Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review of Joni Mitchell's "Clouds"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning.

Clouds (1969) was the second album released by Joni Mitchell, the follow-up to 1968's somewhat successful Song to a Seagull. Mitchell herself painted the self-portrait that was used as the cover art. At the time of its release, Mitchell had already become a successful songwriter, with songs covered by other folk artists such as Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins. Mitchell herself was still working primarily in the folk genre, several years away from her move toward jazz. By 1969, when the album was released, the native Canadian Mitchell had been living in the United States for 4 years. It was the year of Woodstock, and the country was divided over the question of the Vietnam War.

As it turned out, Clouds was a very successful album, reaching #32 on the American charts and #22 in Canada. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for 1969. Mitchell, who had previously been better known by other folk artists than by the music audience at large, was now receiving significant radio airplay and was an artist in demand. She was even invited to play at Woodstock Festival, although she had to turn it down due to a previous commitment to appear on a television show.

Over the years, Mitchell's 1971 album Blue has come to be viewed by many as her masterpiece, and it's hard to argue against it. The songwriting on Blue is probably more sophisticated, and it's certainly one of her most personal albums. For my money, though, Clouds is actually Mitchell's best album. There are a number of reasons I say this.

To start, let's talk about her vocals. I've reviewed albums by a number of top female singers on Sputnik, including Deborah Harry, Annie Lennox, Grace Slick, Belinda Carlisle, Aimee Mann and Candice Night, and out of all of these, Night is probably the only one who can match Mitchell for sheer vocal beauty. Clouds finds her years before age and cigarettes forced her voice into a lower register, and she uses both her ability to soar into the higher ranges and her natural vibrato to chilling effect. In this, she's helped by songs that allow her to use her vocal gifts to her best advantage. Time and again, on songs like "The Gallery" and "That Song About the Midway", the words and syllables are stretched out to allow her voice to shine. Many modern divas like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera like to take a syllable and hit 57 different notes with it, which is impressive, but not particularly pleasant to listen to. (In fact, it's kind of annoying.) Mitchell's style is smoother -- sometimes she'll hold a single note and just allow it to vibrate. And when she does hit more than one note with a syllable, it's more of a gentle glide. Listen to what she does on the chorus of a song like "I Think I Understand" -- when she hits the line "Fear is like a wilderland", "wil" slides gracefully across 4 different notes in an appealing way. She's taking you for an enjoyable ride, not beating you over the head with vocal acrobatics.

Another thing Mitchell does to enhance the beauty of her vocals on the album is to harmonize with herself. Several songs include second vocal tracks on which Mitchell provides lovely higher-pitched harmonies to her main vocal track, most notably "The Gallery" (on the chorus), and "Songs to Aging Children Come" (on the verses).

I wrote earlier that the songwriting on Blue is probably more sophisticated than it is on Clouds, but I make that statement with two caveats: first, sometimes there's nothing wrong with simple. "Both Sides Now", the song that concludes Clouds, is structurally as simple a song as Mitchell has ever written, but it's also her most covered song (in fact, by the time Clouds was released, it had already been covered by at least 11 different artists, including a version by Judy Collins that had become a hit single in 1967). The second caution is that many of the songs only sound simple because they were recorded without a lot of bells and whistles. On this album, Mitchell herself plays almost all of the instruments, with a slight assist from Stephen Stills who adds some guitar and some bass. However, Mitchell is known for writing her songs in all kinds of odd open tunings that other musicians often find difficult to duplicate. So the songs aren't nearly as simple as they seem.

As for the songs themselves, Clouds showcases some of Mitchell's best songwriting. The standout is "Chelsea Morning", which might be my favorite Joni Mitchell song. It's a love song of sorts, as Mitchell awakes in a happy mood and tries to entice her lover to spend the rest of the day with her, using poetic words and images such as "The sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses".

Other highlights include "That Song About the Midway", which includes one of her loveliest vocals as she sings about her obsession with a mysterious, vibrant and slightly shady carnival worker, "The Gallery", wherein an emotionally starved artist's model turns the tables on her charismatic lover, and "Tin Angel", a slow, stark song that finds Mitchell's character contemplating trading her in current long-distance relationship for a new one with someone she just met in a coffee shop.

One thing of special note is that all of the songs on this album are written in a very intimate style. I mentioned earlier the tumultuous emotions the country was experiencing at the time of the album's release, related to the draft and America's continuation of the Vietnam War. While Mitchell was clearly of like mind with most of her fellow folksingers on this issue, only one song on Clouds touched upon this issue, the a cappella number "The Fiddle and the Drum", and even here, her feelings are expressed in personal terms. In this one, Mitchell personifies America as a friend named Johnny, whom she asks to help her understand how he came to "trade the fiddle for the drum". She acknowledges that she remembers "all the good things you are," but explains that she has come to fear his anger and warlike nature. I suspect that this approach helped Mitchell's popularity. While her sentiments might have been similar to those of other folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and would have appealed to the country's young protesters, her approach was probably a little more palatable to those who weren't completely sold on hippie culture or the peace movement than were the more strident songs of many other protest singers.

Joni Mitchell was 25 years old when she released Clouds. Looking back now, almost 50 years later, the album is a stunning achievement. It was a major step forward in her career, which eventually encompassed 19 studio albums and who knows how many live shows. For anyone who enjoys folk music, well-written songs and elegant female vocals, Clouds still holds up well today.

Ratings: 4.5/5 stars