Review Summary: Joni's first album provides a taste of the riches to come.
Lately, for a variety of reasons, I've been listening to a lot of early Joni Mitchell, which reminded me that this pleasant little album still didn't have its own review here. Problem solved!
By the time Joni Mitchell released Song to a Seagull
in March of 1968, she was already a seasoned songwriter and performer at the age of 24. She had begun playing live in her native Saskatchewon at 18 years old, and started performing mostly her own songs shortly thereafter. She worked her way into the United States by 1965, impressing folk artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Rush and Judy Collins, all of whom recorded covers of songs she had written. At some point, David Crosby discovered her playing at a club in Florida, and took her out to Los Angeles to record an album. He then became Song for a Seagull
For the most part, Seagull
is a very bare-bones album. It's largely just Mitchell, her lovely voice, her acoustic guitar and her songwriting (although Stephen Stills does play bass on one track, and somebody named Lee Keefer is credited with playing something called the banshee). And really, that's enough.
The original vinyl release was divided into two sections. Side A is called "I Came to the City", while Side B is entitled "Out of the City and Down to the Seaside". A lot of the LP falls into "pretty but forgettable" territory. But some of it is just exquisite. For me, there are three standout numbers.
"Night in the City" is the third offering on Side A. It's a simple song lyrically, that finds Joni and her partner gearing up for a night on the town. What's exceptional here is the way her voice shines on the chorus, effortlessly gliding between high and low notes, while she echoes herself on a second vocal track. It's also nicely realized musically, as the acoustic guitar is supported by some light piano and a fairly restrained bass. (This is the number Stills plays on.)
The next real standout is the next-to-last song on Side B, the album's title track. This is a slow and stark song, which contrasts a bright, airy vocal with strange, distorted guitar chords played underneath, creating an eerie but memorable effect.
This is followed by what is probably the most memorable song on the LP, Mitchell's ode to a charming-but-shallow, woman, "Cactus Tree". This one is a lyrical tour de force, which tells the story of a series of amazing and successful men and the woman who can't commit to any of them, because "She's so busy being free". I think the live version captured on 1974's Miles of Aisles
might be a better performance than the studio effort recorded here. Nevertheless, this is a stunningly good song for a first-album effort.
There are some other treats throughout. "Michael From the Mountains" was a pretty popular song in the early part of Joni's career, and while I find the verses of "I Had a King" fairly ordinary, the chorus is certainly gorgeous. And a pair of the other tracks here, "Marcie" and the weirdish "The Pirate of Penance" sound like early inspirations (at least musically) for songs that were reworked into more successful entries on later albums, "Ladies of the Canyon" and "Roses Blue".
Song for a Seagull
(which was originally released simply as Joni Mitchell
, thanks to a printing mistake on the album cover) was moderately successful for an unknown artist, making the tail end of the U.S. Billboard
charts at # 189. More importantly, it got the right people whispering about Mitchell, which helped pave the way for the greater success that was to occur for her next couple of LPs. But if albums like Clouds
, Ladies of the Canyon
and Court and Spark
are musical diamonds, then Song for a Seagull
is certainly at least a pearl - it's not her best
work, but it is
charming and valuable in its own right.