Long before Frank Sinatra made his Duets album, Joni Mitchell cast a variety of name singers in prominent roles for the songs on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. Peter Gabriel sings with her on the leadoff track, "My Secret Place," and Don Henley is heard on "Lakota" and "Snakes and Ladders," Billy Idol and Tom Petty have roles in "Dancin' Clown," and Willie Nelson brings his dry phrasing to "Cool Water," while ex-Cars singer Benjamin Orr and ex-Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman also have backup parts. Mitchell uses the vocal firepower over spare tracks heavy on percussion (by Manu Katche) and programming to tell stories and comment on social issues. "Lakota" deals with Native American and environmental matters, "Cool Water" (a Mitchell rewrite of the Bob Nolan original) discusses water pollution, "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)" and "The Beat of Black Wings" tell war-related tales. But Mitchell's main theme, which encompasses those topics, concerns the evils of contemporary culture in which one struggles to be "Number One," rises and falls like a game of "Snakes and Ladders," and suffers "The Reoccurring Dream" brought on by advertising. Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm rarely makes these points personally enough to stir the listener, and the trendy percussion sound (popular with artists like Gabriel and Kate Bush in the '80s) is already beginning to sound dated. But the songwriting and Mitchell's voice remain impressive, especially when she recalls her past with a revised version of "Corrina, Corrina" at the end.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann