Joni Mitchell The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) —The Perfect Box Set Reissue?

Joni Mitchell first came to the attention of some folk music enthusiasts from the three songs heard on Tom Rush’s 1968 release The Circle Game (Elektra 74018). Rush covers “Tin Angel”, “Urge For Going” and of course “The Circle Game.” Rush also covers on the album songs from Jackson Browne and James Taylor before they too became well known.

Though Mitchell’s Song to a Seagull debut was released a few weeks earlier, Rush’s album more quickly reached a pre-hippie preppy collegiate audience. Rush’s turtleneck sweater and herringbone sports jacket struck just the right note. A short time later Haight-Ashbury would come to campus and turtlenecks and tweed would be out. Though released in the spring, the record exudes fall in New England. Linda Eastman took the cover shot and Bruce Botnick engineered. A very classy production to go with the tunes arranged as a song cycle about a relationship.

Flipping through the record bins back then you couldn’t miss Song to A Seagull’s colorful and cheery cover art—quite the opposite of Rush’s cover. Due to a cover art screw up the album title was mistakenly thought by many at the time to be “Joni Mitchell” because “Song to a Seagull” spelled out in birds was an easy miss.

None of the great Mitchell songs on the Rush album appeared on her album. Nor on it were Mitchell standouts like “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning previously covered by Judy Collins, nor was “Eastern Rain”, which Fairport Convention had covered on its Polydor debut album (on Cotillion in the U.S.A.). What was going on here?

Was this a scam title—an older recording— intended to capitalize on Mitchell’s newfound visibility? Having been scammed by Capitol Records, which, after the success of Are You Experienced? on Reprise, rushed out an old Curtis Knight recording on which Jimi Hendrix played guitar (Get That Feeling) I wondered about this colorfully packaged album. I bought it anyway, I admit partly based on the attractive colorful cover and hoped for the best. The best is what it delivered, despite missing the three songs on the Rush album and all of the others.

David Crosby produced? Didn’t know he was a producer. First play hearing Mitchell’s voice buried in reverb I said to myself “David Crosby isn’t a producer!” But no matter. The songs were every bit as good as the songs covered elsewhere by others and they were woven together to produce a compelling and thoroughly mesmerizing debut with a “city side” and a “sea side”.

First off, how could this young girl (23 at the time the album was recorded) have such a pure and polished voice? How could she produce so many memorable and unique melodies? How, I thought to myself, could she take a cab ride to the airport and turn it into the pure poetry and drama of “Nathan La Franeer”? The aching regret of “I Had A King”? The tidy, sweet memories of “Sisotowbell Lane”—never mind the purity and originality of her guitar playing. How can one person arrive with so much talent, even if it’s presented kind of underwater?

I played this record almost daily for more than a few years, getting happily lost in the rich imagery and the depth of Mitchell’s delivery. The overly reverberant production did have a way of adding a misty “atmospheric” mystery that over time became both acceptable and because it must have been purposeful, seemingly essential.

Fifty plus years later the album has lost none of its allure and it’s not as if the debut was a “promising start”. A song like “The Dawntreader” is as fine a song in every way as anything in the Mitchell catalog as is the performance. Jimi Hendrix recorded a live version (yes, Jimi!) of the song March 19th, 1968 in Ottawa, having shlepped to her gig after his gig elsewhere in town his tape recorder but the tape was stolen. 50 years later the tape resurfaced and will be included in the 5 CD/10 LP set Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971).

For this 4 LP box set Mitchell oversaw a Song to a Seagull remix designed to elevate her vocal clarity by removing much of the muck that Crosby later regretted having added and admitting it was an inexperienced producer’s mistake.

Smartly, Mitchell did not produce a “dry” vocal mix (if that was even possible) but instead mitigated somewhat the muck surrounding her voice without damaging the original vibe so that fans acclimated to the original wouldn’t be left “high and dry”. It works effectively though upon first play I thought it sounded like a cheesy digital delay of some kind but it wore better over time.

Being a purist, I sought out an original Canadian Pye pressing, but of course the original of an album recorded at Sunset Sound is the American pressing. The new reissue mastered by Bernie Grundman from a high resolution digital remix should please the album’s longtime fans and produce a few generations of new ones, who might want to go back and grab an original just to also have the original document.

“Tin Angel”, “Chelsea Morning”,”Both Sides Now” and “That Song About A Midway” (written about David Crosby we now find out) among others appear on Clouds the sparely produced, occasionally morose (despite including the “chipper”, colorful and welcoming “Chelsea Morning” that made me wish she’d have invited me over for that breakfast!) album of reassessment both personal and career, sprinkled with some self-doubt (it ends with “Both Sides Now” in which Mitchell admits in the final line “I really don’t know life at all”). The title says it, but so does the self-portrait cover art. Though colorfully rendered, the look on her face is subtly disquieting.

The opener “Tin Angel” though about finding a new love “in a Bleeker Street café” and tossing out momentos of a previous relationship, has a dark and almost somber tone. “Both Sides Now” has Mitchell pondering what’s been lost and what’s been gained by her newfound career success and visibility. “But now it’s just another show….”

Bernie Grundman cut this one from the original master tape engineered by Henry “Louie” (sic—but corrected on the reissue jacket). I have multiple original pressings including a white label promo copy featuring the messed up rear jacket artwork with the weird “cut and paste” strip that couldn’t have pleased the artist. This box set’s edition is far superior in every way to all copies I have. The RTI pressing unlike the originals has drop dead quiet backgrounds. The somewhat distant sounding originals all sound as if sourced from a cutting master instead of from the original tape. Clouds reached only #31 on the Billboard chart.

Ladies of the Canyon released in 1970 refers (for those who might not know) to Laurel Canyon, the epi-center at that time of California hippie and musical counterculture. Following the upbeat “Morning Morgantown” (a West Virginia performance recollection?) Mitchell ruminates on her success and a New York street clarinetist who “played real good on his clarinet for free”, while the night before she slept “in a good hotel” and “went shopping for jewels”. She brought in Paul Horn to play the saxophone coda and Jim Horn to add baritone sax.

“Willie” is Mitchell’s sweet love to the point of delirium song to then boyfriend Graham Nash, who, along with Crosby and Stills adds background vocals (billed as “The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir”) on “The Circle Game” (finally). Also here are two of Mitchell’s most popular and enduring songs, “Big Yellow Taxi” and (an almost somber) “Woodstock”, though what’s more memorable here (especially for a radio DJ) than “Rainy Day House”?

Mitchell adds piano to her alternate-tuning guitar musical arsenal and her voice achieves added depth and color on some tunes while retaining the pure mezzo-soprano that helped propel her success (along with her other abundant talents).

Again Henry Lewy engineered at A&M now also credited as “advisor”. How fortunate was Mitchell and listeners to have had such a talented engineer to capture her magic!

Though the original mastered again by Grundman and pressed at Columbia Records’ Pitman pressing plant sounds really nice, this Grundman mastering pressed at RTI sounds much better in every way—cleaner transients, blacker backgrounds and smoother overall.

Finally we get to Blue about which so much has been written and said that I’m not going to bother writing too much about it. Released June 22, 1971 and recorded again at A&M studios following Mitchell’s break-up with Graham Nash and during her rebound relationship with James Taylor, Blue is considered to be one of the greatest albums of the modern musical era and consistently ranks near the top of every annoying greatest list compiled by anyone anywhere.

Mitchell on piano, guitar and Appalachian dulcimer, performs songs mostly written abroad during a European “get away from it all” vacation, though she announced the break up with Nash while on vacation.

Her relationship with Taylor was in full flower during the making of Blue. The title song and “All I Want” are about Taylor while “My Old Man” and the enduring “River” were about her time with Graham Nash.

Mitchell at her most vulnerable and confessional didn’t hit a false note or sentiment thus producing an enduring statement about love and love lost that reaches generations beyond the one it originally touched. Your last break-up could have been fifty years ago and the album will still get to you. So many great songs including “Carey”, “California”, “A Case of You” and the devastating finale “The Last Time I Saw Richard” about an old lover’s fate. If you bought this album when it was first released and listened intently, soaking in all of the raw emotions expressed in story and song, it would have left you profoundly exhausted yet oddly exhilarated at having been so privileged to share with Mitchell her pains and pleasures. How lucky we were to have such artistly in our young lives.

Again, Bernie Grundman mastered both the original and this (circle game) reissue. And again this reissue beats multiple originals to which I compared it and it’s markedly superior to the very good Kevin Gray/Steve Hoffman RTI pressed edition from 2006, which suffered from a lower midrange excess that kind of muffled Mitchells’ voice.

Add a superb essay from Brandi Carlile (who recently performed Blue in its entirety with Mitchell in the audience and will do so again this fall in New York), superb album art reproduction on “tip on” jackets and you have a perfectly executed box set reissue! Highly recommended.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Analog Scott's picture

I very much prefered the Hoffman/Gray mastering fo Blue to the original pressing. But preferences are inarguable.

Michael Fremer's picture
So did I but this new one is best of the 3
Analog Scott's picture

I was going to get this box either way. How can you not? But good to know

Jazz listener's picture

the online customer reviews for this release are overwhelmingly negative (packaging issues, scratches, distortion on first album, dirtiness of the vinyl, etc.)

Michael Fremer's picture
Distortion? Either in cut or produced by playback system. I didn’t hear. Dirty vinyl? All new vinyl is dirty to one degree or another. Pressing plants are not clean rooms! My sealed box had zero packaging issues or pressing issues. I can only go by what I received in the mail.
Ortofan's picture

... from the regular production run, or would it possibly have been made in a smaller pilot/pre-production run that was sent out only to reviewers?

atomicdog's picture

These days, getting a review copy from a record label is like pulling teeth--believe me, there are no hot-rodded promotional copies out there.

Andy1974's picture

I've not looked at the reviews but my copy is outstanding. I would say that the European version is pressed at Optimal, so there will be differences between the Optimal & RTI versions. I've only heard the RTI

Andy1974's picture

I've not looked at the reviews but my copy is outstanding. I would say that the European version is pressed at Optimal, so there will be differences between the Optimal & RTI versions. I've only heard the RTI

powermatic's picture

We haven't always seen eye to eye, but that was a beautiful and heartfelt review. Very well done Michael, one of your best.

powermatic's picture

No mention of the hype sticker that was applied TO THE BOX instead of the sleeve! WTF?

Jazz listener's picture

I may have to go ahead and order it anyway based on your excellent review.

PeterPani's picture

There are some reviews on this site, I wonder, would it not be appropriate, if we could put our Credit Card Data into analogplanet and get automatical orders of reviewed records when MF shows both thumbs up (we could get discounts, too :)?
How could somebody not order this box after that review... Especially, with my sad reminder, that in the late '80s somebody stole all my Mitchell vinyl after a Pub-listening (together with other beloved records).
Btw, I look forward to a review (maybe together with Malachi) of the 10 new songs of Abba Voyage in November (what a magical night that was on the town hall square in Vienna yesterday - people young and old dancing to the live broadcast and the aftershow with their 80's Wembley show)...

Jazz listener's picture

Michael or another mature contributor ONLY please who was actually around during their heyday or who has been around long enough (in terms of life experience and being a fan) to actually provide some insight into this band and the recordings.

Jenn's picture

of a stunning release. I have all of the originals. I believe that the audio quality of the new set bests them all. More importantly, hearing Joni's amazing voice singing her incredible songs changes you. She colors outside the lines compositionally. There's no doubt of her sincerity. Yeah, I'm a fan (I drive by her old Laurel Canyon house just abut every time I'm in L.A. just to imagine the scene from back then), but this new set is top shelf in every way.

ermeyboy's picture

The inner sleeves in the UK version are black paper with poly liners - which is great - but, in this case, they are a real struggle to get back into their very snug ‘tip on’ gatefolds. You really have to take your time, something the packers didn’t have a lot of, it would seem, given how the corners towards the spine are bunched up around the discs. The only other records I have that share this problem are the Tom Waits RSD Orphans collections, which arrived with their inners sandwiched between the gatefolds, rather than in them: the folks packing them had clearly thought better of it! Other than that, however, my copy of this Joni Mitchell set looks great, plays beautifully, and sounds amazing. (I cleaned it as a matter of course.) A very enjoyable set (and a great review!)

ermeyboy's picture

Just checked those Waits records I mentioned, and they’re nothing like. Card inners that arrived as described, but the struggle I (mis)remembered was to get them all the way in (their edges poke out). Apologies - and back to bed for me.

Dpoggenburg's picture

Another outstanding review, thank you. To date, my "go to" for Blue has been a Classic 4lp 45 rpm test pressing. All I had to do is fire up "All I Want" and compare (what I realize now) the dull/thumpy percussion on the 45rpm pressing with the defined, well-placed instrument I hear on the reissue and it was game over. Any Joni fan would be NUTS not to get this set. I'm very optimistic the next set of studio albums will be as good, which means adios to my DCC Court and Spark and HELLO reissue!

azmoon's picture

Order just placed!

Robcos02330's picture

My favorite reviews are the ones that mix the analytical with the heart or sensitivity of the reviewer-and Joni Mitchells music will certainly do that! I NEVER tire of hearing music lovers wax poetic about (perhaps) their younger years and how the music they listened to moved them when they first heard it. It brings nuance to the music review and might even make me give it a listen. Being told an album SOUNDS good won’t bring me in if I’m not familiar with the music(in this case I am of course). Anyway, thanks for this one. FYI, my teen years were late 70’s/early 80’s. I didn’t discover Joni until age 50. Never too late.

MartinB's picture

I ordered the US version pressed at RTI (instead of the EU version). What strikes me is the clarity of the sound on the debut and most of all: beautiful sounding acoustic guitars (especially on Blue), they sound jaw-dropping-good...never heard acoustic guitars like this.

Paul Boudreau's picture

I’m a little confused: Is this box considered to be Archives Volume 1? It isn’t described as such.

Grant M's picture

There are two Joni series being released, the Archives sets are the unreleased tracks, outtakes, live performance, demos, etc. This review is the studio albums vol 1. Archives Vol.2 is already up for pre-order and the next studio box will have four more albums starting the Asylum era. Hopefully both series will keep rollin'!

ForgetYourself's picture

I grew up hearing Joni's music, in the background- via my older brother and sister. Growing up I never bought a single one of her records! In my 50's I've re-discovered her music. To me it's pure magic. Thanks for the great review. This vinyl sounds so good I'm considering buying another box so that my two daughters will each have one after I'm dead and gone! Thanks again, great review.

Chemguy's picture

...100% It's an excellent box. Every LP beats any one that came before, and that includes Blue. A real pleasure to own. Looking forward to the next boxes!

Intermediate Listener's picture

Especially looking forward to Ladies of the Canyon. Have always felt that the original had a kind of muffled sound.

But I am missing the usual summary side bar thingy to the right of the review. Why is it not there?

Michael Fremer's picture
I chose to post this as a feature, not as a record review so the side thingie isn’t part of the template
cher143's picture

Saw Joni M with Tom Scott and the LA Express when she toured for the Court & Spark album. Been a fan since then. I totally get her.

Wymax's picture

Receive my copy today, bought on, so it is probably the European pressing... How can you tell? Looked at both the cover and the vinyl, nothing to let me know where it was pressed, it only says Rhino.

First impressions, after having listened to side 1 of the first 2 records, is that the pressing is immaculate - no noise, no ticks.

The gatefold covers are heavy cardbox, and the black innersleeves are a tight fit. However, only 1 of 4 did crumble a bit in one corner.

Regarding the hype sticker, I guess that is the small one that tells about "The Definitive Albums", it was placed on the crimped plastic, so not fixed to the box itself.

Don Lab's picture

I originally blew this one off. I mean, how many copies of these albums can one own?

However, after reading Mikey's review, well, I guess I have no choice but to click the Buy It Now button. Like Joni herself, I've always hated Crosby's lifeless production on "Seagull." (Jeez, guy, RTFM before you attempt a task like noise reduction!) I just wish the albums were available individually.

Btw, anybody who thinks that Joni's early "folksy" work is inferior to her great mid-period albums should pick up the eye-opening Whitesell book, which analyzes the way she handles harmony, melody, lyrics/poetry, personae, vocalization, etc., on every recorded track. This book helped me understand that "Seagull" and "Don Juan," two titles that I'd never fully appreciated, are some of her best work. There are other musicology texts written about Mitchell's catalog, but Whitesell is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in Joni's music -- regardless of one's background in music theory.

bfrank53's picture

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Dave Van Ronk the first to record a Joni Mitchell song?

Bmcpherson's picture

Just got my copy in the mail and you are dead on Michael. Sounds great. Selling my originals.

cundare's picture

...and smiles. The first album's sonics have long been a sore point for her.

Btw, anyone who is seriously into Joni's music (and who has a high-schooler's knowledge of music theory) should check out the Whitesell book. It's a page-turner that has so much insight into the way Joni used melody, harmony, persona, arrangement, vocal stylings, etc., to create such an expressive body of work. Unlike other "Joni musicology" texts, it doesn't get bogged down in "the melody here modulates to a different tonal center" navel gazing, instead explaining how subtle elements of her songs work together to communicate deep feeling. It drives home just how sophisticated a composer and performer Joni was.

E.g., "Seagull" had never been one of my favorite Joni albums until I read the book's three appendices, which each present one of her releases as a concept album. After digesting Whitesell's insights, two of my once-least-favorite Joni albums, "Seagull & "Don Juan," now rank near the top. I never knew so much beauty and craft lay buried in those grooves. Anyone who enjoyed Mikey's review would appreciate this book's far deeper dive.