering that break in the peculiar, pecuniary relationship between artist and fan that usually occurs with the passage of time. It is nice to find that, in a sense, Joni has done as much growing as I have.
She is a honky's Bessie Smith, Keats put to music, a flower child who knew what to do when the petals wilted, and the liberated woman discovering that after the bras have been burned, there is still that important question of the human relationship between a man and a woman. Some people didn't need TIME magazine to tell them about Joni.
But back to the new album, Miles of Aisles is a collection of live performances from Joni's 1974 U.S. concert tour (this particular album was recorded in California). The surprising factor about the tour was Tom Scott's L.A. Express, Joni's backup band, and it follows that the surprising thing about this album is that the older Mitchell compositions have been revamped to accommodate the band. The results are like varnishing beautiful wood - the end product is nice and shiny, but was it all really necessary in the first place?
I can draw an analogy with an art critic's view of a good painter: appreciation of a particular work by an artist often depends on which period of the artist the critic admires most. If you are indelibly attached to Mitchell's Blue period (incidentally, Blue is an album which Mitchell will probably never top), you will be disappointed in Miles of Aisles. If you prefer her more recent Court and Spark (many of the members of the L.A. Express initially appeared on this album), you will applaud Miles of Aisles as more of the same. Personally, I prefer the former period. But I do admit I have some pleasant memories of Joni's appearance at the Omni last April, and this album captures them like Margaret Burke-White photographs.
Side one of Miles of Aisles is rather mediocre. "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" takes on a heartbeat from Max Bennett's bass, but it all ends up being too much noise with too many beats that don't fall together. There is an interesting competition between Mitchell and Robben Ford's electric guitar, and naturally, with her tremendous vocal range, Joni wins.
The updated "Big Yellow Taxi" has received some air play on local stations, and it is one example of how the L.A. Express-Joni Mitchell combination can work. It's good music to drive by. Mitchell has added a verse not in the original 1969 version. It seems this time the taxi has been pushing around her house and land.
The best song on side one is "Rainy Night House." This work is soft, smooth and surreal. John Guerin's percussion effects set the mood and Larry Nash's electric piano defines eeriness. And the song is perhaps one of the best illustrations of how Mitchell can paint a mood with her music and voice even when the lyrics are weak.
"Woodstock" has been given a hard rock finish, and even this early into the album, the L.A. Express begin to unnecessarily repeat some of their charts. Here, Bennett's bass doesn't set a mood; rather, it paralyzes any mood the song ever had with a redundant beat. Perhaps the whole thing is a parody. I hope so, but I doubt it.
Side two is a healthy improvement. The Express has retired backstage, and Joni wings it. She is easily capable of the task, and this side of the album is Mitchell at her best. In concert "Cactus Tree" brings Mitchell in the spotlight, alone with her guitar and her lyrics about a woman who's "off somewhere busy being free." The next song, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," is exemplary of Mitchell's fine chord work, and I have a theory that anytime I can hear Mitchell's fingers sliding up and down the frets she is in communion with her muse. Then enter Tom Scott with his woodwinds and reeds, and this song (which I have never completely understood but think has something to do with drugs) becomes Dante's journey into hell.
"Woman of Heart and Mind," originally on her For the Roses album, is a rich symphony of guitar work. This song is to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" as Women in Love is to Fanny Hill. It is an anthem of the modern woman's dilemma:
I'm looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation - nothing more
That's what I think
But you know I'll try to be there for you
When your spirits start to sink
I don't think there is compromise from the feminist here - just a realization of something called human need which goes beyond hormone counts.
"A Case of You" has Mitchell with her dulcimer, a standard Mitchell melancholy symbol, and she is at her most metaphorical:
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Also, at the end of this song I find myself looking for a new definition of soprano - Mitchell's voice should be declared an instrument in itself. "Blue" is the "foggy lullaby" which could serve as the epitaph on the tombstone of this lost generation, all about that "empty space to fill in" and trying to "make it thru these waves." Mitchell's blues are accompanied by the piano, which she is equally proficient in, and transcend gimmickry. In the end it is pure, raw soul.
On side three there is a lot of guitar tuning and audience participation, plus a priceless Mitchell remark about Van Gogh. "Circle Game" is as monotonous as the music on that "carousel of time" Mitchell writes about. I am impatient with this song (its' the longest on the album), but perhaps this fault can be rationalized away by saying it reminds me of the impatience of growing up portrayed in this theme song from the movie version of The Strawberry Statement.
"Peoples' Parties" is like one of those fine old Dorothy Parker short stories. Here there are the beautiful people with "passport smiles," and the humor has a hollow ring. Also, this song has not been altered in the transition from the album Court and Spark. "All I Want" comes from the well-I-took-this-trip-overseas period so dominant in the Blue album. There's something indefinably simple, like a Greek dance, about this song with its straight lyrics about Ms. Mitchell's favorite things. "Real Good for Free" has the singer encountering a clarinet minstrel on the streetcorner. She suffers a severe attack of deja vu and labels her new self one who plays "for fortune and those velvet curtain calls." Tom Scott, who played with George Harrison by the way, joins Mitchell, on this one, and if you've ever heard a busker in a London tube station, you recognize the effect. "Both Sides Now" is Mitchell's theme song. This time the L.A. Express are on hand again, and the whole thing turns out rather tacky. I like Judy Collins' version better.
On side four there are band introductions and some banter with the audience. The first song is "Carey," again from the Mitchell travel period. It sounds as funky and sleazy as the "cafe" the tourists are talking about patronizing. On this cut of the song there is the addition of some kind of Latin rhythm refrain, which gives the whole thing a lively humorous effect rarely present in Mitchell's songs. Perhaps the lady is seldom happy. But even in "Carey" there is the hint of something already lost by the woman who has gotten "used to that clean white linen and that fancy French cologne."
"The Last Time I Saw Richard" is about those dreams deferred and is the basic Mitchellian philosophy:
...all romantics meet the same sad fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe
This version is beautiful, and finally again the Express-Mitchell combination works.
The last two songs are new material. They are disappointing but have the uncanny trait of sticking in your head. "Jericho" is very slick, with the music faring better than the words. This one is all about a "warm arrangement" which brings the protagonist some happiness with the freedom-in-my-chains business. The other new work, "Love or Money," is too brassy. In the literary jargon it doesn't transcend to the universal, but it has an interesting story line about a girl who asks for the moon.
If you like Mitchell, you should buy all her albums, particularly if you want to get to know her better. If you can't afford that, at least invest in Miles of Aisles. If nothing else, the album is a memorial to one of the best concert tours of '74. You can't buy Joni Mitchell and the Omni and a purple spotlight for $8.95, but you can at least buy about two hours of fine poetry.
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