Music

Joni Mitchell: Songs of a Prairie Girl

Will Layman

The third personal compilation of Joni's Songs to be released in the last year, this disc features songs about or inspired by her Canadian childhood. There's almost nothing new here, though Joni's old songs are enough to make you smile. But if you already own this stuff, don't bother. If you don't have it, this is not the ideal collection. So, like -- what's the point?"


Joni Mitchell

Songs of a Prairie Girl

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2005-04-26
UK Release Date: 2005-05-09
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Books

'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.

Music

Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.

Reviews

DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.

Film

On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.

Music

Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.

Music

Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.

Music

100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.

Television

What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Interviews

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.