Friday, May 9, 2014

More Produced Mitchell: Joni Mitchell Takes On More Sound With Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm!

The Good: Good lyrics, Good vocals, Growth in production
The Bad: Guest vocalists overwhelm, Lack of a hook, Short.
The Basics: With Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Joni Mitchell produces a very different sounding album, but one without an enduringly interesting sound to keep listeners coming back.

Sometimes, I think music fans and reviewers get so excited by a beloved musical artist doing something new that they do not stop long enough to objectively consider if the new direction is actually a good one. I applaud artistic creativity, but the simple act of creating does not make me completely re-evaluate the standards by which I listen to and evaluate a musical experience. In the case of Joni Mitchell, the moment I put Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm into my player, I knew I was listening to a very different Joni Mitchell album from any other Mitchell album I had heard. Right away, the heightened production and musical force behind the instrumental accompaniment (which was very late-1980s) sounded unlike anything I had heard from Joni Mitchell.

But even through my first of eight listens to Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, I quickly came to realize that while Mitchell was experimenting more with sound and production, not all of those experiments played out well for her. Instead, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is a full-sounding but strangely indistinct album that sounds more repetitive than many of Joni Mitchell’s other albums. And, despite my love of musical albums as a medium without the need for a single, the more I listened to Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, the more I realized that the album lacks a single hook. There is no defining or overly memorable single song on Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm that would be worthy of putting on a “Best Of” album by Joni Mitchell.

With only ten songs, clocking out at 46:11, one of the immediate detractions to Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is its lack of duration. Even in 1988 when the album was originally released, compact discs could hold more music than this album presents, so for a prolific musical artist like Joni Mitchell, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm represents a failure to live up to her potential on the front of presenting a volume of songs. That said, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is largely the creative vision of Joni Mitchell. Outside “A Bird That Whistles (Corrina, Corrina),” the songs are all written or co-written by Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell provides all of the lead vocals, though on Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm she employs several other famous musical notables for backing or duet vocals, which is a departure from her norm. Mitchell also plays guitar and keyboards on various tracks and on two of the songs, she was responsible for the drum programming. Given that Mitchell is credited as a co-producer of the album, it is hard not to imagine that she had enough creative control to produce and release the work that she intended.

That work is a far more musically-diverse album than most of Joni Mitchell’s works. A clear departure from the “one woman and a guitar” folk sound that helped define early Joni Mitchell, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is loaded up with instruments on each track. Numerous guitars and keyboards are accompanied by bass and various drums on each and every track. Unlike many familiar Joni Mitchell albums, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm has the songs produced in such a way that the instrumental accompaniment frequently overwhelms the vocals. But even though there is a greater instrumental presence on the songs on Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, there are no truly compelling or memorable tunes. Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm has a generic Adult Contemporary Light Pop-Rock sound to each and every track. The murky nature of the vocal production compared to the instrumental accompaniment makes for an indistinct listening experience.

Vocally, Joni Mitchell gives a familiar performance . . . save that her voice is harder to hear over the reverb, backing vocalists and instrumental production elements. Joni Mitchell has a dusty, lower vocal range on most of the songs on Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, though she has the ability to hold notes for a decent amount of time and go into the higher registers when she wants to. On Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, she seldom challenges her vocal chords and listeners are likely to be unsurprised by any of her performances on the album. On Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Joni Mitchell is accompanied on various tracks by Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and Don Henley. The backing vocals range from subtle (like Gabriel on “My Secret Place”) to overwhelming (Idol on “Dancing Clown”) to annoying (Willie Nelson on “Cool Water” is repetitive like scratching at a scab).

Lyrically, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm is thematically rich, but often poorly executed. Joni Mitchell sings about a wide range of political issues, but she seems to run out of steam and ends up with a number of songs that are painfully repetitive. Songs like “Lakota,” about the demise of the Native American Indians, loses any punch it might have had by Joni Mitchell’s almost constant, numbing refrain of “I am Lakota.” The song ends up as forgettable and boring as opposed to meaningful.

In a similar fashion, “Cool Water” has a good message. When Joni Mitchell and Willie Nelson sing “All day I face the barren waste / Without a taste of water / Cool water / Old Dan and I / Our throats slate dry / Our spirits cry out for water / Cool clear water / Keep on movin' Dan / Some devils had a plan / Buried poison in the sand / Don't drink it man / It's in the water”(“Cool Water”), they clearly have something to say about an important issue. Unfortunately, they dilute their own message by repeating the title over and over again.

The album, however, has songs that have Joni Mitchell’s trademark sense of political and social activism. She creates a musical storysong that is one of the most poignant representations of a soldier’s angst with “The Beat Of Black Wings.” Singing for a sense of reason and pacifism, Joni Mitchell creates a musical protagonist who cries out, “’They gave me a gun,’ he said / ‘They gave me a mission / For the power and the glory-- / Propaganda--piss on 'em / There's a war zone inside me-- / I can feel things exploding-- / I can't even hear the fucking music playing / For the beat of--the beat of black wings’" (“The Beat Of Black Wings”). Mitchell has a well-rounded view of the struggle and anguish veterans and soldiers have and she manages to make it musical on that song.

Ultimately, though, the cons and pros about even out and while Joni Mitchell should be praised for her creativity on Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, the musical creativity is largely overshadowed by the repetitive nature of the lyrics and the gimmicky quality of some of the guest vocals. In the end, the album is a wash; it’s not likely to make new Joni Mitchell fans, but it gives those who love her works something very different sounding to tune into when they get tired of her distinctive sound.

The best song is “The Beat Of Black Wings,” the low point is “Snakes And Ladders.”

For other works by Joni Mitchell, please visit my reviews of:
Song To A Seagull
Ladies Of The Canyon
Turbulent Indigo
Taming The Tiger
Both Sides Now


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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