The guest-packed Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm represents yet another left turn in Joni Mitchell’s fabled career. Following the release of 1985’s strident and terse Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell and co-producer/bassist Larry Klein return with a lush, sophisticated and elegant work which sounds fresh even today.
Part of the reason is Mitchell’s mastering technology in this outing, in contrast to Dog Eat Dog. Another factor is the album’s lyrical base is more varied than its predecessor. In short, Mitchell used more colors in this portrait than she used in Dog Eat Dog. Mitchell and Klein started the project in Peter Gabriel’s Bath, England studio and also engaged Gabriel’s drummer Manu Katché on many tracks. The resulting sound is warm and inviting.
In the lead off track “My Secret Place,” Mitchell’s guitar textures and subtle lyrics are the stars, but the intertwined vocals on Mitchell and Gabriel mesh perfectly. “Number One” revisits the materialistic theme touched on “Dog Eat Dog,” but with a subtly and beauty not reached before. Mitchell’s vocal layers are sublime and Cars vocalist Benjamin Orr (a protégé of Klein’s) sings along with the Mitchell choir. Co-written with Klein, who supplies the supported synthesizer backdrop, “Lakota” addresses the taking of native American lands in a telling and effective first person narrative.
“The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” gave Michael Landau an opportunity to play his tasty rock guitar next to Mitchell’s subtle electric and acoustics, while Wendy and Lisa from Prince’s band the Revolution sing background. The song is a detailed narrative of what is believed the be Mitchell’s mother’s story on finding a husband during World War II.
The next two songs feature notable vocal cameos with various levels of success: “Dancin’ Clown” features Billy Idol and Tom Petty yowling and mumbling over Mitchell’s rock track. The song would have best been served if Petty was cast in a different role — or not cast at all. “Cool Water,” a remake of an old cowboy-inspired song works more effectively. Klein and Mitchell’s keyboard arrangement fits perfectly with the theme of the song and Willie Nelson’s weary yet effective voice.
“The Beat of Black Wings” finds Mitchell telling a familiar story of the disillusionment of a young soldier. All effectively and vividly spelled out in 5 minutes. Don Henley returns in “Snakes and Ladders” for the duet he was promised years before on the Wild Things Run Fast album. Here, he is effectively typecast as the self-centered jerk husband. Mitchell and Klein employ samples and sound bites to bring “The Reoccurring Dream” alive; the final original composition of this project is fast paced, brief and touching. Chalk Mark ends, however, on a down note, as Joni Mitchell teams up with Wayne Shorter for a duet in the traditional tune “A Bird That Whistles (Corrina, Corrina).”
Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm, though it only peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard album charts, contains some of the best work from Mitchell’s Geffen Records phase.