Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 3, plus Jim Patton & Sherry Brokus, Tom Paxton & John McCutcheon, and Jim Wyly
Like the first and second volumes of Joni Mitchell’s Archives series, which respectively focused on previously unreleased material from 1963–1967 and 1968–1971, the new third volume is a five-CD treasure trove. (There’s also a four-LP edition but you must love vinyl more than Joni Mitchell to want to opt for it as it cuts the program back from 96 tracks to less than half that number.)
Joni Mitchell Archives, Volume 3: The Asylum Years (1972–1975)—which in its CD version has a playing time of just under six hours—includes a 40-page booklet with more of the illuminating conversation between Joni Mitchell and journalist Cameron Crowe that appeared in the two earlier collections in this series. It features hitherto unheard recordings from a fruitful period that found the artist moving from Southern California to rural British Columbia and writing about her relationship to her work, her audience, and the music industry, among other things. This is when she produced the classic For the Roses and Court & Spark as well as the long-underrated The Hissing of Summer Lawns, all of which evidence a shift from the straightforward folk of her earlier years to more complex and ambitious compositions. (Remastered versions of those three original albums, plus the live Miles of Aisles, also recently appeared as a boxed set.)
There is no shortage of fascinating studio material here, including demos, outtakes, and early and alternate takes from the sessions for all three of those studio LPs. Many of these seem as polished as what another artist might release as a final version, and some feature A-list guests. One reading of the lyrically deft “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio,” for example, includes harmonica and electric guitar by Neil Young and presents a dramatically different arrangement from the hit version. There’s also a reading of “For the Roses” from a session with Graham Nash and David Crosby, and James Taylor shows up twice, on an early rendition of For the Roses’ “Electricity” and on a playful, seemingly off-the-cuff medley of three old rock hits: Larry Williams’s “Bony Moronie,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” and Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Notable, too, is a medley of three Court & Spark songs—the title track plus “Down to You” and “Car on a Hill”—that Mitchell performs solo, accompanied only by her piano.
But concert material from the early and mid-1970s—which includes Mitchell songs that predate that era—predominates. There’s an entire 1972 Carnegie Hall show that embraces such classics as “Blue,” “A Case of You,” “Carey,” “Woodstock,” “Both Sides Now,” and “The Circle Game”—the latter number with accompaniment by a star-studded chorus. There’s also a 1974 Los Angeles concert that—like the contemporaneous one featured on Miles of Aisles—features Tom Scott & the L.A. Express; it includes some of the same songs performed at Carnegie plus “Help Me,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and others. It’s true that many of the live tunes on this Archives release also show up in the Miles of Aisles concert but many others do not. And many of the ones that do, especially those without the L.A. Express, sound significantly different.
The concert material on this Archives release also features some revealing song intros, such as the one that explains the events that precipitated “Carey.” In a Montreal performance, meanwhile, she introduces “Big Yellow Taxi” by discussing her pantheistic beliefs and saying she doesn’t think “man is going to be content until he’s paved and flooded everything, and by then it’s going to be too late.”
Throughout these live and studio performances, you’ll have trouble deciding which is more impressive: Mitchell’s music—which melds intimate lyrics and complex, inventive arrangements—or her superbly phrased, jazz-influenced, soaring vocals. In her conversation with Cameron Crowe, he asks her what things make life worth living and she answers, “Flowers, cats, love affairs, and food. And friends.” Inadvertently no doubt, she doesn’t mention music, but it clearly belongs on the list—especially music like hers.
Jim Patton & Sherry Brokus, Big Red Gibson. Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus—a married couple from Austin, Texas—have a winner in this latest album, whose 11 tracks pair literate, well-told vignettes with engaging and melodic folk-rock. Patton sings lead throughout; Brokus, also an excellent vocalist, sings, too, but is recovering from allergies that have affected her voice and is assisted here by fellow Austin singer/songwriter BettySoo.
Many of these first- and third-person tales—all written by Patton, in five cases with co-writers—limn down-on-their-luck characters. In “Dead End Town,” which lyrically recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” Patton sings, “Let’s pack up the car and get out of this place / Let’s wake up tomorrow where no one knows my face.” In “Big Red Gibson,” Patton personifies an unsuccessful musician who “moved to Music City, didn’t work out like I’d planned / I ran into some bad luck, that’s the year I broke my hand.” Then there’s the catchy and hard-rocking “Janey Has a Locket,” which features stinging electric guitar and begins, “Janey has a locket she wears on her chest / With a picture of the one she loved the best / A drunken mistake, now her life’s a mess.”
The characters aren’t all that down and out—the album ends with a touching love song—but even when they are, the music tends to be uplifting.
Tom Paxton & John McCutcheon, Together. When the pandemic hit, veteran folkies and longtime friends Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon started meeting weekly via Zoom to write songs together. The emotional and occasionally lighthearted ones here are just a small portion of the reportedly 100 or so compositions that resulted.
The consistently enjoyable 14-track set covers a wide range of moods and topics. “Ukrainian Now” asks, “While others are mounting resistance, risking it all / How can we stand by impassive when we hear their call?” while “The Invisible Man” portrays the homeless and minimum-wage workers whose “eyes are the ones you won’t meet.” Other selections include “Letters from Joe,” about correspondence from a World War II soldier to his sweetheart; “Complete,” about Paxton’s reaction to having Johnny Cash cover his classic “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound”; “Life Before You,” which sounds like a romantic love song until the last line reveals that it’s about being a parent; and “Christmas in the Desert,” which describes an encounter with a woman who gives birth on the holiday, miles from any hospital.
There’s even a song inspired by a time when Paxton and McCutcheon struggled to come up with one: “I’m staring at the page and I got nothing,” it begins. “Not a single chord, and not a rhyme in sight.” Even when these guys had no idea, it seems, they had an idea.
Jim Wyly, Eclectic Tales. Though Jim Wyly has been part of the Texas music scene for four decades, he didn’t release a solo album until 2018 when he issued the excellent The Artisan. Five years later, we have this sophomore LP, which again finds him singing original songs and playing acoustic guitar and keyboards. Americana musician Libby Koch, who like Wyly is Austin, Texas–based, provides harmony vocals; other accompanists include drummer Charlie DiMaggio,
keyboardist Kelly Wilkerson, and Lew Andre Mathews, who co-produced with Wyly and plays lead guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboards.
The CD notes echo its title by promising “a collection of diverse stories and styles,” and the set delivers on that description. The material is variously bluesy, folky, and rocking and features lyrics that deliver introspective reflections and declarations of love. Not everything hits home but there are some fine moments here, such as the sweet ballads “I’m Flying” and “Always Found My Way,” both of which are musically redolent of such Eric Clapton numbers as “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears in Heaven.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.