Legends don't have to play the MTV game Review: Joni Mitchell's songs keep her grown-up emotions under cool, peaceful wraps.

September 29, 1998|By J.D. Considine LTC | J.D. Considine LTC,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Joni Mitchell knows precisely where she stands with the record industry. Sure, she's a living legend, a primary influence for dozens of hit-makers and the sort of artist whose work will automatically be of interest to thousands of listeners.

But, frankly, none of that matters quite so much as having a hit on the charts, and Mitchell knows where that leaves her.

So instead of playing the game, she laughs at it. In the title tune from her new album, "Taming the Tiger" (Reprise 46451, arriving in stores today), she dismisses the MTV world of rap and alternarock as "the hoods in the 'hood/And the whiny white kids," sneering at an industry that sees every album as a poker chip in the high-stakes game of radio play. "The whole thing's gotten/Boring!" she pronounces.

In any other singer's hands, a song like "Taming the Tiger" would likely come across as sour grapes, the why-don't-you-buy-my-CD? griping of a star past her prime. But there's something so transcendent about Mitchell's singing, so focused and relaxed about her music, there's no way her scorn could be mistaken for envy. If anything, what comes across in the song is confidence and bemusement -- not to mention the understanding that she has better things to do than chase after hits.

Funny thing is, the songs on "Taming the Tiger" are her most accessible in years. Between its tart, chatty melodies and smoky, atmospheric instrumental tracks, the album recalls the jazzy introspection of the 1976 album "Hejira."

Except that where "Hejira" emphasized the improvisatory energy Mitchell's studio band (particularly bassist Jaco Pastorius), "Taming the Tiger" is cooler and more contemplative, relying largely on Mitchell's overdubbed guitars and keyboards and using other players (particularly saxophonist Wayne Shorter) mostly for color.

The music oozes more than it surges, letting her verbal cadences set the pace, and keeping the rhythm section understated to the point of inaudibility. That's not to say Mitchell's music doesn't occasionally kick -- "Lead Balloon" may not sound like Led Zeppelin, but it has more than enough drive to convey the lyric's angry edge -- but she's far more likely to opt for a flowing, brushes-and-acoustic bass pulse, as on the slyly swinging "The Crazy Cries of Love."

Some listeners may assume that Mitchell's preference for more peaceable grooves is a function of age, but closer listening suggests that what she's ultimately trying to convey is the gentle, undulating rhythm of adult sensuality.

She hints at that fondness for pleasures of the flesh in "Harlem in Havana," a jarring, jazzy recollection of a youthful trip to a hootchy-kootchy show, but it's not until "Love Puts on a New Face" and "Stay In Touch" that Mitchell makes herself clear.

Both are songs about newfound love, and in them, Mitchell not only conveys the passion and pace of grown-up romance, but suggests -- musically and lyrically -- that love does indeed get better with age.

Moreover, because she's focused on personal concerns instead of social issues, Mitchell engages the listener at an emotional level, drawing us in and letting us feel as if we have something deep in common. That may not be the stuff of which hits are made, but it's far more satisfying in the long run -- and definitely isn't boring.

Joni Mitchell

"Taming the Tiger" (Reprise 46451)

Sun score: ***

Sundial: To hear excerpts from this new release, call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6135. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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