As a young jazz connoisseur, an affection for the music of Charles Mingus drew me to Mingus, Joni Mitchell’s late-’70s collaboration with the late bassist. Cassandra Wilson’s recent reworking of Mitchell’s “Black Crow” again brought the singer/songwriter to my attention. Once more, it had taken an intermediary to spark my interest in a Mitchell work, in this case her latest, Turbulent Indigo.
This recurring segue from jazz to folk is a significant one. As the postmodern age moves toward a sort of musical Esperanto, the commonality of disparate musics becomes harder and harder to discount. The emotions of today’s youth, for instance, are most often accompanied by rap’s requisite drum machine and elevated anger quotient. Yet Mitchell, though perhaps rightfully considered the quintessential folkie, has much in common with young singer/songwriters like Ben Harper and Dionne Farris, whose folk-derived lyrical sensibilities are bridging the gap between past and present.
Mitchell’s subject matter is unabashedly contemporary. “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song),” a requiem for the Old Testament figure whose faith in God survives repeated calamities, is ultimately about coping with adversity. This is a recurring theme on Indigo, where adversity is manifested by everything from spousal abuse to sexual exploitation to religious hypocrisy. Of course, Mitchell’s sociological observations are not accompanied by a barrage of urban beats. On Indigo‘s title track, her verse is backed by a gentle blend of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, and sparingly graced by Wayne Shorter’s saxophone accompaniment. Rather than being repelled by the heat, the listener is drawn into the fire.
Indeed, much of Indigo‘s sardonic verse is coiled beneath folklike arrangements. On both “Last Chance Lost” and “The Magdalene Laundries,” duets with bassist and co-producer Larry Klein, elegant instrumentation tempers harsh lyrics. In the former song, lovers unbottle their rage and kill each other: “The hero cannot make the change, the shrew will not be tamed/They bicker on the shooting rifle range, love takes aim.” The latter, which bemoans life inside a Catholic home for unwed mothers, venomously characterizes the home’s sisters as “bloodless brides of Jesus” who would “leech the light out of a room.” Elsewhere, as on “How Do You Stop,” Indigo‘s most lavish arrangement (the track features three guitars, bass, drums, and organ, as well as Seal’s backing vocals), Mitchell offers verse that is less didactic, but broader in application: “Hard bodies, soft emotions, so fast, so smart/The world is at your feet, but what about your heart?”
Singer/poet/guitarist Ben Harper merges folk and rap’s penchant for broad social protest with a concern for the problems and experiences of the individual that is typical of the blues. On his debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, Harper addresses personal concerns more effectively than he does global ones.
On “Walk Away,” the 25-year-old’s raspy falsetto (imagine the solemn graininess of a Marianne Faithfull crossed with Prince’s euphoric flights) conveys classic blues sentiments, drawing from what seems like an endless well of sorrow and despair. To pair “oh no” and “here comes the sun again” seems incongruous until it becomes clear that Harper is describing the despair of beginning the day without a former lover. What’s amazing is that such a sad sounding song, with an acoustic guitar its sole instrumentation, comes across so hopeful. “Pleasure and Pain” expresses similar sentiments, but its arrangement is more lush. The track features drums, uillean pipes, and cello, as well as Harper on Weissenborn, a rare hollow-body, hollow-neck, fretless lap-slide guitar. The instrument’s rich tonalities are employed most effectively on the title song, where its trills and warbles flavor Harper’s playing with haunting echo effects.
Harper’s attempts at overt social protest are less successful. The uninspired chorus and monotonous backbeat of “Like a King,” a song dedicated to Rodney King, do little to offset the fact that the track is hopelessly trite. Harper’s efforts at social activism are somewhat redeemed on “I’ll Rise,” an anthemic rereading of Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise.” Here, Maya’s resilient lyrics, “You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lies/You may trod me down in the very dirt/And still like the dust I’ll rise,” are orchestrated for lone piano and backing vocals, giving the song the spiritual feel of a Sunday morning church service.
Thankfully, not everything on Welcome is so serious. The recording’s most laid-back track is “Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now,” an infectious, accordion-propelled bayou jaunt about a woman who leaves her beer-drinking, football-watching husband for another woman. To the song’s obsolete man, the world is a cruel, cruel place indeed.
Dionne Farris’ is a pop voice that’s anything but plain and simple. On her solo debut, Wild Seed—Wild Flower, her singing often conjures up images of white-clad African women and men wailing in jubilant frenzy on the banks of some Gullah isle. Yet Farris maintains the authentic quality that eludes overpowering vocalists like Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle.
Her voice provided the familiar chorus (“Won’t you help me understand?”) to Arrested Development’s 1992 hit “Tennessee.” There were rumors of creative differences within the group even then, but Farris was the only member to leave. Her “11th Hour” is a musical peace offering to the band that recognizes the good times (“Songs were sung and laughter filled the air”) as well as the bad (“We found ourselves up in arms more often than most”). The song’s tempo is upbeat and confident, with Farris’ voice skipping gleefully across a bed of syncopated bells, synthesizer notes, and organ fills. Even its chorus of “la-la’s” doesn’t sound forced.
Farris’ compositional flair is best revealed when she steers clear of familiar stylistic references (the endearing ballad “Food for Thought,” with its orchestrated synthesizer bed and megaphoned vocals, owes much to Prince, while “Human,” which showcases Farris’ overdubbed vocals, sounds like Sweet Honey in the Rock, only sweeter). The innovative “Find Your Way” is introduced by a twice-repeated two-note figure; harmonica ushers in the rhythmic break over a thick, syncopated bass pattern. Farris delivers the song’s restless, searching verses—“Live your life, love yourself, know that everything has just begun/Time slips ever fast, instantly becoming the past”—while a choir of Farrises provides the song’s chorus. The solo and ensemble vocals play hopscotch, each constantly shifting from background to foreground. “Now or Later” opens ethereally, with wordless voicings over a skittering acoustic guitar. JuJu House’s big drums introduce Farris’ lyrics—these seem downright banal when read aloud but, as is so often in pop music, it’s the hook that lingers, and Farris has crafted a bewitching one.
“Don’t Ever Touch Me (Again)” is Wild Seed‘s lone “ism” piece. The song, which addresses sexual abuse, begins boldly, the ensemble entering full-bodied on the heels of Farris’ first exhaled word, “She.” The track’s lyrics explore the feelings that can follow rape, beginning with self-blame (“Faulting her actions for all that occurred”) and concluding with defiance (“All she knows is she’s not going to let it happen again”). The singer’s “she” alternates with “her” and “me” throughout the song, making it unclear whether Farris’ tale is personal or anonymous.
A few of Wild Seed‘s drawbacks are worth mentioning. Most conspicuous is the fact that no real sense of flow is established from song to song. Too many tracks open with thoughtful introductions only to conclude with annoying fadeouts, a tendency that exacerbates the disc’s choppy quality. And the decision to include two comedic skits featuring In Living Color‘s David Allen Grier re-enacting elements of his “blues guitar player” routine is questionable. As is the case with much comedy, hearing these bits once is enough. But these are minor quibbles, especially when you consider the alternative—that the development of an original solo artist like Farris might have remained arrested indefinitely.