Don't be confused by the word "archives" in the title of this Joni Mitchell release. That might lead some to think this is a "best of" selection or collection of previously released music. But a closer look at the subheading shows the dates of these heretofore unheard recordings precede Mitchell's 1968 debut. And "the early years" means exactly that;music made by Mitchell in a variety of mostly non-studio contexts that include home recordings, radio/TV station broadcasts, and club dates before she was introduced to the national stage.
The five discs total nearly six hours. They include nascent versions of songs that were later hits like "Both Sides Now," "Circle Game" and "Song to a Seagull," a batch of traditional folk covers and some items that were never recorded for an album. There is even a powerful performance of "Little Green" which wouldn't appear until 1971's classic Blue.
Her youthful voice is clear, pristine and beautiful. Most of the recordings are primitive some with a fair amount of tape hiss, although all are more than listenable, especially considering their age. It's just Joni and her guitar (an unknown bassist makes a brief appearance). Even during this bygone era Joni, just in her early 20s, was experimenting with unusual tunings. That gave her time between songs when playing live to discuss the music with the audience. Those seemingly impromptu, ad-libbed introductions result in some of the most enlightening moments. She's funny, self-deprecating and somewhat surprisingly loquacious, telling detailed stories around such obscure selections as the Bo Diddley-styled "Dr. Junk" and a touching cover of Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain."
The contents are sequenced in chronological order (according to her interview, at Neil Young's suggestion) kicking off with a sweet 1963 reading of "House of the Rising Sun" (at 19 years old) and closing with all three sets from a 1967 show from an Ann Arbor Michigan club. Her gradual maturity is easy to hear. By the time of the 1967 recording, Mitchell has found her voice and seems entirely comfortable in this folk singing guise. No one hearing her at this stage though could imagine the long and eclectic career she had ahead, combining poetry, folk, pop, jazz, orchestral and world influences into unique and distinctive music that ignited creative sparks for over 35 years.
Joni Mitchell is working in a basic acoustic folk idiom here, albeit with some wonderful compositions. While the "buyer beware" warning isn't needed since the contents are clearly noted in the box's title, suffice it to say this is geared toward historians, hardcore folkies and/or Mitchell fanatics; basically those willing to fork over nearly $60 to explore her musical back pages.
To sweeten the deal, a beautifully structured 40 page book includes not just extremely rare photos, handbills and letters, but a fascinating interview with the songwriting legend by film maker Cameron Crowe. Her memory of this material, all of it a half century old, is refreshingly detailed and precise. It's an essential addition to the package and helps provide context to the songs directly from the source.
The "Vol. 1" notation makes it clear there is more where this came from. Hopefully future editions will reflect the same exquisite care and attention to detail this one displays. Based on this classy set, the Joni Mitchell archives go deep, providing a treasure chest of material for both fans and those interested in the impulses that pushed the multi-dimensional artist to become, like her fellow Canadians Neil Young and The Band, one of the undisputed icons of American music.
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