Monday, March 18, 2013

Ladies of the Canyon

Joni Mitchell's third studio album Ladies of the Canyon is not only  the quintessential Joni album, but it could be argued the culmination of the 1960s hippie idealism. And it is inarguably one of the peaks of the folk-rock genre, starting with its cover. Admittedly I am a fan of line drawings of musicians - I consider the cover of the Beatles' Revolver to be the most aesthetically pleasing album cover of all time, and Ladies of the Canyon is the second-most pleasing.

 Mitchell's cover has the added bonus of being a self-portrait - Revolver was drawn by the Beatles' old German buddy Klaus Voorman.

And with all that white space, and open lines a harbinger of the Apple corporate style. Compare the Ladies cover to this early Macintosh logo art.

Morning Morgantown  kicks off the album and is another song about morning, a companion to Clouds' Chelsea Morning, except that while Chelsea was about staying in with your lover, Morgantown is about going out adventuring with your lover. This song also features a prominent piano in the refrain and as a big fan of piano music, I find it a welcome addition to this song and the rest of most of the album. However, for all its pianistic charm I do prefer Chelsea Morning.

For Free - Mitchell's rumination on art vs. commerce and the fickleness of public acclaim. A clarinetist on a city street prompts her observations and anybody who rides the NYC subway system or walks in Manhattan is confronted by this scene every day - street musicians who may be playing as well as any concert musicians but are unrecognized because they aren't showcased in an important venue. Mitchell would revisit this theme again.

Conversation - quite possibly my favorite Joni Mitchell song - I wrote a post about it a few of months ago.

Ladies of the Canyon - is there anything like this song in any genre ever? A proto-feminist song presenting thumbnail portraits of artsy/earthmother/hippie chicks, but without the usual mockery - just straight up appreciation and affection. Maybe Dar William's My Friends comes close to the feel of this song but I can't think of anything else. And certainly Dar's song doesn't have the intense time and place feel that this one has of Laurel Canyon on the late 1960s.

Willy - reportedly about Mitchell's relationship with Graham Nash. Nash wrote his take on their relationship Our House. Mitchell's song is much less sunny.

The Arrangement is very much an anti-establishment song, all about how credit cards and corporate jobs are stifling. It's strange hearing it from the perspective of a time when so many people no longer have the option of a good-paying corporate job and unlike the 1960s the middle-class is losing ground and social mobility is less mobile than ever.

Rainy Night House/The Priest/Blue Boy all three songs appear to be intensely auto-biographical reminiscences of eccentric former lovers. Rainy Night House has a beautiful piano and Blue Boy has some great vocals, not to mention the blatantly erotic lyric: Sometimes in the evening he would read to her. Roll her in his arm and give his seed to her. 

Big Yellow Taxi - Mitchell's all-time monster pop hit, covered by many, animated for the Sonny and Cher show (scroll down to watch), and a perfect encapsulation of the hippie view of car culture and industrialization in general. One of the signature songs of the environmental movement. And it must be noted, just an all-around excellent pop song made utterly perfect when Mitchell does a funny voice for the ending "put up a parking lot" and then she cracks herself up.

Woodstock - Mitchell herself failed to show up for Woodstock, preferring to make an  appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who did show up at Woodstock, recorded a version that is much more famous. Mitchell's version is more intense.

The Circle Game - Mitchell's career was inextricably bound up with CSN&Y, and this is one more example. Mitchell wrote this song for fellow Canadian Neil Young in response to his Sugar Mountain. One of her two classic straight-up folk songs along with Clouds. Other people had hits with both those songs before Mitchell recorded them herself. And here's Chuck Mitchell, her ex-husband, doing a version, posted himself to his own Youtube channel.