[Review] Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon (1970)

An album bookended by some of her best work, otherwise important for the introduction of more piano songs.

Kronomyth 3.0: Twelve paintings in steel and ivory.

Beginning with Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell chose to paint equally with guitar and piano. In retrospect, the first two albums are sketchbooks, with Joni drawing wonderful illustrations using poetry, voice and acoustic guitar. On the opening track, “Morning Morgantown,” Joni gives us a brief tease of the acoustic piano, then plays the entire second song (“For Free”) on it. As we know, the piano, once introduced, never left. There are small touches from other artists as well, added as ornaments: cello, percussion, sax and flute.

Often, third albums are breakthroughs as artists grow comfortable with the record-making machinery, but Joni’s evolution is more of a refinement or awakening of talent. Here, you’ll find a certain artistic independence, an almost palpable prickliness, at work. The album’s strongest songs, for example, appear at the end of the record (although “Morning Morgantown” is still a fine introduction). As a vocalist, Joni uses her voice as a jazz soloist might, playing off the melodies (e.g., “Conversation”) rather than along with them. On the piano, the songs have a deliberate tempo, the words arrive stillborn and hang heavy in the air.

Though some of these songs were written as far back as 1966, a theme of forbidden love reappears throughout. In “Conversation” and “The Arrangement,” the object of attention is a married man. In “The Priest” and “Rainy Night House,” he’s a holy man. A relationship with “Willy” is doomed from the start. Paired with sere arrangements, they make for a sometimes dour record, especially where Joni sits at the piano for too long a spell.

Some critics have found in this album a sign of the lush sensibilities to come on Court and Spark, though I didn’t detect that until Blue. Her voice is certainly musical, wheeling and turning like a leaf in the wind (an obvious precedent to Kate Bush). I should mention, however, that “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” (which features what sounds to be a distorted electric piano) are the exceptions here. In fact, “Woodstock” might be the heaviest thing she’s done so far, anticipating (I kid you not) “No Quarter” from Led Zeppelin. The closing track, “The Circle Game,” is also a gem, and points forward to the richer, melodic arrangements of the future. That listeners won’t grow impatient waiting for the “hits” to arrive is a testament to the quality of Ladies of the Canyon.

Original LP Version

A1. Morning Morgantown (3:12)
A2. For Free* (4:31)
A3. Conversation (4:21)
A4. Ladies of the Canyon (3:32)
A5. Willy* (3:00)
A6. The Arrangement (3:32)
B1. Rainy Night House (3:22)
B2. The Priest (3:39)
B3. Blue Boy (2:53)
B4. Big Yellow Taxi (2:16)
B5. Woodstock (5:25)
B6. The Circle Game (4:50)

All songs composed and arranged by Joni Mitchell.
* “For Free” listed as “He Played Real Good For Free,” and “Willy” listed as “Willie” on record label.

Original 8-track version
A1. Morning Morgantown
A2. Conversation
A3. Ladies of the Canyon
B1. For Free
B2. Willie
B3. The Priest
C1. The Arrangement
C2. Rainy Night House
C3. Woodstock (part 1)
D1. Woodstock (part 2)
D2. Blue Boy
D3. Big Yellow Taxi
D4. The Circle Game

The Players

Joni Mitchell (vocals, guitar, piano) with Teressa Adams (cello), Don Bagley (cello arrangement assistance), Milt Holland (percussion), Jim Horn (baritone sax), Paul Horn (clarinet and flute), The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir (chorus on B2), The Saskatunes (bop vocal). Engineered and advised by Henry Lewy.

The Pictures

Cover by Joni.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette in April 1970 in the US, Canada and Germany (Reprise, RS/CRX 6376) {two-tone steamboat label}, the UK (Reprise, RSLP 6376) and Japan (Reprise, SJET-8251) with gatefold cover; reached #27 on the US charts (charted on April 11, 1970) (RIAA-certified platinum record) and #8 on the UK charts. Also released on elpee in Taiwan (First, FL-1999) without gatefold cover.

  1. Issued on 8-track in 1971 in Belgium (Reprise, 884.085).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1974 in the US (Reprise, RS 6376) {tan steamboat label} and the UK (Reprise, K/K4 44085) {tan steamboat label} with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-issued on compact disc and cassette in 1987 in the US (Reprise, 6376-2/M5 6376).
  4. Re-issued on elpee, cassette and compact disc in the UK (Reprise, K/K4/K2 44085) {tan small steamboat label} and Germany (Reprise, 244 085/K444 085) with gatefold cover.
  5. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee, high-definition compact disc and cassette in the US and Germany (Reprise, 27450-2/4).
  6. Re-issued on 180g vinyl elpee in 2009 in the US (Rhino).
  7. Re-issued on 180g vinyl elpee in Germany (Reprise, 7599274501).
  8. Re-released super high material compact disc on April 20, 2011 in Japan (Reprise, WPCR-14095).
  9. Re-released on remastered compact disc on August 5, 2015 in Japan (Reprise, WPCR-80279).

2 thoughts on “[Review] Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon (1970)

  1. Hey Dave. You haven’t been posted any new reviews in such a long time, but I still like to read through here when I can. Did you know that “The Saskatunes” is actually a pseudonym for Joni herself and that the “Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir” are in fact CSNY?

    1. Hi, Miles. No, or I’d forgotten. I’m sort of taking the summer off from writing record reviews, since it eats up a lot of time and the world seems to spin the same regardless. I’ll probably be back at it in August, though, just out of habit. Have a great day. ~ Dave.

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