Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (1974)

I came late to the Joni Mitchell party. Growing up in the early 70s, my parents had a Joni Mitchell record (never a good sign), and we used to sing songs like "The Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now" around the campfire at summer camp. Neither of which are huge selling points when you stumble into a pre-teen obsession with rock & roll (thank you, Sweet!). Later, my love of powerful women singers like Joan Jett and Liz Phair seemed to render Mitchell (or at least my impression of her) anathema.

But then you hit the age when you start appreciating music for its quality, not because it's cool or fits into a certain box, and I belatedly fell hard for Mitchell. Personally, while I'm fine with her earlier, folkier records, I prefer her seventies work, as she eased into a style that was simultaneously more straight, sophisticated pop as well as jazzy and experimental -- beginning with 1972's For The Roses up through 1977's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. (Relatedly, it was during this period that she began singing in a warmer, lower register, avoiding the soprano trills that I still find a little stand-offish.)

I don't have any strong preferences among this tremendous run of music, though I suppose I'm a little partial towards Court and Spark -- ironically, the one Mitchell album (well, 8-track tape) my folks owned and which had initially turned me off. "Help Me" is a ridiculously entrancing pop song, perfectly encapsulating the sound I associate with the gentle pop of early 70s singer-songwriters (the sound I hated so much at the time yet find comfortingly nostalgic in my middle age). "Free Man In Paris" reprises that enveloping pop sound while introducing the free jazz touches that would play a growing role on the following records. Songs like "People's Parties" and "Just Like This Train" update her earlier folk sound and give it a slicker sheen (not in a bad way), while others like "Same Situation" and "Car on a Hill" embody a gleaming pop sound associated with artists like Steely Dan (another band I truly despised as a child but have learned to accept, if not necessarily embrace); Mitchell's unique vocal and guitar stylings make her music work for me in a way that comparable artists from the era often fail to do. Meanwhile, "Raised On Robbery" is a rare stab at an upbeat, straight pop-rock tune, more Elton than Joni but somehow still enjoyable.

Punk-era me would have considered Joni a guilty pleasure, I suppose; these days, this run of albums is simply a pleasure.

Here's "Help Me":
...and "Free Man In Paris":