A jazzy Joni Mitchell tribute, her new solo work, and Steve Earle top the pile.
Since Joni Mitchell is the archetypal female singer-songwriter and a restless musical adventurer, her influence knows no bounds. You might not hear the author of "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" on the radio all that much, but her impact on everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Feist to Led Zeppelin (which is said to have written "Goin' to California" about her), has been enormous.
That much is apparent of late, starting with A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, which came out in the spring and was highlighted by Prince's shimmering "A Case of You."
Two other projects with Mitchell's name on them arrive today. Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters, is a jazz tribute featuring vocal performances from Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Mitchell herself.
And Shine (Hear Music **½) is the new Joni Mitchell album fans weren't sure they would ever get. It's her first CD since 2002's Travelogue, an album she said would be her last. In interviews at the time, she called the music industry "a cesspool" that only cared about "golf and rappers" and said she had "come to hate music."
Thankfully, the 63-year-old Canadian has gotten over her distaste, and is again aiming to write songs with unconventional structures and gently entrancing melodies. On Shine's brightest moments - such as the wistful instrumental "One Week Last Summer" and "Night of the Iguana," which condenses Tennessee Williams' stage play - Mitchell shows she still has the knack.
The trouble with Shine - which follows Paul McCartney to the coffee-rich coffers of Starbucks' Hear Music label - is that the words get in the way of the music. The album is meant to be a thematically unified statement on everything wrong with the world, starting with "war, that's what history is for." On the title cut, "rising oceans and evaporating seas" and "Frankenstein technologies," not to mention "worldwide traffic jams," are added to a laundry list of reasons not to be cheerful.
It's an embittered, surprisingly nonpoetic approach. Though the complaining tone can't entirely weigh down the electric spirit of "Hana," or rob the fragile beauty from "If I Had a Heart" - even when a misanthropic Mitchell blames the planet's ills on "too many people, too little land" - sometimes it seems as if it's designed to.
River (Verve ***1/2) makes for a more nourishing listen, in part because Mitchell's old songs are better than her new ones. Jones sings "Court and Spark," Tina Turner stretches out with an assured "Edith and the Kingpin," and Corinne Bailey Rae turns in an able version of the title track, though that wintry soundscape has become a too-familiar staple on Christmas albums.
Hancock has been friendly with Mitchell since they worked together on her 1979 album Mingus, and the pianist treats her compositions with delicacy and sensitivity, with a band that includes Wayne Shorter on saxophone and Dave Holland on bass.
Shorter's "Nefertiti" and Duke Ellington's "Solitude" expand on an otherwise all-Mitchell program, and Leonard Cohen drops in for a closing spoken-word version of "The Jungle Line" to take the project out on a note of sepulchral weirdness.