This is a special box of the first four Mitchell albums reissued on vinyl, part of the new Archives series that debuted last fall. It's a chronological march through her career, which began with a boxed set of previously unreleased live, broadcast and demo recordings from the mid-60's. Now we get the start of the official stuff, and next will be another batch of unreleased material from the late '60's-early '70's, coming this fall.
The first four albums are '68's Song To A Seagull, followed by Clouds, Ladies Of The Canyon and '71's Blue. They went like this: Good, better, great, GOAT. When she had her debut, everybody knew she was a great new talent, tearing up the folk circuit with her different and delicate originals, and championed by erstwhile producer David Crosby. As early as 1966, wise artists Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV had covered her, followed quickly by Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and Dave Van Ronk. She basically had a greatest hits already, with her songs "Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now," "Urge For Going" and "Chelsea Morning" already well-known thanks to the various covers.
So what does she do for her debut? For some strange reason, she ignored all these gems, perhaps thinking they didn't need more exposure. Instead the songs on Seagull were divided into a concept, side 1 called I Came To The City and the flip titled Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside. These were pretty but odd songs about people and places such as "Michael From Mountains" and "Nathan La Franeer." There was little adornment, just Joni and her strange chords and confident vocals. This album has been given a new mix for this release, basically to take down a couple of odd effects when there was a bit of overdubbing or an extra instrument, but it's nothing that truly improves the album. There are just too many fussy, airy tunes and few memorable ones, other than "Night In The City" and the title cut.
The next year, Mitchell's career was more in focus, and she took control of her own production, along with sympathetic engineer Henry Lewy. Stephen Stills was on hand to flesh the music out more, and she went back to proven favourites "Both Sides, Now" and "Chelsea Morning" to anchor the album. The rest of the songs were certainly serious compositions, Mitchell touching on war, depression, and adult relationships. Her unique arrangements, both vocally and melodically, pointed to a prolonged period of excellence, which was just around the corner.
Ladies Of The Canyon saw both new and older material again, a new palette of colours for the instrumentation featuring lots of her piano, Milt Holland's percussion, some strings, sax and woodwinds, and more focused and clear lyrics. Mitchell was getting more personal in her writing, or at least less ambiguous, and was spearheading the movement of so-called confessional singer-songwriters. It doesn't seem to have been a conscious shift. Instead her writing took another leap, and her images and places became so rich they instantly formed great scenes in the listener's imagination. Whether it's the family home in "Rainy Night House" or the street where the musician is playing clarinet in "For Free," we are effortlessly transported. These are her stories, she's there and now so are we, voyeurs in the scene. Yes, her famous lovers are here, "Willy" is Graham Nash, It's probably Leonard Cohen's mother's house in "Rainy Night House," but the subject isn't gossip, it's emotion. If she's wondering "Who in the world you might be," we're supposed to examine ourselves, not make a flow chart of all her partners (something Rolling Stone magazine did, as it proved over and over again it was no friend to female artists). Mitchell reclaimed her old coffee house favourites "Morning Morgantown" and "The Circle Game," two of her finest (and clearest) early compositions, which she had neglected to record before, and made the whole album even stronger. She took back "Woodstock" from her strutting pals in CSNY, reclaiming it as a cautionary moment about '60's hopefulness rather than an anthem for electric guitar. And she capped it all off with the incredibly infectious "Big Yellow Taxi," disguising her most serious message with her most catchy tune.
Which brings us to Blue. Mitchell, trying to come to grips with all the chaos and demands surrounding her as her fame and profitability grew, did a runner to Europe to recharge. The resulting songs were (with one notable exception) all new and left little to speculation. They all feature her singing "I" to let us know this is the truth, her life, her heart on display. She has many questions, few answers, lots of experiences, and a fragile heart. Deal with it. Mitchell has enough sense to laugh at herself, describing the brief romance with "Carey" and the excitement of her homecoming in "California" and even adding a brief laugh in the emotionally intense title cut. As for matters of the heart, are there two more remarkable songs than "River" and "A Case Of You?" The old tune she did bring back was perhaps the most personal one she ever wrote, although its true meaning was revealed until years later. "Little Green" was about the daughter she gave up for adoption back in Toronto, and it's easy to see why it found a home among these other revealing songs. It also sounds like no other album, with the heavy use of the dulcimer as the lead instrument.
So that's the package, the original albums are left as is, bonus cuts and out-takes saved for the coming box this fall. The upgrades here feature the new mix of Seagull, heavy-vinyl pressings which sound great, and heavy stock cardboard for the gatefold jackets. Oh, and there's a one-sheet essay from Brandi Carlisle, who has become the official spokesperson for Joni Worship, explaining why these albums not only stand the test of time, they continue to claim the pinnacle. I'd have to agree.