Monday, February 17, 2014

Blue With Disappointment In The Generic Quality Of Joni Mitchell's Supposed Great Album.

The Good: Moments of lyrics, Moments of voice
The Bad: Sounds like virtually every other early Joni Mitchell album, Dull instrumentals, Short.
The Basics: Dull, slow and sounding like virtually every other Joni Mitchell album, Blue disappoints anyone ready to be wowed by her whole album (not just lyrics and voice)!

A little while back, I went through an intensive study of the works of Joni Mitchell and I was disappointed when I found there were gaps in the collection I was evaluating. One of those gaps was one of her early albums, Blue, which several individuals informed me was one of Mitchell's seminal albums and without it my study was more or less wasted. I was therefore excited when two weeks ago I managed to get Blue in and I listened to it right away.

It's taken me two weeks and twelve listens to muster up the enthusiasm to write a review of it. Those who believe this might be the ultimate Joni Mitchell album might not have heard her other early works because Blue is hard to argue as her best when it sounds like, pardon the rhyme, the rest.

With ten tracks clocking in at 36:15, Blue is inarguably the work of Joni Mitchell. She wrote all of the songs and provides the primary vocals for all of them. While the album's liner does not credit Mitchell with any instrumentals, it also does not credit anyone with the piano which is evident on several tracks, like Blue. It seems a fair assumption that Mitchell might be providing that. Strangely, there is no production credit in the liner either, the closest being that the album engineer was Henry Lewy. Regardless, it seems like this is a distinctly Joni Mitchell work.

The fundamental problem here is that the album sounds like virtually every other early Joni Mitchell work. One could swap tracks from Blue, Song To A Seagull and Ladies Of The Canyon and not truly tell the difference. It's a sad commentary to consider that Mitchell might have grown so little as an artist over those few early years that such an exercise would be possible and easily executed.

What Mitchell had from the beginning, and displays right from the beginning of Blue, is the ability to write. Joni Mitchell is a rather decent poet and songwriter and Blue seems a concept album about places, travel and relationships. Mitchell's musical persona journeys through the album between places and relationships searching for the place she fits. And each song works independently and the album comes together quite well as a collection of poems.

So, for example, on "Carey," Mitchell sings about feeling trapped in both a place and a relationship with lines like, "The wind is in from Africa / Last night I couldn't sleep / Oh you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey / But it's really not my home . . . Get out your cane / And I'll put on some silver / Oh you're a mean old Daddy, but I like you fine." She has a wonderful sense of imagery and includes many subtle references to things that keep her trapped, like beach tar and the silver which is reminiscent of shackles. She wonderfully creates a sense of building up to moving on and many of the songs that follow "Carey" have her on a journey, like "California," "This Flight Tonight" and "A Case Of You."

She manages some decent lyrics with the sense of finding place on tracks like "California." There, she writes and sings, ". . .He cooked good omelets and stews / And I might have stayed on with him these / But my heart cried out for you, California / Oh California I'm coming home / Oh make me feel good rock 'n' roll band / I'm your biggest fan / California, I'm coming home" ("California"). She creates an enticing image of all she misses and the lines work to embody and idealized place.

Similarly, she has wonderful lines on "A Case Of You," where her musical protagonist begins to pick apart her traveling companion. Lines like "Oh I am a lonely painter / I live in a box of paints / I'm frightened by the devil / And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid / I remember that time you told me, you said, / 'Love is touching souls' . . . Oh you're in my blood like holy wine / You taste so bitter and so sweet" ("A Case Of You") perfectly capture the duality of what attracts us to another and the realization that we can no longer live with them. This captures well the emotional resonance of the drifting apart and lyrically, it's hard to argue that Blue does not have something good going for it.

Similarly, it's difficult to argue that Joni Mitchell does not have a great singing voice. Mitchell has a wonderful soprano voice that she sings out clear and high on tracks like "A Case Of You," "California," and Blue. Mariah Carey has nothing on Joni Mitchell the way Mitchell performs "The Last Time I Saw Richard." She is able to go lower and smoky on tracks like "Carey" and "My Old Man."

The problem comes when one listens to the album with any sense of context of her body of works. There is nothing vocally new here that anyone who has heard any other Joni Mitchell album has not already heard. There is no growth, no stretching, no differentiation between what Mitchell had put out before and what is on this album. She goes in no new directions, she keeps everything slow, moody and within her extensive vocal range. There is no auditory challenge for the listener on Blue to make one think anything other than that she is phoning the album in from her comfort zone.

At least as bad is how unimaginative the music is. If it's not a stark-sounding folk guitar track, it's a piano and vocal driven track that sounds like the quiet guitar tracks, save on piano. Mitchell uses some of the same chords in the same progressions on the album's opener "All I Want" and three tracks later on "Carey." If you're going to resuse elements of your harmony over, it helps to put them far apart on the album!

"Little Green" opens with the same chords as "The Circle Game" and Mitchell's vocals have some of the same resonances, making it a disappointingly similar musical experience for anyone who has heard her other works. Moreover, it illustrates a lack of growth in Mitchell as time went on. She simply reused a tune that worked and how that won't disappoint anyone who wants to like Joni Mitchell's works is a mystery to me.

There is one interesting musical moment on Blue, but it is the use of a production element as opposed to any genuine change in the musical style. On "This Flight Tonight," Mitchell sings about what is on the radio and she produces the lines to be scratchy and mono-sounding to embody the sound of an old time radio. It's actually pretty cool and there ought to be credit for the imagination of it.

Ultimately, though, this is a tough c.d. to recommend, which I see puts me in the minority. The thing is, it easily could have been put on the same disc with one of her adjacent albums to give the disc added value, but one suspects that this would only have revealed the depth of her musical lack of imagination and/or innovation over the albums. Then again, it could have been a stronger overall listening experience or at least given the listener more for their money.

The strongest track is the bitter "A Case Of You," the weakest endeavor might actually be the title track, Blue.

For other works by Joni Mitchell, please visit my reviews of:
Song To A Seagull
Ladies Of The Canyon
Turbulent Indigo


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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