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Welcome Back Joni Mitchell, Shame About the Soft-Rock Agitprop   Print

by Mark Beech
Bloomberg.com
September 25, 2007

Joni Mitchell is bringing out her first album of new material in nine years, hitching on the burgeoning protest bandwagon.

She has reversed her 2002 pledge to retire from music. Mitchell quit back then, calling the record industry a "cesspool" full of "pornographic pigs."

Fears that the hell in Iraq and environmental catastrophe are putting the world at peril have proved too much for Mitchell, now a 63-year-old grandmother.

It's not the first time Mitchell has come back from "retirement." We can be grateful that she reconsidered in the 1960s after the release of "Both Sides Now." She went on to score successes with such songs as "Woodstock" and "Big Yellow Taxi."

Now Mitchell joins another of the 20th century's finest singer-songwriters, the 65-year-old Paul McCartney, on the Hear Music label, owned by Starbucks Corp., the world's largest chain of coffee shops. I wonder which aging warbler it will sign next.

Her CD, "Shine," is likable enough. It has moments of brilliance that recall the majesty of Mitchell's 1970s masterpieces "Blue," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira."

It's also shot through with irony and contradictions. There is lyrical anger -- "Shine on dying soldiers/ In patriotic pain/ Shine on mass destruction/ In some God's name!" and "Men love war/ That's what history's for." On "Hana," we are urged to fight a beast "with tenacious teeth" -- an ogre that could be commercialism, pollution or technology. Only here does the backing music get urgent, with a propelling drum machine.

Polite Passion

Elsewhere, from the opening instrumental "One Week Last Summer," the passion is buried, the music becalmed. This is a well-mannered record, full of hushed harmonies, poignant piano and slinky sax. It's almost to be slotted into the easy listening category.

Mitchell revisits "Big Yellow Taxi," its environmental concerns more relevant than ever, though she shies away from a radical reworking by an angry older woman. The main difference is that her 2007 voice is lower -- it has steadily dropped, the result of decades of cigarette smoking, since the crystal-cut soprano peaks on the 1968 "Song to a Seagull."

The girlish laugh is replaced by a world-weary drawl, and it's now even scarier to hear her sing about putting all the trees in a tree museum. The 1970 song works better than the new "This Place," with its over-earnest plea for ecological sense.

As the writer of "Big Yellow Taxi," Mitchell has every right to return to the song, though she is protesting at the homogeneity of retailing while her recording plays at more than 10,000 Starbucks cafes across the world.

Artwork, Tributes

The song, and a version of Rudyard Kipling's "If," are part of a ballet score, "The Fiddle and the Drum," that had its debut in February in Calgary, the Canadian city where Mitchell once studied. This year she is also exhibiting her art and was the subject of "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell" (Nonesuch), a CD that included covers by Prince, James Taylor and Bjork. So much for retiring.

Her reflection teeters between hope -- in "If" and "Bad Dreams" -- and resignation in most of the other numbers. It's more downbeat than depressing, more haunting than harrowing. "If I Had a Heart" is particularly despondent and yet a good track to download.

The Mitchell recording comes as other singer-songwriters unfurl their acoustic banners. Britain's James Blunt, who already has sold more than 13 million CDs, has "All the Lost Souls" (WEA/Atlantic), which offers much quiet balladry; P.J. Harvey's "White Chalk" (Island) is even better, with an ambient edge.

Blunt and Harvey could well take lessons from Mitchell on how to do rainy-day reveries. All these CDs are ideal for 4 a.m. introspection and that quiet hour when maybe you just fancy a cigarette and a classic novel for company. Joni is guaranteed not to cause a ripple on the surface of your Starbucks cappuccino.

 

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