Here is Joni Mitchell. A penny-yellow blonde with a vanilla voice. Influenced, or appearing influenced by Judy Collins, gingham, leather, lace, Producer David Crosby (the ex-Byrd), Robert Herrick, North Battleford (Saskatchewan), New York (New York), Gordon Lightfoot, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Chuck, seagulls, dolphins, Dairy Queen floats, the Lovin' Spoonful, rain, sunlight, garbage, metermaids and herself.
Last month she was in Ann Arbor, singing to sell-out crowds at Canterbury House. Now her first album, Song to a Seagull, is out on the Reprise label. It is an impressive debut, one of the year's most important folk albums (the others, so far, being Dylan's John Wesley Harding and The Songs of Leonard Cohen). (If you have a thing about labeling these records "folk", just say they're the three most important new albums you'll find on the "FOLK MUSIC" rack at J.L. Hudson's.)
Start with the Beatles. Just as Dylan taught a generation of minstrels where to plug in, the Beatles gave them a Sgt. Pepper trip complete with codas and cadenzas, sitars and steam calliopes. Add "Penny Lane" baroque riffs and "Yesterday - Eleanor Rigby" strings and you have folk music where Lennon and McCartney have taken it.
Their message reached even such traditionalists as Judy Collins. Having discovered that Marat-Sade sounds best with lots of orchestration, Judy then recorded an entire album of (Wildflowers) steeped in Joshua Rifkin's Baroque Muzak - Baroque Muzak par excellence, perhaps, but nevertheless, Baroque Muzak. Wildflowers, though it appears a comedown after the immense range of In My Life, is higher on the charts than any previous Judy Collins album has been (and success, they say, is where it's at).
Meanwhile, Joan Baez and Buffy Ste. Marie have joined the retreat from simple acoustic arrangements. They use the orchestrations of Peter Schickele, who is a genius (the Brian Wilson of baroque-folk). Phil Ochs weaves inventively among baroque and ragtime backings on his latest album, Pleasures of the Harbor. The new Ian and Sylvia fare less well with an insistent drummer (may he break an arm). M.G.M. has remastered old cuts to create Hank Williams With Strings (Who's next? Leadbelly?). And Tom Rush has a new release with strings and saxophones and, on one cut, a vocal group that sounds like the Lennon Sisters. His album is redeemed from mediocrity mainly by the bare worth of the material, including fourteen minutes of Joni Mitchell songs. Which brings us back to Joni.
Joni Mitchell has recorded an album without orchestration. She plays acoustic guitar. Her only side-man is Stephen Stills (of the Buffalo Springfield) on one number ("Night in the City") because, she says, "he came up with a beautiful bass line that I just couldn't deny." Her main studio trick is to dub in her voice a second time as a choral answer on certain songs (especially good in stereo).
"If I'd recorded a year ago," as Joni tells it, "I would have used lots of orchestration. No one would have let me put out an acoustic album. They would have said it's like having a whole paintbox and using only brown. But today is a better time to be recording. It's like in fashion. There's no real style now. You find who you are and you dress accordingly. In music today I feel I can put down my songs with an acoustic guitar and forget the violins and not feel that I need them."
Joni has let her songs find out who they are and has dressed them accordingly. As a result, instead of following others' directions she has started on her own. If you ignore this album because you have enough old acoustic Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bonnie Dobson records, you'll be like someone ignoring spring because he's seen it once before.
Joni Mitchell has recorded an accessible, uncluttered album. She makes it easy for you to groove on the lyrics and the melodies and meanings and textures of her clear gentle voice and where she is taking you and where she has been.
Consider first her words. Miss Mitchell is a lyrical kitchen poet. Her mind works the way you want people's minds to work.
"Michael brings you to a park
He sings and it's dark
When the clouds come by
Yellow slickers up on swings
Like puppets on strings
Hanging in the sky..."
Joni Mitchell is Leonard Cohen's Suzanne: she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. She teaches you what you already know.
"She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defenses
For she fears that one will ask her
As she's so busy being free."
With Leonard Cohen, even if you can figure your way into one of his songs, you know you'll never find your way out. With Dylan, just when you think you're with him he does something you can't understand and nobody seems to be able to help much. Joni Mitchell is different. She leaps from image to image but seldom does she leave you hanging. Occasionally her lyrics lose relevance and become frosting without any cake, but even then, she's like a sand-dune: you like the very idea of her.
Joni's tunes are surprising. You don't go whistling them down the street right away because you don't learn them so easily. Her notes do not flow into each other naturally; they are put there as the song is constructed. At their least, her tunes provide a specific setting for her words. At their best, as in the lilting chorus to "Night in the City," the gentle verses to "Marcie" or the yet unrecorded "Go Tell the Drummer-man [sic]," her melodies, like her words, become both rare and accessible. Eventually, you do learn to whistle them.
She sings her tunes with a voice that ought to be heard rather than described. You can be told that her voice is full without being heavy, buoyant without being fluffy, but that doesn't tell you much more than you knew before you started reading this sentence. No matter. Her voice will be around for a while. You'll hear it.
While the aforementioned "Night in the City" is probably the overall best number on the album, "The Pirate of Penance" is the most revolutionary. In it, with shifting speeds and inflections, two voices simultaneously sing what they know about the disappeared sailor (pirate) and a little about each other (shades of Lucy and Polly in the Three Penny Opera). "Michael from Mountains," "Song to a Seagull," and "Cactus Tree" are also notable cuts.
First albums, like first novels, may be autobiographical. This one tells a personal story. Joni begins joyous in the city "with places to come from and places to go," starts to feel trapped as "another man reached out his hand/another hand reached out for more," and ends up on the seashore feeling new freedoms and new entrapments. It's a well-told tale. But enough said. Buy the album. Even if you somehow decide you don't like the songs, the artwork on the cover is worth owning.
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