Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm Joni Mitchell (Geffen/WEA): Not as heady nor as musically challenging as her best work, Mitchell's new album is built largely on primitive percussive feels (African and American Indian) and is overlaid with great slabs of meandering synthesizer chords that only occasionaly suggest melody or conventional song structure.
For all that, this is extremely unaggressive music, at times downright lugubrious; no single player - not even Billy Idol's usually abrasive guitarist, Steve Stevens - intrudes or wobbles the brittle fabric of these delicate, dream-like songs.
What holds them together is Mitchell's wispy voice and the intensity of the little dramas the songs contain. Insulated now from the gritty real-life scenes that made her earlier work so unusual, the Canadian-born songwriter is still able to startle with the vividness of her images and the depth of her passion.
Co-produced with her husband, bassist Larry Klein, Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm features a crew of powerful sidemen and guests, including Willie Nelson, Idol and Stevens, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, British synth-whiz Thomas Dolby, jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Don Henley, Prince's former band members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman and The Cars' Ben Orr.
Few of these extras make outstanding contributions to the music; most are buried deep in the mix. Nelson, Idol and Petty make cameo appearances as characters in a couple of Mitchell's typically well-populated songs (Nelson in a sinister remake of the classic 1936 country fantasy, "Cool Water," now an anti-pollution anthem, Petty and Idol as pair of strutting studs in "Dancin' Fool"), but to less than stunning effect. Shorter's wail in Mitchell's new version of the ancient country-blues piece, "Corinna, Corinna" is far more effective, as is Gabriel's strong counterpoint in "My Secret Place," arguably the least appealing song on the album.
Ironically, Mitchell didn't need these heavyweights on this album. It remains very much her own work, obsessive, deeply introspective. That's not to say Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm isn't quite accessible; it may be too transparent, in fact, for its own good.
In "The Beat Of Black Wings," for example, Mitchell needlessly complicates the compelling confessions of a murderous young British soldier with an abortion story, introducing a psychological non sequitur. "Tea Leaf Prophecy," a telescoped soap opera scanning the lives of a young couple during the Second World War, seems unable to resolve its central query: does love liberate or enslave?
Still, there's enough clever work here to keep both Mitchell's fans and newcomers to her music fascinated. This is quirky, unusually bright stuff; far from her best, but better than most of what passes for intelligent pop.
* Walking A Changing Line Ian Matthews (Windham Hill/A&M): Matthews, a founding member of the 1970s British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, failed in a couple of worthy attempts to launch a solo career during the dying days of the singer-songwriter movement and has spent much of the past decade working as an artist and repertoire director for the West Coast division of a major record label. During Fairport's annual reunion weekend at Cropredy outside London last year, Matthews was suddenly seized again with the passion to perform, and to record music of substance; the world, he was convinced, was ready again.
Abandoning his well-feathered Los Angeles nest, he sought out long neglected American poet-songwriter Jules Shear, and secured 10 songs for a unique experiment that has ended up, rightly or wrongly, on the Windham Hill label, generator of much unimportant soporiphic new-age music.
Walking A Changing Line is neither soporiphic nor unimportant. In fact, it's likely one of the most compelling records of the past 10 years. Shear's aching, difficult songs, which bear all the earmarks of true genius, are perfectly suited to Matthews' pure, steady, tenor. He anchors them in a way no other artist - not even Shear himself - has been able to. And he gently, deliberately opens them like a skilled surgeon opens flesh, revealing a myriad organic miracles.
Few great songwriters have been rendered as well by impassioned interpreters; Randy Newman was by Harry Nillson, Leonard Cohen was by Jennifer Warnes. This is Shear's time. Walking A Changing Line is a dazzling fusion of the poet's vision and the singer's craft, a profound, moving, illuminating work and an instant classic.