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Nobody Like Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Peter Carr
Birmingham Post
July 10, 1971
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Girl singers can roughly be divided into three categories.

There are the pop girls, who keep us finger snapping and smiling for undemanding three-minute stretches. There are the singer-writers of interest, from Joan Baez through quite a few honest performers to the self-indulgent semi-pop Melanie. And there is Joni Mitchell.

Her work has an effortless beauty that makes it almost an impertinence to review her new album Blue released this week by Kinney. Her songs have a universal power of communication. Everybody knows “Both Sides Now”: it has been sung by countless singers, some in worthwhile tribute, others in tasteless but profitable pastiche.

If you trouble to listen, it is always her originals which stand supreme. There is an emotional complexity in her work which is only fully realised by her extraordinary voice. It is that voice, swooping from a vibrato-laden falsetto to a deep masculine softness that is disliked by the few people I know who can’t take Joni Mitchell. Even they don’t dispute that it gives her work a dramatic force beyond the power of her imitators.

After half a dozen hearings, I can’t yet say how I would place this album against the body of her work, but it does contain some splendid songs. “My Old Man,” contains one repeated couplet.

“We don’t need no paper from the City Hall keeping us tied and true,” as obsessively memorable as “Don’t it always seem to go…” in “Big Yellow Taxi.”

I can imagine a hundreds hopefuls sharpening to imitate the tiny swoops that carry her voice through these lines. The song is an illustration of the economy and precision of her writing. Her old man is out and she’s down – “The bed’s too big the frying pan too wide.” It is a perfect statement in nine words.

Although many of her supporters will disagree, I think, too, that the carefully chosen sidemen enhance the songs. “Carey” is a song of a dream to be shattered, a night of Mediterranean warmth. Russ Kunkel on percussion and Stephen Stills on guitar drive along while Joni adds three separate voices. It is the strong performances and the starkness of ‘Blue” which follows, is made more effective.

James Taylor also contributes tastefully to three tracks. On “California,” which opens side two, his guitar is muted but muscular, and as the lyric moves into homesick chorus, Sneeky Pete adds melancholy steel guitar.

Songs where simple self- accompaniment is effective are “River” and “This Flight Tonight”. On the first Joni sings of Christmas – “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Her piano counterpoints the melody with echoes of “Jingle Bells”. In “This Flight Tonight,” it is her more familiar guitar chording that supports the fragile vocal, her full open tuning intelligently double-tracked.

My favourite song, though, is “Little Green” addressed to a child called Green so the “winters cannot fade her.” It is a gentle treatment for voice and guitar, and is truly beautiful. The album can only assure Joni Mitchell of her supremacy in a category of one.

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Added to Library on January 5, 2023. (1978)

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