Joni Mitchell (Reprise, 1968)
Clouds (Reprise, 1969)
Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise, 1970)
Blue (Reprise, 1971)
For the Roses (Asylum, 1972)
Court and Spark (Asylum, 1974)
Miles of Aisles (Asylum, 1974)
The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum, 1975)
Hejira (Asylum, 1976)
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum, 1977)
Mingus (Asylum, 1979)
Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980)
Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen, 1982)
Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (Geffen, 1988)
Night Ride Home (Geffen, 1991)
Turbulent Indigo (Geffen, 1994)
Hits (Reprise, 1996)
Misses (Reprise, 1996)
Taming the Tiger (Geffen, 1998)
Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000)
Travelogue (Reprise, 2002)
The Complete Geffen Recordings (Geffen, 2003)
The Beginning of Survival (Geffen/UME, 2004)
Shine (Hear Music/Universal, 2007)
Joni Mitchell strummed her way out of Canada and into the L.A. music scene in the late Sixties, and it wasn't long before she became rock's preeminent female singer/songwriter. Produced by David Crosby, her sparse debut album reveals a striking, if somewhat fragile, folksinger in the accepted acoustic mode. However, Mitchell's heart-piercing cold-water vocals and restless, self-questioning persona separate her from the competition. Judy Collins scored a Top 10 hit with Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" in 1968; Joni's more contemplative version sets the older-and-wiser tone of Clouds, her much-improved second album. Ladies of the Canyon solidifies those songwriting advances. "Woodstock," too self-conscious to be an all-out anthem, is still Mitchell's most outgoing, least analytical moment. "The Circle Game," the album's closer, asserts Mitchell's ability to express complex emotional states in plain language. A supple chorus puts her personalized message across.
Blue raises the autobiographical stakes and intensifies the melodies; arguably, it's Mitchell's masterpiece. She picks memorable vignettes out of the flood of memories and reflections that accompany an extended journey, spinning off songs like "Carey," "California," and "This Flight Tonight." Though the musical backing (by Stephen Stills, James Taylor, and others) is kept to a minimum, Joni's vocals grow in nuance and complexity. Blue stays under your skin for quite a while.
Starting with For the Roses, Mitchell pushes her musical accompaniment to keep pace with her rapidly evolving singing and writing skills. She's not always successful, but few other singer/songwriters extended their quest to include music as well as lyrics. Certainly, the cozy L.A. cowboy-rock studio scene must have beckoned Joni Mitchell with the lure of easygoing hit singles. True to form, she did it her own way with For the Roses. Saxophone player and bandleader Tom Scott can be a vapid fusion-Muzak meister on his own, but his light jazz coloring underscores the subtle depths of Roses. On Court and Spark, Mitchell and Scott concoct a resonant pop-jazz sound that accommodates both swooning melodies ("Help Me") and blue reflection ("Same Situation") with ease. The buoyant humor of "Raised on Robbery" and the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross novelty "Twisted" makes this Joni's most appealing album (if not her most profound). Recorded on the tour following that album, Miles of Aisles features revamped version of Mitchell's better-known early songs. It's a convenient sampler, but the progression from album to album—a big part of the picture—gets lost on both this concert album and the 1980 live set Shadows and Light.
Naturally, Mitchell pursued her muse into more adventurous territory on the next two albums. Some of the impressionistic snippets on The Hissing of Summer Lawns ("The Jungle Line," "The Boho Dance") never quite register, though the effervescent melancholy of "In France They Kiss on Main Street" and "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" sinks in deeply over time, as does the hauntingly slow "Shadows and Light." Hejira is even more atmospheric—or formless, depending on your attention level. Bassist Jaco Pastorius keeps up with Mitchell's wandering free-form meditations, while the rest of the music—wintry, detached—lulls in the background. No single track leaps out the way Summer Lawns' best ones do, but overall Hejira leaves the more lasting—if mysteriously vague—impression.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter seems inevitable now—the double album in search of an editor. This time, a real lack of focus allows the session musicians to hotdog their way through Mitchell's stilted set-pieces. Mingus represents a brave attempted collaboration with the noted jazz bassist and composer; unfortunately, the results are sketchy at best.
Mitchell didn't retire in the Eighties, though her intermittent releases indicate that she'd retreated from the artistic vanguard. Wild Things Run Fast is exactly the sort of competent holding-pattern album—complete with cover versions—that Mitchell went out of her way to avoid in the Seventies. Dog Eat Dog, which came out of left field in 1985, comes closer to being the individualistic challenge fans might expect. Joni confronts producer Thomas Dolby's synthesized sound with feisty vocals and her most pointed set of songs. Rife with withering political opinions and topical insights, this unsettling album is her best of the period—and her only Eighties album to be deleted, though it's available on 2003's The Complete Geffen Recordings. Avoid Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm; a torrent of borderline New Age–easy-listening blandness washes over even the most thoughtful lyrics.
Night Ride Home isn't a comeback so much as a chance to catch up with a long-lost confidante. There's a slight return to the jazz-tinged sound of the mid-Seventies; succinct orchestrations and smoky sax lines curl around Mitchell's most tuneful material since Court and Spark.
The albums Mitchell recorded after returning to Reprise in 1994 revealed the extremes of a deeply reflective artist preoccupied with the passage of time and life's ups and downs: Turbulent Indigo sets dark themes drawn from an ever more troubling world in understated acoustic settings, while the jazz-inflected Taming the Tiger finds her counting her blessings after beginning a relationship with her long-lost daughter, whom she'd given up for adoption in 1965, and grandson. Mitchell's mature voice brings added poignancy to the standards she personalizes on Both Sides Now and the original material she revisits with the support of a 70-piece orchestra on the two-CD Travelogue. Shine is a set of solidly melodic new songs that were colored by Mitchell's cigarette-wracked voice, electronics-specked production, and a Mitchell's gripes about cell phones ("Shine") and global overcrowding ("If I had a Heart").
Strangely, Mitchell has yet to receive the career-spanning box-set treatment—the single-disc collections Hits and Misses only begin to cover her expansive oeuvre—but it's only a matter of time before justice is served.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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