Sunday, 12 April 2015

Joni Mitchell album by album




(Work in progress. This needs a bit of work to finish it. March 2019.)


In the Seventies, during Joni Mitchell's peak, I was surrounded by people who admired her work, and it seemed that everyone had several of her albums. One close friend, Dave Seaton, would try and convince me of her worth, but I found her stuff either too fey or too sombre, and certainly mostly too serious and dull. She was not pushing new ground in music like Faust, or Gong, wasn't rocky and exciting like Zeppelin, or trippy like Hawkwind, and if I wanted folk-rock I could listen to CSN&Y or Neil Young. And the jazzy stuff was just not me at all.  How dull and pretentious. That attitude became  locked in, and while there were individual works of hers I liked - mostly really early stuff like "Big Yellow Taxi", whenever I tried to listen to a whole album I found find myself zoning out after a while.  I started this blog page back in April 2015 as an attempt to get to understand what it was people liked about her. I didn't get far. It got abandoned. Working on my 1001 Albums blog, I've got to the point where I have to make a decision about Mitchell, so I return here to finish it off. Listening to every album she's made with an open mind.

As I'm listening I'm knocked out! Joni Mitchell is awesome. My mind is blown. How come I missed it for so long? I think that perhaps I was being asked to approach her from the wrong direction. Don't start with the jazz albums - go straight to her debut, and then watch her development.




Joni Mitchell is a singer-songwriter. One of the most acclaimed. And almost certainly the most acclaimed female singer-songwriter; if a distinction by gender makes any more sense than nationality, politics, religion, looks, intelligence, friends, experiences, ethnicity, relationships, etc. Each person is unique, and brings to their art their own life - separating out fairly arbitrarily one aspect of a person's life as though it has more significance than other aspects is perhaps not that helpful. Mitchell had polio. The impact of that led her into writing. But she isn't talked about as the most acclaimed singer-songwriter who had polio (she might be placed behind Neil Young, though ahead of Donovan, Ian Dury, and Judy Collins I suspect).


Mitchell was born and raised in Canada. She developed an interest in folk music. In the summer of 1964 she travelled with a boyfriend, a fellow student, to Toronto to see Buffy Sainte-Marie; on the trip she lost her virginity and fell pregnant. The boyfriend didn't want to continue with the relationship, so she had the child, a girl she named Kelly,  adopted. Immediately regretting it, she married a folk-singer, Chuck Mitchell, in 1965 with the intention of getting her daughter back. She didn't get her child back, and the marriage broke up after nine months.

 

Her first TV appearance was under her original name of Joan Anderson on Let's Sing Out in 1965. Other appearances include: "Blow Away The Morning Dew"  (Let's Sing Out 1965); "Medley" (Let's Sing Out, 1965); "Prittee Pretty Maiden" (Let's Sing Out, October 1966).

In October 1967 she was playing in a folk club in Florida, when David Crosby, who had just left The Byrds, heard her set. They started a relationship, she got a record deal, and Crosby produced her first album.





Wikipedia:

Roberta Joan MitchellCC (née Anderson; born November 7, 1943), professionally known as Joni Mitchell, is a Canadian singer-songwriter.[1] Drawing from folk, pop, rock, and jazz, Mitchell's songs often reflect social and environmental ideals as well as her feelings about romance, confusion, disillusionment, and joy. She has received many accolades, including nine Grammy AwardsRolling Stone called her "one of the greatest songwriters ever",[2] and AllMusic has stated, "When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century".[3]
Mitchell began singing in small nightclubs in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and throughout western Canada, before busking in the streets and nightclubs of TorontoOntario. In 1965, she moved to the United States and began touring. Some of her original songs ("Urge for Going", "Chelsea Morning", "Both Sides, Now", "The Circle Game") were covered by other folk singers, allowing her to sign with Reprise Records and record her debut album, Song to a Seagull, in 1968.[4] Settling in Southern California, Mitchell, with popular songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock", helped define an era and a generation. Her 1971 album Blue is often cited as one of the best albums of all time; it was rated the 30th best album ever made in Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time", the highest entry by a female artist.[5] In 2000, The New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music".[6] In 2017, NPR ranked Blue Number 1 on a list of Greatest Albums Made By Women.[7]
Mitchell's fifth album, For the Roses, was released in 1972. She then switched labels and began exploring more jazz-influenced melodic ideas, by way of lush pop textures, on 1974's Court and Spark, which featured the radio hits "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris"[8] and became her best-selling album.
Around 1975, Mitchell's vocal range began to shift from mezzo-soprano to more of a wide-ranging contralto.[9][10][11] Her distinctive piano and open-tuned guitar compositions also grew more harmonically and rhythmically complex as she explored jazz, melding it with influences of rock and rollR&B, classical music and non-western beats. In the late 1970s, she began working closely with noted jazz musicians, among them Jaco PastoriusWayne ShorterHerbie HancockPat Metheny, as well as Charles Mingus, who asked her to collaborate on his final recordings.[12] She later turned again toward pop, embraced electronic music, and engaged in political protest. In 2002, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards.[13]
Mitchell is the sole producer credited on most of her albums, including all her work in the 1970s. A blunt critic of the music industry, she quit touring and released her 17th, and reportedly last, album of original songs in 2007. With roots in visual art, Mitchell has designed most of her own album covers. She describes herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance".[14]

AllMusic:

No female artist better typified the singer/songwriter movement of the '70s than Joni Mitchell, though her public image as the serious, sensitive woman with a guitar shortchanged her abilities, ambitions, and accomplishments. Mitchell's gift for writing personal, folk-inspired songs about the thorny side of life and love was inarguable (particularly on albums like 1970's Ladies of the Canyon and 1971's Blue), but Mitchell also brought the same smarts and eloquence to glossy pop on her commercial breakthrough, 1974's Court & Spark, and she was incorporating jazz and world music into her work long before either was fashionable in American pop music (and she also collaborated with respected jazz artists such as Charles MingusPat Metheny, and Jaco Pastorius, something none of her peers accomplished). At her best, Mitchell was one of the finest and most adventurous artists of her generation, and a key inspiration to many women in music as a talent who refused to be hemmed in by boundaries of genre or gender.









Album by album


Song to a Seagull (1968)
Mitchell's debut album was recorded in 1967 and released in March 1968. Mostly disregarded by critics who tend to focus on her later albums, this album has been my way into Mitchell, and I feel is likely to remain (for a while at least) my favourite of her albums. Her voice is beautiful, soaring, flexible, now sweet, now strong. The sound is light, melodic, underscoring both her voice and her lyrics. The album gently pulls me in and seduces me, then impresses me with the creativity of the songs and the varied approaches she employs. This is a very strong album, and deserves more respect. You can hear its influence on later artists such as Kate Bush.

Wikipedia
JazzMusic
Negative blogger
AllMusic:
Score: 8


Clouds (1969)

This album is more familiarly Joni Mitchell, already embracing a jazz feeling, and becoming more sombre, leaving behind the joy and light creativity of the debut. While this album also embraces pop sensibilities, it feels like a more serious album. The work of someone who wants to impress rather than the first which feels more like the work of someone who wants to entertain.

The album contains her own version of "Woodstock" which she famously wrote after her manager decided it was better for her career if she did a TV appearance instead (that must go down in history as one of the stupidest managerial decisions ever). As David Crosby was her former and Graham Nash her current lover, and Stills was a friend who has played on her first two albums, and Young a fellow Canadian who she knew from her younger days, she gave the song to  CSN&Y who did a simultaneous version on the Deja Vu album - "Woodstock".   Probably the most successful and famous version was done by Matthew's Southern Comfort: "Woodstock".

Wikipedia
AllMusic:
Score: 5

Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)

This album balances the approaches of the first two - returning to the lighter, floating, folky approach of the first, utilising her varied and beautiful voice, while retaining the sombre structure of the second, and the sense of being a more serious artist. While there are some jazz inflections here, they are much lighter, and the album retains a folk feel. I like this better than Clouds. There's a sense of Laura Nyro about this when Mitchell accompanies herself on piano, and allows some soul music into her voice.

Wikipedia
Analog Planet
Rolling Stone (1970)
AllMusic:
Score: 6

Blue (1971)
Generally regarded as her classic.

Wikipedia
AllMusic:
Score:


For The Roses (1972)

Wikipedia
AllMusic:
Score:


Court and Spark (1974)
This feels similar in tone and style to Ladies Of The Canyon (1970).  It's OK. 

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 5



Miles of Aisles (live) (1974)
Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Right from the off the jazz intentions of this album are clear. While the first track is still distinctively Mitchell, the gentle jazz touches of her earlier albums are more apparent, combined with a much rockier feel, including blasts of electric guitar soloing. Essentially this is Mitchell backed by jazz and rock musicians.  "The Jungle Line" is a little different with the African drumming and a laid off approach to the rest of instruments and song structure. Interesting.


Wikipedia  
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Herija (1976)
This is similar to The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), though more consistent and accomplished. That doesn't mean it's "better" - but if people prefer a more polished feel to their songs then they may be inclined to like this one more than Summer Lawns. I'm inclined to favour Summer Lawns as it has more energy, is riskier with more ideas, and seems more related to the connection between artists and audience than Herija, which seems to be more about the performance than the connection. Like the difference between a folk concert and a pop concert. 

Wikipedia
AllMusic:
Score:



Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)

Wikipedia 
AllMusic: 
Score: 



Mingus (1979)

Wikipedia  
AllMusic: 
Score: 




Shadows and Light (live) (1980)
Wikipedia  
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
Wikipedia  
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Dog Eat Dog (1985)

Wikipedia  
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm (1988)
Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Night Ride Home (1991)
Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Turbulent Indigo (1994)
Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 

Hits (compilation) (1996)

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Misses (1996) (compilation)


Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Taming The Tiger (1998)

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 



Both Sides Now (2000)

Orchestrated covers of moody jazz songs. Sounds dated and superficial. So many older artists were doing covers albums at this time, and this is not one that stands out.

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Traveloque (2002)

Orchestrated covers of her own songs. Interesting idea.

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Dreamland (compilation) (2004)
Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 


Shine (2007)
This is a return in tone and style to her main period of the mid Seventies.  Such albums tend to be respectable, but the degree to which they are nostalgic, looking back rather than breaking new ground and moving forward, means they are pleasant curiosities rather than significant albums. And Shine is no exception to this.  It's listenable, but not important.

Wikipedia
AllMusic: 
Score: 

Quick Comment


I've had a quick listen to all her albums, and it appears to me that her most valuable work was done in the Sixties and Seventies. As with other major artists with long careers, her Eighties work is superficial, and dominated by the mistaken music ideas of that decade  - synthetic instruments, heavy production, simplistic drumming mixed forward, etc. Then, again as with others, in the Nineties some authenticity and imagination returns, usually with a rock and/or pop feel. Taming The Tiger is worth spending some more time on. Again following the trend, in the 21st century she releases cover albums, and then an album, Shine, that returns in tone and style to her main period of the mid Seventies.


Albums



Rankings

* UltimateClassicRock   (Blue, Court, Hissing)
* Stereogum (Hejiera, Blue, Hissing)
* GreatAlbums  (Blue, Court)
* Ranker (Blue, Hejira, Court)
* Billboard (Court, Miles, Hissing)
* HubPages (Song, Clouds, Ladies)



Links

Article on Mitchell's guitars
* The Guardian on the emergence of Mitchell
http://jonimitchell.com/

* Pitchfork review of Studio Albums 1968-1979


Thought on Singer-songwriter

There has long been a tradition of a person composing and singing their own songs (or poems) accompanying themselves on an instrument, such as a lyre (from which we get the terms lyrical and lyrics). These folks would be called poets, bards or troubadours; it wasn't until later that such bards would gather round themselves supporting musicians. By the early 20th century those singers who performed their own compositions solo were not called poets or bards or troubadours, they might have had several contemporary terms, and even looking back we rarely call them singer-songwriters. Robert Johnson, for example, is usually spoken of in terms of the blues or folk or guitar style, rather than being a singer-songwriter. This may be because of the folk tradition in which a singer musician would as often or even more likely perform other people's songs than their own. The sense of someone singing and performing solo mostly or almost exclusively their own songs really starts with Bob Dylan, and it is with him that the term "singer-songwriter" is first seriously used. The commercial, critical and popular success of Dylan led others to copy his approach - writing their own folk songs and accompanying themselves on guitar or sometimes piano. This one man band movement developed to its artistic and commercial peak in the early Seventies, though the fountainhead had long since abandoned the solo approach and controversially taken up with a band.  The increasing popularity of electric instruments and what a full band could offer led to a decline in the solo, acoustic singer-songwriter. The term would still be used now and again, but somewhat loosely in regard to singers and song-writers who would lead a band and write critically acclaimed and well structured songs, such as Elvis Costello and Bjork, but not Noel Gallagher or Eminem. However, realistically, the singer-songwriter was born in the mid Sixties and faded away by the mid Seventies.


* James Taylor  
* Stephen Stills
* Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 
* Nick Drake
* Paul Simon
* Elton John
* Cat Stevens
* Leonard Cohen
* Harry Nilsson

Tom Waits

Judee Sill
* Judee Sill (1971)

Randy Newman  
* Sail Away  1972   (Rating 3)

Gordon Lightfoot
* Sundown  (1974)

* Bob Dylan
* Donovan

Laura Nyro
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession 1968
New York Tendaberry  1969
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat  1970

Melanie
* Various 1970-1971

Carole King
* Tapestry  1971 

Carly Simon
* No Secrets  1972

Janis Ian
* Between the Lines 1975


Kitchen Table Music Blogs
Best Of The Best

267 March 2019

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