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Court and Spark Print-ready version

by Rafe Arnott
Resistor Magazine
July 15, 2021

Heavy Rotation is a monthly column focused on an LP in my collection. This month I'm discussing Joni Mitchell Court and Spark, Rhino Vinyl, R1 1001/Asylum Records - R1 1001 (re-issue, remaster, 180g, gatefold)

Fusing neo-jazz with folk, rock and pop, Joni Mitchell's sixth studio album deftly weaves a sonic tapestry whose lyrical tenor plays counterpoint, and asks the listener to weigh the costs of emotional commitment against the benefits of casual relationships. Prevaricate and mellifluous, the compositions on Court and Spark unwind as conundrum since neither liberation nor its surrender result in Mitchell's satisfaction; she seems forever reaching for a brass ring. The album bears witness to her artistic genius, and remains a key vector in the equation of her five-decade musical trajectory.

Mitchell's jump in '72 to Asylum Records from Reprise saw her take time out, and it was during this break that an attraction to experimental jazz developed into a full-blown affair, leading to its numerous inflection points on the LP and future work. Released in January, 1974 the album was stitched together like a quilt over the course of the previous year and partially patterned upon both the critical and consumer successes of her three previous albums - Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and For the Roses. Yet this time for recording, Mitchell ventured from the comfortable confines of Laurel Canyon, to the A&M lot near Sunset Boulevard to explore genres with session bands including L.A. Express (helmed by arranger/composer and saxophonist Tom Scott) and the Jazz Crusaders.

To those familiar with Mitchell's work, Spark must have seemed like outer space coming from the stripped-back acoustic vignettes of previous outings. Mitchell also populated the LP with a musical cross-section of guest artists including Robbie Robertson, José Feliciano, David Crosby and Graham Nash (to name but a few), whose collaborations helped further collapse boundaries resulting in a record that manages to not only feel extemporaneous, but deeply introspective, all the while offering a sympathetic invitation to listen against a backdrop featuring more instrumentation than she had ever used.

Considered her most commercially-successful work, with its evocative turns of phrase, cunning melodies and compelling subjects, Court and Spark remains as honest and contemporary as when it was written 47 years ago. The intricacies of personal relationships, needs vs. wants, and expectations of the heart have changed so little despite the intervening decades as to make time irrelevant. Having grown up in a home where music playing on a turntable was a constant, so too was hearing Mitchell's records in rotation between the likes of Jackson Browne, Micheal Franks, or Neil Young.

The original Asylum 7E-1001 release was recorded/mastered out of the A&M studio on North La Brea, and pressed by Columbia Records at their Santa Maria plant. Henry Lewy handled sound engineering duties (with Mitchell co-producing) and Bernie Grundman oversaw cutting/mastering. Some say this is the pressing to measure against, (I've not personally heard it) and a VG+ copy can be found for as little $10 USD on Discogs, while mint or sealed copies are fetching $150~$300 USD. I had a VG+ WEA '74 Canadian pressing which I replaced with the 2009 Rhino remaster that Grundman circled back to oversee and which Chris Bellman cut the lacquers for.

The difference between the two versions lets a fair amount of light through between them sonically. The WEA pressing is less quiet in the groove, but otherwise open with notable instrument and vocal separation, and while it's not possessed of the most subterranean bottom end, it sounds realistic and present. The Rhino version has more punch, more weight down low with excellent resolution and texture on percussion, piano and woodwinds - it's cleaner and quieter with nice fat, between-the-speakers spatial imaging. I've also read the 1997 DCC Compact Classics version done by Steve Hoffman is a very different animal than any other pressing and offers up his typical overall warmth, clarity and coherence. As with any LP pressing, YMMV.

A playful tinkle of keys is quickly panned as Mitchell segues into pounding out the opening notes to Court and Spark, cracking the door open for vacillation between tentative, light-hearted explorations and heavy junctures of assertion. It's a trick she repeats often on the album, educating the listener with a shrug; light and air - the casual nature of appearances - can turn dark. The lyrics suggest cutting ties with societal inhibitions, the music - effusively sensual - feels surfeit with instruments and overdubs coming off a listen of stripped-down Blue. José Feliciano's tracked-in acoustic guitar coming in on the right channel around the two-minute mark plucks and strums beautifully with woody timbral colour and lower-register weight to the instrument's body. Skin-on-steel texture of his fret work clearly comes through revealing the vintage Shure M97 moving-magnet cartridge still capable of extracting resolution from the groove. Sublime melodies and prosodic piano, guitar, bass and percussion arrangements suffuse the title track and continue throughout the album revealing her gifts for melding complex songwriting and musical structures into time-proven pop-jazz triumphs.

"Help Me," which deals with the power one involuntarily hands to another when falling in love, comes on like a slow acoustic guitar assemblage with an acute sense of the recorded space around Mitchell's strumming before John Guerin's measured rhythms on the skins drops in. The multi-tracked vocal harmonies, heady bass, sax blasts and Larry Carlton's soft-sex electric guitar licks then proceed to pour out and not bleed into one another; tonal separation is sharply defined. It would be easy to run a few sentences together about how it was her only Top 10 hit (reaching No.7 on the Billboard Hot 100) or entreat on its ethereal lyrical qualities and then slide into Tom Scott's jazzy woodwind arrangements which open "Free Man in Paris," but that would gloss over the entire musical strategy she employs (and becomes apparent by the third track) of the music being less about supporting her words, and more about offering a canvas to splash them against.

The sanguine motifs of "Free Man in Paris" and "People's Parties" shift the focus from love and its complications to the pressures of fame. Here too, the interplay between melody and chord progressions reels-in the listener with lyrics penetrating intellect secondary to the emotion evoked by the harmonies. Lyrics, one realizes with research, Mitchell has fashioned from her surrounding realities. With the former song based on a trip she and David Geffen made to Paris in the early '70s with Robbie and Dominique Robertson, and on the latter song a verse referencing a New York dinner party where Dutch model Apollonia van Ravenstein had a breakdown trying to reconcile sleeping with Jack Nicholson while he was in a relationship with friend Angelica Huston:

As with all Mitchell's albums, the production and mastering is superb, making pointed observations on superlative pitch control, timbral complexion (all around, but in particular with woodwinds, acoustic guitars, piano), dappled textures of bass/electric guitar chord change-ups, and paper-dry patterning of drum skins and brushes. High hats and cymbals possess excellent attack and spatial bloom to decay/shimmer. Rarely did Mitchell not have a hand on the recording chain after her first album, Song to a Seagull, was criticized for being flat-sounding, as it suffered from poor mic'ing/recording resulting in excessive ambient noise and tape hiss (recorded and produced by David Crosby). Sure there's moments of tape over-saturation on the almost psychedelic vocal arrangements/overdubs for funk-tinged "Car on the Hill," (which opens the B-side via sublime saxophone excursions), but depending on what stylus profile one is running on their cartridge (Shibata, hyper-elliptical, line contact, spherical, etc.), any high-frequency tizz or slight sibilance is easily attenuated.

"Down to You" is Mitchell's brand of love song - quiet and sparse in its compositions before a stacked valkyrie-like choral blast heralds reedy, multi-instrumental swirls of orchestral breadth. "Just Like This Train" is a bit honky-tonk lament, comparing a life's string of lovers to notions of rail travel; convincing in its emotional touch, yet seemingly uncoupled from the the song's underlying musical complexities, Mitchell's lyrics again take on deeper, more existential meaning after a number of plays. "Raised on Robbery" - a straight-up rocker - resonates on multiple levels; it's a raucous, oddball on the LP, standing out because of its carefree release of pent-up energy, and because as a child I'd sit with my father in the bar of the Empire Hotel whenever we'd make the five-hour drive to North Bay for holidays.

The rest of the album ("Trouble Child" and "Twisted") plays out in lighter colour tones, the palette's hues shifting again from yellows, oranges and reds back to the greens and blues of the first side. The westside LA horn section waxing brassy gold like a Lalo Schifrin TV drama from the '50s as bass lines swagger to finish out the LP. It's no wonder Stevie Nicks dropped acid to it, recalling in a 2008 interview "I was with my producer, at his house, with a set of speakers that were taller than [his] fireplace, and I was in a safe place. And I sat there on the floor and listened to that record... That was a pretty dynamic experience." A longstanding novelistic pop pleasure (without the guilt) lensed as a concept album on human relationships, and mixed without sophistry, the LP showcased Mitchell's leap from sparse folk compositions to slick Los Angeles pop-rock. It is heavy with an inspired pastiche of jazz-influenced harmonies, melodies, and vocal and instrumental arrangements of rare sophistication. Court and Spark remains a musical icon of love, lust, fame and ego to be socially framed anew by each passing generation who experiences it.

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Added to Library on July 16, 2021. (958)

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