We received a postcard mailed by Ben Testa of Brooklyn, NY, stating simply, "Some of the early Joni Mitchell catalog titles have stickers on them. saving they're repackaged with original artwork. Are they worth buying, and are they remastered as well?"
The graphics and artwork have, indeed, been upgraded on Mitchell's first four CDs from the Reprise catalog: Joni Mitchell (as it's most commonly known), Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and Blue. (Following Blue, released in 1971, Mitchell jumped to David Geffen's new Asylum label.) But the sound quality has not been upgraded yet. That will probably be done next year, when another sticker will appear, informing consumers that both the artwork and sound quality have been upgraded.
But first things first. To find out about the new artwork, we contacted Robbie Cavolina, a freelance art director who works closely with Mitchell and who recently won a Grammy Award for designing her Turbulent Indigo CD. Regarding the new Reprise CDs, Cavolina tells ICE, "They are phenomenal packages. They're really elaborate, and look just like the original albums... I used all the same typefaces, and there's not one package that has any imagery left off. They're really exciting."
What was missing, we wondered, on the old CD of, say, Blue? "Everything was in there," Cavolina says. "It was just done really badly. On the back inlay card they just threw the type on, and really big. I have a real penchant for making them look just like they did as LPs. So now, the inlay card looks like the back of the LP. And we used all the original film, so the colors are vibrant.
"Ladies of the Canyon is a real triumph. I took all the original handwriting and placed it beautifully across five panels; it looks like the LP again. I also took the type off the cover, because it came out originally with no writing on the front, except for the Reprise logo, which I reinstated.
One important note to make, which isn't widely known: her first album is not called Joni Mitchell, it's Song to a Seagull, and it's correctly titled now. It's so nice to see these looking like they're supposed to."
We asked Cavolina about the possibility of new liner notes. 'There's nothing new," he says, 'because we wanted to respect the classic nature of those packages and not do anything except add a bar code."
There's no question, then, that the artwork on the new Reprise CDs was reworked with the utmost of integrity. The trouble for consumers is, the four discs still carry the original mastering of the mid-'80s. when CDs were routinely mastered from EQ'ed production master tapes, resulting in hissy, sub-par sound (by today's standards). What's worse, Mitchell's entire catalog is now in the process of being remastered with the popular new HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital), because Reprise is releasing new Joni Mitchell Hits and Misses anthologies in early October.
One closely involved industry source tells ICE, "I can't believe that they even considered putting out new packaging without remastering. They've gotta be nuts not to remaster those. I can't remember an instance where a CD package was improved without some kind of remastering being done. You're talking about titles that are still in the first generation of CD mastering, not even the second, and sound terrible. I'm sure they used a really bad [transfer device] from 1984 or '85, and the CDs would've been made from EQ'ed tape copies. Imagine what a great transfer of something like Blue is going to sound like."
Although remasters of the four Reprise albums are not scheduled yet. "It will definitely happen," label A&R Director Julie Larson tells ICE, "We're just not sure when." Bob Merlis, VP of corporate publicity for the label, stresses the "not sure when" part. "We restored the original art at the artist and her art director's request," Merlis tells ICE. "All you're getting is what we tell you you're getting: all original art. We didn't say anything else." Other sources suggest that the sonic upgrading may happen sooner rather than later, however, given Mitchell's resurgence in popularity, and the positive reaction that the sound quality of her Hits and Misses discs are bound to elicit.
Numerous phone calls to Mitchell's management went unreturned, so although this issue is largely unresolved, we felt that the story needed to run now so that consumers could decide if they wanted to plunk down $60 for upgraded artwork only.
On a more positive note, Mitchell's entire Elektra/Asylum catalog is also undergoing an artwork overhaul, but the sound is being upgraded with HDCD at the same time, and the new CDs will reflect both improvements when they start appearing on store shelves later this year. Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles will turn up first with identifying stickers; other titles will follow next year. The same team involved in the Reprise packages is also upgrading the Elektra catalog: Joe Gastwirt of Ocean View Digital on the sound, Robbie Cavolina on the packaging.
Miles of Aisles, especially, has a lot of room for improvement, because the existing CD is missing some of the between-song dialogue. which allowed it to be squeezed onto one CD. The new double-disc set will fully restore the original audio program and even reinstate the album cover that Mitchell wanted in the first place, but never got.
"David Geffen had just sold Asylum when the album came out," Cavolina relates. "Joni designed the cover and had given it to the art director, but she didn't like their proofs; the picture was supposed to be airbrushed to the drawing. They were supposed to sync up together. And she hand-wrote the type up in the comer for them to typeset, [not reproduce as is]. She didn't have anybody left on her team there, and they ran out of time....
"On the new one, I typeset the title up in the corner, and the picture is now airbrushed to the background. When she first told me that she wanted to change that one, I thought, 'You want to change a classic?' And she said, 'No, I'm telling you, it's going to be so much better.' And it is; it's really beautiful."