IF INTENTION automatically equalled success then this would be one hell of an album. As it is, it's beautifully recorded, self-consciously precious, a maddeningly white attempt at blackness. Wolves howl and worlds sprawl in these "audio-paintings."
Of course, Joni has never really known what's good for her. Her early albums occasionally became victims of critical salvos for being cute, dippy, Laurel Canyon whimsy, but she sold records via catchy tunes and concise lyrics that avoided her campus-girl folkiness by virtue of hooks and sharp observation, like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Both Sides Now."
In the last few years, mainly subsequent to her live history book, "Miles of Aisles," Joni has lost her little-girl-with-big-acoustic-appeal and has pared her increasingly mature physical appearance with a move towards a looser, jazzier style. The trouble with the idiomatic logic that goes on in her head is that Joni still sounds as if she should be singing folk songs in coffee houses: technically perfect, but lacking in abandon. Too nice to be nasty.
The present album is the result of a collaboration between Mitchell and famed black jazzman Charles Mingus, which the latter didn't live to see completed. Five of the six songs are Mitchell's words married to Mingus's music, the other being an all-Mitchell composition.
The liner notes reveal how much Joni held Mingus to be some kind of mystical, black saint-figure; the typical dizzy white people's view of black people, the stupid idea that they're privy to some inner secrets that us poor honkies will never understand. She talks of him "laughing at me dog-paddling around the currents of black classical music," and the album sounds just as I anticipated it would: moaning acoustic bass, strangled Mitchell guitar, and her slight vocals, her meaningful watercolour phrases: "Dangerous clowns/Balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions."
Interspersed here and there are tapes of Mingus, talking about this 'n' that, an attempt at injecting poignancy as he jives about his own death. Joni says that she cut each song three or four times; combine that striving for perfection with the services of the likes of Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius, and you get a too clean machine.
Joni's cover paintings have more intensity than the music. There's even a list of the musos who played on the sessions that didn't make it onto the album: Tony Williams, Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, ad infinitum. Compare Mitchell's album with that of her pal Neil Young -- straight off the mixing desk, that's the way to capture the fire. Only the sad "Sweet Sucker Dance" approaches truth, an obvious one at that.
I find no illuminations on this record -- it's merely pleasant, something one wouldn't expect after reading the Mingus autobiography "Beneath The Underdog," a book filled with rough, violent, vibrant images of crude sex and self-mythologising. Mingus was an artist, but he was always a bullshit artist too.
When Mitchell gets anally retentive the only difference is that she doesn't seem to realise she's doing it, from "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" to her interpretations of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," through "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey" and "A Chair In The Sky," oh, that reverential tone! Thankfully, Mitchell and Mingus never got round to their proposed musical version of the work of that arch wanker TS Eliot.
The title of one song here tells it all: "God Must Be A Boogie Man": Joni Mitchell the little white girl in awe of the big black man. Ultimately, in art as in life, that's the stuff of which disappointment is fashioned. Sincerity is the one virtue "Mingus" holds onto.
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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (9713)
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