Beyond Playlist: Joni Mitchell and More

Joni Mitchell Shine (Hear Music)

Mitchell is revered for her early work -- but the sad truth is, her last undeniably brilliant album was Hejira, which came out in 1976, and although her subsequent platters continued to display her intelligence and instrumental skill, they seemed to grow increasingly heavy-handed and dreary with each passing release. Despite being her first studio recording in nine years, Shine continues this trend. Musically, Mitchell draws too heavily on the sort of watery, late-‘70s-style jazz-fusion that even a lot of the performers who made it probably regret at this point, and her lyrics hector more often than they inspire. Take “Strong and Wrong,” whose worthy anti-war theme is undermined by teeth-grinding broadsides: “You lose everything/Without the heart you need/To hear a robin sing/Where have all the songbirds gone?/Gone!” The CD’s title cut, though among the more melodically beguiling offerings here, suffers from the same malady. Her appeal for a light to shine on “our Frankenstein technologies” and “lousy leadership licensed to kill” is considerably less resonate than the beam she hopes will fall upon “a hopeful girl/In a dreamy dress.” Mitchell remains a serious artist worthy of attention, but she’s infinitely less interesting when she spends too much of her time scolding the populace rather than writing good songs. -- Michael Roberts

Ticklah Vs. Axelrod Ticklah Vs. Axelrod (Easy Star Records)

Judging by the music on Ticklah Vs. Axelrod, the disc’s title assertion is wholly false: Far from being at war with himself, Victor Axelrod, who performs as Ticklah, seems to have found a very peaceful music place. Granted, he’s an eclectic fellow – an original member of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (and a sideman on some Amy Winehouse recordings), he’s currently part of Antibalas, a Brooklyn collective that specializes in Afrobeat. But the production here is of a piece, with Axelrod employing deep and heady dub techniques that are as trippy as they are imaginative. Most of the material is reggae-based, with the skittering beat and echoey horns that drive “Scratch to Win” and the eerie chirping and croaking that turn up on “Nature Loving Dub” among the standout effects. Yet the production approach also works on tangents such as the Latin-flavored “Mi Sonsito” and “Si Hecho Palante,” both featuring the sprightly vocals of Mayra Vega. Instead of fighting against his own instincts, Axelrod finds musical common ground. -- Roberts

Holly George-Warren (Foreword by Richard Hell) Punk 365 (Abrams)

No doubt about it: This hefty tome is rife with contradictions. After all, punk’s earliest practitioners railed against any form of music or culture that might be celebrated in a tony coffee-table book just like this one. But readers and music fans able to turn off their irony detectors for extended periods of time will find much to enjoy here. The 365 photos, which begin with a 1970 shot of a shirtless Iggy Pop and conclude with a DGeneration snap from 1992, spotlight the casual and the iconic, blending images of the expected figures (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones) with early influences (Lou Reed, the New York Dolls), colorful oddballs (Wayne/Jayne County, Rodney Bingenheimer) and more. As a bonus, writer Holly George-Warren, an early Rolling Stone contributor, provides lucid commentary that puts acts in pop-historical perspective. So enjoy Punk 365, and then castigate yourself for selling out. That’s the punk thing to do. -- Roberts

She Wants Revenge This Is Forever (Perfect Kiss/Flawless/Geffen)

Yeah, yeah, nothing’s original, everything’s been done before, blah, blah, blah. But would it be too hard for She Wants Revenge’s Justin Warfield and Adam Bravin to at least try to create songs that feel a little different from the classic gloom rock they’re ripping off? Seriously, “Written in Blood” has a stereotypical title, lyrics that put the usual images to their typical purposes, and music that constitutes blatant genre plagiarism. Is that really the best they can do? Answer: yes. -- Roberts

Sonny Rollins The Sound of Sonny – Keepnews Collection (Riverside)

The Keepnews Collection, a reissue series named for the late Orrin Keepnews, among jazz’s greatest producers, rolls on, and the five most recent releases are uniformly excellent. Clark Terry’s Serenade to a Bus Seat, from 1957, focuses upon a fine player who influenced Miles Davis, among others; 1959’s At Town Hall places Thelonious Monk in a large ensemble setting; George Russell’s Ezz-Thetics, issued in 1961, is one of the finest recordings by the enigmatic pianist and theoretician; and 1979’s Horizon is an unexpectedly strong effort by McCoy Tyner. My favorite, though, is The Sound of Sonny, in which saxophone colossus Rollins provides a master class in covering standards. “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” is hardly the most epochal entry in the American songbook, yet Rollins and a peerless crew that includes bassist Percy Heath and drummer Roy Haynes, turn it into a joyous bop exercise – and they work similar wonders with Kern-Hammerstein’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and more. Oh yeah: “Cutie,” a Rollins original, is brilliant, too. Betcha that somewhere, Keepnews is smiling. -- Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts