Joni Mitchell

The Complete Geffen Recordings

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For starters, hunters should not get their hopes up about any unreleased material on this box set -- there are exactly three cuts, two are unfinished demo versions of songs already on their respective albums -- "Two Grey Rooms" and "Good Friends" -- as well as an unreleased cover version of Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." But that's fine, just fine. The bottom line is that these records haven't been available in some time due to the profound folly of the accountants who run the Geffen imprint who wouldn't know art if it were hanging in their living rooms. The box is stunning, gorgeous even in its earth-tone glory with a brilliant inset photograph by former husband and producer Larry Klein. There are poignant photos, the albums in their original sleeves, a completely searing unapologetic set of liner notes from Mitchell, reproductions of paintings, and more. Mitchell's comments, which introduce many of the songs here, are priceless. These and the liner notes are almost worth the price of the box. The only design problem seems to be that the booklet falls apart a bit from its stitching, but that's not really a big deal.

However, there is the music to contend with. When Mitchell entered the '80s with Wild Things Run Fast, her first studio album of the decade coming off the Mingus and the transcendent Shadows And Light tour. Lyrically, Mitchell met the challenge head on, and musically, she did as she always did: followed her own Muse deeper into the realms of jazz and classic American pop. She collaborated with Larry Klein for the first time -- as she has ever since -- and began using small core bands with Klein's bass as an anchor and numerous guests including Wayne Shorter, Lionel Ritchie, Brenda Russell, Alex Acuña; even Grasshopper from Mercury Rev made an appearance on Night Ride Home. On this box it becomes obvious that Wild Things Run Fast set a template for four very different, yet linked, recordings. With its jazzy edges and its liberal use of early rock and roll and classic R&B (at one point in "Chinese Laundry" Mitchell does a very moving rendition of "Unchained Melody," and at another covers Leiber and Stoller's "You're So Square").

Critics were downright hostile to Dog Eat Dog, from the cover on in to the music. Given its dark meditations on the era, it's use of Thomas Dolby and technology, it flew in the face of '80s-styled simple, shiny rock, and took to task both the rampant materialism of the age, and its complete abandonment of human concerns for commerce and cultural iconography. It also laughed at the forced simplicity of popular music at the time with a rampant sophistication and cool. Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, with its Native American themes and mystical jazz tropes, is simply a brilliant recording that was received with kindness, and even some understanding by critics, but it sold miserably even though its guests reflected a who's who of the MTV era: Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Don Henley, Tom Petty, and Wendy and Lisa (from Prince's band). Night Ride Home garnered decent reviews as well; it featured a stripped down, more acoustic sound, and is one of the most lyrically brilliant and ambitious of Mitchell's many albums. Here was a long reflection on endings, dark ambiguities, and the willingness to stay inside a place that offers no certainty in order to live one's way into an answer. Tracks like "The Windfall," "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," "Cherokee Louise," and "Come In From The Cold," offer a vision of steadfastness in dark and wavering trials of the soul. Her version of Dylan's "Baby Blue" here is a real bonus; it's a revelatory reading of a monolithic song. Revealing her to still be full of the trickster's promise and the visionary's unwavering gaze into the future, this is a box set worthy of Mitchell's contribution.

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