Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Joni Mitchell must have really been pleased with the results of her 2000 album, Both Sides Now, which featured orchestral (and occasionally swing/big band) arrangements of classic songs, as well as two of her own. For her next release, the 2-CD Travelogue (2002), she re-worked 22 of her songs over 2+ hours with similar arrangements. Unlike that album’s brilliantly re-arranged title track, this album doesn’t have any truly breathtaking moments, where the new version might outshine the original. This is still a gorgeous collection of songs, from the arrangements to Joni’s mature, jazzy vocals; it’s just not an essential part of her catalog. I look at it as I would a live album, which often features old songs in a new context, except in this case it’s all been arranged and performed in a studio. Live albums are usually for the die-hard fans wanting a souvenir of the artist at that particular time in their career, and Travelogue fits that description.
Having said all of that, I found a lot to enjoy on this album. I can attribute that to spending so much time with her music over the last 5-6 weeks. When I first purchased the CD in 2002 I thought it was nice but it didn’t make much of an impact, probably because I only knew a few of the songs relatively well. That’s no longer the case, as I’m now very familiar with the original versions of every song included here. As I mentioned above, there’s nothing revelatory but there are some highlights: the swinging arrangement with Hammond organ on “You Dream Flat Tires”; the slightly bombastic but powerful arrangements of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The Sire Of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)”; the orchestral flashes on the swinging “God Must Be A Boogie Man”; the strings & woodwinds (and horns at the end) playing the memorable 6-note motif on “Just Like This Train”; the lush, sweeping orchestration of “Refuge Of The Roads”; and hearing “The Dawntreader,” originally from her first album (Song To A Seagull), sung with a maturity that was obviously lacking by the young Joni back in 1968. This would not be the best place for a novice to start exploring Joni’s music, but it’s very rewarding for existing fans.
[Joni Mitchell – “Just Like This Train (Travelogue Version)”]
After a long hiatus, during which Joni had apparently retired from her recording career, she surprised her fans by releasing Shine (2007). It’s a mostly quiet & subdued album, featuring Joni on guitar or piano (and other unspecified instruments), with occasional drums, saxophone, pedal steel guitar & percussion. It has a similar feel to some of her earlier albums, like Blue or Hejira, but it didn’t have the same impact on me. Once I focused on the lyrics, which find her railing against modern society, the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, and the general corruption of mankind & destruction of the environment (all subjects she’s tackled many times before), I found myself less enamored of the album. It’s not because those aren’t important subjects to write about, but whereas the younger Joni had an appealing idealism, here she sounds like a grumpy middle-aged woman. However, her voice sounds strong and there are some great melodies throughout. So although I have some problems with the album, it’s not without its highlights.
The opening track, “One Week Last Summer,” is a beautiful instrumental. According to the liner notes, this was the first tune she composed in nearly a decade, after spending a week at her house by the ocean enjoying the sights & sounds of nature. There are no lyrics because, as she puts it, “my fingers found these patterns which express what words could not.” It’s a great way to start the album, and it’s followed by the equally engaging, “This Place.” It’s a classic jazz-tinged Joni tune, with Greg Leisz’s pedal steel adding a country flavor. The serenity of the music is contrasted by the lyrics, which are a modern take on her classic, “Big Yellow Taxi.” That song also appears here in a new arrangement, as “Big Yellow Taxi (2007).” Other than the addition of accordion, giving it a slightly zydeco feel, and one altered lyric (where the museum admission fee went from “a dollar and a half just to see ‘em” to “an arm and a leg”), this is still one of Joni’s most memorable melodies. I assume she included it here due to the topical lyrical themes. “Hana” is driven by a repetitive, almost metronomic groove with percussion by Paulinho Da Costa. Whoever the title character is, she’s got a strong character, seeing good in all people, looking and the bright side under difficult circumstances, and doing her best to help others. Bob Sheppard adds some nice soprano saxophone here, ably taking over the role usually occupied by Wayne Shorter.
Album closer “If” has one of my favorite melodies on this album, and the lyrics are inspiring. Each verse presents a “what if” scenario, such as “If you can keep your head while (others) are losing theirs and blaming you,” “If you can…stand tall” when lied about, and “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted and misconstrued.” Her answer to all these questions, presented at the end of the song, is “I know you’ll be alright.” She could be trying to inspire others here, or she could be singing to herself, but either way it’s a beautiful end to the album. The remaining songs all have positive qualities, like the driving beat (provided by Brian Blade on drums) on “Night Of The Iguana” and the spaces left between the notes on the very slow but pretty “Shine” (with James Taylor on acoustic guitar), but at times the negativity in the lyrics took away from my enjoyment of the music. This is most evident on “If I Had A Heart,” which implies that she’s become numb to the negative aspects of the modern world (although I love the great repeated piano figure). All in all this is a very good album with several top-notch songs, but I never fully warmed to it. As of the date of this post, this is her most recent album. Here’s hoping she comes out of retirement again soon.
Several readers suggested I check out the Joni-related album by jazz great Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters (2007), so I borrowed a copy from a friend and listened to it a few times. I’m already a Hancock fan, especially his work with the Miles Davis Quintet in the 60s, and his 60s recordings for Blue Note, so my arm didn’t need to be twisted to listen to this album. Of the 10 songs here, 4 are instrumentals and a different vocalist is featured on each of the remaining 6 songs. Tina Turner delivers possibly her jazziest, most subdued performance on “Edith And The Kingpin.” Corinne Bailey Rae brings a youthful verve, with depth in her voice, to “River.” Luciana Souza has a wonderful vocal delivery on “Amelia” (ironically, Souza is the current wife of Joni’s ex-husband, Larry Klein). Norah Jones acquits herself nicely on a straightforward jazz-pop version of “Court And Spark.” I love Leonard Cohen’s spoken-word take, with just piano accompaniment, on “The Jungle Line.” And Joni herself shows up for “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms).” The original version, from Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, wasn’t one of the highlights of that album for me, but I much prefer the more organic arrangement here. The instrumentals are all stellar, bridging jazz and pop, and they act as links between the vocal tracks. Ironically, this album was released the same day as Shine, and it went on to win the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
Over the past 5-6 weeks, I’ve spent countless hours delving into Joni Mitchell’s music, getting to know over 20 albums during that time. When I started out, I knew I liked her music, but I was probably familiar with only a small portion of her catalog. At this point I’m no expert, but I’m a much bigger…and more knowledgeable…fan. Also, more than any of the previous artists I’ve revisited so far, I’ve had dozens of her songs playing in my head at various times. Sometimes it’s just a melodic hook, sometimes it’s a great lyric, and sometimes it’s a full song. Her songs have covered so much musical territory, and I was pleased to discover how much I enjoyed all the twists & turns she’s taken during that time.
I want to thank reader Michael Francis McCarthy for pointing me in the direction of the official fan-created Joni website, jonimitchell.com. I will definitely visit that site often when listening to or researching anything about “La Mitch” (thanks for that, Michael). I also invite you to visit Mr. McCarthy’s blog: http://designkultur.wordpress.com/
I’m not sure there’s a bigger Joni Mitchell fan out there, and his input has been greatly appreciated.
Now it’s time for me to move on to my next artist. I’m still deciding who that will be, but I’ll be back soon so keep checking in. Or better yet, subscribe to this site for automatic email updates so you won’t miss a single post. As always, thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing in my re-discovery of so much great music.