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.
Read a great interview with Joni, Larry Klein, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson about the making of the album here.