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Mitchell influences folk, rock   Print

by Scott Swindells
Penn State Digital Collegian
November 6, 1998

Sometimes a musician records a song that doesn't become a hit until it is covered by another artist. Sometimes almost all of a musician's songs are made popular by artists in later years.

If cover songs are tributes to one's predecessors, no one, save Bob Dylan, has had more influence on contemporary pop music than Joni Mitchell.

But to say Joni Mitchell is simply the female Bob Dylan would be to overlook her wide vocal range and the stylistic contributions she made to pop music though her deep honesty in lyric writing.

Throughout the ‘70s Mitchell's folk music quietly assaulted the music industry with a relentless attack of openness and honesty.

Mitchell further propelled the trend of self-revelation in storytelling folk music -- set in place by artists like Joan Baez and Janis Joplin -- into the forefront of American pop music.

With a voice that sweetly and smoothly jumped back and forth through high and low notes and a knack for blending other popular styles of music with the folky strumming of her acoustic guitar, Mitchell also brought the freedom of crossing genres to other folk pickers.

The following albums are "must haves" to familiarize oneself with the influential and legendary folk guitar recordings of Joni Mitchell.

Blue (1971) -- Written mostly on a European vacation, this is an album of self-revealing folk tunes telling tales of romance in a foreign atmosphere.

Mitchell relates her experiences through excellent folk storytelling with a hip European keenness to the lyrics in songs like "Carey."

"Carey get out your cane/ I'll put on my finest silver/ go down to the moonlight cafe, have fun tonight/ I said, ooh you're a mean old daddy but you're outta sight."

Blue paved the way for musicians, females in particular, to sing more personal songs. The influence this album has had on contemporary pop and folk artists is evident through artists who have covered songs from the album. "A Case of You" was done by Tori Amos and the Artist (formerly known as Prince); "Blue," supposedly penned for James Taylor, was recently covered by Sarah McLachlan.

"My Old Man" and "All I Want" are uplifting and a little more upbeat than most of the set's bluesy folk selections, but Mitchell sang the blues honestly and openly on other hit songs like "Little Green" and the title track.

The end result was met with commercial and critical approval for the album, which established the folk singer as a pop music star with insight and has long since proved its staying power.

Court & Spark (1974) -- Mitchell's most successful album commercially, Court & Spark reached No. 2 on the U.S. album charts and produced three hit singles.

"Free Man in Paris," "Raised on Robbery" and "Help Me" showed more polish to the jazz-based side of Mitchell's music that began with 1972's For the Roses and would continue to sparkle through her next several albums.

Proving she was not sidetracked by the commercial success of Blue, Mitchell returned with just as much honesty and the same personal touch to her storytelling on this effort, but she did so with new explorations into jazz music and a more unified theme which centered on relationships.

Hits (1996) and Misses (1996) -- When Reprise Records asked Mitchell to sanction a greatest hits effort in 1996, she agreed -- but only under the condition that she be allowed to compile a companion album of some of her under-appreciated favorites. The label agreed, and the two CDs were released and sold separately.

Unfortunately, Hits offers a very narrow look at Mitchell's music when one considers the scope of her entire career.

The 15-song set mainly focuses on her early folk-pop crossover success and features a lot of the songs written by Mitchell that were made famous by other artists, such as "Both Sides Now" and "Woodstock."

The setup of the disc, which also tends to sound very incohesive, was most likely an attempt by Reprise to keep selling its albums -- Mitchell was only with Reprise for her first five releases.

But listeners can take this narrow approach to Mitchell's music and use it to their benefit. The Hits album nicely pinpoints the reasons Mitchell achieved pop success while working within the folk genre.

The catchiness of "Carey," the Mitchell-penned song "The Circle Game," which was made famous by Tom Rush, and the previously unavailable "Urge for Going" make the album worth purchasing.

Misses, on the other hand, is a necessity for all would-be Mitchell aficionados. "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey," from the Mingus album, and "A Case of You," which probably should have been on the Hits album, can ease listeners into some of the lesser known songs that Mitchell considers her best and most artistic works.

Misses also contains "Hejira," the title track from her 1976 release, and a good deal of her work from her Geffen Records era in the ‘80s.

 

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