Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Me and Them Lonesome Blues

Joni Mitchell

This is not, you may have noticed, a review of a new album. I have decided to eliminate a regular Classics-themed article, and instead will simply write up Classics when I am driven to do so. This should, I believe, ensure that the write-ups are impassioned, and I am writing them simply out of a deeply felt want to spread the wealth, as it were.

My roommates and I recently visited Reckless Records, a well-known record store here in Chicago. I tend to stay away from record stores most of the time; no matter how cautious I am upon entry, I am bound to leave no less than fifty dollars lighter. These are purchases I enjoy making, of course, but it's not something I want to make a habit of. I've been trying to keep my vinyl-related impulses in check since I went a bit eBay-happy two years ago. At any rate, it has been quite a while since I bought a record, and I felt it time for a hit.

I walked away with some Elvis Costello LPs, a pair of Elvis Costello singles, the single for "Flashdance... What a Feeling" from Flashdance (what a chorus, huh?), and two Joni Mitchell albums. Joni Mitchell is someone I resisted for a long time. When her most recent album, Shine, came out in 2007, the multitude of articles I read about her left me with a bad taste in my mouth; her persona seemed very self-righteous, to a degree that I felt made it unlikely it wouldn't leak its way into her music. Not self-righteous like, say, Elvis Costello is self-righteous; that's more an issue of too much confidence. I'm talking about the kind of self-righteous that found its way into folk music in the sixties. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there's a song on the Elektra Records compilation, Forever Changing, that is EXACTLY what I reference. I can't remember what it's called, but the entire compilation's only eight or nine hours long, so you should just listen to the whole thing and you'll come across it.

Last June, I was compelled to listen to Mitchell for the first time. I started with the one you hear the most about, provided you run in circles where you hear about Joni Mitchell; Blue. I was surprised, immediately, by the energy present. Here is an album whose cover does not exactly scream up-beat, yet the opener, "All I Want," overflows with enthusiasm, with a certain amount of humour. It sounds like Joni Mitchell had a good time recording that song, which is probably the best kind of energy any record could ever hope to get across. If the band sound like they're having fun, then the audience probably will, too.

The songs contained here are remarkable on a number of levels; for one, the lyrics reward inspection. Joni Mitchell is held up as a peer of Leonard Cohen, as apparently there is something about Canada that fosters introspective, poetic rambling, but I find her lyrics to be more involving. Laughin' Lenny slips into trite metaphors a bit too often for my comfort. Mitchell's lyrics here are never less than exemplary.

Another great feature is the recording itself; this album was done by experts, and everything sounds so lush. It's an album that functions both as active, involved listening, and would be great to throw on in the background of, say, a dinner, if you're one of those types of people (I'm not, but I'd be willing to try). In my experience, only Randy Newman's Sail Away has more clearly illustrated the difference between an mp3 and a vinyl record.

Mitchell's voice is the third draw; it can, and does, do everything. Her range is spectacular, and her power of expression belies all explanation. You can feel the catharsis, but, and this is key, unlike so many albums since, you're never overwhelmed by it. While it is often personal, and never shies away from expressing an emotion, at no point does Blue come across as an album Mitchell wrote for herself. That is unquestionably one of its greatest strengths.

The guitars give way to piano as the album moves on, and the results are even more engaging. My favourite cut is "River;" Joni Mitchell incorporates part of "Jingle Bells" into the piano interludes, giving it a spectacularly sparse, wintry feel. It's the most immediately atmospheric, the song most capable of dominating a space with its mood. It's also achingly beautiful, and a perfect example of what this album holds in store. Absolutely essential.

Grade: A+

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