How to get into Joni Mitchell's Music?

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Favre508, Feb 19, 2016.

  1. nojmplease

    nojmplease Host, You Can't Unhear This

    New York, NY
    Blue is phenomenal record and should be where anyone starts. "The Last Time I Saw Richard" is such a perfect album closer, too. Doesn't everyone know somebody like Richard, a bitter cynic turned burned romantic?

    I also recently learned that Joni was recording Blue while Carole King was recording Tapestry a few doors down. If that era wasn't truly a golden age for music, I don't know what is.
    audiotom, zebop, timind and 1 other person like this.
  2. Nostaljack

    Nostaljack Resident R&B enthusiast

    Not here anymore
    As has been said numerous times, I'd go Court and Spark. I'm not a huge Joni fan but I've always liked this one. It's jazzier inclinations really work well.

    zebop likes this.
  3. RandyP

    RandyP Forum Resident

    I haven't listened to Blue in a while, but from what I remember, it was a much harder album for me to get into than the trilogy of Court & Spark/Hissing/Hejira. Those three are my favorite albums of hers, although I do like parts of earlier work as well, particularly her debut album.
    audiotom likes this.
  4. Kristofa

    Kristofa Car Scratch Melt Repeat

    Eugene, Oregon
    My father played Court and Spark for me as the first CD he bought and I was rather enamoured... But in an "eat at your soul to haunt you later" sort of way. I now enjoy all of her music up through Taming the Tiger. Yet my son recently stated that he never understood why I like Joni. He may never understand, and that is alright... As well as you not being able to groove on her. Check out the albums already suggested and move on if you don't enjoy them.
  5. varispeed

    varispeed what if?

    Los Angeles Ca
    Well, to address one part of these threads, I personally would've never asked Joni Mitchell for a date. I appreciate that some think she's hot, but she's never been my type. And she probably feels the same way about me.

    I also decided almost instantaneously upon hearing the parking lot song when it was released that I didn't like the song and Joni's voice, and never would. I heard her on tv a couple of times in 1969 and re-verified my feelings about her as an artist and/or potential date (just to stay on topic)

    Okay, so I'm going through life ignoring Joni Mitchell and one night in 1989 or so, I board a DC10 in Dallas bound for LA, plug my earphones into the seat audio socket, and the plane is piping in some very weird music. I'm exhausted and initially figure that I'll see if there's a channel where the pilots are talking. Instead, I listen for a few minutes and this instrumental piece is going on and on. It was a little loose in the playing, but I started becoming captivated by this thing while other passengers are boarding and finding their seats. What it was was the middle of "Down To You". Right there on American Airlines. As the song came to its end, I of course realized it was Joni Mitchell... even though I didn't quite yet know what the song title was.

    Long story shorter, I have discovered that I still don't like Joni's albums, singing style, writing.... except the following...which I searched out after that flight....and will now listen to almost anywhere any time... as long as I don't have to listen to other songs of hers.....

    Down To You
    Same Situation
    Car on a Hill
    Court and Spark (the song)
    Help Me

    As to anyone liking her based on liking Neil Young, those five songs are more in Steely Dan territory to me... can't imagine Neil Young going to that neighborhood.

    And finally, someone said it helps to have wives/girlfriends introduce one to Joni's music. I disagree. I started to play "Down to You" to a girlfriend one year and the minute she heard Joni's voice start, she said "I do NOT like Joni Mitchell music". So I turned off the song..... and completely understood where my girlfriend was coming from.

    There is no clear way that I see into Joni's music. I don't understand the mechanics of it and why it sometimes only partially invades. Must be a virus.
    Alan2 and Kristofa like this.
  6. Damiano54

    Damiano54 Forum Resident

    I just found this a few months ago. I think the player captures part of the song's beauty very well.

  7. sunspot42

    sunspot42 Forum Resident

    San Francisco
    Hard to know which record to pick without knowing something about each of them, I suppose.

    Her debut, Song To A Seagull, is a blast of iconoclastic late '60s folk. I used to find it dated as well, but we're so far beyond that era - and it's so much better than any of its contemporaries that I've heard, so much less sentimental and so much eerier and observant - that I now find it's taken on its own timelessness. Tracks like "Nathan La Franeer" feel as though they're being beamed forward from 1967 via a wormhole in spacetime.

    Her second record Clouds gets off to an impressive start with "Tin Angel" and contains some of her best-known early work, but isn't as strong overall.

    Ladies Of The Canyon is more assured - the songs here feel polished 'till they sparkle, but while that makes them a bit more mainstream I think it also robs them of the truth a bit - some of them feel somewhat less genuine than her debut and there's something a bit twee about the whole record, even though I like it. Highlights would be "For Free", an early musing on fame, "Conversation", about jealousy, and the haunting "Rainy Night House" and "The Priest". The record also contains several of her better-known compositions like "Big Yellow Taxi", but I'm kinda over them after a quarter century of spinning Joni.

    Blue is her first real masterpiece. It's more coherent than her debut and more personal, it transcends the tired folk genre, and it blends the darkness of her first record with a spare elegance, a different kind of polish that doesn't diminish the earnestness and impact of the material. She reveals more of herself here than in any other record - probably too much. Kristofferson heard it and warned Joni to, "keep something of yourself." The highlights are the title track, "A Case Of You" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard" - as far as I'm concerned, they're all valid candidates for the best song of the decade, but amazingly she'd write several more in the same league before the decade was up, all of them musically even more adventuresome.

    For The Roses saw her drifting decidedly toward classical and also jazz - the only genres that could really accommodate her increasingly-complex lyrics and unique chords of inquiry. So it opens with the almost-classical "Banquet" before transitioning into the jazz-tinged seediness of "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire", a genre-bending song which still sounds unique four decades later. Lighter jazz and classical sounds tinge the remainder of the cuts, concluding with the orchestral "Judgement of the Moon and Stars", her first really epic composition and an indication of what was to come.

    Court & Spark
    expands on the jazz influence - very light, very hip LA jazz - and is probably her most accessible work, but it's also perhaps her most dated. I always flashback to The Rockford Files whenever I play it. "Down To You" is probably her greatest "epic" track, another classical exercise but this one with far more jazz, and a contemporary lyric that makes it feel more immediate. "Help Me" was the huge hit - Mitchell considered it something of a throwaway, but it's a perfect confection along with its twin, "Free Man In Paris". The album flows from neurotic highlight ("People's Parties") to neurotic highlight ("Car On A Hill"), eventually ending in one of those high-end, high-priced California mental institutions, probably drugged and detoxing. The album gently, catchily charts the deformed flowering of the me decade.

    The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is dated in a different way than its predecessor, but it's also her most cinematic work and I think it might be the smartest pop album anybody's ever produced. This is where her boomer audience started to turn on her, because she turned her x-ray powers of observation away from herself and her immediate cohorts toward them. It's not a flattering portrait. The album opener "In France They Kiss On Main Street" is a more-sophisticated, perhaps coke-drenched version of Court & Spark's more uptempo moments, but from there on out the record becomes far more adventuresome. "The Jungle Line" is proto-world music, "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Shades Of Scarlett Conquering" are eerie, exquisite character and social studies, while the title track - the most haunting and hypnotic entry in her catalog up to this point - is also the most cooly scathing social commentary she'd produced up to this point, a real indictment of what America was becoming. A contemporary to Bowie's far more kinetic but similarly America-piercing social commentary "Young Americans", "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" was the yin to "Young American's" yang.

    Unlike their predecessors, I think Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter are both close to timeless and essentially represent their own genre. It's not quite folk, not quite jazz, not quite world can hear the influence of the two records in others' work starting almost immediately (Kate Bush) and continuing on well into the '90s (everyone from Annie Lennox and Elvis Costello to Tori Amos and Shawn Colvin - plus Sting and Prince while we're at it - cribbed from this period of Joni as well, although Prince favored Court & Spark-era callouts). Hejira is the stronger of the two, and the more coherent. The most hypnotic entry in her catalog, it eschews the eclecticism of Lawns and invents a pop-jazz fusion sound unlike any other. Steely Dan were working on their own fusion at the same time but Mitchell's implementation here strikes me as even more complex, sublime and unique. With bassist Jaco Pastorius she finally finds a musical foil who's her equal in terms of inventiveness and distinctiveness.

    Don Juan is far more off-kilter than Hejira, even if musically it's mainly of the same Mitchell-conceived genre of its predecessor. One whole side of the original two-LP set is consumed by an impressive suite for example, "Paprika Plains", which divided fans and critics alike.

    Lyrically these two records push far, far beyond anything she'd done before, with flat out the most amazing lyrics I've ever heard anyone successfully insert into a song. The first time I heard Mitchell sing of modern Americans, "We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards of some duality and restless multiplicity," on Don Juan's title track my jaw dropped. What did I just hear, and how the hell did she make that work?

    Charles Mingus was impressed with Mitchell's work as well, and invited her to work with him on what would be his final output, Mingus. He died before it could be finished, so the album is as much Mitchell's work as it is his, and unites Pastorius with LA jazz heavies Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The critics savaged it and fans largely tuned out, but I find I'm appreciating this one more as I grow older and see it much more of a piece with the previous two albums.

    The '80s were not really kind to Mitchell. Wild Things Run Fast is a creaky attempt by crack musicians to mold New Wave to Mitchell's jazz-tinged persuasions. It feels limp, false and anticlimactic, although it won her back some of her lost audience. Dog Eat Dog finds an increasingly-shrill Mitchell drowned in shrill '80s recording techniques and technology. Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm is somewhat more successful in reconciling Mitchell's sound with the then-contemporary sound protogees like Kate Bush and Annie Lennox - "My Secret Place" is a brilliant, hypnotic merger of Hejira, Court & Spark and that most '80s of music technology, the sampler. But the rest of the album retreats more toward '80s pop conventions. It isn't as shrill as Dog Eat Dog or as depressingly Lionel Richie-ized as Wild Things Run Fast, but still feels like a missed opportunity.

    Mitchell finally gets some of her mojo back and sounds more like herself on 1991's Night Ride Home, which plays something like an updated Ladies of the Canyon or For The Roses, but with '90s production and an adult alternative/jazz sound not a million miles removed from personalities like Sting. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is a descendant of "Judgement Of The Moon And Stars", while "Two Grey Rooms" is the best song she produced post-1980.

    Her next two records continued to mine the same vein, with diminishing results. Turbulent Indigo finally nabbed Mitchell a long overdue Pop Album of the Year award, but it's less-deserving than its predecessor. Taming The Tiger followed a few years later, notable mostly for the first track "Harlem In Havana", which like "My Secret Place" saw Mitchell really successfully blend technology with her hypnotic sound.

    She then cut a couple of pop orchestral records, Both Sides Now, an eclectic collection of standards (plus two old Mitchell originals) that comprise a song cycle depicting a romance, from inception to demise, and Travelogue, pop orchestral recordings of songs from across her catalog. Both Sides Now is surprisingly effective. Travelogue didn't get nearly as much love from fans or critics, but I thought it was dynamite, successfully rescuing three or four cuts from Wild Things Run Fast and demonstrating it was definitely the production which sank that record, not the songwriting.

    Finally, Mitchell produced Shine in 2007, a return to the music business after retiring in 2002. Written and recorded in reaction to the Iraq War and accompanied with a filmed dance performance - a ballet co-choreographed with Mitchell - the record isn't a million miles removed from Taming The Tiger but is somewhat lower-energy though more genuinely haunting in many places.

    Like her contemporary David Bowie, Mitchell has a vast catalog that finds her shifting thru styles - sometimes quite radically - as she developed as an artist throughout the 1970s. And like Bowie, the '80s ultimately proved very difficult for her to adapt to, although she eventually found her way in the new landscape and resumed producing solid work, if not the kind of genre-bending and indeed genre-defining work she'd produced during her heyday. Also like Bowie, she created music with sometimes shocking lyrical complexity, and delivered it inimitably, making her almost impossible for other acts to cover successfully. She inspired countless artists in the process, a few males (Prince, Sting, Elvis Costello) and a slew of females (at least three generations worth now, from Rickie Lee Jones and Annie Lennox to Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant to Taylor Swift and Lorde). I think she's the most important female artist in pop music in the past half-century, and the most talented. Like Bowie and Stevie Wonder, she had a kind of transcendent talent that seemed, for a decade or so, completely unfathomable and utterly unstoppable. The material those three created during that era remains for me - even four decades on - the benchmark all similar subsequent work has been measured against (and always found wanting). I think we aren't going to see their like again in our lifetimes.
  8. Khaki F

    Khaki F Forum Resident

    Kenosha, WI. USA
    That album was key to my getting into her as well. A perfect starting point, and an amazing concert. I adored her after getting into that album.
    Todd W. likes this.
  9. JohnnyQuest

    JohnnyQuest Forum Resident

    Now listening to "If I Had a Heart". :love: What is the general consensus on "Shine"?
  10. Khaki F

    Khaki F Forum Resident

    Kenosha, WI. USA
    It's a must-have for people who love Joni and her work, but it wouldn't be the first album I'd recommend for somebody looking to get into her for the first time.
    Aurora, sunspot42 and JohnnyQuest like this.
  11. Rosskolnikov

    Rosskolnikov Designated Cloud Yeller

    I feel much the same about "Blue." To me, Joni starts getting really exciting around Hissing of Summer Lawns and onwards. I only hear a scattering of great songs prior to that, but you might like: Urge For Going, This Flight Tonight, Amelia, Both Sides Now, The Circle Game, etc. There are some strong pop melodies on Court & Spark, too.
  12. Larry Mc

    Larry Mc Forum Dude

    The Folk cds first.................

    Song to a Seagull
    Ladies of the Canyon
  13. japhyman

    japhyman Forum Resident

    For me it was the first 2 tracks on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter that got me interested, which have Jaco's out of this world bass on them and just sound like songs from an alternate universe (reminded me of Percy Jones' playing on Eno records). I worked my way backwards through her discography and was pretty surprised at how different so many of her albums are, reminded me of how someone like Bowie could never just come to rest on a single sound but was continually evolving. That makes it tough to recommend a particular album and it could very well be that one or two albums of hers blow you away and the rest not so much. If I had to choose one Joni album its would be "Hissing of Summer Lawns", but thats also kind of like saying the Bowie album you should check out first is "Low" which is an extremely subjective choice.
    Kristofa and sunspot42 like this.
  14. Miriam

    Miriam Forum Resident

    Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation is very interesting and informative. It helped me to get into Carly Simon's music, maybe it will help you with Joni.

    Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace - one of my favorite live albums. Joni, Phil Ochs and James Taylor.

    Carey/Mr. Tambourine Man (with James)
  15. drbryant

    drbryant Forum Resident

    Los Angeles, CA
    In thinking about it, I'd start with Blue. You have to listen with the understanding that it's a serious work - the melodies don't follow standard pop music structures, the lyrics reflect deeply personal, naked emotions, and the instrumentation is correspondingly spare (primarily piano and dulcimer). There are other albums that are more conventional, but Blue is her acknowledged masterpiece. Why not start with the best, most challenging album - if you just don't like it, I'm not sure it's worth buying a whole bunch of other Joni albums. There are probably other artists that you would enjoy more.
    Volt-and-Volume likes this.
  16. I agree. Not a weak song on that album. Court And Spark is impeccable, too.
  17. Rocker

    Rocker Forum Resident

    Ontario, Canada
    That would be grounds for a breakup in my book. :p
  18. dance_hall_keeper

    dance_hall_keeper Forum Resident

    A few years ago, I faced the same situation as the OP.
    I went out and bought Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses and Count and Spark, at one fell swoop.
    To this day, they are still the only albums of Ms. Mitchell's that I own.
    I am very happy with that.
  19. Manapua

    Manapua Forum Resident

    What he/she said. My go to when I need a Joni fix.
  20. drumzNspace

    drumzNspace Forum Resident

    New Yuck City
    If you don't like Blue at all, I wouldn't go backwards. Blue is the absolute pinnacle of Joni's folky beginnings. If you don't like that I don't think you'd care much for anything earlier. So in that case I'd go forward and try some of her jazzier offerings like Hejira, Court and Spark, and Hissing of Summer Lawns and see if any of those grab you at all. They are a bit more sophisticated compositionally, instrumentation-wise and arrangement-wise on the music end.
    sunspot42 likes this.
  21. Hatchet Jack

    Hatchet Jack Forum Resident

    Another vote for "Court and Spark". It's soft folky rock at its best. Now, here is a curious thing: apparently, Dylan was hooked on that "Blue" album while recording "Blood on the Tracks", and it seems that he was very influenced by it, especially on "Tangled Up in Blue". I believe he was listening to it while writing this song.
    sunspot42 likes this.
  22. gohill

    gohill Forum Resident

    Glasgow, UK
    The Hissing of Summer Lawns is for me a textbook example of how an artist can successfully expand their musical horizons and take their work into bold new places that were up until that time, only hinted at. The building blocks were there on her previous 2 albums and she ran with them majestically.

    Crucially, she retained her gift for writing memorable and involving songs so the excursions into jazzier territories were anchored in engaging melodies, vocal lines and superb lyricism. A clever sleight of hand that she repeated again on the follow up Hejira to prove it was no fancy trick or fluke; and ultimately the result of a great talent and a unique vision.

    Two perfect albums that are the pinnacle of her career and way beyond the reach of most of her contemporaries.
    ClausH, sunspot42, Graham and 2 others like this.
  23. JohnnyQuest

    JohnnyQuest Forum Resident

  24. ssstand

    ssstand Forum Resident

    Cheverly, MD
    Sometimes people don't like the albums we are supposed to. I've tried for years to work up the enthusiasm for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks but, 40 years on, I still don't see what the fuss is about. It's okay, but I vastly prefer other of his albums. Same with Joni--most of her full albums are up on YouTube. You've gotten lots of good advice here, so listen to some of the recommendations and see if you like them better.
    Mickey2 and Manapua like this.
  25. Alan2

    Alan2 Forum Resident

    Try the ( inexpensive) compilation Songs of a Prairie Girl. The tracks are selected by the artist, and it covers a very wide variety of styles and eras in her work. There's got to be something on there to like.

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