Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hits By Joni Mitchell Are Not All Her Best Works!

The Good: Lyrics, Most of the music is good, Vocal range
The Bad: Moments of vocals.
The Basics: With a long and varied career, any Hits album might be difficult for Joni Mitchell, but she gives it a fair shake.

As I finish off my exploration of the works of Joni Mitchell, I thought I should check out one of her (infrequent) compilation albums. When I was able to easily get in Hits, it almost seemed like kismet. Hits was a 1996 compilation and, not counting live albums, was Mitchell’s first compilation album of previously-released works (released in conjunction with Misses). Hits might just be that (Misses more of the artist’s “Best Of” vision), but after a while of not listening to Joni Mitchell albums, the thing that caught me was how many songs of Mitchell’s I enjoyed and pegged as the best of an album were not present.

With fifteen tracks, clocking out at an hour and thirty-four seconds, Hits is an adequate expression of Joni Mitchell’s talents. Mitchell wrote all fifteen songs (save the “Unchained Melody” portion of “Chinese CafĂ©/Unchained Melody”) and she provides all of the primary vocals (though, interestingly, her version is not always the most popular/successful version of the song that appears on the album). On each song, Joni Mitchell plays at least one musical instrument – guitar, piano, dulcimer, billatron and keyboards – and Mitchell is a producer for the album.

For those who have not heard the music of Joni Mitchell, Hits might be a decent starter album (though I would argue some of her classic albums are more indicative of her sound and talent). Mitchell is largely a slow, mellow, folk singer and Hits not only captures that, but some of her more upbeat poppy tracks, like “Free Man In Paris” (which sounds, musically, like a 1970s Bowie track) and “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio.” Generally, though, Hits captures the mellow, depressing tone of much of Mitchell’s works and balances them with similar-sounding folk tracks that have direct and pointed political messages.

Vocally, Joni Mitchell has an incredible range . . . but on Hits she does not stretch or strain from it. Mitchell has done more recent albums that illustrate impressive range. On Hits, she stays very comfortably in her alto-soprano range without going much lower (“River” is the only notable exception, though even there she is not hitting her lowest registers). The net result is that the vocals on Hits are somewhat boring and obvious. Mitchell is articulate and clear (save on “Raised On Robbery,” where is sounds like she’s saying “raised on rubber beef” when she sings the title!) and on some songs she both sings high and holds notes for an impressive duration, but she does so on track after track after track, diminishing the impact some.

What is uncompromisingly great, even on Hits are the lyrics of Joni Mitchell. Mitchell is a poet who sings about all sorts of things. With songs from the 1960s through 1990s, it is unsurprising that many of Mitchell’s songs are political or environmental (especially for a modern folk rocker!). One of her biggest hits was a pro-environment, anti-capitalism tune “Big Yellow Taxi” where she sings about the relationship between environment and commerce and pits it against a relationship falling apart. With more than a little irony, she observes “They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / Then they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see 'em / Don't it always seem to go,/ That you don't know what you've got / ‘Til it's gone / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot” (“Big Yellow Taxi”). You don’t get songs like that these days! (At best, an artist will do a cover of “Big Yellow Taxi!”)

Generally, pop music does not tackle issues of life and death, either. Yet, Mitchell is fearless about exploring existential matters, as she does with the lines “And the seasons they go round and round / And the painted ponies go up and down / We're captive on the carousel of time / We can't return we can only look / Behind from where we came / And go round and round and round / In the circle game” (“The Circle Game”). Few people make regret, nostalgia, loss and hope sound so good!

Mitchell is brilliant at making historical angst and emotional longing musical as well. To the best of my knowledge, the first time I heard “Come In From The Cold” was on Hits. Opening with Mitchell singing “Back in 1957 / We had to dance a foot apart / And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines / Holding their rulers without a heart / And so with just a touch of our fingers / I could make our circuitry explode / All we ever wanted / Was just to come in from the cold” (“Come In From The Cold”), the song is an incredible and articulate exploration of longing and desire. Mitchell has a great perspective that she expertly presents on “Come In From The Cold” and most of the songs on Hits.

Ultimately, I usually expect to say “If you only pick up one album from this artist, this compilation will fit the bill,” but with Hits I found myself noticing more the better tracks of Joni Mitchell that never charted. So, Hits is not the essential Joni Mitchell; hopefully, we’ll have many more years of her making music before such an album even becomes possible.

The best song is “The Circle Game,” the weak link was “Chelsea Morning.”

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


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

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