Tuesday, September 25, 2007

They paved paradise and put up a coffee shop

It does seem odd - Joni Mitchell, countercultural icon, bringing out her album on the label of top corporate exploiticons Starbucks. But Mitchell of all people has earned the right to do what she damn well pleases, and in a way she's being just as stubborn and contrary as she always was. And the legend "© 2007 Joni Mitchell" reveals the reason she's decided to take her first new material for over a decade to the mocha-mongers; artistic freedom, and ownership of the result. After the things she said after her spectacular exit from the music business, it was never likely she'd want anything to do with a conventional record company again.

So Shine represents an unexpected return to a business she once described as "a cesspool". And it's a very welcome one, because this is a very fine album. It's an album that demands attention though - while it's much easier going than Mingus, it's decidedly quirky and unpredictable, Mitchell's latter day, huskier voice and jazz stylings being put up against often brittle arrangements, staccato wind chords and a palette that nods to pointillism. If I have one real complaint, it's that she uses synths rather than real wind instruments. There's an old-fashioned feel to many of the sounds here (maybe it's simply because after such a long time since her last compositions, she simply doesn't have any new equipment) but it only serves to heighten the individualism of the sound. A lot of reviews I've read note the serenity of the record, which contrasts with the overall theme of the record (that we're all going to hell in a handcart, and Joni told us so), but I think that's a simplistic view of an album that is admirably determined not to rest on its creator's laurels. There's an underlying tension that undercuts the surface calm.

"You don't know what you've got til it's gone", sings Joni in the startling (and effective) reworking of "Big Yellow Taxi". Sometimes you're lucky enough to get it back.

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