Saturday, July 10, 2021

Ladies of the Canyon - The Joni 70s

1970's Ladies of the Canyon was written and recorded at the height of Joni Mitchell's early phase while living in Laurel Canyon, and is a grand debut for the Joni of the 70s.  It was here, on Ladies, that Joni started her venture into jazz. The album was produced by Joni, who also played piano, guitar and keyboards with a handful of jazz musicians, including Paul Horn on clarinet and sax. It’s not the lavishly orchestrated jazz of Court and Spark, but the spark is there. 

Deep in a relationship with Graham Nash, the songs reflect her homely life. "Willy" and "Blue Boy" are profound, gentle love songs to Nash, while "Morning Morgantown" and "Ladies of the Canyon" offer sweet, romantic small-town portraits. Some of the lyrics have twee elements, and others are overly sweet or pretty, but there is an often underrated power to Joni’s hippie album. "For Free" is one of her strongest early songs, exploring the dichotomy between being a successful and wealthy recording artist and a modest street busker; it also features a dazzling clarinet solo at its climax. 

"The Arrangement" is one of her first songs to explore jazz structures, if not jazz textures or arrangements. It is her most experimental and challenging song to this point, and also perhaps the least accessible. "Rainy Night House" and "The Priest" are two definite highlights, gems tucked away on this album. It takes a while for them to leap out, but they have immense staying power with their gorgeous melodies and heartfelt performances. Mitchell's voice is sweet and girlish here, somewhat odd compared with the deep tone on Clouds. It gives the album a pretty, romantic quality, and the hit "Big Yellow Taxi" is characteristic of the album's guitar-driven songs. "The Circle Game," a Joni Mitchell 'standard,' fits into this category.

Ladies of the Canyon also features piano prominently, a move Mitchell credited to listening to Laura Nyro, who was at this time perhaps a more sophisticated and developed artist. The album is notable for exploring woodwind for the first time, and it's the fullest-sounding of her early acoustic works. It also features her soaring electric piano rendition of "Woodstock." 

Overall, Ladies of the Canyon was an important step forward for Joni Mitchell, adding texture and substance to her previously modest, understated acoustic pieces. She would explore these sounds further into the 1970s, but this is the most important albums in her artistic evolution.