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About: “Free Radicals of Innovation DVD”

“...Newhart's Free Radicals should be a prerequisite for any... university program.”
—Shari Downhill, All-around Renaissance Woman




Joni Mitchell's first album of new songs in nine years finds her mourning the sad state of the planet, but with a newfound acceptance that all things have their place in the universe (“bad dreams are good in the great plan,“ as she puts it here, quoting her young grandson) -- including her own anger and disappointment. Despite the numerous Robinson Jeffers-like call-outs of money/corruption/greed/rage/war and the incivility of humankind, the album does not end up being disheartening, but the opposite. Her voice -- husky with age and chain-smoked American Spirits -- shines with a warrior's strength and defiance even in ragged armor, like Billie Holiday's late recordings. And most wonderfully, Joni is still pushing her music into vital new territory, foregoing the synthesizer-guitar textures of “Taming the Tiger“ for piano, horns, percussion, and other warmly organic voices.

She boldly opens the album with an instrumental, which struck me as an ungenerous move on first hearing, but in the context of the rest of the album makes perfect sense on Joni's terms, which are the only terms on which she makes records, bless her. (Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young -- her true peers -- also specialized in weirding out listeners who expected more-of-the-same with each new record.) Every song gets a distinctive orchestration of its own, from the percolating “Hana“ -- a portrait of an old movie heroine, an Irish bodhisattva disguised as a traveling maid, who had “a special knack for getting people back on the right track“ -- to a playful reprise of “Big Yellow Taxi“ rescored like French circus music. “This Place“ has particularly sleek and engaging sound, blending lap steel, warm horns, and bright keyboards, with its reference to a neighbor in rural British Columbia who says, “When I get to heaven, if it is not like this, I'll just hop a cloud and I'm coming back down here...“

My favorite track on the album is the final one, “If,“ which advances the sinuous groove of “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire“ and “Don't Interrupt the Sorrow“ and other milestones into new realms. The lyric is paraphrased from a Rudyard Kipling poem, but Joni wrote the most stunning verse:

If you can fill the journey

of a minute

with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight

then the Earth is yours

and Everything that's in it

but more than that

I know

You'll be alright

You'll be alright.

Fittingly, the title track “Shine“ is the purest expression of the essence of this album. After reciting a litany of offenses against the spirit, she insists that the proper response is to “shine your little light“ into every corner of your life. It's not polyannic New Agey jive, but more like the alchemy of heavy global lead into spiritual gold: with this song, Joni even transcends her own identity as an angry Cassandra issuing dire warnings to a culture that doesn't want to listen. She's no stranger to Buddhist subtexts in her work -- “Refuge of the Roads“ on Hejira was, among other things, a tribute to the vajrayana master Chogyam Trungpa, and “Taming the Tiger“ was an allusion to Tibetan meditation practices for quelling the ego's rages. In “Shine,“ the Buddhist analogue would be Dzogchen, the Great Perfection -- the recognition that everything is just right as it is, even the things that insult the ego and bruise the heart.

We're lucky to be alive on the same dying planet that she is.

Review by: Stephen Silberman “writer, Wired Magazine“ (SF, CA USA)

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