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Court and Spark is the sixth album by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and was released in 1974. The ethereal nature of her early records is still present for much of the album but Court and Spark marks a slight departure (especially during the later songs) with a louder (as far as Joni Mitchell can get loud) and more experimental sound the further it progresses. The early songs on the first albums were mostly just Joni Mitchell and an acoustic guitar warbling away in pleasant hippy flower power fashion but eighteen other musicians in total played on this record alongside her so you often get much more background music. This wasn't really always to my own personal tastes but Joni Mitchell's superlative voice is still a constant and as always the real star of the album. The themes here are the familiar Joni Mitchell musings on love, fame, fantasy and reality with slightly less paranoia in the lyrics this time (although it isn't entirely absent). The album is dark in spots and seems fairly straight ahead elsewhere. Some of the songs are sad and others are more upbeat. There are eleven songs here and all of them clock in at under four or five minutes with no sprawling super long kitchen sink epics laced with melodrama and introspection. The title song Court and Spark begins the album and is much in the vein of the songs on Joni Mitchell's previous records like Clouds and Blue. This is a relaxed and atmospheric song backed only by a piano tune for the most part. It is one of the more immediate things here although I don't think it quite reaches the highs of the very best songs on the early records. If you had to choose a single to promote the album though this would certainly be on the shortlist and has a certain radio friendly aura that is apparent straight away.
A criticism of this type of music is that all the songs can end up sounding the same and morph into one another (if you are prone to that though you probably shouldn't be listening to Joni Mitchell in the first place) but even though this album seems more diverse than the early ones by Joni Mitchell I actually found myself missing the plaintive simplicity of the early songs at times and that sense of repitition on the first albums never really bothered me. This opening song is likeable I think because one could easily imagine it on Clouds or Blue and it's very beatniky Joni Mitchell doing the sort of simple no thrills thing she did best. The second song - Help Me - begins with some very cheesy easy listening music that soon has alarm bells ringing (it did for this listener anyway) but everything is suddenly ok when Joni Mitchell starts singing with great range as usual and nice use of falsetto. This is an upbeat pleasant song and it all comes to life and becomes enjoyable when the vocal kicks in. You forget the less than enticing opening gambit with the music and settle into the song instead. Free Man In Paris is much in the vein of the previous song although Joni Mitchell sings in more of a conventional fashion. Her voice is more solid and a little deeper and she largely eschews vocal contortions and any notable range. It's probably the most instantly recognisable song here and nice enough, ambling along in languid but catchy fashion. If I had to choose a single from the album this would be the most obvious selection.
People's Parties is an acoustic song and fairly stripped down and simple. Much more reminiscent of the material on the early records than many of the songs on this album and one I enjoyed for that reason. Joni Mitchell's phrasing and range is very clever and deft here. Much of the album feels very similar to the early Joni Mitchell records but it is only later when Court and Spark begins to feel different and like a new phase in the career of the singer. Next is The Same Situation. This is a pretty song, very haunting and plaintive. Again, this is not a million miles away from the wandering minstrel Joni Mitchell of the early songs. Sitting by a waterfall and singing to squirrels with a bowl full of oatmeal and a bunch of flowers in her hair. "Still I sent up my prayer, Wondering where it had to go, With heaven full of astronauts, And the Lord on death row, While the millions of his lost and lonely ones Call out and clamour to be found, Caught in their struggle for higher positions, And their search for love that sticks around." One of the better songs here I feel. Car On A Hill feels like more of a departure - especially if you like me you've been going through the early albums in chronological order. It's busier in terms of background music and has more easy listening jazz inflections and more of a, er, groove. Not really my favourite song I must admit. I'd prefer Joni Mitchell just singing with a guitar.
Down to You is a more melodramatic song with a superb singing performance by Joni Mitchell. Her voice sounds very rich here and her manipulation of the chorus and melody is very assured and impressive. This is again a mostly piano backed tune. Listen is somewhere between a ballad and a pop song and Joni Mitchell sings superbly again but I found the background music slightly off-putting here. There are wah wah horns and little ditties that makes it sound like the soundtrack to a seventies Carry On film. Raised On Robbery is easily the loudest song from Joni Mitchell I have encountered yet. Quite fast with guitars and horns and it just sounds rather generic. Joni Mitchell goes punk! Almost. The following song - Trouble Child - is again louder but with more of an ambient spacey sound that I liked. So consequently I enjoyed this song much more than the previous one. Finally, Twisted is a jazz song and Joni Mitchell does a kooky duet with a male singer (or two maybe). Not really my cup of tea to be honest. I much prefer the early earth mother bunny rabbit folk songs. Overall I enjoyed much of Court and Spark but there were two or three songs in the latter half of the album that I could take or leave. Probably leave to be honest. If you did like the early albums though you will find much of this record pleasantly similar and you might even have more of a tolerance for jazz inflections and kooky duets than I do. It wasn't quite as consistent as the early albums for me but Court and Spark - for the most part - is still an excellent collection of songs.
I do not know where to start except to say that this is one of my top ten albums of all time. I have listened to Court and Spark dozens of times and find it relevant and timely each and every time. Her trenchant poetry and perfectly synched musical complexity manifest in a POP, R&B, jazziness that is generally unlike any other album out there. It isith well crafted productin and melody an album written by a brilliant women, talented musician and feminist par excellence. She draws on the most basic behaviors and attitudes of people, men and women; insecurity, fear, hopes and dreams. Yet there exudes a level of confidence that belies the guilt and shame of some of what life often throws at us. She seems to say we are victim of our own doings, our own lack of self esteem. The lyrics by themselves offer deep insite into her psychie but in combination with complex melodies and transitions produce an album that scores on to the bones of reality. The theme is consistant, love comes and goes, pain ensues, fear and lack of self worth, measures of beauty and imperfection haunt the general theme and make one relate to oneself anf one around you in a way that lends appreciation for the very fragility of who we are and what we strive for.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Court And Spark
2 Help Me
3 Free Man In Paris
4 People's Parties
5 Same Situation
6 Car On A Hill
7 Down To You
8 Just Like This Train
9 Raised On Robbery
10 Trouble Child