Friday, 15 February 2013

Joni Mitchell - The Studio Albums 1968 - 1979

Oh dear!  It is becoming increasingly apparent that I have reached the sort of age where the attractions of the Box Set are almost too much to ignore.  Despite the slightly grim aura of marketing hanging over such offerings I have now succumbed to both the Argent and Pink Floyd sets as described in this blog earlier.  In my defence I would contend that at the right price, this is a good way to pick up complete collections after the event (especially if they are all remastered).  The latest addition is from Joni Mitchell and comprises her first 10 studio albums from the 60s and 70s starting at the beginning with ‘Song To a Seagull’ and ending with ‘Mingus’ (leaving out the live double set, ‘Miles of Aisles’).

Whilst I have vinyl versions taken from the middle of this run (‘For the Roses’, ‘Court and Spark’ and ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’) I have only dabbled with her early work and have nothing after ‘Lawns’ save a couple of below par 80s efforts, so this purchase was a good opportunity to review what I believe to be her best period.  Perhaps predictably, there were no real surprises.  The early folk albums are very fine but when compared to her subsequent work, not the ones I’d rescue from a burning building.  ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ is an unexpectedly welcome return to my collection (since I sold the original vinyl in the great late 70s clearout) but I still find ‘Blue’ curiously inconsistent despite what everyone else says.

The best stuff is undoubtedly contained within the albums I already own and the remainder is interesting but not essential.  I still can’t really warm wholeheartedly to ‘Hejira’ or ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ and I don’t like Jazz enough to appreciate ‘Mingus’.  Nevertheless, the Big Three (‘Roses’, ‘Court’ and ‘Lawns’) are giants in the pop Parthenon and no mistake.  Genius is an overworked word but I’m tempted to use it here.  These are albums that everyone should hear – especially ‘For the Roses’ which to me is a work of unparalleled depth.  Coming between the confessional folk of ‘Blue’ and the blossoming pop of ‘Court and Spark’ its hybrid folk/pop arrangements cradle a set of lyrics that sit in your soul forever.

So where does this leave me?  What this series of albums does do is show the remarkable musical progression from folk through pop/rock to jazz.  These albums form the links in a ten album unbreakable chain where each individual work contains elements of both its predecessor and its successor in a way that reveals a relentless drive from one genre to the next.  It makes me struggle to think of another artist who has managed this feat with such dexterity and mastery of each form and over such a long period.  Perhaps Bowie?

One other thing – lyrics.  Has there ever been anyone else who has such mastery of song lyrics?  If nothing else, Joni Mitchell showed how it was done to the extent that a lyric sheet was an essential part of her albums.  They are still albums where I actually listen to the lyrics with rapt attention.  In the history of popular music, these albums are probably essential.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Legacy of HMV

Whatever the eventual future of HMV, you can’t help feeling that it brought a whole load of trouble down on itself.  I have sat on the sidelines and watched with mounting frustration as the monolith that is HMV first, put all the independents out of business and then having achieved a monopoly position, it slowly but surely cocked it up big time.  For example:

Stock – there was a time back in the dim and distant past when the London Oxford Street flagship HMV store sold music above all else and stocked virtually everything.  No matter what I went in to buy, there it was, nestling in the racks.  As a compulsive buyer of music for over 40 years, I am in a group of consumers that doesn’t only buy in the mainstream, we look at the fringes both past and present.  HMV catered for my gang, but not now.  Its stock has contracted massively and the space has been turned over to the attempted sale of gadgets and T-shirts.  No-one has been persuaded that HMV is the number one stop for Gadgets and T-shirts hence it has both alienated my gang, its original core consumer and failed to lure any new ones with extended stock lines.

Price – This really bugs me.  I am prepared to accept that there is a premium to be paid for the benefit of leaving the store there and then with your purchase rather than waiting days for the post to arrive.  But not double (or treble) the on-line price.  HMV has been massively overpriced for years – even its ‘sale’ items are above on-line prices, for heaven’s sake.  Also, I am not prepared under any circumstances to pay £10 (or above) for 40+ year old albums.  Don’t tell me they are ‘re-mastered’ and therefore cost more.  Re-mastering should be done as a matter of course when the CD is first released.  LPs were RIAA encoded to make best use of the width of the vinyl groove and the potential length of a disc. Similarly, why shouldn’t the master-tapes be properly prepared to make best use of the CD medium on day 1?  Not 30 years later.

And another thing: there is no pricing consistency.  I found a 10cc album (‘How Dare You’) the other day at a reasonable £4, yet ‘The Original Soundtrack’ was in the racks at £10.  Same label and release date so what’s the difference?  It drives me potty.  The heart-breaking irony is: despite the pricing and convenience of the internet, I would still buy from HMV if only it sorted out its stock, chucked out all the gadgets, remainder books, T-shirts and other paraphernalia and priced things sensibly and consistently.  In other words; became a music store.