Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier.

Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.

Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Geffen Records, released October 1982

8/10

As Joni reported to Q magazine in 1988, she entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’

Apparently she attended a New Year’s Eve party at the house of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop which had the ghastly theme ‘Be nice to the ’80s and the ’80s will be nice to you’.

On the way to the shindig, her beloved ’69 Bluebird was stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It was not a great start to the decade.

David Geffen and Joni, early '80s

David Geffen and Joni, early ’80s

There were other reasons to be worried. She was sued by her cleaning lady and found herself headhunted by old friend and media mogul David Geffen for his new label, though their relationship were never easy.

And then there was Reagan, Thatcher and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely, though she’d make up for that big-time with 1985’s potent Dog Eat Dog.

Instead, buoyed by her marriage to new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date.

The simplistic critical reaction to Wild Things Run Fast was that she had turned her back on the ‘jazz’ period which culminated in the 1979 masterpiece Mingus (and live album Shadows And Light). But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Another clue was that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.

Her new recruits were some of LA’s finest ‘younger’ players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante, plus ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was the superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, recently voted in Uncut magazine’s top 30 Joni songs (nominated by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason), the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan.

It’s a very moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and a beautifully intricate drum part by Guerin, a great companion piece to ‘Both Sides Now’.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazz Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a great (and extremely underrated) bassist of the ’80s and worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter.

The great Larry Carlton does something similar on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’, playing a sublime accompaniment on the left channel while Joni bitterly surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’. Lionel Richie even shows up on ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ to deliver one line and add some vocal harmonies – who saw that coming?

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, though the latter is the weakest song on the album – Joni should probably have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast – a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta. And its appropriation of Corinthians 13 11-13 sums up Joni’s romantic worldview beautifully; hopeful about the future but constantly wary, ever aware of love’s tribulations.

TourProgram83RefugeGroup

Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured this album extensively with a superb band of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London for a date at the Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. But thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching 32 in the UK album charts and #25 in the States, and the single ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ reached 47 in the US singles chart.

One’s appreciation of Wild Things probably depends on when you were born. There are people who adore Blue and For The Roses who must loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.