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Off the Beaten Tracks: Joni Mitchell Part 4 – the best of the rest

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HOW did Joni Mitchell follow the towering achievement that was Hejira? Answer: With difficulty. As I wrote in a previous column, the album released in late 1976 was in my opinion the best thing she ever did and it was always going to be a struggle even to come near its brilliance. However, the old girl did her best and although she came out with some relative clunkers, there are still a few gems to be mined amongst her later work.

For her next album, a double, Joni invited bassist Jaco Pastorius to work with her again and he brought along chums from the jazz-rock group Weather Report, including drummer Don Alias and sax player Wayne Shorter. During recording Mitchell and Alias began a relationship (does anyone detect a pattern emerging here?). Alias was Afro-Caribbean, which fascinated Joni as she had begun to see herself as a ‘black’ person despite being blonde and of Scandinavian heritage. In her book Girls Like Us, author Sheila Dillon tells how Joni once attended an LA party in flashy male clothes and with her face blacked up. Her former lover JD Souther took her to be a pimp and was astonished when she removed her hat and Afro wig to reveal her identity. Mitchell named her ‘inner black person’ Art Nouveau and appeared as him on the sleeve of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, released at the end of 1977. It was a spectacular error of judgment which nowadays would have spelled career suicide, and most of the album is similarly off-beam.

Typical is Paprika Plains, a sprawling, 16-minute jazz-type experiment which I have always found difficult to listen to. Jericho is a capable reworking of the song which first appeared on the 1974 live album Miles of Aisles and the title track is reminiscent of HejiraOtis and Marlena again falls off the tightrope of political correctness, telling of a retired couple taking the sun in Miami ‘while Muslims stick up Washington’.

Interviewed by Sheila Dillon two years before his death from heart failure in 2006, Alias confessed that when Pastorius invited him to join Mitchell’s album project he thought: ‘Oh, another of those skinny-ass folk singers.’ In the studio, however, he realised ‘what a genius of a musician Joni was. And intuitive! And eloquent!’

The critics did not agree. Janet Maslin of Rolling Stone opined: ‘The best that can be said of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.’

Maslin bemoaned ‘the painful banality of Mitchell’s lyrics’ and describes the record as ‘a double album that should have been a single album. It’s sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been riffs, songs that should have been fragments. At its worst, it is a painful illustration of how different the standards that govern poetry and song lyrics can be, and an indication that Joni Mitchell’s talents, stretched here to the breaking point, lend themselves much more naturally to the latter form. Somehow, she has chosen to abandon melody at a time when she needs it urgently.’ Phew! Say what you mean, Janet!

Undaunted, Joni began a collaboration with the jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus. The result was her album Mingus, released in 1979 by which time he had died. This has its fans, myself not included.

 A six-week tour to promote the record concluded at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, where the concert was filmed and recorded. The result was a live double, Shadows and Light, featuring mainly tracks from her ‘jazz’ albums between 1975 and 1979. In most cases, the songs fail to measure up to the originals and there is a generally cold feel to the music despite the crowd’s enthusiasm. There is, however, a jolly version of Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, on which Joni is backed by the Persuasions.

After the album’s release in 1980, Joni gave Don Alias his marching orders and the following year headed to Jamaica, where she immersed herself in the reggae scene and also listened to records by some of the superior rock groups including Steely Dan and Talking Heads. In 1982 came Wild Things Run Fast, an album which surprised fans and critics alike. Goodbye jazz noodlings, hello Eighties pop and rock. The New York Times’s Stephen Holden described it as ‘the most exhilaratingly high-spirited album Miss Mitchell has ever made’. He added that it contains ‘several vibrant rock-and-roll performances that communicate a rare joy in being alive’ and concluded that ‘the pre-eminent confessional songwriter of her generation has finally faced down the romantic demons that haunted her earlier albums’.

Wild Things opens with Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, a combination of a Mitchell original with the pop standard written in 1955 and best known for the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 version. In the first part, Joni mentions the daughter she gave up for adoption, previously hinted at on Little Green  from the Blue  album. This time she sings: My child’s a stranger; I bore her but I could not raise her.’ As I wrote in this previous column, it would be the mid-1990s before mother and daughter were reunited.

The title track combines reflective passages with some screaming rock and roll guitar, not entirely successfully in my view. Slightly more propitious is a cover of the Leiber and Stoller number Baby I Don’t Care.  Solid Love is an ode to bassist Larry Klein who, at 24, was 15 years Joni’s junior. They became an item during the year that Wild Things took to record and were married in November 1982.

Klein’s influence became all too apparent on the 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, which is heavy on the synthesisers and drum machines and features none of Joni’s acoustic guitar. Track one, Good Friends, is a disco-friendly duet with the blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald, and is a suitable sample of the fare on offer.

As far as the lyrics go, there are the de rigueur criticisms of Reaganism, consumerism and famine in Africa. Embarrassingly, Rod Steiger makes a spoken contribution to Tax Free, an attack on televangelism. The Three Great Stimulants is probably my favourite track, though that’s not saying much. Dog Eat Dog was a critical and commercial failure, Mitchell’s worst-selling album for 18 years.

Joni and Larry headed for England in 1986 and visited former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel at his home studio, Ashcombe House, near Bath. The result was My Secret Place, a duet between Mitchell and Gabriel which would become the first track on her 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. There are further duets with Willie Nelson on Cool Water, Don Henley on Snakes and Ladders and, would you believe it, Billy Idol on Dancin’ ClownChalk Mark comes across as a desperate attempt to sound relevant to the late Eighties and for me is a case of technology dealing a fatal blow to warmth and emotion.

Praise be, Joni finally began to return to her acoustic roots with 1991’s Night Ride Home. The opening title track is the best thing she had done for years, a restful musing on a moonlit night in Hawaii with its mellow guitar and background of chirping crickets. By this point I had almost forgotten what a great voice she has and it is a great pleasure to hear it unadorned once more. Passion Play keeps up the good work, as do Slouching Towards Bethlehem, based on the W B Yeats poem, and the final song Two Grey Rooms. 

In 1994 came Turbulent Indigo, hailed by the music press as Joni’s best album since the mid-1970s. It begins with Sunny Sunday, an acoustic-guitar-backed snippet which would be reminiscent of Hejira but for the ever-more anachronistic saxophone of Wayne Shorter. How Do You Stop features a ravishing vocal performance by Mitchell, marred somewhat by Seal (!) as a backing singer. The title track mentions Vincent van Gogh, to whom with her characteristic modesty Joni compares herself on the album sleeve. The Magdalene Laundries is an impassioned description of ‘fallen women’ forced to work in asylums by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

Not To Blame is widely seen as a piece of score-settling against her former lover Jackson Browne, who has denied accusations of violence towards the women in his life. Finally we have The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song), a powerful, bitter and brilliant imagining of the prophet’s words which begins: ‘Let me speak. Let me spit out my bitterness.’ Again Shorter’s contribution would have been best excluded.

Turbulent Indigo was named pop album of the year at the Grammy awards. However, Mitchell’s songwriting flow was beginning to dry up and it was not until 1998 that her next original album, Taming The Tiger, was released following two retrospective collections, Hits and Misses.

Sadly, Tiger marked a return to jazziness and technology, with Joni resorting to the use of a guitar synthesiser and Shorter’s sax again sounding tired and dated. Best songs are Stay in Touch, which reflects Mitchell’s recent reunion with her daughter and discovery that she was a grandmother, and Face Lift

It would be almost a decade before any fresh Joni output emerged. In the meantime we had 2000’s Both Sides Now, a collection of jazz standards plus Mitchell’s own compositions A Case of You from Blue and the much-covered title track, from her 1969 second album Clouds. Both of these are worth a listen but the rest is pretty ponderous.

In 2002 came the double set Travelogue, a slow reworking of Joni’s back catalogue with a 70-piece orchestra. I’m afraid it does nothing for me; dreary, pompous and robbing the originals of their beauty, zest and energy. To do this to songs such as Amelia is little short of sacrilege.

Mitchell had announced that Taming the Tiger would be her last original studio album but, after a rash of compilation discs, 2007 saw the release of Shine. This begins with an instrumental, One Week Last Summer. The good news is that there is no orchestra and Wayne Shorter is nowhere to be heard. The bad news is that he has been replaced by another over-employed saxophonist, Bob Sheppard.

If I Had a Heart, I’d Cry is a lament for the overcrowded, war-torn world and is undoubtedly sincere in a sixth-form sort of way. Pretty good, though. A reworking of Big Yellow Taxi fails to improve on the 1970 hit single but the title track, which has been described as a ‘lush lullaby for the soul’, just about makes the album worthwhile. If, the final track, is a jazzy arrangement of the Rudyard Kipling poem.

Joni, now 77, has suffered serious health problems in her later years and there seems little chance of further visits to the studio. So that’s that, apart from the inevitable mining of the record company vaults resulting in the Archives series, volume one of which came out last year and covers 1963 to 1967.

I look forward to any hitherto unreleased material from 1970 to 1976 when Joni Mitchell was, to my mind, the most consistently brilliant musician in the world. For a reminder, watch this and enjoy.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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