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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Joni Mitchell, ‘Love Has Many Faces’ [8-LP Box Set] Print-ready version

by Sam Stone
Second Disc
December 11, 2018

It's coming on Christmas... and just in time for the holidays, Rhino has treated Joni Mitchell fans with a new, 8-LP box set, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced. Previously released in a 4-CD configuration in 2014, this Joni Mitchell-curated collection finds the celebrated songwriter, singer, and visual artist exploring the many contexts and definitions of love. The result is a 53-song, four-act suite that craftily presents some of Joni's best work in a compelling sequence, including 20 songs that are brand-new to vinyl.

Love Has Many Faces rose from the ashes of two abandoned projects, a proposed career-spanning two-disc anthology and a planned dance collaboration with The Alberta Ballet, led by Jean Grand-Maitre. Mitchell had collaborated with The Alberta Ballet for her 2008 production, The Fiddle and The Drum which explored themes of war, greed, and corruption. In 2014, the ballet Love Has Many Faces was announced but the production wasn't meant to be, as Joni found it difficult to synthesize all she wanted to say about love into a one-hour time constraint.

"I wanted the music to feel like a total work," she writes in the Grammy-winning liner notes for Love Has Many Faces. "A new work. No matter what I did, though, at that length, it remained merely a collection of songs." It's at this point that the visual side of Mitchell took over. After all, she always maintained she was a painter first and a musician second. "I had forty years of footage to review," she wrote. Freed from the time requirement, she found that "scenes began to hook up. Then series began to form. Instead of it being an emotional roller coaster ride as it was before-crammed into one disc-themes began to develop. Moods sustained. I was getting there... When this long editorial process (two years) finally came to rest, I had four ballets or a four-act ballet-a quartet. I also had a box set."

The box set is now presented in a deluxe, 8-LP set that is limited to only 5,000 units. It's housed in a luxurious hardback folio that includes the discs and Joni's introductory essay which won a Grammy Award in 2014. The 180-gram discs are separated into pairs, as each act is spread across three sides of the two discs. Etchings of her artwork appear on four individual sides of vinyl marking the end of each act.

Though some may balk at the presence of music-less sides, it's clear that the sequencing and presentation of the complete work was important to Joni. In sequencing these 53 songs, she took great care to build small story arcs, create themes for characters, and build logical musical segues between songs from disparate eras of her career. The result is a compelling sequence that often presents a song by 25-year-old Joni next to a song by 55-year-old Joni, each representing different characters or tonalities. And while it's sometimes hard to visualize the story without the aid of choreographed dancers, the set maintains its thematic structure nonetheless.

Act One is titled "Birth of Rock and Roll Days." It kicks off with the '50s-rock-inspired "In France They Kiss On Main Street" from 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, followed by "Ray's Dad's Cadillac" from 1991, then the classic "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio." Right off the bat, she builds an atmosphere firmly planted in a youthful spirit. "Rock and roll in the dashboards," "kissing under bridges, kissing in cars, kissing in cafes." The youthful sense of adventure continues with the 1998 album cut, "Harlem in Havana," one of 20 songs making their vinyl debut on Love Has Many Faces. The song features saxophone by Wayne Shorter, one of Mitchell's treasured collaborators, plus Joni's synth guitar orchestra with which she blends many different instrumental sounds and textures to complement her memories of sneaking off to revel in forbidden jazz and perhaps even see a racy burlesque show. On vinyl, the song finally has the chance to breathe and the separation between the layers of "guitar orchestra" afford greater depth and clarity to the track.

After a detour into the classic "Car On a Hill," an oddball duet with Billy Idol and Tom Petty entitled "Dancin' Clown," the career-defining "River," and the mid-career highlight "Chinese Cafe," Joni shifts gears to comment on the descent of love into greed ("Harry's House/Centerpiece" and "Shades of Scarlett Conquering"), as well as the love of money ("The Windfall [Everything For Nothing]"), and the love of perceived success ("Number One"). The act closes with a beckoning back into love, with the single edit of 1991's "Come in From the Cold." While the 7″ edit appeared on vinyl during the early '90s, this marks the first time it's been released on a long-playing vinyl collection.

Act Two is called "The Light is Hard To Find." As Joni writes in the liner notes, "Act 2 is dark. It leads us into the perversion and the corruption of these times, until the wise little housekeeper, Hana lights the lamp. A healing begins. Humanity returns. The heart opens. The ability to love becomes a possibility."

This act again marries classics like "Court and Spark" with new arrivals on vinyl such as "Not To Blame," featuring remarkable slide guitar work from Greg Leisz, and her brassy 2000 interpretation of the jazz standard "Comes Love." In a clever sequencing choice, Joni chose to place the laid-back but rhythmic "Nothing Can Be Done" (featuring David Baerwald on guest vocal) next to "Comes Love." While the songs are musically dissimilar, it's their shared refrain, "nothing can be done," that unites them. This sort of editing and intercutting has long been a practice in her songs, too. The aforementioned "Harry's House/Centerpiece" interpolates a jazz classic by Harry "Sweets" Edison and Jon Hendricks into her original song about malaise of domesticity. "Tax Free," from her challenging 1985 album Dog Eat Dog and a highlight of Act Two, employs similar techniques. The synthesizer-based lament on the blending of church and state features Rod Steiger re-enacting a Jimmy Swaggart sermon which is intercut with Mitchell's verses to provide further commentary.

Act Two also includes several songs that are new to vinyl, from "Hana," off Mitchell's 2007 album Shine, to 1998's "Stay In Touch." The highlight of the act, however, is the 2002 recasting of her classic "Hejira" from the album Travelogue. That album found Joni revisiting and reinterpreting her older work. Featuring a superb orchestral arrangement by Vince Mendoza brought to life by the London Philharmonic, the retelling features a more buoyant tempo that recalls her off the cuff jam version from a 1987 session with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Bobby McFerrin. Mitchell revisits the tune with slightly different phrasing and lyrical choices and a voice that bears the mark of the experience and wisdom needed to pull off the song. Meanwhile, the hopeful "Stay In Touch" is another track that features Joni's guitar synthesizer orchestra, plus a beautiful trumpet accompaniment by Mark Isham. (In the credits for the original album, Taming The Tiger, the horn work is erroneously credited to Wayne Shorter. The credits were corrected in Love Has Many Faces.)

Act Three is what Joni refers to as "the smitten act." It's here that Joni's songs of more-or-less infatuation abound. Though mingling with those professions of affection are tracks like "All I Want," and "Just Like This Train," which question or reject the notions of courtship. No song does this more than "Borderline," originally from 1994's Turbulent Indigo. While its lyrics can apply broadly to many situations in which dividing lines pull people apart, in Love Has Many Faces the song signals a change of heart in the context of a relationship. It's the point where, as Joni puts it, "imperfections corrode the harmony." When Love Has Many Faces was prepared for CD in 2014, Joni elected to remix the song, adding in an emotive trumpet part by Ambrose Akinmusire. That version of the song "Borderline" is exclusive to Love Has Many Faces and makes its vinyl debut on this set.

The final act is entitled "If You Want Me, I'll Be In the Bar." The songs in this act look more broadly at love, "love of land, love of water," before addressing love's side-effects such as "wanderlust, obsession, frustration." The rollicking and verbose, Latin-infused "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" kicks off the act, featuring an array of percussion, plus Eagles album cover artist Boyd Elder playing the role of the split-tongue spirit. "Two Grey Rooms" follows. It's an expressive ballad that took nearly a decade to complete.

Joni explains that she had recorded an instrumental track called "Speechless" with longtime engineer Henry Lewy. She laid down a wordless vocal melody which she intended to find words for. It wasn't until years later that she found a story that fit the melody. A tale of unrequited love and obsession, the song tells the story of a German aristocrat who "had a lover in his youth who he never got over. He lost contact with him for many years. Then, somehow, he rediscovered him... The aristocrat left his fancy digs and rented two grey rooms... From this shabby perch, he was able to watch the object of his obsession going to and coming back from work." The orchestral score by Jeremy Lubbock sounds astounding on this pressing, as does the dynamic vocal layerings on "Down To You," the clarity of James Taylor's guitar on "A Case of You," and the grandeur of Joni's monumental 2000 retelling of "Both Sides Now."

But aside from sounding great, this collection is a testament to the art of curation. It's clear that Joni spent ample time sequencing these 53 songs, paying attention to keys, tempos, lyrical similarities, and musical tonalities to do something more than present a collection of great songs. As such, it demonstrates her lasting impact on music in an interesting and compelling way.

The set also shows off her range of styles and her penchant for risk-taking over her four-decade career. Joni has never settled into a certain music type. Though often erroneously labeled as another in a cadre of hippie chicks with a guitar, Joni explored a greater breadth of musical territory than might be evident on her first few recordings. She wasn't one to fall into the industry trap of making her first album five times then retiring. Instead she and her trusty musical co-conspirators, including recording engineer, Henry Lewy, pushed boundaries and traversed genres.

Amid all this musical restlessness, Joni found the perfect collaborators to accompany her. In some regards, that's another side of love that the collection celebrates: the love for music and for creative equals. While the mutual admiration between musicians is evident in the grooves, it's in the Grammy-winning liner notes that Joni's appreciation is really clear. Here, Joni weaves stories about the creation of many of the songs on the set and details the contributions of all the talented people with whom she surrounded herself. Each story is richly detailed thanks to her photographic memory, to the point where even hardcore fans will learn something new. While some may be mildly frustrated by the smattering of typos that are held over from the 2014 CD edition's notes, the content of her stories makes up for any hurried inaccuracies that appear within. The 32-page book also includes lyrics to all 53 songs and a detailed personnel listing for every track.

On the music front, it's worth repeating these discs are sonically stellar. Featuring the 2014 remasters from the CD set, the vinyl pressings are flat and dead-quiet. Bernie Grundman cut the discs and the results sound superb. Newer, electronic-based tracks like "No Apologies" and "Hana" seem to sound more open. Classic tracks have a greater sense of depth and clarity, while the new-to-vinyl orchestral tracks from Both Sides Now and Travelogue astound in their detail. Add to that the visually interesting laser etchings on the vinyl and the luxurious packaging featuring Joni's artwork, and it's clear this new collection is something special.

With stellar songs plus richly detailed stories, stunning visuals, and fantastic pressing quality, Love Has Many Faces is an all-around joy to own. It's not only a fascinating musical exploration of love, but also a compelling celebration of the career of one of the most significant musicians of our time. In short, it's a must for the record library of any Joni Mitchell fan.

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