JONI MITCHELL Travelogue (Nonesuch)

travelogue.jpg (19220 bytes)This double CD is the very definition of a labour of love: "Travelogue" contains orchestral reinterpretations of 22 selections from Joni Mitchell's 35 year career, immaculately recontextualised by her husband Larry Klein. The packaging, too, is fabulous, the album arriving in a slipcase that houses a small hardback book containing the discs and copious examples of Joni's own artwork and also a more conventional booklet of lyrics. All of which would count for nothing if the accompanying music wasn't worth listening, and, although "Travelogue"'s two hour-plus duration might seem initially daunting - after all, you could be watching a film instead! - the results support Kieslowski's assertion that film is the poor cousin of music when it comes to the economical articulation of emotion.

The music of "Travelogue" takes the form of elaborately staged and orchestrated snapshots from a career, a seamless confluence of jazz, classical and folk strains. The songs are some distance from what most enthusiasts of her work might view as a representative selection: never knowingly courting the easy option, she opens the album with "Otis And Marlena", originally to be found on the underappreciated "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter", a record of tricky, complex pieces that failed probably because it had the misfortune to be caught in the vapour trails of "Hejira", perhaps the definitive Joni Mitchell album, against which all arguments of genre melt away. And, for that reason, it's probably no coincidence that "Hejira" donates as many songs to "Travelogue" as any other of her albums.

By the time we reach the third track, "You Dream Flat Tires", the ensemble have cooked up the biggest of big band jazz. Vibrant, fluent and bouncy, laced with some salty, saucy Hammond work, it really swings. But then again, look at the boys in the band - apart from the aforementioned Klein himself, they include Herbie Hancock, one-time sixth Beatle Billy Preston and Wayne Shorter, so what would you expect?

"Love" is languid and luxuriant, based on text relocated from Corinthians, whilst the version of "Woodstock" presented here reminds me of John Williams' loose, fuzzy, low octane orchestral jazz rock interpretation of the song. Turning on a dime, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" becomes a dramatic, widescreen extravaganza based on a poem by W B Yeats. "For The Roses" and "Trouble Child" (surprisingly, being the album that first marked the gradual absorption of jazz into her music, "Court And Spark" is only mined for two songs here, "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" not plundered at all) are sensuous and slinky, the long orchestral coda of the former seemingly mocking the singer's vanity.

A mention, too, for Larry Klein's almost uniformly wonderful arrangements, which, admirably, can make an entire orchestra swing and shake like a small jazz combo - not in the curiously reductive way that caused Frank Zappa to once remark, on attending a heavily orchestrated Van Morrison recording session, that "It sounded like a single harpsichord", but sparsely and deftly deployed. You might wonder why these songs, many of which started life bolstered by little more than an acoustic guitar or piano, might require such elaborate finery: think of it as the fur-lined, diamond-studded payback for years on the coffee house circuit, those endless "dark caf days". (Slightly ironic, then, that the only song to come unstuck here is "The Last Time I Saw Richard", in its original form possibly the most perfectly realised Joni Mitchell composition I know.)

Disc two moves quickly from the slyly mischievous "Just Like This Train" to the big, brassy, blaring threat of "Sex Kills", the soundtrack to a society in the grip of some kind of glamorous but unstoppable breakdown. "Refuge Of The Roads" is exquisite, retaining the delicate poise and balance of its earlier sibling but treading with a little more caution. "Hejira" has some kind of easy, unstressed motive power beating beneath it, and the perfectly pitched nostalgia of "Chinese Caf/Unchained Melody" lands on just the right side of sentimentality. The heart-tugging tale of child abuse, "Cherokee Louise", reveals itself slowly and carefully, and the closing "The Circle Game" is so stately it verges on the processional.

Despite my initial misgivings concerning the length and gravity of the project, I'm delighted to report that "Travelogue" is an almost total success, not only refreshing some wonderful songs but also bringing to light some that, in my ignorance of pretty much all of Ms Mitchell's discography post "Shadows And Light", I had unfairly ignored. If you enjoy Joni Mitchell's music, the album presents it in its most mature context yet, without the kind of dull-but-worthy deadening that might imply - "Travelogue" is anything but high-class muzak.

JONI MITCHELL Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen)

Joni Mitchell's first studio work of the 1980s is a confused and confusing beast. It has a smattering of great moments, all of which returned in more agreeably furbished form on 2002's exemplary "Travelogue" orchestral retrospective. The inspired mlange of "Chinese Caf Unchained Melody" sounds unforced and relaxed, despite the brittle edge the unpleasant excesses of contemporary production lend to this version - it seems as if everybody in the band attempts to burden the simple melody with as much Weather Report-style fusion as it can withstand whenever Joni's back is turned. The title track is equally battered and bruised by Steve Lukather's squealing AOR guitar and Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta's heavy-handed tub thumping. Nevertheless, the lines "Winter beat the pines about/He heard the heater cutting in and out/While she dreamed away" are, for me, some of the most economically evocative the lady has written.

Much of the album is stalked by this kind of unease and inconsistency. "Ladies Man" and "Man To Man" attempt to invoke the spirit of earlier triumphs such as "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns", but not even coptering in Lionel Richie or James Taylor respectively for backing vocal duty can help them sound anything other lumpen and malformed. "Solid Love" is hampered by incongruous, half-hearted reggae stylings, and the nostalgic cover of "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" is brutally trampled underfoot by the band in general and Colaiuta in particular, who appears to be operating under the mistaken belief that he's auditioning for the Muppet Show house band.

Of the remaining emigrants that would later find safe harbour on "Travelogue", "Be Cool" is least tarnished by the production, but "You Dream Flat Tires" swings far more with a full orchestra behind it than on the guitar/bass/drum treatment it receives here. Equally "Love", with lyrics bravely sourced from Corinthians, veers rather closer to the "sounding brass and tinkling cymbals" of which she sings than might be felt absolutely necessary.

All this stylistic conflict makes "Wild Things Run Fast" sound awkward and unfinished over two decades later. That there are some fine songs here is never in doubt; that there are far better ways to hear them is, sadly, just as apparent.