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Miles of Aisles
Joni Mitchell

Asylum AB-202
Released: November 1974
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 22
Certified Gold: 11/27/74

Tom ScottJoni MitchellMiles of Aisles is a four-sided live album with a greatest-hits feel to it that collects 18 numbers from Mitchell's successful concert tour of last winter. It's a strong album of her best songs performed mostly informally, backed on sides one and four by reedman Tom Scott and his band -- an interesting album because it displays an occasional awkwardness that provides a glimpse into the artist's mercurial character.

Although she constantly maintains a stunning professional control over her own performance, much of the pleasure of this record comes from the new band arrangements of songs we've heard often (one or two of which I've heard to death). Even "Woodstock," which is now something of a hoary hippy anthem, gets a clever revitalization through Robben Ford's biting guitar work that constructs a personality of its own as the concert builds.

Most of the new readings are superb. "Cactus Tree," "A Case of You" and "Blue" once again knock me out with the seriousness of their romantic vision. The opening bars of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" and "Woman of Heart and Mind" both elicit surprised gasps from an adoring audience that approaches a cult following. These and the other songs from For the Roses blew minds when they were first released, and on Miles of Aisles they are reproduced in a rare way -- live viersions of important songs that approach the crackling intensity of the recording studio originals. The exuberance and high spirits of "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" and "Big Yellow Taxi" are preserved intact, and again the interaction of Jonie with the tasteful Scott quintet must be praised.

Unfortunately the second record of this set doesn't fare as well as the first (the above-mentioned songs are on the first two sides). Side three contains the excruciatingly banal "Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now." From her stage patter it's obvious that the artist feels obligated to sing them, but I'm bored stiff with both. "Real Good for Free" is a clever classic of rock & roll ambivalence, but it still has no true point to make about art or the motivation to create it.

Side four is something of a disaster. The great, lilting "Carey" is murdered by the well-meaning band, which provides a cocktail-ska setting for Mitchell's throwaway vocal. To their credit, the sprung rhythms of the original version would have been a bitch to re-create under any concert circumstance. "The Last Time I Saw Richard," one of her most serious and trenchant songs, is wasted by a gag line in the middle of the song that backfires: The tense audience laughs hard and, try as she might, Mitchell can't manage to reset the mood as she would like.

Two new songs struggle to complete the set. "Jericho" seems an unfinished outtake from Court and Spark while "Love or Money" is nice, somewhat plain and a little too busy as words set to music, although the printed lyrics make for excellent, feeling poetry. Part of the trouble with these two is that they don't sound right put to melody.

After a couple of hearings, the songs begin to blur into sameness. Perhaps it is a sameness of mood and tone, and not of style and tangible content. In any case, much of the material here is beautiful, replete with the patented Mitchell tension. And a word for engineer Henry Lewy -- the sound is terrific, the best reproduced concert album I've heard.

As usual with Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles is done with good taste, nothing in excess. And it will be appreciated most by those who are already hers.

- Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 2/13/75.

Bonus Reviews!

Most of what Joni Mitchell does is so hard to do -- even the relatively overlooked bits like the tricky dulcimer accompaniment she gives herself sometimes -- that it's always a little astounding to see her on stage actually doing it all at once without a net, without the eraser the studio provides. This live album is a faithful representation of her act, which relies far more upon natural, instinctive musicianship than on polish. The L. A. Express, pegged to Tom Scott's reeds, sits out the middle portion, with Joni accompanying herself on guitar, piano, and dulcimer (one at a time), and I think most of us old-line Mitchell fanatics like that part best. Scott and his crew have a distinctive sound -- their backing for "Carey" is a bedazzling suggestion of something between the Grateful Dead and Steeleye Span -- but there is so much nuance in Mitchell's voice and solo instruments, with her guitar tunings and her contrapuntal piano introductions and everything, that adding a full-band sound sometimes creates an overload. I feel slightly betrayed by her letting the band in on "Rainy Night House," an old favorite that, I feel, should be just between Joni and me. Seven, counting the two of us, is a crowd. I'd also counsel dropping "Woodstock," with its dated lyrics and its one redeeming chord progression... but the band does belong in it, for what it's worth. Scott himself is astute at weaving through Joni's vocals, and the interplay between the two of them, sans band, makes this the better recorded version of "Real Good for Free."

Old friends will notice also that Mitchell's use of falsetto is less obvious than it used to be; her singing is smoother, but not yet ritualized. Her new material -- there are two new songs at the end -- seems to show the influence of working with a near-jazz band. Melodically it's disappointing, but the words of "Love or Money" have some truth in them about how immobilized we romantics can get, fretting with our preoccupations. Like mine concerning me and Joni Mitchell and "Rainy Night House."

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 3/75.

This is a live-concert album, and it is easy to visualize yourself on an enormous stage standing just in front of the performers, who are clustered in the middle. You're hearing the music from the stage monitor speakers, from the comparatively remote concert-sound system (with a touch of howlback now and then), and even some directly from the performers themselves. A four-channel synthesizer enhances the illusion tremendously, but stereo playback works well too.

- Ralph Hodges, Stereo Review, 4/76.

The two Joni-with-guitar/piano/dulcimer sides of this live double are impossibly tedious even though she's learned to sing songs that were beyond her half a decade ago -- if she was so crazy about folkie-purist records she would have gone that way in the studio originally. The two new songs are mere bait -- they wouldn't be on the album if she'd recorded them before. And the two sides with the L.A. Express establish her as the most gifted of the new folky-jazzy singers -- I mean, Kenny Rankin should just forget it. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The eighteen selections, providing almost an hour and a quarter of early seventies concert performances, primarily cover Joni's most popular material: "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," "Blue," "Circle Game," "Real Good For Free," and "Both Sides Now" among them. Also included are lesser known, but high-quality compositions such as, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," "The Last Time I Saw Richard," and the fascinating "Jericho." Her performance, supported by Tom Scott's jazz-oriented L.A. Express and her own solo accompaniment on piano, guitar, or dulcimer, has a very "live" feel in its straightforward unpretentiousness. The sound is definitely concert quality, not bad, but very compressed; somewhat noisy and occasionally strident. The CD sound emphasizes both the strengths and the weaknesses, and there is a fair share of both here. B-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Like most live albums, this two-record set was a profit-taking release on which the artist re-presented many of her old songs for a new acceptance now that she had a larger pop audience. Backed by the pop-jazz ensemble the L.A. Express, Mitchell reprised the best from her first five albums, pointedly ignoring Court And Spark and including two new cuts, "Love Or Money" and "Jericho." * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Released in the wake of Court and Spark's jackpot, Mitchell's first proper live LP documents her maiden voyage with a road band: slick SoCal jazzbos the L.A. Express. It's best when they lay back, which thankfully is often, and she inhabits material she's lived in for years -- notably, heart-wrenching takes of "Blue" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard," the latter with Mitchell doubling as a salty closing-time barmaid.

- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 5/19.

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