Life’s works – Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell – The Studio Albums 1968- 1979
Paul Simon – The Complete Albums Collection
We live in a time of great reckoning. At least that’s what you’d think if you took what’s going on in the record business as a reflection of the world outside. I don’t think I can count the number of box sets and ‘complete albums collections’ that have come through the mailbox in the last few years. Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, John Lennon are just some of the names stacked on the shelf beside my desk. I’m working my way through the truly stunning Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings – set that along with a similar Bob Dylan – The Complete Mono Recordings – box that came out a few years ago reminds me that the sound we listened to when we were kids wasn’t so bad. And, as far as Mr. Dylan goes – he’s about to get his own ‘complete albums’ box in a few months that will keep people listening for months at a stretch (with a discography of 41 albums and counting) I hadn’t gone back through my Leonard Cohen albums in a good while until Columbia released a complete album collection box set of his collected recordings a few years ago, and I was extremely grateful for the experience.
Life flies by quickly and we so rarely have the opportunity to go back and reflect on our experiences. Even though the music in complete album sets like those I’ve listed often do little more than replicate recordings I already have in my collection, the act of curating and representing these works together in a single box does something to solidify the artist’s body of work and the way we understand it. The decision to anthologize musicians’ work in this way probably has little to do with the wishes of the artists themselves; the albums under examination here are simply presented in their original running order with the original cover art and liner notes intact. None of the Columbia album sets I’ve described or the Warner Joni Mitchell set come with any bonus material or commemorative essays or interviews attached. The work is presented simply, without fanfare and at a bargain price to encourage people to take the plunge and immerse themselves in the musical output of an iconic artist. It’s a simple concept for a forgetful time. Hopefully, people will be able to pause long enough, give up the fast forward, the cut to the chase, and open each of these boxes and play the music, and savor the songs in order. As someone who has never had cable, but recently succumbed to Netflix, I understand first hand the appeal of being able to watch a television show like ‘Mad Men’ that I’d heard so much about and to watch five seasons in order over the course of a few months. I hope some people dive in and experience the careers of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell in the same way through the opportunity that these box sets provide.
Paul Simon – The Complete Albums Collection
Paul Simon has recorded so much music in so many different settings over the last five decades that it’s a truly daunting task trying to encapsulate his output. All 14 of his albums – including two live sets ‘Live Rhymin’ and ‘The Concert in The Park’ are included in this box set with their original jackets and liner notes reproduced intact. The only amendment to the original albums is the inclusion of selected bonus tracks – mostly demos of songs on the album – tagged on at the end of each CD. They are the same bonus tracks that were featured on the re-mastered Simon CDs that were released individually a few years ago.
Any collection of Simon’s work necessarily has to contend with his past as half of Simon and Garfunkel. This collection deals with that side of his music in a creative way by re-releasing ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’ – a solo album that was first recorded in Europe in 1965, but never released in North America until 2004. It features versions of many of Simon and Garfunkel’s earliest hits and gives context to the later solo albums that were recorded after the duo first broke up in 1970.
As someone who grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel on family road trips as a kid – their soft rock hits were as close as my parents ever got to embracing sixties music – it’s not surprising that by the time I was a teenager and Simon was recording his confessional seventies stuff, I’d totally lost interest. I found Simon’s work affected and fey. I couldn’t stand his self-absorbed arrogance and pretty much ignored everything he recorded after the mid seventies in favor of the more relevant sounds of punk, new wave and reggae. But, life has a funny way of coming full circle and by the time I’d been around the block a few times, had my heart broken and my idealism tainted, I started to take notice of Paul Simon again. When I heard ‘One Trick Pony’ from 1980, it seemed as if Simon was reading my mind and singing my thoughts for the world to hear. ‘Hearts and Bones’ and ‘Graceland’ each affected me deeply and I’ve been on board ever since. (and I have taken some secret trips back through ‘Still Crazy after all these years’ only to reassess and think maybe he wasn’t such a self-absorbed narcissist after all – or that I’d become one myself and could relate)
It’s been a wonderful experience to listen to each of Simon’s albums in order and hear both the recurring themes and growth that’s evident inside each of them. What’s perhaps most gratifying is how Paul Simon has continued to challenge himself and grow as an artist. Recent albums such as ‘You’re the One’ from 2001, ‘Surprise’ his unexpectedly brilliant 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, and last year’s ‘So Beautiful Or So What’ are every bit as good as anything else in his catalogue you’d care to compare them with.
After I’ve had a bit of a break, I plan to start all over again with ‘The Paul Simon Songbook.’ It’s definitely a journey worth repeating.
Joni Mitchell – The Complete Studio Albums 1968-1979
The most obvious difference between the Paul Simon and the Joni Mitchell box sets is that the Simon set contains all of his recordings, whereas the Mitchell set restricts itself to a representation of what is often considered her best period of work. It’s hard to argue with the assessment, but as someone who has found something to enjoy in every one of Joni Mitchell’s recordings – though I’m still trying hard to love 1985’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ – I wish that the label had decided to include some of her later essential records such as ‘Wild Things Run Fast’, ‘Turbulent Indigo’, ‘Taming The Tiger’ and ‘Shine’ to flesh out a more complete picture. Still, the breadth of musical styles, approaches to songwriting and absolute artistic courage that is represented in the ten albums in the box is absolutely unparalleled in popular music. Perhaps Miles Davis – or David Bowie – comes close, but it’s hard to think of anyone who has been down more musical roads than Joni Mitchell has. From the simplicity of her debut and ‘Clouds’ through to the confessional, introspection of ‘Blue’ and ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ to the musical perfection of ‘Hejira’ and ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’, the experience of hearing all of these albums again over a short time has been nothing short of revelatory. Taken together with the understanding that all of this work was produced in little more than a decade, cannot help but raise Mitchell’s reputation in the estimation of anyone who takes the time to go through them. If you already have all of Joni’s albums, you should listen to them again in order. If you don’t, this box set is a wonderful, economical way to begin or complete your collection.
Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon’s music will live on long after each of them has passed away. Their music reflects the times in which they lived, but like all great art, it is also timeless. Is there anyone who’s come along in the last decade whose music you can truly say the same thing about? Does anyone believe that we’ll remember Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars a decade from now?
By Douglas Heselgrave
this posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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