Monday, October 01, 2007

Kat's Korner: Shine, Joni Mitchell's artistry intact

Kat: Shine, said the woman, so you better shine. The woman in question is Joni Mitchell, the CD is Shine and it's not just one of the year's best, it's Joni's return. That alone should be cause for excitement, just having a new album from Joni. For the half-awake, that may be the end of it. "A new CD by Joni? Nice."

But it's not "nice" and that's the really the problem for some. See, women are repeatedly told -- even now -- to be "nice." That's what's at heart of some of the criticism such as the self-proclaimed "dean of rock critics" with his laughable swipes at the album in the current edition of Rolling Stone. Robert Christgau. He had to declare himself "dean" because (a) no one else would and (b) no one else would want it. "Dean"? Rock can be loud, it can be low, it can grab everything left inside you and wring you dry. "Dean"? You might as well bill yourself as "cruise director."

So Christgau writes one of those embarrassing jottings he's become semi-famous for. He's a list maker, not a critic. And by writing those dreary couple of paragraphs for years he's ended up convincing a few that he's got something worth saying. He's the Roger Ebert of rock criticism and if you think that's a compliment that only demonstrates how far from its beginnings rock criticism has gone. In Portland last week, a student who had the CD and loved it pulls a print out on Christgau from her purse. I thought I'd kept it when she passed it on to me, but lost it somewhere on the road. It was a review of the film High Fidelity, a review of the book Rock She Wrote and a state of rock piece all rolled into one. Ambitious and full of life but not full of facts. Reading about the alleged history of rock, I realized how much had been lost and altered and started thinking back to C.I.'s piece on Ellen Willis' passing.

Lester Bangs is dead, Willis is dead, most of the greats are dead. Christgau's like the last extra standing from a James Dean film, someone who really had little impact in the film but is still around and has the film credit, so people trot him out as an example of a glorious period when he's really peripheral to it.

The student came up after we'd all discussed Iraq and she was really offended by Christgau's Rolling Stone review. She'd never heard of him before so she'd gone online and Googled him only to learn he was an alleged "dean" (again, considering the frat house nature of most rock music, you really don't want to be known as "the dean" -- or am I the only one who saw Animal House?). I waived C.I. over because the woman was really upset and I knew C.I. would be able to offer perspective on Christgau much quicker than I could. Which did happen, C.I. dismissively noted "list maker" and then explained that Christgau thought Carole King's Tapestry was an amazing accomplishment: "Not a bad decision, but one it took him two years to reach. Give him two years to think about something, is the general consensus, then he might have something worth saying on the subject." C.I. also explained that RC has never been a Joni fan, that he's been luke warm to Joni's lyrics, luke warm to her voice and not really a champion in real time of any female singer-songwriter from that era. At which point, I noted that Christgau was laughed at in the Bay Area for years and, back when I was covering concerts and doing profiles on bands, you only had to mention his name and the putdowns from musicians would come tumbling out.

The woman also had the Rolling Stone review and if she passed it on, I lost it as well. But when we got back home, I picked up my copy of the magazine and read over it. It really does come down to "nice."

In 1985, Joni released Dog Eat Dog which was one of her most masterful works and it got beat up in the playground repeatedly. This may be the what comes out of the tired and boring with Shine. And, to be clear, it didn't start with Dog Eat Dog and Joni herself has spoken of the phenomenon. On Shine she uses "you" and she's noted before, especially with regard to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the violent reaction ("How dare you!") when she moved from songs with a narrator who used "I" in the lyrics to character portraits or the use of "you." If she'll use "I" and play the "sin eater," people are perfectly happy with her probing because some need that outlet. The "I" allows them to enjoy the song and think, "Oh, those are her problems and she's captured them so honestly." When the same keen eye, the same honesty, pops up without that outlet, even if the song is still confessional but uses "you," it makes some squirm.

And women, for the old boys, really shouldn't show anger. Let's be really honest, they could take Aretha demanding "Respect" because, in that song, Aretha's not threatening them with the loss of cash or sex. They can still have it but give her a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T . . . when they get home. From wherever they have gone off to -- and Aretha wasn't planning on asking any questions about where that was.

The old boys -- or old dogs -- can perk up a little for a young thang today showing a little anger. But they never really appreciated it or honored it in women their own age or near their own age. Wild Things Run Fast is the weakest album Joni has ever put out. I'm not big on her jazz work but even that was more ambitious. Still Wild Things Run Fast was praised -- overly praised. Treated in real time as if it were the return of Blue and still rated much higher than it deserves. (Someone in the White House may claim "You Dream Flat Tires" is on Bully Boy's iPod but do you really know anyone who listens to that song?) It opened with "Chinese Cafe" paired with "Unchained Melody" and "Chinese Cafe" is gorgeous and strong story telling but the album quickly went down hill. The key, for some, was -- and go back and read those real time reviews and you'll see that -- Joni was writing about love and being in love! That they could get behind, that they could support.

Night Ride Home is a really strong album but, if you read the reviews praising it, you'll probably pick up on that same thread: "Love songs!" Which was why "Cherokee Louise" got so little real time appreciation even though it was one of her strongest. Time and again, when Joni's probing eye strikes them as finger-pointing, a lot of old boys/dogs get nervous.

Which is why, despite the Grammy win, 1994's Turbulent Indigo, even winning praise, left some reviewers lukewarm and why 1998's Taming the Tiger received a hostile reaction. Of the many brilliant songs on the latter, "No Apologies" may stand as one of her best but the old boys/dogs don't clamor for that to appear on a best of, it hits a little too close to home.

It's not that they don't want her to explore the human condition, it's that they want her to explore it with an "I" to, as she has pointed out repeatedly, give them the safety valve of being their "sin eater," provide them with the safety release of saying, "That's her problem." "Needles, guns and grass, acid, booze and ass" is a still a much cited refrain (from "Blue") and it's made palatable by the "I love you, Blue" refrain.

The old boys/dogs squirm when a woman close to their own age asserts themselves because they're still reeling from the realization that woman as door mat faded from their lives before they could really get used to it. When a woman Joni's age stands up, it takes them back to the shock of "Well the coffee's over there" or "You answer the phone." Those moments in their lives where they saw the male entitlement they grew up expecting vanish bit by bit, where they had to face the fact that if they wanted Carol Brady in bed and Alice the house keeper cleaning up after them, they better hire somebody because women weren't going to make their own existence about ego stroking between bits of drudgery playing their personal assistant.

Joni reminds them of all that while a PJ Harvey doesn't. PJ Harvey is the wild, young (by comparison) woman they can picture having a brief (mid-life) affair with. But Joni, leaving the love songs and probing the human condition while using "you," reminds them of all the scars they still carry as a result of the strides women made.

As with Dog Eat Dog, Joni's painting on a large canvas this go round. She's pissed and using everything she has artistically to make sense of the world. Unlike Dog Eat Dog, she's not also exploring the latest in studio gadgetry. So, musically, the instrumentation harkens back to the hallmarks in her writing, the sound that -- no matter how many try to ape it -- still belongs solely to Joni.

"One Week Last Summer" opens the album beautifully. The instrumental track is gorgeous and filled with the sense of adventure and reclaiming that anyone who's ever played an instrument should enjoy. It's that moment when life has sucked everything from you -- you think -- and you pick up an instrument or sit down at a piano and, bit by bit, find yourself all over again. It's the perfect opening for this album because it sets the stage for all that will follow as Joni takes back her voice after nearly a decade (nine years) of releasing no new songs.

As beautiful as it is, "This Place" may be where some listeners finally can breathe again. Joni's voice didn't record well on all the tracks of 1998's Taming The Tiger and some were saying she'd lost it. That's really an obsession for some critics. And it's always "lost" (see some of the reactions to Etta James' All The Way), never about what's found. (For all the citations of "Both Sides Now," it appears many never grasp that it's not win or lose, "But something's lost and something's gained in living every day"). And it's always women. I love Mick Jagger and loved the energy of A Bigger Bang (and love that CD more each day), but let's be honest here, Jagger vocalizing today is not Jagger of yore. Somehow that never enters the critique the way it does with any woman. "Progress" for the bulk of the male critics appears to translate as, "You don't have to be a virgin but, like Madonna, can't you be 'like one' and still pass for shiny and new." Or as Stevie Nicks sings in Fleetwood Mac's "Paper Doll," "You love a man with a future, you love a woman with a past. Well do you really believe that, I said to faces in the crowd."

So for those who are nervous, track two will allow you to calm down. Joni's voice is recorded better than on Taming The Tiger and she's got the range and softness some can't enjoy her without. When she does this vocal murmur on "Money, money, money, money makes the trees come down," she'll hook you (unless you're an old boy/old dog). She's singing about a mountain close to her home being turned into gravel and then sold "to California." It's very specific and it's also relatable unless you've lived in a shoe box for the last thirty or so years as our landscapes have increasingly been torn down, polluted and destroyed. In thirty more years, at this rate, the current big box stores may pass for historical landmarks solely due to the fact that we have nothing left.

"If I Had A Heart" captures society ills with Joni declaring "If I had a heart I'd cry." She captures the vocal on this song perfectly because obviously -- she is writing about it -- she does care but she's now the survivor -- not the defector -- "from the petty wars that shell shock love away" ("Hejira" from the album of the same name). The entire album is a summation of the career and the life. In 1976, she could "defect," she could hit the road and get away from the "petty wars" and be restored by the road; however, these days, travel the country if you don't believe me, there is no where or way to drop out. There's just been too much damage done. Or, as Joni notes, "There's just too many people now, Too little land, Much too much desire, You feel so feeble now, It's so out of hand." It's a reality that may come hard for some because for so long we've been of the opinion that we can save a section -- the rain forests, an untouched area in our own backyards -- and the constant sprawl could be lived with because we were designating areas to be preserved. The reality is that was all a lie. As the global crisis mounts, there is no "over there" or private sanctuary that can go untouched: "We are making this Earth, Our funeral pyre!"

"Hana" comes along and apparently left Christgau longing for an album's worth of "Marcie" (Song to a Seagull). Why, he ponders, couldn't Hana's approach be the theme for the album. Hana's a fixer and she's individual. Only in the tired minds does anyone think that one person, working all by themselves, can save the world. I believe many of those tired minds have flocked the campaign of the political "rock star" -- though they appear to be rethinking that decision now judging by the polling. "Hana" is included to note the power we do have and to note the futile nature of leaving global problems for others to deal with. Hana's sounding an alarm but there's only power if others hear it and if they act. Hana's out there, willing to fight "the beast alone," but it's not just Hana's battle and if left to just Hana, even Christgau might be sounding the alarms in a few years. (Or at least making a list of some of the problems!)

"Bad Dreams" captures our current reality perfectly. We can find momentary reassurance in things that tell us, "It's really not that bad." Mitchell establishes that with her opening, "The cats are in the flower bed, A red hawk rides the sky" but quickly that reassuring image is followed with the new landscape of isolation and disconnect ("cell phone zombies") as we all "have to grapple with our man-made world backfiring."

"Big Yellow Taxi" (Ladies of the Canyon) reappears and it's reborn. The original, or the use of the original in Janet Jackson's "Gone," will conjure memories but what Joni appears to be doing with this version (which is a major reconfiguring) is not proclaim, "I was here all those years ago! I was right!" but instead point out, "We knew this all those years ago, are we going to get it right? And if so, when?" This is no slide show, no "Celebrate me thereby celebrating the earth!" And I'll assume we all know the p.r. campaign I'm referring to.

When the blanket of night falls, we can find hope. That's been a point Joni's made since her first album (see "Night In The City") and it's that special time she's capturing here in "Night Of The Iguana" when people go to sleep and nature breathes. (Possibly due to the smog factor being lowered.) But it, like preserving small sections, is momentary and the point is made with "Strong and wrong" which says more about the current illegal war and its worship of the powers of destruction than you'll grasp on first listen.

Joni, the most poetic of all of our songwriters, ends the album (as she has before) by setting a poem to music. Some could argue she's done that throughout her career with her own poetry. In this case, it's Rudyard Kipling's "If." It's the right note to go out on, a benediction, a moment of hope.

The music is gorgeous throughout, Joni's vocals are strong and sure, and thematically, it's one to put in her canon which says a great deal because her canon already includes such notables as Blue, Court & Spark, Night Ride Home, For The Roses and Dog Eat Dog. Her lows would make for most people's highs. This is an amazing album and, yes, you can pick it up at Starbucks. Wherever you pick it up, you need to. Shine is not just one of the year's finest, it's one of Joni's most gorgeous albums. The tempos and arrangements of The Hissing of Summer Lawns did nothing for me but they inspired Prince. I'm sure this album will be an inspiration to artists for years to come. If it doesn't make your own playlist, you're cheating yourself.