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Court and Spark Revisited   Print

by Michael Fremer
Analog Planet
November 1, 2010

Joni Mitchell's move to jazz on this 1974 game changer upset her hippie contingent, who wished she'd remained a "lady of the canyon," and it didn't exactly thrill fans who considered themselves jazz aficionados either - not with the likes of "jazz-lite" guys like Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton involved.

Joni Mitchell's move to jazz on this 1974 game changer upset her hippie contingent, who wished she'd remained a "lady of the canyon," and it didn't exactly thrill fans who considered themselves jazz aficionados either - not with the likes of "jazz-lite" guys like Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton involved.

Yet in retrospect, they were the right talent for the job and their work here was superb, helping to move Mitchell in a new direction without taking her too far from familiar musical territory. Helping the firm footing were friends Graham Nash, David Crosby (who had produced here debut album) and Robbie Robertson among others.

Mitchell's mature subject matter - the tensions between yearning for traditional domesticity and having a successful career (in her case "stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song") demanded a more intense musical dynamic that the rhythmic freedom of the "smooth jazz" arrangements provided.

All of these elements on this pivotal album, not to mention a string of memorable and mostly very personal songs help explain its enduring value and modernity 36 years after it was first released. It sounds as fresh today as it did all those years ago.

Mitchell was moving fast in her life, and in circles filled with people moving at an equally fast clip. The title tune and "Help Me" both defined Mitchell's dilemma, while "Free Man in Paris" chronicles her exhilarating escape from a pressure-filled life most of us couldn't imagine produced any kind of trap from which one might need extrication. Is the "he" referenced at the beginning of the song David Geffen? That's been surmised by many since 1974.

"People's Parties" eye-witnesses a dread everyone has felt being eyed by others but Mitchell's willingness to express it and admitting to "...living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind" is both surprising and daring given her exalted position in pop stardom at the time when her fans imagined nothing else but that she was riding high and the life of the party.

The vulnerability expressed and the sense of being examined and judged ratchets up considerably in "The Same Situation" as Mitchell wishes release "caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love..."

Side two opens with more exasperation and insecurity with "Car on a Hill" as the singer waits anxiously for her boyfriend who is three hours late. "He's a real good talker...and makes friends easily."

Who hasn't been there? Or looking back at a regrettable one night stand as Mitchell does in "Down to You." "Just Like This Train" produces liberation in the thought that "jealous lovin'll make you crazy" so "...with no one to give your love to," perhaps it's best to just settle back and dream of a committed relationship.

The album shifts musical and lyrical gears for the exuberant and mischievous "Raised on Robbery" before returning to a repressed "Trouble Child" "breaking like the waves at Malibu." If you have the DCC Compact Classics Reissue, have you ever noticed the typo "Still you know how yourneed it?"

The album ends with Mitchell's cover of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's "Twisted," with hipster lyrics by the great Annie Ross. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong's little interlude adds to the cheekiness. Mitchell's playful performance and her crisp phrasing hint that she's going to head this way again.

So how does Rhino's new reissue cut from the master tape by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering compare to what's come before? I compared it to an original white label promo Asylum, the Nautilus half-speed mastered version cut by Jack Hunt at the JVC Cutting center and the DCC Compact Classics edition mastered by Steve Hoffman, probably cut by Kevin Gray.

The original, cut by Bernie Grundman at A&M Mastering, which he ran for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss on the A&M lot that once was Charlie Chaplin studios and where I visited often when I lived in L.A. (not work related-a girlfriend worked there) is clearly the standard against which to measure the others.

The tape was fresh, Bernie ran a meticulous shop and probably was being directed by his friend Henry Lewy who engineered the album, probably at A&M studios. By the way, there is tape over-saturation on "Car on a Hill" and it can be heard on every pressing at a peak in one of Mitchell's multi-voiced interludes so it's not your cartridge mistracking!

The original is open and spacious with a slightly strident vocal sound that must driven early digital converters crazy. I bet the original CD would have scorched your eardrums. I never heard it. Overall, the original sounds really fine. The instrumental textures are well-captured, not surprising given Grundman's background in jazz. The only criticism I have of the original is that it's bass-light.

The vinyl and pressing quality at that point were not great so the residual background noise is relatively high compared to what we get now on well-pressed reissues.

The Nautilus is even brighter than the original and has a hollowness about it that's not exactly pleasant. Surprisingly, the sibilants aren't as clean as on the original. Clean high frequencies are supposed to be one of the advantages of cutting at half speed, so I don't know what happened there.

The DCC Compact Classics is really interesting in retrospect. Hoffman's version is a definite revision. At the risk of upsetting the fanbase, it's clear the Steve did some major EQ to warm up the lower midbass and give the production some bass weight. At the same time he appears to have pushed the presence region up just a tad to give it some sheen. The result is rich instrumental timbres, a coherent and clean bass line and a very pleasant overall tonal picture, though I think Mitchell's voice sounds a bit muffled compared to the original and to Chris Bellman's recent cut.

I did these comparisons using a very revealing and extended Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge as well as the Ortofon A90 using a variety of phono preamps, both tubed and solid state. There were very different presentations of course, but the variables did not shift the ultimate sonic conclusion.

I think the new Rhino pressed at RTI is by far the best version of this album yet. If it sounds too bright for you, don't blame the record. The bottom end is strong without creeping up into the midbass, the transient details are spectacular, with clean and natural percussion and when you hear the rim hits on "Twisted" you'll recognize reality. Bellman delivers the picture with a vital three-dimensionality none of the others come close to providing.

If you love this record you will not regret investing in this superb reissue, which is packaged with equal care and is faithful to the original, complete with the embossed lettering and well-reproduced cover art, though the paper stock is a paler yellow.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why no one has done a reissue of Mitchell's For the Roses, which I think is an even better album and on the original white label Asylum release, sonic masterpiece. That was when the label was distributed by Atlantic so the record was probably cut by George Piros.

 

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