Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell

album cover

A Sound Painter Expands Her Palette

Joni Mitchell's second album gave the world a little koan called "Both Sides Now," which became a huge hit for Judy Collins. Mitchell's third included "Woodstock," a skeptical travelogue that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young turned into a counterculture anthem. The album after that, Blue, is often referred to as a "pioneering classic of singer-songwriter music" for its painstaking accounts of romance's riptides.

Blue is plenty wrenching. It's also monochromatic. After it, the restless Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist (she's also an accomplished painter) began expanding her notion of what a song might be. She hired a band (the ace studio musicians known as the L.A. Express), and sought both watercolor hues and bold splashes of instrumental color, setting her sharply observed lyrics against clarinets and icy muted trumpets and snarling treble-heavy electric guitars. This emphasis on texture coalesces on Mitchell's magnificent sixth album, Court and Spark—a series of inward-looking confessional odes whisked along on the breezy, forever untroubled buoyance of California pop.

With a rhythm section on board, Mitchell is no longer tethered to the steady guitar strumming that defined previous works. That's a huge shift, and it loosens up everything else. Her tunes are dotted with abrupt pauses and shadowy interludes, and dramatic moments when the anchoring rhythm evaporates completely. Where she once sought to give blow-by-blow accounts of romance messes, Mitchell here dashes off impressionistic sketches—of music-biz types chasing "the star-maker machinery behind the popular song" ("Free Man in Paris") and disconsolate teens "breaking like the waves at Malibu" ("Trouble Child") and snooty types with "passport smiles" ("People's Parties"). The music's fast-changing nuances force Mitchell to become a more expansive vocalist—she sings these lithe long-distance melodies with a wriggling freedom, swooping and lunging like a bird who's just escaped captivity and is discovering new ways to fly.

Genre: Pop
Released: 1974, Asylum
Key Tracks: "Trouble Child," "Car on a Hill"
Catalog Choice: Hejira; Mingus; Shadows and Light
Next Stop: Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates
After That: José González: Veneer
Book Pages: 507–508

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#1 from Steve Petrica, Bethesda, Md - 10/28/2008 5:28

I would have chosen “Blue”, “For the Roses”, or “Hejira” before “Court and Spark”, but I agree that Joni Mitchell is a formidable artist whose work should be represented in a list like this.

#2 from Madison, St. Louis - 10/31/2008 7:54

Although Ladies of the Canyon is my favorite album by Joni Mitchell, if I were to introduce her to anyone I would recommend Court and Spark. It’s a knock out.

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