Joni Mitchell Archives Volume 3

Joni Mitchell’s Archival ‘Volume 3’ Documents Her Most Fertile Period

Joni Mitchell’s Archives Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) is a towering achievement and the live concert performances are a special treat.

Archives Volume 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975)
Joni Mitchell
5 October 2023

Joni Mitchell fans consider the period between 1972 and 1975 the musician’s most fertile and rewarding period. This was when she went from being an introspective folk-pop singer-songwriter to a more experimental artist who incorporated everything from country to jazz into her rock ‘n’ roll. The four albums she recorded during those years, For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), Miles of Aisles (1974), and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), are considered among the best of her career. Critics consider each of them masterpieces in their own right. Rhino has recently reissued a boxed set of newly remastered versions of the originals as The Asylum Albums. That’s cool, but the material has been readily available for years. They are among Mitchell’s most popular records.

In keeping with Rhino’s past productions, the company has also put out previously unreleased material from the era. Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) contains 96 songs on five compact discs of demos, outtakes, concert tracks, and alternate versions from this period. This is truly a gold mine for Mitchell fans. There is a plethora of wonderful stuff here from beginning to end.

The anthology begins with two songs from 1971 that feature just Mitchell’s lovely soprano voice and precise acoustic guitar playing. She quietly sings about the temptation of heroin and the consequences of addiction in “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”, and the results of cheating on a lover in “For the Roses”. The tracks are not fundamentally different from those originally released, but being stripped down to their basics gives them more power. The sheer beauty of her voice contrasts with lines such as “Red water in the bathroom sink / Fever and the scum brown bowl” for full effect. Mitchell’s solo voice squeezes the nuances out of her descriptive lyrics.

The first disc continues with Mitchell on piano and singing on four demos for songs initially recorded in the studio for the For the Roses album and includes the never previously released track “Like Veils Said Lorraine”. “Like Veils Said Lorraine” is not a hidden gem but a serviceable song with its own charms. It does seem inferior to the songs that did make the initial release, and one can hear why the track was cut. The lyrics are not as clever, and the instrumental hooks are less gripping than what made the record.

The demos are followed by a live concert at Carnegie Hall in February 1972 that continues on the second album. It’s a magnificent show! Mitchell is in fine voice and good humor. This documents her charisma and talent. Her repertoire contains old songs from previous releases mixed with new ones. “This is so wonderful, love and affection, mmm, feels so good,” Mitchell croons before launching into the familiar “Blue”. The audience remains hushed during the quiet parts and roars in appreciation after the song has ended.

The second record continues with an assortment of oddities that include a medley of oldies (“Bony Moronie” / “Summertime Blues” / “You Never Can Tell”) with James Taylor, a version of     
with “You Turn Me on I’m a Radio” with Neil Young & The Stray Gators, a few live tracks from other shows (including a haunting take on “Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)” from the Royal Festival Hall in London, and alternate takes from the For the Roses sessions.

Disc three begins with Court And Spark demos and starts with the solo medley of Mitchell of four songs (“Down to You” / “Court and Spark” / “Car on a Hill” / “Down to You”) here called “Piano Suite”. The songs are combined in such a way as to reveal their emotive similarities, even as their lyrical content seems unrelated. One could summarize the latent connections between the songs as a shared search for love. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s fingers never stop turning the piano into a keyboard of the heart. The piano expresses yearning in its many gradations, with touches, traces, and consequent twinges.

This is true of Court and Spark, so of course, one hears it in the demos of other tracks included here: the gentle lilting of “People’s Parties”, the hope inherent in “Help Me”, etc. (Excuse me for effusing, but I am one of those people who believe Court and Spark is one of the best albums in popular music history.) The third set also includes half a dozen alternate tracks from the Court and Spark sessions and six more tracks from a live gig with her Court and Spark backing band, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from March 1974.

The fourth disc continues with the rest of the concert, which takes up the whole side. Tom Scott & The L.A. Express are a jazz band that adds a swinging beat to the proceedings, especially on tracks such as “Rainy Night House”. This gives Mitchell the ability to improvise vocally and let loose. Mitchell also performs several songs by herself in the middle of her set. This adds intimacy to the proceedings.

The fifth installment starts with two songs from live gigs in London before launching into The Hissing of Summer Lawns demos and alternate takes. The demos from 1975 reveal how much Mitchell has grown musically. She sophisticatedly expresses her ideas for vocal harmonies and instrumental solos in these raw versions. Similarly, the alternate renditions of songs that ended up on the album show her experimenting with varied approaches. One can hear how individual cuts such as “Dreamland” and “The Jungle Line” developed from a rough mix to finished products.

For fans, Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) is a towering achievement. (It should be noted here that the set is also available on an edited, four-LP box.) However, the uninitiated would be better off purchasing the remasters of the original releases, The Asylum Albums (1972-1975). That said, it’s weird that the two complete live concerts are not available separately from the boxed set and are spread over more than one disc. They are worth buying the boxed set for in and of itself because they are so good.

Also worth mentioning is that there have been pirated versions of Mitchell that are well worth seeking out because of the high quality of their material. Now that artists such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young seem to be releasing what were previously illicit recordings from their past, Mitchell should do the same. The archive series does this in part, but I can recommend at least three bootleg records from around this period that are among her best: Alive from London (with James Taylor), The Seeding of Summer Lawns, and Kept on By Her Own Devices. However, who knows who profits from these records? Certainly, not Joni Mitchell. Purchase the official release and hope the other ones will get issued legitimately.

RATING 9 / 10