Saturday, September 5, 2015

In the Wake of Joni (Part Two): Wendy McNeill’s One Colour More, Rickie Lee Jones’s The Other Side of Desire and Eleni Mandell’s Dark Lights Up

Last week I started a review of new releases by women who I think have been influenced by Joni Mitchell. This week three more titles from women who, like Joni, pursue their muse with creative enthusiasm and fearlessness. All three albums were released this year.

Wendy McNeill is from Calgary, Alberta, currently living in Sweden. She’s one of the freshest songwriters and performers in Canadian music today. And, like most “over-night success stories, she’s been working at her craft since 1997. Her latest release One Colour More (Hidden Pop) is an eclectic delight to the ears that was first released in Europe. The move to Sweden has paid off because the album is a blend of dream pop, cabaret and folk tunes wonderfully fused together. The adventuresome record reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s music because McNeill isn't interested in just one sound: Each song has its own pallet. This record floats with Italian flare on “In Bocca al Lupa” (into the wolf's mouth) then quickly settles down with a Parisian ballad, “Owl and Boy,” a funny tale about matchmakers. McNeill’s songs are imaginative stories that have a certain mystic charm, as heard on “Papusza and the Crows.”

In the liner notes McNeill has listed a number of source ideas for her songs including the works of American writer Annie Proulx and the Polish-Romani poet Bronislawa Wajs. She’s also cited several historical legends going back to the late 1800s, in particular The Doukhobors who migrated to Canada in 1899 by the thousands. Taking the point of view of a parent, McNeill weaves the tale of that migration with great design on “When the Strangest Weeds Take Hold.” Her song “September” is a little more straight-ahead in its repetitive guitar line as McNeill remembers, “the time before we thought we knew better.” The album closes with the beautifully delicate “Wide the Wonder, Wild the Hunger.” This is an album made without compromise featuring a style she describes as “Prairie Gothic.” Wendy McNeill has perfected the sound of intimacy and imagination in her music that I believe, best reflects the Mitchell influence by bringing you into her world, warts and all.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Rickie Lee Jones moved around a lot in her youth. By the time she was 18 her family had resided in Arizona and Washington State ending up in Huntington Beach California. But her new album was recorded in New Orleans, LA that is now home after Jones left the “cold” of Los Angeles to find a more humane and friendly community where people are respected. As she said in an interview with Shad on CBC Radio, “I identified with a collective of people who won't give up.” (

Another turning point that affected her song writing was the death of her friend Robin Williams, when she recognized the value of life and decided to refocus her creativity to writing “a joyful noise; a happy song and fighting at that darkness that gnaws at people.” The time has been well spent on her superb album, The Other Side of Desire (Tosod) that was released in June. The record is also a musical reflection of a thriving city. One obvious example is “J’ai Connais Pas” done in a Fats Domino style. Jones fits into the music nicely with bit of camp in her delivery. This is a woman with attitude in her voice without being ostentatious. For me Joni Mitchell's appeal as a vocalist, especially in her later recordings, was how confident she sounds. It’s the same for Rickie Lee Jones. Her performance on the slow burn “Haunted” is outstanding as she shapes every note and feels the meaning of every word she sings. Other highlights include “Infinity,” “Feet On The Ground” and “Christmas in New Orleans.”

Inspired by the American songwriter Roger Miller, Eleni Mandell, from Los Angeles, has released a first-rate collection of songs that are the perfect antidote to the fast-paced 21st Century. Her album Dark Lights Up (Yep Roc) opens with the whimsical “I'm Old Fashioned” as Mandell sings about walking to the post office to mail a letter and talking to her friends on “the telephone plugged into the wall.” It’s a song about the face-to-face experience some people find old fashioned in 2015. The album is full of irreverence for the socially limiting technology of the new generation. But Mandell isn’t waxing nostalgic or lamenting a past; she’s finding absurdity in it all because to her life’s too short to take things seriously. On the subject of love, it too can be hard to catch in the new century. As she sings in the bridge to “Someone to Love Like You,” “some people can, some people can’t and some never stop trying.” Mandell has a lot of charm in her voice but it’s a bit of a trick because the songs all have a sense melancholy underneath the presentation. In other words, Mandell, like Roger Miller, can easily juxtapose a sad song under a major key as she does on “Town Called Heartache.” It’s a beautiful lyric with some mighty fine turns of phrase, a quality that distinguishes the songs of Joni Mitchell and Roger Miller. Highlights include “Old Lady,” “Baby Don't Call” and “Cold Snap.”

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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