I have watched the Joni Mitchell specials on PBS where, in interviews, she is proven to be rather strange and off-putting. I have read the Joni Mitchell tirades against the music industry—the industry, let’s be clear, that made her a wealthy woman—and I have let them slide off my shoulders. I have muddled through the string arrangements on her standards collection so I could hear her make a go at “Stormy Weather”. I have scrunched my ears at the guitar-synth stylings on Tame the Tiger when I knew she could (and should) have played the whole thing on her trusty acoustic.
Through all these trials I have endured. I—like millions of you out there—am an unabashed Joni Mitchell fanatic. I like her in almost every setting—spare and accompanied only by piano on “River”; jazzed by Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker on a live “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”; pop music shiny on “Big Yellow Taxi”; or arty and obscure on the song cycle that is Hejira. She was one step ahead of everyone all through her career. When Judy Collins and Joan Baez were busy ruining the female folk-singer pose, Joni was already a highly personal singer-songwriter. When Jackson Browne and James Taylor were turning “singer-songwriter” into a Southern California cliché, Joni was already making records with jazzy accompaniment that went beyond the sincere. Then, when Steely Dan was turning its jazz-rock style into a perfectionist’s wet dream, Joni was collaborating with a genuine jazz genius in Charlie Mingus. Joni was hipper than you by a factor of 10, she could write hits (or not if she chose), and she had an octave-leaping voice from a mountaintop. I love Joni. I will always love Joni.
So how, then, do I judge the latest personal collection of her songs? Songs of a Prairie Girl was put together by Joni for the centennial celebration of Saskatchewan, Canada, her hometown. The songs were selected because they are “material that is either inspired by or is directly reflecting my childhood”, sez Ms. Mitchell. Lots of cold, that means. Lots of obliquely explained youthful reflection. Yeah, yeah—whatever. Thirteen Joni Mitchell songs, so how can you go wrong?
Mostly, you can’t. The fun of these compilations (this one follows 2004’s The Beginning of Survival, devoted to her later work, and Dreamland, a career retrospective in one disc that could barely scratch the surface) is considerable but fleeting. If you took all Joni’s work, put it on your iPod and then hit “shuffle”, well, you could make these albums yourself. They’d be pretty terrific albums. But are they anything more than a touch of the shuffle?
Not really. The childhood/geographic “theme” of Prairie Girl will be lost on you the moment you get caught up in Joni’s hypnotic voice. What remains beyond the original recordings is fairly thin. The sequencing of the tracks—no doubt carefully mulled by Mitchell herself—is random or even possibly vexing. The lack of chronology is not a problem per se, but it’s hard to get used to the abrupt changes of style and accompaniment as you move from track to track. The easy mid-career groove of “Song for Sharon” is sandwiched between a hopelessly overdone orchestral remix/expansion of “Paprika Plains” (from Mitchell’s brilliant but peculiar Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) and the spare “River” (from her everybody’s-favorite classic Blue). With no logic to fall back on, the collection simply seems random.
This disc contains two of Mitchell’s orchestra-based pieces. “Cherokee Louise”, from 2002’s Travelogue is a reasonable argument for the “late” Joni, as she reinterprets a song from the 1980s in a manner that plays to her deeper register and her jazzier phrasing. Just to hear more of Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone accompanying Joni makes this track worthy of inclusion. “Paprika Plains”, sitting smack in the middle of the album, however, is harder to swallow—the strings swelling to kill time over a harmonically obtuse and, mostly, uninteresting groove. This “remix” seems to wed Mitchell’s two most self-indulgent impulses—to record with a large orchestra and to noodle instrumentally like the jazz musicians she so admired (and who so admired her) over the years.
So, if this is not Joni Mitchell at her very best, who should consider picking up Prairie Girl? Mitchell completists will want the new “Paprika Plains”, though that’s a thin reed on which to hang a $15 purchase. Canadians will enjoy hearing Joni sing things like “Come in From the Cold” (the last track), reaffirming that Mitchell is indeed a Maple Leaf Gal. Young folk not yet hip to Joni might enjoy the shuffle-mix quality of this collection, but can I responsibly recommend it over a perfect original album like Court and Spark or over the two brilliant live albums (Miles of Aisles and Shadows and Light) that cover her greatest years as an artist? No way, man, no way.
The music on this collection demands a high “score” from a reviewer. But the collection itself has little purpose. With Joni retired from music completely—no more composing, no more recording, no more performing—these collections are all we’re going to get from here out. But, frankly, her 30-year career was more than enough. I love Joni Mitchell. There’s nothing she can do to tarnish her artistic legacy. But releasing nearly pointless collections like this one doesn’t burnish the legacy either.