Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 2: Joni Mitchell, "Court And Spark"

Artist: Joni Mitchell
Album: Court And Spark
Year: 1974
Label: Asylum

Hundreds of years from now, when critics look back to decide the most influential female musician of the 20th century, one of the few names that will rise to the top will undoubtedly be Joni Mitchell. Challenging every notion of how music should sound and where a womans' place was in music, Mitchell is truly an iconoclast. When it comes to artists who constantly tried new styles, molding them into her own new creation, regardless of what the public or her record label said, again, Mitchell stands atop the list. From jazz to folk to blues to pop, Joni Mitchell truly knows no musical bounds, and she constantly excels in each style she attempts. While her 1971 release, Blue, still stands as one of the greatest "singer/songwriter" recordings in history, it is on her 1974 album, Court And Spark, where all of her brilliance shines perfectly.

Artists from George Michael to Counting Crows to Janet Jackson have covered Joni Mitchell's music over the years, and the impact that she had on the rise of the solo female artists is immeasurable. While Court And Spark did not top the charts (it stalled at number two, behind albums from Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, and John Denver while at number two), it remains Mitchell's greatest commercial success and has sold over two million copies. Much of this success is due to the fact that on Court And Spark, Joni Michell presents an absolutely brilliant fusion of her "folk rock" style with elements of jazz, making for a truly unique musical sound. Yet it is very much the cast of characters who lent their talents to the record that makes it so fantastic. Stephen Stills and David Crosby offer backing vocals on "Free Man In Paris," while Robbie Robertson (The Band) plays a brilliant guitar on "Raised On Robbery." That being said, the most noticeable guest appearances are that of guitar great, Jose Feliciano on "Free Man In Paris" as well as comedy legends, Cheech and Chong, who provide backing vocals on "Twisted." Court And Spark also yielded one of Michell's most successful singles in the form of the legendary song, "Help Me." The song reached number seven on the Billboard charts, and still stands and Mitchell's only "top ten" single.

Joni Mitchell's backing band, which contains only two other regular members, happens to contain two of the most accomplished musicians in history. Though most do not recognize the name of bass player Wilton Felder, there are truly few bassist with as amazing a resume. Aside from being a founding member of The Crusaders, Felder played with artists from Marvin Gaye to John Cale, as well as playing on Billy Joel's Piano Man. However, his biggest claim to fame comes from his work with the Jackson 5, including being the bassist on the hit single, "I Want You Back." Drummer John Guerin is truly a legend within the music business. Having played with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Zappa and George Harrison, he is also known for being the drummer on the theme for the TV show, Hawaii Five-O. Obviously, with these two accomplished musicians in tow, along with her own amazing talents, the success of Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark was pretty much inevitable. Mitchell herself is as talented a musician as she is a singer and songwriter. Playing acoustic guitar, piano, as well as clavinet on the record, it is in her sound that one can hear the blueprint for modern artists like Tori Amos, Liz Phair, as well as the Indigo Girls. Though many artists have tried to meld folk with jazz, few artists have found the musical combination as well as Joni Mitchell presents on Court And Spark.

Joni Mitchell possesses one of the most pure and honest voices in the history of recorded music. Always singing clear and strong, Mitchell rarely hides anything, and the soul and emotion of her lyrics is constantly conveyed flawlessly. The honesty and introspection that makes her music so stunning is perhaps no more clear than on the song, "The Same Situation." While the music exudes confidence and artistry, the lyrics are some of the most raw and universal words of self doubt that Mitchell has ever penned. The juxtaposition between the music and lyrics is what makes the sound and artistry of Joni Mitchell so awe inspiring. Lyrically, not only is Court And Spark truly brilliant, but it is the beginning of Joni Mitchell branching out thematically. From the soul-bearing loves songs that made Blue so amazing, to sounds filled with double meanings, like "Car On The Hill," Court And Spark is a fanstastic lyrical collection. "Free Man In Paris," one of Mitchell's best known songs, is a vivid description of the trip she and David Geffen took to Paris, and for some time, the music was used as the "theme" for CBC's Saturday Evening News. Yet, below the surface of the tale, there is a clear theme in which Mitchell indicts the music industry for their constant scheming and poor treatment of artists. Easily one of Mitchell's more amusing efforts, "Raised On Robbery" is an upbeat, sarcastic, yet true look into the exploitative nature of the "singles" bar scene.

There are very few who will argue that Joni Mitchell receives the amount of credit she deserves for the impact she has had on the world of music. Refusing to "go with the flow," it is very much Mitchell who made it "acceptable" for female artists to be as aggressive and independent musically as they are today. Constantly making the records that "she" wanted to, many labels passed over her in favor of more "compromising" artists. Even without much support from her record label or music critics, the public understood and treasured the immense talent that laid within Mitchell, and she remains one of the most highly respected musicians in history. Having set the standard for lyrical honestly and introspection with her heart-wrenching 1971 release, Blue, Mitchell took to fusing her folk-rock sound together with jazz, which had rarely been done well before. With a cast of stellar guest musicians, and her undeniably gifted "regular" band, the fusion of styles is pulled off masterfully, and the album set the standard for the style. Presenting a group of lyrics that are equal, if not better than her previous work, there are few artists who have as amazing a writing talent as Mitchell. Largely responsible for the later success of everyone from Fiona Apple to Madonna to Patti Smith, one would truly be hard pressed to find an artist who stayed so fiercely independent, yet was able to find enough commercial success to stay "in the business." A shrewd, yet perfectly polished collection of stellar rock-folk-jazz fusion, Joni Mitchell's 1974 release, Court And Spark, stands as perhaps her finest musical effort, and easily one of the most brilliant records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Help Me," "Free Man In Paris," and "Raised On Robbery."

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