Ladies of the Canyon

Not Rated

Along with the other established ladies of folkdom, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins, both Mrs. Harris and Miss Mitchell have been around a while, Some brilliant chick folksingers have vanished — Judy Henske, Alice Stuart and Rosalie Sorrels whither art thou? — but these two have endured. This is Joan's eleventh album and Joni's third and in their own gentle ways they come to grips with the teeth of the times in their curiously lyrical, frankly autobiographical fashion.

Joni Mitchell writes some of the finest tunes around and matches their flowing hesitancy with her enduring epiphanies and modern parables. Her clever inner rhymes and stylized satire have been around for years — recall Tom Rush's "Circle Game" and Judy Collins' "Both Sides Now"? Ably matched here by "For Free," "Conversation" and the already CSNYed "Woodstock," not to mention the elusive "The Priest" or the incisive "Ladies of the Canyon" and seven other enigmatic, poetic word-journeys that move from taxis to windows to whiskey bars to boots of leather and racing cars. Plus the fact that Joni has now mastered the piano to the point where she employs it rather than guitar on nearly half the cuts — she plays it shrilly with a lot of echo and lingering notes, giving certain songs even more dimension and wideness. Other innovations this time out are a mild use of horns and even vocal choruses on some cuts. The choruses don't work for me — I think they ruin her long-awaited version of "Circle Game" — but the point is debatable. The use of horns is excellent — in particular the minor riff at the close of the stunning. "For Free."

And "Woodstock" must be mentioned. Forget the hyper-active CSNY version and listen to this one. Joni uses a heavily-amped electric guitar and sings the hell out of each phrase, each syllable of this soon-to-be anthem of the Seventies. She takes her time and the song has its mellowing, quicksilver effect: "We are stardust/Million year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil's bargain/And we got to get ourselves/Back to the garden." An album of departures, overheard conversations and unquiet triumphs for this hymnal lady who mingles the random with the particular so effectively. Now that she has stopped touring to concentrate on writing, successive albums ought to get better and better.

Joan's album is curiously refreshing. It ought to have been entitled David's Album Volume Two, for all the songs were chosen again to cast musical shadows on the fact that her man is in prison. Thus we get vibrant versions of Bonnie & Delaney's "Ghetto," the Stones' "No Expectations" and Gil Turner's "Carry It On," among others. But useless cuts creep in: her re-done version of "Long Black Veil" is just repetitive, while the spasmodic "Jolie Blonde" is plain unnecessary. If there is a problem, it is that she is still stuck in Nashville singing through a montage of musicians led by Grady Tate (the formula for her last two albums also), though other idiosyncrasies occur this time. She is joined by Jeff Shurtleff for vocal duets on three cuts — the most effective of these being the title tune, Willy Nelson's introspective "One Day At A Time."

Oddly enough, the highpoint of each side occurs when Joan sings the songs she authored. "Sweet Sir Galahad," which is about her sister Mimi, the ghost of Richard Farina and Milan Melvin, along with the revealing "Song For David," succeed musically and lyrically, probably because the emotions and recollections are so close to home. Also interesting is Joan's version of the old union song "Joe Hill," from which Dylan borrowed ingeniously for his "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine."

Two albums of lyricism and folk echoes from two impresarios of the current music scene. I just wish Joan would leave Nashville behind for the next one.

From The Archives Issue 553: June 1, 1989