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A long and tiring journey   Print

by Chris Ho
Straits Times
November 22, 2002

Frustrated with the music industry, Joni Mitchell says she's retiring. But her fans deserve far better than Travelogue

LAST week, veteran singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell announced that her new album, Travelogue, would be her last because she feels disillusioned by the music business today.

While none can deny that MTV has created an imaging-beast in the marketing of popular music, Mitchell's calling the business as a 'cesspool' sounds like over-reaction.

She hit out at industry executives for 'looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate'.

The music business, being what it is today, has indeed relegated many former major-label artistes to indie status: Rickie Lee Jones, John Prine and Warren Zevon, for instance, have long resigned themselves to that fact.

'I've never had a willingness to cooperate,' she said.

In that case, she should be glad she is still signed to a major label, especially after Both Sides Now, her last album of standards (and two originals) performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, that was a futile affirmation of her artistic maturity.

There was, however, one standout track on it - her update of her own A Case Of You which prompted one to ask why she had not instead recorded an entire album of her own compositions with the LSO.

Well, that warranted notion is now the new two-CD, 22-song package named Travelogue. But sad to say, it sounds almost as tedious and pointless as Both Sides Now's inept setting. It certainly will not win her new fans, either.

Mitchell is, first and foremost, a distinguished singer-songwriter with a brilliant flair for rhythmic intricacies.

Her greatest strength as a song-stylist lies in her idiosyncratic and self-styled folk-rock-jazz leanings.

In the past, her music was remarkable in the way she expanded on the folk premise of lyrical rock 'n' roll to embrace jazz and World-beat influences, not to mention her talent for writing in an emotive and poignant language of romantic love.

On Travelogue, she sounds like she is singing Vince Mendoza instead - Mendoza being the arranger and conductor of the LSO behind her.

Taken out of her innate freewheeling context to go classical (it might work as a point of digression, or as novelty in doses), Mitchell's songs are apt to suffer in an ill-fitting skin. The sweeping dramatics of the 70-piece orchestra tend to overwhelm her free-folk/rock-fusion instincts, turning many of her fine compositions into meandering tales of obtuse anachronism.

One example of this is Judgement Of The Moon & Stars (Ludwig's Tune). The tribute to Beethoven must have seemedlike an ideal choice for a classical treatment.

The reason why the song worked so well first time around on For The Roses has all to do with Mitchell's free-spirited audacity as a (rock) outsider to re-write classical in her own terms.

The song's Beat-informed lyrical-style with its strong protest message and the awkward classical arrangement (in the original) gave it precisely the kind of maverick spirit to work as a personal tribute.

In contrast, the new version on Travelogue is glib and flat.

The tracks that work on Travelogue are the ones that offer the least orchestral fuss but more rhythmic/jazz inflexions to allow the singer to shine with a husky, worldly candour: Trouble Child, Be Cool, Sex Kills, most of disc two and the album's opener Otis & Marlena which highlights her prophetic vision made 25 years ago that 'Muslims hold up Washington'.

It is not easy to sit through most of disc one to get to the good stuff, unless one is a diehard fan.

Most pop fans get hungry for nostalgia, especially when an artiste has had a long and illustrious career. Travelogue will no doubt attract fans as a stately new revisit of the 59-year-old singer's past.

Ridiculous to say, it also sounds like some infliction of the artiste's disgust of the industry upon her fans, a dread weighed out by more than two hours of near-tedium.

It would make a dismal swan song for an extraordinary artiste who should not forget that her fans deserve more of her - be it on a major or an indie label.

Hopefully, she will hold her head up high to face the music and dance in a scene which, to borrow a Tom Wolfe title, may well be a bonfire of the vanities. But that is no reason to throw in the towel.

As Mitchell herself once wrote in Shades Of Scarlet Conquering: 'Out of the fire and still smouldering a woman must have everything.'

Travelogue will be in stores on Nov 28.

 

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