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A Stick from the Tree Museum   Print

by Allison Stewart
Washington Post
September 25, 2007

After Joni Mitchell quit the business to protest the corporatization of music, her first album of original material in almost a decade arrives courtesy of Starbucks's Hear Music label, an event roughly akin to Neil Young releasing his next disc on Budweiser Records.

The otherwise irony-free "Shine" is part of a recent bumper crop of Mitchell-related products that includes the Herbie Hancock tribute disc "River: The Joni Letters" and the all-star "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell," released earlier this spring.

"Shine" is a loosely knit environmental concept album, a lumbering, fun-killing indictment of those who subdivided the Earth, invaded Iraq, shop at the mall, use cellphones and visit Las Vegas, which is pretty much everyone. Constructed around pianos and synthesizers, with minimal percussion and languid arrangements, "Shine" is heavy-handed and medicinal.

Its appealing moments -- "If" is a mournful rendering of the Rudyard Kipling poem; "Hana" is an ode to prairie self-sufficiency -- are too rare. Adding to the general gloom: Mitchell's voice, once an angelic soprano, is now deepened by age and a half-century cigarette habit into an unrecognizable alto.

At its best, Mitchell's music has an expansiveness of heart and an elasticity of purpose that lends itself easily to just about any kind of musical treatment. "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell" is a wide-ranging, anything-goes offering with contributions from the like-minded (James Taylor, respectful and warm on "River"), the crazy-bringing (Sufjan Stevens, whose nifty, strenuously weird version of "Free Man in Paris" sounds as if it were recorded in an underwater cave, possibly by Wes Anderson) and the sublime (Prince, dressed in his Sunday best for a revelatory, falsetto-happy cover of "A Case of You").

Mitchell's best songs are hard to mess up, though it is possible to be too careful with them, as is occasionally the case on the considered and lovely "River: The Joni Letters." A team including Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Mitchell's producer ex-husband Larry Klein reconstructs tracks from her catalogue, lending an even more improvisational feel to Mitchell's already jazz-inspired mid-period work and rebuilding early songs from the ground up (such as "Both Sides Now," re-envisioned as a spare and heartbreaking instrumental).

"River" features guest turns from Norah Jones (note-perfect on "Court and Spark"); Corinne Bailey Rae (a shade too upbeat on the congenitally depressing "River": If this song doesn't instantly induce thoughts of suicide, you're not doing it right); and Mitchell herself (on the Geffen Records-era "Tea Leaf Prophecy"). "The Joni Letters" winds up feeling more like a Herbie Hancock album than a Joni album -- it's no accident he appears on the record's cover by himself -- despite Hancock's occasionally excessive reverence toward Mitchell's catalogue.

Mitchell herself isn't nearly as careful: "Shine" revisits "Big Yellow Taxi," one of her greatest hits in every sense of the word. Once an awe-inspiring, ahead-of-its-time criticism of environmental plundering wrapped in a fleet-footed love song, "Big Yellow Taxi (2007)," like too much of the album itself, now feels clumsy and unnecessary, a souped-up antiquity that depresses more than it enlightens.

 

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