Sometimes it's the voice of a little girl, all pink and clean and full of wonder. The voice of innocence. And sometimes it's the strong and slightly melancholy voice of a woman, a voice that's hurting a little. It's fascinating – the voice of the woman who has grown up and knocked around without losing the little girl inside her.
It belongs to folksinger Joni Mitchell, and it has never sounded more appealing that it does on her first album, Joni Mitchell (Reprise RS 6293) which was released this week in Toronto. It's an exciting album; it displays a wonderful talent. And if there's any justice in these things (which, of course, there isn't) it will make Joni Mitchell a star.
Folk music has fallen victim recently to the very force that has so successfully revitalized rock ‘n' roll – musical eclecticism. The Beatles have borrowed from folk music, from the classics and jazz, from the music of the Oriental world; they're using symphony orchestras, hokey jazz sounds, the most sophisticated recording technology and God-only-knows what next . . . and it's fresh and exhilarating. Great. But Judy Collins fighting to hold her own against the busy orchestral arrangements of Joshua Rifkin, and Joan Baez singing semi-classics with the Toronto Symphony, and Leonard Cohen singing over the hum of some rooty-tooty studio chorus and Gordon Lightfoot with a studio orchestra – this is borrowing for its own sake. It's tasteless.
Well, all this misplaced eclecticism seems not to have touched Joni Mitchell, with the result that her new album is a model of the kind of perfect harmony between material and arrangement that is the basis of all good music – and invariably the mark of a strong musical personality. The album was produced by David Crosby (late of the Byrds) which may account in part for the simplicity and taste of its arrangement. But the songs themselves – the melodies and lyrics – are Joni Mitchell's, and exceedingly beautiful.
She has divided the album into two set of five songs. The first she calls, "I came to the city," the second "Out of the city and down to the seaside." The distinction isn't that important, really, because no matter what the physical setting – be it the "chromeplate" and "plastic clothes" of the city or the "woodlands and the grasslands and the badlands" of the Prairies – her thoughts are the thoughts of a woman torn between the romantic notions of love and freedom.
Seabird I have seen you fly above the pilings
I am smiling at your circles in the air
I will come and sit by you while he lies sleeping
Fold your fleet wings I have
brought some dreams to share
It's plain Miss Mitchell has a great love of words (she has dedicated the album to a Mr. Kratzman "who taught me to love words") and a respect for clarity of expression that carries over to her music. The melodies she has written for the songs on this album are (with only one exception) carefully shaped and distinct, one from the other. All of them bear a diving-soaring quality that makes them unmistakably hers.
Add it all up (I forgot to mention that she's a pretty fair guitarist) and you have a great album, an exciting musical experience and the hottest – make that the sweetest – new sound in folk music.