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‘Joni Mitchell Archives Vol.3’: 10 Must-Hear Songs From The Stunning Box Set
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‘Joni Mitchell Archives Vol.3’: 10 Must-Hear Songs From The Stunning Box Set

These essential songs from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Archives Vol.3’ collection deepen our understanding of the artist’s unique creative process.

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As archival trawls go, Joni Mitchell’s official Archives series is exemplary. Offering insight into the craft behind her albums, the mix of demos, alternate takes and live performances that comprise each volume helps to create the fullest picture yet of Mitchell’s astonishing creative process. As with every Archives instalment, the must-hear songs on Archives, Vol.3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) make for a priceless addition to Mitchell’s peerless legacy, adding to our understanding of how the best Joni Mitchell albums were made.

Listen to ‘Archives, Vol.3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975)’ here.

Across the four-year period covered in Archives, Vol.3, those albums included the flawless studio run of For The Roses, Court And Spark and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, along with the live double album Miles Of Ailes. Charting the deepening of Mitchell’s understanding of jazz music, and her continued development as a lyricist and songwriter, the original records were remastered for the box set The Asylum Years (1972-1975), making Archives, Vol.3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) an essential companion piece, revealing more about a period in which Mitchell confirmed her place among the best songwriters in history, setting the bar for all who dared follow in her footsteps.

Here, then, are the must-hear songs from Archives, Vol.3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975).

10 Must-Hear Songs From Joni Mitchell’s ‘Archives Vol.3’ Box Set

Like Veils Said Lorraine (‘For The Roses’ demo, late 1971/early 1972)

For The Roses’ predecessor, Blue, had brought Mitchell to a wide audience in 1971, but its searing honesty had also left her as exposed and vulnerable as any singer-songwriter had ever allowed themselves to be on record. By the time she began work on For The Roses, Mitchell was already casting a distrustful eye over what she would call, on a later album, “the star-maker machinery”.

Like Veils Said Lorraine, a short piano piece demoed during the For The Roses sessions, finds Mitchell, for whom the visual arts have always been as important as music (she would paint self-portraits for many of her own album covers), flatly declaring that “high finance or fame” can be a “frame” people get stuck in, causing their lives to “grow narrow” and forcing them to “miss all that beauty/That wisdom and the grace” that hopefully comes with age. Developed from a conversation Mitchell had with a real-estate agent who showed her properties while she was moving to British Columbia, Like Veils Said Lorraine also finds Mitchell debating whether life is “like veils you tear off” or like “walls we put up”; either way, she seeks to “cut through it all” in order to get to the truth of things as she sees it.

Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire (live at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1972)

Written in response to the heroin addiction of Mitchell’s onetime partner James Taylor, Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire was a doomy highlight of For The Roses. Characterised by Mitchell’s downtuned acoustic guitar, and with saxophone and wah-wah guitar lurking in the shadows, the studio version of the song marked Mitchell’s increasing ability to add unexpected texture to her music, creating a disorientating effect to accompany an addict’s journey “down, down, down the dark ladder”. Alone on stage, however, she could be just as expansive. During a captivating performance of the song at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, on 23 February 1972, Mitchell somehow manages to make it sound as though she’s doing the work of two guitarists, wearing the darkness of her material lightly before an audience hanging on every word.

You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio (with Neil Young And The Stray Gators) (‘For The Roses’ early sessions, 1972)

One of the best Joni Mitchell songs, You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio was the songwriter’s sly rejoinder to a request from Asylum Records co-founder David Geffen for her to capitalise on Blue’s success and write a hit single for her next album. Using broadcasting as a metaphor for her search for love (“If there’s no good reception for me/Then tune me out, ’cause honey/Who needs the static/It just hurts the head”), and with a title that sent up the very notion that she should write hits to order, Mitchell proved she could play the game by her own rules, turning in a song that went to No.10 in Canada.

For this early take, Mitchell was joined in the studio by Neil Young and The Stray Gators, the band Young assembled for his notoriously confrontational Harvest tour of 1972. They work up a ragged sound that would have warded off any sensitive DJs, but even with this swampy backing, the purity of Mitchell’s voice and her radio-ready melodies shine through, suggesting that, whatever her intentions, You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio was a soft-rock classic destined for the airwaves.

Help Me (‘Court And Spark’ demo, 1973)

As many of the must-hear songs on Archives, Vol.3 make clear, the clarity and quality of Mitchell’s demos ensured that even her works-in-progress weren’t far off being releasable in their own right. This solo acoustic version of the Court And Spark standout Help Me highlights what a remarkable arranger Mitchell was. Embellished by members of the jazz-fusion outfit LA Express, including bandleader and saxophonist Tom Scott, the finished version of the song glides out of the speakers; on this skeletal run-through Mitchell’s voice soars as she explores her range, and you can practically hear her mapping out in her head the vocal harmonies she would drop delicately but decisively into the finished take.

Car On A Hill (early take, ‘Court And Spark’ sessions, 1973)

The pieces are almost all there on this alternate take of Car On A Hill, all Mitchell has to do is shuffle them into place. With added backing vocals and a balanced mix – including the deftly constructed instrumental middle section – the finished version of the song brings a greater sense of tension and release to Mitchell’s pensive wait for a lover’s arrival. This earlier version, however, reveals Mitchell’s instinct for self-editing – and shows how she’d hit upon the formula for what would later be dubbed “yacht rock” a few years ahead of schedule: some of the saxophone and woodwind interjections threaten distraction, while a few heavier synth embellishments would be put to one side, awaiting effective deployment on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. Her sense of economy is there in the lyrics, too, the song’s two short verses encompassing an entire romance, from first flashes of excitement to disappointing fizzle as a lover chooses a different path.

Rainy Night House (live at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 1974)

Much of Mitchell’s 1974 live album, Miles Of Aisles, was sourced from five concerts she performed at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre that August, with only one song, Cactus Tree, coming from her two-night stand at the same city’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Included in full on Archives, Vol.3, Mitchell’s 4 February show features a haunting performance of Ladies Of The Canyon’s Rainy Night House. Where the aforementioned 1972 Carnegie Hall concert sees Mitchell retaining a depth of sound while stripping back the studio adornments, here she makes full use of LA Express to fill out what was, as originally released, a solo piano-and-voice piece. Compared to the recording selected for Miles Of Aisles, this earlier performance of Rainy Night House is still pinned to drummer John Guerin’s light Latin percussion, though the overall mood is more subtly shaded, Mitchell and her musicians nestling into the groove as they weave a nocturnal sonic tapestry in which no instrument takes precedence.

Edith And The Kingpin (‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ demo, 1975)

While working up the material that would feature on her seventh studio album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Mitchell widened the narrative scope of her songs without losing sight of the emotional truth at their core. With titular characters inspired by Edith Piaf and someone Mitchell later described as “a Vancouver pimp I met”, Edith And The Kingpin was a character sketch of toxic masculinity and the impunity of criminals who become too big to take down. With only acoustic guitar and layered vocals, Mitchell’s demo conveys the deceptively languid atmosphere of the finished recording, her guitar twinkling like The Kingpin’s diamond ring, her voice sorrowful yet never passing judgement on the charged scenes she portrays.

The Boho Dance (alternate version, ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ sessions, 1975)

Addressing notions of “slumming it” for inspiration, of struggling for recognition and of selling out for fame, The Boho Dance found Mitchell reckoning with age-old arguments over success and its effect on artistic integrity – on, of all things, an album recorded in the wake of the huge-selling Court And Spark, yet on which Mitchell created some of her most challenging music to date. On this alternate take of the song, Mitchell is still tweaking lyrics and has yet to find the electric organ that would add warmth to the final version, for which Larry Carlton’s guitar filigrees were ultimately deemed too pretty. With her piano largely front and centre, however, Mitchell delivers a strident performance that charts a route for the song, delivering such lines as “Don’t get so sensitive on me” in a way that makes it clear no one should presume to comment on her creative decision-making.

The Jungle Line (guitar/alternate vocal, ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ sessions, 1975)

Destabilising Moog synthesiser and samples of Burundi drummers mark The Jungle Line out as one of the most unnerving songs in Mitchell’s catalogue, and that’s before you get to lyrics that address white fear and appropriation of Black culture in a torrent of symbolist poetry flowing as if from the paintbrush of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell’s acoustic guitar is all but buried in the final album mix, but here, with just her voice as accompaniment, it powers the song’s relentless drive, buoys its sinister melody and reveals that Mitchell’s startling sonic innovations (The Jungle Line has been recognised as the first commercially released song to use sampling) were hung on a framework as robust as any other in her vast and varied catalogue.

Dreamland (early alternate band version, ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ sessions, 1975)

As earlier instalments in her Archives series have revealed, Mitchell could sit on songs for years before finding a place for them on her records (see the 1966 and 1967 songs The Circle Game and Both Sides, Now, which Mitchell would eventually record herself for the Ladies Of The Canyon and Clouds albums, respectively). In its incarnation on 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Dreamland is a meditation on Africa and colonisation, built solely on percussion and vocals, including a guest turn from Chaka Khan. This full-band version attempted during the Hissing Of Summer Lawns sessions is positively funky, though, at the height of her jazz-fusion phase, Mitchell seems to have understood that she needed to go deeper into Black music history for the song to make its point. As many of the must-hear songs on Archives Vol.3 show, during this period of her artistic evolution Mitchell was not only ahead of the game, she was ahead of herself.

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