[Review] Joni Mitchell: Court And Spark (1974)

This is the clouds parting, and the sun shining, and the insects trilling and the birds singing.

Kronomyth 6.0: The queen and her court.

Joni unpacked a paintbox of sounds for Court And Spark. No more charcoal sketches of smoky nightclubs or watercolors of lost lovers, this album marked Miss Mitchell’s arrival as a rock/pop artist. That she brought along some of the best songs of her life only sweetened the deal. For my money, this is the first Joni Mitchell album that everyone should own; one of the first albums you should own, period. It is quite simply one of the most perfect records ever made.

The genius of Court And Spark is a confluence of factors. Musically, it finds Joni with a working band, L.A. Express, that played remarkably well together. Tom Scott, Larry Carlton, Joe Sample, Max Bennett and John Guerin would each go on to a measure of fame as some of the decade’s best studio musicians. Lyrically, Joni is at the top of her game, slipping in and out of character, between narrator (“People’s Parties”) and actor (“Raised On Robbery”) and never missing a beat. One of the joys of Court And Spark is discovering musical or lyrical nuances you missed before because there is so much to pay attention to, a city of the senses.

Having groused about the selection of “Raised On Robbery” as the advance single, I would tell you that it works well in the context of Court, but it’s not the album’s crowning achievement. For that, you’d need to look to “Help Me,” “Free Man In Paris,” “Just Like This Train” or “Car On A Hill,” songs that mix Joni’s emerging jazz sensibilities with perfectly arranged pop music. Listeners had been exposed to this earlier on songs like “All I Want,” elusive melodies that seemed to come from and return to air, only not in such rich detail. The closest parallel would be Steely Dan, another band that straddled the worlds of jazz and pop. There are some days when Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan are the musical sun and moon to me.

Court And Spark isn’t a complete departure from the past. “Court And Spark,” “Same Situation” and “Down To You” all might have appeared on earlier albums, though in stingier arrangements. In a way, this is a bridge to her later albums, which explored jazz more fully (culminating, in one sense, on Mingus) and featured full band arrangements of her songs. At a time when folk artists were moving to popular music, Court And Spark might have been seen as a sellout but for Joni’s uncompromising artistry. No one else could make an album like this, and even Joni wisely didn’t try to duplicate it. Untethered from the past, she was bound to no one but her muse, a butterfly now loosed in a garden of musical possibilities.

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Original elpee version

A1. Court And Spark (2:46)
A2. Help Me (3:22)
A3. Free Man In Paris (3:02)
A4. People’s Parties (2:20)
A5. Same Situation (3:05)
B1. Car On A Hill (2:58)
B2. Down To You (5:36)
B3. Just Like This Train (4:23)
B4. Raised On Robbery (3:05)
B5. Trouble Child (3:57)
B6. Twisted (Annie Ross/Wardell Grey) (2:18)

All songs composed by Joni Mitchell unless noted.

The Players

Joni Mitchell (vocals, piano, clavinet, background voices), Max Bennett (bass), Larry Carlton (electric guitar), John Guerin (drums and percussion), Joe Sample (electric piano), Tom Scott (woodwinds & reeds, string arrangement) with Dennis Budimir (electric guitar on B5), Cheech & Chong (background voices B6), David Crosby (background voices on A3/B2), Wilton Felder (bass on A3/A4), Jose Feliciano (electric guitar on A3), Chuck Findley (trumpet on B5/B6), Milt Holland (chimes on A1), Jim Hughart (bass on B5), Graham Nash (background voices on A3), Wayne Perkins (electric guitar on B1), Robbie Robertson (electric guitar on B4), Susan Webb (background voices on B2); sound engineered by Henry Lewy.

The Pictures

Cover painting by Joni Mitchell. Art direction/design by Anthony Hudson. Photography by Norman Seeff.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, quadrophonic elpee and 8-track on January 17, 1974 in the US and Australia (Asylum, 7E/EQ/T8-1001) and Canada (Asylum, 7ES-1001), in February 1974 in the UK (Asylum, SYLA-8756), and in 1974 in Japan (Asylum, P-8412Y) with gatefold cover; reached #2 on the US charts (RIAA-certified 2x platinum record) and #14 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-released on half-speed remastered elpee in 1980 in the US (Nautilus, NR-11) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in the UK (Asylum, K-53002) and Germany (Asylum, AS-53002) with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-packaged with The Hissing of Summer Lawns as 2 Originals of… on 2-for-1 2LP in Zanzibar (Asylum, AUD-11305).
  4. Re-packaged with For The Roses on 2-for-1 cassette in Germany (Asylum, 96-0276-4).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc in 1988 in the Netherlands (Warner, 60593).
  6. Re-released on gold compact disc in 1992 in the US (DCC, GZS-1025).
  7. Re-released on audiophile vinyl in 1997 in the US (DCC, LPZ-2044).
  8. Re-issued on compact disc in 2000 in the US (Asylum, E2-1001).

 

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