Late in 1970, Joni Mitchell took a moment while performing at London's Royal Festival Hall to announce an early retirement from the stage. She relocated to British Columbia, built a modest stone cabin in the somewhat remote area, and let inspiration guide her rather than the machinations of a manager or record executive. While in this self-imposed creative exile, Mitchell began crafting the album that became 1972's For the Roses. It would reach listeners more than a year after the June 1971 release of Blue, and would point towards a new direction for Mitchell's music. The era that produced For the Roses, Court and Spark and its live companion Miles of Aisles (both 1974) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) is chronicled on the third and latest volume of Joni Mitchell Archives from Rhino. With five packed CDs, it's a box of captivating contradictions, where some of Mitchell's most experimental work to that point sits - and comfortably, at that! - next to her most commercial. This was a most fertile period of creativity for the artist (perhaps even the most fertile) and this set curated by Mitchell and co-producer Patrick Milligan is an exhaustive but never exhausting deep dive into the various manifestations of her music-making. It's a companion to last year's The Asylum Albums (1972-1975) which premiered remastered versions of the original albums to which this set's material is related.
Following a session for her friends Graham Nash and David Crosby's eponymous ABC album, Joni laid down stark, intimate, voice-and-guitar solo renditions of two songs destined to appear on For the Roses. The album was to be, in large part, a transitional one. While Blue was very much a solo album - with minimal additional instrumentation on bass, guitar, drums, and pedal steel - For the Roses would make a tentative step toward the "band" album Court and Spark. It dabbled in the so-called "confessional" territory of Blue, too, with portraits of vulnerability and self-doubt in a rock-and-roll life.
Both "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" and "For the Roses" were fully formed by this point, both reportedly inspired by Mitchell's relationship with James Taylor and the latter doubling as a withering critique of the music business treadmill. The For the Roses story continues with four demos recorded at A&M Studios with engineer Henry Lewy. Mitchell accompanies herself on piano; though the instrument is out front, too, on the album versions of "Banquet," "Lesson in Survival," and "See You Sometime," the well-developed demos beautifully distill the compositions to their essence. They also reveal how much the piano played a role in the maturation of Mitchell's songwriting and, indeed, her transformation from a so-called folkie to a Laurel Canyon pop queen. The lilting, delicate "See You Sometime" cuts to the emotional core with its lyrical and melodic directness.
Arguably most thrilling, though, is one outtake from this demo session. "Like Veils Said Lorraine" had its roots in a conversation between the singer-songwriter and a real estate agent, she reveals in Cameron Crowe's liner notes interview. But what was perhaps a mundane chat led to this movingly ruminative, searchingly spiritual (if ultimately unfinished) piece with tantalizing, dangling observations about life, love, and mortality. "I don't want to grow narrow and foolish in old age," Mitchell sings, "and miss all that beauty/That wisdom and the grace/And you know you don't get that/From high finance or fame..." She needn't have worried.
Two complete concerts premiere on this Archives volume. The February 23, 1972 set at Carnegie Hall (mainly on Disc One, with its final tracks opening the second disc) is a solo affair with the singer on both guitar and piano as well as dulcimer. That night at The World's Most Famous Hall, Mitchell delivered music from the yet-to-be-released For the Roses ("Electricity," "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," "Banquet," "Lesson in Survival," "For the Roses," "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio") as well as its immediate predecessor Blue ("This Flight Tonight," "Blue," "All I Want," "A Case of You," "Carey," "My Old Man") and 1970's Ladies of the Canyon ("Big Yellow Taxi," "For Free," "Woodstock," "The Circle Game"), only reaching further back for "Both Sides Now."
There's a disarmingly loose, confident vibe throughout the show as recorded and mixed by Henry Lewy. Hearty applause greets the buoyant "Big Yellow Taxi" as it follows the harrowing "Cold Blue Steel." Cries of "I love you!" puncture the air as Mitchell segues into "Blue," at which point one could hear a pin drop. The audience is appreciative as she introduces each new song; in the case of "For the Roses," she even explains the lyrics' horseracing metaphor, just in case it wasn't clear on first listen. With the artist seemingly baring her soul to over 3,600 of her closest friends, the mood shifts from joyful to reflective and back again, bolstered by the onstage patter which is often punctuated by sincere giggles. Joni remains light even when the songs go dark.
Less than two months later, Mitchell would begin trying out the Roses songs in the studio. The April sessions at Wally Heider's were loose and experimental, from an oldies medley with James Taylor (who sticks around to accompany her on "Electricity") to a rootsy, downhome stab at "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" with Neil Young and The Stray Gators. Lean and mean piano-bass-and-drum versions of both "Radio" and "See You Sometime" feature The Stray Gators' Tim Drummond and Kenny Buttrey on bass and drums, respectively. The July-August 1972 sessions at A&M Studios which yielded the final album are explored here via numerous alternative mixes by Patrick Milligan. The guitar-and-vocal "Barangrill" emphasizes the composition's ethereal quality, and the piano-and-vocal "Let the Wind Carry Me" is even more stately and elegant than the familiar version. The wordless, primarily instrumental outtake "Sunrise Raga" and an early, spare voice-and-drums take of Annie Ross and Wardell Gray's vocalese standard "Twisted" (which would eventually appear on Court and Spark in more fleshed-out fashion) are further welcome additions.
Court and Spark marked a watershed moment for the artist as her first true "band" record. She fused folk with jazz and pop to powerfully evoke the sound of the era's Southern California musical landscape. Its rich, fuller, yet still warm and welcoming sound complemented the lyrics which frequently traded vulnerability for a more knowing, sometimes cynical worldview. Tom Scott, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Cheech and Chong all appeared, as well as The Crusaders and fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson. Exploring themes of romance as well as the cost of celebrity, most songs on Court evince some degree of ambivalence. While many of her lyrics on the album are abstract, the feelings expressed are always clear, in no small part due to the arrangements for a full rhythm section, horns, and even strings on one track.
The Court and Spark story begins on this Archives volume with the stunning "Piano Suite." Long a holy grail for Mitchell collectors, the epic track recorded in summer 1973 finds the singer-songwriter connecting "Down to You," "Court and Spark," "Car on a Hill," and a reprise of "Down to You" in one commanding piece. Put simply, it's spellbinding and intimate and every bit as valid as the final album versions. (Joni, for her part, comments in the liner notes, "I listened to it three times. The first time I was horrified, the second time I got through it, and the third time I could listen to it without cringing. I stray from structure, and I noodle. The most I can say is that the singing's pretty good.") The effect is that of having Mitchell in the room with you, introducing these songs as simply and persuasively as possible. There are some vocal overdubs both on the suite and the remaining demos, all of which were engineered at A&M by Henry Lewy.
The demos trace the development of the soon-to-be-familiar songs. On "Just Like This Train," we hear the guitar parts that were translated into woodwind lines. "Help Me" has a number of unique lyrics representing a shift in lyrical perspective; stripped of its jazz-pop gloss, it's even more of a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the euphoria and despair of love. The latter emotion might win out, though, as the demo ends on a haunting repeated wail of "Help me, I think I'm falling..." The embryonic "Raised on Robbery" hints at the freewheeling mood that the band would vivaciously evoke on the final track. Mitchell further honed "Raised" when visiting with her friends Graham Nash and Neil Young. The spirited version tacked onto a session for Nash's Wild Tales features Tim Drummond on bass and John Barbata (The Turtles, Jefferson Starship) on drums with Nash adding tambourine. The harder-rocking take recorded the very next day with Young and the Santa Monica Flyers at a Tonight's the Night session is the only previously issued track on this box (having been released in 2020 on his second Archives box). Nils Lofgren's barrelhouse piano impresses, as does Young's typically scorching electric lead. Fine support is provided by Ben Keith, Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina.
By the October-November sessions, Joni remembered, "I'd found my band. All the [previous] musicians found my music a bit eccentric. I don't see [that] now in listening to it; it doesn't sound that far out. But even jazzers found it odd. And rockers couldn't cope with it at all." She was joined by the A-list of pop and jazz fusion musicians, including some Wrecking Crew veterans. The A&M Studios sessions welcomed Dennis Budimir, Larry Carlton, David Lindley, and Wayne Perkins on guitar; "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow on steel guitar; Max Bennett, Wilton Felder, Peter Freiberger, and Jim Hughart on bass; Clarence McDonald and Joe Sample on keyboards; Jim Gordon, John Guerin, and Gary Mallaber on drums; Tom Scott on woodwinds; Chuck Findley on trumpet; Bobbye Hall and Milt Holland on percussion; and Gayle Levant on harp.
The demos here reveal Mitchell's willingness to experiment with her musicians. "People's Parties," inspired by a real-life incident involving Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, and Dutch model Apollonia van Ravenstein, rocks harder in this rhythm section-heavy version. (Tom Scott eventually supplied a lovely string chart for the final take.) Similarly, "Trouble Child" is somewhat brisker, funkier, and heavier in this early take. The slinky "Car on a Hill" and sober "Down to You" aren't radically different than the final versions, but there's a beautiful world-weariness in the alternate vocal/piano mix of "The Same Situation." The outtake "Bonderia" is more an improvisation than a fully-fledged composition, yet its vocal and guitar are quintessentially Joni Mitchell.
With the success of Court and Spark, it was natural that she would take the album on the road in her first full band tour. The double-LP Miles of Aisles reflected her shift from intimate solo shows to large theatres and amphitheaters, capturing the artist at the height of her mainstream popularity. Miles was primarily recorded at L.A.'s Universal Amphitheatre on August 14-17, 1974, with Mitchell backed by the L.A. Express - Tom Scott on woodwinds and reeds, Max Bennett on bass, John Guerin on drums and percussion, Robben Ford on electric guitar, and Larry Nash on piano. In keeping with her maverick spirit, though, she only included one song from Court and Spark ("People's Parties"), finding room for neither of its hit singles ("Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris").
One song ("Cactus Tree") on Miles was recorded months earlier at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 4, 1974. Discs 3 and 4 of Archives Vol. 3 presents the complete March 3 concert at the Chandler as recorded by Henry Lewy and Ken Caillat, in sequence. (The original album had to consider space limitations of vinyl records in sequencing.) It adds up to an alternate version of Miles of Aisles with the same energy and vivacity as that recording.
The concert opened with a band set. The second half would open with Joni's solo portion before Scott, and then the full band, returned to close it out. Finally, live versions of Court and Spark classics can be heard as performed by an on-fire Mitchell and the L.A. Express. "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris," "The Same Situation," "Just Like This Train," "Trouble Child," "Car on a Hill," and "People's Parties" (the latter preceded by a lengthy monologue) are all here, as well as earlier songs performed both with the band and solo, as in the "old days." In addition to the plentiful Court and Spark material, this show offers live versions of "This Flight Tonight" with the band and the solo "For the Roses;" both songs were absent on Miles of Aisles. Though the live versions of the Court songs are similar in feel and spirit to the studio versions - after all, Scott, Bennett, and Guerin supported Mitchell on both iterations - it's nonetheless a major treat to hear them replicating them before an appreciative audience. This is the "complete" Miles of Aisles for which fans have long been waiting.
How to follow the year of Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles? Mitchell, expectedly, refused to repeat herself. The result of her ongoing musical exploration was 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Though there was some musical continuity with Tom Scott and The L.A. Express and The Crusaders, the songs were more challenging if equally rewarding. Archives presents a brace of demos on its fifth disc, followed by a selection of session material. "Dreamland," which wouldn't appear on a Mitchell album until 1977's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, was tried out both in demo form and with the band. On Don Juan's, the song utilized only voice and percussion; the arrangements here are more traditional.
Like "Edith and the Kingpin," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," and "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," Hissing's lead single "In France They Kiss on Main Street" is heard in both demo and alternate form. The shimmering, slinky tune most closely evoked the Court and Spark sound as it lyrically recalled the early days of rock and roll. The freewheeling Court spirit is oddly even more evident on the spare demo, divorced from the sleek sheen the band would bring to it. The alternate version is a little less urgent and considerably rougher than the final take. "Harry's House" would ultimately be merged with the Jon Hendricks/Harry "Sweets" Edison jazz standard "Centerpiece." Standing on its own as a demo, it gains an appealingly bluesy, subtle quality.
The most illuminating alternate take may well be that of "The Jungle Line." Mitchell, widely recognized as having used the first sample on a mainstream pop record, built her song around a field recording of African Burundi drummers. She layered Moog, guitar, and vocals over the hypnotic drums: "The jungle line/Screaming in a ritual of sound and time." The lyric was inspired by French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau whose best-known works are jungle scenes. A slithering snake is just one of the images employed by Mitchell in the fantastical, expansive lyric imagining a louche urban jungle of drugs, music, and "all that jazz." The alternate take, with acoustic guitar and without the sampled drums, is captivating but feels once again more conventional than what appeared on the final album - further proof (if any was needed) about Mitchell's refusal to merely "settle" when it came to realizing her vision at its fullest. As The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a less overtly accessible album than Court and Spark, the bonus material relating to it may be even more illuminating and more likely to deepen one's appreciation of the released LP.
Archives Vol. 3 is packaged in the same style as its two predecessors, with a squarebound 36-page book featuring Cameron Crowe's terrifically engaging chat with Mitchell as well as rare photos, tape box scans, and more. Bernie Grundman's mastering, as always, is subtle and effective. It's a beautiful set (designed by Lisa Glines) in a series that has brought the artist's oeuvre back into sharp focus even as her personal profile is somehow, remarkably in her seventh decade of music-making, still on the ascendant. For the fans who have been waiting for packages such as this for decades, it truly is Dreamland.
Archives Vol. 3 is available now:
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