The haunting beauty of a more gentle time

Jan 3, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:a laid back and distilled time capsule

Cons:a bit too dated for some listeners

The Bottom Line: a relaxing and laid back collection of songs from a folk artist in her prime

In her nearly four decades as a musician and lyricist, Joni Mitchell has spanned the fields of folk, pop, rock, and jazz with 23 albums. Her willingness to change direction without warning has frequently left fans upset, but its exactly that free spirit has kept her fresh and allowed her to endure a long and interesting career. Originally from Canada, Joni Mitchell moved to New York City in 1967, and took up residence in the arty Chelsea district. She met Elliot Roberts in the fall and he began to manage her career, helping to open up the circuit for her in New York City. Later while performing at a club in Florida, Joni met ex-Byrds member David Crosby, who was quite taken with her. David was a great help in convincing the record company to agree to let Joni record a solo acoustic album and with that she was on her way. By the time Ladies of the Canyon came out in 1971, Joni Mitchell was becoming a big name, immediately successful on the radio and selling swiftly in the first few months this, her third album, eventually sold half a million copies to make it her first gold album.

So what is it that makes Joni Mitchell such an original and well-respected musical name? Well on this album it’s the understated sparseness of the folk sound that she helped to promote coupled with one of the most admired voices of that era, or indeed any era. When you read the list of musicians on the CD’s back cover, you realise that what you are going to get is by and large Mitchell herself with very little in the way of a band. Thirty odd years on, in world of over production and fashion statement bands, it’s refreshing to be reacquainted with a real musician delivering songs that are forged very much from her own abilities. There are not many artists today who would be brave enough to record with the emptiness that this album brings, and fewer still who would pull it off successfully.

Opening with just a gentle picked guitar progression, her striking voice is not far behind it and that mesmerising simplicity that she possessed holds you for the duration of “Morning Morgantown.” Occasionally a laid back piano joins in and the choruses are treated to a minimal percussion affect, but the song really captures what Joni Mitchell was about and you feel that if you saw here perform this live it would sound much the same. “For Free” is a piano led ballad telling of a busker whose music she hears one day. She compares their relative lifestyles, hers, all limousines and album sales, his playing for the chance to buy the next meal, though both musicians as valid as each other, separated only by a lucky break, which most never get. A clarinet is the only addition to this musical tale supplying a cool jazz ending just to wake you out of the hypnotic saga being unfolded here.

Back on to the guitar for “Conversation” it opens reminiscent of one of her more famous numbers that follows on this album. Her voice is working at its characteristic higher register, a much copied but never bettered vocal style. It is on songs such as this that you can see the influences that left their mark in the work of later artists, particularly Suzanne Vega and to a lesser degree Tracy Chapmen. Again tailing off to a mix of woodwind sounds and an up-tempo play out, it provides a nice contrast to the title track to follow.

A very folk style, a mellow mix of resonant twelve-string guitar, clear voice and layered vocal choruses. Although all of the songs feature mainly only Mitchell herself, her ability to make them all sound very different using only a limited range of musical building blocks is a masterful art. No gimmicks, no complex arrangements and no massive cast of session extras, just a solo artist at the top of her game.

The next two songs,” Willy” and “The Arrangement” are minimal piano-accompanied songs, centred on a regular topic in Mitchell’s work, relationships. Always keeping the details fairly vague and anonymous, as she does, allows us to relate to the themes, sort of fill in your own nouns in the relevant places. “Rainy Night House” continues in a similar fashion and although the style is familiar there is a real sense of emotion in this song, not there it was in anyway lacking before, but there seems to be a real flood of from the heart beauty in this song. I still can work out if the song is of a positive or negative nature but it is probably enough to let the song and its single room drama wash over the listener.

Two more songs “The Priest” and “Blue Boy” follow on guitar and piano respectively before the wistful and slightly sad ballads clear to reveal what is probably Mitchell’s most recognisable song. The up beat guitar riff is instantly recognisable and by the time you reach the chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi” you will be singing the chorus with her. A warning to keeping hold of the things that really matter this is a short and snappy song that clears the atmosphere generated by the ballads that preceded it.

The ethereal “Woodstock” follows, another much covered song and as the piano opening gives way to Mitchell’s voice the spirit of a time long gone hangs in the air. Almost an a capella arrangement the song is formed just by the glorious tones of the vocal delivery, the piano almost acting only to add a beat to the song. As if in contrast the richer full tones of “The Circle Game” round off the album, layers of chorus vocals and a lush guitar melody follow a young boys journey to manhood through the revolving seasons.

As an introduction to Joni Mitchell’s work, especially if her earlier folk days that launched her appeal to you, this is a good place to begin your acquaintance with her work. A laid back album that falls into the category of mood music, but a collection of great songs and wonderful tales from the world as she has seen it. It is almost a snap shot of the attitude that sums up the late sixties and early seventies when many were trying to create a mellower and more gentle society, they may not have succeeded but this album is justification enough of their efforts.

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