The genius of Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, musical geniusJoni Mitchell rode to popularity during the folk music revival of the 1960s, but this musical genius grew far beyond the confines of that genre in the ensuing decades. Even today, in a song like “If I Had a Heart” from Shine, her music retains roots in the strophic structure that characterizes folk music: instead of “verse / chorus,” there is a series of verses ending with the same lyric. A good example of this pattern is “Amelia” from Hejira, where the hook that ends each verse is “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” (Sometimes, as in “If I Had a Heart” or “Court and Spark,” Joni adds a contrasting bridge section.) Continue reading →

The genius of Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello, musical geniusMore so than most artists, Meshell Ndegeocello continually re-invents herself and her music through her distinct genius. Her albums defy easy categorization but have embraced neo-soul, spoken word, rap, space funk, jazz, folk and punk. Like her provocative lyrics, the stylistic shifts in her music challenge us. If there is one characteristic that captures her artistic vision, it is “change.” Most of her songs have a foundation in R&B song structure, where the music of the chorus is fundamentally the same as the verse but is heightened by layering rhythmic, instrumental and melodic elements. She often likes to shake things up, however. It is not uncommon to encounter shifts into a new meter, rhythm or key in her songs, especially toward the end. She’s not afraid to let these new sections have the final say, either. By the end of the song we’ve arrived somewhere new, and there’s no turning back. Continue reading →

The genius of Tori Amos

Tori Amos, musical geniusThis is the first in a series about contemporary artists who have achieved greatness with a body of high-quality work that spans a decade or more. In my opinion, these are some of the best creative musicians in our culture, worthy of what the Japanese would call “living national treasures.” I’ve chosen Tori Amos because of the power of her artistic vision and the interesting ways in which she breaks the rules of pop song format. Starting with her first solo CD, Little Earthquakes, she uses unorthodox arrangements that often focus on the piano with minimal accompaniment. In “Crucify,” the drum part is largely just kick drum and, in the chorus, a low tom that evokes a relentless hammering. In the verses of “Precious Things,” the underlying rhythmic element is not even percussion but what sounds like eighth-note bursts of breath, perhaps inspired by the opening line “so I ran faster.” Continue reading →