Joni Mitchell: The Asylum Albums (1972-1975)

Joni Mitchell is releasing her past work in chunks. The Asylum Albums (1972-1975) is the latest of her music to appear. Her first group of studio albums were on Reprise Records, and comprised her first set of remastered albums. The Asylum Albums were released on David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and represents a very commercially successful period for Mitchell, despite her efforts to stay out of the commercial lane of music. Not to totally confuse matters, but Mitchell has issued unreleased live and other recordings like home demos as part of her Archives collection. If you are familiar with Neil Young’s archive releases, Mitchell is following a similar strategy.

The Asylum set contains: For The the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), Miles of Aisles (1974), and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975).

One can hear the gradual change in her music, while the arrangements are bigger, and in some cases more radio-friendly, the lyrics are intimate, and the music is jazzier and grows less conventional in structure and chord inventiveness. She is painting outside the lines, not content to go where others have traveled. For a brief moment, she successfully blended the experimental with the commercial, with the result being Court and Spark.

Is Joni Mitchell the greatest singer-songwriter? She is certainly in the top five. She has so much talent it’s breathtaking. These were the albums that really defined her career, elevating her from folkie to major musical force.

For the Roses

Very much a transition album, it has much of the deep emotion of Blue with a looser musical soundscape of Court and Spark. Mitchell has taken a big leap forward with more complex musical portraits. The word jazzy is overused to describe this period in her musical journey. I think of her music as “progressive-folk.”

There are a few solo guitar and piano songs like her previous albums, but there are also ones with bass, drums and horns. Bassist Wilton Felder and horn player Tom Scott add swing and texture, along with drummer Russ Kunkel. Mitchell accompanies herself on vocals and layers her acoustic guitar to add fullness to some tracks.

The album follows a difficult romantic breakup with singer James Taylor, which followed a breakup with Graham Nash. Mitchell threads the wonder and heartbreak of relationships through her music. Taylor is the main recipient here.

“You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” was a top 40 radio single, her first hit.

Court and Spark

Rolling Stone included this on their list of 500 best albums. Her largest selling album, it reached number two on Billboard and gave her a top 10 hit single, “Help Me.” A couple of noticeable things. This is a finely produced album, Mitchell was willing to bring in the perfect players and arrange the songs in a very open, accessible manner. The second thing, Mitchell moves from autobiographical to more of a universal lyrical perspective. Most of these vignettes could apply to anyone’s life, not just hers. And third, the songs are concise and flow, and the musicianship is interesting – not just the typical song structure of verse, verse, bridge, verse, verse, recycling the same chords. “Down to You” is a great example of allowing the song to breathe musically. The only weak song is her cover of “Twisted,” which does nothing for me.

This album put Mitchell on the map, airplay gained her a broad audience, and had her record company salivating at future hits.

Miles of Aisles

Live albums were still a mixed bag in the mid 1970s with sound and recording challenges. Half the record is solo and half is with accompaniment by Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, some of who had played on her last couple of albums. The recording was from a recent concert tour.

The arrangements on the band-backed songs are somewhat different from the original recordings. Her solo selections have the intimacy of her album performances and the recording, by her engineer Henry Lewy, is good.

The L.A. Express was an exceptional band, releasing numerous albums of their own. As Mitchell had been moving in a jazz direction, performing some of these song live is challenging. At times, Mitchell has to fight not to be overwhelmed by the band, but mostly it works.

I never owned this album, but I like it. I’m less fond of some of Mitchell’s early work, but I admit that the live versions are nice. The version of “Woodstock” is quite different from CSN&Y, it’s slower and a bit funkier. There are two new songs included, which sound pretty good with a jazzy band. “Big Yellow Taxi” lends itself for an upbeat, jazzy arrangement. “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” is full of emotion and spirit.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns

The first thing you notice is the addition of electric guitar on the album. Mitchell recruited some top players. The second thing is the worldly feel of the music and a kool jazz groove. This album is the last in this collection, and it hints at something even more abstract.

Members of the L.A. Express and The Crusaders, plus Skunk Baxter, James Taylor, Crosby & Nash,

“In France They Kiss on Main Street” was another top 10 single. “Edith and the Kingpin” is a shimmering song, a Steely Dan jazzy type vibe. “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” is quite atmospheric with effects, it’s quite lovely and haunting.

“The Jungle Line” has a strong African beat, driven by a Moog synthesizer. Mitchell uses sampled beats to give it that World Music vibe.

“Harry’s House / Centerpiece” is a suite of jazz-fusion vibes. Nicely done.

Felder and Max Bennett provide the imaginative bass lines. Robben Ford, Skunk Baxter and Larry Carlton contribute the runs and guitar fills.

This is the music from my late teenage years. I could appreciate Mitchell’s portrait of the complexities of love, and her haunting and aching solo guitar and piano songs. Mitchell made new chords with different tunings, she wanted to paint images and sounds that were new and take you on a vivid musical journey. I recommend you buy the ticket and take the ride.

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