Blasphemy alert: as much as Everybody’s Dummy loves Joni, we’ve never had much use for this album. Yet Court And Spark is constantly hailed in other circles as her towering achievement. The simple folk stylings of her first four are long gone, replaced with a pop-jazz approach that depends on the L.A. Express, the Tom Scott-led outfit that also managed to beguile George Harrison that year. (Such are the ramifications of cocaine.)
The opening title track begins enticingly with piano, and her voice has become even lower. But just as that settles in, albeit with drums and electric guitars, the real sound of the album takes over on “Help Me”, the hit single that seemingly defies structure to the point where it almost seems improvised. Its near-twin “Free Man In Paris” follows, sporting more scooped notes but with a catchier tag after each chorus. The strum in “People’s Parties” recalls some of the better moments on For The Roses, and the observational lyric melds into a lament over a relationship almost as immediately as the segue into “The Same Situation”, colored sweetly by some strings and ending a rather short album side.
With modern CD sequencing, the one-man horn section starting up “Car On A Hill” is a little too jarring, but the interlude following the first verse takes the song to a more interesting place. The sad girl at the piano returns on “Down To You”, which quickly turns into an ambitious production, complete with orchestra and even some clavinet coloring the scenery. On any other album, it would be the grand finale, but here it’s stuck in the middle of side two. “Just Like This Train” overcomes the woodwinds (again) for another lament over a broken heart, but the biggest departure comes next. “Raised On Robbery” opens with another clavinet and a set of voices right off an Annie Ross record (more on that in a bit), setting up a scene in a cocktail lounge that must be read to be appreciated best. The old-style jazz mixes well with the acoustic strums and Robbie Robertson’s gurgling leads over a tight rhythm section. “Trouble Child” doesn’t sink in very well, and wouldn’t anyway since it’s overtaken by “Twisted”, the acrobatic Annie Ross song about a visit to a shrink, unfortunately including a cameo by Cheech & Chong.
It must be a matter of personal taste, because for many, this album firmly established Joni as her generation’s official cool chick, one who may have been hurt but wasn’t about to be under any man’s thumb. But given her catalog to this point, there are other albums we’ll put on the turntable before Court And Spark.
Joni Mitchell Court And Spark (1974)—3