Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Joni Mitchell Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.


Song to a Seagull (1968, Reprise)

C +

Much like fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, Joni Mitchell has never been adverse to taking risks in her career and, like Young, her ever-artistically-restless and adventurous spirit as a musician would ultimately end up bringing a screeching halt to her success as a singles artist almost immediately after she finally began to score some major crossover success on Top 40 stations. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that Joni, seldom one to factor timing into her artistic decisions, would take the radically unorthodox move of issuing a concept album as her recorded introduction to the world, one divided into two side-long song suites, “I Came to the City” and the more pastoral “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside.” The concept is a great one and the decision both brave and admirable, but the experiment falls well short of realizing its true potential for two primary reasons. First, while David Crosby, as the disc’s producer, does a commendable job of trying to keep the album interesting even in its weakest or more tedious moments (which mostly occur in the album’s back half, by which time the lack of variety in the tempos of these songs have made the album feel a bit monotonous), his ideas and Joni’s own personal style too often seem at odds with each other, resulting in a disc that feels slightly schizophrenic, and it’s little surprise that Joni would opt to produce herself the next time out. Much more problematic is the fact that Joni has yet to truly master the craft of songwriting at this point; she’s already a captivating lyricist, but she’s yet to figure out how to wed her poetry to particularly strong melodies, and this is consequently one of the hardest pre-Hissing of Summer Lawns albums of Joni’s to remember individual songs from after the disc is done playing. That’s not to say the album is devoid of any redeeming cuts – to the contrary, “Night in the City” (featuring Stephen Stills on bass), “Michael from Mountains,” “I Had a King,” and “Cactus Tree” are all moderately appealing – but those highlights, much like the album itself as a whole, are merely good at best, not great, and fall well short of standing up to the best material from any of the five albums that would immediately follow it.   


Clouds (1969, Reprise)

A –

Clouds is even rawer in its arrangements and production than its predecessor (like that album, Stephen Stills once again serves as the only credited player besides Joni herself, who alternates – as she would on nearly all her earliest albums – back and forth between acoustic guitar and piano), but the album ends up, despite its stark nature, being wildly more engaging and captivating than Song to a Seagull. Part of that is undoubtedly due to Joni’s continued growth as a lyricist, but more critically, her melodies are dramatically stronger this time around and, while she didn’t technically have a hit herself with any of these songs, Judy Collins did, reaching the Hot 100 with “Chelsea Morning” and rocketing all the way into the Top Ten with “Both Sides Now.” Both songs became almost instant classics, and the latter song – which Rolling Stone has rightly hailed as one of the two hundred greatest songs of all-time – would be covered by countless dozens of artists ranging from Dion and Neil Diamond to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. But while those two songs alone justify the price of admission, they’re far from being the only strong cuts here, and songs like “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “Tin Angel,” the anti-war “The Fiddle and the Drum” and “That Song About the Midway” all similarly demonstrate Mitchell’s growth as a songwriter since her last record. Clouds isn’t merely a radical improvement on the debut – it’s the first in a long unbroken run of five classics that Joni would put out in a six-year period.  


Ladies of the Canyon (1970, Reprise)


Joni’s third album is musically more vibrant than either of her previous albums, largely in part due to a greater mix of both tempos and instruments. [Not only is Joni incorporating more piano-based tunes like the highly appealing “Rainy Night House” into her repertoire to go along with her usual wistful, acoustic-guitar-based folk songs like the well-placed opener “Morning Morgantown,” but the disc also finds her utilizing multiple outside players, including percussionist Milt Holland, saxophonist Jim Horn, and cellist Teresa Adams.] The songwriting, too, is just as solid, if not better, than the material offered up on Clouds, and it’s only the sequencing of the disc that makes the album feel at all flawed, particularly since the three best songs here – each one of them a bona fide classic – are all saved for the very end of the album. This means that the album’s first side isn’t nearly as immediate in its melodies as any of Joni’s other full-lengths from the same time period, but the listener is more than amply rewarded for their patience in the disc’s back half. “Woodstock” would go on to be a massive hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young after being given a rock-and-roll arrangement (the folk group Matthews’ Southern Comfort would similarly have a Top 40 hit with the song as well), but Joni’s own version is an entirely different kind of beast altogether, featuring just Joni backing herself on electric piano. The ecologically-minded “Big Yellow Taxi” (most easily recognized by the line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”) would stop shy of reaching the Top 40, peaking at #67 (though Joni would eventually have a major hit with the song in 1975 in the form of a live version from Miles from Aisles that climbed as high as #24), but the song became an immediate classic all the same, becoming a Top 40 hit for the band The Neighborhood. [Decades later, Janet Jackson would prominently sample the song in her hit “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” while Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton would have a sizable adult-contemporary hit with a cover of the original tune.] The much-covered folk singalong “The Circle Game” is the final classic here and still ranks among the prettiest melodies Joni ever penned, while its chorus is Joni at her most infectious. 


Blue (1971, Reprise)

A +

Blue is the rarest of beasts – an intense and minimalist singer-songwriter album that stood in stark contrast to anything that was on the Top 40 at the time and wasn’t likely to yield anything in the way of a hit single yet didn’t skimp on hooks or memorable melodies, either, and is just as vital a listen to the most casual of Joni Mitchell fans as to those who prefer her more experimental and less-pop-minded material. Most of the album features only Joni backing herself on dulcimer, acoustic guitar, or piano. The other musicians here – including James Taylor (who provides guitar on three cuts), Stephen Stills (who provides bass and guitar on “Carey”), pedal-steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow from the Flying Burrito Brothers, and legendary session drummer Russ Kunkel – are used only minimally; even on most of the few tracks they appear on, they’re still just barely even noticeable, particularly on “A Case of You.” In spite of the sparse nature of these tracks, the album is considerably more engaging than any of her equally-minimalist prior albums, and that can be credited to a combination of Joni’s most soul-baring lyrics yet (most of these songs having been inspired by her breakup with Graham Nash) and the surprisingly immediate melodies. (Suffice to say, with fuller production, several of these songs legitimately could have garnered some radio play.) Just about every last song here is a classic in the Joni Mitchell canon. “A Case of You” (which Prince admired so much, he was known to cover it in concert quite frequently and even recorded a version of it at the same show that produced the soundtrack for Purple Rain) is here, along with “This Flight Tonight” (which Scottish band Nazareth would later score a U.K. Top Ten hit with after radically re-arranging the tune as a hard-rock song to surprisingly good results), the so-sad-yet-so-beautiful Christmas-season favorite “River” (“I wish I had a river I could skate away on”), the slight tango inflections of “California,” the gentle pop bounce of “Carey,” the nostalgic “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” the jubilant syncopated lyrical flourishes of “All I Want,” and, of course, the wildly influential, stark piano balladry of the title cut. This isn’t merely Joni’s best album – you could actually make a strong case for this being quite possibly the most quintessential confessional-singer-songwriter album of all, and absolutely no fan of the Laurel Canyon music scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s should be without a copy of this disc in their collection.


For the Roses (1972, Asylum)


For the Roses marked Joni’s move to a new label, the then-brand-new Asylum Records (founded by music-industry legend David Geffen), and is notable for yielding the first Top 40 hit of Joni’s career, the highly-appealing, harmonica-laced country-pop of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” written – if rather sarcastically – at the request of label executives who didn’t hear a single in the other material Joni had recorded for the album. Whatever Joni might have thought of this request, the powers-that-be at Asylum were technically right – nothing else here sounds even remotely like a single, which makes the song sound a little out of place, even if it’s the standout cut here. But though there are fewer hooks on the disc overall than on either of the previous two discs, there are still many appealing moments all the same – namely, the jazzy “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” “See You Sometime,” “Blonde in the Bleachers” (which unexpectedly tacks on a rock-flavored coda played by Stephen Stills), the piano ballad “Banquet,” and “Woman of Heart and Mind,” most of these all arriving in the album’s back half alongside the aforementioned single – and the disc works fabulously as an album piece. The disc had the misfortune of arriving after the flawless and critically-lauded Blue, so it was almost inevitable that it would be seen as something of a disappointment, but it’s actually one of Joni’s most underrated albums for that very reason. It’s no Blue, no – very few albums are – but by any other measure, this is still a very solid album, and though it lacks quite as many recognizable pop standards as Ladies of the Canyon boasts, this disc feels like every bit as effectively fully-realized an album.


Court and Spark (1974, Asylum)

A +

If not for Blue, this would almost certainly be hailed as Joni’s best album, and though a wildly different type of disc from that stark, confessional outing, Court and Spark – both her most elaborately-produced album yet and her most commercial to date as well – is arguably every bit as stellar and filler-free. Court and Spark is also where Joni’s music truly begins to take on a heavy jazz influence; she’d flirted with hints of jazz on For the Roses, but she delves head-on into that territory here, even recruiting saxophonist Tom Scott and his jazz-fusion combo The L.A. Express (featuring Crusaders members Wilton Felder, Joe Sample, and Larry Carlton) to provide much of the instrumentation. Naturally, some folk purists objected, but the incorporation of jazz into Joni’s blend of folk and pop really helps to both broaden her appeal and expand the limits of her songwriting, which is as strong here as it’s ever been. There were two sizable Top 40 hits here – the dreamy “Help Me,” a very deserving Top Ten hit (the only one Joni would ever have, in fact), and the David Geffen tribute “Free Man in Paris,” featuring Jose Feliciano on guitar – but this album is so much more than its pair of radio hits, and cuts like “People’s Parties,” “The Same Situation,” and “Car on a Hill” are nearly every bit as excellent, while Joni has never rocked harder on record than she does on the jubilant and clavinet-driven “Raised on Robbery,” featuring The Band’s Robbie Robertson on guitar. Indeed, Joni sounds like she’s having the most fun she’s ever had in the studio to this point, and she opts for a playful tone throughout much of the disc that even extends to closing the record with a cover of the vocalese standard “Twisted” that incorporates a cameo from comedy duo Cheech & Chong; rather than seeming tacked on, the cut actually ends the album on a fittingly fun note. The album would prove to be her biggest-selling disc yet, reaching #2 and eventually going double-platinum; Joni would never again reach such great commercial heights, but then she never again put out anything quite as perfect as this record, either.