The Late Movies: Joni Mitchell, Then and Now

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OK, I have a confession to make: I'm a big wuss and I love Joni Mitchell. It's almost all my mom listened to while I was growing up, so even before I started discovering music on my own, I was pretty familiar with most of her stuff from the late 60s through the 80s. A lot of people love the old classics -- her 1971 album Blue still makes a lot of critical "desert island" top ten lists -- and while I certainly do too, I think she's done interesting and innovative work since then as well, much of which gets overlooked.

So this is a special kind of list. It's one especially good song from every Joni Mitchell album in chronological order, which, if listened to from start to finish, should provide an interesting snapshot of the progression of her style (from the folky 60s to the jazzy 70s and poppy 80s and then back to her folk roots in the 90s and beyond) and her voice, which gets gravelly and deep as the years wear on (she's been a smoker for decades, and you can tell; though she can't hit the high notes like she used to, I think it gives her voice a cool, weathered quality).

Song for a Seagull: "Cactus Tree" (1969)

The big hit from her debut album, the one that launched her into stardom, back in her flowy-gowned, ethereal hippie days.

Clouds: "Songs to Aging Children Come" (1969)

Another sparsely arranged album, mostly just Joni's voice and guitar. This is an early example of her musical experimentation -- there are certainly more popular songs from this album ("Both Sides Now," for instance), but the Allmusic guide credits this song with having "perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music." I couldn't find her original on YouTube -- this is a cover version used in the film Alice's Restaurant.

Ladies of the Canyon: "For Free" (1970)

The album's title refers to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of LA, where Mitchell and a lot of other music scenesters of the era lived, and the album deals with the complexities of celebrity and love and the Woodstock generation in a really lucid and honest way. This song -- among her best, I think -- captures the mixed feelings she must've had about her sudden fame and fortune.

OK, I'm breaking my rule and including a second song from this album -- "Rainy Night House," which is so snaky and jazzy and unlike much of what she'd done up to this point. I feel like this is the song that kind of points her way into the 70s, musically. She's definitely leaving behind the ethereal hippie girl vibe here. (This is a live version recorded a few years after the album was released.)

Blue: "A Case of You" (1971)

In January 2000, the New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music." I couldn't agree more -- every song on this album is like an intricate little gem. They're all worthy of posting here, but this song gets me every time. This performance looks like it's from the late 70s or early 80s -- but I think it still resonates loud and clear.

For the Roses: "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (1972)

Her big hit on this album was "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" -- written semi-sarcastically after record company execs requested she turn out a radio-friendly song -- but I think it's one of her least interesting. There's way more soul in this track, about a heroin addict searching for "lady relief" --

Court and Spark: "Court and Spark"(1974)

Her best-selling album ever, recorded after a two-year hiatus from the music biz. It's clear she spent those years listening to a lot of jazz, because it's infused throughout what used to be a much more straightforwardly folky sound. I've always loved this one --

And speaking of jazz, Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones' cover of it ain't bad either:

The Hissing of Summer Lawns: "Edith and the Kingpin" (1975)

OK, this is where most people who like "early" Joni Mitchell check out and stop paying attention, but I think some of her most interesting work starts here. She completely reinvents her sound on this album -- again -- and the result are these complex, multilayered, snaky, jazzy numbers that paint these very cinematic portraits of little situations and moments in time. I can't think of anything else that sounds like this, before or since. (Also, this is when musical geniuses in their own right like Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny became part of her sound -- her "band," I guess you could call them.)

Hejira: "Amelia" (1976)

Sparse and thoughtful, these were songs written on a cross-country road trip. I think this homage to Amelia Earhart is the standout.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter: "Overture/Cotton Avenue" (1977)

Super experimental, improvisational, and loose, it's one of her least accessible but most intriguing albums (and definitely one of her least known). Lots of overdubbing and harmonies here create big, weird sonic landscapes -- and bassist Jaco Pastorius does some of his best work here, especially in this song (which kicks into high gear around 2:00 -- wait for it).

joni-mingus

Mingus: "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" (1979)

Recorded with jazz pioneer Charles Mingus in the months before his death, it would be Mingus' final recording effort, and the album is dedicated wholly to him. Joni also painted the above picture of Mingus -- included as an LP album insert (which I have framed and hung on the wall of my office, FYI). Also notable as the first album she released while I was, like, alive.

Try not to tap your feet to the funky-ass jive she and Jaco lay down on this track, I dare you.

Wild Things Run Fast: "Moon at the Window" (1982)

Another reinvention of her sound. There are several tracks on this album that are definitely of the 80s -- and I don't think they're among her best work -- but there are a number of gems, like this one. Interestingly, Joni said in an interview that the Police influenced the change in her sound: "their rhythmic hybrids, and the positioning of the drums, and the sound of the drums, was one of the main calls out to me to make a more rhythmic album."

Dog Eat Dog: "Ethiopia" (1985)

Warning: this album is HEAVILY 80s. Lots of fans were pissed about all the synths she used (Thomas Dolby produced some of the tracks), and it's fascinating how angry a lot of these songs are -- though it seems a heartfelt reaction to the materialism of the 80s. This song isn't my fave or anything, but it just seems so quintessentially of the time -- that awful famine in Ethiopia seemed like it was the only thing on the news when I was growing up -- that it captures the album for me.

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm: "The Beat of Black Wings" (1988)

The last of her super-synthy 80s albums, it has a few standouts, and is notable, I think, for how political it is. She rails against consumerism, commercialism and the destruction of Native American culture (and Native American musical tropes pop up throughout the songs). In case their are kids in the room: Joni talks about abortion and drops a big fat F-bomb in this one.

Night Ride Home: "Passion Play" (1991)

A return to form, in my opinion. She ditches most of the synths, gets out the guitar and the piano, and kicks ass. There are several great songs here. I'm including three. It's that good!

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

A brilliant musical rendition of Yeats' seminal poem. Truly powerful. (Please ignore the video's insanely annoying on-the-nose graphics, however. Maybe hide the window?)

Two Grey Rooms

A heartfelt piano ballad inspired by a story about German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who, amid the repression of Germany's antigay Paragraph 175 laws, was left broken-hearted by a male lover in his youth. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell says of the song:

It's a story of obsession ... about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby gray rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work.

She's released several albums since then, my favorite being Turbulent Indigo, but videos of the songs are tough to find. Check out her rendition (songification?) of the Book of Job (no kidding), called "The Sire of Sorrow." Dang.

February 8, 2010 - 6:18pm
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