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Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Roots Rock, Jazz Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Joni Mitchell fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Joni Mitchell fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 12

Mature, hippiesque, beatniky, Europeanized, acoustic... Canadian.


Okay now! There's a lot to be said about this album. I don't actually know how many times I've already mentioned that over the course of my reviews (hell, you have to start repeating yourself after you've crossed a thousand or something's definitely wrong with you), but anyway, there's these records where the first listen feels like hell on earth - you can't hold on to anything, and you don't know what to make of the record nohow. Then, however, the second listen is less painful because you start feeling that there's something intriguing about it, and anyway, if it were flat-out stinkin' bad, you wouldn't actually even want to put it on for the second time, which you do. And then..., anyway, you get my drift. These ten songs are not about catchiness - okay, not about immediate catchiness; after a while, you start getting a feel for all these melodies. This is definitely not pop. There are no pop hooks or melodies. Is it folk? No, it isn't. There are no folksy choruses or melodies. Then what is it? It is, on some level, almost a progressive rock album - recorded exclusively on acoustic guitar and vocals. If you don't believe me, take some time to isolate and sterilize those melodies that Joni is playing and singing and then compare them to, I dunno, Genesis, for instance. Personally, I get the exact same feel. These are extremely complex, untrivial melodies, but they are melodies - there's repetition in the verses and choruses, there's a sense that Joni's not just abstract-mindedly plinkin' along; she is definitely taking some time to put this stuff together, and then she records it in a way that's basically unheard of in 1968.

In fact, Song To A Seagull (or simply Joni Mitchell, as it is known under both titles) is pretty much a unique album. The singer-songwriting movement was almost non-existent in 1968, and prog-rock was only in its infancy stage, the one where it mainly consisted of people plundering Bach and Ravel for ideas to incorporate within the rock'n'roll framework. "Emotionally", this record is perhaps the most closely related to Leonard Cohen - Canadian too? What an amazin' coincidence! - who was also debuting on the rock scene at the time; "emotionally" as far as the stripped-down atmosphere, the intimacy of the singing, and the complexity and multi-layeredness of the lyrics goes. However, it is also ten times as complex as anything Cohen ever did; after all, unlike the guy, Joni was a really musically gifted person, and both her guitar playing and her amazing control of her voice put Monsieur Cohen to shame. (Not that he ever even pretended to be a technically great singer or player, I'll give him that).

There's also a strong similarity here to David Crosby's overall style - again, probably no coincidence that Crosby is listed as producer, even if, what with all the groundbreaking and numerous production techniques on the record, I could probably do no worse a job with it than ol' David did. But then again Crosby is - how would you put it? - rambling. Joni is anything but rambling, although it takes some time to realize that.

As you may know, Song is sort of a concept album, thus quite fitting in with the time when everybody was making up their own concepts. It's also Joni's most "hippiesque" album, and, as she herself seems to think now, her most "naive" one. True, occasionally it seems that she's blowing her pretentions out of control, and that the lyrics kind of float right there, without having any relations whatsoever to reality. But hey, it was a product of its own epoch, and many a songwriter had done much, much worse back then. Besides, it may be a "hippiesque" album, but it's definitely not a "hippie" album. It has nothing to do with the West Coast whatsoever. Rather it smells of the overseas-looking side of Greenwich Village, and from there to Toronto, and from there to France and the European surrealism of the time. In other words, it's more Jacques Brel than, uh, Pete Seeger.

The first side is the "city" part. Life in the city, love in the city, dark thoughts in the city, and suchlike. The lyrical picture painted isn't one of total despair, in fact, it's multi-sided, but it's definitely bleeker than whatever ensues. 'I Had A King' is kind of particularly depressing - a metaphor for Joni not being able to find quite the right man for herself? 'You know my thoughts don't fit the man, they never can, they never can'... The song did virtually nothing for me the first time I heard it, but I've come around full circle since then - that chorus is absolutely gorgeous. 'Michael From Mountains' is a bit more sentimental, kind of like the "found ideal" as opposed to the "lost ideal" of the previous song. I find the 'Michael from mountains, go where you will go to' chorus a bit clumsy, but then again, with Joni you never quite know what is clumsy and what isn't.

'Night In The City', one of my favourites, is the only fully-produced song on the album, where Joni is joined by Steve Stills on bass and also overdubs some electric piano; the most fascinating part, though, is the way she overdubs her own vocal harmonies - the chirping 'night in the CIIITY - night in the CIIITY - looks PRETTY to me...' is bedazzling. The most memorable, upbeat, optimistic, and 'poppy' song on the album, yet definitely not 'commercial' by any means. And then 'Marcie' and 'Nathan La Franeer' pick up the slowly-moving, delicately-constructed, introspective sentimentalism once again. 'Marcie' is the more "folkish" of the two, with a rather simple verse structure, but 'Nathan La Franeer' sounds like a gloomy medieval ballad, with an occasional jarring feedback "whoooooooosh" swooping through your speakers (why? I have no idea. It's easily the most dated thing on the whole record). Jonie's singing on 'Nathan' is particularly recommendable, as she explores every note in her register. You may not remember a word, but you gotta admire that mammoth of a vocal.

The second part is subtitled 'Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside', so the imagery is much more 'oceanic' - with sailing ships, pirates, seagulls, and stuff filling the lines. Out of these five, 'The Pirate Of Penance' and 'Song To A Seagull' are really striking; the former is almost a fully-written drama in itself, once again showcasing Joni's miraculous "duetting with herself", and the latter boasts a certain 'majesty of olde' as the actual lyrics would suggest: 'my dreams with the seagulls fly, out of reach, out of cry', Joni intones, as her guitar ventures into what looks like Celtic territory to me. But as good as these two are, I think that 'Cactus Tree' beats them in terms of memorability and yet has all they have to offer in atmosphere terms as well. One hell of a great song, building on slightly Dylanish lyrics (the 'listing' principles here are a bit reminiscent of 'A Hard Rain') and wonderful uses of the vocal melody - just listen to that falsetto 'of the water weeds...' line in the chorus and marvel at how fine it fits into the overall scheme of things.

I'll be the last to deny that the guitar-and-vocal-only schtick combined with a total lack of humor can get a bit tiresome. But to my mind, it is more or less fully compensated by the complexity and inventiveness of the tunes here - true, at times it feels like more of an academic than a heartfelt experience, but I think that this album has enormous growth potential, and in time you won't feel it that way. Whatever be, the fact is, this is an outstanding album, and it kick-starts much of the singer-songwriting movement, want it or not.



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 12

Proof that simplifying one's approach to songwriting can sometimes yield... similar-rated results.


This one is definitely more accessible, yet by no means worse. Perhaps Joni was afraid of being trapped by her own pretentiousness, or maybe she was just trying to score a hit (back in 1969, nowhere near as disrespectable a goal as it is today), or maybe she just thought of getting "back to basics", whatever. Oh well - at least her self-portrait on the cover is a phenomenal improvement over the more-or-less-generic psychedelic flowerishness of the previous cover (also self-painted). Look closer on the CD/LP cover; she never even forgot to mention any freckles!

So, both the melodies and the lyrics are simpler on here. In fact, sometimes the instrumental melodies don't amount to much more than your basic rhythm strumming on here, although she's still way too good a guitar player to merely strum. Likewise, the 'message' of the lyrics is generally more easily understood. It's even more personal here, and at least half of the songs seemingly deal with lost love, one of Joni's preferred topics - although it gets even worse on the album's quintessential "personal anthem", 'Both Sides Now', where love is only one of the things that've been lost. Well, whaddaya know; Mrs Mitchell ain't the one to be singing about pretty rosebuds and/or wanting to hold his hand.

In fact, it actually sounds like a somewhat conceptual album again... hmm, well, I guess you could say it about at least half of Joni's records, but this time there's really almost a kind of story running through all the songs. We begin with the dreadfully slow, dreadfully gloomy 'Tin Angel', where Joni announces that 'in a Bleeker Street cafe I found someone to love today', even if this is certainly announced in a tone far removed from an optimistic one. The song's mood actually reminds me of Nick Drake, who also likes to sing of love - both lost and found - in the same confusing, befuddling way.

The next song definitely sounds optimistic, though. It's 'Chelsea Morning', mostly known to the general public, including Bill Clinton, through Judy Collins' version (Judy also made 'Both Sides Now' into a hit for herself), but, of course, rendered by Joni with much more authenticity... heck, it's her song, after all. Short, poppy, and kinda happy as far as Mitchell-style-happiness goes. A song of found love and momentary bliss? You betcha. Because the very next tune is the brilliant 'I Don't Know Where I Stand', where the confusion sets in: '...picked up a pencil and wrote "I love you" in my finest hand, wanted to send it, but I don't know where I stand'. The melody is SO much simpler than the average melody on Song..., but who cares? In this case, folksy minimalism works, and the confusion, innocence, and uncertainty in the singing matches the melody to perfection.

From then on, song after song deals with "Him And Her", with Her putting his love to Him in constant doubt, getting tired of His way of life, etc., etc. Only once does Joni get a particular break, and that's on the accappella piece 'The Fiddle And The Drum', which seems to me like a veiled anti-war song ('and so once again, oh America my friend, you are fighting us all, and when we ask you why, you raise your sticks and cry and we fall...') and which is actually one of the weaker pieces. Accappella doesn't really work for Joni, even if she is a beautiful singer; her strengths are clearly in the guitar-and-vocal interaction, and especially when she perfects her mastery of the vocal overdubbing - check out for yourself the dizzying "falsetto duelling" on 'Songs To Aging Children Come', where one vocal part is just a tiny touch lower than the other so they don't merge completely, and it produces a true angelic effect. A very similar trick is played on the chorus of the also gorgeous 'The Gallery', where the infidel lover is lyrically compared to a painter and his gallery of ladies.

Still, the couple of relative duds on here almost bring the rating down (apart from 'The Fiddle', there's stuff like 'I Think I Understand', which I don't think qualifies as genius), and it's up to 'Both Sides Now' to rectify the position: it is, justifiably, one of the greatest songs Joni ever did. Primarily because of the lyrics - if the lyrics to 'Both Sides Now' aren't poetry of the highest order, then nothing is. You don't even need to hear the song; just look at the friggin' lyrics sheet. The three-part verses are all structured according to a complex and inventive scheme: (a) something formerly viewed as great (clouds, love, life) due to the usual cliched notions of these objects; (b) problems that arise with each of these objects as they're experienced further and further; (c) the refusal to acknowledge the real nature of these things - the willing to rest grounded in the old idealistic cliches. I'm no great poetry expert, but this looks like a terrific concept to me, and in no way cliched (only using asserted cliches in a self-conscious, "quoting" way); and coupled with the inspired delivery and the actual catchiness of the vocal melody, it makes up for a tremendous highlight of late Sixties culture. Don't make the mistake of overlooking this song - had Joni never written anything else, this would by itself put her on the same lyrical level with rock-poetry giants such as Dylan or Peter Gabriel.



Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 11

This is, uhm, "transitional" or some other meaningless word like that to convey the vague idea of good, but not TOO good.

Best song: WOODSTOCK

Joni started getting some commercial success here, primarily, I think, because the public tastes started drifting towards that whole singer-songwriter, soft-rock, country-schlock, James Taylor-meets-the-Carpenters scene (I am intentionally generalizing here - this was a huge scene, incorporating both great and profoundly mediocre acts, of course). Joni was hanging out with these guys, after all, and making music that was in the same vein, so I guess for some people it didn't make much difference whether they'd be entertained by her or, say, Linda Ronstadt.

In any case, I personally find the record a bit of a letdown. It has some of Joni's biggest songs on it, but so did Clouds, and here she's continuing the line of Clouds (mostly simple acoustic-guitar-or-piano based melodies), but with weaker results overall. Many of the songs eventually break through on repeated listens, but not all of them, and in the end I get the feeling that some songs on here are just half-decent toss-offs. Technically speaking, there is some progress: a couple of the songs feature woodwind instrumentation, presaging the feel of her later jazz records, and another couple feature moody instrumental passages, presaging the feel of her "late period proggish" work. But these are merely hints, and hadn't I pilfered these observations from the AMG review, they would have probably been absent on this page altogether.

But let's start with the good news first. Pretty often I think that Ladies is a test-of-will - whether you'll be able to sit through the first nine songs only to get to the final three, which are (melodically and "general feel-like", at least) heads and tails above the rest. At least two of them you probably know well, as they're the ones that are most often associated with Joni. There's the smash pop hit 'Big Yellow Taxi', which kind of comes crashing at you after the lethargy of those nine songs, with an upbeat, almost danceable acoustic riff and a verse-chorus structure that any professional popmeister could kill for. The eco-rock lyrics are pretty naive and even laughable by Joni's usual standards of profundity ('give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees, please!'), however, you never can tell with Joni, because the last verse unpredictably dismisses the ecological concerns and accentuates personal relationships - turning a potential lyrical dud into yet another proof of the woman's gift. Who else has a half-eco-rock, half-intimate-problems song in his/her catalog?

There's also 'Woodstock'. I confess to having for a long long time preferred the rocking version of CSN&Y, and I still love it to death, but Joni's original is really something else. The touch of genius here lies in using the electric piano as the main instrument: it gives the song extra mystery and solemnity, and taken together with the Biblical style of the lyrics ('I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road...'), it gives me the creeps, and I'm serious. The song is pretty innocent as such - hailing the ideals of Woodstock, almost extolling the whole thing as a means of becoming one with God ('we've got to get ourselves back to the garden'), but what's up with that general creepy feel? And what's up with the sly "add-ons" in the final chorus, not included in the lyrics sheet? "We are stardust - million year old carbon... We are golden - caught in the Devil's bargain...". Apparently, the song works on many levels.

Finally, there's 'The Circle Game', where Joni is backed by "The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir", whoever these guys are: this time, a song that weds a bright-sounding James Taylor-ish acoustic melody to a positively pessimistic message ("circle game" = "karma", you understand). Catchy and anthemic, forming a perfect conclusion to the triad of highlights.

But then there's the rest of the album, and I don't really know what to say about it. It's mostly Joni meandering about, churning out rambling piano and acoustic guitar melodies that hold zero memorability, giving out observations and social comments and what-not in non-verse-non-chorus sequences, occasionally returning to the style of Song To A Seagull but with arguably less complexity and originality - that debut album might have been even less memorable, but it was intriguing, whereas I feel little intrigue here. Okay, so it starts out well enough with 'Morning Morgantown', one of the more "accessible" and nice-flowing ditties on here, but then 'For Free', where she compares her "stardom" with the unknown wasted talents of a street clarinet player, just rambles on and does nothing - apart from a suitably well-placed clarinet solo at the end. 'Conversation', 'Rainy Night House', 'The Priest' - all these still pass me by, even if there are some nice vocal twists to be found, and Joni's lyrics are usually a gas to read.

At least there's some general rhythmic-and-melodic grace to the title track (gotta love the way Joni sings 'she is a lady of the canyon' at the end of the first verse), and there's more of that ominous Biblical mood on 'The Arrangement', lyrically the most gruesome part of the show - 'you could have been more than a name on the door' goes the first line. And note that the rating is still pretty high, meaning that none of the songs are bad: at this point in her life, Joni simply was above doing bad songs. Each of these tunes is able to evocate a mood while it's on, and Joni's singing, too, is at an all-time high: listen to the dizzy way she alternates between falsetto and creepily low notes on 'The Arrangement', for instance. Plus, the 'Big Yellow Taxi/Woodstock/Circle Game' sequence alone is worth a big golden bar. I just wouldn't want anybody to make this his first Joni purchase, 'sall.


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