Court and Spark Joni Mitchell Asylum 7E-1001
Say the name Joni Mitchell to one of her true admirers, and you are met with a reaction bordering on worship. She has served as a guiding star for innumerable girls wrestling with the joys and pains of growing up, and the sweetness of her music is apt to draw a wistful half-smile from her male fans.
Sensitive lyrics combine with a sparkling simplicity that shine through the complexity of her melodies. Her songs were created to be a one-on-one listening experience, and it takes work to listen to her. For those who do, the benefits are rich.
Her highly personal style has kept her confined to a relatively stabilized audience - either you like Joni Mitchell or you don't, and there is very little middle ground. Those who do like her often see her as a near goddess. Those who don't find her soothing but monotonous - good music to fall asleep by, as several of my friends put it.
With Court and Spark, Ms. Mitchell has broken with this tradition, and has veered into unexplored regions. She has acquired a competent set of backup musicians and added some punch to her music, while keeping her poetic touch. There isn't any dreck hiding under the new sound, contrary to what I at first suspected.
Now, I do not count myself among the Joni Mitchell freaks. I did not grow up listening to her, and it was not all that long ago that I'd put her on with Dust Bug in one hand and glass of warm milk in the other. But I've been developing a definite taste for her music in recent months, and that taste has been given a substantial push by the release of Court and Spark.
She has created a beautiful album of consistently high quality. It takes several listenings to a) reorient yourself to or b) familiarize yourself with her changed style, and it is well to reserve judgment accordingly.
After the first hearing I thought, "Nice, but just where is it going?" But as time wore on it began to grow on me quite a bit. I found myself taking to it much more easily than her earlier work.
For the most part the music is light, jazzy rock, combining catchiness with the potential to explore more than a 4-4 rhythm and a sharply defined verse-chorus. Most of her songs flow smoothly along in a rich texture of instruments and voices, although several melancholy piano peeces [sic] are reminiscent of her earlier material.
The first side begins with one such song - "Court and Spark" - followed by a sprightly "Help Me." As is her custom, she thinks she's falling in love again. But the convincing treatment of the line "didn't it feel good?" makes you wonder who really needs the help.
"Free Man in Paris" features David Crosby and Graham Nash on some excellent background harmonies, with Ms. Mitchell's voice reaching its usual heights. The side is rounded out by a skillfully connected "People's Parties" and "Same Situation."
Held together by a leisurely acoustic guitar and gentle melody, the first song of the two paints a sensitive picture of people's parties, as seen from the outside looking in.
The song slide gracefully into "Same Situation," a haunting, passionate piece with Ms. Mitchell accompanying herself on piano. It alternately soars with hope and falls back into questioning despair at the futility of love. Somehow, the lyrics manager [sic] to verge on both the crystal and the trite in the space of one short verse:
"Still I send up my prayer
Wondering where it had to go
With heaven full of astronauts
And the Lord on death row
While the millions of lost and lonely ones
Call out and clamor to be found
Caught in their struggle for higher position
And their search for love that sticks around."
The second side, although not as quite as strong as the first, continues in the same general vein. It is highlighted by "Raised on Robbery," an AM boogie with the Band's Robbie Robertson snapping out some fine work on electric guitar.
Ms. Mitchell has lost something of her uniquely personal style in this attempt to break out of her mold. But she has brought a solid sense of craftsmanship along with her turn toward commericality [sic] - so something's been gained, too. What emerges is an eminently playable album full of music with class. At one point, she defiantly sings
"Everybody's in it for their own game
You can't please them all."
She managed to please at least one.
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