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Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974)

January 10, 2015

joni cs

Court and Spark was one of the first pop LPs I really got into when I was a young man first discovering pop music.  I came to pop music late (a freshman in college),  Prior to that I was a music fan, but mainly jazz.  It was not that I was a jazz snob, I just had limited exposure to pop music.

My introduction to Mitchell came much earlier in life when I was in grade school and learned to play “Both Sides Now” on the flute.  It was a major pop tune of the day (made famous by Judy Collins, not Joni).  But it was not until college, when I met my first musical mentor Paul, that I really discovered who Joni was.  I immediately fell head over heals – Joni was my first pop crush.  She was smart, a unique beauty and had a an adventurous voice that transcended folk and jazz.  Her songwriting was deep both lyrically and musically.

Court and Spark entered my soul one night in college when my buddy Paul rolled and sparked one, dimmed the lights and put on the LP.  We listened to it though silently and I was blown away.  I have been exploring that album ever since (nearly 40 years) and have never tired of it. I am still amazed by all of it: the cover (painting by Joni and raised lettering), the pop jazz arrangements, the songwriting, her voice and the pure Joni-ness of it.  It is a great reference record for test driving a stereo.

I love her whole catalog, but this is her masterpiece.  After this album she would slowly turn her back on being a pop star and move towards being a jazz musician.  Prior to this album she had evolved from folkie to pop singer-songwriter (a genre that she helped invent).  This album represents the pinnacle of where she came from and where she was going. Its has the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vibe (which is still mined today by artist like Ryan Adams and Jenny Lewis), but it is how the album embraces jazz that makes it a unique piece of pop.  The story goes that Joni was getting frustrated trying to communicate her vision of her music to her usual backup musicians – she would describe what she wanted in visual terms: colors and textures.  It was not working and so someone told her to try jazz musicians – they would get that language – and the rest is history. Joni started playing with jazz cats and never turned back. For example the Crusaders are basically the band on this album.

The album starts out with the titular track. This is a moody piece focused on Joni’s voice and piano. A wonderful portrait of a tenuous romance.  Like most of the album it embraces elaborate pop jazz arrangements.

“Help Me” is the pop hit. The music perfectly augments the lyrics description of the free fall of falling in love. Great jazz influenced arrangement and Joni’s voice soars and dives like a seagull. The song has a great ending – it fades like a gorgeous sunset.

“Free Man In Paris” is wonderful cinematic reminiscing of a simpler time juxtapositioned with the current moment where Joni is overwhelmed by her success.  The music has a sexy swagger and screw you attitude that hides under the pop sheen.

“People’s Parties” leans more on the Blue album sound. The song lyrics wonderfully captures the fish out of water awkwardness of certain social situation – that I don’t want to be here vibe.  The song has one of my all-time favorite lines from a song: “laughing and crying you know it’s the same release.”  It wonderfully segues into the final song of side one “The Same Situation.”  The song captures the contradiction of being a successful women yet the need to belonging to a man.  The voice of the song is not proud of this contradiction, but it is honest.

Side 2 starts out with “Car On The Hill.”  We have all been there – waiting for someone to show up and not quite confident if they will or not.  The song really embraces the pop jazz sensibility.  Great arrangement – a three-minute pop symphony.

“Down To You” again is a shade of Blue, but with more pop sophistication. Lyrically the song captures a man: both tender and hard (“you’re a brute – you’re an angel”).  The song has great instrumental bridge that is yet another little pop symphony.

“Just Like This Train” has that great sunset on the beach feel to the music.  The song is very visual, yet at the same time philosophical.  It has great lines like:

I used to count lovers like railroad cars
I counted them on my side
Lately I don’t count on nothing
I just let things slide

“Raised On Robbery” is a rock and roll song.  It captures the careless of youth: wasting money and stealing hearts.

“Trouble Child” provides more southern California beach vibe.  Lyrically the song captures the beauty and the terror of a talented but screwed up young person: “trouble child breaking like the waves at Malibu.”

The LP ends with “Twisted” a rare cover by Joni. The song adds humor to the proceedings.  But it is the same introspective and brilliant women from the rest of the album. The song foreshadows the straight jazz that Joni would embrace in a few more years.  The original was a jazz underground hit in the early 50s by Annie Ross.  Joni does a brilliant cover.

Joni Mitchell is great singer-songwriter and this is an accessible pop masterpiece.  I would have a hard time picking my favorite Joni album, it would depend on my mood.  But if there was one album to make an introduction to Joni, this would be it.



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