Before there was Alanis, Fiona, Tori, or any handful of female singer-songwriters with a predilection for painfully confessional lyrics, there was Canadian-born folk-pop chanteuse Joni Mitchell. Mitchell carved out similar territory as her recent followers, but with a poetic beauty that still seems to elude the new breed. And that poetic beauty, colored by flourishes of ‘70s jazz-pop, makes Mitchell’s 1974 opus Court and Spark one of that decade’s most enduring pop pleasures. Incorporating orchestral swirls, stacks of vocals, and contributions from a wide array of musicians (including guitarists Larry Carlton, Jose Feliciano, and Robbie Robertson, trumpet player Chuck Findley, and backing vocalists David Crosby, Graham Nash, and, um, Cheech and Chong), Mitchell’s gifts for melody and arrangement are most vividly demonstrated on sumptuous tracks like the Top 10 single “Help Me,” the reflective “People’s Parties,” and the adventurous “Car On the Hill,” which stitches together song parts with stretches of multi-tracked harmonies, the end result being nearly hallucinatory. Lyrically, Mitchell is at her sharpest—and occasionally wittiest—on tracks such as the album’s jaunty first single “Raised On Robbery,” the light n’ jazzy “Free Man In Paris” (long said to be about record exec David Geffen) and the aforementioned “People’s Parties.” Whether she’s ruminating on love found and lost (capturing the quagmire of emotions with one simple line: “Laughing and crying/You know it’s the same release”) or the pitfalls of her newfound celebrity (she would continue to rally against “the star-making machinery behind the popular songs” throughout her career), Mitchell is, with Court and Spark, represented at the peak of her talents for crafting song-stories that are simultaneously inventive, intricate, and unfailingly melodic. And while many of today’s artists have exhibited shades of such talent, not many—of either gender—have been able to match such a dizzying height. Thus, also taking into consideration its mid-‘70s California dreaminess, Court and Spark is not only the best soundtrack to a Sunday morning ever made, it’s also an essential, timeless artifact of an era when pop could be both popular and personal, and would be rewarded critically and commercially for such qualities.
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