Joni's third album is a massive leap forwards in terms of quality, melodically stronger, musically more adventurous, thematically there is a wider range, and it is also lyrically sharper. Blue may be the more critically acclaimed and overshadows much of her other work, but this is equally flawless and indeed contains more famous songs. Her first big hit Big Yellow Taxi is here, as well as one of the defining songs of the Sixties `Woodstock'. With this album Joni became the spokesperson for a generation and every song both sounds eternally rooted in the days they were written, and as fresh and relevant today. Ladies conveys the freedom and ideals of the Hippy movement, but is also full of the darker introspection which would fill her next album. At turns joyous and bleak, and never less than mesmerizing Ladies Of The Canyon is an album which stands high above the singer-songwriter offerings of today and is one which every music lover should hear.
`Morning Morgantown' opens the album in storybook style with Joni telling us about an idyllic morning in a small town, who she sees and everything that happens. With pleasant melodies, soft guitar accompanied by soothing piano in the chorus it is an elegant opener which has more in common with her previous album.
`For Free' is my favourite song on the album and the first which is primarily dominated by the piano. Casting many shadows with its atmosphere it speaks of the dark side of fame, causing loss of self, selfishness, guilt. Self-deprecating, ironic, and supremely descriptive the lyrics are among Joni's best. Avoiding a standard verse chorus convention the song grows in depth as it continues, with subtle strings added in the second half, and the piano melodies varying with each line to avoid repetition. The only part I'm not overly fond of is the horn ending hinting at her growing jazz influences which would become more prevalent after Blue.
`Conversation' is a more light hearted and upbeat song, even though it deals with unrequited love. The lyrics speak of a woman trying to `free' a man from what she believes is a one sided, futile relationship. Essentially she is acting as the other woman but you can't help but side with her with melodies and passion like this. This also features possibly the best vocal vibrato in any song ever with Joni using her voice like an additional instrument more so than anything else she has done. Like `For Free' it has an unusual expansive ending which adds greater depth and variation, again showing her own growth and experimentation.
`Ladies Of The Canyon' follows Joni's usual story telling format, introducing us to a number of characters and providing us with their routines and quirks. The unusual tuning which marks the album stands out here mixed with her finger picking and harmonious `do di dos'. This seems like a sequel to `Morning Morgantown' and as the title track it contains most of the characteristics of the album as a whole.
`Willy' is an unashamed song of devotion, without a hint of irony and remains utterly charming and powerful today. Joni's vocal melodies mixed with those of the piano is one of the most wonderful things to happen in musical history, never more beautiful than here as it builds up to `there are still more reasons why I love him'. As with the rest of the album there is the background hint of darkness due in part to the tone of the piano and a few lyrical flourishes. It is one of the best underrated love songs ever.
`The Arrangement' brings any hints of darkness from previous songs to the forefront. The soft, unsure, unsteady opening revealing the uncertainties and regrets of the narrator. Speaking of loss, it is quite a quick song but leaves a lasting impression with the fade out vocals of `it could have been more'. For some reason the double notes played frequently throughout the song remind me of the rainy intro to A Link To The Past.
`Rainy Night House' continues the dark themes, with soft background strings adding to the ominous piano. The almost overlong piano intro is perfect, evoking feelings of gazing out from a window into a rainy night. There are many wonderful vocal moments (`the upstairs choir') and again everything blends together seamlessly. Again there is a sense of loss and regret, speaking of a past which can never be regained. Again there is an unusual ending, dissect it any way you like.
`The Priest' brings back Joni's guitar skills with a tale of freedom, searching, religion, and ever so small hints of a drug infused trip. The rhythm here is interesting, thumping ever onwards giving a sense of an eternal journey. Again it reminds me of other works, in this case the movie version of Stephen King's The Stand.
`Blue Boy' is another atmospheric piano led song with Joni's vocals deliberately almost breaking in parts to give a sense of fragility. As always the lyrics are open for interpretation with suggestions of love of sadness yet yearning for recovery, loss, war, mourning.
`Big Yellow Taxi' is the song you will probably have heard in some form even if you haven't heard this album or any other Joni song. I like the way Joni's voice sounds completely different on this song than any other on the album- she sounds more like a child. The immortal melody is pop brilliance, the lyrics all the more important today, the sound completely joyous and filled with a love for life.
`Woodstock' is Joni's song for a generation, speaking not only of the famous festival which she never attended but watched on TV, but of the movement as a whole. Almost every lyric here has been used as the title of another song/movie/biography/documentary about the times, from `We are stardust' to `Child of God'. Haunting at times, Woodstock is one of the most memorable songs on the album.
`The Circle Game' closes the album in a suitably cyclical way, sounding at times like Morning Morgantown but having its own wonderful tune. Singing of the life of one man, from birth to death, signifying life as a whole it may be the best song on the record. Everything is perfection; vocals, instruments, lyrics. While some may smirk at the sentiment everything is played straight. Rarely can a song capture a feeling, thought, or idea so well as here.
Overall Ladies Of The Canyon is a must have. Not only is it historically important and endlessly influential, it has some of the best writing and best music ever recorded. This would go on to be the bench mark for all folk music, for all female vocalists, and for all singer songwriters. Blue would follow this, an equally special album and perhaps even better due to the step forward in experimentation and the wider variety of music and influences she would display.