Over the last ten days, I've probably listened to the first four Joni Mitchell albums more than any cluster of albums since I began writing this blog. The first couple of times, the well-known songs shone through, but everything else just blended together. There was lots of high-voiced Joni accompanying herself on guitar or piano, and although it was enjoyable a lot of the songs seemed to flow into one another. I'm glad I stayed with them, though, because eventually some incredible songs revealed themselves. This is not my favorite period of Joni's career (I recall that era beginning shortly after this batch of albums, which I hope to confirm in the next couple of posts), but there's a lot to like here and I now have a better understanding and appreciation of her early years.
Her first album, Song To A Seagull (1968), was produced by David Crosby, and it's basically Joni accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. It's surprising that she didn't include a couple of her songs that were previously made popular by other artists, but she decided to save those for her next album, choosing instead to showcase previously unheard tunes. The opening track, "I Had A King," is one of the strongest songs here. It has a moody, brooding quality, and the chorus section ("I can't go back there anymore") is very catchy. "Night In The City" is probably my favorite track, featuring Stephen Stills on bass and Joni on piano. The choruses include some great layered harmonies, which I assume are all performed by Joni. On "Sisotowbell Lane," I enjoyed the rhythmic feel to some of the vocals ("Sometimes we do") and the pretty acoustic guitar playing. The dark-sounding "The Pirate Of Penance" showcases Joni singing as two characters (Penance Crane and The Dancer), and I think the speedy melody of lines like "She dances for the sailors in a smoky cabaret..." clearly influenced the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Déjà Vu." Also, "Cactus Tree" is a beautiful song that might have inspired Robert Plant & Jimmy Page to write Led Zeppelin's "Going To California" a couple of years later. The remainder of the album is typical "sensitive singer-songwriter" stuff that never really caught my attention. Still, it's a much stronger album than I initially thought.
Joni stepped up her game on her next album, Clouds (1969). While sonically similar to its predecessor, the songwriting is much more consistent, both lyrically & melodically. It also includes two of her most popular songs, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now." The former is the first happy, upbeat song in her catalog, and I love the chorus of multiple Joni voices at the end. The latter is one of her most powerful compositions. Written in 1967 when she was just 24, somehow she captured the melancholy of growing older at such an early age, and although it's a sad song it's also strangely uplifting. It also features her strongest vocal performance to date. She would re-record this song 30 years later, with many more years of life experience, and it was just as powerful, but I'll get to that in a later post.
The two aforementioned songs were not the only standouts on this album. "Tin Angel" wouldn't have been out of place on her debut, but her voice sounds fuller and has more character. I can also hear where Marti Jones, a criminally overlooked singer-songwriter from the 80s & 90s, got her sound from. "Roses Blue" has a haunting melody & a captivating background guitar part. "The Gallery" is a lovely song with poignant lyrics about loving an artist who's been unfaithful. "Songs To Aging Children Come" has Joni harmonizing with herself to great effect, and was a clear influence on the early work of fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan. Although "The Fiddle And The Drum" is not a terribly catchy song, it stands out because of her a capella performance. I wouldn't rate this as a classic album, but you can hear her developing her artistry and showcasing songs that would become standards. She would continue this trend on her next album.
The biggest surprise about Joni's third album, Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), is that she saved the three strongest songs for last. "Big Yellow Taxi" is probably the one even non-Joni fans are aware of, a true "pop" song with a lyrical message about the environment and the commercialization of America (except for the last verse, which gets personal when her lover leaves in that big yellow taxi). Most people probably know "Woodstock" from the excellent Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version, but Joni's original has its own charms. It's slower and much more brooding, and although the lyrics are hopeful you can sense some bitterness and sadness in her performance. Perhaps that's due to the fact that she was invited to play at the Woodstock festival in 1969 but her manager said she'd be better off guesting on Dick Cavett's talk show instead, missing out on a huge career opportunity. The last of the three killer songs is "The Circle Game," which includes touching lyrics about a child growing up, from toddler to age 20, set to a beautiful melody and a chorus that sounds like a campfire sing-along.
There are some other key tracks on this album, including "Morning Morgantown," which begins proceedings with a beautiful acoustic guitar & piano arrangement and a pretty chorus. "For Free" has some excellent piano playing from Joni, and a story about a street musician happily playing for free even as he's ignored by passers-by, while the narrator (a professional musician, and probably Joni) sadly looks on. The guitar pattern on "Ladies Of The Canyon" reminds me of Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Blue Sky" (from their album The Wall). Am I the only one who hears this? The verses of "The Arrangement," with just Joni on piano, really caught my attention, and "Rainy Night House" is a decent song that's elevated by some haunting background vocals (presumably all done by Joni). This is another excellent but not-quite-great album which shows continued growth in her songwriting & performance. She just needed a little more variety, which was not far off.
Blue (1971) is generally regarded as her first 5-star classic. For me, she's almost there but there are still a couple of unremarkable songs that keep this from earning legendary status for me. However, I want to make it clear that this is a great record and my favorite of her first four. She sounds much more confident in her playing & singing, the songs are less folky than on previous efforts, and there's a maturity throughout that wasn't always apparent before. From what I've read, the previous year she took a sabbatical from music and traveled through Europe after the end of a relationship (with Graham Nash, I believe), and she came back refreshed & focused...and happy.
"All I Want" is an excellent love song that begins the album. "My Old Man" wouldn't be out of place on Carole King's Tapestry (released the same year). Instead of longing for an unattainable love, as she had done on many previous songs, here she sounds content with her lover, clearly stating that marriage isn't necessary for happiness ("we don't need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true"). "Little Green" has some powerful lyrics about a baby she gave up for adoption in 1965, although the music itself is merely pleasant. The joy in her voice on "Carey" is infectious, making it one of my favorite Joni songs. "California" is an upbeat tune about returning home after her overseas sojourn, as well as the end of '60s hippie idealism.
The guitar tuning on "This Flight Tonight" sounds an awful lot like the sounds Jimmy Page was getting on acoustic guitar around this time. I've heard that he was influenced by Joni's tunings, so this may be a perfect example of that. "River" is one of the key songs in her catalog. It's not actually a Christmas song, but the lyrics (and the incorporation of "Jingle Bells" into the melody) capture the melancholy of that season. I love the way her voice soars on the word "fly" in the line "I would teach my feet to fly." Another fan favorite is "A Case Of You." I can't tell if this is a love song to a current partner or a former flame. It has a simple, sparse arrangement with a catchy chorus. For some reason I don't love this song even though it's one of her most popular, although I do love that chorus. It's hard to complain when a 10-song album has 6-7 excellent songs, so while I know she would go on to record some more diverse & challenging music, this is still some of the best music she made in the early part of her career. I'd love to hear from Joni fans out there, since I know there are people who regard her early albums as the pinnacle of her career and may not agree with my appraisals.
Now it's time to move on to the next several albums, including the one that's generally regarded as her masterpiece, Court And Spark. I know I loved that album when I first heard it over 15 years ago, but it's been years since I played it and I'm curious to see if it still lives up to its reputation.
Rich Kamerman's Joni series:
Part 1 - Thoughts On An Artist
Part 2 - Lady Of The Canyon
Part 3 - Courting, Sparking And Hissing
Part 4 - Restless And Reckless In The Late '70s
Part 5 - The Geffen Years (1982-1991)
Part 6 - Taming The Turbulence
Part 7 - Out Of Retirement And Shining / In Conclusion
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