Joni Mitchell - beloved of music writers and the cognoscenti for over five decades now - has never done it for me, for some reason that I cannot convincingly explain, other than that I have always had a problem with her quavering, high-pitched voice.
I have long been familiar with the quirkily appealing Big Yellow Taxi and the iconic country-hippy rock anthem Woodstock and I have loved Nazareth’s cover of This Flight Tonight since 1973. Joni herself, however, never made it to my student bedsit. Now is finally the time to stream a whole shedload of her albums, however. I have dabbled with Carole King and Carly Simon so this doyenne of singer-songwriters is surely worth some attention, if only to see what Mojo magazine's writers and other music bloggers love so much. I will, therefore, dip into her most critically-acclaimed albums with an open mind, and will see what I hear. So many aficionados of hers can’t be wrong. I have a strong feeling that they won’t be. I won't cover them in a detailed, track by track fashion, though, more with comparatively short overviews. It is not a labour of love (like reviewing David Bowie or Roxy Music) but one of interest.
Incidentally, Joni loved a lyric about “stockings”, “fishnets” and “nylons”, didn’t she? I have listened to four albums today and must have heard at least five references to them. She doesn’t seem the stockings or fishnets type - more a thick black tights or flowing floral dress girl.
Anyway, enough of that - give me spots on apples but leave me the birds and the bees...
Song To A Seagull (1968)
Joni Mitchell's David Crosby-produced debut was quiet, coffee-house acoustic and peaceful, featuring songs with an attractive mix of late sixties hippy-ish lyrics together with tender characterisations and observations. It is packed full of atmosphere and potential and shouldn't be written off a "just the debut album that no-one bothers about much". It is pretty deep and meaningful for 1968. Yes, some of the lyrics are a bit naive and earnest, but Mitchell was comparatively young when she wrote them, so that would be expected. The lovely Sisotowbell Lane stands as a beautiful example of the superb embryonic songcraft on display here as does the equally charming Michael From Mountains and The Dawntreader too. Charming - that's a good description for this amiable album.
This was a very acoustic, folky album that was also quite beautiful. There are some seriously appealing songs on here - Chelsea Morning, Both Sides Now, Tin Angel, That Song About the Midway and I Don't Know here I Stand are particular standouts. Admittedly, the ambience doesn't change much throughout the album - it is solid 1969-style acoustic folky balladry from beginning to end, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, if you are in that sort of mood. There is always a place for reflective, thoughtful and sensitive albums like this. I must make reference to the marvellously atmospheric and airy Chelsea Morning, which is another of Joni's songs that I have been familiar with for a long time and I really like it, as I do the excellent covers of it by both Fairport Convention and Neil Diamond.
Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)
This was a sort of precursor to Blue in that it is largely acoustic guitar and piano backed, but it is far less emotionally desperate, lyrically, although it is still deep and thoughtful. The album has its disarming fun moments in the ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi and the sound-alike Conversation and then there is Joni's haunting version of Woodstock (her own song, of course) which remains supremely evocative too. (Big Yellow Taxi is completely unrepresentative of Joni's work overall, it must be said). Morning Morgantown is also peacefully lovely, For Free is very Neil Young-ish and there is nothing on here that is impossible to like - it is all good. It is a peaceful, early summer morning album. Check out the folkiness of The Priest as well, it could almost be Fairport Convention. The Circle Game is also an excellent song.
I am sure this was voted “the best album of all time” in some poll or other - Rolling Stone or somewhere. Well, I’m not so sure about that. It is a bleak, somewhat lo-fi acoustic album made of songs detailing Mitchell’s break-up with Graham Nash and problems with David Crosby. It is her “divorce-split-up” album, her Blood On The Tracks - where she lays her soul bare, moaning and agonising about multiple issues. She had a fine address book, didn't she? Nash, Crosby, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Jaco Pastorius among others. No wonder she got a bit mixed-up.
Unsurprisingly, there is nothing remotely “good-time” about the album - no relief anywhere and, for that reason (among others), it would not seem to be an album to return to too often. It is too emotionally fraught and also musically quite cold and stark, although I appreciate the pure feelings of many of the lyrics. Personally, though, I much prefer Joni with a full backing band sound, and a jazziness too, as can be found on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Court And Spark. I have to say that I love the sheer blueness of the cover (I like colour-coded album covers, where the colours suit the work’s themes). Obviously she wrote This Flight Tonight, and it is a great song, but Nazareth’s version knocks spots off it. Other highlights are the moving Little Green (about a child she put up for adoption), the winsome, orchestrated Carey, the evocative River, California and the chunkiest number on the album (comparatively) in A Case Of You, written about Leonard Cohen, apparently.
For The Roses (1972)
Things liven up a little (well only slightly) on this more melodic and playful offering (again, only at times) although it is still essentially Joni as singer-songwriter accompanying herself. She does let the full band in, though, on several occasions - the upbeat highlight being the catchy and slightly Dylanesque You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio and also half way through Blonde In The Bleachers, when drums and saxophone suddenly kick in. Barandgrill is a fine song too, as is the plaintive Let The Wind Carry Me. I can’t help but carry a torch for Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire’s vague funkiness. Don't get me wrong - this is still a largely serious, contemplative album and one that sees Joni getting stuck into environmental and human rights issues in places as opposed to personal ones. I like this album a lot, and it is one that has remained somewhat overlooked. I much prefer it to Blue, which will horrify many, no doubt.
Court And Spark (1974)
This is where Joni gets jazzy, to an extent, and it is very much to my taste. It is something that would be utilised even more on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but it is definitely creeping in here. After the minimalism of Blue, I find it a huge relief to hear some other backing other than acoustic guitar or sparse piano. The result is an attractive mix of Mitchell’s typically meaningful balladry with CSNY-style country rock and light jazz grooves. I can also hear an influence on Joan Armatrading floating around here, and also on some of the folk rock ballads of Steeleye Span. I am sure that many probably wouldn’t notice this bit that is what I hear in it. The emotional pull of Blue has not gone, but there is a smoother, more cohesive feel about proceedings here that gives it more appeal to me. There are still plenty of angsty love songs present, but here they are delivered in a warm, almost Bacharach style with soft brass backing, occasional electric guitar and drums. I just find it all more accessible than Blue.
Highlights are the delicious Free Man In Paris, the subtly bassy People's Parties, the sumptuous Trouble Child, the Georgie Fame-esque Twisted and the upbeat and catchy but also easy-going Car On A Hill. To be honest the whole album is reassuringly pleasant. Oh, and she rocks on Raised On Robbery too. Incidentally, Bob Dylan is said to have fallen asleep when Joni played him the album.
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)
This is a really good album. I am a fan of Mitchell when she uses a full band backing, and we get it here, albeit mostly understated, although she rocks out a bit on the excellent In France They Kiss On Main Street and goes tribal on the surprising African-drum groove of The Jungle Line, that has Joni sounding like early Roxy Music meeting Adam & The Ants. You get some warm, subtle bass lines on here and some peaceful, seductive numbers like The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow. The former track features some lovely brass and keyboard work. For me, her lyrics are given life by the backing, whereas on, say, Blue and Ladies Of The Canyon, they can come across as more harsh and stark. This is just the way her music relates itself to me.
I love the light, slow jazziness of The Boho Dance - really good stuff, great lyrics, great sound. The same applies to the solid jazz grind of Harry’s House - Centerpiece. The whole album is a real grower, full of hidden depths, cadences, lyrics and a subtle cleverness of conception that makes it one of her best albums, for me. I’m just annoyed that it has taken me so long to let it into my life.
This was where Mitchell got more blatantly jazzy in influence - the album is dominated by jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius's rubbery, fretless bass. She replaced rock musicians with more jazz-oriented ones and the result is a far more laid-back, relaxing, chilled-out album. It is - perhaps almost stereotypically - the product of a road trip Mitchell took with a couple of blokes - one of whom became her lover (or maybe both of them did, man, who knows). Several of the songs are inspired by her thoughts generated along the way. Typically seventies, wasn't it? The sound of the album is timeless, fitting into no musical trends or genres. This along with the previous two and the next one, form the group of Mitchell albums that I like the best.
Coyote is loose and easy in its acoustic and bass jazzy way and check out Jaco Pastorius's lovely bass and harmonica on the gentle Furry Sings the Blues. A Strange Boy is lyrically beguiling and musically mysterious too. Hejira features some fine jazzy clarinet. Song For Sharon is beautifully laid-back too. Black Crow's urgent guitar strummings are as close as she gets to rocking here. It is pretty much cool, airy, thoughtful stuff all the way.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)
This was a somewhat sprawling, very experimental acquired taste of a double album here - made so to a great extent by the side long and actually quite tedious indulgence (only in places, I might add) of Paprika Blues, which is probably eight or so minutes too long, at sixteen of them. I love the superb rock drums and clarinet bit fourteen minutes in though! The music largely continues in the same vein as its predecessor, although the emphasis is more on noodly, improvised jazz stylings and rhythmic innovations than before. Jaco Pastorius is still on bass, however, which is never a bad thing. Overall I prefer the more concise, cohesive vibe of Hejira, but I have to concede that there are several hidden depths to be found within this album's detailed tapestries that demand repeated listens.
Otis and Marlena is an intriguing track, as is Talk To Me, and Joni's musicians dabble in African rhythms on the intoxicating The Tenth World - a track that can't really be credited to Mitchell - and also on the excellent Aboriginal-inspired Dreamland (that features Chaka Khan on vocals). Paul Simon must have been influenced by this, surely? Even Joni's phrasing and vocal delivery sounds like him. The vaguely Dylan and Van Morrison-esque stream of consciousness Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a fine track too, as is the gently seductive Off Night Backstreet, with its sumptuous bass line. Overall, the jazzy expressiveness that would be given free rein on Mingus, two years later, began here, for sure. It is probably worth saying that this album was released at the height of punk. A more incongruous offering you couldn't hope to hear - but it is a thoroughly intriguing one.
A slightly bizarre coupling sees the always keen on jazz Joni get in the studio with jazz legend Charles Mingus for six freestyle jazz numbers punctuated by short interjections of Mingus's aged growling about this and that. It makes for a bit of an uncohesive listen, but despite finding it pretty much unlistenable on first listen it grew on me quite a lot, especially the lively fun of the Dry Cleaner From Des Moines and Joni's take on Mingus's classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. A Chair In The Sky is subtly seductive and The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey is beguilingly bizarre. The supremely talented Jaco Pastorius’ beautifully rubbery bass playing is top-notch throughout. Check it out on a good sound system - it’s awesome.
Beware - some of it grates a bit, but give it a chance and its status as a unique creation of experimental avant-garde music will start to shine through. This came out at the height of punk-new wave, remember. A very brave move.
Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
Three years after her avant-garde jazz experimentation, Joni Mitchell was back with what many have considered to be her "rock album". It is to a certain extent - as tracks like the riffy Wild Things Run Fast and an almost punky cover of (You're so Square) Baby I Don't Care prove. It is certainly odd to hear big guitar and drum backing on a Joni Mitchell album, that is for certain.
However, the old beguiling lyricism is still there and some nice, laid-back songs are also present, many containing a Court And Spark-style jazziness. The mix of Chinese Café and Unchained Melody is lovely and Ladies Man is equally impressive. Some winsome clarinet punctuates parts of the album and the whole things is eminently listenable and really enjoyable. I much prefer this, along with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (and several others if I'm honest) to her widely-regarded best album, Blue. It is a fine album that suits my taste perfectly. If that doesn't tally with most critics' views then so be it.
Dog Eat Dog (1985)
Well, it was 1985 after all. What did artists do in that period? Exactly - they put out albums dominated by synthesisers and programmed drums - The Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Dylan, Genesis, Paul McCartney did it, along with many others I am amazed that Joni Mitchell did too, however. She too became infected, big time. Why oh why? Listen to Good Friends and Fiction as Joni goes all stadium rock with synthy drums, power riffs and echoey male soulful backing vocals. The same applies to Tax Free. Joni now sounds like Pat Benatar, Jennifer Rush or occasionally Chrissie Hynde. Even the cover has her looking like Cyndi Lauper (if indeed it is her). Dog Eat Dog harks back to earlier times but is couched in full-on eighties backing. I can't help but like the infectious Shiny Toys too, as I also do the beguiling Ethiopia. Impossible Dreamer is probably the album's best track, though.
I guess many long-time Mitchell fans will be appalled by this and I completely understand why, but, taken in context it is actually (surprisingly) an album that I can listen to, albeit while simultaneously acknowledging its inherent weaknesses. It is a purists' nightmare.