Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years 1963-1967; Rhino Records
Like an old blues vinyl, Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years 1963-1967 emerges from a stateless mist, instantly absorbing the listener into its revelatory whole. A truly remarkable feat in this unquiet age of data overload, civil collapse, and pestilence.
A gift to collectors and completists (namely me), this six-hour, five CD audio-biography is a deep dive into music she has long derided as too girlish, too generic, too precious, too folkie. So forgive me if I get giddy and gushy at how this set unveils and unwinds; how it never stumbles in its trajectory to genius-ness or Joni-ness or however her singularity is defined. I promise to try to contain myself.
I seriously could care less if I ever heard “House of the Rising Sun” again. Until now. As young Joan Anderson’s declarative soprano inhabits its haunted, hell-bound tale, you sense intuitively the nineteen year-old’s brilliance is on par with other budding legends (Cohen, Collins, Baez, Dylan, Young) who are cutting their swaths into our consciousness, culture, and history. It’s the first of 119 captivating moments captured as she welcomes the drunk and reckless in from the shadow storms and fever dreams that dog them into the luring, satin warmth of the rising sun. Her voice pristine: “Dark As a Dungeon,” “Tell Old Bill.” Her intent true: “Pastures of Plenty,” “Molly Malone.” Her presence magnetic: “Deportee,” “Copper Kettle.”
From baritone ukulele to her notably innovative guitar tunings (their chordal harmonics inspiring generations, from Jimmy Page to Prince to Bjork and beyond) Mitchell moves resolutely from the grey yearnings of Saskatoon through Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia, Ontario, NY, and North Carolina, in a series of performances that, taken as a whole or in smaller chapters, ever holds you in its sway. Where Disc 1 is the traditional arc of all folk singers, Disc 2 begins with her own shaded, poetic urgency “Urge For Going.” The rapid evolution into our greatest singer/songwriter (I’m willing to argue that with anyone) begins with hardly a fledgling step. “What Will You Give Me,” “Night In The City.” “Eastern Rain,” “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game.” Early, fully formed renderings of songs that wouldn’t be heard by the legions until years later: “Morning Morgantown,” “Tin Angel,” “I Had A King,” “Cactus Tree,” “Chelsea Morning.” “Little Green” performed here in ’67, its dark tints hinting at the daughter she had given up for adoption in ’65 and, wouldn’t appear until the groundbreaking, genre defining Blue in 1971.
Archives, Vol. 1 is a startling curation of hushed home/studio demos, radio, TV, and coffeehouse performances that portray an artist growing exponentially with uncanny grace and humor, ushering us up to the months preceding her ’68 debut, Song For A Seagull. With this inaugural set, Mitchell once again has flown against the gale of what mostly male record execs often mistook as stubborn fits of artistic or hormonal petulance. She has set the bar so high that future collections are just impossible not to speculate on and hope for. What secrets await discovery concerning such inestimable recordings as For the Roses, Ladies of the Canyon, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Court and Spark, Hejira? Stay tuned.
Mike Jukovic is a writer and music critic. He lives in the Hudson Valley in NY state.