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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Joni Mitchell, 'The Asylum Albums (1972-1975)' Print-ready version

by Joe Marchese
Second Disc
December 2, 2022

2022 has been Joni Mitchell's year. Following a triumphant surprise appearance in July at the Newport Folk Festival, the singer-songwriter announced a return to the stage for a full-length Joni Jam in June 2023 at Washington's Gorge Amphitheatre; tickets were quickly snapped up by ardent fans who had waited roughly two decades to see Mitchell in concert once again. More recently, she attended her first-ever Broadway musical, Cameron Crowe and Tom Kitt's Almost Famous - and made her Broadway debut with the same show, which features her "Both Sides Now" in a pivotal moment. Rhino has continued its celebration of Mitchell's discography with the second albums box set in the ongoing Archives series. The Asylum Albums 1972-1975, on four CDs (R2 680935) or five LPs, contains three of Mitchell's most acclaimed and beloved studio albums, all recorded for David Geffen's then-new Asylum Records label: For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), as well as Joni's first live album, Miles of Aisles (1974).

Coming between the intimate, introspective Blue and the bright, brassy Court and Spark, For the Roses remains one of the great "lost" albums in the Joni Mitchell discography - if one can use "lost" to describe an album that peaked just out of the top ten of the Billboard 200 and spun off a top 25 hit single.

After the soul-baring of Blue, Mitchell took her songwriting in varied directions, shifting musical style and lyrical perspective from track to track while retaining her compositional elegance and emotional authenticity. While Blue was very much a solo album - with minimal additional instrumentation on bass, guitar, drums, and pedal steel - For the Roses made a tentative step toward the "band" album Court and Spark. Tom Scott's presence on woodwinds and reeds is felt throughout Roses, while the full group, including Wilton Felder on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Bobbye Hall on percussion, is used sparingly but effectively. Mitchell's piano is out front on "Banquet," "Lesson in Survival," "See You Sometime," and "Blonde in the Bleachers" (prior to its rock coda featuring Stephen Stills).

For the Roses dabbles in the so-called "confessional" territory of Blue as Mitchell plumbs the depths of her relationship on "Lesson in Survival" ("Maybe it's paranoia/Maybe it's sensitivity/Your friends protect you/Scrutinize me/I get so damn timid...") and imagines a different, arguably more conventional life on "Let the Wind Carry Me" ("Sometimes I get this feeling/And I want to settle/And raise a child up with somebody/I get that strong longing/And I want to settle/But it passes like the summer/I'm a wild seed again/Let the wind carry me..."). "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" pulls no punches as it gives voice to the siren song of heroin. "You can't deny me/You know what you need," Mitchell sweetly coos over a languid and dreamy band accompaniment. The lyrics are harrowing yet empathetic; her lover is "bashing in veins for peace" yet he's bound to succumb: "I mean, what does it really matter/You're going to come now/Or you're going to come later..." James Burton plays the spiky electric guitar on the track which is said to have been written about Mitchell's then-flame James Taylor. It's not hard to imagine him as the subject of the title song, too, in which she ruefully grapples with the changing nature of his celebrity: "Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love...And now you're seen on giant screens/And at parties for the press/And for people who have slices of you/For the company..."

Mitchell's vulnerability and self-doubt recurs throughout For the Roses. On the title track she candidly offers, "I guess I seem ungrateful/With my teeth sunk in the hand/That brings me things..." while on "See You Sometime," she wrestles with imagining her lover (Taylor?) in a hotel room or "holding some honey who came onto you." Though she admits "I'm not ready to change my name again," she wears her beautifully simple plea on her sleeve: "I'd sure like to see you." The pointed "Blonde in the Bleachers" asks whether one can "compete with the fans/for your rock 'n' roll man." Yet, befitting this multi-dimensional artist, she's assertive on "Woman of Heart and Mind," powerfully dropping a certain four-letter epithet as she questions her errant lover. Mitchell employs striking use of metaphor on "Banquet" and "Electricity," in the latter likening a relationship to "input-output-electricity" with charges and shorts and sparks flying. The searching, characteristically evocative portrait of a mystical "Barangrill" lyrically captivates while its musical setting anticipates Court and Spark.

Without resorting to simplification, Mitchell would streamline her melodic sensibility for much of Court and Spark; the most overtly "pop" song on For the Roses is the one reportedly written to order. The playfully biting "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" was written in response to the record label's request for a hit single - which it indeed became. (Graham Nash supplies the Dylan-esque harmonica.) It doesn't feel out of place at all in an album where the artist wrestles with the effects of the rock and roll life. The impressionistic "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Song)" closes the album on a stately note, its subtitle nodding at a certain Mr. Beethoven. (Bobby Notkoff arranged the strings.)

Mitchell deftly fused folk and jazz with a lithe, sleek pop sound on 1974's Court and Spark. The album defined the sound of the era's Southern California musical landscape with appearances from Tom Scott, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and even Cheech and Chong, as well as The Crusaders and fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson. Exploring themes of romance as well as the price of celebrity, most songs on Court express some degree of ambivalence; Mitchell is an artist who explores every angle. Even when her lyrics are abstract (as they frequently are here), she puts over the feeling, or feelings, in both words and music (and here, arrangements for a full rhythm section, horns, and even strings on one track).

The sinuous title track (and album opener) is written in a first-person voice but melds the artist's "confessional" style with her gift for a finely-wrought character study; the character she encounters (a man "playing on the sidewalk for passing change") can't help but recall her earlier song "For Free." Like most of the album, the song concerns itself with the vagaries of love and the choices one must make. "People's Parties" similarly merges observational songwriting with a first-person narrative, inspired by a real-life incident involving Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, and Dutch model Apollonia van Ravenstein. (Tom Scott supplied the lovely, subtle string chart.) "People's Parties" segues into "The Same Situation," which Mitchell once commented is "basically a portrait of a Hollywood bachelor and the parade of women through his life, how he toys with yet another one."

On "Help Me," Mitchell weighs the age-old battle of romance vs. liberation. Though she concludes on a tart if truthful note ("We love our lovin'/But not like we love our freedom"), the melody is so purely intoxicating and the full-band arrangement so shimmering that we've nonetheless fallen in love. It remains perhaps the breeziest and most irresistible slice of pure pop in her discography, but another track on Court and Spark comes close. That's "Free Man in Paris," another disillusioned look at the music business doubling as an incisive and transporting portrait of label head David Geffen "stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song." Like Mitchell's best writing, this wholly specific song (on which her voice is bolstered by the harmonies of Graham Nash and David Crosby) struck a universal chord.

Neither song was chosen as the lead single off Court and Spark. That honor went to the seductive "Raised on Robbery," a rollicking rave-up about the singles scene. "Down to You" is a more sober if somewhat ambiguous reflection on a one-night stand, the aftermath, and the acceptance. Its scope broadens from intimacy to grandiosity thanks to the complex, Grammy-winning arrangement. (David Crosby and Susan Webb chimed in on harmonies for a pivotal moment in the song. Tom Scott's strings lend gravity while Mitchell's piano adroitly navigates a fiendishly tricky chord progression. Every element comes together with startling precision.) The song sparks the listener's own imagination and experiences as the narrator is never clear as to exactly whom she's addressing. A similar feat is pulled off with the starkly contemplative "Trouble Child," composed in the second-person. Could that "you" be the listener?

Calm is juxtaposed with blasts of anxiety on the beguiling "Car on a Hill," in which Mitchell conjures a range of emotions around the simple notion of waiting for your lover to come home. "Just Like This Train" is an internal monologue and rumination on "jealous lovin'" filled with potent imagery. Court and Spark reflected Mitchell's many musical personalities, even paying homage to Annie Ross with the bright, closing rendition of the vocalese classic "Twisted." Court and Spark reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified 2x platinum. Mitchell had climbed another mountain - and did it her way. (Note that some copies of the box set have "People's Parties" and "The Same Situation" together as Track 4 on Court and Spark, with the latter repeated as Track 5. Watch this space for any news of a replacement disc program.)

Joni followed Court and Spark with her first live album. The double-LP Miles of Aisles reflected her shift from intimate solo shows to large theatres and amphitheaters, and captures her at the height of her mainstream popularity. Backed by the L.A. Express - Tom Scott on woodwinds and reeds, Max Bennett on bass, John Guerin on drums and percussion, Robben Ford on electric guitar, and Larry Nash on piano - Mitchell never sounded so playful and contented. Primarily recorded at L.A.'s Universal Amphitheater on August 14-17, 1974, performances were also pulled from a March 4 appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ("Cactus Tree") and Berkeley Community Theatre on March 2 ("[Real Good] For Free," which earns audience applause for its reference to San Francisco's nearby Fairmont Hotel). The band shines throughout, with tight interplay between Scott's horns, Ford's searing guitar lines, Bennett's winding bass, and Guerin's earthy percussion, but the solo Mitchell also accompanied herself (on guitar, piano, and dulcimer) in some of Miles' most spellbinding moments.

Contrary to expectations, Miles only included one song off Court ("People's Parties"), and neither of its two hit singles. (An expanded edition featuring all the songs performed on tour hasn't yet materialized; perhaps some of that material will appear on the eagerly-awaited third volume of Archives.) A couple of selections from For the Roses ("Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" and "Woman of Heart and Mind") duly proved the artist's ability to captivate the large crowd with intimate, personal statements.

Listeners were treated to reinventions of compositions familiar from her early albums. Both Ladies of the Canyon and Blue were particularly well-represented. From the former, Mitchell reclaimed "Woodstock" from Crosby, Stills, and Nash and finally turned "Big Yellow Taxi" into a hit. Whereas the original studio version didn't climb any higher than No. 67 on the Hot 100, the live version made it all the way to No. 24, giving Mitchell her fourth Top 40 entry and third in a row. Ladies' dreamy "Rainy Night House" and gentle "The Circle Game" charmed the crowd, the latter in sing-along form with a clearly appreciative audience.

Five Blue standouts ("A Case of You," "Carey," "The Last Time I Saw Richard," "All I Want," and the title track) made an equally vivid impression onstage. Joni dug even further back for a solo "Cactus Tree" from her debut Song to a Seagull and a band arrangement of the touching, inevitable "Both Sides Now" from Clouds. Two new compositions closed out Miles of Aisles, "Jericho" and "Love or Money." Thematically and musically, both would have fit comfortably on Court and Spark though Mitchell would ultimately revisit "Jericho" in the studio for a very different album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1977. Preserving a very special moment in time, Miles of Aisles reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified Gold.

Joni Mitchell could never bear to repeat herself. So while The Hissing of Summer Lawns opens with the gorgeous, sparkling "In France They Kiss on Main Street" - a vivid evocation of the early, heady rock and roll days which evoked Court and Spark and features guitar from Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and background vocals from David Crosby, Graham Nash, and James Taylor - it quickly veers into unexpected territory with "The Jungle Line." Mitchell, widely credited with using the first sample on a mainstream pop record, builds her song around a field recording of African Burundi drummers. She layers Moog, guitar, and her ethereal vocal over the hypnotic drums: "The jungle line/Screaming in a ritual of sound and time." The lyric is inspired by French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau whose best-known works are jungle scenes. A slithering snake (as seen on the striking album cover) is just one of the images employed by Mitchell in the fantastical, expansive lyric imagining a louche urban jungle of drugs, music, and "all that jazz." The sequencing of "The Jungle Line" as the second track made it clear that Joni was exploring new territory and inviting listeners along for the ride.

For all its adventurousness, there are connections on Hissing to its predecessor, notably the musicians of The L.A. Express and The Crusaders who lend the album its accessible sheen. Their soft, burnished sound both draws the listener into the narratives and lends aural comfort on such boundary-breaking tracks as "Edith and the Kingpin" (with its unconventional song form and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about a crime boss and the object of his affection), "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" (an impressionistic song taking in imagery of religion and booze along with pointed lyrics from the perspective of an empowered woman confronting a lying, cheating lover), and the evocative depiction of the entanglement between art and commerce, "The Boho Dance." Chuck Findley and Bud Shank played flugelhorn and flute, respectively, on the latter which segues directly into "Harry's House/Centerpiece." Mitchell repurposed the jazz standard "Centerpiece" by trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and Annie Ross' onetime musical partner Jon Hendricks for this meditation on a marriage set against the backdrop of materialism.

Mitchell's eye was well-trained on the other side of so-called domestic bliss. The title track "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (that phrase referring to the sound made by sprinkler systems on the lawns of the well-to-do) paints a melancholy portrait of a woman trapped in both her marriage and her mansion, seemingly unable or unwilling to leave. Reality and fantasy collide in "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," with its references to Gone with the Wind and a bygone Hollywood. The specter of La-La Land and celebrity also informs "Sweet Bird," the title of which recalls Sweet Bird of Youth, Tennessee Williams' play about a faded movie star. Mitchell's song addresses the "sweet bird of time and change," two inevitable occurrences.

Like "The Jungle Line," "Shadows and Light" innovatively used the studio as an instrument, with an ARP string machine and multiple overdubs of Mitchell's voice. More challenging than Court and Spark but just as rewarding, Hissing was greeted by a mixed reaction from critics of the day even as it's come to be accepted as another milestone for the artist and a fan favorite. (Those fans included Prince, who was vocal about his appreciation for the album.) Mitchell was rewarded with a Grammy nomination and the album reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200.

The second volume of Mitchell's album series, like the first, is beautifully adorned with her own artwork. For the CD box, the original album jackets have been painstakingly replicated in miniature, right down to the embossing on the covers of Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Happily, every disc is housed within a protective inner sleeve. A foldout sheet offers brief words from Joni's longtime friend and admirer Neil Young along with her 1975 drawing of him. Bernie Grundman has remastered all four albums up to his usual high standard, with Miles of Aisles perhaps being the standout.

From gleeful abandon to somber contemplation, Joni Mitchell traversed the emotional spectrum on the remarkable run of four records contained within The Asylum Albums (1972-1975). These are albums which only grow deeper and richer with each consecutive listen - a true "banquet," indeed.

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Added to Library on January 3, 2023. (376)

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