What does it sound like?:
Joni Mitchell’s strategy for her reissue programme is to house all the outtakes and extras in separate boxes to the albums themselves. Casual fans can enjoy the albums without having to wade through a load of takes they may listen to only once, while enthusiasts can indulge themselves in the whole lot. Volume Three of her archive extras oozes with the confidence and class of a great artist bang in the middle of her imperial phase. You can hear her in demos, alternate studio recordings and live interpretations taking risks and making the choices that produced three superlative albums, For The Roses, Court & Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. She is unhurried but restless, honing her craft as a musician, a writer and a producer, at an astonishing rate. She sounds utterly alive. On Blue, she had achieved the supreme realisation of the singer songwriter, exquisite in its honesty and its simplicity. Ever the innovator, this box follows her as she broadens her soundscape and incorporates modal jazz into her art. She’d used polymodal composition techniques since her first album. Now, she challenges her listeners further while still taking care to gently caress their ears.
The box begins with her hijacking a recording session of two members of Laurel Canyon royalty. David Crosby had produced her first album. She’d had a torrid affair with Graham Nash in which she was the minor celeb. They both set up the mikes, roll the tapes and step aside for two demos of new songs, just her pure voice and acoustic guitar. Four more demos follow, recorded around the turn of 1971 into 1972, this time Joni at the piano. Unembellished by later instrumentation, one can only marvel at her natural talent. Her playing and singing are mesmerising. No wonder the audience at Carnagie Hall Feb 23rd 1972 is in rapture. They utterly adore her, enveloping her in their loving embrace. She could simply stand and talk and they would still be shouting out their appreciation and affection. They listen to each song, old or new, in pin-drop silence and reward them equally with thunderous applause. There is an awkward moment when some try to clap along to Big Yellow Taxi and another when she teases them with an extra piano line at the end of My Old Man. Otherwise, the mystery is how she managed to maintain her composure in the face of such a tsunami of positive vibes. There are few live recordings as euphoric as this.
The preamble to Court & Spark includes half a dozen exquisite demos of Joni with just one instrument. This version of Help Me may be her best, nervous and lonely as she surrenders to a higher power. It is matched by a magical twelve and a half minute piano medley of Down To You/Court And Spark/Car On A Hill/Down To You. She goes to the trouble of adding a choir of her own backing vocals to the Car On A Hill section. After a couple of wild, carefree run-throughs of Raised On Robbery, including a gatecrash on Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night sessions, she settles into the studio with an array of jazz musicians. Her year away rethinking her art was clearly well spent. She is well prepared, the songs are ready and her vision is clear. As a result, the early takes are almost fully formed, with the exception of a wordless Bonderia outtake as she works out its chords and tune.
The concert at Dorothy Chandler Pavilon, Los Angeles, 3rd March 1974, contrasts with the previous Carnagie Hall. This time she performs with Tom Scott and his L.A. Express on the same tour promoting Court & Spark that begat Miles Of Aisles. The musicianship is exemplary. The arrangements spot on. Joni sings beautifully, digging deep into the songs but, inevitably, she has to pay close attention to the band as well and, as a result, there is a greater emotional distance between audience and stage. It’s a great concert that sounds wonderful under headphones, but one that induces a sense of warm satisfaction rather than an excited punch in the air. After the interval, the audience are treated, open-mouthed, to half a dozen solo Joni, plus an entertaining monologue about the birth of For The Roses. It’s the part they will remember the most.
The demos for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns already feature its signature guitar sound. For these songs, she dismantles her usual framework and allows the tunes to wander free. Her voice follows them where they go. It’s a radically different writing style to For The Roses, just two albums ago, creating a flow that is sinuous and almost sensual. In the studio, the musicians find plenty of room to manoeuvre. This time, the early takes are very definitely works in progress but, in many ways, it makes them more interesting to listen to. The Jungle Line, for example, is almost nude absent its complex, swirling instrumentation. Throughout it all, Joni sounds as though she is having the time of her life.
There are 96 tracks in a five CD set and 40 on a four LP. Both come with a lavish book, including another detailed interview with Cameron Crowe. It’s everything a deluxe box should be, immaculately produced, nicely packaged and overflowing with quality material. Listening to Archives Volume 3 is a joyful experience but paying for it might be a trauma. The price has almost doubled compared to Volume 2. The Carnegie Hall concert deserves its own stand alone release.
What does it all *mean*?
The pure essence of Joni Mitchell is to be found when she sings her wondrous songs accompanied only by herself. The early takes are captivating and the two complete concerts are outstanding. Volume 3 raises the bar for this excellent Archive programme.
Goes well with…
The Asylum Albums (1972-1975), The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) and Archives Volumes 1 & 2.
6th October 2023
Might suit people who like…
The finest music of the Twentieth Century.