Joni Mitchell's third album just has to be her best. Wisely, she's saved some of her favorite songs, composed as early as 1966, until she attained popularity not only as a song writer (for Judy Collins and others) but as a folk singer as well.
Like Leonard Cohen, Joni's first two albums appealed to folk enthusiasts who wanted to hear the "original", for reasons more academic than aesthetic. Surprisingly, both Canadian artists held up well after the short term acclaim that novelty brings. People continued to listen to the originals and many preferred them.
Ladies of the Canyon includes "The Circle Game", which you will recognize immediately and may associate with Tom Rush, who first introduced her songs to the American folk audience. Also familiar is "Woodstock", the song by Crosby, Stills and Nash that closed the festival film. However, if you know Joni at all, the possibility is that you already know she composed them. In other words, she will have no one but herself to thank for the sale of this album.
A couple of years ago Joni sang at Canterbury House. Her sets included some of the songs on this album. She may have even composed one of them at the Michigan Union, where she was staying. (I wish I could remember which one it was.)
In a coffee house atmosphere Joni has a hypnotic appeal. As she pours out her songs, her eyes rest on members of the audience in instant communication. Standing on stage, large blue eyes unblinking, guitar held against her graceful but angular frame, she has the same penetrating appeal that Edvard Munch created in his portrait of a young girl, entitled "Puberty." Joni's presentation is a mixture of defiance and despair.
Each of her songs is about people she has met - situations she has experienced. Few are profound. Rather, she concentrates on the simple drama of the moment. And she introduces you to all sorts of interesting people: the clarinetist who plays for free, the refugee from a wealthy family, the priest wearing his father's tie, and many more. Her songs are not abstract speculations but straightforward accounts. Consider, for example, the lyrics to "For Free":
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free
Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I've got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you're a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.
In each song, Joni's love for people she is discussing comes out in the words and in the urgency of her voice. The control she excercizes [sic] over the vocals are peculiar to her style alone, often switching from lower to upper range in a characteristic yodel.
Adapting her coffee house performance to the recording studio has been somewhat difficult for Joni. One of the shortcomings of her second album Clouds was that the songs tended to run into one another because of a lack of variety in the accompaniment. While the instrumentation in this album is still limited, basically unamplified piano and guitar, other instruments such as cell, sax and percussion are introduced at intervals to provide counter-statements. Joni's piano and guitar arrangements are particularly complimentary to her voice. The music is always pushing forward, unhesitating except for moments of reflection.
When you consider that Joni designed the cover, composed and arranged the songs, sang and played the main instruments, you will only begin to estimate the artistry of this woman. The rest will come when you watch her perform.
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