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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Joni Mitchell, 'Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971)' Print-ready version

by Joe Marchese
Second Disc
December 6, 2021

Last evening in Washington, DC, Joni Mitchell joined the 44th class of Kennedy Center Honorees alongside Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Lorne Michaels, and Justino Diaz. The singer-songwriter who has blurred the lines of folk, pop, rock, and jazz was celebrated by friends and admirers including Brandi Carlile, Herbie Hancock, Ellie Goulding, Norah Jones, Brittany Howard, Dan Levy, and Cameron Crowe. President Joe Biden, also in attendance, had earlier summed up the thoughts of many when he proclaimed, "Your words and melodies touch the deepest parts of our soul." Mitchell has been probing matters of the heart and soul for more than 50 years, and those heady early days continue to be chronicled via Rhino's remarkable Joni Mitchell Archives series. The second Archives box, The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (R2 653989), offers a 5-CD treasure trove of material that runs roughly parallel to the four albums collected earlier this year on The Reprise Albums (1968-1971). Those four LPs - Song to a Seagull (1968), Clouds (1969), Ladies of the Canyon (1970), and Blue (1971) - are the cornerstone of the artist's legacy, and Archives Vol. 2 offers over 120 "bonus tracks" to be savored by both longtime fans and those delving into Mitchell's catalogue for the first time.

By the time the Canada-born troubadour entered Hollywood's Sunset Sound to begin work on her debut album, 1968's Song to a Seagull, she had already amassed a considerable songbook of some 60 compositions. This collection, which actually begins in late 1967, illuminates all aspects of her art during this prolific period via live cuts, studio outtakes and alternates, demos, and spontaneous home recordings. There's a certain amount of repetition throughout the box, with multiple versions of "Jeremy," "Conversation," "Chelsea Morning," "The Pirate of Penance," "The Gallery," "Hunter," and others. But these disparate performances most often bring some previously unconsidered quality to the fore. Mitchell's changes from version to version are frequently subtle, rewarding those most who know the material best. But it's so expertly curated by Mitchell and co-producer Patrick Milligan that the repetition never becomes tiresome.

Two of the earliest items are among the most fascinating. Even before the release of her debut album, Joni threw her hat in the ring to write a title song to director John Schlesinger's film "Midnight Cowboy." Harry Nilsson's rendition of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" became the movie's de facto theme - composer John Barry would offer a purely instrumental title tune later given lyrics by Jack Gold - but Archives reveals Mitchell's own beguiling if ultimately unused efforts. She recorded "Midnight Cowboy" twice, the second take of which develops the song further by adding a memorable chorus. This "finished" song was subsequently recorded by Roberta Flack but shelved; it, too, saw the light of the day this year in an expanded digital reissue of Flack's Chapter Two album.

Four outtakes have been excavated from the Song to a Seagull session of January 25, 1968, all newly mixed by Patrick Milligan. Never included on one of Mitchell's studio albums, the prison vignette "Jeremy" previously appeared as an incomplete demo on the first Archives volume. "Conversation" would end up on Ladies of the Canyon, by which time it had shed the third verse heard here. All four Seagull outtakes are in the same close-up, stripped-down style as the album including "The Gift of the Magi" (also on Archives Vol. 1, in live and demo recordings) and "Both Sides Now" which would be re-recorded for Clouds. "Come to the Sunshine" (not the Van Dyke Parks song) will also be familiar from the first Archives but here, we hear the May 1968 studio version.

The live material is just as richly rewarding. The lengthy Ottawa coffeehouse set on the second disc was preserved by none other than Jimi Hendrix on March 19, 1968. Mitchell tells Cameron Crowe in an interview conducted for this release, "He knelt at the edge of the stage, with a microphone at my feet. All during the show, he kept twisting knobs. He was engineering it. I don't know what he was controlling - volume? He was watching the needles or something, messing with knobs. He beautifully recorded this tape." It's not hard to see why Hendrix was spellbound; Mitchell's ethereal music and finely-wrought meditations and portraits ("Marcie," "Nathan La Freneer," "Michael from Mountains") were so far removed from his cosmic blues-rock explorations, whether transporting the audience to "Sistowbell Lane" or to the company of the "Ladies of the Canyon." Her recollections to Crowe of the evening spent with the guitar hero is worth the price of admission.

One could hear a pin drop for much of the Hendrix set, so stylistically varied was the array of material Mitchell brought to life. The concert's release here includes the first airing of her composition "The Way It Is." The way it was clearly shares much in common with the way it is now. "If I brought my good friends home/And set a welcome table place/Could you see them past their clothing/Or past the color of their face?," the singer pointedly asks. "I will show you what I know/Sometimes we will disagree/If we learn at all to grow/Then I have done my small duty." There are other gems, too, such as the whimsical, uptempo ode to "Dr. Junk" and "Go Tell the Drummer Man" with its waltz-time chorus. Both of these "lost" songs were performed at the Canterbury House gig preserved on Archives 1.

Vastly different but no less enjoyable is the Top Gear set recorded in London on September 23, 1968 with accompaniment by the John Cameron Group. Featuring the leader/future Les Miserables orchestrator on piano and harpsichord, Harold McNair on flute, Tony Carr on drums, and future Strawbs member Dave Cousins on guitar, the Group brought new flavor to "Chelsea Morning" and "Night in the City" while Mitchell took "The Gallery" solo. The latter had yet to appear, as Clouds wouldn't be released until May 1969. "Chelsea Morning" was already familiar from other artists' versions and would also be included on Clouds. ("Night in the City" had appeared on Song to a Seagull.) Cameron's rollicking piano on "Night" and McNair's flute on both "Night" and "Chelsea" are happy and unexpected additions.

The third disc (and a small portion of the fourth) is dedicated to Mitchell's Carnegie Hall debut of February 1, 1969. She had put in her practice, practice, practice and commanded the large, venerable hall armed with just her voice, guitar, and piano. In many ways, the concert isn't too different from those she was performing in coffeehouses; the sonic quality is naturally different due to the Hall's acoustics but the artist performed for the audibly appreciative, 2,800-strong crowd with the same quiet intensity and attentiveness to both her music and the audience. (Note that two songs in the Carnegie Hall sequence, "Blue Boy" and "Marcie," have been culled from a performance two weeks later in Berkeley, California.)

"Night in the City," written about Toronto but certainly applicable to the Big Apple, was one of the songs to take on special resonance in New York. But Mitchell didn't substantially change her performance style to accommodate the spacious venue, instead demanding (and receiving) the audience's concentration while disarming them with her loose, casual banter. Her Carnegie set presented the entirety of Side One of Song to a Seagull (most appropriately, the I Came to the City suite) as well as some songs that would be included in May on Clouds: "That Song About the Midway," "The Gallery," and the well-known pair of "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now." Joni wryly introduces the latter with "Just before I go backstage, I would like to sing my hit - mine and Judy's," referring to Ms. Collins). She introduced "Hunter" as a "very, very new song, about a week old," adding a postscript that it's "a song about my cat...it really needs another verse to completely explain it."

She endearingly mentions that her parents like "Morning Morgantown" and brings her unmistakable style to Chet Powers' "Get Together" not long before The Youngbloods' recording went to the U.S. top five. The medley of "Little Green" and "The Circle Game" is as devastating as "Get Together" is rousing, and the concert concludes on a touching note with the duo of "Michael from Mountains" and "Urge for Going."

Clouds continued in the spare, intimate vein of Song to a Seagull. "Conversation," "Blue Boy," and "The Priest" would all end up on Ladies of the Canyon, but here we find them sung for Clouds on March 20, 1969. "Conversation" had lost the third verse but Mitchell otherwise hewed close to its original blueprint. Her changes were subtle yet wholly effective; the final Ladies of the Canyon arrangement is the most ethereal as well as the most propulsive. About three months after Clouds' release and while Woodstock was happening upstate, Joni appeared on the August 18, 1969 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. On the segment featured here, she previewed "Willy" and "For Free" (both of which would end up the next year on Ladies) and enjoyed a couple minutes of chatter with the erudite host. Joni showcased her various musical approaches on the Cavett show, with guitar ("Chelsea Morning"), piano ("Willy," "For Free"), and a cappella ("The Fiddle and the Drum"). It was while in a Manhattan hotel room for the talk show appearance that she famously wrote "Woodstock." A late 1969 demo with acoustic, rather than electric, piano gives the haunting composition an even more austere sound. The vocal is far from perfect yet filled with abandon.

The pointed, powerful "Jesus" didn't make it to the demo stage but is heard on an apartment tape. Joni accompanies herself on piano, drawing a parallel between the teachings of Jesus and those marching for peace at the time of its writing ("Jesus was a man who had no money/Soiled and ragged from the wilderness/He came into the cities/He disturbed the order/And the officials of the church and the country").

Mitchell expanded her sonic palette for 1970's Ladies of the Canyon. While its earliest songs dated to 1966, the album wasn't only her most accessible to that point but reflected a growing maturity. The warm, bucolic title track was inspired by Mitchell's real-life friendship with her fellow ladies of Laurel Canyon, cartoonist Trina Robbins, "circus girl" Estrella Berosini, and the cake, brownie, and bread-baking Annie Burden. Here, it's heard with Teressa Adams on cello. Though Adams plays well, the strings add a more polished, less organic quality that Mitchell may have wished to avoid on the original LP. "Blue Boy" was tried with a recorder coda that adds an off-kilter if ultimately unnecessary element to the song.

The final tracks on Disc Four chronicle the road to Blue. An incomplete live "All I Want" is utterly captivating. Though Mitchell had the contours of the melody down, many of the familiar lyrics were yet to be written including the most deliciously specific lines remembered today ("I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you again and again..."). She would refine and refocus the song before hitting on the familiar version.

The bulk of Disc Five is devoted to Mitchell's October 29, 1970 appearance on the BBC's John Peel-hosted In Concert for which she was joined by James Taylor on guitar and occasional vocals. This concert has circulated before, but not only is the sound substantially upgraded here, there's material unavailable on other issues. While a number of Taylor's songs (including "Rainy Day Man," "Steamroller," and "Carolina in My Mind") aren't included, his beautiful, aching "You Can Close Your Eyes" remains. Their voices gorgeously intertwine on the lullaby as well as on Joni's poignant "For Free" and sweet "The Circle Game." (Taylor also introduces the performance of "Big Yellow Taxi/Bony Maronie" from the October 16, 1970 benefit concert to launch Greenpeace. That entire show was previously released on CD in 2009.)

This second volume of Archives is rounded out with two demos (including "A Case of You" with early, alternate lyrics) and three outtakes from Blue: the delightful studio take of "Hunter" plus alternates of the non-LP side "Urge for Going" and the future seasonal standard "River." (Mitchell clarifies to Cameron Crowe, "It's absolutely a Christmas song! It's a Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas.") "River" has an evocative French horn arrangement at the song's end, whereas the more stark, final version features just the solo Mitchell on piano. Similarly, "Urge for Going" has a string chart that was eventually jettisoned. These additional instruments aren't obtrusive at all, but it appears that Mitchell the producer was experimenting with how to best present her clarion voice and opted for the purest sound possible.

The second Joni Mitchell Archives box follows the same design (by Lisa Glines) and format as the first. Its squarebound 36-page booklet has the interview with Cameron Crowe as well as full credits and copious photos and memorabilia images. Each disc is housed in an individual sleeve with a unique photo. Bernie Grundman has superlatively remastered, with Michael Graves having restored the audio.

On Blue, Joni famously elevated the art of so-called "confessional" songwriting with a set of songs so raw and so emotional that some were surprised she shared them with the world at large. The album remains a high watermark of the singer-songwriter genre, but for Mitchell, it set the stage for a period of one triumph after another including 1974's Court and Spark, her most successful album to date, and Hejira, a bridge between her "pop" and more avant-garde works. But for now, Archives Vol. 2 is a wonder to behold, a vault collection that bears the distinctive imprimatur of an artist who never stopped challenging herself and inspiring her listeners.

Archives Vol. 2 is available now on 5 CDs with a 10-LP version coming in 2022. Live at Carnegie Hall 1969 is also available in standalone vinyl formats.

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Added to Library on December 9, 2021. (1496)

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