Three estimable and very different singer/songwriters offered new albums in the past few weeks.
The three women - Joan Baez, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell - have influenced popular music and given it direction for more than a decade.
Baez's latest effort, "Honest Lullaby" (Portrait Records, a CBS trademark) is an attempt to come down between "Long Black Veil" and discomania. The success of her new album is attribute to Baez's taste and discipline as a performer.
The voice, once so pure that Baez seemed to be listening to herself, is strained now on occasion. Baez's unwillingness to compromise her material or change musical partners, however, makes that human failing appealing.
"Honest Lullaby" works best with understated, cryptic love songs like "The Song at the End of the Movie" and Janis Ian's "Light a Light."
The album's best moments are in Jackson Browne's "Before the Deluge," a sad-eyed paean to the 1960s, and Baez's own "Honest Lullaby." Both serve to remind the listener of Joan Baez's integrity and honesty as a performer and a citizen.
Carly Simon continues to write her love songs for adults. "Spy," her most recent album for Elektra, is an intelligent mix of cryptic, modern-times torch songs couched in a variety of rhythms.
Three songs - "Pure Sin," "We're So Close," and "Love You By Heart," written with Lucy Titus - take Simon to where she seems to want to go. Problems develop when her husband, James Taylor, shows his hand.
Taylor spends a great deal of his time lifting and reworking pop tunes from the 1950s. The rest is apparently devoted to pushing Carly Simon in directions he imagines will sell records. Taylor, who is in grave damage of becoming the male Yoko Ono, shows up on the title cut, providing a disco backbeat and wasting everyone's time.
The most ambitious of the three new albums is Joni Mitchell's "Mingus." The Asylum record is the product of a year-long collaboration with jazz composer and musician Charlie Mingus.
This is not the first time Mitchell has taken off in a direction likely to upset her public. "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Hejira," both landmark albums in popular music, enraged the legions who wish Joni Mitchell would stick to writing love songs about clouds and periwinkles.
"Mingus" is a considerable leap from Mitchell's musical past. The four songs written with Mingus shortly before his death in January extend Mitchell's limits as a lyricist and singer.
Mingus' discordant anti-melodies take Mitchell away from the rock music tradition. With the assistance of such well-known jazz performers as Gerry Mulligan, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clark, Mitchell takes off fearlessly in the direction of Ella Fitzgerald and the jazz singers.
"Mingus" will take pop music fans into unfamiliar territory as well. It is a daring departure, and well worth the trip.
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