Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

JONI MITCHELL Part 2 – Lady Of The Canyon

Over the last ten days, I’ve probably listened to the first four Joni Mitchell albums more than any cluster of albums since I began writing this blog. The first couple of times, the well-known songs shone through, but everything else just blended together. There was lots of high-voiced Joni accompanying herself on guitar or piano, and although it was enjoyable a lot of the songs seemed to flow into one another. I’m glad I stayed with them, though, because eventually some incredible songs revealed themselves. This is not my favorite period of Joni’s career (I recall that era beginning shortly after this batch of albums, which I hope to confirm in the next couple of posts), but there’s a lot to like here and I now have a better understanding and appreciation of her early years.

Her first album, Song To A Seagull (1968), was produced by David Crosby, and it’s basically Joni accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. It’s surprising that she didn’t include a couple of her songs that were previously made popular by other artists, but she decided to save those for her next album, choosing instead to showcase previously unheard tunes. The opening track, “I Had A King,” is one of the strongest songs here. It has a moody, brooding quality, and the chorus section (“I can’t go back there anymore”) is very catchy. “Night In The City” is probably my favorite track, featuring Stephen Stills on bass and Joni on piano. The choruses include some great layered harmonies, which I assume are all performed by Joni. On “Sisotowbell Lane,” I enjoyed the rhythmic feel to some of the vocals (“Sometimes we do”) and the pretty acoustic guitar playing. The dark-sounding “The Pirate Of Penance” showcases Joni singing as two characters (Penance Crane and The Dancer), and I think the speedy melody of lines like “She dances for the sailors in a smoky cabaret…” clearly influenced the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Déjà Vu.” Also, “Cactus Tree” is a beautiful song that might have inspired Robert Plant & Jimmy Page to write Led Zeppelin’s “Going To California” a couple of years later. The remainder of the album is typical “sensitive singer-songwriter” stuff that never really caught my attention. Still, it’s a much stronger album than I initially thought.

Joni stepped up her game on her next album, Clouds (1969). While sonically similar to its predecessor, the songwriting is much more consistent, both lyrically & melodically. It also includes two of her most popular songs, “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now.” The former is the first happy, upbeat song in her catalog, and I love the chorus of multiple Joni voices at the end. The latter is one of her most powerful compositions. Written in 1967 when she was just 24, somehow she captured the melancholy of growing older at such an early age, and although it’s a sad song it’s also strangely uplifting. It also features her strongest vocal performance to date. She would re-record this song 30 years later, with many more years of life experience, and it was just as powerful, but I’ll get to that in a later post.

The two aforementioned songs were not the only standouts on this album. “Tin Angel” wouldn’t have been out of place on her debut, but her voice sounds fuller and has more character. I can also hear where Marti Jones, a criminally overlooked singer-songwriter from the 80s & 90s, got her sound from. “Roses Blue” has a haunting melody & a captivating background guitar part. “The Gallery” is a lovely song with poignant lyrics about loving an artist who’s been unfaithful. “Songs To Aging Children Come” has Joni harmonizing with herself to great effect, and was a clear influence on the early work of fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan. Although “The Fiddle And The Drum” is not a terribly catchy song, it stands out because of her a capella performance. I wouldn’t rate this as a classic album, but you can hear her developing her artistry and showcasing songs that would become standards. She would continue this trend on her next album.

The biggest surprise about Joni’s third album, Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), is that she saved the three strongest songs for last. “Big Yellow Taxi” is probably the one even non-Joni fans are aware of, a true “pop” song with a lyrical message about the environment and the commercialization of America (except for the last verse, which gets personal when her lover leaves in that big yellow taxi). Most people probably know “Woodstock” from the excellent Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version, but Joni’s original has its own charms. It’s slower and much more brooding, and although the lyrics are hopeful you can sense some bitterness and sadness in her performance. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that she was invited to play at the Woodstock festival in 1969 but her manager said she’d be better off guesting on Dick Cavett’s talk show instead, missing out on a huge career opportunity. The last of the three killer songs is “The Circle Game,” which includes touching lyrics about a child growing up, from toddler to age 20, set to a beautiful melody and a chorus that sounds like a campfire sing-along.

There are some other key tracks on this album, including “Morning Morgantown,” which begins proceedings with a beautiful acoustic guitar & piano arrangement and a pretty chorus. “For Free” has some excellent piano playing from Joni, and a story about a street musician happily playing for free even as he’s ignored by passers-by, while the narrator (a professional musician, and probably Joni) sadly looks on. The guitar pattern on “Ladies Of The Canyon” reminds me of Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky” (from their album The Wall). Am I the only one who hears this? The verses of “The Arrangement,” with just Joni on piano, really caught my attention, and “Rainy Night House” is a decent song that’s elevated by some haunting background vocals (presumably all done by Joni). This is another excellent but not-quite-great album which shows continued growth in her songwriting & performance. She just needed a little more variety, which was not far off.

Blue (1971) is generally regarded as her first 5-star classic. For me, she’s almost there but there are still a couple of unremarkable songs that keep this from earning legendary status for me. However, I want to make it clear that this is a great record and my favorite of her first four. She sounds much more confident in her playing & singing, the songs are less folky than on previous efforts, and there’s a maturity throughout that wasn’t always apparent before. From what I’ve read, the previous year she took a sabbatical from music and traveled through Europe after the end of a relationship (with Graham Nash, I believe), and she came back refreshed & focused…and happy.

“All I Want” is an excellent love song that begins the album. “My Old Man” wouldn’t be out of place on Carole King’s Tapestry (released the same year). Instead of longing for an unattainable love, as she had done on many previous songs, here she sounds content with her lover, clearly stating that marriage isn’t necessary for happiness (“we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true”). “Little Green” has some powerful lyrics about a baby she gave up for adoption in 1965, although the music itself is merely pleasant. The joy in her voice on “Carey” is infectious, making it one of my favorite Joni songs. “California” is an upbeat tune about returning home after her overseas sojourn, as well as the end of ‘60s hippie idealism.

The guitar tuning on “This Flight Tonight” sounds an awful lot like the sounds Jimmy Page was getting on acoustic guitar around this time. I’ve heard that he was influenced by Joni’s tunings, so this may be a perfect example of that. “River” is one of the key songs in her catalog. It’s not actually a Christmas song, but the lyrics (and the incorporation of “Jingle Bells” into the melody) capture the melancholy of that season. I love the way her voice soars on the word “fly” in the line “I would teach my feet to fly.” Another fan favorite is “A Case Of You.” I can’t tell if this is a love song to a current partner or a former flame. It has a simple, sparse arrangement with a catchy chorus. For some reason I don’t love this song even though it’s one of her most popular, although I do love that chorus. It’s hard to complain when a 10-song album has 6-7 excellent songs, so while I know she would go on to record some more diverse & challenging music, this is still some of the best music she made in the early part of her career. I’d love to hear from Joni fans out there, since I know there are people who regard her early albums as the pinnacle of her career and may not agree with my appraisals.

Now it’s time to move on to the next several albums, including the one that’s generally regarded as her masterpiece, Court And Spark. I know I loved that album when I first heard it over 15 years ago, but it’s been years since I played it and I’m curious to see if it still lives up to its reputation.

30 comments on “JONI MITCHELL Part 2 – Lady Of The Canyon

  1. Geff
    October 1, 2011

    I would personally either combine Blue with For The Roses & Court & Spark; or Ladies, Blue & Roses as far as a trilogy. Good writing!


    • Thanks, Geff. After I finish the next batch of albums, I’ll have to let you know which ones seem like a trilogy. Based on what I recall of those albums, I think it’ll start with “Blue,” since “Ladies…” felt closer to the first two albums than to “Blue.”


  2. joe base
    October 2, 2011

    i think nazareth even covered ‘this flight tonight’ early on


    • Thanks for reminding me about that Nazareth version of “This Flight Tonight,” Joe. I just played the original and the Nazareth version (from their Greatest Hits LP) back to back, and unless you’re paying attention to the lyrics there’s no way you’d realize it’s the same song. I like both versions for what they are, but the original wins just for the acoustic guitar sound.


  3. Brian
    October 4, 2011

    Rich- I think you nailed it with your assessment of her first four. I don’t have her first album but “Clouds” to me is an album with a couple of amazing standouts, some decent tracks and some filler. “Ladies” is better and has the 4 classics but “Blue” is my all time favorite of hers- even more than “Court and Spark” which ranks second. The title cut is a personal fave. Also “All I Want”, “The River”, “A Case Of You”, “My Old Man”. “Last Time I Saw Richard” and “Little Green” and “California” as well. Agree with you on “Carey”- like it but don’t love it- ditto “This Flight Tonight”. “Court and Spark” is an amazing album for sure but “Blue” just does it for me a bit more.

    My favorite slightly left of center Joni cut though is “Coyote”. Interesting to see if you feel the same.


    • Hey Brian. Glad you liked my comments on Joni’s first 4 albums, and once again we’re pretty much in agreement. I think I like a few of her albums more than “Blue,” if only because there’s more diversity to the music (with the same quality songwriting), but it’s by far the strongest of the batch I just finished revisiting. How far into her catalog have you gone? I think she lost a lot of listeners by the late-70s, but I remember some really cool music from that time. I can’t wait to listen to those once again. Also, I just wanted to clarify that I love “Carey.” It’s “A Case Of You” that I like but don’t understand why it’s considered one of her best.


  4. Brian
    October 20, 2011

    Hey Rich,

    sorry for the late reply- I’ve been very slammed at work and in life 🙂 I don’t have her first album or any of the live albums but have everything else up through “Hejira”. I should probably pick up at least “Don Juan” and “Mingus” right? The big two “Blue” and “Court and Spark” are my favorites, but I definitely love many cuts from the others as well.


  5. Brian
    October 20, 2011

    and glad you also dig “Coyote”. That’s a top five cut of hers for me.


    • Hey Brian. If you like Hejira (which it seems like you do), then Don Juan’s… & Mingus should be right up your alley. I like these albums (and The Hissing…) as much as Blue & Court And Spark, but they’re definitely not for everyone.

      I hope your work & home life slow down soon. As always, thanks for checking in.


  6. Jeremy Gloff
    July 18, 2012

    Hey Rich – stumbled upon your blog! Reading through all these right now! I kinda did the same thing with my joni collection a few years ago:

    it will be interesting to see how our opinions match up!


    • Hi Jeremy. Thanks so much for stopping by. I did a quick overview of your Joni retrospective post and I’m very impressed. I will find some time in the next couple of days to give it the time it deserves. I love hearing from someone who’s been a fan for a while, since you have a totally different perspective than mine.

      My approach here is to revisit catalogs of artists I own but don’t know as well as my favorite artists, and to write about them as I’m getting to know them…while they’re fresh in my mind (and ears). I went from liking Joni to loving her, and so many albums I had previously dismissed are among my favorites now. Looking forward to seeing where we agree and disagree.



      • Jeremy, I finally had some time to read your series on Joni Mitchell and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t see an option there to leave a comment, so I’m hoping you’ll see my reply here. It’s always interesting to hear the opinion of someone who’s been a fan for so long, and yet even though our perspectives on her music (and how it struck us throughout our lives) are very different, our opinions are almost identical. It seems that our favorite era of her career is the mid- to late-70s, but we also found a lot to like in her glossy ’80s albums and beyond. I don’t think I’ll ever have quite the emotional connection to her music that you do, since I didn’t really spend any time with it until I was in my 30s, so I missed out on her during my formative musical years. Still, I’m glad I finally got to know all of her albums after so many years, and I’m sure I’ll grow to love them even more in the future. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Joni.


        **I recommend that anyone reading these comments should check out Jeremy’s site (see the link in his comment above)**


  7. Paul Ruggiero
    January 5, 2013

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the broody production similarities of Woodstock & Led Zep’s No Quarter. I always felt this Joni recording was a blueprint for Jimmy & John Paul Jones.
    She really is a wizard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote this series a while ago so I’m not sure why I didn’t include that reference, but I’m pretty sure I made some kind of comparison between Joni & Zeppelin when discussing one of her albums. It’s so obvious how much she influenced them, especially on their more acoustic stuff, especially with her unique tunings. Of course, years later she did a song called “Led Balloon” that’s one of her most rocking tunes, and I have to think she was being influenced by them on that one.

      I totally agree that she’s a wizard…a true star (with all due respect to Mr. Rundgren…sorry, I couldn’t resist).


  8. Paul Ruggiero
    January 5, 2013

    She once checked me out in Jerry’s 103 back in 1990. It was before I was under her spell and only knew her celebrity not her work. I should have worked that room more.
    Anyway I have to get back to the Klaus Nomi documentary I’m watching on Youtube.
    Great blog!!!


    • I don’t remember Jerry’s 103. It’s cool that you had Joni in your audience, and maybe you were better off not being under her spell at the time.

      The only thing I’ve seen/heard of Klaus Nomi is his performance in “Urgh! A Music War.” I’ve heard there’s a doc about him, and I’d be curious to check it out on youtube when I have some time. Thanks for letting me know it’s there.


  9. Pingback: NEIL YOUNG Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / Three Compilations | KamerTunesBlog

  10. Miriam
    April 8, 2013

    I have always heard that Blue was her masterpiece. I’m 21 now, and my father gave it to me when I was 16 saying “Someday you will need this.” I listened to it alot in high school, and The Last Time I Saw Richard is one of my favourites (“You’ve got tombs in your eyes/ but the songs you punched are dreams”), I’m prone to loving melancholy slightly depressing songs though (River is probably my favourite Springsteen song). Does it not grab you? I think the only track I’m not crazy about is actually the title, I can hear it once in a while but not over and over.

    I stumbled upon this article because I’m only now getting into her older stuff. Song to a Seagull is a little high-voiced and inarticulate for me now, but I’m hoping it will grow on me. I think Cactus Tree is absolutely beautiful, so maybe I’ll warm to the others as well.

    Thanks for this assessment of her albums!


    • Hi Miriam. Thanks for your feedback. It’s always great to hear from someone of a younger generation, since I love to hear how opinions on specific artists, albums &/or songs may differ depending on the age of the listener. I went back to my notes on Blue and apparently “The Last Time I Saw Richard” didn’t do anything for me. I like so much about this album but it wasn’t quite the masterpiece (to my ears) that many fans claim it is, and I guess that’s one of the songs that didn’t impact me. Perhaps my age or my gender might explain that. I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel knowing that Joni’s music continues to inspire listeners of all ages. I hope to hear your thoughts on her other albums whenever you get to it. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Best wishes,


  11. engagingbystanders
    July 4, 2013

    Laurel Canyon has been getting its share of media attention as of late, as well it should, given its rich, rock-and-roll history. John Mayer’s last album, “Born And Raised,” is a kind of tribute to that era and to those great musicians (e.g., Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, etc.), and David Crosby and Graham Nash actually lend their angelic background vocals to the title track. Great stuff.


    • Didn’t realize that Crosby & Nash sang on Mayer’s new album. I love their voices on just about anything they do (they did a great job on David Gilmour’s last studio album). I’ve been hit-and-miss when it comes to John Mayer’s music, loving a few of his albums while others haven’t made much of an impact. His public persona hasn’t helped, although I try to separate artists’ personalities from their music. There have been plenty of artists over the years who kept the Laurel Canyon sound alive, and of course originals like Jackson Browne continue to make solid records late in their careers. And let’s not forget the low-key excellent 2002 movie, “Laurel Canyon” with Frances McDormand and Christian Bale.


      • engagingbystanders
        July 5, 2013

        You’re the second person who mentioned the Laurel Canyon movie; I need to check it out soon. Thanks.


      • I haven’t watched it since seeing it in the theater when it first came out, but I know I enjoyed it a lot. I seem to remember that Frances McDormand played a record producer from the golden era of Laurel Canyon so the music was an important part of the movie. Hope you like it when you see it.


  12. Ovidiu Boar
    March 24, 2014

    ‘Blue’ is one of those classics I don’t really get the love for. Also the case with Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks* and Beck’s Sea Change. Must be the whole break-up tinge that I’m not getting.

    * I’m throwing a link with my writing about that one, just in case some of your readers would like to go over and tell me how wrong I am: http://tangledupinmusic.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/that-one-overrated-album/

    I think only about half of Blue is really great (actually you can scratch the “about”, I could live with precisely 5 of these 10 songs). My question is, are there Joni records you think I’d like, despite not having much love for her most-acclaimed one?


    • Hi Ovidiu. It’s always great hearing from you. I understand your feelings about Blue and my opinion isn’t that far off. I think it’s a very good album but slightly overrated (although the good songs are all fantastic). I’ve always loved Blood On The Tracks and think it deserves its glowing reputation, yet the follow-up album…Desire…is every bit as essential to my ears even though it’s never been talked about with the same reverence as Blood On The Tracks. I’m happy to see your defense of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. I’ve loved it since the day it was released. In fact, I still remember the day they premiered two songs on the radio a few weeks before the album’s release. I believe they were “Your Possible Pasts” and “The Post War Dream.”

      Back to your inquiry about Joni Mitchell. I think you have pretty diverse tastes so I’m sure there are at least a couple of albums you should enjoy. Court And Spark is her first start-to-finish masterpiece. I also love how she tries different styles on several other albums that have become favorites: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Mingus, Wild Things Run Fast and Night Ride Home. Your enjoyment of these may vary on your tolerance for jazz, ’80s production flourishes &/or slick MOR production, but I highly recommend them all. I hope that’s helpful.

      Also, thanks for sharing the link to your “overrated album” post. I hope any of my readers who visit these comments take the time to stop by your blog.


      • Ovidiu Boar
        March 27, 2014

        Very kind words Rich, cheers. ‘Desire’ is a pretty great album, if a bit sloppy lyrically. Will you be reviewing God (ehm sorry, I mean Dylan) some time?

        Thanks for the recommandations, I will be checking those albums out in the near future.


      • It may be a while before I write about Dylan. I do own just about everything he’s officially released, which means it would be a thorough series but would also likely take me 6 months to complete. Maybe I’ll do multiple series split into decades.

        If any of those Joni albums make a positive impact, I’d love to hear your thoughts.



  13. Ovidiu Boar
    March 29, 2014

    Is Dylan one of those “elite” artists that you’ll be saving until the very end? Along with The Beatles, Led Zep etc.?

    Will surely comment on the Joni records. I just don’t know how soon I’ll be able to make some time for her. I have lots and lots of albums on my wishlist at the moment.


    • I’m not holding Dylan back for any particular reason, other than maybe his catalog is so voluminous & intimidating. I have to really want to spend months with his music before undertaking that discography.

      I understand your point about the ever-expanding wish list. As long as you’re constantly discovering great music that’s all that matters.


  14. Pingback: Forty Year Friday – NEIL YOUNG “AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS” AND “DECADE” | KamerTunesBlog

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