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Many Joni Mitchell admirers were disappointed with the different style of her last album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
That recording found Mitchell breaking away for the folk-style that she had become best known for. Instead, she decided to use jazz to accompany her always enthralling lyrics. Critics charged the jazz presentation ruined the free-flowing nature of the lyrics and many hoped she would go back to the fold approach.
Critics might be disappointed that her latest album, Hejira, did not return to jazz, but they should be pleased to know that she now sounds as natural within her new framework as he did in her fold-oriented days.
What Mitchell has done is cut down on the number of instruments that accompany her. Instead of competing with her, the accompaniment practically serves as a rhythm section for her. On most cuts, Mitchell accompanies herself on guitar and is joined by a bass, lead guitar and either a percussionist or drummer. On all the cuts, Mitchell's guitar playing has a strange metallic edge that compliments her singing. The bass and drum playing are mainly supportive, but compliment her nonetheless. Drummer John Guerin and Bassist Max Bennett of the L A. Express play with restraint, and one notices their performance for just that reason - particularly on "Song for Sharon," where they keep an eight-and-one-half minute song moving along with a steady beat with intermittent filler work.
Mitchell sounds like she's been singing with this kind of background music all of her life. Her delivery, especially the sense of her timing in her phrasing, has always been one of the most interesting and attractive features of her singing, and she's never been better. Whether it's holding onto a certain note, breathlessly running off a string of emotions, humourlessly sounding like an old man, or coyly reprimanding a lover, she does it naturally and effortlessly. This is one reason why Mitchell stands out from other contemporary singers.
Another reason is her writing. In this album, Mitchell almost exclusively uses loneliness, self-destiny and holding onto or losing a lover as the subject of her songs. Yet she never lapses into cliches and each venture at any one of the subjects is different and unique. In "Amelia," she juxtaposes a sketch of Amerlia Earhart, the famed woman aviator who died trying to cross the Pacific, whith her own problems of coming to grips with love.
"Furry Sings The Blues" is a detailed and sensitive look at the decay of a neighborhood and its inhabitants. Mitchell's character sketches of Old Furry and Beale Street are as accurate as any journalists. Neil Young's harmonica adds s a suitable melancholy touch.
Although "Blue Motel Ropom" starts off like another life-on-the-road-with-a- rock-star song, it quickly becomes a sketch of a persons paranoid fear of losing a lover who is back at home. Delivered in a bluesy style, Mitchell delivers several comic lines, such as:
I know that you've got all those pretty girls coming on
Hanging on your boom-boom-pachyderm
Well you tell those girls that you've got German Measles
Honey, tell 'em you've got germs
Or a line that is funny, but seems to hit the nail on the head:
You and me we're like America and Russia
We're always keeping score
We're always balancing the power
And that can get to be a cold, cold war
Lyrically and musically. Hejira is a step up form Hissing of Summer Lawns. There is no need comparing this album to her earlier material for the two are completely different. Like Paul Simon, she has grown away from her folk roots to successfully that one can only hope she keeps going further. Hejira is an excellent step along the way.
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