In 1972, Joni Mitchell moved from Reprise Records to Asylum Records, a then-new label started by David Geffen and Elliot Roberts. Their collection of artists included Laura Nyro, Judee Sill, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne, among others.
The four albums Mitchell recorded at Asylum from 1972 to 1975—For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), Miles of Aisles (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)—chronicle her evolution as a songwriter and her steady incorporation of jazz, which had begun with 1971’s Blue, her final album with Reprise.
These four albums have been remastered and will be re-issued this week as a boxed set (4 CDs or 5 LPs), The Asylum Albums, out September 23 from Rhino. The set features an original painting by Mitchell and an essay by Neil Young.
The collection highlights Mitchell’s lilting vocals and her ingenious vocal phrasings, as well as her ceaselessly inventive musical stylings. The addition of flautist/saxophonist/horns arranger Tom Scott and guitarist Robben Ford on most of the tracks added a freer, more exploratory dimension to Mitchell’s sound.
While these albums contain some of Mitchell’s most popular songs—“You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” and “Free Man in Paris,” for example—they also contain some gems that we now have the chance to hear once again. Here are ten essentials from the collection.
“You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” (For the Roses)
Mitchell’s exquisite vocal phrasing, her crystalline, ringingly clear vocals, her vocal modulations—especially at the end of the second verse and on the outro—still send shivers. It’s no wonder it was her first Top 40 hit.
“Free Man in Paris” (Court and Spark)
Scott’s oboe and guitars by Larry Carlton and Jose Feliciano produce a lush, layered foundation for Mitchell’s soaring vocals. The spiraling instrumental arrangements evoke a sense of freedom and the grandeur of the City of Lights.
“Big Yellow Taxi” (Miles of Aisles)
A swinging, jaunty version of Mitchell’s environmental anthem from her Ladies of the Canyon album. This live version—recorded at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre in August 1974—rides high on Scott’s wailing sax, Ford’s scorching leads, Larry Nash’s rolling piano, and Mitchell’s animated vocals.
“Help Me” (Court and Spark)
Another stratospheric vocal performance from Mitchell, with wheeling and circling instrumentation that captures the singer’s free fall in the lyrics. We can hear the sonic echoes of “Help Me” in the late Nicolette Larson’s 1978 hit “Lotta Love” and in some of Carly Simon’s songs.
“Circle Game” (Miles of Aisles)
Mitchell’s introduction to this live version of her song—from Ladies of the Canyon—is priceless in itself: “Let’s sing this song together, okay?” she asks the audience at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre in August 1974. “This song doesn’t sound good with one and only voice. It sounds good with the more voices on it the better, and the more out-of-tune voices on it the better. It was made for out-of-tune singing, this song.” It then begins sparely, with Mitchell’s tender vocals floating over her guitar strums, before the crowd joins in on a sing-along on the chorus.
“Raised on Robbery” (Court and Spark)
Mitchell’s scat singing launches this song, which moves quickly from an Andrews Sisters-like jazz lounge standard to a rambunctious, soaring rocker fueled by Robbie Robertson’s scalding lead guitar licks.
“In France They Kiss on Main Street” (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Shimmering, free-form jazz rhythms snake under Mitchell’s exquisite vocal phrasings. She’s backed by James Taylor’s and Graham Nash’s voices and propelled by Jeff Baxter’s slithering lead guitar.
“Blonde in the Bleachers” (For the Roses)
This is one of those songs where you can hear Mitchell’s luscious ability to sing between the notes and capture the song’s thematic in her vocal phrasing. It song opens sparely with her vocal cascading over luxuriant piano stylings, but Russ Kunkel’s drums and Scott’s woodwinds elevate the song’s emotional rawness.
“The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Mitchell’s title track evokes both the pleasures and the lingering regrets of summer. In her mostly-minor-chord lead vocals and chorus, and Victor Feldman’s sparkling piano, she captures the languorous mood of a summer night.
“Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)” (For the Roses)
Here, we hear just Mitchell sitting down at her piano and treating us to her vocal stylings. This song illustrates how smoothly she moves from one vocal register to another, with an ease few other singers possess. It’s not until midway through the song that Scott’s woodwinds elevate it into an atmospheric chamber piece, and these moments only add to its genius.