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Review--- Archives Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) Print-ready version

Almost six heavenly hours of unreleased demos, radio sessions and live recordings

December 2020

There's a moment on Archives Volume 1 where Joni Mitchell suddenly becomes Joni Mitchell. We're at the start of Disc Two. It's 1965 and she's living in Detroit with [her] husband, fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell. As a birthday gift for her mother, she decides to record a tape and send it home to Saskatoon. The first thing we hear is "Urge For Going," a beautiful lilting melody pinned to a painterly lyric about unforgiving winters on the Canadian prairies and the prospect of warmer climes.

Like its companion piece, "Born To Take The Highway," it's the kind of vividly poetic, deceptively simple sketch that Mitchell shaded to perfection in the coming years. While we don't know whether or not her mother liked the tape (in the liner notes Mitchell calls her mother "a terrible critic of my music") these songs bear the early hallmarks of Joni's greatness.

Archives Volume 1 is full of revelations. Disc One of this five-CD set starts with her earliest known recording to date, as teenage art student singing "House Of The Rising Sun" for a Saskatoon radio station in 1963. The standards that follow---"John Hardy," "Fare Thee Well," "Nancy Whiskey" and so on---may feel overly formal in places, but are just as elegantly rendered. She's slowly finding her feet by the time we move forward a year to the Half Beat in Toronto. The songs are still [traditional arrangements], but Mitchell is already telling stories and experimenting with tunings.

Her own songs are emerging too, as is the narrative of her life. "Day After Day," here in its demo form for Elektra's Jac Holzman, is written on a train to the Mariposa Folk Festival while pregnant. She's told her parents she's going there to become a musician, although the story is actually just a ruse to avoid telling them about her condition.

There are spots on Canadian TV's Let's Sing Out in '65 and '66, where she unveils the exquisite "Night In The City." The onset of Mitchell the songwriter is mirrored in the subtle shifts in vocal emphasis, her voice now occupying a lower register more frequently, as if feeling more at ease in its surroundings.

Mitchell's growth as an artist has accelerated by the time she pitches up at Philadelphia's 2nd Fret in November 1966. She cites Bob Dylan and David Blue in the preamble to the lively "What's The Story Mr. Blue," one of her formative revenge ballads. "The Circle Game," inspired by (but thematically opposed to) Neil Young's wistful "Sugar Mountain," makes its appearance later in the same set. And just over six months later, on Philadelphia radio, we're treated to a luminous cover of "Sugar Mountain" itself.

These are the kinds of surprises that give Archives Volume 1 its dazzle. However slight, the minute-and-a-half of improvisation that closes Michael's Birthday Tape, from May 1967, offers a tantalizing peek into Mitchell's creative process. A month later, at home in New York City, she records a run of soon-to-be breakthrough songs: "I Had A King," "Chelsea Morning," [and] "Michael From Mountains."

She takes these compositions to Canterbury House in Ann Arbor that October---the show spread across the rest of Disc Four and the whole of Disc Five. Mitchell's second set at the venue begins with another remarkable new tune, "Little Green," the moving hymn to the daughter she gave up for adoption. In this context, given her absurdly high quality quotient, it's perhaps forgivable that underrated gems like "Carnival In Kenora" never made it onto record. For most artists, this box set would mark the plateau of an entire career. Mitchell was just getting going.

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Added to Library on June 28, 2021. (2241)


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