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Joni Mitchell is generally considered to be the single most important female singer-songwriter of the 20th Century. Her new CD features 10 great new songs that resonate on the level of some of her all-time classic work, with much of the material inspired by Joni's passion to save the environment. Her lyrics on the subject are truly inspiring.
Shine may ultimately register as a "fans only" milestone, but it proves that Joni Mitchell retains many of the storied calling cards of her best albums. The searing lyricism of 1971's Blue and the penchant for self-redefinition hailed by 1974's Court and Spark make cameos here, but sadly, lesser efforts' drawbacks abound. True, "Big Yellow Taxi" reprises the environmental dystopia Mitchell first poeticized on 1970's Ladies of the Canyon, but the occasion only prompts new pedantic effrontery ("This Place," "If I Had a Heart"). In this regard, Shine's especially cloying title track marks the worst offender. Blissfully, though, "Hana" boasts a driving rhythm section and blurting squirts of electric guitar and saxophone in support of a compelling character sketch, and "If"--based on Rudyard Kipling's poem of the same name--paints a lyrical message of affirmation in bold strokes. Mitchell's songwriting shines brightest at such singularly poignant moments where specificity of images meets the vagaries of the instrumental arrangements, and, in the end, these and other highlights ("Bad Dreams," "Night of the Iguana") definitively carry the torch. --Jason Kirk
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She boldly opens the album with an instrumental, which struck me as an ungenerous move on first hearing, but in the context of the rest of the album makes perfect sense on Joni's terms, which are the only terms on which she makes records, bless her. (Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young -- her true peers -- also specialized in weirding out listeners who expected more-of-the-same with each new record.) Every song gets a distinctive orchestration of its own, from the percolating "Hana" -- a portrait of an old movie heroine, an Irish bodhisattva disguised as a traveling maid, who had "a special knack for getting people back on the right track" -- to a playful reprise of "Big Yellow Taxi" rescored like French circus music. "This Place" has particularly sleek and engaging sound, blending lap steel, warm horns, and bright keyboards, with its reference to a neighbor in rural British Columbia who says, "When I get to heaven, if it is not like this, I'll just hop a cloud and I'm coming back down here..."
My favorite track on the album is the final one, "If," which advances the sinuous groove of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" and "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" and other milestones into new realms. The lyric is paraphrased from a Rudyard Kipling poem, but Joni wrote the most stunning verse:
If you can fill the journey
of a minute
with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight
then the Earth is yours
and Everything that's in it
but more than that
You'll be alright
You'll be alright.
Fittingly, the title track "Shine" is the purest expression of the essence of this album. After reciting a litany of offenses against the spirit, she insists that the proper response is to "shine your little light" into every corner of your life. It's not polyannic New Agey jive, but more like the alchemy of heavy global lead into spiritual gold: with this song, Joni even transcends her own identity as an angry Cassandra issuing dire warnings to a culture that doesn't want to listen. She's no stranger to Buddhist subtexts in her work -- "Refuge of the Roads" on Hejira was, among other things, a tribute to the vajrayana master Chogyam Trungpa, and "Taming the Tiger" was an allusion to Tibetan meditation practices for quelling the ego's rages. In "Shine," the Buddhist analogue would be Dzogchen, the Great Perfection -- the recognition that everything is just right as it is, even the things that insult the ego and bruise the heart.
We're lucky to be alive on the same dying planet that she is.
"Shine" is a wonderful CD!
Having listened to it four times already, I can honestly say that I love it. Starting out with the wonderful instrumental "One Week Last Summer", "Shine" remains lovely and poignant throughout. Some might be quick on the draw to dismiss it as just more of Joni whining about the world's woes as she sees them, but if you take the time to listen to the lyrics (and read along), you'll find that she is dead on. Something very different from her previous social commentary is the fact that, while Joni does decry the world's injustices, the overall tone is empowering... we all have the ability to change the course of fate. The song "Shine" really sums up the whole idea (or at least as I interpret it)... that whether what comes at you is good or bad, it's up to you to deal with life in a positive way. This is probably the most optimistic set Joni has ever done.
To my mind, there is not a false word or false note on here. Lyrically, I would say that Joni is as strong as ever, and musically, the sound is completely fresh, very atmospheric, and extremely well played and produced. As for my fear that Joni's voice would be weak and whispery, I actually think she sounds better than she did on "Taming the Tiger".
Each of the tracks on "Shine" stands on its own, but played in sequence they make for a really great set. One admission, and I'm probably on my own here... "Big Yellow Taxi" is the one slightly low point for me. While lyrically it fits the package and musically restyled it falls into place, it has never been my favorite Joni song (save the really great version she did in her concert "Painting With Words and Music"). It's not a bad cut... it just doesn't thrill me like the rest of the CD.
The packaging is really a departure for Joni. I always look forward to her paintings, but the photography is really stunning (or maybe it's just the dancers... geez, I need to work on my abs). There is a great clip on YouTube that has excerpts of an interview with Joni as well as bits from the ballet... definitely worth seeing.
All in all, I am thrilled with this CD, and so happy to see Joni in top form... thanks for this!
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