Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon Rediscovered
David Crosby of the group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), which made Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a big hit in 1970, said that she captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had been there. Her songs about Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon community written around the same time received similar attention to detail.
The resulting album, Ladies Of The Canyon, revealed a more confident singer-songwriter. Still restless and introspective, her music showed more lyrical maturity and rhythmic drive compared to her previous release, the 1969 Grammy award winning Cloudsj. Her delicate vocals seemed to have gained another octave as she reached deeper to convey her feelings about life, love and its complexities.
In 1969, the Aquarian themes of Woodstock (peace, love and music) were being played out on a smaller scale in the secluded Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon, which is defined by a road that links Hollywood Blvd. to Mulholland Drive. Two years earlier Mitchell had purchased a wooden cottage surrounded by cypress trees that had been built by a jazz musician into the side of a hill on Lookout Mountain Avenue. Living in Laurel Canyon also meant that friends surrounded her, including Crosby, Stephen Stills, John Sebastian, Linda Ronstadt, Carol King, and Cass Elliot.
Several of the songs Mitchell wrote at the time, including the title track, were a direct result of her embracing that slice of bohemian counter-culture while maintaining a sense of domesticity. They also reflected her close ties to the members of CSNY, who helped sing back up harmony on the album’s “The Circle Game” – a song that was inspired by fellow Canadian Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain”. Mitchell’s blossoming relationship with her boyfriend Graham Nash was also significant. They had fallen in love the previous year and were living together in Mitchell’s home (with two cats in the yard).
“Willy” was Nash’s nickname and the song Mitchell composed about him. It was written during a trip they made together to shoot the inside gatefold photograph for CSN’s debut album. That song laid out their relationship bare for all to see. Nash would respond with “Our House” on Déjà Vu and later with “Simple Man” on Songs For Beginners – when they broke up after Ladies Of The Canyon was released.
Everything about Ladies... had been honed to a fine edge, but that polishing also meant more work. Drawings by Mitchell were featured on the soft matte cover, and her handwritten lyrics graced the inside gatefold (with a line missing from “Woodstock”). At the time she observed, “The drawings, the music and the words are very much tied together. (It’s) the kind of material I want to write – I want to be brighter, to get people up, to grab people. So I’m stifling my feelings of solitude.”
Mitchell would return to those feelings of solitude on her next album, embarking on a confessional journey that would produce her dark masterpiece, Blue. But that record of painful beauty was a year away. Ladies, while just as sparse in its arrangements, remained mostly innocent and was far less self-questioning.
The songs were performed on piano and guitar in a style that was changing from the acoustic folk of her first two albums to something like the pop sound she would later achieve on her best selling record, Court and Spark. Like that release, Ladies... was recorded in nearby Hollywood at A&M Records Studio - because “the piano at A&M is the best in the whole word,” said Mitchell. Henry Lewy handled engineering duties and provided guidance in producing the additional cello, clarinet, saxophone, flute, and percussion.
Released as RS 6376 on Reprise Records in the spring of 1970 when Mitchell was 26 years old, the LP sold quickly and became her first gold record. It confirmed Mitchell’s ability to convey complicated emotions in a simple way. Take for example the charming “Morning Morgantown”. This lead off tune echoes the sunny “Chelsea Morning” from her previous album, but adds a poignant tone to her soaring vocals, making it much more introspective.
“For Free” could have been written about today’s abundance of struggling artists. It portrays a street musician who keeps playing even though he isn’t really getting paid. Mitchell questions her own good fortune of becoming successful while wondering what freedoms she may have given up in the process (this struggle between art and commerce would be revisited). “Conversation” is her first soft rocker that churns away on the back of strumming guitars and bop vocals by “The Saskatunes” (in actuality a multi-tracked Mitchell).
The environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi” with its unforgettable line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” may be her best-known track on the album. The lyrics were inspired by a view Mitchell saw from her Honolulu hotel room. Amazingly, she effectively connects the betrayal of the land to a taxi that takes her lover away. Who else could diffuse an ecological protest song by wrapping it up in romanticism and finishing it off with a laugh? And then there’s “The Circle Game” which remains one of her most magical songs if simply for the reason it’s the archetype of a vision that is both achingly personal and universally thematic without becoming too sentimental.
Comparing the different LP pressings I had on hand with this Rhino reissue was both instructive and enlightening. On some records, and on some systems, this album can sound a bit thin and bright. Most every track has plenty of upper midrange and lower treble and not much else. In other words, it’s a bare bones recording. This album needs a sympathetic mastering for all that compelling imagery and emotional insight Mitchell has carefully crafted to have any chance of succeeding.
Thankfully, the Rhino reissue avoids any of those issues. Pressed at RTI with near flawless surfaces, my copy is quiet and flat. Most importantly, this mastering from the original analog tapes by Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Studios is absolutely superb. My original US first pressing (WLP with A-1A/B-1A lacquers) lacks low-end weight and transparency in comparison, even if it does sound a bit warmer. It may have been produced during the golden age of Warner Brothers/Reprise, but it sounds a bit rolled off. So does a later A-1B copy (which suffers from sibilance), as does an obscure RCA Dynaflex pressing with two-tone labels and a stamped 1S in the dead wax (it’s even brighter). An early 90’s non-gatefold German heavyweight reissue actually sounds pretty good. It has improved clarity and a fuller presentation compared to the US original, but it’s a bit dry and clinical.
It’s important to remember that this recording features a young Mitchell, with her high airy voice intact. Also, the only other instruments besides piano and acoustic guitar are woodwinds and percussion. And there is no bass guitar. Consequently, anything that adds richness to the lower midrange without sacrificing detail is welcome. That’s what Bellman has achieved here. Everything has clarity with exceptional low-level resolution, but without a hint of being overly detailed. There is a new depth to the midrange, and the vocals are convincingly life-like: rich, nuanced, transparent and without sibilants. In other words, Bellman nailed it. In fact, I think he knocked it out of the park. The labels and gatefold jacket also replicate the original Reprise LP successfully. Not to be missed.
There was a DCC mastering of this album scheduled to be released in the ‘90s, but, unlike the DCC LP and CD of Court and Spark and the DCC CD of Blue, it never made it to print. So this audiophile 180-gram reissue is a very welcome addition to the used LPs available. Also included in the Rhino LP reissue series are Blue (mastered by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman) and Court and Spark (mastered by Chris Bellman), both of which were previously reviewed on this site by Michael Fremer. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (also mastered by Chris Bellman) is the fourth in the series.
In retrospect, Joni Mitchell was blossoming as an artist on Ladies Of The Canyon. It provided a personal platform on which she could paint her ever-evolving canvas. Conflicted between her desire for love and a need for independence, Mitchell expressed a variety of emotions based on her experiences, including those in Laurel Canyon. Like her earlier work, it’s optimistic - but it’s also significantly more mature in outlook. The hopes and dreams of a generation of California baby boomers may be gone, but we still have this album to listen to. Essential.
NOTE: I tend to like a more “vintage sound” with excellent midrange presence and believability. I‘m not a big fan of squeezing more detail out of a mastering at the expense of musicality and listenability. While ideally I wish to hear a balanced presentation that does not emphasize bass, midrange or treble, I will take a natural, warm and liquid sound over something that is analytical, cold and dry. A bright or hard sounding remaster that cannot be cranked up in volume is simply not my cup of tea. If you have similar preferences, then you will probably find my reviews helpful, if not - well at least you know what to expect. My goal with all music/sound reviews, while inherently subjective, is to remain as objective as possible and base my observations on thorough research and in-depth comparisons. - RW