To my ears, Joni Mitchell kept improving with each of her first four albums, culminating in a record that’s generally acknowledged as one of her classics, Blue. Knowing that two albums later she would equal or exceed that effort (critically & commercially), it’s understandable that the follow-up to Blue, For The Roses (1972), is slightly overlooked. Sonically it’s not much of a departure from its predecessor, still focusing on Joni’s voice accompanied by piano or acoustic guitar, with a subtle rhythm section (Wilton Felder and Russ Kunkel on bass & drums, respectively) and a few notable guest appearances. Things get off to a strong start with “The Banquet,” a song about society’s haves and have-nots. It’s got a memorable melody and a great hook in the chorus (“some get the gravy…”), and I like the way her voice soars on the word “glide.” I really enjoyed her vocal inflections and the offbeat melody of the acoustic guitar-based “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire,” which features some nice sax work by Tom Scott (billed here as Tommy Scott) and electric guitar by the legendary James Burton.
The first song to point to the jazzier direction her music would soon take is one of my favorites here, “Barangrill.” It’s got a moody jazz-folk vibe with an excellent vocal performance and guitar interplay. The lyrics are a little abstract, so I’m not sure what it’s about (any ideas?), but the title seems to be a play on the phrase “bar and grill.” The hit single from this album was “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio,” a love song to radio (or possibly FROM a radio station to its listeners). There’s a nice harmonica intro from Graham Nash, and it’s got a midtempo acoustic Bob Dylan feel. This is definitely one of Joni’s most joyful performances. Another highlight is “For The Roses,” with Joni on acoustic guitar and featuring a killer hook in the 4-note guitar motif during the verses. Although the lyrics, seemingly about her longing for a former lover who’s now a big star, are bitter and sad and the music is a bit somber, the song itself has an uplifting quality. “See You Sometime” is a companion to the title track, with Joni on piano this time. She seems a little happier here, but she’s still not ready to let go & move on.
[Joni Mitchell - "Barangrill"]
The rest of the album includes some strong songs, like “Let The Wind Carry Me” (with the great jazzy interlude in the middle section), “Blonde In The Bleachers” (a brief tune with Stephen Stills providing all the accompaniment) and “Woman Of Heart And Mind” (sounding like a James Taylor song, and including the “F” word, which must have been a shock to her fans at the time). I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as the albums that bookend it, but For The Roses shouldn’t be overlooked. At any other point in her career it would’ve been considered an unmitigated triumph.
Where do I start with Court And Spark (1974)? Some fans prefer other Joni albums, but the consensus seems to be that this was the high-water mark of her career. It’s hard to argue that point. It’s certainly her most cohesive collection of songs, both thematically and musically. I imagine that a number of her fans were turned off by the jazzier direction her music took here, but this is not avant-garde or bebop. It’s got a West Coast cool jazz vibe that complements these songs perfectly, while never going into easy listening territory. The first song, “Court And Spark,” shows her voice sounding huskier but still youthful. It’s followed by “Help Me,” a killer tune with a mellow and jazzy arrangement (and guitar great Larry Carlton). The lyrics are about an untrustworthy lover, but she also admits to being untrustworthy, and there’s a great melodic hook with the line, “We love our lovin’, but not like we love our freedom.” Truly one of Joni’s best, and followed by the equally fabulous “Free Man In Paris.” This one is told from a man’s perspective, a popular musician who escapes fame by heading to France, only to be pulled back to his rock star life by the commitments of fame. I’m guessing this is a thinly veiled autobiographical story. Not only do David Crosby and Graham Nash provide gorgeous harmonies, but there’s some wonderful guitar playing from Jose Feliciano and Larry Carlton. That’s quite a triumvirat of songs to start the album, but there’s a lot more to love.
“Raised On Robbery” stands out from the rest of these songs. With Robbie Robertson on guitar, it becomes a fun 50’s style rocker, but not before a great intro with electric piano and vocals that sound like an old Andrews Sisters performance. “Car On A Hill” is Steely Dan-esque, especially the horn and guitar intro. I especially liked the middle section with woodwinds and chorused vocals. It’s my favorite of the three songs after “Free Man In Paris,” and it’s followed by the wonderful and interesting “Down To You,” where she seems to be blaming herself for her romantic struggles (set to a sparse arrangement of piano & vocals, and Joni on clavinet). I never expected the pastoral instrumental interlude in the middle section (2+ minutes of it), with strings and woodwinds (and possibly a French horn), but the song wouldn’t be as strong without it.
Another new favorite is “Just Like This Train,” especially the little climbing guitar figure that later gets embellished with woodwinds. Also, as a Steely Dan fan, the groove reminds me a bit of “Deacon Blues.” “Trouble Child” hooked me with the recurring 10-note pattern and that muted trumpet at the end (by Chuck Findley), which segues into album closer “Twisted,” an old Lambert, Hendricks & Ross jazz vocal song. You can hear in her voice that she’s having a blast singing this, and if you listen closely you’ll hear Cheech And Chong say a few words before the last verse. All in all, Court And Spark is rightfully considered a classic.
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975), with its striking cover painting of natives carrying a large snake through a grass field, overlooking what I believe is Joni’s home of Laurel Canyon, really separates itself from any of her previous releases. I should note here that Joni has painted all of her album covers, and this one might be the strongest so far. Musically it’s also her most daring, and I can hear a lot of her old fans shouting “what is this?” back in 1975. Perhaps I would’ve had a similar reaction if I followed her career from the start, but since I came to her music much later I can appreciate each album without any preconceived notions. This album is every bit as enjoyable & rewarding as her previous releases, and showed some new sonic textures that would help open up her music for the future. This is especially true on “The Jungle Line,” which is driven by the African percussion of the Drummers Of Burundi, and is highlighted by some Moog synth textures. This tribal percussive sound was popularized in the early 80’s by artists like Adam And The Ants and Bow Wow Wow, but I hear a direct link between this song and XTC’s “Travels In Nihilon” from their 1980 album Black Sea. I love both of these songs, and although I never expected to make a connection between these two artists, the similarity is definitely there.
Compare to XTC’s “Travels In Nihilon”:
The album opens with “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” which wouldn’t have been out of place on Court And Spark. It’s got a great hook (“And we were rolling, rolling, rock ‘n’ rolling”) with backing vocals by James Taylor, David Crosby & Graham Nash, as well as some stinging lead guitar from Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers) and Robben Ford. “Edith And The Kingpin,” a story about a woman and her mobster boyfriend, might be a precursor to the music of Sade. The bass-driven “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,” about a woman who accepts an unhappy marriage in return for a life of means, is a dark tune that’s somehow bouncy, and I love her scat vocals in the middle. Another highlight here is the nearly 7 minutes of “Harry’s House – Centerpiece.” The first section (written by Joni) has a slow jazzy groove and sad lyrics about the daily lives of a husband & wife as he goes to work every day, while the second section (written in the 50’s by Johnny Mandel and Jon Hendricks) is sexier and a little more sedate.
The album closes with “Shadows And Light” (a title she would use for a future live album), which is like nothing else she had done before: Just Joni layering her vocals on top of various synth sounds (which change with each verse). It’s a very powerful way to end the record. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about, but that applies to much of the album, as her writing was getting a little more abstract. I don’t think The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is as accessible as her previous work, but with at least 5 or 6 notable songs and a broadening of her musical palette, it’s up there among my favorite Joni albums.
Between Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, she released her first live album, Miles Of Aisles (1974), an 18-song 2-record set that was credited to Joni Mitchell And The L.A. Express (a West Coast jazz ensemble led by Tom Scott). Ironically, only half of the songs feature these additional musicians, as 9 of them are just Joni on guitar or piano. The song selection is excellent, with fan favorites like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” “A Case Of You,” “Circle Game” (including an audience sing-along) and “Both Sides Now.” There’s nothing here that outshines the original studio versions, although “Cactus Tree” comes close. It’s not an essential release, but it’s good to hear what Joni sounded like in concert during her commercial peak. There are also two new songs (recorded live) at the end of the record. The first one (“Jericho”) is good but unremarkable, while the second (“Love Or Money”) is excellent, carried along by the funky groove.
Now it’s time for me to turn my attentions to the albums she released in the second half of the ‘70s. As with the rest of her catalog, it’s been years since I listened to them, but I remember these all being challenging yet rewarding listening experiences. I’ll be back next week with my comments on them. Until then, thanks again for visiting.