I first came to Joni Mitchell, as many do I should think, through her most famous hit Big Yellow Taxi, then through various eclectic uses of her songs on soundtracks. From ‘Both Sides Now’ on Love Actually, the heartbreaking ‘River’ on ER and other TV series, and the enigmatic ‘Sire Of Sorrow’ on leftfield Reeves and Mortimer classic Catterick, I started to absorb Joni’s excellence. What better place to start with her works than the brilliant Ladies Of The Canyon, then…
There’s something wonderfully charming about each track on this album; they’re little self-enclosed stories, vignettes of everyday life, told wonderfully in that folky style mixed in with what would become her fondness for jazz experimentation. Nowhere is the storytelling more lucid than in Morning Morgantown, a cheerful ode to sleepy town life and people-watching, or in the piano-led For Free, an ode to the more down-and-out musicians not getting handsomely paid:
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
It could be about today’s reality show-saturated life in many ways, and it’s sweet with just the right tinge of melancholy cello. There’s also a marvellous flourish of jazzy improve at the end, wholly unexpected and earwarmingly good. Conversation thrums with secret longing for an attached man, its bouncy guitar preparing the listener for Big Yellow Taxi later on; and still there’s some jazzy woodwind as a premonition of albums to come.
Ladies Of The Canyon shines as a tribute to all creative women ‘colouring the sunshine hours’, from the crafter to the cook and the singer:
Estrella circus girl
Comes wrapped in songs and gypsy shawls
Songs like tiny hammers hurled
At beveled mirrors in empty halls
Joni’s harmonies on this piece are particularly sublime, her voice strong but not saccharine. Likewise on Willy, a poignant piano piece on family love soaring on soprano and sinking into alto in turn, recalling River. This poignancy continues in the sparse bleakness of The Arrangement, dealing as it does with consumerism and greed; there’s desperation and wavering in Joni’s voice, especially in the haunting quasi-operatic sustained note towards the end. After the Spartan desolation, some rich choral backing and twinkling minor piano ushers in Rainy Night House; the melody haunting, its lyrics dense and almost mystical.
The spectre of Nick Drake haunts both the elaborate guitar and ambiguous lyrics of The Priest. It’s not the conventional love song:
Then he took his contradictions out
And he splashed them on my brow
So which words was I then to doubt
When choosing what to vow
Indeed, Drake would I think be pleased with the intellectual merit of the whole package here. Blue Boy is mellifluous and mythical, with stripped-down piano and a very wintry sound, whereas Big Yellow Taxi is by now well-known as a jolly prod at ecological issues. Much covered, none of the versions I’ve heard come close to the original, in its brief jaunty glory. One of the true masterpieces of the album, though, is the magnificent Woodstock:
By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
From its funky electric piano intro through the rawness of Joni’s vocals and the almost tribal backing chanting, this is a glorious jewel in the crown of Joni’s back catalogue. Her voice is at its best, hitting notes she admits she’s no longer capable of thanks to her lifelong smoking habit, breaking in places, but never losing its power. The album ends on the sweetly nostalgic and heartily folksy The Circle Game, sounding ever so slightly like Peter Paul And Mary, and pensive enough on the passing of time.
The variety in style and subject matter alone makes Ladies Of The Canyon a compelling listen. But as with much of Joni Mitchell’s work, it’s her consummate musicianship running through proceedings that shines through- the melodies are well crafted, the lyrics insightful and relevant, the whole a joy to listen to.