Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon"

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

Review Summary: Joni plays the piano.

I admit, I've always loved the piano. The organ has always been a little harsh for my taste. I enjoy the harpsichord, but nowadays, it really only fits in period-piece songs, or maybe in songs with a slight gothic twist to them. I like guitars OK, especially acoustic ones. But keyboard instruments hold a special place in my heart, which is one one of the reasons I came to love progressive rock music over hard rock. And if you add some keyboards, especially some piano, to folk- or pop-style songs, I'm right there and loving it. All of which helps to explain why Ladies of the Canyon has been one of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums for many years. Because on Ladies, Joni brings her piano to the forefront for the very first time.

There is no denying that artistically, Mitchell had one hell of a run from 1969 through 1974. After the promise of her debut album Song to a Seagull, Mitchell went on a tear, producing Clouds (1969), Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972) and Court and Spark (1974), and adding her exceptional live album Miles of Aisles as the cherry on top of the sundae near the end of 1974. Even today, most people would concede that these are some of the finest folk-pop albums ever produced. On Clouds, Mitchell showed just how much she could accomplish with mostly just her voice and her guitar. However, on Ladies, she opened up a whole other dimension to her music by making piano the prominent instrument on six of the album's twelve songs.

I'll talk about some of the weaknesses of the album first, just to get them out of the way. For starters, let's discuss the vocals. This LP still features a relatively young Joni, with a voice still falling somewhere in the mezzo-soprano range, years before it began to lower to that of a contralto. Consequently, on Ladies, she's still capable of some impressive trills and vocal gymnastics. Not everyone loves her voice, although I've always found it to be exquisitely beautiful. So when I read that the famous music reviewer Robert Christgau criticized Mitchell's vocal performance on this album, my first reaction way annoyance. However, to a certain extent, I understand what he meant. Mitchell experiments with her voice and at times pushes it to its limits on Ladies of the Canyon, and while I think she's mostly successful, there are times when it seems to completely slip its leash and run amok. This is particularly true at the ends of the songs "Willy" and "Woodstock", where some of the notes she hits reach a painful level, and also on the choruses for the title track "Ladies of the Canyon".

The one other weakness I see here is that there are a few throwaway songs on Ladies. I've never been too impressed by "Willy", her tribute to her then-boyfriend Graham Nash, or by "The Arrangement", a fairly clumsy portrait of a man selling out his life for corporate success (although the piano intro to this one is pretty good), and "Ladies of the Canyon" is something of a guilty pleasure -- it's the kind of song where I actually like it myself, but if I drove up to a drive-through window while it was playing, I'd turn it off because I'd be embarrassed to let anyone else hear me listening to it.

Needless to say, though, I didn't rate the album at 4 out of 5 stars because of its weaknesses. For me, the album's assets far outweigh its liabilities. Many previous reviews of Ladies have emphasized the second half of the album (Side 2 of the original vinyl LP), and for good reason. However, several of my favorite songs occur fairly early on. "Conversation" is one of Joni's guitar-based songs. It's sung from the viewpoint of a woman stuck permanently in the friend zone with the man she loves, playing the role of the confidant as he pours out his heart about the many ways his current lady mistreats him. "She speaks in sorry sentences/Miraculous repentances/I don't believe her", Mitchell practically spits, as she soothes her would-be lover by bringing him apples and cheeses. This song features one of her strongest vocals on this album or any other. Her acrobatics on the chorus are especially impressive, and there's a particular feat of vocal derring-do on the last chorus where she repeats the line "He knows that's what he'll fiiind," with a few altered notes for emphasis, then brings it home by repeating the line one more time with a return to the original notes. This is one of my favorite vocal moments in any song anywhere.

"For Free" is the first piano-dominant song on the LP (the album-opening song "Morning Morgantown" starts with guitar on the verses and only features piano on the choruses), and it's also one of Ladies of the Canyon's strongest tracks. This song features Joni at her most self-effacing, as she compares herself unfavorably to a street musician who is playing his heart out on a street corner while people ignore the quality of his music because he isn't famous. "I'll play if you have the money," she admits, "Or if you're a friend to me," while this fellow is giving it his all for free. She considers going over to join him for a song. However, at that point, the light turns green, and she continues on her way and forgets about him. The song ends with the sweet sounds of his clarinet playing unaccompanied.

As for the much-heralded second side of the album, there are a number of treats here. "Big Yellow Taxi" is the first charting single Mitchell ever had as a performer, and the song has since been covered by many artists over the years. I still like the song, but I have to admit it's lost some of its luster for me over the years. Likewise while I admire the simple heartfelt presentation of the song "Woodstock" (which Mitchell wrote largely because of her disappointment that a previous television commitment kept her from attending the actual Woodstock festival), given the choice, I'd take the sublime harmonies of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version of the song any day. Nevertheless, when you add those two songs to numbers like "Rainy Night House", "Blue Boy" and "The Circle Game", the other tracks that made up Side 2 of the original Ladies album, you have a very powerful album side of music indeed. (And even "The Priest", the one song I didn't previously mention from Side 2, isn't too shabby).

"Rainy Night House" and "Blue Boy" both feature some of Joni's best piano. "Rainy Night House" finds Joni falling "into a dream" on her wealthy lover's mother's bed, causing him to get disinherited when Mom finds out. So he leaves all of his worldly goods and runs off to Arizona with her. "Blue Boy", a particularly strong number, is a cautionary fable about what happens when you idealize your lover. In this mystical tale, our protagonist falls in love with a statue, who comes to her bedroom each night to make love to her, only to return to his place in her garden the following morning: "Lady called the blue boy, love/She took him home/Made himself an idol, yes/So he turned to stone." No matter how much she loves him, he still won't open up. So in the end, she protects herself by turning into a statue too. 

"The Circle Game", on the other hand, is an acoustic guitar song in the mold of "Both Sides Now." It was written as a response to Neil Young's song of a few years earlier, "Sugar Mountain". Young's song was written after he had aged out of being allowed to perform at his favorite local music hangout. It's basically a lament about things we lose from our youth that we can never get back. Mitchell's song turns this idea around and looks at it from a more positive perspective. Although the dreams of the boy in "The Circle Game" may have "lost some grandeur coming true," she promises him that "There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty." It's a very upbeat note on which to end an album.

Shortly after Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell's relationship with Graham Nash ended, and she took a break from performing. Soon thereafter, she took up with James Taylor, but that relationship also ended in heartbreak. All of this led Mitchell to record her 1971 masterpiece Blue, which has been regarded by many as one of the greatest albums of all time (it currently sits at #149 on the Sputnik Music "Best Albums of All Time" chart). But while Mitchell's painful relationship experiences doubtlessly added mightily to the emotional depth of the Blue album, Ladies of the Canyon likewise contributed by allowing her to continue her growth as a musician, a singer and a songwriter. Ladies also stands as a powerful musical achievement in its own right. It's not a perfect album, by any measure, but it's still a very good one. And it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: 4/5 stars