Sunday, August 30, 2015

In The Wake of Joni (Part One): Iris Dement's The Trackless Woods, Melody Gardot's Currency of Man and Laura Marling's Short Movie

Joni Mitchell (Photographed as part of the Saint Laurent's Music Project)
Last month I was celebrating a friend’s birthday with some fine wine, good company and a lot of music. At the time, Joni Mitchell was in the news having recently lost her voice after collapsing into a coma at home. My friend and I shared some worry over our favourite singer; an artist “we grew up with” all those years ago. The party lingered until we put Court & Spark on our stereo set to honour and celebrate Joni’s beautiful voice. As I said to my friend, who is three weeks older than I am, what can you say about a songwriter who believes that “there’s comfort in melancholy” as she sings on Hejira one of the most prized albums in our collections. I understand that Mitchell is doing much better having suffered an aneurysm that took her to hospital. She’s at home and she’s slowly recovering.

News of Joni’s improving health got me to thinking about some of the women who could be considered disciples or in her creative shadow. Since I’ve completed the principle writing of my book on Frank Zappa, I’ve been able to take the time to listen to some new recordings and revisit some older releases from earlier this year. I have six records all written and performed by women who have found their individual voices without compromise; free to express themselves, they each carry that special “something” that seems to hold that Joni Mitchell temperament.

In lieu of writing new songs from scratch, Iris DeMent was given a book of poetry that according to her was ready for music. That collection was by Russian author, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and the result is the beautifully unadorned album The Trackless Woods (FariElla). DeMent recorded the album in her house in Iowa City and it sounds like you're in the room with her and her band quietly enjoying the solitude and intimate feel of the music and the words. For DeMent it was an easy process: “It was just like somebody said ‘set that to music,’ so I did” and in a short time she had adapted Akhmatova's poetry to music. In fact, the whole album was recorded in less than a week because according to DeMent “it felt like we were doing a really good thing.” She's right. This is DeMent's sixth album and she sounds completely in touch with the meaning of the words even though she didn’t write them. Consequently what we have here is an artist unafraid of giving voice to Akhmatova who died in 1966. The Russian poet lived through decades of oppression under Stalin who imprisoned many of her friends and family for not conforming to the new Soviet lifestyle. Nevertheless, she continued to write and was eventually published in English around 1955. The record is also a tribute to DeMent's intuitive musical technique. She fuses her love of Gospel and Southern Folk music on these poems creating some gorgeous harmonies and tasteful chord changes. Often the sincerity and sensitivity in her voice is overwhelming, but never overbearing. Highlights on The Trackless Woods include “Not With Deserters”, “Reject The Burden” and “The Souls of All My Dears.”

Nothing like reinvention to kick-start a faltering career, not that Melody Gardot was faltering, far from it, actually. After her debut, the Philadelphia vocalist who once shared the stage with the late Charlie Haden singing jazz standards, hooked up with Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's ex and long time co-producer of Mitchell's records during the eighties. In 2009, Klein produced Gardot’s second album My One and Only Thrill (Verve) to wide acclaim. In her concert set Gardot has covered Joni Mitchell's “Blue Hotel Room” and “Edith and the King Pin” in the recent past. For me Gardot's recordings of jazz standards never quite fit. To my ear, her voice and phrasing technique seemed ill suited to the standard repertoire. Currency Of Man (Decca), Gardot's fourth album, is nothing like her previous work. This is a record soaked in an R&B, bass-heavy pastiche. Larry Klein produced the album. Suddenly Gardot has found the music, songs and her own voice on a brilliant blend of Gospel, Soul and urban funk with a nod to the sound of her hometown. Currency Of Man is a record with a conscience as personified on “Preacherman” about the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Last Friday marked the 60th anniversary of Till’s death. Gardot’s song is a heartfelt lament for “a good man” who has left a “world where we all belong.” That song, like all of the tracks on the album, gets under your skin and unnerves you. You feel the pain along with Gardot on this record as she reflects on the humanity around her. There’s not a dud included as Klein and Gardot, who composed most of the tracks, offer up some of the finest songs I've heard this year. Highlights include “Morning Sun,” “Don't Misunderstand” and “Don't Talk,” but tucked inside the more urban tracks is the Billie Holiday inspired composition, “If Ever I Recall Your Face,” with Gardot backed by an orchestra. A fine video for “Preacherman” was released in July.

As I first reported back in April, Laura Marling's Short Movie (Ribbon) is one of the best records of the year. Upon repeated listening, the occasionally quiet, personal, introspective songs all chart a young life in transition yet with enough self-awareness as to make the journey enriching and enlightening. Marling turned 25 years-of-age when the album was released in March. Its closest cousin is Mitchell's Blue, as Marling reflects on past relationships exposing the cold hard truth of what they mean to her. If Marling seems intentionally ambiguous about relationships it's not true. Each song offers her a chance at redemption, finding real love and its flip side, going it alone and being happy. What we get on Short Movie is the careful consideration of life from a woman's point of view. Every song is well crafted. Highlights include "Easy," "Walk Alone," and the sarcastic "Strange" about a failed relationship with a married man. Like life itself, we never really know what's around the corner. For Marling, that's a journey worth taking in spite of the risks, as she sings on the beautifully rendered “How Can I.” Since its release the album peaked at No. 148 on Billboard 200, but did much better on the magazine’s Independent chart, reaching No. 17.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment