listening to joni: #3: ladies of the canyon

Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Original Front Cover
I put this album on for the first time in probably three decades, and I thought, ah, here's Joni.

Ladies of the Canyon, Joni's third album, is the first time we hear the seeds of the future Joni, the first glimpses of elements in her music which would become old friends.

It's the first time we hear her on piano. The first time she has arranged horns, strings, percussion, and background vocals. The first time we hear several of the themes she would explore in much more depth and beauty in the future: the conflict between art and commerce on "For Free," and the bleakness of bourgeoisie life on "The Arrangement".

On Ladies, we also hear the beginning of her distinctive guitar voice, more of the range of her actual voice -- and her peculiar and distinctive diction and phrasing.

I love piano in rock (Nicky Hopkins, Roy Bittan, Chris Stainton, Dr. John) and piano in blues (Pinetop Perkins, Professor Longhair, Memphis Slim), and then there's piano by Joni. Her piano makes my heart soar, makes me weep, strikes "every chord that you feel".

On this album, we hear some of the beginnings of her lyrical wordplay -- "She would wake in the morning without him, and look out through the pain," a play on window pane, or "You called me beautiful, you called your mother, she was very tan," setting up the word called and then changing its meaning. These are tiny examples, of course. In the future she'll evoke whole worlds with unexpected changes in lyrics.

Back Cover
So all this is happening today, for a fan retrospective, but in its time Ladies was much loved. I think it's been overshadowed by the masterpiece that came next.

This album ends with three of Joni's most famous songs: "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," and "The Circle Game". When Ladies came out in 1970, "Big Yellow Taxi" and "The Circle Game" were already well known, made famous by covers. "Woodstock" would soon be a hit for Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Now whole generations know BYT from newer covers and sampling.

It was strange hearing these three songs again. In BYT, I had forgotten the original lyric of the final stanza, the taxi of the title that "took away my old man". The more familiar lyric -- "a big yellow tractor pushed around my house, took away my land" -- was coined by Bob Dylan in a live show. Joni liked it and adopted it.

"Woodstock": I had forgotten how slow this original version is, how plaintive Joni sounds. Could that have been because she wasn't there -- the Woodstock concert event -- and so is imagining it from a more philosophical point of view? It's so easy to be cynical about the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to see it all as fashion, or posturing, or naivete. I get that -- because I've done it, too. I'm glad I shed that cynicism. Today, when I hear that plea for peace --  "I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation" -- it just breaks my heart.

"Circle Game" is one of those songs that seems to have always existed and has never lost its meaning, like Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". For me, the song is attached to a painful childhood memory, not in the sense of "this song brings back memories" -- but in a much deeper way. The song begins, and I am instantly in tears, before I even understand what I'm hearing. It's a trauma trigger. I have only one other song like that, an Aimee Mann tune that immediately puts me back to the shock and sadness of losing our dog Buster. Funny thing about music, and our consciousness.

I must have listened to this album a lot at some point. I used to think a line from "Blue Boy" -- "Sometimes in the evening he would read to her / Roll her in his arms and give his seed to her" -- was so melancholy and romantic, like something out of Wuthering Heights. It seems stilted now, maybe even creepy.

But overall, listening to this album has been like re-connecting with an old friend.

Inside Cover
I couldn't find this image anywhere,
so you get to see the water damage on my copy.
Bad critic comment of the album

This album seems to have been universally loved. I can see why. It's accessible, there are a range of emotions, the stellar arrangements are new and fresh, and Joni's voice is developing beautifully. But of course, nothing is universal. The famous music critic Robert Christgau hated Joni's "vocal gymnastics" and found her wordplay on this album "laughably high school". He must have gone to some kinda high school!

The album cover

This is again a self-portrait, and a view -- on a skirt, or perhaps a quilt -- from her home in Laurel Canyon. I think the geese are from Canada. The house -- where Joni lived with Graham Nash, one of the great loves of her life -- was the inspiration for the "very very very fine house" of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame.

Detail of inside cover.
One of the times I saw Joni in concert, we sat near a woman who was wearing a white denim jacket that she had embroidered with this cover art. It was amazing. I went to compliment her and chatted briefly with her and her friends. It was like the Community of We Love Joni.

Joni's notes on the cover art are here, and you can see all her paintings on her website.

Other musicians on this album

Teressa Adams, Cello
Milt Holland (a pioneer and a legend), Percussion
Paul Horn, Clarinet and Flute
Jim Horn, Baritone Sax (another legend)
Background vocals, "The Saskatoons" (i.e., multiple tracks of Joni) and "The Lookout Mountain Downstairs Choir" -- James Taylor, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash

No comments: