Joni Roars

by Jim Farber
New York Daily News
September 27, 1998

Mitchell still has that bold beauty

Watch out. Joni Mitchell likes to sink her jaws into the hand that feeds her. And lately, she has been fed a feast.

Her last album, 1994's "Turbulent Indigo," resurrected her critical reputation after a decade of scorn, winning her two Grammys and countless rave reviews. On top of that, having her old hit, "Big Yellow Taxi," sampled by Janet Jackson last year introduced a whole new generation to her genius.

So how does Mitchell react to all these hosannas? With suspicion and a sneer. In the title track to her new album, she sings: "Accolades and honors/One false move and you're a goner."

Why court success, she asks, in a world you have contempt for? In one swift couplet, she kills off all commercial music. "The hoods in the 'hood and the whiny white kids. Boring!" she announces, swiftly dispatching both rap and modern rock. "Every disc a poker chip/every song just a one-night stand."

You tell 'em, Joni! Once again, she is playing the role she was born to play: the righteous skeptic, bordering on the paranoid coot. Even though she may trip over the line between the two, she deserves admiration for never pulling a punch. On her new album, she lands more than a few bracing blows — on lawyers, slovenly lovers and cold businessmen, and even on the kisser of her own mother.

And this is one of Mitchell's mellower records! Certainly, it's got nothing on the vitriol of "Turbulent Indigo," which found her aiming brickbats at the Church, the legal profession, Jackson Browne, nationalism and even death, challenging that dark specter to a battle of wits — and nearly winning.

Sketch Artistry

"Taming the Tiger" doesn't have that kind of breadth, violence or ambition. At just over 40 minutes (including two cover songs), it feels slight by Mitchell's standards. It's more a series of sketches than one of her epic canvases like "For the Roses" or "Hejira." It's closer in scope to her pretty 1991 LP, "Night Ride Home." Thankfully, though, it avoids the pitfalls of her most disappointing albums of the '80s, featuring words worthy of poetry and music that finds its own stride.

She doesn't flinch from the genre that has caused her the most commercial trouble: jazz. She opens with "Harlem in Havana," whose lyrics celebrate her first introduction to that swinging style as the Devil's music — glorious and forbidden.

Mitchell's phrasing keeps a periodic hold on jazz throughout, though more melodies mine her odd brand of folk-rock. Her voice slips around the tunes with a syncopated cunning, but she's shorter of breath as each year ticks by. After sucking on cigarettes for decades now, her voice itself smokes. At least that pays off in a mature sex appeal; she's sounding more and more like the husky jazz chanteuse Annie Ross. But the production gauze she uses to cover her flaws creates a distance that takes a few listens to hear through.

Once you do, there's lots of beauty to savor — in both the melodies and in Mitchell's eccentric instrumentation. The music of "Stay in Touch" has a warmth that gets under your skin, while "Love Puts on a New Face" has a chorus that pops like Champagne. Much of the magic comes from the oddly tuned guitar that Mitchell plays. She bases most songs on its chiming tones, bouncing off the oozy bass lines of Larry Klein and the jazz filigrees of saxist Wayne Shorter. It's a kind of sonic fantasia, so airy that it seems to float.

If the result gives her music the play of a balloon, her lyrics provide a quick prick. In "Lead Balloon," she tosses a drink in the face of a crass businessman, saying he has "the heart of a Bonaparte," while in "Happiness Is the Best Facelift," her prudish mother shames her for having sex in her house with a man she's not married to. "Why is this joy not allowed?" Mitchell says. "For God's sake mama/I'm middle-aged."

Much like 1976's "Song for Sharon," the song finds Mitchell's mom trying to snap her out of the spell of love. But Mitchell's valor in the face of romantic risk forms the core of her art and character. Mitchell continues to throw her heart into oncoming traffic in "Love Puts on a New Face," where she surfs over the daily waverings of attraction, while in "The Crazy Cries of Love," she calls relationships a lunacy shared by two.

None of these songs holds the pain of Mitchell's boldest work. But that seems to be by design. Tellingly, she chose to close the album on a generous note, a cover of "Here's to You," offering a toast to all, a reminder that "each new day is a kiss."

She seems to have devised this album more as a wink to the truthful than an assault on the cowardly. But the result only proves that even in a second-tier work, Mitchell remains love's bravest advocate, its hardest bard.

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